Circa deos ac religiones: the category of religion in public discourse about the Roman emperor

Matthew Polk (Harvard University)

The reinvigoration of traditional religion and the burgeoning imperial cult were legacies of the Augustan principate. Of the two, scholars generally consider the latter to have had the more dramatic influence on subsequent Roman history. The traditional state cult nevertheless survived for three centuries after Augustus, and each emperor held the office of pontifex maximus. This paper will argue that the emperor’s management of the state cult and his attitude toward the gods provided an important category for Romans in judging his excellence as a ruler, a fact that scholars have tended to minimize. When Suetonius says that Tiberius was circa deos ac religiones neglegentior (Tib. 69), he is not stating a brute fact; he is reminding his reader of his statements on Augustus’ religious attitude (Aug. 90-93) and thereby carefully weighing the two men against one another. In his assessment of Tiberius’ religious attitude (at 57.15.8-9), Dio uses language that alludes to the famous speech of Maecenas to Augustus (52.36.3). Tiberius is implicitly judged by the standard Dio establishes in the earlier passage.

Traces of a popular discourse about the emperors and religion surface in our sources in addition to authorial comments. A popular pasquinade mocked Nero’s association with Apollo (Suet. Nero 39); Suetonius also records that some Romans took to calling Caligula Jupiter Latiaris when he dressed as a god (Calig. 22). All this indicates that Romans did not simply worship their emperors as religious objects; they also expected the emperor to maintain a certain decorum in his capacity as chief priest. If he failed to do so, his subjects were prepared to mock and criticize him. Caroline Vout (Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome (2007)) has recently argued that sexuality served as a lens through which Romans observed the emperors. This paper extends her argument into the religious sphere and concludes that careful readings of our sources for the imperial period produce traces of the religious discourse that surrounded the Roman emperors.

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