Silver tridrachm of Gaius Caligula

Roman, early 1st century AD
Minted on the island of Crete

The emperor as God

There are many examples from history which show how easy for a supreme ruler in a polytheistic society (that is, one that worships more than one god) to become regarded as some kind of living god. In the Roman Empire divine honours were conferred upon deceased emperors. Although it was acceptable for a recently dead emperor to be regarded as divine, contemporary historians could be very hostile towards a living emperor whose godly pretensions became too apparent to the élite at Rome. One of the best known examples is that of the notorious emperor Gaius Caligula (AD 37-41) about whom a number of colourful anecdotes exist.

However, the idea of the emperor as god was not such a problem among the ordinary people, or those who lived in the provinces of the empire. In Roman Lyons (Lugdunum) in France, for example, a monumental altar was built to the emperor Augustus (31 BC-AD 14) during his lifetime. In the eastern provinces, which had long been used to ideas of the god-king inherited from Hellenistic times, there are many examples in art which contain suggestions of the emperor as living god.

This coin of Caligula is a good example. It is a Roman Provincial coin, minted on the island of Crete. It shows Caligula with a sceptre over his shoulder to liken him to 'Dictaean Zeus', a local version of the king of the Classical gods. The reverse (back) of the coin bears an image of Caligula's deceased and deified predecessor Augustus (27 BC - AD 14) in a pose also associated with Zeus. His head is crowned with rays suggesting that the deified emperor had taken his place among the stars in heaven.

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Silver tridrachm of Gaius Caligula

Silver tridrachm of Gaius Caligula, early 1st century AD

  • Prince on horseback, possibly Caligula, Rome, 1 - 50 AD

    Prince on horseback, possibly Caligula, Rome, 1 - 50 AD

 

More information

Bibliography

A. Burnett, M. Amandry and P.P. Ripollès, Roman provincial coinage, vol. 1 (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)

A. Barrett, Caligula: the corruption of po (Yale University Press, 1998)

C. Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman emperor (London, Thames & Hudson, 1997)

Dimensions

Diameter: 23.000 mm
Weight: 7.550 g

Museum number

CM 1842-07-26-4 (BMC (Crete) 2)

CGR8

Location

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