REPORTAGE. A unique exhibition to learn all about the cult of the Roman Emperor

In partnership with the Louvre museum, the Musée de la Romanité in Nîmes presents the establishment of the “imperial cult” under the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, through a splendid exhibition entitled “the Roman Emperor, a mortal among the gods “. Relief, altars, busts… these numerous works of art retrace the role of the emperor and the politico-religious context of Roman antiquity.

Augustus, the birth of the first Roman emperor

Opposite the Roman amphitheater in Nîmes, the Musée de la Romanité, with its contemporary architecture and its silver facade, shows us an exhibition of 149 pieces never before seen in France, putting in perspective the imperial ideology and the deification of the Roman emperor.

Augustus, grand nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, founded the Roman imperial power in 1er century BC He established himself as the savior of the Fatherland by bringing peace to Rome after a civil war of more than 10 years, triggered by the assassination of Julius Caesar. Originally named Octavian or Octavian, he received the title of Augustus, granted by the Senate on January 16, 27 BC The title of Augustus or Augustus, which can be translated as “the Venerable”, has a religious and sacred dimension.

Still considered a mortal, Augustus nevertheless took a new place in Roman society, by becoming the first Roman emperor. While preserving the traditional republican institutions, it gradually monopolizes civil, military and religious powers. We recognize exceptional, even divine, qualities and charisma in one who presents himself as the protege of the god Apollo. This emperor is always represented young, under an ideal image, as evidenced by, among other things, the busts and portraits exhibited in the museum.

Portrait of Augustus, Paris, Louvre Museum. © RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Gérard Blot.

Augustus sometimes wears the “civic crown” adorned with oak leaves (a Republican distinction) as can be seen on one of the portraits from the museum of Saint Raymond in Toulouse and on loan for the exhibition. Originally, this crown was reserved for citizens who saved lives on the battlefield, but in Augustus’ case, it honored the one who ended civil wars. Also holder of religious powers (he became head of the Roman religion – Grand Pontiff – in 12 BC), this emperor led throughout his reign a conservative religious policy.

Auguste, Saint Raymond museum, Toulouse. © Daniel Martin.

Priests and divine doubles: essential religious figures

The importance of this polytheistic religion (several gods) is reflected among other things by the preponderant role of priests (priesthoods) during this period. Within the framework of imperial worship, the major priestly office was that of the “flamine of Rome and Augustus”, elected annually in each province. A Flamine priest saw himself attached to the cult of a specific deity with the main task of incarnating the latter. His female equivalents were called flaminiques and were responsible for the cult of princesses and deified brides.

The preponderant place of religion in the Roman Empire also gave rise to many traditions. Each Roman had a divine “twin”, that is, a protective entity who represented the part of the divine present in each and who was honored in the domestic setting. This “divine double” was called Juno (Iuno) for women, and Genie (Genius) for men. The Genius of the Emperor and that of a simple citizen were represented in the same way: it is therefore difficult today to identify an Imperial Genius. The cult of the Genius of Augustus was introduced into public religion but also into the private sphere: from 30 BC, the Senate imposed that libations (offerings of wine) be made in his honor at public banquets and private, explains the heritage curator, Manuella Lambert. Furthermore, “some literary and archaeological sources also suggest the presence of statuettes of the emperor or his genie in the private space“, she adds, showing a statuette on display in the museum.

Statuette of a Genie. © photo: Museum of Romanity, Nîmes.

Besides the Genie, other personifications of the divine qualities of the emperor were celebrated, this is the case of the Numen which expressed the power or the capacity of action of the divinities. Augustus was the first human to also have a Numen, until then only the gods had. This other divine double was sometimes offered sacrifices.

Roman religion: between rites and celebrations

Considered the main rite performed during public sacred ceremonies (sacra publica), the sacrifice consisted in giving an offering (often animal) to the gods, to the spirits, to the Numens … Just like prayer, sacrifice made it possible to maintain the “peace of the gods”. It is represented in the exhibition by two parts of the same marble relief, brought together for the first time. This rite formalized the hierarchy between the gods who were “fed” first (via the smoke of the burnt meat), then the men who fed second and finally the animals which, in turn, were sacrificed. Through an immersive film, the exhibition allows us to understand the stages and the meaning of the rite of sacrifice.

Fragment of architectural relief, Paris, Musée du Louvre. © Léa Fournasson.

The religious rites and celebrations made it possible to stage and distinguish the exceptional character of imperial power, legitimizing the status of the emperor, placed in a position of intermediary between men and gods.

Besides the sacrifice, the celebration of the emperor’s funeral was also of great importance. Auguste had planned his own during his lifetime, from the monumental pyre on the Champ de Mars to the modification of traditional rituals, in order to highlight his exceptional stature. On his death on August 19, 14 AD, Augustus joined the assembly of the gods (apotheosis in Greek) while retaining the status of mortal, the terminology used emphasized the hierarchy between the gods (deus) and the deified emperor, who became divine (divus) and therefore named Divus Augustus. The aim was also to ensure legitimacy for his successor. In addition, “during the cremation of the emperors, the custom was to organize the flight of an eagle which symbolized the ascension of his soul towards the sky and the gods”, concludes Manuella Lambert.

These funeral celebrations are illustrated throughout the exhibition by numerous works (coins or everyday objects, etc.). This is the case of a denarius representing the funeral pyre (ustrinum) of Emperor Antoninus. Thus, between public sphere and private sphere, religion and politics, imperial ideology took a considerable place in Roman society.

Astrology, the science of divine messages

Religion was also expressed through astrology then perceived as a scientific discipline revealing divine messages. Certain works of art bear witness to its influence in Roman life, such as this object on loan from the Louvre, the exact nature of which remains unknown. Coming from Gabies, it could be likened to a hydraulic clock or to an altar, hence its name “altar of Gabies” or “altar of the twelve gods”, because there is presented the heads of the twelve Olympian gods. We also find the astrological sign of Libra and that of Capricorn. They would be respectively the solar sign and the lunar sign of Augustus. Capricorn, with the head of a goat and the tail of a fish, would evoke the universal domination (terrestrial and aquatic) of the emperor over the known world.

Altar of the twelve gods called altar of Gabies, Paris, Louvre museum. © Léa Fournasson.

ANECDOTE. Dreams, too, were seen as divine messages.

Divinization, religious symbols, rites, astrology … Many are the contexts of imperial worship and the birth of the first Roman emperor. This journey into Roman antiquity is implemented thanks to the plaques, statues, figurines, or even objects of everyday life, models and coins brought together by the Nîmes museum. This exhibition fits perfectly in the heart of Nîmes. Indeed, this city necessarily invites us to dive back into the Roman Empire, with its amphitheater, theAugusteum the Fontaine site – from which the six blocks of friezes presented in the exhibition come – or the Maison Carrée, evoked through the portraits or coins on display.

ANECDOTE. Contrary to popular belief, during gladiatorial fights in the amphitheater, the emperor did not systematically order the killing of one of the gladiators at the end. Primo the emperor did not necessarily attend the fights, sometimes he was replaced by a magistrate. Second gladiators were very expensive, so killing them was a waste of considerable investment, usually one of them ended up giving up the fight by kneeling.

CONVENIENT. The Roman Emperor, a mortal among the gods, 16 Boulevard des Arènes, 30900 Nîmes, until September 19, 2021. Information: 0448210210. See the website of the Musée de la Romanité.

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