visne scire quod credam? credo Elvem ipsum etiam vivere.
Images can be very emotive, especially in cases where the subject of the image is separated from the viewer by time and or space. Consequently, an image can be used as a means of bridging a gap or filling a void when the presence of the person is impossible. Two such instances when this has occurred, one in more recent times than the other, are those of the Roman Emperors and Elvis Presley. In both cases, the leaders were separated from a large proportion of their 'subjects' by space and, in the case of Elvis, by time. The manipulation and promotion of their images thus became a vital factor in their respective careers. The form taken by the Roman Emperor cult in Britain illustrates how an image cult can spread in space to the outposts of an empire, while the cult of Elvis today demonstrates the spread of a cult through time. Both examples illustrate how a cult can travel, taking with it the ideas and ideologies upon which it was originally based.
The image of the Roman Emperor was propagated on two levels. First was the imperial cult, which was the official worship of the Emperor on a level that was deemed acceptable. This consisted of honours being paid to the living Emperor's genius (tutelary spirit) or numen (divine essence), followed by deification after death, an honour which was often bestowed upon other members of the imperial family. Despite official protestation however, the Emperor was worshipped whilst alive throughout the Empire, in particular in the eastern provinces (Jones 1970:225; Tacitus, Annals, IV;xxxvii-xxxviii). Second, was a more general homage or spread of the imperial image and persona. The emperor was deified in a rite called apotheosis. This is described by Herodian (History IV.ii), who states that it involved a sumptuous funeral during which a wax image of the deceased was ritually burned. The dying Vespasian displayed a half-humorous cynicism for the process, uttering the words: 'Alas!...I believe I am becoming a god' (Suetonius, Divus Vespasianus XXIII.iv). These words would have contained the same element of truth had they been spoken by Elvis.
The case of Elvis is remarkably similar. He, too, made the transition from being a popular figure to an actual deity after his death. A further comparison can be drawn in that two distinct levels of image propagation can be observed, notably an official cult system of worship accompanied by a more general spread of his image. The official cult is the system of worship carried out by official Elvis people - fan club secretaries, impersonators, etc.- who actively encourage participation in the cult. The more general spread of Elvis' image is, as in the case of the Roman Emperor, much wider.
Cults arose among the followers of these two figures as a means of defining one's beliefs and group identity. The role of material culture then becomes increasingly important, as it represents the tangible aspect of the cult, which is based on a central person or concept. The significance of material culture is stressed by Miller (1987:99), who states that: 'The importance of this physicality of the artefact derives from its ability thereby to act as a bridge, not only between the mental and physical worlds, but also, more unexpectedly, between consciousness and the unconscious'. This bears similarities to Horace's statement in his Ars Poetica (180-182), that 'what the mind takes in through the ears stimulates it less actively than what is presented to it by the eyes, and what the spectator can see and believe for himself' (Freedberg 1989:50).
But how do these different levels of propagation manifest themselves; what were the artefacts that carried such significance to the followers of the cults? The imperial cult took the form of inscriptions and coinage denoting the official worship of the Emperor, and temples. In Britain, the Temple of Claudius represented the centre of the imperial cult, with inscriptions and coinage taking the cult to a wider audience. It is interesting to note that the rituals of the imperial cult were carried out by a college of priests, the seviri Augustales, who were municipal dignitaries in the province. Harrison (1992:103) states that a priest is 'a go between, a person who can channel something of an eternal unseen mystery through his person to the people'. This is true not only of the seviri Augustales, but also the colleges of priests that serve the cult of Elvis. The priesthood of Elvis consists of fan club secretaries who lead groups in their reverence, and impersonators who serve as a focus for followers to demonstrate their allegiance to the cult. Impersonators (for example Figure 1) serve the further function of being a means by which Elvis is represented in his absence, a feature covered by statues in the spread of imperial imagery.
The official places of worship for the cult of Elvis centre on Graceland, his home and gravesite, and on his humble birthplace in the northern Mississippi town of Tupelo. The importance of Graceland as an official cult site is stressed by the occurrence there of ritual ceremonies on the anniversaries of Elvis' birthday and death. Likewise, the anniversaries of the imperial birthdays and deaths were marked at official places of worship. For example, rituals were carried out on Augustus' birthday at an altar in Narbonne in southern France (CIL, XII, 4,333), and all temples of the immortal gods within a one mile radius of Rome were closed on the anniversary of Germanicus' death (IRE 8). This further points to the comparison that can be drawn between Graceland and a temple dedicated to the imperial cult. The significance of Graceland is stressed by Silberman (1990:80) who notes the similarity between the dusty road to Lourdes for Catholic pilgrims and Mississippi state Highway 78, which leads the follower from Elvis' roots in Tupelo through various points of his legend, to his gravesite in Memphis. Graceland thus becomes the ultimate place for a worshipper of the cult of Elvis to reach.
It is also usual to find official places of worship that have been created either by the overseers of the cult, or by the followers themselves, in places some distance from the centre of the cult. The Temple of Claudius in Colchester illustrates the occurrence of this practise in Britain. It was built by the Romans as a centre for the observance of the imperial cult, but according to Tacitus (Annals XIV, 31), came to represent a 'blatant stronghold of alien rule' (Grant 1988:328). A similar though much smaller scale example from the official worship of Elvis, can be found in the East End of London in the headquarters of the former 'Elvisly Yours' fan club. Here a life-size bronze statue of Elvis (see Figure 2) can be found with gifts and flowers carefully placed at his feet by followers who have come to treat this as a specific site of worship.
There is far more evidence from the province of Britain for homage to the Emperor than for the imperial cult. It was displayed in such forms as the citation of the Emperor on inscriptions and his appearance on coins, both without specific reference to his worship. The result of this second level to the propagation of the imperial image, was an increase in the general awareness of, and respect for, imperial personages. In Britain there is a great deal of epigraphic evidence for the occurrence of homage to the Emperor, and several coinage issues relate to the province or events that occurred in relation to its occupation by Rome. Further manifestations of homage to the Emperor took the form of monumental arches, which were a dramatic illustration of the military prowess and majesty of a particular Emperor, and statuary.
Statues, as has been stated, are a means by which the presence of the Emperor could be stressed despite his personal absence, in contrast to the statue of Elvis from London which serves as an official site of worship. Statues could be used to promote a particular image of the Emperor to his subjects. For example, he could be depicted as an elder statesman or as a military victor. A bronze statuette from Barking Hall in Suffolk shows the Emperor Nero in imperial dress, i.e., decorated boots, a short tunic and a heavily ornamented cuirass. The features of this statuette suggest that Nero is being depicted in the guise of Alexander, a representation which denotes the manipulation of imagery to denote a particular image. Again, similarities can be drawn with the cult of Elvis, with different images marking the progression of his career from hillbilly cat, to pioneering rock musician, to Hollywood star, to crooning love god.
The success of the spread of the image of Elvis is apparent in the vast array of material culture items that have circulated on a world-wide basis. There is practically nothing that cannot be obtained in a form that promotes him in some way, for example clothing, jewellery, crockery, street signs, license plates, cigarette holders, key-rings, pens, pencils, writing paper, wrapping paper, clocks, Vegas-style sunglasses etc., etc.. The recent introduction in America of the Elvis stamp (see Figure 3) is an indication of how far the cult has progressed. It epitomises the bringing of Elvis to those people who do not have access to an Elvis 'priest' or an official place of worship, but still want to participate in the propagation of the Elvis image.
The spread of imperial imagery for the Romans was a political move, promoting the Emperor as figurehead of the empire. His image came to represent what it was to be Roman, and the imperial cult was a means by which this image cult could be officially developed into a religion. With Elvis, we may well be witnessing the birth of a new religious movement. Whilst the majority of his followers engage in his cult through their possession of specific items of material culture and their observances of certain ritual activities, there are people who worship and pray to him. For most, however, it is merely that the image of Elvis has become synonymous with the spread of American culture, just as the Emperor did with the spread of Roman culture. Elvis is instantly recognised across much of the world, the reason being that, in the words of Greil Marcus (1991:3), he 'contained more of America...than any other figure I could think of.'
I am most grateful to Kathryn Denning for her helpful comments. Thanks also to Evan Peacock and Prof. Janet Rafferty for sending me Greil Marcus' book from Mississippi itself, to 'Elvisly Yours' for allowing me to photograph their statue and to David Bocking for supplying the photograph of me.
This paper is dedicated to Steve Barker.
CIL - Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum Vol.12 ed. Otto Hirschfeld 1888. Inscriptiones Gallia Narbonensis Latinae. Berlin
IRE - London Association of Classical Teachers 1971. Inscriptions of the Roman Empire A.D. 14-117. Original Records No. 8, Lactor 8.
Beard, H. 1990. Latin For All Occasions. London: Angus and Robertson.
Freedberg, D. 1989. The Power of Images - Studies in the History and Theory of Response. London: The University of Chicago Press.
Harrison, T. 1992. Elvis People - The Cult of the King. London: Fount.
Jones, A.H.M. 1970. A History of Rome Through the Fifth Century Volume II : The Empire. London: Macmillan.
Marcus, G. 1991. Dead Elvis - A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession. New York: Doubleday.
Miller, D. 1987. Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford: Blackwell.
Silberman, N. A. 1990. Elvis: the myth lives on. Archaeology 43 (4):80.
About The Author: Rebecca Harrison is a postgraduate in the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield. Her current research interests include the Roman Emperor cult with specific reference to Britain, and lateralised behaviour in gibbons. Other interests include Elvis Presley, 3-chord guitar playing and Sheffield United.
©Rebecca Harrison 1996