To what extent and for what reasons did Augustus resist the creation of an imperial cult during his lifetime?
To what extent and for what reasons did Augustus resist the creation of an imperial cult during his lifetime? (45)-
For Romans, religion and politics were inseparable, for example, priests were always senators. Augustus needed to be seen as an emperor if he wanted to be one, he used religion to do this; a religious figure would never have been challenged, they were respected and obeyed. When Augustus became pontifex maximus in 12 BC he became, not only the saecular head of the Roman Empire, but the religious leader as well. Augustus used religion to reorganise the state, establish his own legislations and revive old festivals and ceremonies. However, although the advantages to himself were clear, he needed to be aware of Caesar’s fate and not offend tradition. Augustus knew that he had to be very careful about how he went about things in Rome but, in the East, it was a lot more acceptable as the people were already used to worshipping their leaders. If he could be worshipped in the East first, it may make it easier to be worshipped in Rome itself later on. In private it suited Augustus to be integrated with state religion, as demonstrated in the Res Gestae; “I was pontifex maximus, augur, quindecemviri sacris faciundis…”. However, in public Augustus had to appear respectful of traditional practice, as shown on the Ara Pacis. After his death Augustus could be worshipped with no issues, during his lifetime however, it was in no way acceptable. Augustus had to resist the creation of an imperial cult during his lifetime to avoid losing all popular support and ending in the same way as his predecessor did. This said, the creation of an imperial cult, if successful, would bring together the disparate provinces that he governed, bringing not only power but also prestige.
An imperial cult was the mass veneration of not only Augustus’ genius, but that of his family and successors. Being a member of the Julian line, he already had some claim to a link with the Gods. Augustus’ Prima Porta, fashioned in a Hellenistic style, not only shows his pietas, but his link with the God of Love, Venus. Clinging to his body is cupid riding a dolphin; as cupid is the sibling of Aenus who founded the Julian line, the direct message that he is involved with the Gods is already being propagated. Equally, the fact that Caesar had been made a deity, established the notion that he was a semi-deity in the minds of many Romans.
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In the Mediterranean world, Augustus’ provinces were singular in that the citizens of Rome would have regarded treating your ruler as a deity as sacrilegious and immoral. Conversely, in the East, this was not only acceptable, but also demanded. Ptolemaic Egypt was cult-like and worshipped pharaohs as Gods. Due to heterogeneous territories, religion was seen as a uniting factor for rulers to forge links between the populace and themselves. The idea of Augustus openly declaring himself as a deity during his lifetime was an impossibility that would have led to exile or assassination. However, just as Caesar had supposedly risen to the heavens to be immortalised as a deity after his death, he too could be worshipped like this. The evidence of this is demonstrated by the construction of various temples built to him after his death in AD 14; for example, the Temple to Divus Augustus is shown on the Denarius of AD 158.
Moreover, Suetonius’s Life of Augustus shows us ways in which, rather than being an innovator of a new imperial cult, Augustus actually restored traditional religious practices. By appearing to ‘buy into’ the conservatism of Roman religion, Augustus would have pleased the tradionalist majority and allowed his continuing expansionist military effort and transgression of the cursus honourum, without worry of religious misdemeanour. Suetonius describes his burning of “anonymous or unrespected authors” keeping only the sibylline books. He also revived certain rites such as the Augury of Safety, the flamen dialis, the Lupercalia, the Saecular Games and the Compitalia. Additionally, he extended the number and prestige of priesthoods. This demonstrated the difference between Augustus’ private and public goals; whereas privately he wished to integrate himself into state religion, publically he had to show piety and respect towards tradition. As previously noted, in the Res Gestae, Augustus lists his religious powers and titles; considering that the Res Gestae was effectively an autobiography, it can be inferred that this was received positively as he was satisfied to publish this on stele, it is also evident that the Res Gestae was propaganda designed to influence and so can not be deemed as a reliable, nor objective source.
Prompting the creation of an imperial cult would have enshrined Augustus as a deity, given him infinite power to develop his empire and secured his legacy forever. However, it was vital that he treaded the delicate line between paying lip service to Roman conservatism whilst at the same time, attempting to set himself above, and apart from, the average Roman politician. Associating himself with Roman deities was an ideal way of achieving this goal and there is a huge range of evidence that he did very little to resist this. Indeed, it is quite possible that he actually endorsed it. Suetonius describes how he renamed the month Sextilis, to August and therefore “put… straight” the calendar. Equally, the Horologium Augusti in the Campus Martius, an immense sundial drew attention to Augustus in a manner unavailable to other Romans. The Serviri Augustutales at Narbo of AD 12-13 was altar dedicated to Augustus. It proclaimed that the Julian ancestral colony of Narbo Martinius had “bound themselves to worship his divinity for ever”. Additionally, the Temple of Augustus at Pula (built between 2 BC and AD 14) and the Temple of Augustus at Tarraco were also built. The Temple of Augustus at Pula had a dedication reading “Roma and Augustus Caesar, son of deity, father of the fatherland” indicating that the temple was primarily dedicated to the goddess Roma, the personification of Rome, making himself a secondary figure to the City in order to not be seen to be encouraging the creation of an imperial cult. It could be argued that, if Augustus was genuinely against the worship of himself and his family, he would have prevented provincials from establishing temples in his name despite the fact that the Hellenistic practice of ruler-worship was well established in certain provinces. However, the evidence suggests that this was not the case as Augustus did little to nothing to prevent the construction of such temples. Indeed, Augustus, upon hearing that the people of Tarraco had reported a palm tree had grown on an altar to him, is recorded by Quintilian to have responded, “That shows how often you light a fire there”. This clearly opposes the view that he shrinked from such worship as it suggests he encouraged it. However, as Quintilian wrote this decades after the event may have happened, the reliability of this source must be questioned
Furthermore, the aureus of 19 BC depicts the Altar of Fortuna Redux, an altar at the Porta Capena to the Home-bringer, praising her for Augustus’ safe return. This was also the site of the festival of Augustalia; the act of having sacred festivals dedicated to you was naturally a privilege usually reserved to the Gods. Furthermore, the close proximity of Temple of Apollo Palatinus with Augustus’ house blurred the lines between his numen and his power as they came together as an imperial residence. The Hymn of the Salii, or Carmen Saeculare was the song of the ‘leaping priests’ of Mars, keepers of the ancilia and undoubtedly revered positions. The fact that they added his name to this god-praising song was highly unconventional and a bold move if Augustus had ordered this.
Augustus evidently sponsored Augustan Literature, through Maecenus’ patronage of several poets. There are many clear examples of Augustus either being associated with the Gods in literature, or being portrayed as god himself. There is no doubt that Augustus knew about these comparisons prior to recital or publication and therefore encouraged these attempts to link himself with deities. Virgil’s Aeneid is the prime example of this; the poem depicts Augustus descending from heaven with “Iulus”, loaded with the wealth of Egypt of the “Orient’s spoils” and that “he too shall be called upon in prayer”. To add to this emphasis of his connection with Iulus, the building of the Temple to Divus Julius in the Forum Romanum and the Temple to Mars Ultor in the forum of Augustus both underline his connection to the semi-deity Caesar through his completion of filial duty. Horace’s Odes 1.2 similarly shows Augutus as the gods’ ‘right hand man’. Horace describes the moral decline and religious neglect of the period of civil war and strife and Augustus is called forth to atone for previous sins and to “aid the crumbling Empire”. Such glowing accounts of Augutus can be explained as many of the poets were convalescing from lost estates from civil war times and, through indirect sponsorship from Augustus, were expected to translate underlying messages of the regime into poetry. Naturally, this kind of blatant worshiping was only acceptable in the abstract medium of poetry, as poetry was known to exaggerate reality and stretch any possible truth.
Overall, the weight of evidence tends to suggest that Augustus did not try particularly hard to resist the creation of an imperial cult during his lifetime. Although he showed piety and respect to tradition throughout his reign, his sanctioning and, often encouragement, of provincials worshipping him demonstrated that he wished to be classed as a divine being as it meant that he would have gained all possible power. The creation of an imperial cult resulted in an almost tyrannical rule, where Augustus could not be questioned.