The Gods of Rome and Politics were entwined from the very beginning. The historian Polibius noted how Religion was a specially cohesive element for Roman culture. By various means it was also a way to sanction the personal authority of many Roman leaders: Romulus was son of a Vestal Virgin and the god Mars; his successor King Numa had a private entente with the goddess-nymph Egeria. Julius Caesar was deified after his assassination, Augustus proclaimed himself Pontifex Maximus, Nero a living divinity. The list goes on… What were the forces at work during more than 1500 years of Roman civilisation?
Introduction: The Gods of Rome and Politics were entwined right from the start…
The Gods of Rome and Politics were always linked throughout 1500 years of history; from the earliest days of the city-state through to the end of the Empire. Whilst the political system was not always democratic, rulers were heavily dependent on winning support across Roman society, both Patricians and Plebeians.
Religion and connections with divine forces was a key lever in winning favour:
- to show commonality of beliefs and intents with the Roman citizens
- to justify the soundness of policies and personal actions.
This mechanism manifested itself on many occasions. For example:
- Romulus was son of a Vestal Virgin and the god Mars
- The second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius had a private entente with the goddess-nymph Egeria who used to whisper to him what to do next with the government and politics of Rome. He had books of prophecy which he took to the grave but were later dug up and held sacred.
- Tarquin the Proud the last king of Rome before it became the Roman Republic acquired the Sibylline books. They came to be venerated as an oracular guide on multiple occasions throughout Roman history
- Julius Caesar was no fool either and politics led him to align himself with Venus, perhaps as a nice excuse for being uncontrollably promiscuous!
- Augustus had himself proclaimed Pontifex Maximus
- Nero self-proclaimed a living divinity, creating statues of himself as a Sun-god like Apollo.
- and so on…
Civil war with Hercules, Bacchus, Apollo and Mars
An interesting example of the involvement of the Gods of Rome and politics arose after the death of Julius Caesar: There was a struggle for supreme power between Octavian (Augustus) and Marc Anthony:
Marc Anthony at first aligned himself and actually took on a vague visual semblance to Hercules from whom his family was said to descend. Following his increasingly passionate affair with Cleopatra and Egyptian culture, Marc Anthony realigned his public image with that of the festive, possibly chaotic god Dionysus/Bacchus.
His rival Octavian chose to align his public image with the direct opposite divinity: Apollo, god of order. After the struggle Augustus realigned his divine politics with Mars.