Emperor Worship

EMPEROR WORSHIP. The worship of the Rom. emperor as a divine being, the cause and occasion of the tragic rift between the empire and the Church, began spontaneously in the eastern provinces, and was recognized by Augustus and Tiberius and progressively promoted by their successors as a political measure. Such a cult had manifest usefulness as a cementing and unifying force as the principate struggled in the 1st cent., to stabilize the frontiers and establish cohesion in the Mediterranean world. “The imperial cultus,” wrote Moffatt, “was instinctive rather than deliberate, developing out of certain germs within the ancient mind, such as the blend of religion and patriotism among the Persians, and the worship of the Ptolemies which shocked the pious Plutarch. Its primary aim was to foster patriotism by providing a symbol of the solidarity and unity of the Empire” (EGT, Vol 5, p. 307).

The cult, as the words quoted indicate, found origin and form in the E. From earliest times, the rulers of Egypt had been regarded as incarnations of deity and accorded divine honors and worship. When the Ptolemies, on the breakup of Alexander’s vast empire, took control of Egypt, they were regarded as the successors of the Pharaohs, and similarly were honored by the Egyp. people. The Caesars were no more than the successors of the Ptolemies. Nor was it difficult for similar concepts of a divine ruler to find place in Syria and Asia Minor. The idea was indigenous. “Distance,” writes Moffatt in the passage already quoted, “lent enchantment to the provincial view of the emperor. Any sordid traits or idiosyncracies retired into the background before the adoration felt for the divinity which hedged this unseen, powerful figure who was hailed with a mixture of servility and real gratitude as ‘the Saviour,’ ‘the Peace,’ or the lord of men. Asia became a hotbed of the cult” (loc. cit., p. 308).

In Pergamum, in many ways the Asian headquarters of the cult, the worship of Rome, and Caesar as its incarnate deity, colored the city’s life. The first temple of the cult was located at Pergamum as early as 29 b.c., and provided a motif for Pergamene coinage for over a cent. A second temple was built in honor of Trajan at the end of the 1st cent. and a third for Severus a cent. later. Only the first temple functioned when the apocalyptic letter was written to Pergamum, but its ritual and worship were sufficient to make the presence of the imperial power very real in the city, and were for Christians shockingly oppressive. When the imagery of the letter speaks of “One who holds the sharp two-edged sword,” and of those who “dwell where Satan’s seat is,” it has this confrontation between Christianity and Caesarism in full view.

Ancyra served as cult-center for Galatia, as Pergamum did for Asia. Through all the provinces of the great peninsula, provincial assemblies maintained the cult, and special officials (e.g. the Asiarchs of Ephesus) saw to its proper ordering and maintenance. An extant letter of Pliny, the governor of Bithynia at the end of the first decade of the 2nd cent., showed the cult in its political operation. Pliny, a kindly but legally-minded man, had found his province in the grip of Christianity. Doubtless pressed hard by the temple wardens of the cult whose shrines were empty, and the guild of butchers whose sacrificial meat was finding no purchasers, the governor, following the lamentable anti-Christian legislation that had been on the imperial statute books since Nero or Vespasian, proceeded to suppression. Pliny writes: “Those who denied they were, or had ever been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered adoration, with wine and frankincense, to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose, together with those of the gods, and who finally cursed Christ—none of which acts, it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing—these I thought it proper to discharge. Others who were named by that informer at first confessed themselves Christians, and then denied it; true, they had been of that persuasion but they had quitted it, some three years, others many years, and a few as much as twenty-five years ago. They all worshipped your statute and the images of the gods, and cursed Christ” (Pliny, Letters 10. 96, 97).

Here is a vivid picture of the imperial cult in operation against a minority who were regarded as dissident and “tampering with the established processes of life: challenging, rebuking” (The Christian in Pagan Society, p. 15, E. M. Blaiklock). This, in fact, was the usefulness that the emperors saw in the cult, and why they gave its spontaneous appearance in the E instinctive welcome and official encouragement. Nor must the sufferings of a Christian minority under its impact obscure the fact that the empire, or the principate as it is more correctly called, avoiding the dual sense of the word empire, brought manifold blessings to the eastern provinces. Cicero’s letters from Cilicia and his orations against Verres are indication enough of the exploitation and misgovernment that was common in the provinces during the last turbulent cent. of the Rom. republic. The emperors brought peace and at least some semblance of stable government. Hence, the natural adoration of him whose rule had brought such blessings. The whole system of worshiping a man must be seen in its ancient context of ruler-worship in the E, the cult of heroes in Greece, and against the background of a popular theology without the advantage of the Christian or even the Jewish idea of a transcendent God.

So far the worship of the emperor in the eastern stronghold of the cult has been the major theme. In Rome itself, the myth of a deified ruler was invented in the 4th cent. b.c. under Gr. influence, and there are instances, as Rom. power spread through the Gr. world, of Rom. officials receiving divine honors. In the city itself such notions became prominent only in the 1st cent. b.c. and were concerned mainly with the thought of the deification of the virtuous dead. Julius Caesar, who had tasted the adulation of the E, accepted divine honors in his lifetime, and was deified after his assassination. Augustus, preoccupied in avoiding his adoptive uncle’s mistakes, was canny about such honors in the W, ready though he was to exploit the instinctive adoration of the E. He allowed altars, not temples, to be set up to his “genius,” associated with the worship of Dea Roma, the deified spirit of Rome. In lit., Virgil, Horace, and others of the poets of the Golden Age, spoke commonly of the prince in a manner associated with divine things and the hero-cults. They shared, after all, the common gratitude for the gift of peace that Augustus’ subtle diplomacy, clever leadership, and immense prestige had brought. The very name Augustus, bestowed by the Senate on Octavian, was indication of this drift of thought. The successors of Augustus shared his hesitation about frank acceptance in Italy of divine appellatives and formal worship. The Greeks and the provinces had no reserve, and the gradual growth of absolutism together with the spread in the W of Eastern cults finally established Caesar worship with its full ritual throughout the Mediterranean world. The cult in no way fulfilled a religious need. It was never more than a tribute of flattery, a demonstration of gratitude, a symbol of patriotism or subjection, and as such a vastly important political force.


L. R. Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor; Moffatt, EGT 5308 collects a useful list of references.