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The Rome of Augustus
Lecture XXI 24 April 2007
"God and Country"
"The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true;
by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful." –Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire, ch. 2.
"It is expedient that the gods exist, and so let us think they do." (Expedit esse deos et, ut expedit, esse putemus) –Ovid,
Art of Love Bk. 1.637 (cf. Sourcebook 190).
Religious figures and practices pervasive in Roman culture, but that fact makes them hard to interpret. For example,
how could Romans take figures like Jupiter and Juno seriously and also think of them as they are described in myth and
poetry? How could Romans believe the emperor was divine?
Gibbon offers one answer: only the masses actually believed, while thinking people saw through the fictions but found
them socially useful. This is too simple, though it calls attention to the variety of religious attitudes found at any single
time in Roman world:
–A plurality of gods;
–No fixed creed or canon of required beliefs;
–Variety even within individuals, as with Cicero's Cotta in his public and private capacities (Sourcebook 217)
–Some philosophically minded Romans even rejected religion entirely, e. g., Lucretius, author of De rerum
natura (On the nature of things).
Impossible to generalize about what “the Romans” believed. But “what did the Romans believe?" also not the best
question. Personal belief not the focus of Roman religion. "Honoring the gods" primarily means performing certain
actions, sanctioned by tradition: res sacrae (lit. "sacred matters") part of mos maiorum. Worship seen as an exchange,
offered in return for divine help or favor: cf. the Elder Cato’s prayer for purifying a field (Sourcebook 217).
In that sense religious practices shaped the lives of many (or most) Romans:
–Household and family embodied/symbolized/protected by household gods (lares, penates);
–Spirits of ancestors (manes) venerated;
–Important activities accompanied by prayer and ritual.
Religious observances also essential to Roman civic life; prayer and sacrifice secures good will of gods toward Rome
(cf. opening of Horace’s Odes 3.6), also unifies community and demonstrates continuity of present with past (as shown
on Ara Pacis). "Separation of church and state" would have seemed senseless and self-destructive to Romans.
–Importance of religious cults in fostering local pride and identity, e.g., Diana in Ephesus (Sourcebook 217).
–Augustan religious revival builds on traditional ideas, restores (or invents) ancient practices.
–New attention devoted to "sacred calendar" of public rituals, subject of Ovid's other major work, the Fasti.
–Use of religious offices, imagery by political figures a Republican tradition (e.g., the augur's lituus on coins of
Julius Caesar et al.); taken to a new level by Augustus, cf. Res Gestae ch. 7.
To see where cult of the emperor fits in this picture, necessary to examine Greco-Roman concept of divinity. Romans
do not think in terms of a single, absolute, and totally "other" deity. For them "a god" is an entity that has power of a
certain kind or has a certain effect on the world, and vice-versa. Line between human and divine not sharply fixed and
not unbridgeable: possible to earn divine status, e.g., Hercules, Bacchus, Aeneas, Romulus: children of divine fathers
and human mothers who become divine through their deeds.
–Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.62: “It is a generally recognized custom among human beings that those
individuals who have excelled in their services [to humanity] should be raised to the heavens in fame and gratitude.”
–Absence of a body of religious doctrine allows for individual definitions of divinity; cf. Tityrus in Virgil's
Eclogue 1 [Sourcebook 123-124]: "he will always be a god to me."
If divinity is a way of representing power and/or benefaction, cult of emperors easier to understand: (a) enormous power
of princeps suggests an analogy with the gods, the traditional locus of power in the world (so Augustus can be likened to
Jupiter in their respective positions as rulers); (b) special place of emperor in the state requires a special relationship with
the gods; i.e., if Rome is a great power it must be specially favored by the gods; if the princeps represents Rome, he
must be on close terms with divinity: hence worship of “Rome and Augustus” in Greek cities.
Emperor not directly equated with any single god, but implicitly associated with more than one; a way of
describing the place or role of the princeps in the world.
But there are several indications that ruler cult never fully embedded in Roman way of thinking:
–Not part of mos maiorum, but a borrowing from Hellenistic Greek customs (divine kings like Alexander and
his successors, esp. in Egypt; Greek cities rewarding benefactors with divine honors); Julius Caesar the point of contact.
–Flourished mainly in provinces, esp. Greek-speaking ones. Inscriptions from Narbo honoring Augustus'
birthday–Sourcebook 212–typical of the organization of cult. Cult of Augustus not permitted in Rome or Italy during
A.'s lifetime.
–A. in Res Gestae mentions no explicit divine honors.
–Practice not universally adopted by emperors: Tiberius, e.g., refused divine honors.
–Difference in treatment between emperor and established gods; e.g., no thank-offerings made to emperor, no
fields purified by offerings to Augustus.
–Examples of an ironic or whimsical view of divine emperor: idea treated playfully in opening of Georgics;
Ovid on deification of Julius Caesar in Met. 15; Seneca's skit on the heavenly Senate [Sourcebook 51-53], the emperor
Vespasian's reported dying words vae, deus fio--"s--t, I'm becoming a god."
Reading assignment for Lecture XXII (all page references to Sourcebook): Livy on the Sabine women and the rape of
Lucretia (19-22); Sallust on Sempronia (26); the disgrace of Julia in Velleius (42) and Seneca (51); Tacitus, Annals 1.14
(60) on honors for Livia; Propertius 2.15 (162-163); "Eulogy of Turia" (213-215); epigrams on Fulvia and anecdotes of
Julia (218-219).
Further reading on today’s topic:
Lily Ross Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor. Middletown, Conn. 1931
John Ferguson, Religions of the Roman Empire. Cornell UP 1970
R. E. Witt, Isis in the Graeco-Roman World. Cornell UP 1971
Michael Grant, The Jews in the Roman Empire. New York 1973
Simon Price, Rituals and Power: the Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge UP 1984
Judith Lieu, John North, and Tessa Rajak, eds., The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire.
London 1994
Sarolta Takács, Isis and Sarapis in the Roman World. Leiden 1995
Denis Feeney, Literature and Religion at Rome: Cultures, Contexts, and Beliefs. Cambridge UP 1998
Mary Beard, John North, Simon Price, Religions of Rome. Cambridge UP 1999
Erich Gruen, Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans. Harvard UP 2002
Mary Lefkowitz, Greek Gods, Human Lives: What W e Can Learn from Myths. Yale UP 2003
Today’s prelude: “Mars, the Bringer of War,” opening movement of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets;
performed by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by Charles Dutoit, on a London CD.