The History of the Imperial Cult


     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 Caesar 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.

        The 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? Only 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 world.

        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 priesthood.

        The Romans believed that the Imperial Cult provided 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 Byzantine era; the last Emperor to receive divine honors was the Emperor Anastasius, in 518 AD.  After this time this spiritual impulse was manifested 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 removal of 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 received 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 ancient faiths.

     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. Succeeding Byzantine Christian Emperors, were honored as part of ritual by the Orthodox church, but without the divine status of previous centuries.


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