As the first emperor of Rome he also ensured that the title of supreme priest (Pontifex Maximus) sat firmly within his roles and this lasted right through the empire until the fall of the last emperor Romulus Augustulus.
At this point we have an interesting moment in Roman history. The Romans of the Republic had hated the very notion of a single individual holding supreme power. The idea of a Roman King was repulsive since the fall of the kings and in fact was used as a sort of lame excuse for the murder of Julius Caesar. Emperor Augustus who came after him was extremely careful not to appear autocratic or power hungry at all. Hence his invention of the title “Imperator” which was essentially a title for a military commander. He did however conserve the title of Pontifex Maximus and after his death he was deified as was Julius Caesar before him.
From the time of Augustus it had become customary for dying emperors and their families to be “deified”. This was already driving them closer to the Eastern style of absolutist rule which increasingly dominated the empire.
An amusing but telling anecdote is emperor Vespasian’s last dying words on June 23rd, 79AD:
“Vae, puto, deus fio”: Cripes! I think I may be about to become a God!
The manner by which an Emperor was deified was integral part of his funeral, in the manner of Romulus the first king of Rome. This involved a wax figure of the deceased, a march through the city to a specific spot and a finally a huge funeral pyre which was lit by his successor. Gladiatorial fights might accompany the occasion as well as dances and marches round the fire. Once the fire was out an Eagle would be released to take his soul to sit amongst the gods.
Augustus’ successors such as Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Diocletian and others were quick to assume an increasingly ostentatious form of absolute power turning themselves into Tyrant-Gods. It is not surprising that some emperors might have thought it more fun to enjoy the benefits of godliness before dying. You can hardly blame them.
This implied the making of offerings, sacrifices in their honour and paying due respects whilst they were still in office. It was this very point which occasionally turned Jews and Christians into anti-Roman traitors as the Old Testament prohibited them from paying due respects to the emperor-god as well as the one God.
An idea of what Emperor-God-on-earth was all about can be had from the Pantheon in Rome. The Pantheon as we know it was built by Emperor Hadrian (AD117-138). In fact the building was a temple to all the gods (hence the name) and had first been built a century earlier by Agrippa for emperor Augustus. It is said that Augustus refused it, probably for reasons of bad propaganda and had it dedicated to all the gods instead.
Successive fires burned it down and caused it to be rebuilt by Hadrian who transformed it according to his own love for architecture. The result was an unsurpassed milestone of western architecture (the actual architect isn’t known). The engineering was equally impressive.
The Pantheon is erected around a perfect sphere with a hole called “oculus” for light at the top which lets in a powerful beam of sun light, giving its interior a distinctly cosmic feel.
It is likely, but unproven, that the temple was used as an observatory at night and as a solar calendar during the day. A similar use of temples was revived during the Renaissance where a small hole in the dome permits a shaft of light to be tracked and measured across the cathedral floor.
In fact this was one of the few places where the emperor(-god) might hold public audience and, dressed as Pontifex Maximus, might issue new Roman laws for his subjects across the empire. Perhaps not so surprisingly the temple is cosmically aligned; slightly off the north-south axis so that on the summer solstice – the 21st June at 12:00 – the sun might shine directly down through the oculus through the dome and onto the entrance door of the temple.
A quick look at a computerised planetary Orrery will soon show interesting events aligning with significant dates and buildings such as Augustus’ mausoleum and the Pantheon. For example on the solstice we find the sun in Gemini (which were particularly venerated as the Dioscuri – sons of Jupiter and regularly occur in Mithraic symbolism). For that date, in the year 117 (Hadrian’s birth) I notice a good number of planets up in the sky very close together. Further investigation would no doubt prove interesting. Just remember though that in those times only 7 of the major planets were known and tracked.
So there we have it, the emperor god divinely inspired for all to see and witness in a perfect planetary stage set. Just like the early kings of Rome.
Ancient Roman Gods | ancient roman religion | The Gods of Rome and Politics | Christianity in Ancient Rome |