Framework: Imperial Cult

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The social and economic structure among early Roman society was the House structure, by which everyone belonged to a House, and every House had a man at the head of it. The men who represented the houses were ranked on a hierarchy such that everyone had a “god father” above them that they reported to (and paid taxes to), all the way up to the top families. If you were not part of a House, you existed outside of society. In order to become part of that world, instead of being hired, you would either be bought by a family (as a slave) for some period of years, or you would be adopted as a permanent family member. They would guarantee your shelter, clothing, and food, and in return, you would participate in the family business, whatever that was.

The Republic of Rome was a confederation of wealthy families in and around the Italian peninsula. While the myth of Rome posited the city was built by a man raised (at least in part) by wolves, the actual city was established and ruled by its Etruscan neighbors. It was a confederation of Latin tribes that later overthrew their Etruscan overlords, and that confederation was codified as the Senate. The Roman Senate was created out of an intense cultural fear and hatred of tyranny – after their experiences with the Etruscans, they were repulsed by the idea of allowing a tyrant rule over them. 

The Senate had representatives from the wealthiest and oldest families, and they collectively determined the laws and established who would do what role within government. Military power was distributed by Senate vote. Economic power was exercised by Senate vote. Executive power in government was held by a pair of Consuls, appointed annually by the Senate to prevent any one person from gaining too much power. This form of government worked great until it expanded beyond the reach of what one man could cover by horseback or sailing craft in a couple of days.

This political balance was rocked as military leaders began to accumulate great land holdings and wealth outside the range of what the Senate could reasonably control. Society and politics were changed as generals took on tyrannical roles in their conquered lands. Pompey caused great concern for the Senate when he took on a rock star status, but it was the conqueror of the Celts, Julius Caesar whose name would become synonymous with tyranny.

Religion in Rome around the time of Caesar was marked by an extreme devotion to sacred, ancestral traditions. Culturally, they had a dozen archetype gods from which dozens of local manifestations had developed – such that each citizen tended to their local gods that were largely the same as their neighbors. Additionally, each household had their own set of ancestors and heroes that they honored, along with the standard worship of the head of the house, in which the whole family and all the slaves would pray daily for the health and rational thinking of the head of the house. Romans in this period did few things that didn’t begin with some divination to make sure their gods agreed with the action.

Gaius Julius Caesar became defacto emperor when he marched his army across the Rubicon and walked into Rome wearing a purple toga, but the Senate had other plans. So strongly did they feel that this was a Very Bad precedent, and that it would need to be answered quickly and permanently, that they took matters into their own hands. With the death of Caesar, the Republic dissolved. The House of Gaius continued with Octavian as Caesar’s adopted son and appointed successor. After fighting put an end to all other claimants, Octavian worked carefully with the embarrassed Senate to build a new form of government, formally establishing the sort of control he envisioned himself having. He recognized that the Senate would need to formally bestow his position, otherwise, the Senate was likely to get all stabby.

Among the many titles Octavian collected from the Senate, he became ‘Imperator’, which gave him absolute control over the whole army; he became ‘Augustus’, which effectively enabled him to win any ‘ties’ in politics. He also took on the role of ‘pontifex maximus’ which established him as the chief priest of all religions in the world. Normally, this would have obligated him to participate in specific civic rituals, but he also took advantage of the opportunity to establish a new Imperial cult dedicated to Rome, focused on the “Spirit of Rome” and his recently fallen adoptive father, Caesar, whom the Senate decreed was a god in heaven.

This new cult of Rome was an extremely attractive option for wealthy families to demonstrate their wealth and devotion. Temples were established in every major city of the empire by the leading families. Some locations had several families vying for the right to build a second or third temple. Over time, as families came to power, building an Imperial Cult temple in their town was a way to mark that passage. Prior to the Imperial Cult, the local temple of Vesta had celebrated the civic order, and folks would attend here to mark politically important days. If the Imperial Cult temple wasn’t built right next to the temple of Vesta, it frequently co-opted it entirely. Folks in this period would have occasionally attended here in addition to their normal cycle of worshiping and consulting their diverse gods for work and homelife. 

As the “Son of God”, Augustus found himself empowered in a way no leader before had been. The myth of “Father in heaven” and the “son of God”, as promulgated by this cult, served to explain to the general populace how God in Heaven commanded that the “Son of God” be in charge of everything. The Senate agreed that the Imperial franchise belonged to the House of Gaius, and this power would be cleanly handed down, requiring only their ratification. Augustus adopted a leading general as his son, and on his death they both advanced – Augustus to Heaven, and Tiberius to Son of God. This pattern of Caesar adopting his own successor as ‘son’ continued successfully for many decades, until the leadership of Nero.

Possibly the most widely celebrated cult during this time was the Great Mother cult. Worship of the Great Mother preceded the existence of Rome by a few thousand years, and it existed in several places in different times before it came to Rome. For the Romans, the Great Mother was Demeter or Isis, and they came to her for all matters regarding marriage, fertility, and childbirth. Its associated mystery cult preceded all other mystery cults, with its annual sacrifice of the Great Mother’s consort. Great Mother cult temples were found in cities large and small throughout the empire, although the city of Rome didn’t originally allow this foreign god within their walls, by the 2nd century CE, the grandest Great Mother temple of them all was inside the walls of Rome.

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