Research Spotlight: Ancient Roman emperor worship

Photo courtesy of williams COLLEGE classics department  Students on site at Omrit last summer, the location of Professor Rubin’s archeological dig.
Photo courtesy of williams COLLEGE classics department
Students on site at Omrit last summer, the location of Professor Rubin’s archeological dig.

The Roman Imperial Cult, says Assistant Professor of Classics Ben Rubin, was a unifying force in the incredibly diverse Empire. Starting with Augustus, he says, “everyone worshipped the emperor,” while there was little else that the Empire’s peoples necessarily had in common.

Rubin has a book coming out on the particular forms of emperor worship in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and says that emperor worship, rather than being something imposed on the Empire from the top down, was in both Asia Minor and Judea one of the ways in which Rome was made more familiar and comfortable.

His book examines the “varieties of artistic representation and of the emperor as a god in Asia Minor,” including how “older kings, from Persian and Hellenistic periods, affected how people viewed and represented the emperor.” He points to specific forms of representation, including the personification of territories themselves, that seem to be taken from the Persians in the fourth to sixth centuries B.C.E., and argues that these combinations “made a scary outside force seem homey and relatable.”

This thesis became more controversial in the context of the work he does in Israel at the Omrit Settlement Excavation site, where it has implications for modern politics. Rubin has been taking students to the site in northern Galilee every summer since 2012, as part of a consortium of schools that are excavating it. The site includes architecture from the 200-50 B.C.E. late Hellenistic period to a seeming peak in the Byzantine era from 300 to 600 C.E.

The original site, which was uncovered by a brush fire in the 1990s, is a temple to Augustus built around 20 B.C.E. and later expanded. Rubin wrote his dissertation on temples to Augustus in Turkey, so he jumped at the opportunity to work at the site in nearby Israel. But he has a “different perspective than those who work in Israel.”

“When it comes to archeology in Israel, everything is controversial, because it has implications for modernity,” said Rubin. “It’s all obliquely related to a very hot button issue: Where did Jewish settlements in antiquity extend to? It doesn’t really matter who lived there 2500 years ago, and it shouldn’t be related, but it is.”

“I just want to understand what the past was like. I don’t want to project our crap backward,” said Rubin.

While Rubin is very interested in both the temple of Augustus and the modern politics, however, there is much more to the temple. Over a thousand years are spanned by artifacts found at the Omrit settlement in Northern Israel, from stone seals from the Assyrian period around 700 B.C.E. to a one-of-a-kind 10-spouted oil lamp dated to around 400 C.E. Some of them, like the seals, are not yet explained. Other particularly exciting parts of the site include the painted frescoes of the original Hellenistic shrine. Because they were entirely enclosed within the Roman temple, they are well preserved, which is very rare.

One of Rubin’s biggest questions about the site and one they hope to figure out, is why the settlement seems to have reached its apex in the Byzantine period, when the temple seems to have gone out of use by then. One of the two areas being excavated now includes things like ovens and basins that indicate food processing, so it’s possible that it was a stand alone agricultural site. Another theory is that it is a pilgrimage site identified by Byzantines as the location of a dialogue recorded in the Gospel of Mark. It’s close to the site where Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah and so it could have been a secondary destination. Bronze crosses were found in a connected building, which Rubin says was likely either “a church or the house of an elite.” A collection of shops also indicates greater traffic in the settlement.

The purpose of the Byzantine settlement, the origin of that wall and even more information about the ancient stone seals are all things Rubin hopes they might uncover through future fieldwork. This summer he is taking students and one alum to join students from UNC, Carthage College, Queens College and St. John’s College, Minn.

“I take students every year and teach field methodology the same way I learned,” said Rubin. The majority of students who go study art history, anthropology, classics, or history, and their reasons for going range from interest in modern Israel to pursuit of archeology for their careers. Rubin became an archeologist because a professor happened to have an opening to take him on a dig when he was an undergraduate and he enjoys passing on that opportunity.


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