ElAnt v3n6 - REVIEWS - Subject and Ruler: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity

Volume 3, Number 6
February 1997

Subject and Ruler: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity

by A. Small (ed.)

(Papers presented at a conference held in The University of Alberta on April 13-15, 1994, to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Duncan Fishwick), Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series Number 17 (Ann Arbor, 1996). ISBN 1-887829-17-2.

Reviewed by  
T. Stevenson,  
Department of Classics and Ancient History,  
University of Auckland,  
Private Bag 92019,  
New Zealand.  
e-mail: tstevenson@artsnet.auckland.ac.nz  

This record of conference proceedings, as the editor points out in his Preface (7), is both a tribute to the work of Duncan Fishwick and a conscious attempt to reverse the viewpoint adopted at the last such conference on the Imperial Cult held at Geneva in 1972 (published as Entretiens 19 of the Fondation Hardt). Whereas the emphasis at the Geneva meeting was upon Rome governing her subject empire, this conference aimed to focus upon the attitudes of subjects towards the ruler (primarily the Roman Emperor), in line with the shift in scholarly attention over the last couple of decades. Rather than concentrating upon one side or the other, however, it might have been preferable to concentrate upon the relationship between the two sides, something more mutual and dynamic - the terms in which they framed what they were doing, the negotiations, the mutual benefits and concerns, the confirmation of each side's position, the world of ideas that depicted the emperor as a saviour and the subjects as grateful recipients of either his direct benefactions or his generally benevolent protection. Questions of 'belief' and 'divinity', though often asked before, would not be out of place in this. Imperial cult seems to be a product of this relationship, rather than of clearly distinct initiatives from one side or the other. The title of the conference, moreover, was 'Subject and Ruler', which implies a concern with the way in which the two sides interacted. At any rate, the following review will attempt to discern what the various contributors discovered about the attitudes of different groups of subjects. Some writers chose to range widely; others concentrated upon a single group or even a single building. The results are perhaps more solid than startling. Nevertheless, it should be made clear that this collection of papers is most worthwhile and a fitting celebration of the career and 65th year of Duncan Fishwick.

The 17 papers from the conference (2 in German, 4 in French, 11 in English) are arranged in terms of historical development and geographical or cultural perspective. Ernst Badian and Peter Herz open with a couple of articles on the Greek background. Badian returns to the worship of Alexander, upon which he has written previously (11-26). On the attempt to introduce proskynesis , he modifies his earlier opinion, now believing that the Greeks never saw this as an act of divine worship and that they well knew that the King was not a god but isotheos , which was far from divine (22). Alexander did not issue an order demanding deification. The difficult evidence relating to the debate in Athens on the question of Alexander's divinity is interpreted as showing a general awareness of what he really wanted. Greeks were prepared to concede the point - it made little difference really - but Persian religion forbade it in Persia (26).

Herz overturns some old ghosts by demonstrating that Greeks actually went further in deifying Hellenistic kings than did subjects in a wide variety of Oriental cultures: Egypt, Iran, Mesopotamia, and Syria-Palestine (27-40). The heterogeneous and flexible nature of Hellenistic basileia emerges, and Herz also points out similarities and differences in ideas of dynastic legitimation and in (what he refers to as) the 'Modell des stellvertretenden Herrschertums' (i.e. the idea of the ruler as substitute for the god) in the individual cultures of the ancient Orient. The Hellenistic king was in a position between two very different kinds of subjects.

Joyce Reynolds deals eloquently with the ruler cult at Aphrodisias in the late Republic and Julio-Claudian period (41-50). While the Aphrodisian imperial cult took much from the koinon of Asia and/or from sister cities in the area, there was a marked element in it which came from Rome, either directly or via a third party; this is most obvious in the architecture of the Sebasteion (49). The Republican beginnings of imperial cult come not surprisingly after a triumviral grant of privileges in 39 BC. Under Augustus there is something of a hiatus (though inadequate evidence might well be a factor here), and then momentum builds under Tiberius after the first official deification of a deceased emperor in AD 14 (50). The importance of the consecratio of Augustus for later attitudes and behaviour stands out.

Robert Turcan furnishes what is probably the standout paper in the volume, not so much because of new conclusions or even an entirely unprecedented approach but because he tries hard to analyse the relationship between the emperor and his subjects, in line with the challenge implicit in the conference title (51-62). To begin with, it is pointed out that the emperor doesn't have 'subjects' in the theory and legal reality of the early Empire. It is not a case of subjects of the emperor but of subjects and the emperor (51). Turcan proceeds to investigate how the imperial cult affected a wide variety of subjects in various parts of the empire: Gaul, Asia, Italy, Britain, Cappadocia, Mauretania, etc. (52 ff.). His basic point is that there is a reinforcing relationship between imperial cult and the social order:

La religion du souverain ne legitime pas seulement l'homme qui en est l'objet, mais correlativement celui qui en est le sujet actif, soit à titre personnel, comme individu, soit comme membre d'une collectivite urbaine et civique, ethnique ou provinciale (62).

This relationship is based on 'consideration du pouvoir surhumain de l'empereur' (62), which nonetheless recognizes his mortal nature and sees that maintenance of the emperor's personal salus is a prerequisite for his guarantee of the salus of his subjects in turn. The principle of do ut des governs the relationship between emperor and subjects as it does the relationship between gods and men; it is a 'contrat cultuel' (62). Certainly, there is much here that echoes Simon Price's discussion of gift-exchange in relation to Asia Minor ( Rituals and Power: the Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor , 1984, 65-78). Yet it is apparent that Turcan is trying to develop this not only by taking a broader perspective but by pondering again the manner in which subjects and ruler were legitimated by a particular cultic act, viz. how each was given reinforcement for their social roles through the community's participation according to rank in imperial cult ritual.

Rome and Italy provide the setting for the next series of papers. C.J. Simpson contributes an interesting update to his views on the cult of Caligula (63-71). The argument is threefold: 1) Already by Caligula's time it is possible that blood sacrifices took place in Rome (at least) for the imperial cult (though an imperial monopoly of representation may be at work here: see R. Gordon, in M. Beard and J. North [eds.], Pagan Priests , 205). So outrage over the immolation of exotic birds may be a matter of their association with powerful deities such as Jupiter, rather than their expense or impious novelty (63-6). 2) At a time when the creation of divi was still novel, there was nonetheless an irrational 'belief' in Caligula's 'divinity' that was shared by Senators. The reaction against Caligula was to the excess of the ceremonial and his Jovian pretensions, i.e. his rivalry with Jupiter, rather than to the substance of his religious ideas. 3) Caligula had a definite purpose in promoting his cult, namely to demonstrate publicly his exceptional power over his subjects, especially the senatorial elite (70-1). There is much here that is thought-provoking, notably the arguments in favour of 'belief', which are positive about the presence of irrational, emotional, inherently religious feeling without necessarily implying the applicability of a modern belief/disbelief model (cf. C.R. Phillips, 'The sociology of religious knowledge in the Roman Empire to AD 284', ANRW II.16.2 [1986], 2697-2711).

Heidi Henlein Schefer examines the iconography of the Genius Augusti in the early Empire (73-98). Her paper is divided into two parts, beginning with an examination of altar reliefs and other representations, notably in Pompeian wall painting, that relate to the cult of the Compitalia. The second part of the paper deals with depictions of the Genius in domestic cult and tries to determine the degree to which the Genius Augusti took over from the Genius of the paterfamilias (85-92). Heavy iconographic influence from the public sphere actually makes this rather complicated. Nonetheless, it does seem that the Genius Augusti made a significant entry into domestic cult from the Augustan age, so that some subjects were treating quite seriously the notion of Augustus as pater patriae and what this meant for domestic worship of the Genius of the paterfamilias .

John Dobbins looks at the Imperial Cult Building on the east side of the forum at Pompeii (99-114). In contrast to authorities like Zanker, Jongman and Ling, who prefer an earlier date, he links it with the extensive rebuilding of Pompeii after the earthquake of AD 62. As to its patron, he feels that the scale of the reconstruction indicates an imperial patron, Nero rather than Vespasian. This is plausible but, in the absence of corroborative evidence, must remain speculative (cf. 260). In his final 3 paragraphs, Dobbins considers how the élite and non-élite of Pompeii might have reacted to the imperial allusions in the forum:

[Eumachia] expressed that she was to Pompeii as Livia was to Rome. The imperial model inspired her euergetism and permitted the Pompeian populace to conceptualize her local preeminence. Not only did Eumachia identify herself with Livia but the Pompeians did the same. Eumachia's co-opting of imperial imagery is an excellent example of the imperial cult in the service of the subject (113).

Most Pompeians did not have Eumachia's resources. Sculpture, inscriptions and ritual affirmed the political and social order and encouraged people to conceive of the emperor in superhuman terms. The grand Imperial Cult Building in the forum, raised from the rubble by 'a godlike hand' (113, but cf. 260), probably helped to perpetuate such an attitude among both the élite and the rest.

Maintaining the archaeological and Pompeian interest, Alastair Small investigates the shrine of the imperial family that formed the focal point of the so-called Macellum (butchers' market) at Pompeii, which is on the east side of the forum near its north end (115-36). On epigraphical, architectural and stylistic grounds the shrine and its statues are dated prior to the earthquake of AD 62. The fragmentary arm holding a globe is thought to have come from a statue of Divus Claudius, with Agrippina II and Britannicus being seen in the surviving statues from the south wall. On the north, it is thought, stood (now missing) statues of Nero and either Livia or Claudia Octavia (130). The 'Macellum' itself is quite brilliantly reinterpreted as an outdoor triclinium for banqueting during feasts of the imperial cult (132-6). This seems to make sense - for one thing it would mean that all the buildings on the east side of the forum relate to the imperial cult. The final picture, therefore, is that the shrine of the imperial family in the 'Macellum' at Pompeii was constructed shortly after the death and subsequent apotheosis of Claudius, marking a new era of ruler cult in this Italian town (cf. 260).

From here the focus shifts to Spain. Leonard A. Curchin examines the establishment of emperor worship on the Celtic plateau of Central Spain (143-52). In discussing relevant attitudes, much influence is attributed to the Celtic custom of devotio , whereby a noble's clients swore to follow him in battle unto death (143). Otherwise, emperor worship was spontaneously accepted, even initiated by the local elite rather than imposed by Roman authorities (144-5). The process probably began in the age of Augustus, though none of the inscriptions need be earlier than the reign of Tiberius. These conclusions tally with those of Price for the cities of Asia Minor and must now be considered together with established views that emperor worship tended to be imposed in the West, the Roman army taking a leading role (cf. Fishwick, The Imperial Cult in the Latin West , vol. I, 1987, 141 ff.; Galinsky, Augustan Culture , 326-31).

Robert Etienne contributes some new ideas on the beginnings of imperial cult in the Iberian peninsula through an examination of temples at Emerita Augusta (Merida), Barcino (Barcelona), and Ebora (Evora) (153-63). Rome itself was the model for these temples, which were placed at the most commanding points in their cities. The first and third temples are dated around 16/15 BC, and the second at Barcelona is dated around 9/8 BC. They became the focal point of sacred spaces and symbols of universal Romanization (163). Etienne argues that the beginnings of city- based imperial cult in Spain appear to precede the establishment of the provincial imperial cult. This is certainly plausible. However, it is inconvenient that the temple at Mérida, as we know from coins, was dedicated to Aeternitas Augusta (cf. 260); and for the temples at Barcelona and Évora, there is nothing that absolutely clinches dedication to Augustus and the imperial family (cf. 260).

Duncan Fishwick himself offers a masterful unravelling of difficulties associated with the religious environment of Tarraco, the capital of Hispania Citerior (165-84). He considers the Capitolium (165-72), the Municipal Temple of Augustus (172-4), the Temple of Jupiter Ammon (174-6), and the Provincial Temple of Augustus (176-82). The results are quite spectacular, in particular the demonstration that the 'Temple of Jupiter Ammon' never really existed. At the point of conclusion, however, it was a little disappointing to read Fishwick's summary characterization of the Tarraconian religious landscape as:

... a political statement, a declaration of loyalty to Rome by imitation of her monuments, an avowal of solidarity and sympathy with the ruling power. What it all amounts to is a tremendous outpouring of that devotio Iberica which R. Etienne first identified some 35 years ago (184).

There is no disputing this, but to speak exclusively in terms of politics, loyalty, and solidarity is to bypass the contributions of Price and to see nothing inherently religious in what was taking place. Nor is there anything that looks at the ruler-subjects relationship in terms other than those which were established quite a long time ago now. Admittedly this was not the purpose of the paper, and so the point might be unfair; but the conference theme perhaps called for a little more along these lines.

Attention moves to Greece in the next two papers. Michael Hoff is interested in the politics and architecture of the Athenian imperial cult in the Julio-Claudian period (185-200). He theorizes about the political circumstances which led to the construction of the Temple of Roma and Augustus on the Acropolis, giving a prominent role to Pammenes of Marathon, who is mentioned as priest on the dedicatory inscription from the epistyle ( IG II.2 3173). A date just after 19 BC is postulated for the dedication of the temple: this would be just after the lifting of sanctions against Athens which had been imposed by Augustus in 21. Here is one paper which tells of the tensions which could be involved in negotiating with the ruler, and the role of imperial cult in such circumstances (185- 94). Hoff then searches for other possible monuments associated with the imperial cult. It is quite amazing to learn that 17 known or possible altars of the imperial cult have been identified at Athens, almost all of which were found in the Classical Agora or near the Roman Market (194). A Sebasteion, on the other hand, has not been identified. As one candidate, Hoff identifies an arcuated building lying some 17 metres from the east gate of the Roman Market. It was apparently dedicated to 'Athena Archegetis and the Theoi Sebastoi' (the plural evidently indicates a date no earlier than Claudius for its dedication) (195-6). One is left to wonder whether 17 or so altars would have been necessary in a city with a less fractious temperament and history.

Mary E. Hoskins-Walbank interprets evidence for the imperial cult in Julio-Claudian Corinth (201-13). She finds that there was emperor worship at Corinth long before the city ultimately became the seat of the provincial imperial cult under Nero. This began in the lifetime of Julius Caesar, who was regarded as the founder of the new Roman colony on the site. As to centres of the cult, a Temple of the Gens Julia is discerned on a large issue of coins. Hoskins-Walbank thinks that this might be equated with either the 'Archaic Temple' on the north side of the forum (a temple of Apollo) or Temple F at the west end of the forum (dedicated to Venus and with certain structural similarities to the Temple of Venus Genetrix at Rome) (201-8). The big civic building at the east end of the forum, known as the Julian Basilica, might also have been a centre of imperial cult (209). What emerges is the enormous variety of buildings and settings that could be used for imperial cult activities in Corinth (210).

An oriental perspective governs the final contributions. Tran tam Tinh discusses how Roman emperors from Augustus to the Severans dealt with worship of Isis and Serapis (215-30). He believes that rulers like Augustus and Tiberius used 'double language' for reasons of state, viz. they repressed the worship of Isis and Serapis in Rome, where intellectuals and aristocrats harboured vivid memories of Antony, but did honour to them in Egypt (215-20, 227). This seems problematic on a couple of levels. Firstly, it is doubtful that the picture of suppression under Augustus and Tiberius can be sustained in its old terms. The same applies to the view that Augustan policy sought consciously to purge elements associated with Antony. Karl Galinsky has argued recently against both these propositions ( Augustan Culture , 330 n. 121 [Isis cult]; 221-4 [Antony]). A further set of problems arises from the use of coins. These are routinely treated as imperial propaganda, yet on the last page the coins are said to be less biased than literary sources and capable of indicating levels of devotion to the emperor (230). It does seem right to say that coins can tell us something about devotion to the emperor, but in the opinion of the reviewer this is because they were products of the relationship (constructed in mutually beneficial, even ideal, terms) between the ruler and his subjects - which is precisely the point about imperial cult (viz. something mutually constructed for mutual benefit). In many ways Tran's paper, by thinking of either the interests of the ruler or the interests of the subjects, shows the lack of attention to this interpretation which is characteristic (despite the conference title) of most of the contributions, to varying degrees.

Marie-Odile Jentel investigates the degree of identification between Roman empresses and the deity Euthenia on Alexandrian coinage (231-36). Euthenia, a symbol of abundance and plenty, makes her first appearance on Alexandrian coins during the age of Augustus and seems to relate to the importance of Egypt as a supplier of grain to Rome (a trade that was important to both parties) (231). Jentel carefully compares the iconography of Euthenia with that of Livia (232-4), Messalina, who is not identified with Euthenia (235), Agrippina (235-6), and Domitia, whose image owes more to that of Ceres on Roman coins than to Euthenia on Alexandrian ones (236). The author is careful to distinguish iconographic features, thereby undermining less critical identifications made by previous scholars. In the end it remains unclear to the reviewer just how much goddess and empress were meant to be linked. Perhaps this lack of clarity accurately reflects the ancient view. Perhaps it says further that our modern desire for precision in such matters is not in tune with ancient thought, which did not require such a thing because distinctions between mortals and immortals were accepted easily as being fluid and not subject to the notion of rigid distinction which is a result of the influence of Christianity.

Earle Waugh shows that the tradition relating to Mediaeval Muslim rulers was affected both by Alexander's charisma and also by imperial cult (237-53). The career and legend of Alexander, it turns out, is preserved in the figure of Dhu l-Qarnayn (the 'two- horned') in the Koran (237). While at first it is hard to imagine anything like imperial cult in Islam, Waugh shows how the model of Dhu l-Qarnayn resulted in a distinctive kind of imperial numen for Arab Muslim leaders (240). This was augmented by Arab contacts with Roman imperial panegyric and ceremonial like the adventus . Thus, Islam's brake on cult worship did not impede the growth of a special sacred quality applied to caliphal leadership (253). The argument seems quite reasonable, though Waugh himself acknowledges debate over the degree to which Islam adopted ideas of Sassanian 'divine monarchy' in the Mediaeval period (253). Apparently there are other specialists in this field who would not give the Greek and Roman influence as much emphasis as he does.

Finally, Geza Alfoldy concludes with a disarming but acute 'attempt at a conclusion' (254-61), in which he highlights the question of the relationship between ruler and subjects, noting that most papers did not address it. In support of Turcan's paper, he mentions an inscription concerning Caracalla's birthday ( CIL VI 1080 [cf. 1236] = 40638 in the 1996 supplement). The emperor exclaims to his subjects: Nox dea fit lux! Sic dic mea vota! The subjects return the emperor's words and enthusiastically proclaim that he is a god and must rule yet a hundred years more. This is the sense of the words felicia tempora quattuor insequantur , a good wish for the emperor who was, at this moment, 'officially' 25 years old. Alfoldy explains:

Both are legitimated by the cultic act: Caracalla as the lord of the world; the dedicants not only as his subjects who adore him and receive his benefits, but also as a group with a firm position in Roman society, a position conferred by function and status, and sanctioned by its connection with the emperor (257).

Moreover, Alfoldy thinks that the piscinatores and urinatores really did mean what they said about Caracalla being a god. Further investigation along these lines, concentrating upon the implications of such a document, would seem to be a fruitful avenue for future research in this field, in combination with comparative studies from other cultures and historical periods.

In sum, the papers of this volume show the value of, and reinforce strongly, the quite recent realization that ruler cult owed much of its impetus to the motives and aspirations of the subjects. It was not, as Simon Price pointed out so brilliantly for the cities of Asia Minor in 1984, a simple matter of ruler imposition or political propaganda - or at least it was not primarily a matter of these things, which could nonetheless operate to greater or lesser degree. Nor was it something dry and lifeless. On the contrary, these papers give a vivid impression of the importance of ruler worship as a cultural force in the ancient world. Such findings have required many scholars to think along new lines. Duncan Fishwick, of course, was interested in the subjects' attitudes and reactions to power prior to 1984, but the approach attempted by this book is not one that would have suggested itself when Fishwick began his career. Perhaps there is room for more sophisticated conceptualization but such studies could only be offered to a scholar who approaches evidence with care and insight and also seems alert to the possibilities of new approaches.

T. Stevenson,

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 6 - February 1997 
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington 
ISSN 1320-3606