Monday, January 25, 2016


Norbert Dörner, Feste und Opfer für den Gott Caesar: Kommunikationsprozesse im Rahmen des Kaiserkultes im römischen Ägypten der julisch-claudischen Zeit [30 v.Chr. - 68 n.Chr.]. Pharos, 30. Rahden; Westf.: VML Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2014. Pp. 551. ISBN 9783867572583. €54.80.

Reviewed by Maria Kantirea, University of Cyprus (

Version at BMCR home site


This book deals with the establishment of the Imperial cult in Egypt under Augustus and its development under the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Norbert Dörner's aim is to understand the nature and the place of the Roman emperor within the cultural pluralism of Egyptian society during the Early Empire, and the perception of and reaction to the "Kaiserkult" by the various actors involved actively in this religious practice, namely, Egyptian priests and population, the Greeks and the Jewish community in Alexandria and in the metropoleis, Roman governors and the army, and professional associations. The author pays particular attention to rituals performed in both sacred and secular space, as well as to the aspects of the administrative organisation of Roman Egypt that contributed to bringing about, as the title of the book puts it, the various communication processes, interactions and conflicts between the above mentioned ethnic, cultural and social groups. This he does through an examination of their relations towards each other and their attitude towards the emperor. Although the table of contents may give the impression that the cult of the monarch evolved in linear fashion in Egypt, in fact Dörner employs a deep and global approach to the cult, especially with regard to continuities and discontinuities, and he does so through combining a pertinent and meticulous analysis of various written sources, including Greek and Latin literature, papyri, hieroglyphic documents, along with a study of coins and, to a lesser decree, of the archeological data. Dörner also provides very helpful indices of evidence at the end of the book, which also include lists of persons, toponyms and main terms.

Rather than being merely a simple introduction to the main subject, the first three chapters form a preliminary study, in which Dörner examines the historical background to pre-Roman Egypt. He gives an overall view of the Pharaonic and Hellenistic royal cults as they evolved over the longue durée. During his treatment of the subject, he offers a critical discussion of previous theories concerning in particular the special relation of the absolute monarch to the gods and his place within Egyptian socio-religious structures. The author's analysis of the reactions on the part of various actors, both in ritual and in daily life, leads him to cast doubt on the long standing theory that the Roman emperor came to be regarded as another pharaoh. He examines Octavian's scepticism regarding the Egyptian gods, the way in which the Roman administration accepted the cult of a princeps and the unwillingness on the part of local priests to consider Augustus a deity, despite his abilities to establish order in the world. This resistance was due in part to his foreign origin and the fact that he did not reside in Egypt. Dörner offers a good analysis of this set against the local background, but one wonders why he makes no comparison with the position of the Achaemenid 27th dynasty during the Persian occupation of Egypt (from 525 BC up to 323 BC with intervals). This is admittedly a rather obscure chapter in Egyptian religious history, which, however, clearly involves issues relevant to any consideration of the divinity, or otherwise, of a monarch of non-Egyptian origin (cf. pp. 110-111, where Dörner gives just a mere reference).

Without doubt, one of the strengths of the book is the study of the implementation of the "Kaiserkult" in the Egyptian sanctuaries (chapter 4). Dörner examines this in terms of the organisation at provincial level of the imperial cult. The role played by sanctuaries is crucial for an understanding of how the emperor was integrated into a very ancient, but still lively, religious system. It is also important for the insights it may offer into how the cult of the emperor developed in a non-Greco-Roman civilization, where the scarcity of cities probably prevented the creation of municipal and local cults on the pattern employed in other provinces of the Roman empire. In connection with this matter, Dörner, in his examination of the post of high priest of Alexandria and of all Egypt (pp. 260-272), offers a convincing restoration and interesting interpretation of I.Ephesos 7.3042 regarding the office of the procurator sacrarum aedium divi Augusti et divi Claudi Augusti et lucorum sacrorumque omnium quae sunt Alexandreae et in tota Aegypto. His suggestion sets the organisation of the imperial cult in Egypt in its proper administrative framework, that is, that of a province belonging personally to the emperor (although the author does not emphasise this special status of Egypt enough). The position and activities of the praefectus Aegypti form another typical example of the communication process, as the author stresses. For the Greeks and for the Roman administration he was merely the official representative of the emperor in Egypt, although for the Egyptian priests he was a powerful ruler who was resident in their land and so apt to receive even pharaonic honours (chapter 7).

Ritual plays an important role in the analysis of the "Kommunikationsprozesse", as it allows one to evaluate how the various actors involved perceived and interacted with the imperial cult, especially when the worship is placed in its geographical context (Chapter 5). Dörner's study of the "Feste und Opfer für den Gott Caesar" is excellent and detailed. From constantly changing points of view, the author describes, analyses and clarifies a wide range of matters. He looks at monthly ceremonies, at the names of months and calendars, and at sacrifices and libations in terms of their links with priesthoods of Egyptian, Greek and Roman derivation, in terms of their connection with freedmen, slaves, professional collegia, and the army (Chapter 6), and in terms of the sacred landscape of Egypt, in particular, the Sebasteion at Alexandria and temples, for example, at Philae, Karnak and Philadelphia (although the author should have given either a list or map of imperial temples).

In the final sections (Chapters 7-8) Dörner describes the historical context and the reasons for the establishment of cults of members of the Julio-Claudian family, chiefly in terms of the Greco-Roman tradition of the cult of the benefactor. In the cult of Augustus as Zeus Eleutherios, in particular, the author observes discontinuity, rather than continuity, with the corresponding Ptolemaic cult, since Augustus was conqueror and liberator of Egypt, and not a successor of Cleopatra. Dörner's analysis is careful and painstaking, but he fails to distinguish the different familial origins of the Julio-Claudian individuals that only technically belonged to the same ruling dynasty. Thus one should not attribute to all of them the same ideological view of the Empire, given that in the early years of the Principate there was still conflict between Republican and Imperial groups and rivalry between great families. In this respect, it is simplistic to account for Germanicus' visit to the Egyptian temples as being "im Rahmen seines touristischen Programms" (p. 386) and to attempt to estimate the impact of the exceptional quasi-pharaonic honours that he received there without taking into account the legacy of Antony. In fact, Germanicus was a multi-faceted personality. He was the first member of the imperial family to visit Egypt after Augustus and was heir to the Empire, occupying the spot where the most important branches of the domus Augusta intersected, as F. Hurlet (Les collègues du prince sous Auguste et Tibère; de la légalité républicaine à la légitimité dynastique, EFR 227, Rome 1997, p. 502), has emphasized. Germanicus enjoyed a peculiar position as descendant of, on the one hand, the Iulii and the Claudii and, of the other, of the Antonii on the side of his mother, Antonia Minor, who was Mark Antony's daughter. This strengthened his ability to reconcile the memory of Augustus with that of Antony, lord of the Roman East but still a hostis publicus. Although the sources for obvious reasons are almost silent, Germanicus's splendid reception in Egypt indicates this dark side of the Julio-Claudian moon that later was revived by his son, Caius. Dörner gives a detailed comparison, set against the background of Greco-Jewish tensions in Alexandria, between the divinity of the founder of the Empire and the claims to divinity entertained by Gaius, who, unlike Tiberius, was directly descended from both Augustus and Antony (Chapters 7 and 8). Reappearing in the syncretistic cult of Nero, grandson of Antonia Maior, as agathos daemon, this attachment to the inheritance from Antony seems to be the only common point that might shed any light on the reactions displayed by these Julio-Claudians towards the recent political past of Egypt and Alexandria.

In addition to all this, Dörner's book offers a fresh look at the imperial cult in Roman Egypt. It is also a comprehensive and thorough study of the sources and of the previous bibliography on Egyptian religion over its long history from the Pharaonic period down to Early Roman times, sometimes concentrating on philosophical and sociological matters (as befits German academic tradition and modern scholarship). Unfettered by long-standing stereotypes, the author approaches complex Egyptian, Greek and Roman matters with great accuracy and sensibility. He displays a pluralism not always present in recent bibliography, sheds light on the phenomenon of the cult of the monarch, and most certainly opens up new avenues for future research.

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