This inscription was discovered on an altar situated at the main gate of Dura-Europos in Syria, close to the Roman fortress and the road leading to Palmyra. Although first identified in 1928, its text has only recently been convincingly read by Michael Speidel, which has revealed it to be a dedication to the health of the emperor Commodus, who is presented here with the title of Roman Hercules, in an apparent statement of god-emperorship (Speidel, “Commodus the God-Emperor,” p. 109).
The inscription does not give Commodus the full imperial titulature that we might expect in a dedication; he is named as Commodus Augustus Pius Felix, but without the epithets Sarmaticus, Germanicus and Britannicus; Michael Speidel has suggested that this was perhaps due to the little weight the emperor gave to his victory titles, and his preference for the more ideologically based appellations such as Pius and Felix (Speidel, “Commodus the God-Emperor,” p. 111). He had assumed the title Pius between 10th December 182 and 2nd January 183 CE, in a statement of his filial piety towards his father Marcus Aurelius, but also in a bold assertion of his dynastic heritage, and particularly his connection with Antoninus Pius (Hekster, Commodus, p. 92). The adoption of the epithet was also a statement of how Commodus saw his relationship with the gods, with James Oliver rightly noting that he called himself Pius in order to “justify his own policy as pietas to the gods on the highest level, not just in the official sense… he thus claimed to be at the head of the pietas movement” (Oliver, “The piety of Commodus,” p. 379). The title Felix was added from 185 CE, indicating a sense of divine protection or sanction (Fears, Princeps a diis Electus, p. 322). It was the first time that these two titles had been combined in the imperial nomenclature in such a way, but they continued to be used by all emperors from Caracalla onwards (Van’t Dack, “Commode et ses épithètes,” p. 311), in a more direct assertion of the role of the emperor as the religious and spiritual advocate for the entire empire; the emperor did not simply bring felicitas through pietas, but now embodied both. The most significant addition to Commodus’s official titulature is given in lines 6-8 of the inscription, in which he is acclaimed as “Peacemaker of the World, Unconquered, the Roman Hercules” (pacatoris / orbis Invicti / Romani Herculis). Commodus was the first emperor to be characterised as “peace-maker of the world” by a decree of the Senate in 192 CE (Mastino and Ibba, “L’imperatore pacator orbis”, accessed 02.02.18. For inscriptions of Commodus that give this epithet, see e.g. CIL XIV, 3449; AE 1928, 86). Attilio Mastino and Antonio Ibba have suggested that the title was sought by Commodus in relation to his self-presentation in the guise of Hercules; the suggestion was that Commodus had exhibited the same strength and physical courage in the face of ‘barbarians’ as the demi-god had against the ancestral monsters he had fought on earth, with the result that both brought peace and prosperity to the world, which was recognised in the acclamation as pacator by the Senate (Mastino and Ibba, “L’imperatore pacator orbis”, section 4, accessed 02.02.18). The the association of the emperor with the demi-god Hercules is also striking; although previous emperors had strongly associated with him, Commodus went well beyond what had traditionally been acceptable and “unequivocally declared himself the new incarnation of Hercules” (Hekster, Commodus, p. 104). This had perhaps been hinted at before, particularly in his coinage, in which fourteen different Hercules-types are known, and which characterised the demi-god as Commodus’s divine guardian or comes (see Hekster, Commodus, p. 87-114). However, from 190 CE this suggestion appears to have been made more explicit, resulting in the perhaps excessive claim to divine authority that is recorded in this inscription (Hekster, Commodus, p. 135).
The second half of the inscription on the altar at Dura-Europos reveals that it had been dedicated by one Aelius Titianus, the decurio of the II cohort Ulpia Commodiana, confirming Cassius Dio’s claim that the legions were given the emperor’s name also as their title (Roman History, 73.15.2). The inscription closes with a dedication to the genius of Dura-Europos, and the names of the consuls, Flacco et Claro; Commodus’s Herculean titles have, through comparison with coinage, been attributed to 193 CE, with the consuls for that year known to be Falco and Clarus, indicating a small error on the part of the stonecutter here (Speidel, “Commodus the God-Emperor,” p. 111). It is this second half of the inscription that is most striking, particularly with respect to the earlier attribution of Commodus as Hercules as it demonstrates that the message of the divine identification of the emperor with the god was received by communities outside of Rome, and that it was generated independently by these communities without overt instruction from the centre. Although the altar was dedicated in a military context, it is nonetheless noteworthy that the Herculean titles were so confidently absorbed and repeated. This may, in fact, have a good deal to do with the popularity Commmodus enjoyed amongst the soldiers of the empire; although he did not engage in large-scale military campaigns, nor raise the soldiers’ wages, Commodus did ease the regulations concerned with promotion, promote his own officers and relax the general discipline of the army, all of which increased his popularity (Hekster, Commodus, p. 164). The fact that the altar at Duros was dedicated using the new, divine titles acquired by the emperor reveals at least an awareness of his ideological stance, and especially given the precise date on which it was dedicated; the XVII Kalendis Piis was the 17th March, 193 CE, which was also the date of the anniversary of Commodus’s reign, the dies imperii, the month of which had been renamed according to the emperor’s new calendar, which utilised his titles in place of the old names for the months (Herz, “Kaiserfeste der Prinzipatszeit,” p. 1175-1177). The confidence with which this military community recognised and accepted Commodus as the incarnation of the demi-god Hercules has been further emphasised by the discovery close by to the altar of a small bust of Commodus, which may have stood on top of it, as well as a relief depicted a naked man holding a club in his right hand, and a lion rearing up, which has been interpreted as a representation of the colossal statue of Commodus as Hercules that once stood close to the Colosseum in Rome (Baur and Rostovtzeff, The Excavations at Dura Europos, p. 75-77). If this identification is indeed correct, then it would be a “strong testimony to the extent of Commodus’s Herculean image” (Hekster, Commodus, p. 167).
The dissemination of Commodus’s ‘God-Emperorship’ is attested not only on coinage and in the military fort at Dura-Europos, but in additional far-reaching locations of the empire. A statue believed to be of Commodus with Herculean attributes was discovered in the principia (headquarters) of a Roman camp at Köngen in Germany, and another altar was dedicated to him at Volubilis, in Mauretania Tingitana, which again acclaimed him with the sequence Invictus Felix Hercules Romanus (CIL XIV, 3449; for the statue at Köngen see Speidel, “Commodus the God-Emperor,” p. 113, n. 43). The altar at Volubilis was found close to a mosaic, also believed to date to the late 2nd century CE, depicting the labours of Hercules (Hekster, Commodus, p. 167-168, n. 23). A third dedication may have been made in Carlisle in Scotland, where a fragmentary inscription honouring Dei Herculis Romani In/victi has also been attributed to the reign of Commodus (RIB 946; see Rostovtzeff and Mattingly, “Commodus-Hercules in Britain,” p. 91-109) along with a small bronze of Hercules in gladiator dress, which was excavated close to Hadrian’s Wall; the gladiatorial costume of the figure – unusual in depictions of Hercules – has led to its identification with Commodus (Hekster, Commodus,p. 168). Although the military context of these dedications prevents us from claiming that Commodus’s divine status was received and promulgated in the private sphere, their geographic spread does at least reinforce the notion that at least the soldiers of the empire supported the idea that the emperor had divine, superhuman status. The inscription at Dura-Europos is evidence for “how efficient Rome’s ideological hold was over the provinces and the armies”; Commodus was able to root this divine image of himself even in those frontier regions that were to remain unvisited by him, where his role as the demi-god incarnate was celebrated in a double display of military loyalty and panegyric.