Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Write-Up: Emperor Worship and Roman Religion

Ittai Gradel.  Emperor Worship and Roman Religion.  Oxford, New York: Clarendon Press, 2002.

On the subject of emperor worship in ancient Rome, Ittai Gradel seems to present a similar picture to what I have read thus far in other scholarly works: that worship of the Roman emperor while he was alive was not part of the official Roman cult, but it was practiced in private cults throughout the Roman empire.  The Senate did, however, declare a number of Roman emperors to be divine after their death.  According to Gradel, this practice declined as so many people were being divinized after death that there was not enough capacity to support their cults, and as the emperor became alienated from the Senate by no longer ruling from Rome.

That is my understanding of the big picture of what Gradel is arguing in Emperor Worship and Roman Religion.  Here are some other things that I got out of the book, things that are important to the author and that I found interesting:

1.  Gradel is arguing against scholarly assumptions, many of which he believes can be attributed to Christian influence.  These assumptions include the separation of politics and religion into separate spheres, a focus on theology, and a tendency to conceptualize divinity in terms of nature or a divine essence.  I did not always understand how Gradel believed that such assumptions influenced scholarly views of emperor worship: for example, Gradel argues against the idea that Roman emperors were not worshiped while they were alive, and he seems to believe that such a view flows from scholarly bias (or so it appears to me, and I could be mistaken).  Personally, I do not see how a Christian bias would lead scholars to believe that the emperor was not worshiped while he was still alive, for what difference would it make to Christianity if the Romans did that?  But Gradel does argue rather effectively that biases have influenced how scholars conceptualize the divine and, thus, emperor worship.  Whereas many scholars conceive of divinity in terms of one’s nature and essence and thus wonder how exactly the Romans believed that the emperor was divine, Gradel shifts the focus from ontology to status.  Essentially, Gradel contends that the emperor was worshiped on account of his status and his power, not because he was believed to be ontologically divine.

2.  This moves us to the worship of the emperor’s genius, his divine essence.  My impression from reading Gradel (and also W. Warde Fowler’s 1914 book, Roman Ideas of Deity) is that a number of scholars maintain that many Romans worshiped the emperor’s genius.  Gradel does not seem to dismiss that the emperor’s genius was worshiped, but he does mention certain considerations.  Gradel argues, for example, that a number of freemen would consider the worship of a superior’s genius to be degrading, since slaves worshiped the genius of their masters.  My understanding is that Gradel is contending that emperor worship was not so much about the worship of the emperor’s genius, but of the emperor himself.  For some reason, that was not considered to be degrading.

3.  Gradel talks about the divinization of emperors after their death.  This was a particularly rich discussion because of the vast amount of ground that it covered: how some emperors were not divinized after death on account of perceived evils, and thus they went to Hades rather than heaven; how an emperor could be declared divine by the Senate and yet rejected by the gods when he arrived at heaven; the reception (or, often, lack thereof) of deceased divinized emperors by the public; and the complexities of saying that an emperor was divine, if he died through assassination (as did Julius Caesar).  Of particular interest to me was Gradel’s discussion of emperors ascending to heaven in the flesh, how witnesses would voluntarily come forward to claim that they beheld this, and how some implicitly criticized the view that an emperor could ascend in the flesh.  This could be relevant to discussions about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and Gradel actually mentions Jesus’ ascension at one point.  Christian apologists like to argue that there were eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus and that the belief that Jesus rose physically went against the grain of Greco-Roman culture, which deemed a physical resurrection to be repugnant.  But witnesses were claiming to see the emperor ascending in the flesh to the heavens.  Of course, I am not entirely clear what they claimed to see: according to Gradel, an official ritual was devised whereby the emperor was taken to heaven, and that essentially entailed a bird flying off.  Still, I wonder if Roman claims about the emperor’s ascension could be relevant to Christian claims about Jesus.

I enjoyed Gradel’s book on account of its clarity, though I wish that Gradel summarized the conclusions of the book at the end.

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