Apotheosis of a Great Orator

Late Antique

 replica: from the British Museum, London

date of the original: c. 450 AD 

provenance of the original: Rome; now in the British Museum, London

description: One leaf of a diptych showing the three stages of apotheosis. Resin replica; ivory original. Height 29.5 cm, width 11 cm, depth 1 cm.

The Apotheosis of a Great Orator (previously identified as an emperor) is one half of a fifth century book cover. Representative of pagan revival under the Christian empire, such panels were sometimes given as mementos to consuls entering office. The illustration indicates that Roman worship of heroes and emperors had not disappeared from the religious consciousness of the masses. The deification of an emperor, or of his genius (spirit), had been prevalent in the Roman Empire. It had a dual purpose: first, deification legitimized the emperor’s authority to rule by linking his majesty with higher powers; second, it focused religious sentiment throughout the empire on the cult of the emperor. This ensured the continued loyalty of the more remote regions of the Empire to the political fortunes of Rome.

The word apotheosis is derived from a Greek verb which means “to make a god”. This panel shows a great man, an orator, rising towards heaven with the assistance of two genii. The man in the illustration is probably Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (c. AD 340-402). The dual images of the man and the signs of the zodiac on the upper right hand corner indicate a sympathy for Mithraic beliefs in life after death. The four-horse chariot on the podium next to the two eagles are symbols of the sun-god Helios and his ascent to heaven. The monogram at the top means “Symmachorum.”

The beholder participates in the great man’s apotheosis as the illustration draws the eye upwards through the four levels of images.