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Rome and the “Immortal Gods”: an Ideology for Empire

Larisa Masri

In 58 BCE, Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, appealed to Rome, its ally, for assistance. It had suffered from a series of attacks over the years by the forces of Mithradates VI Eupator and by pirates. The Roman people responded by passing the Lex Gabinia Calpurnia de Insula Delo (Roman Statutes 22; CIL I2 2500) a law that granted tax freedom to the island.  Though the fiscal aspects of the law have been extensively studied (J.-C. Dumont, et. al, 1980) and a meticulous edition produced (Crawford 1996), the overtly religious message of the law’s preamble, which lays out an ideology of empire sanctioned by the “immortal gods,” has been overlooked.  

As noted by Charles Maier (2009), empires expand not merely by force, but also in the pursuit of a “big idea,” one that proposes shared interests among rulers and ruled and that justifies the leadership of those in power.  In this paper I argue that the emergence of the expression “immortal gods” in Roman political and literary discourse in the first century BCE, and as seen in the Delian law, represents such an idea: it embodied an ideology of Greeks and Romans   united in the worship of common gods and with a shared commitment to piety, with the Romans as the gods’ most pious defenders and thus the rightful rulers of the world.    

While the Romans had been making claims to divine favor for over a hundred years prior to the Delian law (e.g. RDGE 34), by the late Republic this claim had developed into one of divinely sanctioned world rule.  A close reading of the text of the law’s preamble reveals a clear picture of this ideology. In the opening line, the Romans claim that their res publica has been enlarged by the “powers and intentions” of the gods (l. 5), a claim echoed further on with regard to their imperium (l. 19). Further, the tax relief offered to Delos, whose sanctuaries had been damaged, is presented as part of a larger Roman restoration of sanctuaries and as a thanksgiving to the gods for their support in achieving victory over piracy and imperium over the orbis terrarum (ll. 17-19). 

In addition, the language of the text suggests a world comprising two opposing forces: pious peoples who worship the immortal gods, namely the Romans and their Greek allies, and impious peoples who don’t – in this case pirates, although impiety in this sense was applied to other traditional enemies, such as the Gauls, as well (Cicero, Pro Fonteio, 30). The most significant linguistic feature in this regard lies in the repeated use of the phrase di immortales, the “immortal gods,” which occurs three times in the opening to the Delian law: first, to describe the gods who have enlarged the res publica; second, to refer to Apollo and Diana; and third, to refer to all the other deities offended by piracy throughout the world (ll. 5, 15, 20, respectively). 

As the text makes clear, the phrase “di immortales” covers both Greek and Roman gods. This universalizing sense of the epithet immortales appears in other legal documents and literary works of the first century BCE, for example, in the work of Cicero and Livy, where its use is quite regular.  While the Greeks had employed the epithet for centuries to describe their “undying” gods (the Homeric hymns for example), its use by the Romans was new.  It arose with the consolidation of Roman rule in the east in the first century, and became part of an expression of an ideology that asserted Rome’s god-given right to rule.  At the same time it designated the rest of the “civilized” world, construed as Rome’s allies, as partners in the worship of the gods and thus supporters of the new world order. 

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Empire and Ideology in the Roman World

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