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Emperor Worship

The climax of the civic religion was reached in the ruler cult of Hellenistic-.Roman times. The ruler cult started as an expression of gratitude to benefactors and became an expression of homage and loyalty. It was a matter of giving to the ruler, not getting from him (except indirectly); in other words, supernatural assistance was not expected from him in the same way it was sought from the gods. The reli.gious meaning of the ruler cult was not as great as its social and political importance where it served to testify to loyalty and to satisfy the ambition of leading families. Nevertheless, material and political well.being could arouse genuine religious emotions. The subject of the ruler cult has special importance for the study of early Christianity because it formed the focal point of the early church's conflict with paganism. Also, the phenomenon of this Hellenistic.Roman ruler cult had a lasting impact for the political theory that invested even Christian monarchs with a divine aura through medieval to modern times.

Historical Developments in the Imperial Cult

After an age of wars and catastrophes Augustus brought peace. He was a "savior." There was no way to explain a power so great without appeal to a divine ("demonic" in the Greek sense) nature residing in the soul of Augustus. According to the cus.toms of the time the feelings of his subjects had to find expression in divine honors. Julius Caesar provided the model for the official cult of Augustus . The people called Caesar "god" and honored him as such in his lifetime. A statue was dedicated to him in the temple of Quirinus in 45 BC with the words "To the invincible god." Before his death he had his own temple under the name "Jupiter Julius"; this was the first step in establishing the cult, by honoring a living hero according to the Greek. The second step in the cult of Caesar was taken with his official apotheosis after his death. As a dead hero he was transferred to the number of the gods. The senate and people declared him a god and during the celebration in honor of the divus Julius the appearance of a comet was taken as proof that his soul had been received into the number of the immortals.

These two stages are also found in the cult of Augustus. His own attitude and policy differed according to whether he was dealing with the provinces or with Rome itself. In his decrees to the provinces he called himself "son of god" (divus filius, i.e., the adopted son of Caesar who had been recognized as a god). Temples, altars, priests, and games in his honor were found in the provinces. He did insist that Rome join with him in the expressions of cult. Thus he allowed the Greeks in Asia to build temples to dea Roma et Augustus, but at Rome he refused a temple and allowed the Romans only to build a temple to dea Roma et divus Julius. Augustus did not want to antagonize further the conservative. elements, and he made a show of restoring the old republican religion.

From about 12 BC. Augustus showed less fear of the worship and took steps to initiate the cult of the ruler and Rome in the western provinces. Augustus himself took steps even in Rome to include the element of religious devotion within loyalty to his rule. For instance, when he reorganized the urban districts and the cult of the lares compitales he required a sacrifice to the genius of the emperor as part of the ceremonies. This asso.ciated him with the domestic divinities. On Augustus' death in A.D. 14 he was transferred among the celestial gods by apotheosis. By official act the senate included the new god in the list of Roman divinities and decreed that he receive in Rome (as he had elsewhere) a temple and priests. All of the first.century emperors equally favored the cult of the dead emperor. Tiberius, Claudius, and Vespasian did not encourage the marks of adoration, but Caligula, Nero, and Domitian permitted or even provoked them. The vitality of the imperial cult in the province of Asia during the reign of Domitian provides the setting for the Book of Revelation.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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