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 as Jove, holding scepter and orb (via Wikipedia)

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).

13 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.


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