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Bill Thayer

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p105 Apotheosis

Unsigned article on pp105‑106 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

APOTHEOSIS, (ἀποθεώσις), the enrolment of a mortal among the gods. The mythology of Greece contains numerous instances of the deification of mortals; but in the republican times of Greece we find few examples of such deification. The inhabitants of Amphipolis, however, offered sacrifices to Brasidas after his death (Thuc. V.11); and the people of Egeste built an heroum to Philippus, and also offered sacrifices to him on account of his personal beauty (Herod. V.47). In the Greek kingdoms, which arose in the East on the dismemberment of the empire of Alexander, it does not appear to have been uncommon for the successor to the throne to have offered divine honours to the former sovereign. Such an apotheosis of Ptolemy, king of Egypt, is described by Theocritus in his 17th Idyl (see Casaubon's note on Suet. Jul. Caes. 88).

The term apotheosis, among the Romans, properly signified the elevation of a deceased emperor to divine honours. This practice, which was common upon the death of almost all the emperors, appears to have arisen from the opinion, which was generally entertained among the Romans, that the souls or manes of their ancestors became deities; and as it was common for children to worship the manes of their fathers, so it was natural for divine honours to be publicly paid to a deceased emperor, who was regarded as the parent of his country. This apotheosis of an emperor was usually called consecratio; and the emperor who received the honour of an apotheosis, was said in deorum numerum referri, or consecrari. In the earliest times Romulus is said to have been admitted to divine honours under the name of Quirinus (Plut. Rom. 27, 28; Liv. I.16; Cic. de Rep. II.10); but none of the other Roman kings appears to have received this honour, and in the republican times we also read of no instance of an apotheosis. Julius Caesar was deified after his death, and games were instituted to his honour by Augustus (Suet. Jul. Caes. 88); and the example thus set was followed in the case of the other emperors.

The ceremonies observed on the occasion of an apotheosis have been minutely described by Herodian (IV.2) in the following passage:— "It is the custom of the Romans to deify those of their emperors who die, leaving successors; and this rite they call apotheosis. On this occasion a semblance of mourning, combined with festival and religious observances, is visible throughout the city. The body of the dead they honour after human fashion, with a splendid funeral; and making a waxen image in all respects resembling him, they expose it to view in the vestibule of the palace, on a lofty ivory couch of great size, spread with cloth of gold. The figure is made pallid, like a sick man. During most of the day senators sit round the bed on the left side, clothed in black; and noble women on the right, clothed in plain white garments, like mourners, wearing no gold or necklaces. These ceremonies continue for seven days; and the physicians severally approach the couch, and looking on the sick man, say that he grows worse and worse. And when they have made believe that he is dead, the noblest of the equestrian and chosen youths of the senatorial orders take up the couch, and bear it along the Via Sacra, and expose it in the old forum. Platforms like steps are built upon each side; on one of which stands a chorus of noble youths, and on the opposite, a chorus of women of high rank, who sing hymns and songs of praise to the deceased, modulated in a solemn and mournful strain. Afterwards they bear the couch through the city to the Campus Martius, in the broadest part of which a square pile is constructed entirely of logs of timber of the largest size, in the shape of a chamber, filled with faggots, and on the outside adorned with hangings interwoven with gold and ivory images and pictures. Upon this, a similar but smaller chamber is built, with open doors and windows, and above it, a third and fourth, still diminishing to the top, so that one might compare it to the light-houses which are called Phari. In the second story they place a bed, and collect all sorts of aromatics and incense, and every sort of fragrant fruit or herb or juice; for all cities, and nations, and persons of eminence emulate each other in contributing these last gifts in honour of the emperor. And when a vast heap of aromatics is collected, there is a procession of horsemen and of chariotsº round the pile, with the drivers clothed in robes of office, and wearing masks made to resemble the most distinguished Roman generals and emperors. When all of this is done, the others set fire to it on every side, which easily catches hold of the faggots and aromatics; and from the highest and smallest story, as from a pinnacle, an eagle is let loose to mount into the sky as the fire ascends, which is believed by the Romans to carry the soul of the emperor from earth to heaven; and from that time he is worshipped with the other gods."a

In conformity with this account, it is common to see on medals struck in honour of an apotheosis an altar with fire on it, and an eagle, the bird of Jupiter, taking flight into the air. The number of medals of this description is very numerous. We can from these medals alone trace the honours of an apotheosis, from the time of Julius Caesar to that of Constantine the Great. On most of them the word Consecratio occurs, and on some Greek coins the word ΑΦΙΕΡΩϹΙϹ. The following woodcut is taken from an agate, which is supposed to represent the apotheosis of Germanicus (Montfaucon, Ant. Expl. Suppl. vol. V p137). In his left hand he holds the cornucopia, and Victory is placing a laurel crown upon him.


[image ALT: An engraving of a man holding a cornucopia, riding on a large eagle, and being crowned with a laurel wreath by a flying figure. It is a representation of the famous Roman cameo of the Apotheosis of Germanicus.]

A spectacular photo of this agate and sardonyx cameo,
possibly representing Claudius,
can sometimes be found here.

p106 A very similar representation to the above is found on the triumphal arch of Titus, on which Titus is represented as being carried up to the skies on an eagle.b There is a beautiful representation of the apotheosis of Augustus on an onyx-stone in the royal museum of Paris.

Many other monuments have come down to us, which represent an apotheosis. Of these the most celebrated is the bas-relief in the Townley gallery in the British Museum, which represents the apotheosis of Homer. It is clearly of Roman workmanship, and is supposed to have been executed in the time of the Emperor Claudius.

The wives, and other female relations of the emperors, sometimes received the honour of an apotheosis. This was the case with Livia Augusta, with Poppaea the wife of Nero, and with Faustina the wife of Antoninus (Suet. Claud. 11; Dion Cass. XL.5; Tac. Ann. XVI.21; Capitolin. Anton. Philos. 26).


Thayer's Notes:

a See also Cassius Dio's very detailed account of the funeral and apotheosis of Pertinax (75.4).

b My pages on the arch of Titus do include adequate photos of almost all the sculpture on it. Unfortunately, the apotheosis of the emperor (or rather of his bust) is in a medallion on the ceiling of the archway. To take a good photo of it, you need to get just below it, inside the archway — which, however, is usually roped off, probably out of concerns for the security of the famous bas-relief of the spoils of Jerusalem: I imagine this is why no good photos of the apotheosis medallion can be found online. A very rare photo can be seen here.


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Page updated: 7 Aug 12