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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Emperor-Worship

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One of the most interesting and important facts in the inner history of the Roman Empire prior to the adoption of Christianity as the State-religion was the rise of Emperor-worship. Only in recent years have the facts regarding it been adequately investigated, and their importance for the early history of Christianity recognized and appreciated.

1. Origin and development.-Emperor-worship, like many other strange phenomena, was first of all a product of the contact and fusion of Orientalism and Hellenism, which for all practical purposes may be dated from the conquests of Alexander the Great. In each of these modes of thought it had a root; and, before the advent of Roman power, the reigning monarch had been regarded as divine in those regions where Greek and Oriental thought had blended. In Oriental societies generally-e.g. Egypt, Babylon, Persia, China-it was the custom from early times to speak of the ruler as ‘son of God,’ and in other ways to pay him divine honour-a custom which may easily be derived from the general tendency there to cringing adulation and extravagant flattery on the part of the subject (in Acts 12:22 we have a good example), and from a natural desire on the part of the monarch to confirm so useful a sanction of his authority. In the Hellenic world an approach to this is found in the custom of raising to divine rank after death those who in their lifetime had been pre-eminent for bravery or other qualities of great service to the community. To such men sacred rites and festivals were decreed, and in one formula used in inscriptions they are spoken of as ‘gods and heroes’ (E. Rohde, Psyche2, Tübingen, 1903, ii. 353). As noted above, in the kingdoms formed out of the Empire of Alexander in which Orientalism was hellenized, the deification of the monarch was definitely carried out. An inscription of Halicarnassus, c. [Note: . circa, about.] 306 b.c., describes Ptolemy I. as Σωτὴρ καὶ Θεός, ‘Saviour and God’ (Ditten berger, Orient. Gr. Inscr. Selectœ, 1903-05, xvi. 2, 3). The Syrian kings named Antiochus are termed Θεός (God), the infamous Antiochus IV. being designated on his own coins as Θεός Ἐπιφανής (‘the God who has appeared among men’).

It was in hellenized Asia that the deification of the Roman power began. In 195 b.c. Smyrna instituted the worship of the power of Rome, and from 95 b.c. onwards we find in Asia the worship of various beneficent Roman officials, e.g. Scaevola, Q. Cicero (cf. Ramsay, Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 117). Julius Caesar was honoured in his lifetime in an Ephesian inscription as ‘the God descended from Mars and Venus, who has appeared in human form, and the universal Saviour of the life of men’ (Dittenberger, Sylloge Gr. Inscript. 2, Leipzig, 1898, 347, l. 6 [vol. i. p. 552]). Upon his successor, the great Augustus, the East showered divine honours in profusion. A temple was dedicated at Pergamum to Rome and Augustus with a gild of choristers ‘for the God Augustus and the Goddess Rome.’ A similar temple rose at Ancyra in Galatia, and the recognition of the deity of Caesar became wide-spread in the Orient.

It is to be noted that it was no mere flattery that was expressed in this deification. It was a sincere sentiment of gratitude that led the East to confer on Caesar the highest honour conceivable. The pax Romana which he gave them and preserved for them was an inestimable boon. He did for them what their gods seemed unable to do: he put an end to their constant dread and frequent experience of warfare, tyranny, injustice. He gave them security of life and good, kept safe the highways, fostered, their commerce, and developed their resources. And all those benefits were safeguarded to them by a might which seemed invincible and irresistible. Viewed through a medium of Eastern poetic emotion, Caesar easily appeared invested with essential qualities of godhead-limitless power wielded for the good of the subject. Many inscriptions might be quoted which show that the Eastern pagan world found its Messiah in Caesar, the language in some cases bearing a resemblance to Jewish Messianic psalms and prophecies. The following will serve as illustration. It is an inscription of date 9-4 b.c. (Ramsay) in honour of the birthday of Augustus, and is a decree of the commune of Asia, instituting the Augustan era, and ordered to be put up in all the leading cities (Ramsay, op. cit. 436). We give only an extract:

‘This day has given the earth an entirely new aspect.… Rightly does he judge who recognises in this birthday the beginning of life and of all the powers of life, now is the time ended when men pitied themselves for being born.… All ruling Providence has filled this man with such gifts for the salvation of the world as designate him the Saviour for us and for the coming generations, of wars will he make an end, and establish all things worthily. By his appearing are the hopes of our forefathers fulfilled.… The birthday of God has brought to the world glad tidings.… From his birthday a new era. begins.’

(For whole inscription see Mitteilungen Inst. Athen. xxiv. [1889] 275ff.)

Nor was it only in the Orient that Caesar appeared a being worthy of divine honour. The establishment of his power meant the restoration of tranquillity and security to Italy after a reign of terror. The last two centuries of the Republic were marked by a constant succession of revolutions, each of which drenched Rome with Roman blood, and none of which could produce a just or stable government. The patience with which the tyrannies and cruelties of the bad Emperors were endured is eloquent testimony to the lasting impression of horror which the nightmare of the expiring Republic had produced. And the early years of the Empire seemed full of promise. A new era seemed begun in Italy no less than in the East. Vergil wrote his well-Known ‘Messianic’ fourth Eclogue predicting the birth of a son who should ‘put an end to the age of iron, and cause the age of gold to arise for the whole world,’ the reference being, according to the most probable view, to a son of Augustus whose birth was expected a.d. 40. The Senate decreed that the birthplace of Augustus was a holy place (Snet. Cœsar Octav. Aug. 5). Stories of portents and miracles at his birth grew with the years. The new name Augustus borne by Octavian and his successors connoted from the first something of superhuman dignity. Thus Rome was prepared for the deification of the reigning Caesar; in fact, it was reluctance on the part of Augustus to accept it that somewhat retarded the process. He limited the worship of Romans to the dead Julius Caesar who had received apotheosis in 42 b.c. under the title Divus. As early as a.d. 14, however, Augustus accepted deification from Beneventum.

Thus we see that deification was an honour spontaneously offered to Caesar by grateful, enthusiastic, and devoted subjects. What was the attitude of the Roman Government towards it? Not too much weight is to be laid on the reluctance with which Augustus accepted the dignity. Reluctance in accepting offices and honours offered was his settled policy. On the other hand, it may be that the practical mind of a Roman did honestly feel that there was something embarrassing, ludicrous, or even impious in his own deification. But the same practical mind, with its genius for government, soon perceived that in Caesar-worship the Empire would secure what it lacked-a bond of unity and a powerful safeguard of loyalty. In the East especially this was eminently desirable and conspicuously lacking. We must simply refer the reader to Ramsay’s demonstration (op. cit. pp. 115, 127) of the place filled by Caesar-worship as the great bond or Empire in that region. It was because of this special need of the Eastern provinces that Augustus accepted deification from them, while ostensibly refusing it from Italy. But the principle once adopted as part of Roman statecraft could not be limited spatially as matter of practice, still less as matter of theory. Caesar could not be a god in one province if he were mere man in another. Hence Caesar-worship rapidly became organized and highly developed as the State-religion of the Empire; the Caesars so far conquered their reluctance to pose as gods that Domitian proudly designated himself as Dominus et Deus, ‘Lord and God’ (Suet., Domitian, 13). Caesar-worship was enforced by the whole might of the State; refusal to worship the Emperor was high treason. The Jews alone were exempt. For details as to the organization of the new religion, its priesthood, the pomp of its ritual, etc., we must refer the reader to Mommsen, The Provinces of the Roman Empire; and Lightfoot, Apostol. Fathers, pt. ii.: ‘Ignatius and Polycarp.’

2. Caesarism and paganism.-It is necessary to make a few remarks on the relation of the new religion to the old paganism, because in sermons and other popular treatments of the subject the facts are often mis-stated. In no sense was the worship of Caesar either enforced or adopted as a substitute for other religions. It did not displace or quarrel with any of them. The old gods did not leave the stage to make room for Caesar. Contrary to what is often asserted, the old religions were very far from having lost their power. The satirical strictures of Juvenal and Martial on Roman city-society are no proof that the old Roman religion was powerless. The fact that several of the Emperors acted munificently towards the temples of the old gods shows two things-that the old religion was still in force and far from negligible, and that the new religion was not at all a rival to it (cf. S. Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, London, 1904, bk. iv, ch. 3). Indeed, the very Augustus who was the first, and remained the ideal, Emperor-god, was also the restorer to the ancient Roman religion of the dignity it had lost in the troublous times of the dying Republic.

But a further stage was reached, and first of all in Asia, at which the new religion became conscious that it could maintain itself only by closely allying itself with other religions, by associating Caesar with the local divinities. How Caesarism came to need this buttress is intelligible enough. It was only one or two generations that could have adequate experience of the vast benefit that Caesar’s rule brought with it. The previous state of social misery became more and more a dim memory as time passed, and the fervour with which Caesar was greeted as divine could not and did not last. Hence, while during the 1st cent, the State-religion was simply the worship of Rome and Caesar, in the 2nd cent, a modification was necessary; and, as indicated, this consisted in associating Caesar with a local god who could call forth a genuine religious feeling. On coins we find Rome and Augustus associated with Diana, Persephone, etc. (see Ramsay, op, cit., p. 123f.). Thus it is entirely erroneous to say that the new religion owed any of its strength to the decay of the old paganism; it was only in close alliance with the old that Caesarism as a religion could continue in existence.

3. Caesarism and Christianity.-It will be convenient to treat of this under three heads: (a) the antagonism; (b) the resemblances; (c) Caesarism in the NT.

(a) The antagonism.-This is the most obvious and familiar point in the relation of Caesarism to Christianity. It is known to all that Rome persecuted Christianity. What needs to be noted is that persecution was not a spasmodic thing due to the whim and caprice of specially ‘bad’ Emperors, as has sometimes been represented. Persecution of Christianity was the deliberate and settled policy, not of this or that tyrant, but of the Roman State. From the time that Christianity attained any great dimensions to the day of Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, there existed between it and the Roman power a relation of antagonism; and a condition of persecution resulted for the Church. The persecution might be wide-spread or local, few or many Christians might be involved: that depended entirely on the diligence and zeal of Roman officials. From what has been said above, the reason for this state of matters is quite plain. Rome had no option but to persecute. Caesar-worship was the bond of Empire, the test of loyalty, and Christians refused to worship Caesar. They were, therefore, a danger to the State. Other charges were preferred against them, but this came to be the one capital charge-treason to the State manifest in refusing to worship Caesar. The story of persecution, of course, is a varied one; we cannot trace its development here. But we have indicated its rationale-the principle which from the first underlay it, and gradually became explicit.

With Christianity as one religion among others Rome would not have concerned herself. Because Christianity threatened what had been adopted as a political safeguard of the first importance for the coherence of the Empire, Rome, without a reversal of her adopted policy, could do nothing else than attempt to extirpate this dangerous sect.

‘The Christian who refused this sacrifice (to the image of Caesar) fell automatically under the charge of majestas, i.e. of mortal insult or treason to the Emperor, who represented in his person the majesty, wisdom, and beneficent power of Rome’ (Workman, Persecution in the Early Church, p. 101).

Thus the fact that the great and good Marcus Anrelius was a persecutor of Christians does not require the laboured explaining away it has often received, e.g. from Farrar in Seekers after God, 1891, p. 257ff. The fact may be fully accepted and easily explained. Just because of his goodness as a ruler, he was a persecutor. His first duty was to suppress anarchy, and in the view of the Roman Government Christians were anarchists.

We do not need to expound here the inner, inherent antagonism of the two religions. It was that of the material and the spiritual, the seen and the unseen, the temporal and the eternal, the glorification of success and the exaltation of service even when it meant renunciation, loss, and self-sacrifice; the one boasted of a throne, the other of a Cross.

(b) Resemblances.-The opposition of Christianity and Caesarism becomes more marked when we consider their resemblances. (a) Both were universal religions; we do not need to dwell on that. (β) Each proclaimed and honoured a ‘Messiah.’ As noted above, Caesar’s praise was celebrated in phrases closely parallel to the praises of Messiah in Isaiah or the Psalms. The prosperity and peace of Messiah’s reign as pictured in Isaiah have been regarded by many as the basis of Vergil’s Eclogue, though there is no probability in the view. Similar ‘Messianic’ passages are by no means rare in the Latin literature of the period. Throughout the world, indeed, there was an expectancy of some great deliverer. The Church proclaimed Jesus, the pagan world acclaimed Caesar. (γ) All the great designations by which Christians expressed the dignity of Christ had already been used of Caesar. This is the most striking, as it is the least familiar, thing to be noted. ‘Lord,’ ‘our Lord,’ ‘Saviour,’ ‘Son of God,’ ‘Imago of God,’ ‘God manifest’-precisely the greatest names applied to Christ in the NT-were all familiar, throughout the East at least, as usual terms in which to speak of the Emperor (for details see H. A. A. Kennedy, in Expositor, 7th ser., vii. [1909] 289ff.,). While some of the terms, e.g. ‘Son of God,’ certainly had a root quite independent of Caesarism, and all as applied to Christ and Christians had a different content from the same terms applied to Caesar by pagans, the parallelism is too complete to be pure coincidence. To seize as eminently suitable for their own purpose the whole vocabulary of Caesar-adoration was a bold and brilliant stroke of policy on the part of the preachers of Christianity. The humble missionaries, speaking of Jesus as the Emperor was spoken of, must have made a startling and very profound impression. On the one hand, keen hostility would be aroused, but on the other, in many cases an eager curiosity and interest would be awakened. Any religiously-minded pagan must have felt the difficulty of the real godhead of Caesar. Caesarism after all could not satisfy any religious instinct. To any deep reflexion it must appear in reality the negation of religion.

‘It was only a sham religion, a matter of outward show and magnificent, ceremonial. It was almost devoid of power over the heart and will of man, when the first strong sense of relief from misery had grown weak, because it was utterly unable to satisfy the regions needs and cravings of human nature’ (Ramsay, op. cit., p. 123).

The proclamation of a spiritual Kingdom with a King to whom all the highest titles borne by Caesar really applied cannot but have made a strong appeal to the interest of many of the more serious in pagan cities (cf. Kennedy, loc. cit.). From another point of view this strange parallelism may be regarded as one among many aspects of a providential preparation of the pagan world for Christianity. Men were familiar with its greatest conceptions before it appeared; their conceptions required only to be spiritualized.

(c) NT references.-Outside the Apocalypse there is only one clear reference to Caesarism, and it is slight, viz. the mention in Acts 19:31 of the ‘Asiarchs’ who were friends of St. Paul. The provinces were united in communes for Caesar-worship, and the president or high priest of the commune of Asia was termed ‘Asiarch.’ So in Galatia there was the ‘Galatarch,’ in Bithynia the ‘Bithyniarch,’ etc. The Asiarch held office for a limited period, but retained the honorary title, hence there might be several Asiarchs in Ephesus (see Expositor’s Greek Testament in loc.). Cf. article Asiarch.

It is scarcely too much to say that in Caesarism we have a key to the Apocalypse. With that key many obscurities disappear, and the value of part of the book as a sober historical document becomes plain. Knowledge of the history of Caesarism makes it clear why Pergamum is described as ‘Satan’s seat’ (Revelation 2:13), At Pergamum, the administrative capital of the province, the first temple to Augustus was built. for 40 years it was the sole centre of Caesarism for the province; and, after other temples were established, it retained its primacy. ‘Satan’ is a symbolic expression for whatever was the great obstacle and hostile influence to Christianity; hence Pergamum was Satan’s seat par excellence (see. Ramsay, op. cit., p. 294), We cannot here deal with the whole subject of Caesarism in the Apocalypse. We must be content to refer briefly to ch. 13, which Caesarism explains, and which makes a contribution to our knowledge of Caesarism. The ‘first Beast’ is the Imperial power, the ‘second Beast’ is the government of the Province of Asia, with its two horns,’ proconsul and commune. The chapter proceeds to record how the commune maintained the Imperial religion, the worship of ‘the first Beast.’ ‘It maketh all to worship,’ and orders images of Caesar to be made (vv. 12, 14). Verses 13-15 add to our knowledge the fact that pseudo-miracles were practised by the priests of Caesarism. The miracles in question were the familiar accomplishments of the priests of many faiths-fire-producing and ventriloquism; and, as Ramsay shows (op. cit., p. 99ff.), there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the account here given, though it is our sole authority on the point. Verses 16-17 indicate a policy of ‘boycott’ against Christians. This might quite possibly be not ordered by the proconsul, but recommended by the commune. Other points in this interesting chapter deserve notice; every phrase is significant; but the reader must be referred to Ramsay’s exposition (op. cit. ch. ix).

Literature.-The general reader will find the following sufficient: W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire, London, 1893, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, do. 1904; H. A. A. Kennedy, article ‘Apostolic Preaching and Emperor Worship’ in Expositor, 7th ser., vii. 289ff.; T. R. Glover, the Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire, London, 1909; J. Iverach, article ‘Caesarism’ in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics iii. [1910] 50ff. For further study may be mentioned: T. Mommsen, The provinces of the Rom. Empire2, Eng. translation , London, 1909; J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers2, pt. ii.: ‘S. Ignatius and S. Polycarp,’ do. 1889; B. F. Westcott, ‘The two Empires: the Church and the World,’ in Epistles of St. John, do. 1833, p. 237ff.; C.J. Neumann, Der römische Staat und die allgemeine Kirche, Leipzig, 1890; C. Bigg, The Church’s Task under the Roman Empire, Oxford, 1905; E. G. Hardy, Studies in Roman History, London, 1905; H. B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church, do. 1906.

W. D. Niven.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Emperor-Worship'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/e/emperor-worship.html. 1906-1918.

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