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APOTHEOSIS is the conferring, through official, ritual, or iconographic means, of the status of a god upon a mortal person. The Greek verb apotheoun appears first in the writings of the historian Polybius, which date from the second century bce. The noun apotheōsis is found for the first time in Cicero, though it may have existed already in the classical Greek world. It is during the Hellenistic epoch, however, that apotheōsis takes on new forms that display the stamp of the Roman cult of emperors and of the dead.


Even though the immortal and blessed condition of the gods differentiates them radically from human nature, the Greeks regarded as "divine" (theios ) the person whose outstanding qualities set him or her individually apart from the commonplace. The heroization of founders of cities or of benefactors and peacemakers assured them posthumously a kind of official cult. Recipients of such honor included Brasidas, Miltiades, Gelon and Hiero I of Syracuse, Theron, and Timoleon. However, if genius, virtue, and political or military success embody divine potential in exceptional men, it is especially so while they are living. Consequently, there is no need to wait for their death before heaping upon them such homage as is accorded the gods (isotheoi timai ), yet without identifying them with deities. Such was the case with Lysander after the victory of Aegospotami in 405 bce: dedicated to him were statues, altars, chants, and sacred games that raised him to the status of the Olympians.

Aristotle grants that superiority in valor or virtue secures for certain people the honor of being counted among the gods (Nicomachean Ethics 7.1.2). The Hellenistic ideology of the savior-sovereign, beneficent and euergetēs (benefactor), derives directly from this concept. The Stoics would apply it generally to people who excelled in services rendered. It was the virtus (braveness) of civilizing heroes that earned apotheosis for Herakles, for the Dioscuri, and for Dionysos. Philosophers, wise men, and miracle workers (among them Pythagoras and Empedocles, and later Plato, Epicurus, and a number of others) were regarded as god-men, benefactors of humanity. The case of the young Gnostic Epiphanes, adored as a god after his death for being the founder of the Carpocratian sect, exhibits the same process.

Alexander, the Diadochi, and Hellenistic Royalty

In dedicating funeral solemnities, of which some elements (particularly eagles) prefigure certain aspects of imperial Roman apotheosis, to the memory of his friend Hephaestion, Alexander established a cult for him, ordering that sacrifice be made to him "as to a god of the highest order" (Diodorus Siculus, 17.114115). His funeral pyre with five levels presaged the rogus consecrationis (funeral pyre) of the Caesars. It has been suggested that it was Alexander who proposed to the Diadochi (successors) the plan for his own posthumous consecration. Indeed, the tomb of the conquering Macedonian became the site of a cult at Alexandria that corresponded to that of the hero ktistēs, or "founder." However, the Ptolemies made of it a state cult that deified the dead king by allotting to him the service of a namesake priest. Like the Olympians, Alexander was to be honored fully as a god. (His name was not preceded by the title theos, which fundamentally differentiated him from the Lagides kings.) When the first of the Ptolemies died, his son dedicated a temple to him as a "savior-god." The first of the Seleucids was similarly deified in 280 bce by Antiochus I. The divinization of dead queens and kings, which was connected with the cult of Alexander by following the categories of Greek mythology, was legitimized by proclaiming that Arsinoë had been borne away by the Dioscuri, Ptolemy II by Zeus, and Berenice by Aphrodite. This representation of divine abductions would long survive in funerary imagery.

The posthumous deification of sovereigns that developed during the third century bce coincides both chronologically and ideologically with the success of euhemerism. In a revolutionary book entitled Sacred Scripture, Euhemeros of Messene declared that religions derive from the homage rendered to beneficent kings or to civilizing conquerors. It is the epoch that witnessed the popularization of the myth of Dionysos roaming through Asia for the purpose of propagating the use of wine and also of spreading, like Alexander, Hellenic culture. Yet parallel (or correlative) to this concept of the hero-euergetēs, there is affirmed the idea of the living god, incarnate in the active person of the sovereign. Already in 324 bce, Alexander had laid claim to this deification: it involved a political idea, that of the unity of a universal and cosmopolitan empire in need of a religious foundation in the person of the king himself, as was later the case in the persons of the Caesars. In Egypt the process took root in the local practice of identifying the pharaoh with Horus and of adoring him as the "son of Re." The Greeks compared the Ptolemies to Zeus, Dionysos, Apollo, Hermes, and Poseidon, and their wives to Hera, Aphrodite, Isis, and Demeter. In the same way, Antiochus I was compared to Zeus Nikator, and his son to Apollo Soter. The notion was also entertained of the reincarnation of this or that deity in the person of the sovereign: Ptolemy XIII and Mithradates VI Eupator were each regarded as a "new Dionysos." Alexander too had been a "new Dionysos," a "new Herakles."

Like the Lagides, the kings of Syria and Pergamum instituted a dynastic cult alongside local cults of sovereign founders of cities. Each satrapy had its own high priest for the royal cult, just as during the Roman era each province would have its own archiereus for the imperial cult. This divinization was sanctioned through appeal to genealogy: the Lagides descended from Herakles or from Dionysos. There was no hesitation in proclaiming Demetrios Poliorcetes as the "son of Poseidon and Aphrodite." The epodic hymn that the Athenians sang to him in 307 bce serves as a revealing document of the new conception of deities: "You, we see you here present, not as an idol of wood or stone, but really here." The apotheosis of living beings, visible or "epiphanous," appeared as one consequence (among others) of the decline of the rule of the cities and of the cults entwined with them. The erosion of belief in the traditional gods benefited the ideology, indeed the theology, of the leader as savior and peacemaker, as effective and direct protector of the people who needed him. The same phenomenon repeated and expanded itself three centuries later to the advantage of the Roman emperors.

The Roman World

Motifs like those discussed above early permeated Roman culture, together with the diffusion of Hellenistic influences (a poem such as Callimachus's Lock of Berenice was imitated by Catullus in the first century bce). In particular, the idea of the divinity of humans gained much support from Stoicism. It was also a tenet of Pythagoreans, since their doctrine of the immortality of the soul included the ascent of the soul to the stars after death.

In Roman religion, the dead, as the manes, were collectively and indiscriminately deified, the "sacrifices" offered to them having the purpose of helping them rest quietly under the ground. But from the second century bce onward, this cult tended to coincide with a kind of heroization of impressive individuals, such as some members of the Scipionic family. The sarcophagus that contained the remains of Scipio Barbatus had the shape of a monumental altar, which attests to the deceased being a deus parens (Saladino, 1970, pp. 24 ff.). Even the poet Ennius, whose activity was patronized by the Scipios, asserts that "one man shall be raised to the heavens" (Annals 1.54, Skutsch); while some considered immortality something that a few may obtain after ascending to the heavens (Lactantius, Divinae institutiones 1.18; Cicero, De republica, frag. 6). Cicero, who is largely influenced by Pythagorean and Stoic trends, likewise says that Romulus became a god through his deeds and virtue (De republica 2.17), and Scipio is told to rise to the stars by pursuing justice and piety (Cicero, De republica 6.16; Tusculanae disputationes 1. 43). Scipio is also the main character in the last section of Cicero's dialogue on the state, which deals with the notion of astral immortalitypromised to meritorious statesmen, in conformity with the Hellenistic ideology of the hero-euergetēs. The same writer first attests the Greek word apotheōsis with reference to the posthumous divinization with which he attempted to honor his daughter Tullia (Epistles to Atticus 1.16.13).

"Private" examples of apotheoses are the privileged object of altar-shaped tombs, which entered into widespread usage in the first century bce. Their ornamentation is also significant, particularly the eagles of apotheosis, thought to bear the soul of the deceased to heaven, like the eagle of Zeus that abducted Ganymede. In freeing the spiritual person from his or her carnal shell, the funeral pyre served to aid ascension to the ethereal realm of the gods. A fortiori, being struck by lightning was a measure of apotheosis, as the myths of Semele, Herakles, and Asklepios show. Scenes of military life and hunting, as well as intellectual activity, also symbolized heroization through virtus. Finally, untimely deaths were thought to assure the apotheosis of those whom the Greeks called ahōroi (those who die untimely deaths).

Caesar and Augustus: A "Transitional" Phase

The deification of Romulus, the founder of Rome (who after his ascension to heaven was worshiped under the name Quirinus), traces back to Ennius, but it was greatly elaborated and became a topical image in the Augustan age (Livy 1.16.13; 1.40.3). Other mythical heroes of divine offspring, such as Aeneas and Hercules, were worshiped as gods. Their apotheosis served as a prototype for the divinization of Julius Caesar and, later, Augustus.

Two years after his murder in 44 bce, the senate stated the official consecration of Caesar. It was a crucial development that provided a partial model for later imperial deifications. However, divine honors were offered to Caesar even during his lifetime, together with a solemn public funeral and the addition of a day to the calendar on which prayers should be addressed to him. The famous comet that appeared in July during the games held in memory of Caesar was believed to be his soul. This comet indicated that he had attained the heights of heaven and was a god with his own place among the stars.

Such themes are echoed in contemporary literature: in the Eclogues and especially the Aeneid, Vergil, by displaying numerous references to astral imagery, emphasizes the Golden Age and the divinity of Augustus, to whom divinity is bestowed by an encomiastic homage pronounced by Anchises in a prophetic passage at the end of the sixth book. An analogous motif of Hellenistic ascendance, the catasterismos (transformation into a star) concludes Ovid's Metamorphoses and shows Pythagorean patterns in dealing with Caesar's apotheosis. Ovid also offers a comparison between Romulus and Augustus and a striking account of the apotheosis of Romulus in his calendar. A contemporary poem, the Consolation to Livia (255258) explicitly compares the imperial funeral pyre to that of Hercules. The idea of the emperor being counted among the stars even recurs in Germanicus, who includes in his astronomical poem a reference to the Capricorn, Augustus's birth sign, which is now his heavenly seat. These numerous literary references illustrate how many factors, including personal charisma, paved the way for the cultic veneration of emperors and a sacralization of their role. It must be noted that even though the Hellenistic kings and the Caesars had been themselves adored while alive (Cassius Dio 51.20.7 traces the official institution of the cult of the living princeps back to 29 bce), it is possible to speak of true apotheosis only posthumously.

Imperial Apotheosis

The apotheosis ritual is perhaps the most significant innovation in religious practice during the transition from the Republic to the Empire. It is strictly related to the cult of the emperors, which raises many exegetical problems, since it varied in its forms or rituals according to the different regions of the Roman Empire or to the different epochs.

This ceremony was an important part of the symbolism that defined the imperial house and became rooted in Roman tradition. In addition, the building of a great temple to the new god aimed to make this status more evident in stone and marble. Such a consecratio (the official Latin term for an imperial apotheosis), whose artful ritual was developed from the funeral ritual of aristocratic families, was inaugurated after the death of Augustus in 14 ce. From Augustus to Constantine the Great (d. 337), thirty-six emperors and twenty-seven members of their families were bestowed with an apotheosis and received the title of divus, a term which differred from deus insofar as it was employed only for divinized humans. Political meanings were implied in the deification: on one hand, it was a fitting end for a good emperor; on the other hand, the granting of deification allowed the senate to obtain a sort of authority for the emperor (the refusal to deify Tiberius is noteworthy). The senate continued to play a formal role in apotheosis, although this role became increasingly reduced, especially in the second and third centuries. At the same time, by supervising the deification of his predecessor, the new emperor confirmed his rightful role and emphasized his own piety. In this sense, consecration can be considered a rite of passage because it involves the transmission of authority to a new ruler.

Many sources, both iconographic and literary, preserve accounts of apotheosis rituals. Along with inscriptions (which record the official formulas), coins and cameos, and even the vault of the Arch of Titus, display the distinctive signs of the apotheosis ritual such as the pyre and the eagle. Moreover, imposing monuments are still preserved in Rome, including Hadrian's mausoleum, the Castel Sant'Angelo, the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina in the Forum (now the Church of Lorenzo in Miranda), and the sole surviving raised relief on the pedestal of the column of Antoninus Pius. This relief displays the decrusio (the army's ritual encirclement of the bier) and, more significantly, in a Roman setting (note the Campus Martius, identified by the Egyptian obelisk set up by Augustus, two personifications of Roma, a seated armed female, and the River Tiber in the foreground), the apotheosis of the emperor and of his wife, carried away by the spirit of eternity (Aiōn ) on its wings. The third-century Greek historians Cassius Dio and Herodian, who record the funerals of Augustus, Pertinax (193), and Septimius Severus's (211), offer further detailed accounts of the ceremony.

Among the literary sources, Seneca's prosimetric satire, Apocolocyntōsis divii Claudii, contains a parody of Claudius's funeral and deification, decreed after his murder in 54 ce: the title, an evident jeu de mots with apotheōsis, has been understood as "metamorphosis into a gourd," an allusion to Claudius's stupidity. Rather than a polemic against the recent institution of apotheosis, the work must be considered a direct attack against Claudius, which at the same time possessed a political function: to make Claudius an example to Nero of how not to govern. Such ironic patterns or "reversal" elements induced scholars to suggest a link with the winter festival of the Saturnalia, which probably was also the occasion for delivering it.

According to the ritual, an immense four-tiered pyre would be built upon the Field of Mars. This rogus consecrationis was constructed of planks enclosing combustible materials and was elaborately decorated on the outside with costly embroidered fabrics adorned with gold, paintings, embossments, and garlands. A funeral pallet bore the cadaver of the new divus, covered with spices, fragrant fruits, and perfume essences. Around the pyre the priests and horseman would move in a circle. There was also a procession representing famous persons of the past, the nations of the Roman Empire, the guilds of different trades, and the senatorian order. A speech was made in honor of the dead emperor, whose body or wax image was on a bier. The new emperor would then take a torch to kindle the pyre, and everyone participating would do the same. Finally, from the top of the pyre an eagle would take flight as if bearing the soul of the deceased Caesar to the heavenly Olympus. After the ceremony, a witness would attest to having seen the consecrated prince soar into the air, and there was no lack of omens portending the apotheosis. Thereafter, the deceased would be entitled to a cult served by a priestly corps comprising members of the imperial family.

The ceremonial was maintained throughout the centuries and the increasing importance of the pyre became even more striking in the light of changing patterns of burial for the population. The extension of the Empire and of the powers of the emperor sacralized his function, and indeed his person and that of the empress, and they were compared in word and picture to the divinities of the traditional pantheon. However, an evolution in the worship of the emperor and in the external features of the apotheosis can be outlined. These features increased as a result of cultural contacts with Eastern countries (in particular, Persia), so that from the Antonine age onward such attributes as the radiant nimbus, which symbolized the divine glory conferred on the king, became common in iconography.

Among the relatives of the emperors honored with an apotheosis, an important example is provided by Antinous, the young boy beloved by the emperor Hadrian, whose death in Egypt raised controversial interpretations. It is not certain whether he fell accidentally into the Nile or whether his life was offered in sacrifice in a sort of devotio for Hadrian's safety. The emperor honored him by founding a city named Antinoopolis near the place where the boy was drowned. An apparition of a new star, as in the case of Caesar, was also reported. The deified Antinous was identified with or portrayed as various Greek gods (Hermes, Dionysos, and others) and explicitly merged with Osiris, not only because of the way he died but because his death took place on the anniversary of Osiris's drowning. The deification of Antinous also recalled the Egyptian custom of according divine honors to persons drowned in the Nile. The cult of Antinous soon spread, especially in his birthplace of Bithynia, and it is variously recorded on epigraphs and statues. However, the emperor came under ridicule, especially after his sister Paulina died and he did not immediately accord her any honors. The case of Antinous, together with that of Livia, Augustus's wife, in the fourth century, was condemned by the Christian poet Prudentius (Against Symmachus 1.245 ff.).

After the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312, apotheosis became incompatible with the new religion and was denounced by many fathers of the church because it implied the worship of dead people as gods. Constantine was probably the first emperor to be inhumed and the first for whom a pyre was not erected. Yet coins of consecration were nonetheless struck upon his death; these depicted the emperor in a chariot, extending his hand toward the hand of God emerging from the sky. In any case, the title divus did not imply apotheosis for the Christians, and Constantine's biographer Eusebius of Caesarea clearly states that Constantine enjoyed a Christian immortality. The artful funeral of Constantine constituted a model for a subsequent elaboration of the Byzantine ceremonies for dead emperors, as is depicted in the Liber de caeremoniis and in panegyric poetry.

See Also

Deification; Emperor's Cult.


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Chiara Ombretta Tommasi (2005)


views updated May 21 2018


In the ancient Greek world it was believed that divinity was everywhere, but in a special way in great men. The legendary founders of cities were thought to have been gods in disguise or at least the offspring of gods. They were worshiped by the official cult of the city. Contrasting with this "descending" theology was an "ascending" point of view expressed in the idea that exceptional men escaped the common fate of mortals and were transported beyond the stars to share in the eternal blessedness of the gods. Hercules is the classical case in mythology of the hero who by his exploits on earth achieved divine status. Within historical times Alexander the Great and later Hellenistic kings were apotheosized. An Athenian memorial to the heroes fallen at Potidaea (432 b.c.) goes so far as to ascribe this blessedness even to ordinary soldiers: "The ether has received their souls, the earth their bodies" (Cumont, 146). The apotheosis of the first two Caesars may be said to have been, to some extent at least, the result of a genuine religious feeling that a divine hand was at work in the reestablishment of peace and order in a ravaged world. In accordance with the scientific picture of the world at that time, apotheosis was conceived of in strictly spatial terms. A Roman relief represents Julius Caesar standing in a chariot that four winged horses are carrying toward the heavens.

Some historians of the early 20th century tried to explain Christianity's faith in the divinity of Christ as a derivation from the apotheosis of heroes and emperors. W. Bousset, in his Kyrios Christos (Göttingen 1913), advanced the hypothesis that the title lord was first given to Jesus by gentile converts at Antioch and other centers of gentile Christianity under the influence of the mystery cults (see mystery religions, greco-oriental). St. Paul would have introduced the title and the divine worship paid to Christ into the Judeo-Christian Churches. E. Lohmeyer [Christuskult und Kaiserkult (Tübingen 1919)] held that the title son of god was commonplace in ancient times and expressed man's need for a concrete embodiment of the divine on earth. The term was used of political saviors and of religious saviors. It was given, according to Lohmeyer, to Jesus under the influence of the apotheosis of Augustus some decades earlier.

Contemporary scholars are agreed that these titles arose, not within gentile Christianity, but in the Judeo-Christian Churches. The title Lord is found in the oldest passages of the New Testament (e.g., Mk 12.3537; Acts 2.36; Gal 4.1), and the passage in which Christ is given the divine "name that is above every name" (Phil 2.9) is clearly inspired by passages in Isaiah. The title Son of God probably originated with, or at least was popularized by, St. Paul, for whose gentile hearers Our Lord's own designation of Himself, Son of Man, would be meaningless.

Bibliography: k. prÜmm, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 1:766767. l. cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of St. Paul, tr. g. webb and a. walker (New York 1959). o. cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, tr. s. c. guthrie and c. a. m. hall (rev. ed. Philadelphia 1963). f. cumont, Lux perpetua (Paris 1949) 171. g. dix, Jew and Greek (Westminster, Eng. 1953).

[j. m. carmody]


views updated Jun 08 2018

a·poth·e·o·sis / əˌpä[unvoicedth]ēˈōsis; ˌapəˈ[unvoicedth]ēəsis/ • n. (pl. -ses / -ˌsēz/ ) [usu. in sing.] the highest point in the development of something; culmination or climax. ∎  the elevation of someone to divine status; deification.


views updated Jun 08 2018

apotheosis originally (in the late 16th century) the elevation of someone to divine status, or deification; in later use, the highest point in the development of something; a culmination or climax. The word comes via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek, from apotheoun ‘make a god of’, from apo ‘from’ + theos ‘god’.


views updated May 11 2018

apotheosis deification. XVII. — ecclL. apotheðsis — Gr. apothéōsis, f. apotheoûn deify, f. theós god (cf. THEO-).
Hence apotheosize XVIII.


views updated May 14 2018

Apotheosis (Gk., apo, ‘from’, + theoun, ‘to deify’). The elevation of a human being to the rank and status of a god. See also EUHEMERISM.