Taco Terpstra

The Imperial Cult, Imperial Ideology, and Roman Inter­-Community Trade

Merchants who settled overseas in the Roman world often brought their native religion with them as a marker of ethnic identity, and we posses much evidence for foreign cults in Roman harbor cities. By remaining identifiably separate from the host community, groups of foreign traders could maintain ethnic mercantile networks, a dynamic that facilitated long­distance exchange. But there was another religious element to Roman inter­community trade, namely the imperial cult. In contrast to the presence of foreign deities in port cities, the connection between trade and this form of religion has remained understudied

Because it was not the exclusive domain of any particular group, Emperor worship played a different role for mercantile communities than their individual cults did. Evidence suggests that the imperial cult could be invoked to strengthen ties between trading coalitions, thus forming part of an ideology that bound the Empire together not just as a political but also as an economic unit. In Ostia, for instance, the Piazzale delle Corporazioni featured what was likely a templum Divorum, which is significant in a location devoted entirely to overseas trade and shipping. In other port cities, too, inscriptions show pledges of allegiance by groups of foreign merchants to Emperors and the imperial family.

Equally significant is the evidence from outside the Empire. In Vologesias, Parthia, along a trade route leading to the Persian Gulf, a temple to the imperial cult was erected and in Muziris, India, as well there seems to have been a templum Augusti. This evidence is in line with the social function of the imperial cult in Mediterranean ports, but with an interesting twist. Inside the Empire individual cults from native places dominated in the display of provincial identity, while the imperial cult seems to have been employed as a common point of reference for communication between the various trading groups. Outside the Empire, though, the imperial cult seems to have taken over as the preeminent communal marker of identity within a non­Roman mercantile environment.

This paper will explore both aspects of the use of the imperial cult in inter­community trade. It will look at the epigraphic evidence from Roman port cities and compare it with the evidence from outside the Empire. It will argue that the imperial cult played a role in Roman economic life as a common way of ideological expression for merchants operating within the Empire, and a marker of Roman identity for those operating outside it.