The repute and reality of being a Roman emperor
The repute and reality of being a Roman emperor

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The repute and reality of being a Roman emperor

2.5 Cult

In many ways the emperor became a figurehead who helped to bind the empire together. The emperor was promoted as larger than life, a man who bordered on the divine. It is worth noting that the text of the Res Gestae from Ankara was found attached to the walls of the temple of Rome and Augustus; it was placed in a religious centre where the emperor was worshipped. The video section on ‘The emperor in the provinces’ also examined several cult buildings which promoted the emperor's name and image in a religious context. While alive Augustus and his successors were not regarded as gods, at least not in Rome. It was only at death that apotheosis, or the raising of the emperor's spirit to divine heights, occurred as a result of a vote in the senate. But Augustus (and his successors) did explore and exploit his divine associations. He became the leader of Roman state religion – the pontifex maximus; the relationship between Augustus and the divine Julius Caesar was celebrated. Augustus also traced his ancestral line back to the goddess Venus and claimed close ties with the god Apollo – and few people could boast of such close personal connections with the gods! Even the name Augustus had a sense of the revered and sacred about it. It was thus a relatively small step for his subjects to view Augustus himself as divine and in some parts of the empire the living emperor was worshipped.

To a modern audience it may seem bizarre or even offensive that the inhabitants of the empire could actually believe that their emperor was a god or demigod. Was anything more involved than tasteless flattery and indulgent egotism? It is important to note the role that the cult played in the relationship between emperor and subject, and also that the relevance and nature of the cult, probably differed widely across the empire. As with other elements that promoted the emperor's image, a two-way process was often in operation.

I would like you now to read an extract from a letter written by the emperor Claudius to the inhabitants of the city of Alexandria in Egypt. In this letter the emperor responds to certain requests made by the Alexandrians and tries to resolve disputes and problems which have arisen.

Exercise 4

Please read the short extract, taken from Lewis and Reinhold, below.

As you read make notes on the following questions.

  1. Where does the impetus for the honours listed come from?

  2. What honours is Claudius prepared to accept and what does he reject?

Please click to view the extract from Lewis and Reinhold [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .


  1. Claudius lists many honours but repeatedly makes it clear that these have been suggested and requested by others. He does not tell the Alexandrians that they must set up statues and so forth but grants them permission to do these things if they so wish. The inhabitants of the city – presumably at the instigation of their leading citizens – wish to honour Claudius in various ways. This declaration of loyalty needs to be brought to the emperor's attention since Claudius, who is miles away in Rome, cannot see for himself that Alexandria is devoted to him. But the Alexandrians also gain an opportunity to show their loyalty in Rome itself since one of the statues is to be set up in the capital while its partner remains in Alexandria to become the focus of extravagant rituals. These gestures, although apparently instigated by the Alexandrians, are designed to unite Rome and Alexandria to mutual advantage.

  2. Claudius begins by noting that he is not particularly partial to such honours but continues to accept just about everything that he has been offered – his birthday as a holiday, statues of himself and his family, and numerous other images which are to be set up in various locations. It is almost as if the emperor feels obliged to sanction the honours for fear of causing offence – and as he notes, to accept some and to refuse others would appear inconsistent. However, Claudius does draw the line at the suggested appointment of a high priest and the building of a temple. Golden statues, thrones, processions and all their trappings are acceptable but he is not to be revered as a god. Claudius does not wish to cause offence by appearing to condone the blurring of the line between human and divine.

Claudius' hesitation over divine honours reveals the predicament faced by at least some emperors. The impetus for divine worship might arise in the provinces rather than at the emperor's instigation, and how should he respond to this? In some areas of the empire, such as Egypt, ruler-cult was a long-held tradition – but to declare oneself divine before death would be to invite scorn and even ridicule from other parts of the empire. (For example, see Goodman, p. 125, for the excesses of Gaius.) It is worth noting that most emperors were eager to appear modest in the titles and praise which they accepted or were seen to accept (see Lewis and Reinhold, pp. 286, 521–3). But it could also be to the emperor's advantage to exploit the ambiguous position he occupied between the gods and men. The divine concept reflected in part the unique position which Augustus created for himself and his successors; he appeared superhuman or like a gift from the gods (Wallace-Hadrill, 1993). There was much to be gained in stature by appearing, if not completely divine, certainly more than human. The vast majority of the inhabitants of the empire would never have seen the emperor face to face; to them he was a figure who symbolised Rome and the empire, and the continuity and security of that empire, and who personally held vast power and wealth. All this may well have contributed to an image of omnipotence and thus divinity.


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