Ruler worship is the practice of honoring a mortal* ruler, living or dead, with sacrifice* and other forms of praise and adoration normally reserved for a god or goddess. Although both the Greeks and Romans engaged in ruler worship, the practice caused controversy throughout the ancient world. Some people believed that it was impious* to offer divine honors to a mere mortal. Others supported ruler worship as a means of defining and understanding the great power of the kings. A ruler often seemed divine—although he was visible and lived among human beings, he had the godlike power to bring peace to his subjects.
* mortal human being; one who eventually will die
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
* impious lacking respect for the gods or tradition
* Archaic in Greek history, refers to the period between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
Ruler Worship in the Greek World. During the Archaic* period in Greece, the founders of cities and other notables were honored as heroes* and became the objects of cults*. But they were not deified, or worshiped as gods. The first Greek to be deified was the Spartan naval commander Lysander. Greeks revered him as a god in gratitude for defeating the Athenian fleet in 405 B.C. at the end of the Peloponnesian War. He was worshiped for restoring freedom to cities that had been under Athenian domination. People on the island of Samos erected altars in his honor, offered sacrifices to him, and sang hymns in praise of him.
With the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C., the worship of rulers entered a new stage. Alexander’s military conquests, his charismatic and forceful personality, and his absolute power led many to regard him as divine. In 331 B.C. the high priest of the supreme Egyptian god, Ammon, referred to Alexander as the son of the god. This powerful pronouncement led the Greeks, who held the priest in great esteem, to regard Alexander as a divinity. Alexander promoted the idea and pressured Greek cities to establish cult worship in his honor. After his death, Alexander was worshiped throughout his former empire. Statues were erected in his honor, and he was included in the official list of divinities in many of the cities that he founded. Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian general and the new ruler of Egypt, brought Alexander’s body to the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Ptolemy buried Alexander in a temple and established a cult to worship him.
Ptolemy was himself worshiped after his death in 283 B.C. His son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, deified his father and established a cult of the ruling Ptolemaic family. Beginning in the early 200s B.C., all rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty, living and dead, were worshiped as gods. Ruler worship developed in other parts of Alexander’s former empire at about the same time. Antiochus I, the ruler of Syria and Asia, deified his late father, Seleucus, who had been an officer in Alexander’s army and had ruled Babylonia after Alexander’s death.
Remember: Words In small capital letters have separate entries, and the index at the end of Volume 4 will guide you to more information on many topics.
Ruler Worship in the Roman World. The Romans did not have an ancient tradition of ruler worship. The first instance of Roman ruler worship occurred in the 300s B.C., when Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, was identified with the god Quirinus, who was one of the state gods of the city of Rome. As Rome extended its military power throughout the Mediterranean region, Roman officials and military victors occasionally received divine honors in the cities that they conquered. After the assassination of the general Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., the Romans formally deified him.
Ruler worship in Rome began in earnest during the Roman Empire. Beginning with the reign of Augustus, the first emperor, emperors and members of their families were identified with and worshiped as gods. Although Augustus was honored during his lifetime with cults dedicated to him, he refused to be treated as a living god. When he died in A.D. 14, however, the Roman Senate officially proclaimed him a god. For centuries, the Senate continued the practice of naming favorite emperors gods after their deaths. Certain less-favored emperors, such as Caligula and Commodus, proclaimed themselves divinities during their lifetimes. After the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the practice of ruler worship declined and soon died out. (See also Cults; Divinities; Heroes, Greek; Religion, Greek; Religion, Rome; Seleucid Dynasty.)