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In Omnis Provincias Exemplum: Imperial Cults and Urban Connectivity in the Roman Empire

Benjamin Crowther

The University of Texas at Austin

In 15 CE, a delegation from the province of Hispania Citerior traveled to Rome with a petition to erect a temple to Augustus in Tarraco. Notably, Tacitus describes the establishment of this cult as an exemplum for all the provinces of the Roman empire (Ann. 1.78).  When delegates from Hispania Ulterior petitioned the emperor Tiberius in 25 CE to establish their own provincial cult to the emperor, they too cited an exemplum, Asia Minor's second provincial cult in Smyrna (Tact. Ann. 4.37).  These two episodes suggest that cities in Hispania, Asia Minor and beyond were in constant communication with each other concerning emperor worship. Unfortunately, these brief historical accounts do not allow us to delve deeper into the relationships forming between these urban communities, but a robust body of epigraphic evidence allows us to reconstruct why cities of the Roman empire created relationships with each other through imperial cult practice.

Previous approaches to emperor worship have emphasized the inter-city connections created through its practice (Fishwick, 1987-2005; Friesen, 2001; Burrell 2004), though they typically focus on a singular region or province. Using Actor-Network Theory (Latour, 2005) as an interpretive framework, this paper considers imperial cult practice on a set of variable scales, from local to regional to pan-Mediterranean, to determine the different strategies Roman cities used to fashion their self-identities through relationships to other cities of the empire. The mechanisms of imperial cult practice allowed cities to establish ties and networks both locally and across the Mediterranean and I argue that participation in these different networks communicated urban status across great distances of geography and culture.

Two groups of inscriptions, one from Mytilene (IG 12.2.35, 44, and 58), the other from Ephesus (IvE 2.232-242, 5.1498, 6.2048), describe the types of urban networks created through the shared practice of emperor worship. Each case represents a different scale of networking. At Ephesus, twelve different Asian cities set up dedications within the precinct of the Temple of the Sebastoi. Variations in dedicatory formulae positioned each city in relation to Ephesus, which appropriated the title neokoros to describe its own relationship to imperial family and the rest of Asia (Friesen, 1993). The award of this provincial cult in 89/90 CE to Ephesus, a city within their region, compelled these cities to qualify their own position within this regional network. Upon founding a cult to Augustus during his lifetime, Mytilene, a middling Greek city, proclaimed its establishment to no less than eight preeminent cities that spanned the extent of the Mediterranean, half of which belong to western provinces. These chosen cities represented Mytilene’s aspirational approach to networking and were intended to demonstrate the imperial scope of its connections. Such a network perspective begins to break down the prior dichotomy between eastern and western developments in imperial cult practice and replaces it with a dialogue amongst an empire of cities. 

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