Imperial cult

From Academic Kids

An Imperial cult is a cult in which an Emperor, or a dynasty of emperors, are worshipped as demigods or deities.

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Roman Mythology

Roman Mythology
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Roman religion
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Ancient Rome

In the Roman Empire the Imperial cult was the worship of the Roman emperor as a god.

Julius Cæsar allowed a statue of himself with the inscription, Deo Invicto (Latin "to the unconquered god") in 44 BC. In the same year, Cæsar declared himself dictator for life. Julius Cæsar's nephew and adopted son, Augustus Cæsar caused a temple to be built in Rome to Divus Julius, the "divine", or "deified" Julius. As the (adopted) son of the deified Julius, Augustus was already titled divi filius - son of a god.

Tacitus describes (Ann. IV, 37-38 and 55-56) that Augustus and Tiberius had each allowed a single temple to be erected in their honor during their respective lifetimes: such a temple would, however, not only contain a statue of the ruling emperor, that could be venerated in a god-like fashion, but the temples were also dedicated to the Roman people (the "City of Rome" in Augustus' case; the "senate" in Tiberius' case). Both temples were situated in the Asian part of the Roman empire:

  • Augustus' temple was situated in Pergamon;
  • Pressed from several sides, Tiberius would not allow any other temple or statue in his honor, than a single one in Asia, following his predecessor's example. Tiberius declared before the senate he'd rather be remembered for his acts than by stone, but consented in 26 that the senate chose Zmyrna out of eleven candidate-cities for erecting "his" temple.

Generally Roman emperors avoided claiming the status of a deity in their own lives, even if some critiques insisted they should, and not doing so would be considered a sign of weakness. Other Romans would ridicule the notion that a Roman emperor was to be considered a living god. Deceased emperors were the subject of worship during this period — at least, the ones who did not become so unpopular with their subjects that they were assassinated. A famous deathbed remark, allegedly by Vespasian, claims that his last words were puto deus fio — "I think I'm turning into a god."

After Hadrian, the power of the emperors had become so absolute and consolidated that the later emperors could claim divinity during their own lives. During the persecution of Christians that took place in the Roman empire, the imperial cult became an important aspect of that persecution. To the extent that participation in the imperial cult became a loyalty test, the imperial cult was a particularly aggressive sort of civil religion.

Loyal citizens of the Empire were expected to make a periodic offering of incense to the genius, or tutelary spirit, of the Emperor, and upon doing so they received a certificate that they had in fact demonstrated their loyalty by sacrificing. Christians, of course, refused to worship the Emperor, considering the cult to be idolatry. The sacrifice was used as a law enforcement tool to ferret them out.

The imperial cult was abandoned when Constantine I became Emperor.


Before the end of World War II, the Japanese Emperor made similar claims to deity; see Shinto.

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