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A Paper
Presented to
Dr. Jospeh D. Fantin
Dallas Theological Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Course
Independent Study
Derek W. Brown
May 2012
Box #193
The Roman Empire left a legacy throughout history. Scholar’s centuries later still
pursue to know more about this ancient dynasty. It is a topic that is studied in every World
History class. Books have been written about it, and Hollywood movies have put in millions of
dollars popularizing the Roman times and culture. However, throughout this excavating and
intense research about every nuance of that time, one area was overlooked for over a century
after the fall of Rome. That area was imperial cults. This scope of this paper will focus on the
emperor that caused the most dramatic catalyst in this movement, Augustus.
Augustus as Ruler
Understanding the impact that Augustus had on the imperial cult movement requires
knowledge of several areas. It goes without saying that Augustus had an incredible influence on
Roman society and on history in general. During his reign from 31BC to 14AD, Augustus
brought the “Golden Age” of Roman life. What made Augustus so great though? To understand
that, one must understand the background of Augustus.
From Child to Emperor
Augustus was born in 63 BC as Gaius Octavius, after his father, but would later
change his name to Gaius Julius Caesar after Julius Caesar’s death. He was known more
commonly as Octavian until in 27 BC he was granted the designation of Augustus.1 Augustus
was born to a prosperous family of knights (equites) from Velitrae, a town southeast of Rome.2
His father, Gaius Octavius, was the first person in his family to become a senator, even rising to
Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome, 31 BCAD 476 (New York: Scribner's, 1985), 9.
Michael Grant, Roman Emperors, 9.
the rank of praetor. However, in 59 BC, Gaius Octavius died and left Octavian’s mother, Atia, a
widow. As it would turn out, Atia was the niece of Julius Caesar, and it was Caesar who would
be the one to launch the future emperor’s public career.3 At the age of twelve Octavian gave the
funeral speech of his grandmother Julia. At only the age of fifteen or sixteen, Octavian was
appointed as a priest.4 Octavian would also accompany Caesar, who was by then dictator, at his
Triumph in 46 BC, and then joined Caesar for a year during his Spanish campaign.5 Just looking
at the young life of Octavian, he already had an incredible amount of opportunities to learn and
see how to be a great leader.
Octavian was then sent with his friends Marcus Agrippa and Marcus Salvidienus
Rufus to Apollonia in Epirus for academic and military studies. In 44 BC, while Augustus was
still studying in Apollonia, he learned that Brutus and Cassius had assassinated Caesar.6 It was
during the publication of Caesar’s that Augustus learned he had been posthumously adopted as
the Caesar’s son, and designated as his chief heir.7 Even Caesar saw the potential of young
Augustus. Following this, Octavian, who was only eighteen at the time, went against his family’s
wishes and set out to claim his inheritance and seek revenge for his adoptive father’s death.8
Over the next several months, Octavian consolidated himself as the leader of the friends of the
Ibid., 9.
Ibid., 9.
Ibid., 9.
Ibid., 9.
Ibid., 9.
Ibid., 9.
deceased Caesar. He also promoted the legacy of Caesar and even hosted the “Games of the
Victory of Caesar,” which was a way to promote Caesar’s name and gain the people’s approval.10
He also found ways to woo Caesar’s military veterans, which ultimately brought tension between
himself and Anthony.11
Over the next fourteen years, Octavian and Anthony would struggle with each other
to gain supremacy in the state.12 Anthony, Lepidus, and Augustus in 43 BC formed a formal,
autocratic Second Triumvirate, where they organized the proscription and execution of many
political enemies.13 Finally in 42 BC Augustus and Anthony finally overwhelmed Julius Caesar’s
assassins, Brutus and Cassius, who met their deaths.14 Over the next eleven years the Roman
world was divided between Augustus in the west, who had the help of his distinguished admiral
Agrippa and the talented diplomat Maecenas, Anthony in the east, who was associated with
Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, and Lepidus who had part of northern Africa.15 During the
following years, Augustus would slowly build his reputation and rule by defeating Pompey’s son
Sextus Pompeius in Sicily, and fighting campaigns in Illyricum and Dalmatia, as well as forcing
Lepidus to retire into private life.16 In 31 BC the tension between Anthony and Augustus boiled
over, culminating in the naval battle of Actium, where Agrippa, Augustus’ admiral, defeated
Simon Hornblower, and Antony Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1996), 216.
Grant, Roman Emperors, 10.
Hornblower and Spawforth, Oxford Classical Dictionary, 216.
Michael Grant, The Twelve Caesars (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1996), 52.
Grant, Twelve Caesars, 52.
Ibid., 52.
Ibid., 52.
Ibid., 53.
Anthony. The following year Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide, which now left
Augustus as sole ruler of the Roman Empire.17 The time of Augustus as the first true Roman
emperor was now under way.
Augustus as Religious Figure
With Augustus as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, his influence spanned to all the
boundaries of the known world. What would lead to Augustus being viewed as a religious
leader? When looking at Augustus during his reign, it becomes apparent that he was a reformer
of the traditional Roman religions. Augustus was able to do what few had done before him; he
not only encouraged religion, but also personally helped in the growth of it. The first move
towards Augustus as a religious figure started back in in 42BC, during the Second Triumvirate
with Lepidus and Anthony, Augustus’ adopted father Julius had been pronounced a god of the
Roman state. Augustus’ exploitation of this development was seen through the distribution of
coins that had himself on one side with the description “Caesar son of God” and then Julius on
the other side saying “the God Julius”.18 Once Augustus gained sole rule he found ways to
encourage the traditional Roman religions. The famous Res Gestae Divi Augusti or “The
Achievements of the Divine Augustus” gives evidence to some of the things Octavian did during
his reign as emperor. This document was one of three documents that deposited with his will in
AD 13.19 In the Res Gestae Augustus addresses the Roman people as it was inscribed at Rome.20
Ibid., 53.
Ibid., 55.
Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti: The Achievements of the Divine Augustus, Translated and edited
by P.A. Brunt and J.M. Moore (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 6.
Augustus, Res Gestae, 4.
For example, in Res Gestae 19 it is written:
I built the Senate House, and the Chalcidicum adjacent to it, the temple of Apollo on
the Palatine with its porticoes, the temple of the divine Julius, the Lupercal, the
portico at the Flaminian circus, which I permitted to bear the name of the portico of
Octavius after the man who erected the previous portico on the same site, a pulvinar
at the Circus Maximus, (2) the temples on the Capitol of Jupiter Feretrius and Jupiter
the Thunderer, the temple of Quirinus, the temples of Minerva and Queen Juno and
Jupiter Libertas on the Aventine, the temple of the Lares at the top of the Sacred Way,
the temple of the Di Penates in the Velia, the temple of Youth, and the temple of the
Great Mother on the Palatine.21
As can be seen, Octavian made sure to invest within the Roman religions. Octavian goes on to
say that in 28 BC he “restored eighty-two temples of the gods in the city on the authority of the
senate, neglecting none that required restoration at that time.”22 Later in Res Gestae 21, Octavian
demonstrates how far he was willing to go to ensure the encouragement of the tradition religions
of the empire. He went so far as to invest gigantic sums of his own money towards the
restoration of the temples. Res Gestae says:
I built the temple of Mars the Avenger and the Forum Augustum on private ground
from the proceeds of booty… From the proceeds of booty I dedicated gifts in the
Capitol and in the temples of the divine Julius, of Apollo, of Vesta and of Mars the
Avenger; this cost me about 100,000,000 sesterces. 3 In my fifth consulship [28 BC] I
remitted 55,000 lb. of aurum coronarium contributed by the municipia and colonies of
Italy to my triumphs, and later, whenever I was acclaimed imperator, I refused the
aurum coronarium, which the municipia and colonies continued to vote with the same
good will as before.
Octavian made sure to win the people over by restoring the religious atmosphere to the best it
had ever been. He was a wise ruler who knew how to win the people’s favor. He was not afraid
to spend huge sums of his own money for the sake of the empire and to meet the needs of the
Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti: The Achievements of the Divine Augustus, Translated by P.A.
Brunt and J.M. Moore: 19, (accessed
April, 2012)
Ibid., 20.
people. By doing these things, he gained favor with the people, who saw Octavian as one who
brought salvation to them. He was the one who was restoring the cities, not the senate. This made
his status grow larger and larger throughout his reign. Who else had the ability to spend such
large sums? Nobody really. Just to illustrate, the legionary of his day earned 900 sesterces a year,
which deductions were made from that sum due to food, arms, and clothing costs.23 In AD 30-27
Augustus spent around 860 million sesterces buying lands for veterans, then 100 million on the
dedication of temples, and then 220 million sesterces on gifts to urban people and to veterans.24
Religious Atmosphere of Rome
In order to understand the full impact of what Octavian was doing with his religious
reforms, it is important to have an understanding of what the religious atmosphere of Rome was
like. This atmosphere was foundational for the imperial cult movement to grow.
Traditional Religious Experience
Religion was a staple within the Roman experience. The Roman people were very
religious, and religion was a part of every aspect of life.25 For example, in the modern world
(twenty-first century) religion and politics are separated from one another, but in Roman times
they were one in the same. One way of demonstrating this is looking at the position pontifex
maximus. The pontifex maximus was the position of high priest in ancient Roman religion. This
was a lifetime post and the duties where to administer religious laws and facilitate sacrifices and
rituals for the religion. As Joseph Fantin explains, “This position, which included significant
Ibid., 57.
Ibid., 57.
25 Joseph D. Fantin, Lord of the Entire World: Lord Jesus, A challenge to Lord Caesar? (Sheffield:
Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), 89.
religious duties, was held by Julius Caesar, Augustus and future emperors.” To have the head
political authority, as Augustus did, and be the high priest, demonstrates how intermingled
religious and political life were. Interesting enough, priestly positions were not an official
profession; rather, these positions were held by prominent a political person, which makes the
religious atmosphere of Rome unique from other cultures.26 Religion was not just intertwined
with politics, but everything else. Athletic events were considered religious activities.27 The
Roman calendar was full of religious holidays. Life in Rome was built upon religion and
religious activities. Similar to the Bible belt where on every street corner there is a church, in
Rome every corner had a temple for the Roman gods.
Another aspect to the Roman religious experience is their openness to other gods.
Roman religion was a non-exclusive religion. The Romans were known for their worship of
many gods and their acknowledgement of even more.28 There were some gods, like the “state
gods,” who received more attention than others. The “state gods,” Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva,
were highly worshipped within the city of Rome for they were thought to be the key to the
success of Rome.29 Other gods were important and needed attention as well, which explains why
the Roman calendar was full of religious holidays. In the Roman religious experience the
relationship between the gods and humans was completely different from a modern view. In their
view, the relationship was mutual. If someone needed something, like bread, the person would
go to the temple of that particular god that was known to provide food, offer a sacrifice, and then
Fantin, Lord, 90.
Ibid., 90.
Ibid., 91.
Ibid., 91.
that god would reciprocate by providing for his or her need. This does not mean that everyone’s
needs were answered though. It was well known that the gods were fickle and there was no
guarantee that they would answer a person’s request, but the Roman concept and practice of
honoring the gods demonstrated this idea of having a mutual relationship. Fantin makes an
important note saying, “This process did not imply that gods not worshipped were less important.
The focus however, was on the gods who were believed to be able to affect an outcome for the
worshipper. In many ways, this practice mirrored the patronage and benefaction system in place
for Roman society.”30 Furthermore, devotees of one god could just as well honor any other gods
that they wanted. 31 In Roman culture honor was given at the discretion of the devotee. If they
needed something from one particular god, they would go to that god’s temple and honor him. If
they needed something from a different god, then they would go over to the other god’s temple.
Roman religions were non-exclusive. As has been demonstrated, religion was woven into the
fabric of everyday life, and even into the affairs of the state.
Religious Practice
Knowing that religion was in every part of Roman life, what did their practices and
look like? What was the nature of the gods? The answers to these two questions help to give an
understanding of the religious atmosphere that the imperial cult of Augustus will arise. In
regards to practice, as Fantin states, “Roman religion was a religion of doing.”32 The Roman
religious experience was centered upon sacrifices and rituals. This was the means by which the
gods were most honored. Where as in the monotheistic religions belief is a main component, to
Ibid., 91.
Ibid., 91.
Ibid., 92.
the Roman religions, belief was good but not of utmost importance for the success of the
religion. As Simon Price writes, “’Belief’ as a religious term is profoundly Christian in its
implications; it was forged out of the experience which the Apostles and Saint Paul had of the
Risen Lord. The emphasis which ‘belief’ gives to spiritual commitment has no necessary place in
the analysis of other cultures.”33 This is important for modern readers today to realize. When
understanding an ancient culture’s religion, like that of the Romans, people must realize their
own lens they are seeing things through and seek to look at the different culture based purely on
its own unique framework. In ancient Rome, belief was good to have, but it was more important
to actually practice the religion through sacrifices and rituals. This seems opposite from what
Christianity contends that religion is based upon what one believes.34
Belief was not the only aspect that was not of huge importance in ancient Rome; the
necessity for emotion was another one. It was not necessary for devotees to have an emotional
attachment to the gods they were honoring. This is another element modern readers need to be
mindful of when looking at ancient Roman religions. The notion that emotion is an essential part
of any religious life is not necessarily true. As Price comments, “The criterion of feelings and
emotions as the test of authenticity in ritual and religion is in fact an appeal to the Christian
virtue of religio animi, religion of the soul, that is, the interiorized beliefs and feelings of
individuals… It is far worse to deploy this category in the analysis of the imperial cult. That is to
apply the standards of one religion to the ritual of another society without consideration of their
S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1984), 11.
Fantin, Lord, 93.
relevance to indigenous standards.” What Price says is vital to understanding the religious
atmosphere of Rome. The “indigenous standard” in ancient Rome was one of doing, as Fantin
mentioned previously. This is not to say that belief and emotion were not possible and lacked
any sort of value, because it was possible that those elements were a part of the people’s practice,
but the point is that it was not essential to the religion. What was essential was that the gods
received the proper rituals and sacrifices. Rituals were a way for ancient Rome to conceptualize
the world,36 while sacrifices were a way of displaying religious honor.37 The purpose behind this
was to mark a distinction between god and man, showing that the one receiving the sacrifice was
superior to the one giving it.38 This was the means by which the Romans were able to relate to the
gods.39 Fantin notes about this practice and how it related to their beliefs saying, “Certainly some
notion of belief is involved. The Romans believed what they were doing was of value; otherwise
they would not have done it. However, this was not a unique belief in contrast to other beliefs. It
was the worldview of the empire. It simply was the state of affairs.”40 Ancient Roman religious
life was centered on doing rituals and sacrifices for that was the main means by which man and
divine were able to interact. Notions like belief and emotion could be a part of those practices,
but they were not a necessity in order for the religion to operate.
Price, Rituals, 10.
Ibid., 7.
Fantin, Lord, 93.
Ibid., 93.
Ibid., 93.
Ibid., 93.
Nature of the Gods
If rituals and sacrifices were what marked the distinction between god and man, what
was the nature of the gods? The nature of the Roman gods was vastly different from the nature of
the gods found in modern monotheistic religions. Fantin demonstrates this distinction between
the two by showing the role of Jupiter, the supreme deity of the Roman religion, to monotheistic
Gods. Fantin writes, “Although Jupiter was a supreme deity… and even was considered a creator
god, he was nothing like the all –powerful God of monotheistic religions. Jupiter was much more
human-like and was limited in his abilities. .. he is persuaded to act by other gods at times…
[Jupiter] has limited knowledge and can be impulsive, resulting in actions that may not be just.”41
Fantin shows here that the nature of the gods is more human-like than divine. In fact, in the
stories of the Greeks and the Romans, there are instances where some of the gods are hurt in
battle.42 Basically, the gods are much more like powerful, glorious forms of human beings. In the
Roman religion, there was a not a god who created the world and the universe, like the God in
the monotheistic religions does. Instead, the world and the universe were already in existence
when the gods came into power. 43 The reason why people honored the gods through rituals and
sacrifices was due to the status gap between themselves and the divine. These gods were still
leaps and bounds ahead of their devotees in status. These gods, although not as mighty seeming
as the monotheistic gods, still had the ability to act on behalf of human beings. Even with these
gods being temperamental and impulsive like humans, they still were to be honored by the
standards of the Roman religion.
Ibid., 94.
Ibid., 95.
Ibid., 95.
Rise of Ruler Cults
Throughout this religious atmosphere and leading up to Augustus, the religious
atmosphere was such that even rulers attained the worship of people. Augustus would change the
face of this type of worship, but before moving forward to discuss Augustus and his imperial
cult, it is good to have an idea of what was taking place before his reign. As Fantin states, “The
people of the Roman empire were not the first to worship their rulers. Greeks, Egyptians,
Babylonians, Persians, Chinese, and Japanese all had their ancient practices of ruler worship.”44
Ruler cults were not a surprise to the Roman life because they were already a part of it by the
time Augustus became emperor. It appears as though Egypt and the cult of Alexander were the
important influences for the Roman development of the ruler cult.45 It is important to realize that
this ruler cult was not a new form of religion that was intruding in on the normal religions of
Rome. Rather, it was something that was integrated into the fabric of religious life and was
added to already established practices.46 If this cult was something that was integrated within the
religious life, what influenced the practice of emperor worship? The answer of this is two-fold.
According to Fantin, “First, every local area influenced its particular manifestation of emperor
worship… Second, the actual imperial religious practice would maintain some of this earlier
practice.”47 When looking at the ruler cults of Egypt it becomes apparent how this practice
formed. In Egyptian religion, the pharaoh is considered to be the divine son of the sun god Ra.48
The religion then honoured the pharaoh as divine because of this view, and this tradition carried
Ibid., 99.
Ibid., 100.
Ibid., 100.
Ibid., 100.
Ibid., 102.
on through time and would end up influencing leaders like Alexander. The pharaoh then served
as a divine being among the people and the people in turn practiced forms of worship towards
the pharaoh.
Alexander presents an interesting situation. It remains unclear whether or not
Alexander initiated his own ruler cult during his lifetime.49 Despite that, scholars are certain of
four things: “First, Alexander was influenced by the Persian ruler cult… Second, there does not
appear to be any question about whether Alexander saw himself as divine… Third, Alexander
was given divine honours while he was alive…. Fourth, after the death of Alexander, there can
be no doubt that official cults were established in his honour throughout his kingdom.”50 The
impact of the cult of Alexander cannot be stressed enough. Because of Alexander and his
influence on the ancient world, the ruler cults became a part of the Roman religious experience.
In fact, even Octavian would honour Alexander the Great after defeating Anthony. Suetonius
writes, “About this time he had the sarcophagus and body of Alexander the Great brought forth
from its shrine, and after gazing on it, showed his respect by placing upon it a golden crown and
strewing it with flowers…”51 With Alexander, the ruler cults of his lifetime would influence
Roman religious experience. It is now time to look at the progression of the ruler cult to the
Roman emperor worship.
Julius Caesar and the Ruler Cult
Ibid., 103.
Ibid., 104-5.
Suetonius Deified Augustus 18.1.
The final step before analyzing Octavian and his imperial cult is look at the how the
Roman emperor worship functioned before him. To know this, we must look back to none other
than Octavian’s adopted father, Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar is the figure that brought together
the background elements found with the Egyptian and Alexander ruler cults that ultimately
helped influence the creation of the Roman emperor worship.52 According to Suetonius and
Cassius Dio, Julius Caesar was receiving worship while he was still alive.53 Suetonius writes in
86.2 of The Deified Julius about the people’s immediate response to the news of Julius’ death
saying, “Since it was clear that the day would not be long enough for those who offered gifts,
they were directed to bring them to the Campus by whatsoever streets of the city they wished,
regardless of any order of precedence.”54 Suetonius illustrates here the worship given to the fallen
Caesar. As the previous section “Augustus as Religious Figure” stated, Julius was known as
being “the God Julius.” In fact, the term used, Divus, would later become the term given to other
deified emperors.55 When Augustus comes and takes the throne as emperor, revisions of the
emperor cult will take place that will differentiate the imperial cult of Augustus from the cult and
image of Julius Caesar. However, it is important to make note of Julius Caesar because of his
importance. Julius Caesar completed the groundwork for a sole ruler for the empire.56 It is
because of this that the imperial cult was able to be expressed later in the reign of Augustus and
onward. This new ruler, the Caesar, was able to have a new type of relationship with the rest of
the empire. This new ruler would be Augustus.
Fantin, Lord, 108.
Ibid., 108.
Suetonius Deified Julius 86.2.
Fantin, Lord, 108.
Ibid., 110.
Augustus’s Imperial Cult
Taking into account Augustus as a ruler, Augustus as a religious figure, and then
looking at all the different elements regarding the religious atmosphere of Rome, we can now
move into the discussion of Augustus’s imperial cult. Augustus is important for the study of
imperial cults because the imperial cult movement really began with Augustus. It can be seen
from the previous section that ruler cults and the cult of Julius Caesar played a major influence
on the imperial cult, but it was Augustus’s imperial cult that caused a paradigm shift from ruler
cult to imperial cult. When Augustus became emperor, he made sure to try to avoid any mistakes
Julius might have made as Augustus realized the consequences could mean death. In regards to
our study, Augustus saw the dangers in receiving honours from the state that Julius had gotten,
but because of that, Augustus learned from it. Being the sole ruler of an empire now put
Augustus on the defensive, as he knew the consequences of being the sole ruler of the Roman
Empire. However, Augustus would not abandon every aspect of his adopted father’s reign. One
thing he used to his advantage was he could now claim the position of divus filius, son of god.57
The People’s View
To understand the imperial cult of Augustus, we must try to understand how the
people in the empire saw Augustus. Knowing already about the religious atmosphere of the
empire that the gods were more human-like than anything was, it is logical that the people could
envision their ruler as a god. The gods were known to have a fickle temperament, they were not
creators of the universe, and they could even be hurt in battle. The emperor also had all those
same qualities. Was the emperor seen as less divine than the gods? I would argue no. Steven J.
Ibid,, 113.
Friesen demonstrates why in his book, Twice Neokoros. In it, Friesen argues against Simon
Price’s views that the emperors were less than the gods were. The argument centers around four
points: (1) the position of emperor statues in traditional temples, (2) sacrificial practices towards
emperors, (3) the use of the word for “reverence, piety” and whether or not it is too ambiguous,
(4) the prayers offered in regards to the emperor.58 For the first point, Friesen argues “the
placement of the emperor [statues] in any precinct should not be understood as a statement about
the general status of emperors and gods.”59 The point is that just because a statue is smaller than
another one inside of a temple, does not mean that the people saw the smaller statue as having
smaller status. Friesen gives a good example saying, “If Apollo was depicted in an Asklepieion
with a smaller statue than his son, this was not a general statement about their relative status.”60
In regards to the second point, Friesen argues that particular kinds of sacrifices are given based
off the context of their particular relationship.61 Therefore, imperial sacrifices should not be
looked at as a means of showing who was divine and then who was human.62 In addition, it
makes sense that the people would make sacrifices towards the emperors because the emperors
functioned like gods to them.63 Friesen also dismisses Price’s arguments towards sacrifices made
to gods on behalf of the emperors as a sign that emperors were not quite at the same level as
gods, saying, “It was also correct for the inhabitants of the empire to sacrifice to the gods on
To see Price’s side of the argument consult: Price, Rituals and Powers, 231-233.
Steven J. Friesen, Twice Neokoros: Ephesus, Asia, and the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family
(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993), 74.
Friesen, Twice Neokoros, 74.
Ibid., 150.
Ibid., 150.
Ibid., 150.
behalf of the emperors because the emperors were not independent of the gods.” Friesen than
tackles the issue about the “ambiguity” of the terms for “reverence,” and “piety,” by illustrating
that these usages are used to demonstrate the relationship between emperors and worshippers in
the context of the benefaction system.65 Finally, Friesen confronts the last point that is debated,
writing, “The double prayer- to the emperor and to the gods on behalf of the emperor- does not
reveal a deep seated ambivalence at the heart of imperial cult. Rather, the twofold prayer
accurately reflected imperial theology: the gods looked after the emperors, who in turn looked
after the concerns of the gods on earth to the benefit of humanity.”66 This last point by Friesen is
validated by strong literary evidence. For example, Tacitus writes after the death of Augustus,
“Then all prayers were directed toward Tiberius.”67 Friesen’s arguments are strong which is why
I have listed them as I think they are superior to Price.
Why bring these four points up? The reason for explaining Friesen’s views of these
four ideas is that this helps us to shape the view of the people of the Roman Empire. The
imperial cults of Augustus were practicing the ideas Friesen and Price discuss. The people were
going to temples where there were statues of Octavian in them. The people were giving sacrifices
and praying to and for the emperor. To the people, Octavian was viewed as a god, which meant
they had the responsibility of practicing rituals and sacrifices in hopes that he could answer their
prayers just as they thought Jupiter could. In other words, the attitudes displayed in the
“Religious Atmosphere of Rome” section towards the gods were how the imperial cult felt about
Ibid., 150.
Ibid., 150.
Ibid., 152.
Fantin, Lord, 122.
Augustus. It was integration into the normal religious atmosphere and received the same type of
worship. In fact, there is evidence supporting the worship of Augustus as being divine while he
was still living. For example, Cassius Dio writes, “When Octavian’s dispatch concerning the
Parthians arrived, a further series of measures was approved. The first name of Octavian was to
be included in public hymns in the same terms as those of the gods…”68
Another aspect that needs to be considered is the location where the cult was being
practiced. Interestingly enough, the imperial cult of Augustus had a heavy provincial influence
and following. This is where the term provincial cult comes into discussion because these are
imperial cults that served an entire province under the permission of Rome.69 It was largely a
grass roots sort of movement. There is no evidence supporting the idea that within the city of
Rome Augustus was worshipped. Rather, it was a movement outside of the major city. One of
the best evidences of this comes from the province of Asia where in the early first century only
Augustus and Tiberius had lasting provincial cults initiated during their lifetimes.70 In addition, it
was under Augustus that official provincial imperial cults got their start.71 Cassius Dio provides a
description of the establishment of the first provincial cult temples devoted to Octavian:
Octavian… granted permission that precincts sacred to Rome and to his father
Caesar, whom he named the hero Julius, should be dedicated in Ephesus and in
Nicaea. These had become the most important cities in the province of Asia and in
Bithynia, respectively, at that time. He laid it down that the Romans who lived in
those places should honour the two divinities. At the same time he allowed the aliens,
under the name of Hellenes, to consecrate precincts to himself, those of the Asiatic
province in Pergamum and those of the Bithynians in Nicomedia. This practice began
with Octavian and it has been carried on under other emperors, not only with regard
Reign of Augustus 51.20.1.
Fantin, Lord, 124.
Ibid., 124.
Ibid., 126.
to the Hellenic peoples, but to all others in so far as they acknowledge Roman rule. In
Rome itself and in Italy generally, no emperor, however greatly venerated he may
have been, has so far ventured to do this. However, even there other divine honours
are conferred after their death upon those emperors who have ruled virtuously, and in
fact shrines are built in their honour.72
This event that Cassius Dio presents took place in 29 BC, which was before Octavian had
changed his name to Augustus.73 Yet, readers can see how already the imperial cult of Augustus
was growing and being practiced. This also demonstrates how the provincial cults and the cults
of Rome were practiced differently. This also indicates that it was the provinces who had
initiated the idea of worshipping Octavian. What is interesting is how it appears Octavian’s
response seems to be a measure of restraint by making a distinction between the cult of Julius
and his own.74 This leads to the last part of the discussion.
View of Augustus
Picking up from the last section, it appears that Octavian was hesitant about the rise
of his own imperial cult. Did Octavian want to be worshipped as a god, or did he not? This is a
difficult question to answer conclusively. Cassius Dio makes it seem as if Octavian was hesitant
to accept having his own imperial cult, yet Tacitus writes something different. Tacitus writes,
“No honour was left for the gods, when Augustus chose to be himself worshipped with temples
and statues, like those of the deities, and with flamens and priests.”75 Tacitus gives a rather harsh
assessment of Augustus where Cassius Dio gives an overly kind assessment at times. When
looking over the biography of Augustus and his career I would say that a lot of what Augustus
Reign of Augustus 51.20.6-8.
Fantin, Lord, 127.
Ibid., 127.
Tacitus The Annals 1.10.
did was not out of a desire to be worshipped as a god, but rather out of fear. The fear that drove
him was the fear of ending up like his father Julius Caesar, killed by his fellow Romans. This
fear drove Octavian to do things and approach matters differently from his predecessor. Knowing
the dangers that come with being the sole ruler of a huge empire, Octavian found ways to keep
the heat off him. He managed that by building temples, statues, roads, and helping to improve the
overall state of Rome. Nevertheless, whether Augustus yearned for the peoples worship or not,
the people ended up worshipping him as a god. It is easy to see why the people would worship
him given the religious atmosphere of the Roman Empire. As it was highlighted in “Augustus as
Religious Figure” section, his accomplishments were unparalleled in the ancient world outside of
Alexander the Great. His Res Gestae gives testimony to all the things Octavian was able to do
and provide his people. Octavian took Rome to heights unimaginable. He acted the way the
people thought a god would. He delivered them when they needed help. It is no wonder the
people referred to him as the “son of god.” During his reign, the Roman Empire reached new
economic heights. As Michael Grant notes, “Augustus was one of the most talented, energetic,
and skillful administrators that the world had ever known…. The autocratic regime which
(learning from Caesar’s mistake) he substituted for the collapsing Republic… brought about
stability, security, and prosperity to an unprecedented proportion of the population for more than
two hundred years.”76
The imperial cult movement surfaced during the reign of Augustus. In many ways,
the Augustan imperial cult is one of the best illustrations of people worshipping their emperors
Grant, The Roman Emperors, 15.
as a god. His time as emperor has made him a lasting figure in history. Augustus never slowed
down during his career either. He was always trying to improve the empire. Behind the status of
emperor, was a man who had lost his mentor to his fellow countrymen. This moment never left
Augustus’s memory, as he always sought to avoid any mistakes his father had made. Due to this,
his decisions gained the love of the Roman people, even to the point where they integrated him
into their religious life. Near the end of his life Augustus was known to say this to his friends and
companions, “Since well I’ve played my part, all clap your hands and from the stage dismiss me
with applause.”77 Little did he know how well he played his part, for history still applauds him.
Suetonius Deified Augustus 99.2.
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edited P.A. Brunt and J.M. Moore. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
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Cassius Dio. “The Reign of Augustus.” In The Roman History. Translated by Ian Kilvert.
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Fantin, Joseph D. Lord of the Entire World: Lord Jesus, A Challenge to Lord Caesar?. Sheffield:
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Friesen, Steven J. Twice Neokoros: Ephesus, Asia, and the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family.
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Grant, Michael. The Twelve Caesars. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1996.
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Price, S. R. F. Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge:
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121-287. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944.
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