51 Cult Worship

The Imperial Cult

The idea of deification of the emperor came during the time of Emperor Augustus. He resisted the Senate’s attempts to name him a god during his reign as he thought himself the son of a god, not a god. Upon his death, the Roman Senate rewarded him with deification which was an honor that would be bestowed upon many of his successors. Often, an emperor would request his predecessor to be deified. Of course, there were a few exceptions, notably, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and Domitian, who were considered too abhorrent to receive the honor. Caligula and Nero believed themselves living gods while Domitian thought himself the reincarnation of Hercules.

As Imperial cult developed over time, the worshipper would receive a libellus, or certificate of proof that certified that the worshipper had sacrificed to the Roman Emperor (more affectionately known as the “Son of God”). As the proliferation of private religions began to spring up throughout the Roman Empire promising personal salvation in exchange for fidelity to the cult, proof of sacrifice developed as a way to identify Roman citizens whose allegiance were not with the Roman state.(1)

Private Cults

Private religious cults—or “Mystery Religions” as they have come to be called—that appeared throughout the Roman Empire were often imported from areas taken over by the Roman state. As ‘foreign religions’ they gained in popularity because they offered a religious experience that was personalized, unlike the religion promoted by the Roman state. Indeed, whereas the religion of the state promised only solidarity at the level of citizenship, mystery faiths thrived because they provided a sense of solidarity between likeminded believers. That they often addressed individualized matters such as forgiveness, salvation, and personal identification with the Divine made them even more attractive to persons living in the Roman Empire.(2)



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