The Roman Imperial Ideology

In Egypt, the worship of the Living ruler as a god was a tradition practiced for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This did not change when Rome took control of Egypt. When Octavian, later known as Augustus, defeated Marc Antony, conquered Egypt, and became the first Emperor of the Roman Empire he established an Imperial cult in Alexandria. The worship of the Emperor was common among the eastern provinces. These Imperial cults were established by the Roman Senate and included the worship of the Emperor and the Roman goddess Roma. The cult in Egypt was different however. Having been established by Augustus himself it did not consist of the worship of Roma, only the worship of the Emperor himself. This is representative of Egypt’s position in the Empire. The Senate had no control here, so the goddess that represented the Senate, Roma, was also absent.

    The Imperial cult in Egypt had three levels: the cult center in Alexandria, cult centers in the smaller cities and towns in Egypt, and within the individual homes. The cult center in Alexandria was headed by a high priest appointed by the Emperor as his representative in Egypt. This priest was always of Roman origin and had the title “High Priest of Alexandria and All Egypt”. This man was in charge of all of the cult practices and high priests of the Imperial cult and of the other Egyptian cults. This allowed for the Roman emperor to have direct control of the religious cult practices of Egypt. The cult centers in the towns and cities in Egypt were led by a regional high priesthood that had the titles of “High Priest of the City”. These men were of Egyptian descent and were in charge of the regional worship within the Imperial cult. The third level was worship in the individual home. Evidence for this type of Imperial cult worship is rare, but some does exist. Small shrines such as shelves or niches would have been found in many, if not all Egyptian homes, and some of these homes would have had shrines to the Emperor.
       The USC Smiting King may be evidence of personal Emperor worship in Roman Egypt. Terracotta figurines in Egypt consisted mostly of four groups: gods, anonymous, non-human beings or deities, animals, and humans. The human category consisted of servants, soldiers, slaves, gladiators, and priests doing various tasks. The USC terracotta figurine does not fit into this category because the image type is restricted only to a godlike figure or the Egyptian king. The figurine is also not anonymous. The barbarian figure, most likely representing a Sicarii, has an identity and the depicted emperor is most likely Hadrian because he had a beard and defeated a revolt by Jewish rebels. That leaves the final category. This figurine fits within the god category. In this context, the object is probably a religious figurine showing the Roman Emperor as a god and would have been used in his worship. Terracotta figurines were used almost exclusively in the individual homes in Egypt. Most of the figurines found in museum collections come from the art market, but the ones that have been excavated have been uncovered in excavations of residential areas. This means that the USC Smiting King figurine would have been found in a residential home and would have been used as a cult image for the worship of the emperor and would have been placed in a shrine, either a shelf or a niche.
    Beyond the religious use of this artifact within the Imperial cult, it would also have been a propagandistic image used by the Romans. The final conquest of Judea was a significant event in the history of Rome. It was commemorated in many ways. The Romans minted victory coins, the Arch of Titus was built in Rome to commemorate the victory, and the Forum of Peace was built by Vespasian to commemorate the victory. The USC figurine also does this. It represents the Emperor subduing the Judeans and defeating them in the name of the Empire. It would have been used to try and persuade the Egyptians to be loyal subjects and to accept his sovereignty over them. Furthermore, it would have been used to create a central identity for the entire Roman Empire.
The reality in Roman Egypt was that only a small percentage of people in Egypt were actually of Roman descent, so measures had to be taken to include the Egyptian people in the concept of Rome as an entire nation and as important members of the Roman Empire. The Emperor’s image was on all the currency in Egypt and he had an established cult for his worship in Egypt as well. The emperors would also visit the territory so the people could see and create a connection to the Emperor and as a result Rome.

In their imagery Romans used what is known as simulacra gentium, or images of nations. These images would have been representative of particular peoples. The image of the Sicarii in the USC figurine would be an example of this representative tool. What we see is that how simulacra gentium was used changed when Hadrian became the Emperor. Before he was Emperor the simulacra gentium was used to illustrate imperial victories and to support the Roman’s claims of divine rule. After Hadrian became Emperor the simulacra gentium started to be adopted by the people in the provinces to depict the different peoples of the Roman Empire as part of a larger community. This change is significant. With this change the provinces were no longer areas that Rome conquered and controlled, but they were now part of this idea of what Rome was. There were new outsiders that needed to be conquered. The Egyptians would have fit into the category of the provinces that were now considered to be fully members of the Roman Empire. It provided a source of national identity for Rome and for all of its provinces.



Pfeiffer, Stefan. "The Imperial Cult In Egypt." Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt. 2012. 83-100. Print.

Sandri, Sandra. "Terracottas." Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt. 2012. 630-647. Print.

Vandorpe, Katelijn. "Identity." Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt. 2012. 260-276. Print.

Ando, Clifford. Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire. University of California Press, 2000. Print.


  • Grant Dixon