What is the Roman Imperial Cult?

I have posted on this topic before,  usually in the context of the book of Revelation. For example in this post I argued Revelation is a form of resistance literature offering an alternative way of looking at the power of Rome. On my recent tour of Roman cities in Asia Minor, I was struck by the prevalence of the imperial cult in the locations mentioned in Revelation. I knew there were imperial cult centers in most of these cities, but seeing the temple of Trajan at Pergamum made it clear the new Christian movement was in conflict with imperial propaganda from the beginning.

Image result for Caesar Nero divineRuler cults began and as expression of gratitude toward the monarch, rather than a way to get something out of him. At some point it was no longer possible to humanly honor a man without declaring him to be a god. Rome was not the only ancient culture to deify their king; Egypt considered the Pharaoh to be a god, an idea which may have been passed to the Ptolemies. Assyria and Babylon both considered their kings as gods by virtue of their office.

The most deeply held beliefs and practices in the Greco-Roman world were associated with civic cults. The reason for this is that a civic cult united the people around a particular god. For example, it was one’s civic duty to worship Artemis if one was a proper Ephesian. Since Alexander thought of the world as a community, only a single god could serve to unite all the peoples of the world. Augustus too recognized this, accepting divine honors in the east as a way to draw all the various peoples of the Roman Empire into a single imperial cult.

The Roman imperial cult is very much in the background of the New Testament, especially the book of Revelation. 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. Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.

Imperial cult, Augustus

Augustus with scepter and orb

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. 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.

In the 90s A.D., 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 Domitian 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 Domitian liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.” Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble (Oratorio 45:1; First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15). It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor. The provincial cult was “an unprecedented attempt to build a network, rather than a center of provincial worship” (Beale, The Book of Revelation, 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 “synagogue of Satan.” To reject the imperial cult was to reject the empire and appear to be as a traitor.

What happens when a resident of a Romanized city in Asia Minor accepts the good news that Jesus is Lord? How would impact participation in Greco-Roman culture? Could a Christian resident of Pergamum, for example, participate in civic festivals honoring Rome or an emperor as lord? Could they accommodate their new Christian belief with the imperial propaganda? More convicting, is there an application to modern political propaganda and the Christian faith?



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

21 thoughts on “What is the Roman Imperial Cult?

  1. The implications of a mandated imperial cult in Rome would have been frightening to a Roman Christian. Clearly, it was considered a social norm to exalt the emperor and participate in his glorification. There’s no grey area in the Bible concerning these practices – Christians are only to worship the one true God. For Roman believers, this meant standing out against social norms, possibly even facing persecution or death for failure to comply with a mandatory cult. Their participation in many cultural events would be greatly limited because they payed tribute to the emperor. Living in Rome as a Christian required difficult choices with sometimes uncertain consequences.
    For believers today, while some of us may not be facing immediate physical persecution for our beliefs, there are definitely pressures and expectations of society that don’t agree with our faith. Political correctness, strife in the Church, and social norms are just a few of the things that challenge believers to stand firmly against what’s expected. We must all be aware that our faith will conflict with our culture, and we must be prepared to face such conflict with the bold assurance that comes from faith in Christ Jesus.

  2. FWIW – According to Josephus, AND archaeological investigation, Herod the “Great” built three Imperial Cult Temples to Augustus (and Roma) at Caesarea Maritima, Samaria/Sebastia, and Panias (aka Caesarea Philippi). So the cult, prior to the days of Paul, had spread beyond the Province of Asia.

  3. Was it better off that they were a new religion to the Romans or a different type of Jew to them? early Christianity was viewed part of the Jewish religion and the Jews while not having a perfect set up did have some things tailored to their needs. correct me if I am wrong but i believe the Jews are the only ones who had their own temple to their own God who did not have the eagle or something Roman put in their center of worship. I feel as a christian in Rome would have been major league scary that you have to bow to this god or face punishment, knowing the account of the three who were thrown into the fire for not bowing. But the difference here is the believers in the time of Roman empire had the Holy Spirit and had a more calmed mind about what it was and what could happen.

  4. Those are excellent questions, P. Long. And nathanconroyblogposts, I understand what you are saying. However, when considering such a conflict as might exist in early Christianity, I was reminded of certain passages in Scripture that encourage believers in this consideration. First, Romans 13 speaks of civil authorities as those who bear the sword for nothing and who are put in places of authority by God, and that believers should therefore honor them. It sounds as though Paul is giving approval to the festivals and worship of the rulers. However, keep in mind that Jesus also said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17; Matt. 22:21). It is clear that our worship should be reserved for God alone, but it is okay for us to honor human authorities by obeying them. When we pay taxes, we are showing honor to our governors. When we obey the laws they place, we are showing honor to our governors. When we worship our governors and expect them to bring about what only God can, we commit idolatry. I know many have put their hope in that fact that this newly elected president will bring about what they have dreamed for. But if they put their faith in the President and NOT in God, they honor neither.

  5. In this period of early Christianity, to become a christian is to become an outcast to some extent from the perspective of both the Roman and the Jewish communities. A number of Jews did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah and so they persecuted his followers. We see this in Acts 6 and 7 when the members of the Sanhedrin seized and then stoned Stephen. As a Roman, following Christ meant denying many of the practices, which involved sacrificing or paying respect to Roman gods, that were expected of them. The general Roman community would look at Christians as atheists and the treatment from the emperor would vary based on the disposition of who ever was the emperor of the time. Any Christian worth their salt would not have worshiped the emperor in any capacity. Some who ruled would not have cared one way or another while others would have greatly punished those who did not worship them.

    • I think many people do not consider the hardship, oppression, and persecution that Christians faced in the early stages of it’s development. Interesting what you stated about early Christians being outcasts to some extent in their given society. You used the example of Acts 6 and 7 during the stoning of Steven. Paul also discusses later in Acts how he once too hated Christians. He was someone who had faith in God, but Jesus Christ and his followers of Christians was where Paul drew the line.

  6. Being a Roman Christian within Rome overall would have been a hard endeavor to undertake. As was mentioned in the blog post, within Roman society the worship of those in power was very prevalent within this society. Therefore; in, taking a look at the overall aspect of a Roman Christian not honoring the “cult” per say, I could only imagine the drastic consequences of not honoring the Roman imperial cult within this time period. In regards to the implications I’m sure a Roman Christian would have had his fair share of ridicule, degradation and perhaps could even possibly have faced death (usually because non-compliance means death in ancient history). While Scripture such as Exodus 20:3-4, would deem that a Christian shall not honor anybody else besides the one true God, the temptations would have been very prominent, especially for a Roman Christian living within Rome. As mentioned in the notes perhaps almost all aspect’s of religion within Rome were based heavily on the Hellenization movement, which entailed praying to many different God’s such as the door, the walkway etc (Long, Notes). As well as when you look at the Temples built by Herod the Great promoting worship of Roman emperors such as Augustus Caesar (Tomasino, 266-267). The temptations that a Roman Christian would have faced within Rome in this time period would have been present in totality, which is in large part to the fact that being a Roman and being Christian was not a relatively accepted social norm within this period of history.

  7. Under the reign of the Caesars who promoted or required worship of themselves Christians may have had to grow their own external communities in order to stay away from the imperial cult, or potentially allow themselves to be socially ostracized while still living around these Roman people. Paul did preach in marketplaces, so it would not have been completely impossible for a Christian to enter these places, but doing standard business with Romans could have been far more difficult.

  8. A new Christian living in a Romanized city in Asian Minor would have been very conflicted between keeping up appearances in order to avoid being socially ostracized (“To reject the imperial cult was to reject the empire and appear to be as a traitor”), and their newfound beliefs and practices. However, it is very clearly stated that they should worship only the one true God so by “keeping up appearances” would be out of the question. This would limit in their participation in such civic festivals. Sean did make a good point, though, referencing Matthew 12:17, ““Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s”. In other words, God should be worshipped alone but one should respect authority.

  9. You would have to be so full of yourself in order to demand your people to worship yourself as a god. I honestly cannot imagine being in that position. It is interesting, though, how even some of the local rulers of the farthest reaches of the Roman empire, such as Herod, wanted so badly to be on Rome’s good side that they lavished money on temples to Caesar. Although, having massive statues, like the one that you showed in class, that are glorifying your ruler would probably help people subconsciously be more willing to follow him.

  10. Living in a Romanized city as a Christian would have been not only immensely difficult, but also quite dangerous. As far as whether or not said person would have been allowed to attend events that deified the leadership of Rome, I believe that the stories in Daniel provide an example of how to act in a God pleasing way in the face of political pressure to defy God. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all faced pressure from prominent figures to worship things other than God, and all of them respectfully declined even in the face of mortal danger. I believe that their response of respectful decline is the correct way to act.

  11. The idea of the Roman Imperial Cult is obviously founded upon and laced with idolatry. It is simply a truth that worshiping anything other than God is idolatry. I am quite sure that the Ephesian Christians had a very difficult time. Rejecting the act of worshiping the emperors was seen almost as a political offense. How could Christians live in a place that would not accept them, and still be a light to those around them? I would agree with your argument of “Revelation as a form of resistance literature” (Long). There is much to be said about those who take a stance for Jesus in the midst of an anti-God culture. How did they keep the peace amongst those in the culture around the, while also standing, as a light, for what they believed in (Phil. 2:14-16a). This idea is so relevant for our culture today. Society tells us (very subtly, of course) that we should worship other things, such as sports teams, musicians and singers, politicians; society also tells us to worship items, such as our cell phones, social media platforms, and even ourselves. While this is not exactly all the same as worshiping the emperor, there is no distinction in sin. Sin is sin. Idolatry is idolatry. No matter which way you paint it. Our “worship” of our political leaders is not as forced as it was back in those days, but an interesting thing that I have noticed is that we put our leaders on our currency, just as they did; and with such a high idolatry of money, I wonder if there is a subtle connection there.

  12. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to be a confessed Christian in the Roman Empire. The difficulty of trying to lead a normal life, while potentially being prevented from participating in many different civic activities, would certainly be demoralizing for these people who know and try to share the gospel. What most surprised me about this blog post is that the Roman emperors really didn’t mandate worship of themselves until after Augustus Caesar, arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors. However, Revelation takes place in the time of the emperor Domitian, who was very keen on being called a deity during his time as a ruler of Rome. Just for accepting Christ, the Christians of that time period could be very easily ostracized from their communities, and their status would mean that they cannot participate in various festivals, or other civic activities. I find it almost funny that some of them were branded as atheists, as they did not worship their emperor-god. Instead, they worshipped a man; a DEAD man, whom they claimed could save them from their sins. Another interesting juxtaposition between the imperial cult and the early church is that the emperors tended to have titles similar to that of Jesus. Domitian was title “the Lord God,” Augustus was titled “Son of God.”

  13. The world religion of Rome during the time of the early church focused on the worship of the emperor as an official chosen by their gods. The requirement to worship the emperor was required by everyone except those who were certified as Jews. In spite of this, many Jews living in the Diaspora felt pressured to worship the emperor. After the Roman government realized they were not Jewish, they began to put a lot of pressure upon churches in the Gentile territory to worship the emperor, or at least honor him as the supreme authority. Neither of these things true believers nor Jews would do resulting in persecution.
    One of the things we fail to remember is how culture influenced the lives and religious views of those in the Roman world. Many of the Roman gods were created to satisfy a desire to understand something about a specific aspect of creation. Although the Romans had many gods, their worship and views of them varied. Their depiction of these gods being little more than human created a near equality in their existence compared to that of the gods. This is why stories like Homer’s The Odyssey show humans and the gods having frequent interaction that depicts a purpose given to those who are spoken to. It is easy to understand why those in Roman culture allowed themselves to be captivated by the claim that the individual called “Caesar” was appointed by the gods.
    By maintaining a proper understanding of Roman culture and Roman religion, one can see why believers struggled with persecution during the early church and why their example led many to Christ.

  14. With this understanding of the Second Temple time period, I am more inclined to view the book of Revelation as optimistic as noted in a previous post on this blog. The Christian living in Rome during the Imperial cult is hard to imagine. It is hard to imagine an otherwise ordinary citizen who is not particularly “into” imperial worship. The Christian was quite literally in the world but not of it.

    Reading this letter as a metaphorical form of prophecy would have brought much hope to these churches.
    If apocryphal writings were more common during this time period, why did John use it? Was it an attempt to provide a “Christianese” version of the popular writings at the time? I doubt this. Though it is interesting that it is really the only book in the genre in the New Testament.

    The use of metaphors and imagery would have been common to them. Do you think that the original readers knew exactly what everything meant? Most of the imagery isn’t exactly intuitive to the modern reader, but I wonder if it was for the original readers also?
    Maybe that is part of the reason John used this literary style. This is not to say that he intended for it to mean different things to different people. But maybe part of the genius is simply that it allows for vivid images and pictures meant to evoke a specific response in the Second Temple period. But the imagery is still accessible for us today and leaves room for smaller nuances of interpretation. While some of the meanings may be debatable, there are some things that are quite clear: God is on his throne and he will triumph and bring his people back home.

  15. It seems that the Roman Imperial Cult was just a push for loyalty to the Roman Empire but also an attempt of unification between Asia provinces. Like any good leader, there is a need for a greater purpose to lead their followers to. Whether this greater purpose was to worship the Roman gods or to worship the emperor himself each citizen had that in common and created a bond that unified those involved. It seems as though America’s version of this would be a perspective of freedom/privilege that can be acquired. This might be spearheaded by their favorite or loudest political leader. Just like the Roman emperors, these political leaders are leading the citizens of the United States to seek out and worship their own perspective of freedom.
    When one leaves this system or potentially does not partake in it at all, they are usually ostracized and, at the worst, persecuted. The Jews in the first century or any other believer for that matter would have been ostracized for not participating and would have been against the unified body of citizens. This could be equated to someone who does not partake in voting because they might not see the benefit of participating due to their beliefs. I am sure that there were first-century believers that either walked the line or blurred the line between their participation in the Body of Christ and in the civic festivals; just like how there are people who blur the line between their devotion to their faith/Savior and their devotion to their nation (a lot of the time choosing their nation over what their supposed faith teaches them). It seems that some if not most of Revelation might have been a comment on loyalty and devotion to good or to evil. It was an explanation of what was to happen with those who worshiped the beast (also interpreted as the Roman Empire or the world) and those who worshiped the Lamb.

  16. Reading this over, I couldn’t help but wonder just how targeted the persecution of Christians by Rome was. I used to think that Nero burnt Rome specifically to blame Christians for starting the fire; I also heard many times of the horrific images of Christians lighting Nero’s halls with their burning bodies. I’ve been revaluating those perceptions however. Recently I learned that Nero’s persecutions likely were not as pointed or drastic as they were made out to be. If this is the case then although Rome did persecute Christianity, there may not have been so much animosity between the two groups. What I’m really wondering is how the persecution of Christians by Rome compares to the persecution of Christians by some modern countries. Could it be that the church today is facing internationally more persecution than it ever had before?
    There’s the food for thought I’ve been mulling over as of late.

  17. I have always been interested in cults and especially cults following rulers. I find it so interesting that it was such a normal think for a group to follow a leader so fully. But it makes perfect sense that Romans would follow their leaders so easily because after all they did believe that the leader was divine and a god. It is so interesting that htye began as not a way to get something from the ruler, rather to purely show gratitude toward the ruler. I had never heard of a civic cult, you know the less creepy, less kool-aid version. It is interesting that scholars think that the beast worship in Revelation are like civic cults in the Roman world. This is interesting because it manifests itself as a beast. It is interesting to see how the history of rulers in Rome shifts from being son of a god to demanding worship among different rulers. It seems that most of the cities mentioned in Revelation participated in the imperial cult worship as they had tools to do so, like temples and places to make offerings. I find it strange that they had temples, if I was claiming to be a god I would much rather followers bringing me delicious treats. I think that the spreading of the Gospel in Asia may have been very strange and contradicted the beliefs at the time because the Gospel went directly against worshipping your leader, it directed the person to worship only God. So it must not have been received well and may not have made a huge difference in the cities themselves as they still had the temples to the imperial cult.

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