To what ex­tent did or­di­nary Ro­mans love the em­per­ors? How can we tell?

M Kalugerovich, Bath­gate

BBC History Magazine - - Miscellany - Miles Rus­sell is a se­nior lec­turer in pre­his­toric and Ro­man ar­chae­ol­ogy at Bournemouth Univer­sity

AAll Ro­man cit­i­zens were,

in the­ory, of equiv­a­lent sta­tus, the head of state be­ing ac­knowl­edged sim­ply with the ti­tle primus in­ter pares (first among equals).

In prac­tice, how­ever, em­per­ors were quite clearly dif­fer­ent to mere mor­tals. After death, they could be pro­moted to the sta­tus of a god, with tem­ples ded­i­cated in their honour.

Within the prov­inces, em­per­ors seem to have been widely and gen­uinely adored, their por­traits ap­pear­ing on stat­ues in all ma­jor towns and forts, their names oc­cur­ring in a va­ri­ety of pub­lic and pri­vate re­li­gious ded­i­ca­tions. Au­gus­tus, Claudius, Ves­pasian and Hadrian are good ex­am­ples of em­per­ors who, fol­low­ing their demise, be­came deities and were wor­shipped across the em­pire.

Closer to Rome, though, em­per­ors were not al­ways so ad­mired. Cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als could swiftly fall from grace. Be­ing stran­gled, poi­soned, smoth­ered or stabbed in a palace coup was one thing, but so­ci­ety had an­other ef­fec­tive way of erad­i­cat­ing those em­per­ors who were po­lit­i­cally unloved: a form of mem­o­ry­wipe known as damna­tio memo­riae, whereby im­ages of the de­ceased were van­dalised, re-carved, or re­moved from view and their name erased. The em­per­ors Caligula, Nero, Domi­tian, Com­modus and Cara­calla were just such im­pe­rial bad boys who ef­fec­tively be­came non-peo­ple.

A bust of the em­peror Domi­tian (AD 51– 96), one of the “im­pe­rial bad boys” who many or­di­nary Ro­mans pre­ferred to for­get

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