Women in the Imperial Cult of Rome

Women as Priestesses

Temple of Augustus and Livia

In antiquity, women’s roles were limited to those of the domestic and religious spheres, and even then, records of their roles in religion tend to be limited. Religion was the one place that women could enjoy more freedom; they could hold positions of power, such as priestesses, or in the case of imperial women, the could become a deity. Women in the Imperial cult of Rome had access to these positions of power and oftentimes wives or relatives of deified emperor became priestesses of the Imperial cult. Livia serves as such an example, becoming the first priestess of the imperial cult after the death of her husband, Augustus,(Hemelrijk, 2007, 318-349) in 14 AD (history, 2009). Livia becomes a model of a strong woman in power, which will also be an area of focus. Another prominent imperial family member, Drusilla, the first imperial woman to be defied, also serves as a model showing women’s influence through iconographic evidence. So even if women’s roles in imperial Rome are not often discussed, they remain an integral part of the imperial cult and thus, of Rome’s history.



Practices and Duties of the Priestesses

Although they may have seemed more free than priestesses in other religions at the time, records on the rituals performed by imperial priestesses are scarce. The only evidence we have is honorific and funerary inscriptions indicating their priesthood (Hemelrijk, 2007, 318-349). However, we do have some speculative knowledge as to what the duties of imperial priestesses may be. It seems likely that priestesses performed sacrifices for the goddesses (Hemelrijk, 2007, 318-349). Although they performed less blood sacrifices than their male counterparts, they participated nonetheless and it seems to be that they did so without qualms. In fact, there are no restrictions placed on women forbidding them to perform the sacrifices. Although they may have performed these sacrifices, there is little to no artwork depicting them performing sacrifices. Rather, priestesses can be seen, in the little artwork they appear in, participating in other aspects of the ritual; the burning of incense or the pouring of wine (Hemelrijk, 2007, 318-349).

Livia Augustus

After her husbands death, Livia held a position of unique importance in the state (Hemelrijk, 2007, 318-349), however her power was not limited to after Augusts’ death. Even before Augustus’ death, she was held in esteem alongside her husband that “ambassadors to Augustus often approached her to endeavor to make her an advocate their cause (Grether, 1946, 222-252).” This power she held in political court extended to her religious standing. She was given “cult honours and tributes of a divine nature (Grether, 1946, 222-252)” thanks to the honour that she accumulated within the Roman court. She was clearly well respected and held in high esteem next to her husband.

Livia’s influence extended far past the reaches of Rome. There are statues of her found near Naples and Lyons. The poet Ovid is also said to have made sacrifices to Livia and Augustus (Grether, 1946, 222-252). This widespread veneration of Livia is important because it places a tangible, aristocratic woman in the position of divinity

Inscription in the Temple of Nemesis

livia dedication
Dedication to Livia in The Temple of Nemesis, AD 45/6 (Thompson, 2017)

For a primary source, an inscription on the east epistyle of the temple of Nemesis in Rhamnous (Stafford, 2013, 205-238) proves to be a good example of Livia’s influence. The inscription is dated to 45/6AD(Stafford, 2013, 205-238) and reads

    The people to the goddess Livia. When Demostratos son of Dionysios of Pallene was    hoplite general and priest of the goddess Roma and Caesar Augustus; and Antipatros the Younger son of Antipatros of Phlya was archon

                                                                                             (Stafford, 2015, 205-238)

     Since the dedication is made to Livia and not Julia Augusta, which the name she took on after her testamentary adaption in 14AD, there is some debate on the inscription’s date. Some believe it to be earlier, although the 45/6 AD date is the one generally agreed upon, as Livia was deified in 42AD (Hemelrijk, 2007, 318-349) and Aiolion was the archon in 45/6 AD, which makes this the more plausible date (Stafford 2013, 205-238).

Another noteworthy aspect of the inscription is the fact that it is found in a temple dedicated to originally to Nemesis, not Livia. This has archeologists questioning whether the temple was originally for Nemesis but then converted for Livia, or if the two goddesses simply shared the temple after Livia’s deification. It is suggested that it was originally a Greek temple dedicated to Nemesis but it was repaired and reconsecrated to Livia in the Roman period (Doughty).

It was actually common practice in the second century AD to have shared spaces in temples (Stafford, 2013, 205-238). Deities of the imperial cult of Rome would share spaces with other deities; Livia, Tiberius, Augustus, and Roma in the early imperial period had statues placed in the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios in Athens (Thompson, 2017). The annex appears to have been a place for imperial worship in the Stoa, as there were statue bases that seemed to have belonged to members of the imperial family. The fact that the empress Livia was placed alongside notable emperors in the Stoa of Zeus was a great honor, especially for anyone who was not themselves an emperor (Thompson, 2017). Statues of Agrippina, Domitia, and Julia were also found during an excavation (Thompson, 2017). The Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios was the primary place of worship for the cult of Tiberius and Livia in Athens. It is plausible that the old God’s place of worship was kept separate from the imperial cult’s deities, most likely with Tiberius and Livia sharing a space, and Augustus and Roma sharing a separate space (Stafford, 2013, 205-238). They become associated with Zeus through sharing a temple, but still remain separate. Oftentimes, empresses were the exemplars for the priestesses of the cult (Hemelrijk, 2007, 318-349) which makes Livia’s iconographic representations all the more meaningful.

The Stoa of Zeus

The Stoa is not completely detached from the chosen primary source material. Although the inscription at Rhamnous predates the Stoa of Zeus, it does show a “possibility of a direct correspondence” (Stafford, 2013, 205-238) that the temple had been rededicated to the cult of Augustus while still keeping Nemesis’ statues. So the rededication of the Temple of Nemesis where we find our inscription is not an uncommon occurrence as is shown through the example of Stoa of Zeus.

Her placement in the Stoa of Zeus is also an important source, as she is placed with other imperial family members and shares the honor equally with them. Although her husband is deemed as a more powerful deity, and his statue placement more prominent, she is still seen by many as being an influential and strong force in imperial Rome.

Diva Drusilla Panthea

Caligula remains a disliked emperor among historians which has unfortunately tainted the reputation of women in the family, often claiming that he had incestuous relations with them (Wood, 1995, 457-482). Despite these allegations, Drusilla, his eldest sister, was deified in 38AD (Hemelrijk, 2007, 318-349) and was represented on coinage and had various statues of her made (Wood, 1995, 457-482), preserving her status as symbolic genetrix and “universal goddess” (Wood, 1995, 457-482).

Some of the dedications given to Drusilla were unprecedented and were monumental for her time (Wood, 1995, 457-482). Drusilla was “the first woman to be named in an emperor’s will as the heir to his imperium, and the first woman to be deified”(Wood, 1995, 457-482). These public honours marked Drusilla as a woman with influence during her lifetime (Wood, 1995, 457-482)

caligula sisters
Sestertius of Caligula, Rome, AD 37-38, depicting Agrippina, Drusilla, and Livilla. London, British Museum. (Wood, 1995, 457-482)

For both imperial and civic women in ancient Rome, bearing children was at the front of their responsibilities. Unfortunately, Drusilla died before she was able to produce a male heir, so

[i]f she was never able to be the actual genetrix of the dynasty, she could be  symbolic one, a sort of protective patron goddess; one of her statues, equal in scale to the cult image, was set up in the Temple of Venus Genetrix in the Forum Inulium, identifying her intimately with the lineage of the Julians (Wood, 1995, 457-482.)

This meant that even though she was never the genetrix of the dynasty, she was still regarded as one and held in high esteem throughout the period of the popularity of her cult.

In the regard of her iconographic representation and monumental steps as a goddess in the Imperial cult of Rome, she is much like Livia. The two women were powerful figures in Roman life at the time and their deification was important to the Imperial cult and the women of Rome. Their representations also give historians and classicists evidence to work from in trying to reconstruct the lives of Imperial women and priestesses.

So What?

Livia became a main focus of study because her impact on women’s role in the Roman imperial cult is most definitely worth highlighting in modern classics courses. She wielded influence over men of the court, and was given a prestigious title during the formative years of the Roman imperial cult. Livia was the mold for priestesses to come.

Priestesses roles in later years of the imperial cult were important because all though women were enjoying power, it is important to remember they were still subservient to men. Even though women were able to participate in sacrifices and rituals, there were far less recorded priestesses compared to priests and their representation paled in comparison to their male counterparts. Even female imperial deities were less venerated than men. So even though it seems as the lives of women were progressing and they had more avenues available, it is important to note that they still were far from being independent beings capable of asserting themselves as individuals.



Works Cited

Doughty, Susan. “The Sanctuary of Nemesis at Rhamnous.” Warwick, Warwick University.

Grether, Gertrude. “Livia and the Roman Imperial Cult.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 67, no. 3, 1946, pp. 222–252.

Hemelrijk, Emily A. “Local Empresses: Priestesses of the Imperial Cult in the Cities of the Latin West.” Pheonix, vol. 61, 2007, pp. 318–349.

Smith, William. A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology and Geography, Partly Based upon the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.

Stafford, Emma. “’The People to the Goddess Livia’.” Kernos, vol. 26, 2013, pp. 205–238.

Stafford, Emma. “‘The People to the Goddess Livia’: Attic Nemesis and the Roman Imperial Cult*.” Kernos, vol. 26, 10 Oct. 2013, pp. 205–238.

Thompson, Homer A. “The Annex to the Stoa of Zeus in the Athenian Agora.” American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2017.

Wood, Susan, “Diva Drusilla and the Sisters of Caligula,” American Journal of Philology, 99, 1995, pp. 457-482.



One thought on “Women in the Imperial Cult of Rome

  1. This was very well done, and I thought you did a very good job in regards to explaining exactly what the priestesses would do within their religious communities when it came to all of their tasks including sacrifices. I also acknowledged the same thing when trying to find evidence of females doing something that a man would usually do there is very little evidence whether that be the artwork of females doing sacrifices or records of females handing out loans.


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