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The Imperial Cult under Augustus

The worship of emperors is a touchstone issue for Roman historians. What I mean by this is that it differentiates people and things that traditional historians would like to keep separate. These are:

  • Good Emperors and Bad Emperors: there is a perception that bad emperors, such as Gaius, demanded that people worshipped them. Good emperors refused divine honours. Emperors in between, such as Claudius, got confused.
  • East and West: ruler cult had long been associated with the East. Near Eastern kingship and the Egyptian Pharaohs had blurred the boundaries between high priests and the divine, often within complex theologies in which the divine spirit found physical representation on earth. There is a tendency to see ruler cult as Eastern and something foreign to the West.

Yet, the position with Octavian-Augustus is far from simple.

Before 30 BC, Octavian associated himself  with Apollo. Apollo was more than his protector deity. There were rumours of Atia (Octavian’s mother) dreaming of intercourse with Apollo. Images of the young Octavian have a look of Apollo. The Temple of Palatine Apollo was directly linked to Octavian’s house. Apollo was the god at Actium. In 30-28, The construction of the Pantheon seems to have associated Octavian with divinity. In a similar way, statues of Octavian in precious metals seemed to associate the young ruler with the divine. From 43 BC, Octavian had been styling himself Divus filius, son of the deified. The prospect of there being cult offered to Octavian in Rome must have seemed very real in 28 BC.

Divus versus Deus: A Note

There was a technical difference between a deus and a divus. The deus was a full god and the divus had become a god. Caesar and subsequent emperors might become gods (divi). They would not become dei. Romulus made also the transition from human to divine and it seems that Romans were capable of understanding the distinction. Nevertheless, in the comic format of Seneca, Apocolocyntosis which appears to poke fun at the whole process, the Divus Augustus is pictured as being with the gods. For Greeks, though, there was only one word for ‘god’ and the distinction seems  not to have been real. A deified individual was a god.

In 30 BC, after the victories over Antony and Cleopatra, the cities of the East approached Octavian with offers of cult.

Caesar, meanwhile, besides attending to the general business, gave permission for the dedication of sacred precincts in Ephesus and in Nicaea to Rome and to Caesar, his father, whom he named the hero Julius. These cities had at that time attained chief place in Asia and in Bithynia respectively. He commanded that the Romans resident in these cities should pay honour to these two divinities; but he permitted the aliens, whom he styled Hellenes, to consecrate precincts to himself, the Asians to have theirs in Pergamum and the Bithynians theirs in Nicomedia. This practice, beginning under him, has been continued under other emperors, not only in the case of the Hellenic nations but also in that of all the others, in so far as they are subject to the Romans.  For in the capital itself and in Italy generally no emperor, however worthy of renown he has been, has dared to do this; still, even there various divine honours are bestowed after their death upon such emperors as have ruled uprightly, and, in fact, shrines are built to them.

Dio, 51.20

Julius Caesar was to be worshipped in some places, alongside Roma, and in other places Augustus was to be worshipped, probably also alongside Roma. It seems beyond question that the development of these cults was to honour Octavian.

Octavian made distinctions and connections.

  • It seemed inappropriate for fellow citizens to worship him, but appropriate for non-citizens to worship him. Is that a meaningful distinction?
  • The cult of Octavian (soon to become Augustus), paralleled the cult to Caesar. Was it meaningfully different to worship Julius Caesar or Octavian?
  • How and why did Roma (the personification of the city of Rome) fit with the imperial cult? Did her association make any meaningful difference?
  • Dio makes a distinction between Rome and the provinces. Was that distinction meaningful, especially given the presence of the cult of Divine Julius in the centre of Rome?

The cults were also organised within a provincial network and associated with major cities. Octavian encouraged cultic worship of Caesar and position a temple to the Divine Julius in the centre of the Roman forum. There was thus a close association between the political structures of imperial power and the religious structures of imperial cult.

Temple of Julius Caesar Alston

Temple of Julius Caesar, Roman Forum (Alston)

The location of Caesar’s temple was of great political significance. There was no more important space in Rome than the Roman Forum. It was the traditional space of Roman politics. To place a temple to Julius Caesar there was to send a message to Rome’s people and politicians: Caesar was a central figure in Roman history and politics and was to remain so. We remember that many of those who will have attended the senate house and looked out at Caesar’s temple would have had friends and relatives who either supported or took part in Caesar’s assassination.

The deification of Julius transformed the politician and general from a controversial political leader into a form of a god. This rendered the legacy of Caesar unquestionable. It was, therefore, an act of symbolic power. The subsequent deification of Augustus also established his authority in ways which were unquestionable and extremely useful for his successor, Tiberius.

Octavian had been playing on that link throughout his career. He was divi filius, the son of the deified. That further established a connection between Octavian and his adoptive father so that the religious prestige of Julius was reflected in Octavian.

From its Asian origins, the imperial cult spread. Perhaps the most famous altar to Augustus was established in Lugdunum (Lyon) by 12 BC, possibly on the initiative of Drusus (Dio, 54.32). Festivals held there functioned as a means of bringing aristocratic representatives from all Gaul together in one place where they could show loyalty to Augustus. Governors of Gaul could use the event to assert their authority.

Ara Tres Galliae

Coin Showing Altar of Three Gauls (British Museum)

It had a practical value in providing for an assembly of all Gaul’s leaders and a symbolic value in representing Augustan power and enabling the Gauls to show their loyalty.

The Altar appears to have been dedicated to Roma and Augustus, following that procedure whereby there was an identification between Augustus and the city itself. It can be seen clearly on some of the coins of the period.

Ara Tres Galliae Roma et Augusta

Coin showing the Altar to Rom(a) et Aug(ustus), with some indication of its appearance (British Museum)

There is some doubt as to the exact date of dedication, but we have a fragement of Livy’s History (Periochae 139) which gives us the name of the first priest:

An altar was dedicated to the divine Caesar at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône, and a priest was appointed, Gaius Julius Vercondaridubnus.

The name of the priest is Roman, showing that he had Roman citizenship, but the final part (the cognomen) is Gallic. He was clearly a member of the Gallic aristocracy.

The association of Drusus with the Altar suggest that the spread of the imperial cult in the West was an imperial policy coming from the highest levels.

Temple of Augustus Caesarea

Statue from Temple of Augustus, Caesarea (imago)

Drusus may also have established an Augustan altar for the Germans at Ara Ubiorum (which became Cologne) (Tacitus, Annales 1.39).  Very little is known about tAltar.

It is likely that similar provincial altars sprang up across the Empire. In Judaea, which had particular difficulties with emperor worship, Herod established the cult at Caesarea, a new city with a predominantly Greek population. In Galatia, a temple was built in the city of Ancyra and it was on the side of the temple that a Greek copy of the Res Gestae of Augustus was carved. In Illyria, the temple was probably at Pula.


Augustus Temple, Ancyra (Ankara) (Commons)

Temple of Augustus Pula

Temple of Augustus, Pula.

But it was not just through these major civic and provincial cults that Augustus was worshipped. It was open to private citizens to worship the emperor in domestic cult. Either during his lifetime or soon after Sodales Augustales or Seviri Augustales appear in various communities, notably in Herculaneum. These were priests of the cult of Augustus and were often freedmen. But there seems to have been local initiative in developing the cult.

Summary: Origins of the Cult

The assembled evidence points to the imperial cult developing either through imperial initiative or local initiative. Even where there was a tradition of ruler cult, the imperial cult was more organised, more visible and appears to have more significant than anything that preceded it. Both provinces and imperial power appear to have been thinking in similar ways. There is substantial evidence for a move towards cult to Octavian before 30 BC. There was thus no ‘cultural clash’ between Western and Eastern approaches, even if there were differences in how the cult operated in different regions.

Summary: Rationale

This is perhaps the most difficult issue for a modern for whom a man cannot be a god. But the Roman cult did not pretend that Augustus was not a man. He was expected to die. It was on his death that he would join the gods.

For Romans, the gap between the divine and human was not so great. It was possible for a heroic figure to make the transition from the human to the divine. Romulus achieved it. Hercules achieved it. Caesar achieved it. Gods could interact with humans. They could walk among humans. They could have sex with humans.

Also the Romans had an idea of a divine spirit which humans possessed. This numen or genius could survive death and be the object of offerings. It was a form of spiritual being. It was not too great a step from offerings to the dead to worship of the spirit of a living human.

The imperial cult was a recognition of the vast importance and power of an individual. At the smallest level of significance, it operated as an oath or gesture of loyalty to Rome and to Augustus. At a higher level, it suggested that Augustus was part of the natural ordering of the world, a powerful presence in a world full of gods.

Whatever we think, it made sense to the Greeks and to the Romans and to many others in the Empire to develop cult to the emperor and that in itself should make us aware of the differences between politics ancient and politics modern and theology ancient and theology modern.


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