Augustus and Religion

Adapted from some slides... Augustus, Religion and the imperial cult

  • Created by: Dominic
  • Created on: 18-01-15 18:54

Decline of religion in the late republic?

Neglect of temples (since Augustus needed to restore so many),

Influx of foreign cults,

General lack of belief aggravated and seen in the cynical manipulation of religion for political purposes. 

Thus a clear need for Augustus to save the situation; he emphasises this role in Res Gestae, stressing his restoration and construction of temples and his concern for traditional religion and values, and it is echoed in the works of Horace.

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Decline exaggerated?

Roman religion always political (ritual central to state and priests drawn from ruling class — and this continues in Principate)

Foreign cults regularly absorbed, and the concern of a minority anyway   No way of knowing how much restoration the temples actually needed, and clearly it was in Augustus’ interests to exaggerate decline so as to magnify his own role as saviour and restorer. 

Certainly he expends energy and money in building temples, reviving or inventing rituals (closing the gates of the temple of Janus, holding the Secular Games) and religious imagery on coins and monuments.

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Developments of "ruler worship"

How do we know?

Epigraphic evidence such as inscriptions and dedications on altars and temples.

Oaths sworn to emperors very important- the Oath of Gangra shows the development of the position of Roman citizens within the cult.

Archaeological evidence of temples, statues and altars themselves.

Numismatic evidence- for example coins from 27 BC show an eagle- the most common symbol of apotheosis (becoming a god after death)- seems to show what Augustus expected

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Developments of "ruler worship" II

Major development is that it became completely acceptable. Little precedent for ruler worship in the Empire, except in Greece and Egypt.

Started to change with Caesar- the fact he was deified after death showed that you could become a god through holding supreme political power.

However- Caesar’s acceptance of worship during his lifetime is likely to have contributed to his assassination.

In Rome, worship of a living man seemed ridiculous, and reminiscent of the hated kings.

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In the East

The situation before Augustus came to power was very different. Since Alexander the Great, ruler worship had been an important part of religious life.

When Greece became part of the Roman Empire the cities transferred their worship to proconsuls, so it seemed natural to worship Augustus.

Unlike in Rome, in the Eastern provinces, the imperial cult involved the explicit worship of Augustus himself, not his divine ancestors, or genius.

There would have been little Augustus could have done to discourage this, should he have wanted to.

In Egypt, rulers regarded as gods incarnate- even less ambiguous!

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In the East II

Octavian ascribed divinity very early on- just after the Battle of Actium.

Now there was an obvious head to the Roman Empire there was a great urge to show respect and honours.

Dio tells us the first province to request permission to establish an imperial cult where Asia and Bithynia. 

Augustus insisted that any temples were dedicated jointly to himself and Roma.  Dio tells us at the same time, Augustus made it clear that Roman citizens were only to worship Caesar and Roma- clear distinction.

Annual celebrations held on his birthday, worship of his daimon, birthday start of new year in Asia.

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In the West

No traditions or precedents for ruler worship.

Main development was that the cult was created.

Augustus had seen the value of the cults in focusing loyalty to Rome and himself in the East- in the West the imperial cult was actually created, from above.

Began in 12 BC when Drusus called a conference of representatives from each of the tribes of the Gallia Comata, and elected the first high priest of the 3 provinces- Gaius Julius Vercundaris Dubius.

2 years later, Drusus consecrated an altar of Rome and Augustus at Lugdunum

After this the cult spread throughout Gaul and Germany.  Citizens looked to Rome for guidance on how to organise their worship.

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In the West II

A vow taken by the inhabitants of Narbo in 12 BC stated that they had “bound themselves to the worship of [Augustus’] divinity in perpetuity”

A major benefit to Augustus was the personal loyalty the imperial cult brought- swearing an oath of allegiance to him by the inhabitants of each new region added to the Empire.

It also created a sense of ‘Roman’ identity amongst the provincials that emperors were keen to promote.

The cult in the West was more organised and centralised than the rest of the Empire as it originated from Rome.

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In Rome

Augustus had to tread carefully in Rome and Italy.

The lares compitales (which later became the lares Augusti) made offerings to the spirits of the dead, not the living.

Augustus developed existing ideas such as the worship of his divine spirit, or genius.

There was a traditional Roman idea that great men had a kind of divine spark that offerings (although definitely not sacrifices) could be made to.

Augustus also encouraged the worship of Caesar, setting up temples and altars in Rome and emphasised his new status as divi filius at every opportunity!

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In Rome II

Cassius Dio tells us that no ruler worship took place in Rome and Italy, although it was common throughout the Empire.

However, many modern scholars disagree, saying the worship of Augustus’ genius was just as much a ruler cult as in Egypt, where he was declared a god on earth (Lily Ross Taylor)

In Rome the cult took a variety of forms

Constitutional- like his election as Pontifex Maximus

Unconstitutional- mainly centred around cult of his genius

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Cult of Genius

Dio tells us that in 30 BC as part of the honours voted to Octavian, everyone was instructed to offer prayers to him and to pour a libation to his genius.

This was according to tradition- bloodless.

When Augustus divided Rome into 14 sections he allowed the magistri of the subdivisions of these regions to worship his genius.

Overt worship was banned, but the lower classes were allowed to make offerings to his genius at the lares compitales-  the shrines of the city wards- which later became the lares Augusti.

Evidence that sacrifices were made, such as at the dedication of the Temple of Mars Ultor in 2 BC.

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Cult of Genius II

Augustus encouraged the worship of his genius in other ways- such as having it included in the formal state prayers- although in Res Gestae he makes sure we know this was the Senate’s idea, and not his.

He also allowed references to be made to his divinity (or future divinity) by poets such as Horace, Ovid and Virgil.

The sacred flame was carried in front of him in processions- linking him to Vesta.

All these reinforced Augustus’ authority by including him in aspects of daily religious life- continually reminding people he was more than mortal.

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Roman Citizens in the Provinces

The distinction made between Rome and the provinces can be seen in Augustus’ early attempted to stop Roman citizens taking part in the cult.

He only permitted them to worship Caesar, and he was unwilling to encourage the cult in areas with large numbers of Roman citizens, such as Africa.

However this had obviously changed by the time of the oath of Gangra in 3 BC- any Roman citizens were to be included in the oath, sworn at the altar to Augustus.

Augustus probably felt more secure in his position at this stage, enough to allow citizens to worship him (in any case leading priests in the provinces were often given citizenship.

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