In the ancient world, sacred sites were relatively common, from roadside pagodas to great stone temples. The history of a pile of rocks or an ancient stone might be hard to trace, but the temples with an active priesthood and public interaction were social structures with beginning and end dates. They had distinct life cycles and often a history as convoluted as the mythology they derived from.

Fire was a dangerous tool, and misuse of it has been the bane of many communities. Consequently, working fires were kept within sacred zones, and frequent prayers to the fire gods were chanted as the fuel was tended. Sacred space was created in this context as a function of utility, but also to allow the practices of the faith to limit potential damage from fire. In a similar way, other dangerous-but-beneficial tools were integrated into sacred space, like boats, horses, and construction trades.

On another level, every household had a sacrificial flame burning near the entrance of their home, near which was honored family gods and heroes, elder family, living and dead, and most importantly, the Genius of the head of the house. Every member of the house — children, employees, and slaves — would pray daily for the health and good fortune of the head of their house, and the man who was the head of his house had absolute authority within his house and over the people within it. This domestic temple was a commonly found sort of sacred space.

Along the roads, one would frequently encounter Hermes, who would appear as a stack of rocks or an enormous stone phallus. These common road markers were sacred to the god Hermes, making the stone phalluses and the ground around them sacred places of respite for the weary traveler. Small alcoves or niches could be found along the way near creeks and springs, along mountaintops and areas of special beauty, to dedicate the space for sacred use. These were all set up slowly over time by individual worshippers as each saw fit.

All of these sacred spaces are similar in that they belonged to the commons. Perhaps only a single person would maintain a niche or herm near their home, but the intent was for any traveler or passer-by to have access to these sacred spaces they encountered, as well. But there developed a kind of privatized sacred space, that was only made available for people who could pay, or who belonged to certain groups. They built marvelous temples and kept them staffed with priests and dedicants who performed mystery rites and attended to enormous deific statues.

The pattern begins with a Roman businessman or adventurer who decides to settle down and makes an investment into their home town. In that day, the usual thing was to build a temple dedicated to the gods of the town, or the country. Around 100 BCE, this would look like a temple to the Great Mother, or the local version of Zeus or Poseidon, with a high priest and a small hierarchy of priests and dedicants, initiates and petitioners. Beyond three or four public events a year, everything else the temple does is limited to initiate access only. The patrician’s family was the likely bloodline from which the high priests would have been chosen, and ownership of the temple would pass through family lines until one or both disappeared.

Around 10 CE, this would have looked like the creation of an Imperial Cult temple, in which the Father, Julius Caesar, and the Son, Augustus Caesar, were worshipped with the Holy Spirit of Rome. Top families in each city vied for the official approval to build such temples, sometimes including a stipend to offset the cost. Over time, the stipend would shrivel to nothing, while the family would be expected to maintain the temple and its priesthood as a point of honor.

As each Emperor died, they became one of the honored dead Caesars, and the new Emperor became the new savior, the new central target of worship. By the time Nero fell, such temples would have had busts of several Caesars, all Fathers and Sons, and a statue of the Holy Spirit of Rome. But after a period of civil war and the reinstatement of the empire under Flavian control, there developed a set of Flavian-specific Imperial Cult temples. These highlighted the mythos and gravitas of the Flavian family, and were connected with specific “great families” in cities across the eastern Empire.

Flavian control of the Empire ended in a disastrous series of civil wars before another family took power, this time creating a new Imperial cult centered on worship of the Invincible Sun. At this point there were at least three distinct (and probably regional) ‘schools’ of Imperial cult temples that each glorified a distinct set of past Caesars and claimed to celebrate the “true spirit of Rome”.

Even after the celebrated ruling family of an Imperial Cult fell from power, the cult itself retained currency because all those ancient Caesars continue to deserve worship and glory. But since there was no longer a central authority to drive them, they spun off into independent or confederate cults, still largely managed by the original families that set them up.

Now fast-forward a century or two, to a point just prior to Constantine. The Roman economy had been trashed by civil war and climate extremes, and time finally came for a major overhaul. It is a time of explosive cultural diversity in the Empire, and every city and town is covered in temples for every god imaginable. Tucked in between these various sites are the venerable Imperial Cult temples, although attended to less frequently, are still given the respect afforded any sacred space. But one of the primary changes involved abandonment of the modern cults in favor of a fundamentalist revision of the old cults.

I suspect that both when Imperial families fell out of favor, and again when Diocletian devised his Jupiter/Heracles cult, these Imperial Cult temples drew together into their own shared community in order to keep their traditions alive and present a united front against Diocletian’s new order. When Constantine incorporated the older Imperial Cult traditions into his official policies, he was able to gain the support of many of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the Empire in his fight against Diocletian.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *