The rite of CONSECRATIO and the deification of the Roman Emperors:
Images and Documents
John J. Hartwell
CONSECRATIO (from Herodian IV.2)
"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 chariots 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."
THE APOTHEOSIS OF PERTINAX, 193: (from Cassius Dio, LXXV. 4)
Upon establishing himself in power he (Septimus Severus) erected a shrine to Pertinax, and commanded that his name should be mentioned at the close of all prayers and all oaths; he also ordered that a golden image of Pertinax should be carried into the Circus on a car drawn by elephants, and that three gilded thrones should be borne into the other amphitheatres in his honour. His funeral, in spite of the time that had elapsed since his death, was carried out as follows. In the Roman Forum a wooden platform was constructed hard by the marble rostra, upon which was set a shrine, without walls, but surrounded by columns, cunningly wrought of both ivory and gold. In it there was placed a bier of the same materials, surrounded by heads of both land and sea animals and adorned with coverlets of purple and gold. Upon this rested an effigy of Pertinax in wax, laid out in triumphal garb; and a comely youth was keeping the flies away from it with peacock feathers, as though it were really a person sleeping. While the body lay in state, Severus as well as we senators and our wives approached, wearing mourning; the women sat in the porticos, and we men under the open sky. After this there moved past, first, images of all the famous Romans of old, then choruses of boys and men, singing a dirge-like hymn to Pertinax; there followed all the subject nations, represented by bronze figures attired in native dress, and the guilds of the City itself — those of the lictors, the scribes, the heralds, and all the rest. Then came images of other men who had been distinguished for some exploit or invention or manner of life. Behind these were the cavalry and infantry in armour, the race-horses, and all the funeral offerings that the emperor and we senators and our wives, and the corporations of the City, had sent. Following them came an altar gilded all over and adorned with ivory and gems of India. When these had passed by, Severus mounted the rostra and read a eulogy of Pertinax. We shouted our approval many times in the course of his address, now praising and now lamenting Pertinax, but our shouts were loudest when he concluded. Finally, when the bier was about to be moved, we all lamented and wept together. It was brought down from the platform by the high priests and the magistrates, not only those who were actually in office at the time by also those who had been elected for the ensuing year; and they gave it to certain knights to carry. All the rest of us, now, marched ahead of the bier, some beating our breasts and others playing a dirge on the flute, but the emperor followed behind all the rest; and in this order we arrived at the Campus Martius. There a pyre had been built in the form of a tower having three stories and adorned with ivory and gold as well as a number of statues, while on its very summit was placed a gilded chariot that Pertinax had been wont to drive. Inside this pyre the funeral offerings were cast and the bier was placed in it, and then Severus and the relatives of Pertinax kissed the effigy. The emperor then ascended a tribunal, while we, the senate, except the magistrates, took our places on wooden stands in order to view the ceremonies both safely and conveniently. The magistrates and the equestrian order, arrayed in a manner befitting their station, and likewise the cavalry and the infantry, passed in and out around the pyre performing intricate evolutions, both those of peace and those of war. Then at last the consuls applied fire to the structure, and when this had been done, an eagle flew aloft from it. Thus was Pertinax made immortal. Although a warlike nature usually ends up by being harsh and a peaceful one cowardly, Pertinax excelled equally in both respects, being formidable in war and shrewd in peace. He showed boldness, of which bravery is an ingredient, toward foreigners and rebels, but clemency, into which justice enters, toward his countrymen and the orderly element. When advanced to preside over the destinies of the world, he never showed himself unworthy of his increased dignity, so as to appear more subservient in some things and more haughty in others than was fitting, but remained unchanged absolutely from first to last — being dignified without sullenness, gentle without humility, shrewd without knavery, just without excessive strictness, frugal without stinginess, high-minded without boastfulness.
[below: agate gem carved with an image of the Apotheosis of (probably) Claudius. An eagle is seen about to bear the Emperor aloft, while a --- presents him with a laurel wreath.]