BMCR 2003.09.26

Emperor Worship and Roman Religion

, Emperor worship and Roman religion. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xvi, 398 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 1423757467 $85.00.

Ittai Gradel’s (hereafter G.’s) stimulating work marks an important contribution to the study of emperor worship (the erstwhile imperial cult). In many ways, it responds to Rituals and Power, by Simon Price (1984), supervisor of the doctoral dissertation from which it originated, and, to a lesser degree, the work of Duncan Fishwick.1 Focusing on the Italian peninsula (remedying the Price-Fishwick geographic gap), G. approaches emperor worship as an honorific (neither exclusively religious nor exclusively political) practice, which expressed the absolute power of the princeps over his people. G. traces chronologically the emergence of emperor worship in Rome and its changes in the early principate in the domestic and public spheres. The book concludes with a lengthy chapter on “official” deification in the state religion. Because of its approach, G.’s work is relevant not only to those interested in the “imperial cult” but also to students of Roman religion, society, archaeology and epigraphy.

Although recent work on Roman religion has recognized the fundamental differences between Christian and pagan systems, emperor worship has not followed suit, with scholars continuing to approach it through Christianized dichotomies: was the emperor a man or a god? Was it a religious or a political system? In the Introduction, G. seeks to distance himself from the Christianized point of view that prompts these largely irrelevant questions. Rather than worrying whether Romans “believed” their emperors were gods, G. notes that Graeco-Roman paganism favored exterior action (especially sacrifice) over interior dogma and belief. Thus, G.’s study will prioritize the literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence for rituals. Secondly, unlike Christianity, which diametrically opposes the realm of absolute divinities with the realm of humans and their political activities, Graeco-Roman paganism, while recognizing boundaries between sacred and profane, preferred to see divinity in relative, rather than absolute, terms. Pagan divine cult was a system of mutual obligation in which individuals of lesser power / social standing celebrated entities of vastly superior power / social standing, establishing a system of honors-for-benefactions. Divine honors, whether accorded to “real” gods or to men, stood at the apex of a sliding scale of honorific activities and differed in degree, not in kind, from “secular” accolades.

To arrive at new set of questions about emperor worship (a term G. prefers over the “imperial cult,” which misleadingly implies a cohesive system), he proposes criteria reflecting the standards of ancient Rome. He turns to the Roman legal definition of the term religio, meaning reverence and dutiful obligation towards men, or, collectively, the rites and ceremonies of divine worship. Linguistically termed the divini, summi, or caelestes honores, these rites consisted of blood and bloodless sacrifices occurring at altars before temples. G. extends the category to include the often-analyzed worship of the Genius and the numen but omits the cults of imperial virtues, independent goddesses in their own right. To frame patterns of emperor worship, G. proposes categories that were meaningful to ancient Romans, including the social status of worshippers and the important distinction between public and private rites. Publica sacra, synonymous with the state cult in Rome, were performed on behalf of the whole city and its population, by freeborn magistrates (Senators in Rome, decurions elsewhere), at public expense. Sacra privata, in which the status of the worshippers could vary, were performed on behalf of individuals, households, familia and collegia. While sacra privata could occur in public, they were always privately financed. In adopting these criteria, G. implicitly counters Price, whose work often draws upon modern anthropology or sociology to explore reciprocal relationships between the Emperor and the elite of the Eastern empire. The introduction also briefly introduces the Arval Brothers and their inscribed acta, which will constitute a rich epigraphic source for state rituals in the upcoming chapters.

Many scholars have seen emperor worship as a corrupting import from the Greek east which infiltrated Rome in the late republican period. G. begins Chapter 2 by recognizing the inherent Catch-22: how can ruler cult exist in a society lacking a permanent, absolute and supreme ruler? G. reminds us that, for the Romans, divine status was a matter of degree, not an absolute, and notes that our lack of evidence for divine honors for humans in republican Rome may reflect the overall paucity of evidence for the period. In fact, G. finds fleeting suggestions of such practices: republican triumphators paraded in the garb of Jupiter, symbolizing supreme power and recalling the kingly costume of the regal period. The absolute power of the paterfamilias was expressed by domestic cult paid to his Genius, or “life force” (p. 37). The inscriptions honoring a patron’s Genius (collected in Appendix I, pp. 372-73) are primarily dedicated by freedmen, slaves or clients, leading G. to describe Genius worship as “servile” (p. 39) or “cliental” (p. 41), a characterization which will be important for his subsequent discussion of imperial Genius worship. Plautine comedies and other sources provide additional evidence for the elevation of an individual to a position equaling that of a divinity, relative to the worshipper. Thus the emergence of emperor worship is due not to changes in Roman religion but to its political system and power structure.

The third chapter examines the major divine honors accorded to Julius Caesar before his assassination. G. sensibly puts aside the considerable body of scholarship on this topic (mostly devoted to determining whether he was or was not divinized during his lifetime), to focus on the ancient sources for divine honors (Dio, Cicero and others). These unanimously agree: Caesar received divine honors in his last months. G. views these as initiated by the Senate in response to Caesar’s “new and unique” supremacy, rather than the result of a coherent program engineered by the dictator himself.

The following two chapters (4 and 5) turn to emperor worship during Augustus’s reign, first in the Italian municipalities, then in the official state religion. Dio and Suetonius concur that Augustus prohibited public worship of himself during his lifetime, a policy followed by subsequent emperors. Yet ample epigraphic and archaeological evidence attests to temples dedicated to Augustus in Italy during his lifetime, a point often countered with the argument that they were, in fact, dedicated to his Genius. G. resolves this conflict with the sacra publica / privata dichotomy: Dio and Suetonius are correct for the official state religion in Rome, but outside the capital, towns could freely develop their own systems of imperial honorifics, including temples, priesthoods and sacrifices. These cults celebrated living rulers, rather than their defunct predecessors, and were unconcerned with the emperor’s Genius, whose “cliental” associations appear to have put off the municipal elite. The opportunity to create prestigious new priesthoods ensured the participation of the status-conscious local aristocracy. The chapter concludes with an extended note on the forum at Pompeii, which scholars have increasingly filled with imperial cult monuments. G. persuasively argues against the majority, permitting only one imperial cult structure in the Pompeiian forum, the so-called “Temple of Vespasian.”

While Augustus may have refused divine honors in the official state cult, G. convincingly asserts that he promoted the worship of his Genius and the Laribus augusti in the private realm, installing them in the compita overseen and financed by the predominantly freedmen magistri vici. These groups, suppressed during the late republic, were revived and refocused upon the emperor’s Genius, turning their energies towards consensus and virtually incorporating the magistri and their wards into the emperor’s familia. But an analysis of the iconography of the “Sorrento base” leads G. to postulate that Augustus might have toyed with the idea of formal state worship of his Genius. Ultimately reluctant to abase the Senate with this “cliental” system, Augustus opted for the more benign title of pater patriae, with its connotations of fatherly love devoid of overwhelming potestas.

The system established by Augustus was perpetuated by the conservative Tiberius. But the reigns of Caligula (Chapter 6) and Claudius (Chapter 7) marked important moments of change. Shortly following Caligula’s accession, the Senate decreed sacrifices to his Genius, which were refused. G. postulates that the Senate proposed this abasing form of worship rather than the more validating municipal variant because in Rome deification was inextricably associated with death (specifically those of Julius Caesar and Augustus). Accepting divine honors during his lifetime augured ill for an emperor’s future. G. rehabilitates Caligula with a literary and archaeological deconstruction of the worship reportedly accorded to him during his lifetime. Far from being a state cult voted by the Senate, Caligula’s worship occurred on his own private land (the Palatine vestibule) and was financed by the exorbitant summae honorariae, the private donations its senatorial priests were forced to pay.

Only under Claudius do we find the official insertion of the imperial Genius into the state cult. G. re-interprets the “Frieze of the Vicomagistri” to argue that Claudius instituted official state worship of his Genius at same time he elevated Livia to status as a Diva. G. argues that the relief depicts the flamines Augusti, Claudius included, attended by four assistants who carry images of the Lares augusti and the Genius Augusti. The three animal victims, specific to particular deities and reflecting their importance in the order of their appearance, are destined for the Genius Augusti (a bull), Divus Augustus (the steer) and Diva Augusta (the heifer). G.’s analysis of the relief’s iconography is sound. More controversial are his suggestions that the scene celebrates Livia’s consecration in the temple of Divus Augustus and that the relief functioned as the base for the paired cult statues. Regardless, G.’s analysis constitutes a valuable new interpretation of this often-cited relief and highlights the rich potential of material evidence, a source that has been sorely neglected in studies of emperor worship. Vicissitudes in the worship of the Genius following Claudius demonstrates the continued reluctance on the part of Rome’s Senators to fully embrace this “cliental” system.

In Chapter 8, G. argues that the living emperor (not his Genius, as is commonly claimed) was worshipped in domestic contexts, adducing archaeological data (primarily Campanian) and literary evidence for painted and small-scale sculptural portraits. The lack of testimony for this type of private activity is explained by the general paucity of literature describing domestic contexts and the fragility of the materials themselves, which are rarely preserved in the archaeological record. More securely attested are libations poured to the living emperor (again, not to his Genius) prior to or during private banquets.

At the start of Chapter 9 (on corporate worship), G. briefly discusses domestic groups of cultores attached to the lares, Genius or person of a non-imperial personage, before exploring emperor worship by these little-studied organizations. Groups such as the cultores domus divinae or the cultores laribus augusti may have originated in house cults but expanded beyond the domestic sphere in the early empire. Cultores rarely honored the Genius of the emperor, of the Divi, but focused on an imperial image (a statue?) or the family of the living emperor. Ascending the social scale, G. adduces tenuous evidence that groups, perhaps including senators, singled out public images of emperors as the objects of their devotion. Among the other “corporate” bodies explored are the obligatory ( seviri) Augustales, who G. correctly recognizes were involved in emperor worship, though this was not their primary function. As the minority of their public monuments honor imperial personages, it is more reasonable to see them as municipal euergetes, a role G. emphasizes. Strangely, this chapter does not include any discussion of emperor worship by professional collegia, which is well attested archaeologically and epigraphically, and which would have provided a helpful counterpoint to the relatively obscure cultores and the now-desacralized Augustales.

Many scholars view the worship of the emperor’s numen as equivalent to that of his Genius, claiming that both were worshipped in the official state religion. G. deftly separates the two in Chapter 10, debunking optimistic supplements to the Fasti Praenestini and decisively relegating the Ara Narbonensis to the realm of the sacra privata, thus not copying an official state altar in Rome. G. fully translates and analyzes an inscription from a third altar from Forum Clodii, concluding that worship of an emperor’s numen was synonymous with worship of the living emperor, a theory supported by parallels in the literary record. Likewise, in Chapter 11, the so-called “Altar of Manlius” from Caere is dissociated from the imperial cult. Rather, G. argues, in this unique case Manlius’s clients gave him divine honors as perpetual censor.

Describing the worship of the living emperor across social classes as the norm throughout Italy, G. finally turns to examine its abnormal absence in the state cult (Chapter 12). G. reiterates his argument that the association between divinization and death effectively deterred emperors from permitting lifetime deification, a barrier that fell once the ruler actually had died. In an interesting analysis of the Res Gestae, G. argues that Augustus actively sought official post-mortem deification and devised its most memorable image, that of an eagle soaring free above the funeral pyre. Post-mortem deification became standard for most emperors, with its opposite being damnatio memoriae. Yet it created oddly ineffective gods, last to receive sacrifice from the Arval Brothers and supremely unpopular in private religion. Rather, deification constituted a means of communication between the Senate and the newly acceded Emperor. An analysis of the Apocolocyntosis highlights the difference between absolute and relative godhead — Seneca’s Senate can legitimately elevate Claudius to heaven, but his absolute gods will not permit him to join their ranks. The cults of the Divi were officially suppressed between 236-8 during the reign of Maximinus, although the devalued honorific title continued to be used into the fourth century. G. postulates that the suppression may have clearly signaled one of the first cracks in the crumbling traditional religious system.

G.’s work is eminently readable and slyly witty at times. He impressively handles a wide range of evidence, deftly analyzing epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological data alongside literary testimonia. The inclusion of archaeological evidence in particular marks a great step forward — yet at times I wished he had taken some analyses farther (see, especially, the short shrift given to an altar from Abellinum, which G. suggests depicts imperial cult statues, pp. 93-96). His arguments are often supported by illustrations, though they are sometimes too small to read the details that he discusses (for instance, the comparison between the Genii on the “Sorrento base,” fig. 5.3, and on a coin of Nero, fig. 5.4). In assessing prior scholarship, he favors streamlined citations over expository description. This is a welcome choice, although those unfamiliar with the main scholarly protagonists may have difficulties tracing the historiography of a certain idea or controversy, should they so desire. Most impressive (and refreshing) is G.’s ability to identify the biases and suppositions of prior scholarship and to pose alternate questions and practical answers based not on assumptions about beliefs (ancient and modern), but on Roman social and religious practices. While his categories and arguments may not always convince, they will certainly inspire debate, as they reconceive the “imperial cult.”


1. D. Fishwick, “The Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire,” EPRO 108 (1987-1991).