The emperor’s face was ubiquitous, but it could be represented very differently. Only those with their eyes half shut could have failed to spot a dramatic change near the beginning of the second century CE in how the ruler looked. With the accession of Hadrian in 117 CE, after more than a hundred years of imperial portraits with no trace of facial hair (only a little stubble, if they were supposed to be in mourning), emperors started to be portrayed with full beards, a trend that lasted throughout the rest of the century and well after the period covered by this book. It is a guaranteed way of dating all those imperial heads that now line museum shelves: if they are bearded, they are after 117 CE.
This change cannot have been merely a whim of fashion or, as one ancient writer predictably speculated, a device for Hadrian to cover his spots. But the reason for it remains puzzling. Was it an attempt to emulate the Greek philosophers of the past? Hadrian was a well-known admirer of Greek culture, as was the philosophical Marcus Aurelius. So was it part of an attempt to intellectualise Roman imperial power, to re-present it in Greek terms? Or did it point in the opposite direction, harking back to the tough military heroes of earliest Rome, even before the era of Scipio Barbatus in the early third century BCE, when to sport a beard seems already to have been something remarkable in a Roman? It is impossible to know, and no ancient writing that survives ever explains the new beards. But, at the very least, they hint that within the palace someone was thinking hard about the imperial image, right down to the facial hair, and, for whatever reason, was prepared to make a break from tradition.
It is largely the legacy of the two main monotheisms of the ancient world – Judaism and its offshoot Christianity – that has encouraged us to see the invention of new gods, the adjustment and the extension of the pantheon and the fluidity of the boundary between humans and gods as faintly ludicrous. Christians, in particular, both ridiculed the very notion that the obviously human emperor was divine and occasionally paid with their lives for their refusal to give him any kind of religious honour. But that is not to say that the divine status of the emperor was unproblematic for pre-Christian Romans or that there were no debates and disagreements about just how godlike the human ruler, let alone his family, was. It was another awkward balancing act bequeathed to his successors by Augustus, who straddled the boundary between the human and the divine with greater success than some of those who followed.
Some imperial claims to divine status were always thought undeniably wrong. For most inhabitants of the Roman Empire, it would have been a crass category mistake and a hyperbolic affront for an emperor to declare himself a living god, as if there were no difference between himself and Jupiter. The Romans were hardly stupid: they knew the difference between bona fide Olympians and a living emperor. If it is true (rather than a vicious slur) that Gaius turned the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum into the vestibule of his residence on the Palatine above and sat there between the statues of the gods to enjoy the worship of anyone who chose to give it, then that was a memorable symbol of imperial megalomania and it broke all the official protocols of imperial worship. It was likewise an abuse of power for an emperor to attempt to stretch the official Roman pantheon to accommodate dead babies, boyfriends and even favourite sisters; Hadrian was no better on this score than Nero or Gaius in having his young male companion, Antinous, made a god after his mysterious death by drowning in the Nile in 130 CE. The theology of the emperor and the imperial family was far more subtle than this and has to be seen in two parts: first the divine status of the living emperor, second that of the dead.
Throughout the Roman world, the living emperor was treated very like a god. He was incorporated into rituals celebrated in honour of the gods, he was addressed in language that overlapped with divine language, and he was assumed to have some similar powers. Augustus’ name, for example, was included in the wording of some religious litanies. Runaway slaves could claim asylum by clinging to a statue of the emperor, just as to a statue of a god. At the town of Gytheum, near Sparta in the Peloponnese, a surviving inscription lays out in great detail the procedures for a regular festival to be held over several days, with processions around the town, musical contests and sacrifices, honouring a pair of local benefactors, the ruling emperor, Tiberius, and various members of his family, the Republican general Titus Quinctius Flamininus, as well as the traditional Olympian deities.
There may well have been many people, especially far outside the city of Rome, for whom the emperor was about as remote, and powerful, a figure as an Olympian deity, and who did not see much difference between the two. But wherever the formal details were spelled out, a careful distinction was drawn between the emperor and the Olympians. In Gytheum, for example, and elsewhere, a technical but crucial difference was expressed. The animal sacrifices were to be performed to the traditional gods, but they were performed on behalf of or for the protection of the living emperor and his family; the emperor, in other words, was still under the protection of the Olympian gods rather than being their equal. In Rome, it was usually the numen, or the ‘power’, of the living emperor that received sacrifice, not the emperor himself. More widely, the package of honours offered to the imperial family in the Greek world were known as isotheoi timai: that is, honours equivalent (iso-) to those of the gods (theoi), but not identical. It was always transgressive to ignore the difference between the gods and the living emperor, however godlike he might be.
It was not the same when they were dead. Following the pattern of Julius Caesar, the senate might choose to incorporate a dead emperor or one of his close relations into the official pantheon; for it was a decision that was, formally at least, in the hands of the senate and a posthumous power over their ruler that some senators must have enjoyed. In this case the distinction between gods and emperors was negligible; there were priests and temples, sacrifices carried out to them, not on their behalf, and some wonderful surviving images that literally put the imperial gods in the Olympian heavens (see plate 20). But the differences were not entirely eroded. Roman writers, intellectuals and artists repeatedly wondered about the nature of the transition from emperor to god and how someone who had been a human being one day was divine the next. In a way reminiscent of the modern Catholic Church’s requirement of authenticated miracles in making a new saint, they claimed to ask for proof or witnesses; the appearance of a comet apparently demonstrated the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, but the stories of Livia’s suspiciously large cash reward to the senator who was prepared to say that he had seen Augustus ascend to heaven suggest some uncertainty about the process.
The transition was fraught enough to prompt jokes and satire. According to Suetonius, Vespasian continued his down-to-earth line in self-deprecating wit right up until his last words: ‘Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god …’
The truth is that for two centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus sometime in the early 30s CE, Christianity is hard to pin down. It started as a radical Jewish sect, but how and when it became clearly separated from Judaism is impossible to say. It is not even certain when ‘Christians’ started regularly to use that name for themselves; it may originally have been a nickname applied by outsiders. They were for many years small in number. The best estimate is that by 200 CE there were around 200,000 Christians in the Roman Empire, of between 50 and 60 million people, though they may have been more visible than that figure suggests, as they were overwhelmingly concentrated in towns; the word ‘pagan’ was their term for anyone who was not a Christian or a Jew, and it implied anything from ‘outsider’ to ‘rustic’. And they held a whole variety of views and beliefs about the nature of god and of Jesus and about the basic tenets of Christian faith that were gradually, and with great difficulty, pared down to the range of Christian orthodoxies (still not a single one) that we know today. Was Jesus married with children? What exactly happened at the crucifixion? Did he die or not?, many wondered, not unreasonably.
From time to time in the first two centuries CE, Roman authorities punished the Christians. There was at this period no general or systematic persecution; there was no sign of that until the mid third century CE. In practice, most of the early generations of Christians lived un-troubled by the intervention of the state. Yet they were occasionally scapegoated, as when Nero decided to shift the blame for the great fire of Rome in 64 CE on to them. They were plausible candidates perhaps, as some Christians were prophesying that the world would shortly end in flames. The letters between Pliny and Trajan suggest that there was some Roman legislation that, whether explicitly or implicitly, outlawed the religion, though we know no more than that. Pliny’s uncertainty and puzzlement are reflected on some other occasions when Romans chose to punish Christians in different parts of the empire, from Gaul to Africa.
Whatever the letter of the law or the precise circumstances of any individual trial, there was an irreconcilable clash between traditional Roman values and Christianity. Roman religion was not only polytheistic but treated foreign gods much as it treated foreign peoples: by incorporation. As far back as the takeover of Veii in the early fourth century BCE, Rome had regularly welcomed the gods of the conquered. There were from time to time controversies and anxieties about this; the priests of the Egyptian goddess Isis found themselves expelled from the city of Rome on more than one occasion. But the basic rule was that as the Roman Empire expanded, so did its pantheon of deities. Christianity was, in theory, an exclusive monotheism, which rejected the gods who for centuries had guaranteed the success of Rome. In practice, for every Perpetua who went bravely, or in Roman eyes stubbornly, to her death, there were probably hundreds of ordinary Christians who chose to sacrifice to the traditional gods, cross their fingers and ask for forgiveness later. But on paper there could be no accommodation.
The same was true, in a sense, of Judaism. But to a remarkable and in some ways unexpected degree, the Jews managed to operate within Roman culture. For the Romans, Christianity was far worse. First, it had no ancestral home. In their ordered religious geography, Romans expected deities to be from somewhere: Isis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia, the Jewish god from Judaea. The Christian god was rootless, claimed to be universal and sought more adherents. All kinds of mystical moments of enlightenment might attract new worshippers to (say) the religion of Isis. But Christianity was defined entirely by a process of spiritual conversion that was utterly new. What is more, some Christians were preaching values that threatened to overturn some of the most fundamental Greco-Roman assumptions about the nature of the world and of the people within it: that poverty, for example, was good; or that the body was to be tamed or rejected rather than cared for. All these factors help to explain the worries, confusion and hostility of Pliny and others like him.
At the same time, the success of Christianity was rooted in the Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, in the mobility that it promoted, in its towns and its cultural mix. From Pliny’s Bithynia to Perpetua’s Carthage, Christianity spread from its small-scale origins in Judaea largely because of the channels of communication across the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire had opened up and because of the movement through those channels of people, goods, books and ideas. The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.