Altars and Empire : studies in Roman altars and divine kingship (c.300 B.C.- A.D. 96)
In the concluding remarks to her 1913 dissertation, Helen Bowerman notes that “[a]lthough the sacrificial altars [sic] form a group of comparatively unimportant monuments.” This study is an attempt to both refute Bowerman’s conclusion and to replace altars into the dialogue about Roman architecture and political propaganda during the late Republic and early Empire. While I challenge the standard, scholarly categorical definition of Roman altars set forth in the early 20th century, the primary aim of my study is to explore the complex environments in which altars, of all sizes, appear in the Imperial period and the ways in which these altars performed in their political and urban contexts. Furthermore, with an eye to topographical relationships in Rome itself, I trace the use and manipulation of altars by emperors, a type of analysis that has long benefitted our understanding of other manifestations of state, honorific monuments. As monuments, altars were unique in their stylistic and contextual adaptability while simultaneously remaining essentially uniform in their function, the place of ritual sacrifice.
Congruently, I explore the role that altars played in the negotiation between an emperor’s position as a man and his potential as a divinity. That is, I examine the means by which the emperor—or dictator in the case of Caesar—used the altar form to at once avoid direct assimilation with the gods while simultaneously establishing the veneration of divine powers unequivocally associated with him. In this discussion, I seek to define how the altar form, its imagery, and the honorific system in which it operated conceptualized the new office of the princeps, reconceived the traditional institutions of power, and transformed the role of altar monuments in the early Empire.