Why you should care
Because the Roman Empire’s secret weapon wasn’t armies — it was public relations.
How do you run one of the largest empires in history, spanning thousands of miles, dozens of languages, and too many skin colors and cultures to count? Put a celebrity in charge.
True, the Romans may not have had Rolling Stone covers or Oprah interviews, but they were the original publicity gurus.
Before the Roman Empire came to be in the first century B.C., Rome itself was the picture of civil disorder. After the dictator Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated, factions duked it out for dominance, causing financial upheaval, violence, strife and partisan politics that would make even today’s Congress blush. To Roman oracles, the explanation was simple: The gods must be angry. The solution? Create new gods.
Augustus Caesar, the adopted son of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire’s first emperor, was a natural at public relations. To appease the people and avoid the same bloody end as his father, he called himself “First Citizen” rather than “dictator,” and insisted that Rome remain a republic. And in tribute to his beloved dad, Augustus took a seemingly innocent step that would cement the foundation of the Roman Empire: He pronounced the dearly departed Julius Caesar a deity.
And thus began a tradition that would span centuries — Rome’s emperors would become gods, usually after their deaths. Having an inside track to divinity added a degree of infallibility to emperors and made the imperial line difficult to challenge. And evidence of their immortality was everywhere. Beginning with the reign of Augustus, this “imperial cult” emblazoned itself across the expanding Roman Empire, with emperors and their families’ likenesses appearing on coins and in temples, public baths, theaters and public squares. They say all roads lead to Rome, and for people traveling from as far away as modern-day Spain, Great Britain or the Middle East, having images of their emperor point the way was pretty handy — not to mention good publicity.
Even divinity has its limits.
Even compared with our modern-day celebrity culture, likening yourself to a deity seems a bit extreme — just look at the cultural backlash to Kanye’s hit “I Am a God.” As historian Charles King points out, blasphemy was easier to negotiate in ancient Rome, where religious beliefs coexisted and blended, and the word “cult” didn’t carry the negative associations it does today.
Let’s be clear, though: Being a god is never easy, and for Roman emperors, stepping into the celestial spotlight required hard work and the tireless distribution of statues, edicts and resources.
And even divinity has its limits. Some emperors flaunted their godlike status, only to be sent toppling off Mount Olympus. Emperor Nero openly flirted with divinity, to the displeasure of his fellow aristocrats; he played gods and goddesses onstage, and he even built a “Golden House” of a palace, complete with a 120-foot-tall statue of himself. Sadly, Nero’s run at immortality — and his reign — ended with his death in a swift and bloody civil war.
What Nero failed to appreciate was that the Roman imperial cult was not about living as a deity; it was about constructing a larger-than-life media image that could inspire the people and unite a nation. Even thousands of years ago, being a celebrity politician required a commanding, almost transcendent presence — and a team of Mad Men in your corner.