Today’s post is, as you can see, about the ancient Roman imperial cult(s).
I’ve been wanting to do a post on this topic for a while (for several months now, anyway) but just haven’t gotten around to doing so. It’s not really a topic that I have any experience in, as I really don’t give offerings to the deified Emperors, but I understand that several modern-day Roman polytheists do.
I suppose that the former isn’t exactly true: there have been one or two times when I have given an offering to a deified Emperor for some reason or another, but I don’t incorporate them into my religio like their contemporaries would have.
Anyway, with that being said, this post will probably be more historical and less religious in nature.
Imperial apotheosis – the process by which the deceased Emperor was said to have taken on god-like status – was, as the name suggests, not something that was practiced during the Roman Republic.
…Well, alright, so it kind of was. The Republican-era Romans worshipped several deities that were said to have been historical figures, mythical or not: the two most prominent were Quirinus and Iuppiter Indiges. The former was supposedly the deified Romulus (a theory that I don’t readily subscribe to, for several reasons…I sense a Quirinus-centered blog post in the near future!), the latter the deified Aeneas. And for Romans of all periods of their history, the Dii Manes (“Divine Ancestral Spirits”, basically) were their very ancestors.
There is really no evidence that the Kings of the archaic period and the Senators of the Republican period were deified to divus status upon death. But all that changed, however, with the collapse of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
The first Roman statesman to have been elevated to divus status was Iulius Caesar. He was hardly an Emperor; instead, he was seen as more of a dictator than anything. There is evidence that around 46 BCE the Senate attempted to declare that he was a living demi-god, but this didn’t go over too well with Caesar, who apparently didn’t want to make this claim. Again, after his victory in the civil war’s Battle of Munda in 45 BCE, he was declared a demi-god. This time, there is no evidence that he declined this title. He was awarded a lavish, temple-like house at public expense, his image was put onto coins (something unheard of for Roman men, at least), and he was called the “unconquered god” in the temple of Quirinus. Among many other things, his genius was publically worshipped and the month of July was named after him.
When he was assassinated in 44 BCE, the cult of divus Iulius sprang up. This was followed by the appearance of a comet, which people interpreted as his soul flying around in the sky. He was officially apotheosized in 42 BCE by Augustus, whereby his cult was given a flamen, or priest.
This tradition continued with the apotheosis of Augustus upon his death in 14 CE, though not all Roman Emperors were awarded this status upon their deaths, and some who were were ridiculed as unworthy. Augustus’ heir Tiberius was not deified, and neither were Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, among others. After Augustus, the more popular Emperors – at least, in the eyes of the Senate, who were responsible for the decree of apotheosis – that were deified were Claudius (though this decision was highly ridiculed, as seen in Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis Claudii, or the Pumpkinification of Claudius), Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian (whose case had to be pleaded by his successor Antoninus Pius), etc.
I probably didn’t cover everything in this post; I may or may not follow this up with a part 2. As with all other posts, if you have any questions, feel free to ask – I’ll answer to the best of my knowledge.