Sodales Augustales: Rome’s Elite Imperial Cult Dedicated to the Emperor
The Sodales Augustales were a religious organization in ancient Rome dedicated to the worship of the emperor. Composed of prominent citizens, they served as ambassadors and reinforced the emperor's divine status, contributing to the unity and stability of the empire. Despite the decline of the imperial cult, the Augustales left a legacy of religious and political power in the heart of the Roman Empire. Here’s the fascinating story behind the Sodales, the role they played in Ancient Rome, and how they faded into obscurity.
The Sodales Augustales- The Emperor’s Most Loyal Subjects
Ancient Rome had a truly dizzying number of religious cults. Roman religion was a complicated blend of traditional beliefs and practices mixed in with imported gods from conquered lands.
Most people are familiar with the Roman worship of the traditional Roman gods such as Jupiter, Mars, and Venus as well as the cults of various Greek gods like Apollo and Dionysus. But what a lot of people don’t know is that it wasn’t just gods that the Roman people were encouraged to worship. There were numerous cults dedicated to specific emperors and members of their imperial families. Within these cults the emperor was worshiped as a divine being. Of these organizations responsible for worshiping the divine emperor, the Sodales Augustales was perhaps the most prominent.
The Imperial cult which the Augustales led was made up of both Roman citizens and non-citizens and held regular religious ceremonies and sacrifices in honor of the emperor. The Augustales were an important part of the imperial cult and their organization played an important role in promoting the emperor’s status and reinforcing the idea that he was a divine being.
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A wall panel of ancient Roman frescos in the College Of the Augustales, center of the cult of the Emperor Augustus, Herculaneum, Naples, Italy. Source (TyB/CC BY 2.0).
Founding of the Sodales Augustales
When Augustus became the first Roman Emperor in 27 BC one of his first acts was to establish a new religious order to promote the idea of his divine nature. Roman leaders tended to have an ego the size of their empires and Augustus was no different. He firmly believed that his rule was divinely ordained and that he was an instrument of the gods. It was his divine mandate to bring order and peace to Rome.
It is all well and good believing this himself, but he needed a new religion that would emphasize his divine role to the general populace. This is where the Imperial Cult and the Sodales Augustales came in. It was their job to convince the rest of the Roman Empire that Augustus was a divine being.
So why did it matter if the common people believed he was divine or not? He was already in charge. Well, enough Roman leaders had been overthrown and assassinated by this point for Augustus to know how important it was to have the support of the common man. Convincing the people of his divine status was a great way to win their support and establish himself as Rome’s legitimate ruler.
The Imperial cult, led by the Sodales Augustales, allowed the people of Rome to show their loyalty and support for the emperor. In turn, it served as a means for the emperor to demonstrate his piety and devotion to the gods. The better the cult made the emperor look; the more likely people were to follow him.
The final reason Augustus founded the cult was for political reasons. Within the empire, he used the cult to promote the stability and unity of the Roman Empire under his leadership. Abroad the Sodales Augustales were used to spread the imperial cult and the idea of the emperor’s divinity across the Roman world. Who would want to tangle with an empire whose people thought their leader was a genuine god?
The Augustulus worshipped the Emperor of Rome. Source: ZenitX / Adobe Stock
Members of the Sodales Augustales
Members of the Sodales Augustales were simply referred to as Augustales. Becoming an Augustales was a prestigious and highly coveted honor in ancient Rome, which meant not everyone could join.
While citizens and non-citizens alike could worship in the Imperial cult, entry requirements for the Sodales Augustales were much stricter. Due to its high social standing, the group was usually reserved for the wealthiest and most influential members of society. Augustales were selected from among the leading citizens of each community within the empire. They were usually chosen based on a combination of their wealth, status, and reputation.
The first criterion was that an Augustales had to be a Roman citizen. They then had to meet certain financial qualifications. Members were expected to supply financial support to the organization for the Sodales Augustales relied on the wealth and resources of its members to promote itself and maintain a certain standard. If you had no money, you were of little use.
They were also expected to be true believers. While it is of course likely that many members joined as means of self-promotion, Augustales were expected to demonstrate fierce loyalty to the emperor. This meant attending religious rituals and festivals and serving as ambassadors of the emperor within their communities. In short, you couldn’t just write a check and join.
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Once you were deemed worthy through the above criteria you were initiated into the order. This meant taking an oath to support the imperial cult and committing your life to promote the worship of the emperor. The final step was the giving of a special toga, the toga candida, which was worn during religious ceremonies.
Duties of an Augustales
The Sodales Augustales was both a political and religious entity and this was reflected in the duties of its members. Their primary role was supposedly a religious one. They acted as priests of the imperial cult who oversaw its religious activities.
The Augustales were responsible for organizing religious ceremonies in the emperor’s honor and arranging various sacrifices throughout the year. These ceremonies and sacrifices could be quite grand, and therefore expensive. They were responsible for making sure that the imperial cult acted in accordance with Roman religious traditions and maintaining the purity of the cult’s teachings and practices. It was also up to the Augustales to act as the group’s accountants, managing its resources and ensuring the group was able to carry out its religious agenda.
Their secondary, but arguably equally important duty, was to act as the emperor’s ambassadors. Declaring oneself a divine being was a double-edged sword. It emphasized that you were above the general people and worthy of power and devotion but it also distanced you from them for becoming too distant from your followers could be dangerous.
It was down to the Augustales to provide a connection between the emperor and the people he ruled over. They spread his message and promoted his cult throughout the empire. Their high social standing within their communities meant people would listen to what they had to say.
As the emperor’s ambassadors, they were also responsible for providing support and assistance to people within their communities. The Augustales were the ultimate role models and were expected to guide people and support those who needed charity. This ranged from offering the poor financial aid to helping resolve conflicts and disputes within their communities.
It’s difficult to pin down the most famous Augustales. Contemporary sources tended to focus on the accomplishments of the order as a whole rather than singling out specific members. This isn’t really surprising, the Sodales Augustales was founded to promote the emperor, not its members.
This being said, there are a handful of prominent Roman citizens who some historians believe may have been Augustales. Some sources suggest that Lucius Munatius Plancus may have been a prominent member. He was a Roman statesman and military leader who served as a consul and as a governor for several Roman provinces. He was a rich, powerful ally of Augustales in the highest social standing. He ticked every box for joining the Sodales Augustales. As a prominent supporter of the imperial cult, it makes sense that he would have been one of the group’s early members.
Another example is Marcus Valerius Martials. Marcus was a Roman poet from the first and early second centuries AD. He was famous for his epigrams (a kind of short poem) that celebrated both the emperor and his imperial cult. It is believed he was a prominent member of the order, and his surviving works are notable examples of the religious and cultural significance of the imperial cult.
Some of the Augustales were prominent Roman citizens (Public Domain)
Other examples of famous Augustales are thin on the ground. This is likely for two reasons. Firstly, the focus of historical research has been on the broader political and cultural context of the imperial cult in ancient Rome. Historians have always focused on the group as a whole rather than its individual members. Secondly, the group existed to promote the emperor. This being Rome, of course, the Augustales probably used their positions within the cult for their own political gain. The group was made up of rich and powerful people and it seems unlikely their devotion to the cult was purely selfless. However, on the other hand, they had to be careful carrying out any self-promotion. To over-promote one's deeds within the organization threatened to overshadow the emperor. It seems like this would have drawn the emperor’s ire and been exceedingly dangerous.
The End of the Augustales
There doesn’t seem to be an exact date for the disbanding of the Sodales Augustales. Instead, like most of the Roman cults, it seems likely that they declined over time along with the empire.
As the empire declined the imperial cult and the worship of the emperor as a divine being lost most of their influence and importance. The less powerful the empire became, the less powerful the emperor was, making him seem significantly less godly.
This was combined with the rise of Christianity which challenged the traditional Roman religious beliefs and practices. Christianity is a monotheistic faith and it put an end to most of the old Roman cults which were devoted to individual gods. Rather than having their own cults later leaders had to try a different tactic. Rather than making themselves divine, they tied themselves to the church. This led to the idea of the “divine right of kings” in Europe where kings were not divine beings themselves but were chosen by god to lead.
There were so many religious groups in Rome that some of them, like the Sodales Augustales, have largely been forgotten today. This doesn’t mean they weren’t important and didn’t have significant impacts on the Roman Empire, however.
An empire is only ever as strong as its leadership and the Sodales Augustales played a key role in promoting the imperial cult and reinforcing the emperor’s divine status.
Their existence also helps highlight the diversity and complexity of the Roman religion and its vital role in shaping the identity and unity of the Roman people. While these various cults may have eventually entered a decline and been disbanded, their impact on the religious, political, and cultural history of Rome remains evident in society today.
As we study the history of the Sodales Augustales, we are reminded of the powerful role that religion and religious organizations can play in shaping the beliefs and values of a society, and of the enduring impact of religious traditions on the cultural and historical legacy of a people.
Image: Roman worships. Source: AI generated.
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