Roma Aeterna

Jeremy J. Baer

The Hellenistic East did not know quite what to make of the cultural Latin upstarts who had rapidly conquered their territory, but they had to find ways to relate to their new overlords.

For some time the main expression of political loyalty in the East had been to declare the ruler as a kind of divinity on earth and honor him thusly with cult.  The early emperors operated under the fiction that they were elected magistrates of a revitalized Republic rather than imperial monarchs in everything but name; they could not offend traditional Latin sensibilities by embracing the Oriental “despotism” of the god-king cult.

But what they allowed in the Eastern provinces was a compromise.  First, their genii, or spiritual essences, could be honored without proclaiming themselves divinity incarnate. Second, the city of Rome itself, the new imperial capitol of the world, could be personified and given cult honors.We thus fine in the East a cult of dea Roma (goddess Rome) or Roma aeterna (Eternal Rome) linked closely with the cult of the imperial genii.  This Roma was treated as a protective goddess and depicted artistically much like a victorious Athene.  In Greek speaking lands the cult of Roma might be associated with a suitably civic deity such as Zeus (identified with the Roman Jupiter).

To become of a priest of Roma and the imperial genii was considered a great honor, and was given to wealthy provincials willing to demonstrate their loyalty to Rome.

The cult was established in Rome itself only under the emperor Hadrian.  Roma spelled backwards is amor, Latin for “love,” and thus Hadrian found it amusing to associate Roma with Venus, the Roman mythological progenitor and goddess of love.  A temple to Roma aeterna and Venus was established on the Sacra Via.

Later emperors had fewer qualms about being worshipped as god-kings, whether by Romans or provincials.  The cult of Roma thus gradually declined into thebackground of a more potent imperial cult.

 

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