You are here

Healing Emperors and Healing Gods

Trevor Luke

Nock’s observation that, “no one appears to have said his prayers or did sacrifice to the living Augustus or any other living king in the hope of supernatural blessings,” (1932) was reaffirmed by Fishwick’s (1990) examination of alleged votive offerings to the emperor. The conclusion that the emperor was most likely not a regular recipient of votive offerings in pursuit of personal salvation from illness and danger is consequential for our understanding of ancient popular perceptions of the emperor as a divinity. The absence of such offerings has even led some scholars to view cult of the emperor as little more than a formalistic, political institution.

Negative conclusions only carry one’s understanding so far. Despite the lack of votive offerings to emperors, powerful literary evidence shows emperors providing the miraculous healing that Nock and Fishwick say people were not seeking from them. Two famous anecdotes depict unknown sick persons seeking and receiving healing from Vespasian (Tac. Hist. 4.81; Suet. Vesp. 7.2-3) and Hadrian (SHA Hadr. 25). The usefulness of these anecdotes for discerning religion on the ground would seem, on its face, to be limited, since the sources reporting these stories are elite literature. Ancient historians and biographers, however, used a wide range of sources, including rumor, folklore, and graffiti. One ought not to assume at the outset that stories of healing emperors were merely elite propaganda.

This paper re-examines the healing narratives of Vespasian and Hadrian in the context of the abundant material and textual evidence for ancient healing cults. By situating these narratives within the context of the practices of these cults, one may discern the emperor’s role in these cults and how non-elites engaged the emperor as a healing figure through quotidian religious practices. Most useful is the comparison of Asclepian Iamata (cure inscriptions) with the stories of the healing emperors. The paper will argue that the details of these narratives provide sufficient information to adumbrate the overall contours of healing cults in which the living emperor might serve as the agent of the god in providing cures for non-elite individuals.

As stories of healing emperors appear in history and biography, the emperor is the central figure of the healing narrative. Comparison of these stories with the Iamata, however, shows that the god commanding the healing was at the center of the cultic healing process. The healing process reported in these narratives began with a sick person’s dream, perhaps sent during incubation at the cult of the healing divinity. This is the deity who received votive offerings and in whose sanctuary an inscription might be displayed. Thus it is likely the case that the material evidence of the emperor’s role in healing miracles, to the extent that it existed, was deposited at the sanctuaries and shrines of other healing divinities. In the case of votive offerings, there may have been no explicit indication of the emperor’s role in the healing, except perhaps in the placement of an offering in the vicinity of an emperor’s image within the sanctuary of the healing deity.

The emperor’s role as assistant to a healing deity cannot, however, be separated from his own divine status. Although it is logically the case that healing deities employed non-divine assistants in the healing process, the emperor, either as a new manifestation of the deity or as a god in his own right, offered the healing deity’s petitioners what must have been viewed as a unique opportunity to obtain an efficacious cure.

Session/Panel Title

“Theism” and Related Categories in the Study of Ancient Religions

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy