The deification of imperial women: second-century contexts
In the early second century AD four extraordinary imperial deifications are recorded. The first took place during the reign of the emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), who deified his sister, Ulpia Marciana, immediately following her death in 112. Next, in 119, Marciana’s daughter, Matidia, was deified by Hadrian (r. 117-138), who was married to Matidia’s daughter, Vibia Sabina. The usual interpretation of these two deifications is that the honours paid these women bolstered imperial prestige within a political atmosphere that later allowed Hadrian to use their deifications as a means of creating a fictive dynastic connection to legitimize his succession. Similar motivations are applied by scholars to the deifications of Pompeia Plotina, the dowager empress of the emperor Trajan, who died during the tenure of his successor, Hadrian, in 123, and of Hadrian’s own wife, Vibia Sabina, who died in 136 or 137, little more than a year before her husband. Intriguingly, none of these women is much remembered in extant historical records, though other evidence for their prominence — statues, coins, inscriptions, buildings in Rome’s centre — is striking in its abundance. The rationale for the deifications of these women therefore remains the subject of a debate that ultimately engages questions of female involvement and the meaning of that involvement within Rome’s traditional hierarchies of power and prominence. This paper seeks a culturally relevant context for the mystery of these deifications, proposing that the theoretical underpinnings for female deification lie as much in the implications of female involvement in the public sphere as they do in dynastic considerations. Using a social and ethnographic approach, it investigates evidence for the wealth, social standing, and public presence of these early second century women and connects these to the Romans’ need to uphold traditional mores and morals in the face of social change and shifting political realities.
Rome, women, imperial cult, Roman religion
Master of Arts (M.A.)