The Roman Cult of Emperor Worship

Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4.  If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon.  The standard view of Emperor worship found in many popular commentaries comes from William Ramsay, writing at the turn of the 20th century:

“…in no part of the world was there such fervent and sincere loyalty to the emperors as in Asia. Augustus had been a saviour to the Asian peoples, and they deified him as the Saviour of mankind, and worshiped him with the most whole-hearted devotion as the ‘present deity’.” W. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909) 115.

Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome.  Augustus is known in some inscriptions  as  CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar.  Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.   Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue.  Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor.  As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.

Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 8: Domitian 13).  Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god.  While this is clearly legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian.  Dio Cassius (Roman History 67.14)refers to Domition exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.”  Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitan liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.”  Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble. (In Oratorio 45:1, see also First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15).

How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor?  Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira).  At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C.  The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “throne of Satan.”  In short, a Christian in Asia Minor could not avoid the Imperial Cult.

It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor.  The provincial cult allowed the Roman network of social obligations to be extended to virtually the whole population.  If you lived within the empire, then you were a social client of the Emperor and owed him supreme allegiance.  It is not hard to see, therefore, the struggle which Christians in the late first century would have showing allegiance to Rome – if that allegiance required worship of the Emperor, then the Christian must refuse or compromise their faith.

Some Bibliography:

Ethelbert  Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. (Philadelphia: The Westminster, 1955).

David A. deSilva, “The ‘Image Of The Beast’ And The Christians In Asia Minor: Escalation Of Sectarian Tension In Revelation 13” TrinJ 12:2 (Fall 1991) 185-208.

24 thoughts on “The Roman Cult of Emperor Worship

  1. To some people emperor worship seems like such a ridiculous idea. Surely people today wouldn’t engage such ridiculous behavior, especially in the United States. However those people are mistaken. One doesn’t have to search hard or long on You Tube to find videos of young children singing songs about our current president. For one example of this check out:

    These songs are in fact akin to emperor worship praise songs. These children will grow up thinking this is normal and ok. If we indeed are close to the end times, one can easily see how some would easily partake in the worship of another political leader under political and legal pressure. We’ve seen this before in Hitler’s Germany; lets just hope our present situation doesn’t end up in a similar way.

    Those who believe in Christ after the rapture will have to face something similar. Many will die like the Jews did in Germany. Lets try to reach as many as we can now with the Gospel of Christ to save them from the horrors of God’s judgment our world is surely deserving.

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  2. As history tells us, the Roman emperors believed themselves to be the sons of the gods, maybe demigods if you will. With this belief they found it befitting to have themselves worshiped as such. I believe this worship function in many ways in which it did for Daniel and Nebakanezer. The king did this in order to establish his rule over the people and also to be able to bring world wide unity under one head; thus explains his demand for the world to bow down to his chocolate bunny. In the same way, Domitian wants everyone to bow to him proclaiming him as lord and ruler. He especially wills this since he believes the empire is becoming weaker due to the disturbance of the rising Christians. Just like Nebakanezer he has people worship him to establish unity under one head.

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    • Other than Nero and Domitian, I am not sure that the emperor seriously thought they were divine. The worship of the Emperor cult was directed at “Rome” in general, or Roma, the goddess of Rome. I cannot imagine Vespasian or Titus seriously thinking they were gods! The cult was a way to control a large, diverse empire, just as Nebuchadnezzar’s actions in Dan 3.

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      • I am not quite sure that even citizens truly saw the emperor as a god. I think, like Keith is saying, that the emperor worship was more of a way to keep control and stability over the empire. Emperor worship of that day could be related to the kind of patriotism people have today of America. Some people are so patriotic towards the U.S. that they actually believe our government is doing God’s will. I think this is the contrast we must use to really understand this emperor worship. This isn’t to down play the sinfulness of worshipping an emperor, but it needs to be put into perspective.

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  3. I think that you can show loyalty to your country/empire, but not compromise your faith. God tells us to obey those who are in authority, but we are not to do anything that they say that is against God. If they tell you that you have to worship them, then you do not do that because we are only to worship God, but that does not mean that we do not do anything else that they say. If they were to tell you to pay a lot of taxes, then you would pay the taxes. You may not always agree with those who are in leadership, but God has placed them there and we are suppose to respect them.

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    • I agree with you Jessica, but when does “love for one’s country” become worship of that country? How is distinct is patriotism and worship, really? I realize that no one brings offerings to Washington DC To lay them at the feet of Abe Lincoln, but the adoration of American in the Mall in DC is pretty strong. Is it possible Christians participate in an “empire cult” without even realizing it?

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  4. The concept of religion bringing the empire together was something that was foreign to me until this year in Early Church History class. It was interesting for me to learn about the early church, and how it progressed from using emperor worship to unite the empire to worship of God. It is something that makes it difficult for Christians in that situation because like Jessica said, we are supposed to respect the leaders that are in place. We may not agree with them, but like she said, God put them there. It is also important to recognize that Daniel and Co. respected the leadership of Babylon when they were taken captive, but still stood up for God and obedience to Him. There is the concept that this type of action, empire wide emperor worship would bring people together as a whole, but it also alienated the people who were trying to serve the true God, causing a bigger rift in the empire than was originally being fixed.

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  5. “In short, a Christian in Asia Minor could not avoid the Imperial Cult.” (P. Long) This would explain John’s passion when denouncing the “synagogue of Satan” and those who learn “Satan’s so-called secrets.” I had made the connection later in Rev 13-14, but it didn’t occur to me that the rebuke directed toward five of the seven churches might have had to do with emperor worship. Especially learning that in five of the seven there were priests and alters for the emperor cult and in six of the seven there was a temple. (P. Long) I wonder, like Aaron, what emperor worship looks like today, especially worship of the beast and his image. I had posed the same question to my high school students and it was interesting that the easiest references they could cite were brand and music jingles. They couldn’t recite hardly any verses, but if I asked them what Burger King’s famous motto was they answered, “have it your way.” Truly the things we care about are going to be the first things that come to our mind.

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  6. In FttE, one important application for the book of Revelation is the importance of Worship and Obedience for the Believers [FttE 304]. The opening paragraphs of the chapter argued that Revelation was written to motivate saints to worship God and obey His Word. Chapters 4 and 5 invite believers to worship God on earth even as He is perfectly worshipped by the heavenly beings. John models worship of Christ [1:17]. In FttE, he argues that there is a comparison of those who worship the lamb versus those who worship the beast, and makes it very clear that there are only 2 kinds of people [FttE 304].

    There is the concept that this type of action, empire wide emperor worship would bring people together as a whole, but it also alienated the people who were trying to serve the true God, causing a bigger rift in the empire than was originally being fixed. – Casey

    Yeah, it is an extremely interesting concept, and it would be extremely difficult to live in a situation where that was happening on a national level. Today, it seems like a parallel with patriotism here in the great US of A. Sometimes there is great confusion with where our allegiance lies first and foremost: is it to the United States? or is our citizenship elsewhere? Obviously this is the answer…but how is this lived out?

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    • >invite believers to worship God on earth

      Good point Moses, I pick that up in today’s post. I think you ask the right questions — where is our citizenship? But you do not answer the more difficult question — how do you live that out?

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  7. “Emperor worship of that day could be related to the kind of patriotism people have today of America.” (Jon Austin)

    Interesting thought and I think there is a good bit of truth to it. There are countless similarities I think we can make between Imperial Rome and the U.S. today, that much is obvious. But in a today’s perspective, I think that the majority hold that this is a rather good thing. Of course, the are many fortunate aspects to this, our freedom for instance. But I wonder how far the question which Moses brings up, “Where is our citizenship?” has been taken in all seriousness. It appears very common in my experience to find Christian Americans who bleed red, white, and blue, metaphorically of course. There is a great sense of pride in this nation (respectively so). But does this pride in America overshadow an individuals religious convictions. Or perhaps they are more as Jon has alluded too but as I shall put it, fatefully intertwined. I find it hard to agree that we can live teetering on the fence of dual citizenship in all completeness, yet denying this paradoxical lifestyle, there is left a difficult choice with many hard-set implications in which we may give a comparative analogy of the first century struggle of Christians to our twenty-first century struggle on much the same grounds. But in answer to this, I might choose Moses’ either voluntary or involuntary silence on the matter for I think the question is large and complex enough that any honest attempt should be left for someone to author a book on.

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  8. This is awesome.Keep posting these findings and standing up for jesus christ.I’m really blessed and may the lord bless you too.Thanks

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  9. “The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the ‘synagogue of Satan.’
    Uh, this statement is untrue — read Revelation chapter 2.

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    • Thanks for the comment, David, that ought to read “throne of Satan,” Smyrna has the “synagogue of Satan,” a few verses above.

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