Imperial cult (ancient Rome)  

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The imperial cult in ancient Rome was the worship of a few select emperors as gods once they were deceased; the only emperor to declare himself a god while still living was Domitian which caused outrage.

Making a god out of certain deceased emperors became a prominent element of religion in the Roman Empire during the Principate, to a point when some relatives of emperors were deified as well (with the word Divus preceding their names, or Diva if female). The cult soon spread over the whole extent of the Empire. It was only abandoned in the Dominate, after the emperor Constantine I started supporting Christianity.

The apotheosis of an Emperor was an essentially political act performed by the dead emperor's successor to reinforce the majesty of the imperial office, and, often quite effectively, to associate the current emperor with a well-regarded predecessor. Since it was a propaganda tool focused on leaders, the Roman imperial cult can be considered a cult of personality.


It is usually deceased emperors who were deified. However, it is not always the immediate predecessor. For instance, when Septimius Severus overthrew Didius Julianus to gain power in AD 193, he arranged the apotheosis of Pertinax, who had ruled before Julianus. This allowed Severus to present himself as the heir and successor to Pertinax, though the two were not related.

Apotheosis could also be applied to deceased members of the imperial family, such as emperors' wives like Livia or Faustina and emperor's son like Valerius Romulus. It was also an acceptable and critical part of the imperial cult to the senate (worship of living emperors being regarded with suspicion).

For royal females, acquiring the title of Augusta, only exceptionally granted, was generally regarded as the essential stepping stone to the status of divinity.

In an even rarer occasion, non-imperial Romans could be deified as well. The last non-imperial human to be deified was Antinous, the young lover of Emperor Hadrian. The apotheosis of Antinous became the subject of numerous sculptures commissioned by Hadrian to commemorate the youth. Consequently, the image of Antinous is among the most recognizable faces from antiquity. Somewhat uniquely, his cult was not so much one of propaganda than one of genuine affection.

See also

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