Ten interesting facts about the imperial cult (worship of Rome or the Roman emperor as gods)

  1. Verses in Revelation that speak of the worship of the beast and the receiving of his mark show the influence of the imperial cult: Rev. 13.4, 13.14-17, 14.9, 15.2, 16.2, 19.20, 20.4
  2. The worship of the city of Rome was a goddess began early in Asia: starting from the second century before Christ – in 125 bc in Smyrna, and in 29bc in Pergamum. (Thielman) There are coins that picture her “reclining on the seven hills where Rome was built.” (Koester)
  3. Julius Caesar accepted worship in his lifetime (Mounce). Augustus was more cautious in Rome, but accepted temples to himself in the provinces (Mounce). Caligula demanded homage to his statues (Mounce)
  4. For centuries it was believed that Emperor Domitian insisted that he be addressed as “our Lord and God” (dominus et deus). This was the charge that later Roman writers made of him. But these writers had political motives to attack him, and  Leonard Thompson’s investigation of the claims against Domitian discovered a report from Statius “that when Domitian was acclaimed as Dominus at one of his Saturnalia he forbade those who did so to address him in this manner (Statius Silvae 1.6, 81–84). There are no references to Domitian as dominus et deus on any inscriptions, coins or medallions from the Domitianic era.” (Aune)
  5. All of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation had “altars to the emperor and a system of imperial priesthoods.” (Barr), and at least three of them had imperial temples at the time:
    • Augustus had the temple in Pergamum built in honor of Rome and his father Julius in 29 BC.
    • Tiberius had an imperial temple built AD mid-20s in Smyrna. This temple was the center of the imperial cult for the entire province.
    • There were two or three imperial temples in Ephesus, including one that Domitian ordered built.
  6. It was not the empire itself that pressured people to worship the emperor, but the cities. The cities in the empire competed with each other for favors from Rome. Thus there was great pressure to show their loyalty to Rome and to the emperor, and the imperial cult was an important way of showing that loyalty.
  7. We should not imagine that local authorities stood over everyone forcing them to participate in the worship of the emperor and other gods. Rather, such participation was a normal part of political and civic events, the meetings of professional guilds and trade associations, and other social events. It would become obvious at such events if someone refrained from participating. So most of the pressure was for Christians to conform because withdrawing would have adverse effects on one’s occupation and business dealings, one’s political prestige, and one’s friendships. And there was always the risk of provoking an outcry on a local level, which might attract the attention of local authorities and lead to legal consequences.
  8. “[The imperial cult] involved provincial and municipal temples, statues, altars (both public and private), and rites for the emperor in the temples of other deities. Activities included events such as festivals, parades, music performances, athletic games, gladiatorial shows, sacrifices, and civic and household rites.” “In addition, there were fountains, baths, porticos, and statues of the emperor spread through both public and private space. The imperial cult was a pervasive fact of life for John’s audience.” (Barr)
  9. The pressure for the empire to worship the emperor was so strong that even the Jews offered sacrifices to God twice a day in the Jerusalem temple for the well-being of the emperor. (Thielman, 686)
  10. According to Kenneth Cukrowski, prayers were not part of the emperor cult, but hymns, images and honorary titles were. He says that there were animals sacrificed on behalf of emperors past and present, but that it is not clear from the evidence that sacrifices to the emperor were made.

Sources: David E. Aune, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 52: Revelation 1-5. (Waco, TX: Word, 1997), David L. Barr, “John’s ironic empire” in Interpretation 63 no 1 Ja 2009, pp. 20-30, Kenneth L. Cukrowski, “The influence of the emperor cult on the book of Revelation”, in Restoration Quarterly 45 no 1-2 2003, p. 51-64; Craig R. Koester, “Revelation’s visionary challenge to ordinary empire”, in Interpretation 63 no 1 JA 2009, 5-18; Robert H. Mounce, New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Revelation, Revised Edition. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), Frank Thielman, Teología del Nuevo Testamento. (Miami: Vida, 2007)

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