Wednesday, December 18, 2019


Gwynaeth McIntyre, Imperial Cult. Brill Research Perspectives/Ancient History. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. 88. ISBN 9789004398368. €70,00.

Reviewed by Joseph D. Fantin, Dallas Theological Seminary (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of contents is listed below.]

Gwynaeth McIntyre, author of an important monograph on imperial cult in the Latin West,1 is well situated to write a more general survey of the topic. Her task is not a simple one. Much debate and uncertainty surround various aspects of imperial cult, including differences due to location and time. As a starting point, McIntyre approvingly quotes Beard, North, and Price: "There is no such thing as the imperial cult" (p. 1).2 She begins with four principles from Peter Herz that provide some common characteristics of imperial cult: it is a religious phenomenon; it is a social phenomenon; it is not reduced to belief and ritual; and it is without local limits3 (pp. 3-4; revisited again, pp. 74-75).

The volume under review may more aptly be described as a long journal article than a book (indeed, the publisher classifies it as such).4 The purpose of the series is to present "review articles with commentary on the current state of the field of Ancient History."5 In any case, in this brief volume, McIntyre presents an up-to-date, helpful survey of ancient literary sources and certain modern debates and discussions about imperial cult.

The books begins with a short but helpful introduction (pp. 1-6). McIntyre begins by describing the difficulty that modern scholars have defining exactly what "imperial cult" is and what is associated with it. For example, whose worship is included under this label? In other words, should only those deceased individuals who received titles such as divus or diva be included or should living emperors or the worship of one's numen and genius also be considered expressions of imperial cult worship (p. 1-2)? Should imperial cults be restricted to public state-sponsored expressions of worship or should local and individual practices also be included (p. 1-2)? Another question that captures our modern imagination is raised: "Did Romans really believe that humans could become gods?" (p. 2).

The study is divided into five sections. The first is dedicated to terminology and to the establishment of attributing divine honors in Rome (pp. 6-29). McIntyre's focus is primarily on the honors associated with Julius Caesar, with some discussion of Augustus. She discusses the debates around terms such as divus, dei, numen, and genius. Contrary to common usage, the Latin divus became associated with deified humans (pp. 8-9). Further, some have seen numen and genius as synonymous while other maintain that only the latter can be personified (pp. 10-11). Most discussion in this section is devoted to the the deification of Julius Caesar (pp. 14-25). McIntyre identifies three stages: 1. after the battle of Thapsus (46 BCE), 2. after the battle of Munda (45 BCE), and the period just prior to Caesar's assassination (44 BCE). She believes that Caesar received various honors during his lifetime and after his death, in stages, and that the evidence suggests that divine honors were granted to him during his lifetime (pp. 21-23). The final section focuses on innovations to imperial cult under Augustus (pp. 25-29). These include the worship of the lares of Augustus and the group called the Augustales. Both of these developments took place among the lower classes and neither are well documented. There appears to be a connection between the worship of the lares and imperial cults (pp. 25-27). She discusses various theories about lares worship. The group of Augustales mainly consisted of freedmen and slaves and were involved in the worship of the emperor and his family. Whether or not they were actually priests and magistrates, they generally received such honors as those position held.

Section two focuses on the function of imperial funerals and on specific physical structures associated with imperial cult, such as temples (pp. 29-42). She notes that Caesar's funeral influenced that of Augustus (pp. 30-34); that negotiation occurred between the imperial house, the Senate, and the people regarding funerals and temples (p. 36); and that funerals and various monuments contributed to a larger, more general, deified imperial family (pp. 36-41).

Section three illustrates the establishment of specific imperial cults with three case studies: Augustus in Asia Minor (pp. 44-49), Tiberius and Livia in Hispania Ulterior (pp. 49-52), and Constantine in Hispellum (pp. 52-56). Interestingly, although there were some differences in these three cases, a general pattern was followed. This reveals that imperial cult expressions both followed precedents already set and were able to adapt as necessary (p. 56). In all cases, the local communities were the initiators of the honors, which suggests that imperial cult was a means by which loyalty was demonstrated and political connections embodied (p. 56).

In section four, McIntyre summarizes various trends in imperial cult studies (pp. 56-73). This includes the development of priesthoods which unfortunately do not provide much information about cult practices (pp. 57-63). Additionally, she discusses prayers, sacrifice, and festivals devoted to emperors that were practiced at various levels among the people (pp. 65-69). Evidence for these practices among individuals is primarily determined through archaeological records (p. 65). Throughout this section, she acknowledges the diversity of localized practices and the necessity of studying these practices in their own contexts (pp. 56-57, 65).

Section five is a brief description of developments among New Testament scholars who are wrestling with the earliest Christians' negotiation of their faith in light of imperial cult (pp. 70-73). McIntyre believes that the "intermingling of Classical and Biblical Studies is proving to be extremely fruitful for the study of imperial cult" (p. 70). The volume concludes with a summary of the study (pp. 73-75), direction for further research (pp. 75-77), and a bibliography (pp. 77-88).

As a general survey, this volume does not contribute anything new to our understanding of imperial cult. This does not detract from its value. Indeed, McIntyre's study provides a helpful overview of issues relating to imperial cult. Any brief survey will have limitations. This volume is no exception. Many areas could have been developed, such as whether or not there were general differences between imperial cults in the East and West, what it means to "worship" a human, and what practices constitute imperial cult activities. Such issues received minimal attention. Those with interests concerning a specific emperor or place will find little help here. Also, since the focus is on literary evidence, documentary evidence is used relatively sparingly (however, see pp. 10, 13, 20, 53-54, 62, 66-68). Further, I question the amount of attention concerning developments surrounding Julius Caesar. Certainly these developments were important but an argument can be made that Augustus's role (both as a developer and object of worship) was more important. Of course, in McIntyre's defense, some of the developments related to Caesar's cult were initiatives of Augustus.

One cannot demand thoroughness of a topic such as imperial cult in a volume of this size. The purpose of this little study is more general. As an up-to-date survey it succeeds. McIntyre has generally done a good job with topic emphases and development. In some places, McIntyre directs the reader to further reading (see for example, pp. 59fn249, 63fn275, 68fn294, 70fn301). However, formal sections on further reading would have been beneficial. The volume is well written and engaging. Although a survey, it is not aimed at a popular audience. The reader with some knowledge of issues surrounding imperial cult will benefit most. Since this is presented as a book, indexes would have been helpful.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1. Talking about Gods: Terminology Associated with the Imperial Cult 6
1.1 Naming the Gods and Familial Connections 7
1.2 Case Study: the Deification of Julius Caesar 14
1.3 Augustan Innovations: the Lares Compitales and the Augustales 25
2 Gods at Rome: Divine Funerals and Physical Monuments 29
2 .1 The Divine Funeral 30
2.2 Temples of the Gods 36
3 Negotiating with the Divine: Three Case Studies 42
3.1 Cassius Dio and the Establishment of Cult in Asia Minor 44
3.2 Tacitus and the Establishment of Cult in Hispania Ulterior 49
3.3 The Rescript of Hispellum and the Persistence of the Imperial Cult in the Fourth Century CE 52
4 Worshipping the Gods: Priesthoods, Sacrifices, and Festivals 56
4.1 Priests and Priestly Colleges 57
4.2 Prayers, Sacrifice, and Festivals 65
5 Christianity and the Imperial Cult 70
Conclusion 73
Acknowledgements 76
References 77


1.   G. McIntyre, A Family of Gods: The Worship of the Imperial Family in the Latin West, (Societas: Historical Studies in Classical Culture; Ann Arbor, 2016). See BMCR 2017.05.10.
2.   M. Beard, J. North, and S. Price, Religions of Rome, Volume 1: A History (Cambridge, 1998), p. 348 (italics original). McIntyre acknowledges that a comprehensive study of imperial cults is impossible (p. 57).
3.   P. Herz, "Caesar and God: Recent Publications on Roman Imperial Cult" Journal of Roman Archaeology, 18 (2005), 638.
4.   The publisher's page identifies this journal/series as Brill Research Perspectives in Ancient History; however, the print copy has simply, Brill Research Perspectives and the copyright page states that the print edition "is simultaneously published as issue 2.1 (2019) of Ancient History."
5.   See link in footnote 4 above.

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