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.
Ruler 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.
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).