Although the worship of divine rulers had been common in
many lands, including Egypt and Persia, the Imperial
Cult in Rome did not begin until the Deification of Julius
after his death in 42 BC. Caesar had accomplished so much during his
lifetime it was natural to see him as having the status of a divine Hero.
The Emperor Augustus during his long and successful reign continued
that tradition, to the point where future Emperors took the title of
Caesar, and Augustus.
success of Rome was understood as being
mandated by the Gods, and the Emperor became the representative of the
Gods on earth. It had long been the tradition to honor the heads of
one's family at the household altar, and the reverence for the Emperor
and literally became the extention of that practice. This "new" Roman
religious practice had already been in place in most of the lands that
were now part of the Empire, so reverence for the Emperor became a
natural part of public religion.
Was the Emperor literally seen as a God?
partially. The Imperial cult recognized that the Emperor was a mortal,
subject to mortal faults and weakness, and not holding the same powers
as the traditional Gods, the Dii Immortales. Instead the Emperor was
seen to be ruling by the will of the Gods, and expected to manifest the
Pax Deorum, or Peace of the Gods as much as possible in the Roman
Honor to the Emperor was not falsely
saying a man
was a God,
instead it was honoring the divine in the person who ruled the world by
the favor of the Gods. The Imperial Cult became the way for all Romans
to honor, empower, and provide divine favor for the Emperor and the Empire itself. All
Roman Emperors were considered to take part in divine essence upon
taking the throne, but not all received the same level of worship.
Caesar and Augustus continued to have their own individual priesthoods and temples
throughout the Roman period. Later Emperors were honored alongside them
and did not necessarily receive their own individual temples and
The Romans believed that the Imperial
divine favor for the Emperor and his rule, and ensured that the Gods
would bless all Rome. The Emperor was mentioned in most official rites
and rituals in addition to receiving more direct worship in the
Imperial temples. This ritual practice in essence provided "constant
prayer for good rulership and the success of Roman civilization," which
was a positive thing for all Romans!
The Imperial Cult continued into the
the last Emperor to receive divine honors was the Emperor Anastasius,
in 518 AD. After this time this spiritual impulse was
through the concept of "divine right of kings" which if anything was a
step backward. No longer could a person make offering for the leader of
the State to follow the proper path of the Gods, but instead had to
believe that what the ruler did was "God's will." This
active participation in the spirituality of Empire no doubt was a huge
loss of positive power for what remained of the Roman legacy.
The last Roman Emperor recorded to have
ancient traditional offering was the Emperor Julian,
who reigned as Caesar of the West from 353-361 AD, and as Augustus of
all the Roman world from 361 - 363 AD. Julian was the last publicly
Pagan Emperor, and upon his death the Philosopher Libanius wrote: "many have made prayers and
offerings to the Divine Julian, and those prayers have not gone
unanswered." The last Emperor to probably
receive any traditional worship was the Western Emperor Anthemius,
(462-467 AD) who was privately Pagan and who presided over a
circle of traditionally minded nobles who hoped yet to reestablish the
The final Emperor to
receive Divine Apotheosis by the Roman Senate was the Emperor
Anastasius I, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 491 to 518 AD.
Byzantine Christian Emperors, were
honored as part of ritual by the Orthodox church, but without the
divine status of previous centuries.