Imperial Cult (ancient Rome) - Imperial Crisis and The Dominate

Imperial Crisis and The Dominate

This section provides an overview of developments most relevant to cult: for a full listing of Emperors by name and date, see List of Roman Emperors.

The end of the Severan dynasty marked the breakdown of central imperium. Against a background of economic hyperinflation and latterly, endemic plague, rival provincial claimants fought for supremacy and failing this, set up their own provincial Empires. Most Emperors seldom even saw Rome, and had only notional relationships with their senates. In the absence of coordinated Imperial military response, foreign peoples seized the opportunity for invasion and plunder.

Maximinus Thrax (reigned 235–8 AD) sequestered the resources of state temples in Rome to pay his armies. The temples of the divi were first in line. It was an unwise move for his own posterity, as the grant or withholding of apotheosis remained an official judgment of Imperial worthiness, but the stripping of the temples of state gods caused far greater offense. Maximinus's actions more likely show need in extreme crisis than impiety, as he had his wife deified on her death but in a rare display of defiance the senate deified his murdered predecessor, then openly rebelled. His replacement, Claudius Gothicus, reigned briefly but successfully and was made a divus on his death. A succession of short-lived soldier-emperors followed. Further development in imperial cult appears to have stalled until Philip the Arab, who dedicated a statue to his father as divine in his home town of Philippopolis and brought the body of his young predecessor Gordian III to Rome for apotheosis. Coins of Philip show him in the radiate solar crown (suggestive of solar cult or a hellenised form of imperial monarchy), with Rome's temple to Venus and dea Roma on the reverse.

In 249 AD, Philip was succeeded (or murdered and usurped) by his praetorian prefect Decius, a traditionalist ex-consul and governor. After an accession of doubtful validity, Decius justified himself as rightful "restorer and saviour" of Empire and its religio: early in his reign he issued a coin series of imperial divi in radiate (solar) crowns. Philip, the three Gordians, Pertinax and Claudius were omitted, presumably because Decius thought them unworthy of the honour. In the wake of religious riots in Egypt, he decreed that all subjects of the Empire must actively seek to benefit the state through witnessed and certified sacrifice to "ancestral gods" or suffer a penalty: only Jews were exempt. The Decian edict required that refusal of sacrifice be tried and punished at proconsular level. Apostasy was sought, rather than capital punishment. A year after its due deadline, the edict was allowed to expire and shortly after this, Decius himself died.

The Decian edict appealed to whatever common mos maiorum might reunite a politically and socially fractured Empire. Within its multitude of cults, no ancestral gods need be specified by name. The fulfillment of this sacrificial obligation by loyal subjects would define them and their gods as Roman. Yet despite its appeal to tradition, the Decian edict represents a significant departure from precedent. Most oaths of loyalty were collective; the Decian oath has been interpreted as a design to root out individual subversives. Crisis had helped reformulate what Empire was, and what it was not: in the earliest days of the Principate, Livy had been convinced that the problems of the late Republic stemmed from impiety. The principate of Augustus had been justified by its restoration of peace and the mos maiorum. Then, as now, devotion to private and mystery cults was acceptable within limits; excessive or exclusive devotion to one cult were marks of superstition and obsession. This was not merely improper but robbed Rome's gods of their dues from its citizens. Valerian (253–60) singled out the largest and most stubbornly self-interested of these cults: he outlawed Christian assembly and urged Christians to sacrifice to Rome's traditional gods. His son and co-Augustus Gallienus – himself an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries – also identified himself with traditional Roman gods and the virtue of military loyalty. Aurelian (270–75) appealed for harmony among his soldiers (concordia militum), stabilised the Empire and its borders and successfully established an official, Hellenic form of unitary cult to the Palmyrene Sol Invictus in Rome's Campus Martius. The senate hailed him as restitutor orbis (restorer of the world) and deus et dominus natus (god and born ruler) but his intolerance of military corruption led to his murder by the Praetorians. Aurelian's immediate successors consolidated his achievements: coinage of Probus (276–82) shows him in radiate solar crown, and his prolific variety of coin types include issues showing the temple of Venus and Dea Roma in Rome.

These policies and preoccupations culminated in Diocletian's Tetrarchy. This divided the empire into Western and Eastern administrative blocs: each had its Augustus (senior emperor), helped by a Caesar (junior emperor) as Augustus-in-waiting. Provinces were divided and subdivided: their imperial bureaucracy was extraordinary in size, scope and attention to detail but their senior Augustus was fundamentally conservative. On his accession in 284 AD, he held games in honour of the divus Antinous. Where his predecessors preferred persuasion and coercion of recalcitrant sects, Diocletian launched a series of ferocious reactions known in Church history as the Great Persecution. According to Lactantius, this began with a report of ominous haruspicy in Diocletian's domus and a subsequent (but undated) dictat of placatory sacrifice by the entire military. A date of 302 is regarded as likely and Eusebius also says the persecutions of Christians began in the army. However Maximilian's martyrdom (295) came from his refusal of military service, and Marcellus' (298) for renouncing his military oath. Legally, these were military insurrections and Diocletian's edict may have followed these and similar acts of conscience and faith. An unknown number of Christians appear to have suffered the extreme and exemplary punishments traditionally reserved for rebels and traitors.

The nature and intent of the imperial cult under Diocletian are hard to discern through the taints of his notoriety but his expanded imperial collegia seems to have had major implications. While the division of empire and imperium catered to a peaceful and well-prepared succession, its unity still required the highest investiture of power and status in one man. In matters of titulature and ceremonial alike, the hyperinflation of imperial honours distinguished both Augusti from their Caesares and Diocletian (as senior Augustus) from his colleague Maximian. An elaborate choreography of etiquette surrounded the approach to the imperial person and imperial progressions. The senior Augustus in particular was made a separate and unique being, accessible only through those closest to him. By this period, low-born, trusted imperial eunuchs played a major procuratorial role and as in Claudius' time, their proximity to the source of imperium was resented by the Senate, whose role in government was supplanted by the imperial bureaucracy.

Diocletian's avowed conservatism almost certainly precludes a systematic design toward personal elevation as a "divine monarch". Rather, he formally elaborated imperial ceremony as a manifestation of the divine order of empire and elevated emperorship as the supreme instrument of the divine will. The idea was Augustan, or earlier, expressed most clearly in Stoic philosophy and the solar cult, especially under Aurelian. At the very beginning of his reign, before his Tetrarchy, Diocletian had adopted the signum of Jovius; his co-Augustus adopted the title Herculius. During the Tetrarchy, the titles were multiplied, but with no clear reflection of implicit divine seniority: in one case, the divine signum of the Augustus is inferior to that of his Caesar. These divine associations may have followed a military precedent of emperors as comes to divinities (or divinities as comes to emperors). Moreover, the divine signum appears in the fairly narrow context of court panegyric and civil etiquette. It makes no appearance on the general coinage of the Tetrarchy: coin images and group statuary of the Tetrarchs themselves show each as an impersonal, near-homogenous abstraction of imperial might and unity.

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