Emperor Worship

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: The Bible


How did Emperor Worship come about and did the Emperors really believe they were gods?


Emperor Worship (sometimes known as the Imperial Cult) had a long history. This was not a Roman innovation. It was common in ancient eastern countries, most notably Egypt, where the Pharaoh was thought to be divine. Babylonians thought their kings were the sons of gods. This concept entered into Greek thought during the time of Alexander the Great (336-323 BCE). As one of the most successful military commanders of all time, he conquered most of the known world during his twelve year tenure. In so doing, he ushered in a period known as the Hellenistic Age, wherein Greek influence and culture were spread over distant lands. In 331 BCE, he entered Egypt and ordered a city, Alexandria, to be founded in his name. It would become one of the major cultural centers of the world. Some scholars think the people hailed him as a god at that time (to which he was not opposed). Others think he made several visits to the great oracle of the Egyptian sun god, at which time he was acknowledged as son of the god. Either way, it fit with his concept of his divine destiny and provided a useful tool for him to unify his empire.

Upon his death, Alexander's successors rather took to the idea of divinity. Some carried it farther than others, but no one made any effort to quell the movement. So, by the time of the Romans, this had been in the works for centuries. Several of the eastern provinces vied for the honor of building a temple to Julius Caesar, who had been deified after his death. Sometimes these temples were in conjunction with temples to various goddesses. Caesar Augustus (ca 31-14 BCE) allowed the city of Pergamum to build a temple in honor of him in 29 BCE. Temples to Claudius and Vespasian soon followed. The point of all this temple building was to show gratitude for the benefits received from both gods and goddesses. Typically, the idea was to deify the Emperor after he had passed on. Caligula (37-41 CE), however, couldn't wait. He insisted upon having a statue of himself placed in the temple at Jerusalem. This would have created a huge rebellion except for the fact that he died before he was able to enforce his decree.

Though Emperors such as Nero, Vespasian, and Titus did nothing to encourage the Imperial cult, neither did they do anything to discourage it. By the time of Domitian (81-96CE), it was a well-established notion. Coins from that time bore the image of the Emperor and the words, "father of the gods." Domitian's wife was known as the mother of the divine Caesar. According to biblical tradition, Domitian wanted all government documents to read: "Our Lord and God Domitian commands…." He expected his subjects to shout out as he passed by, "All hail to our Lord…." He wanted to be addressed as "Lord and God Domitian." The idea was that anyone who refused to participate in these activities could be arrested for sedition. The problem for Christians is obvious and led to their being persecuted. Still, some scholars are now questioning the accuracy of such assumptions. Evidence could show that such honors were not imposed on Roman life, but that citizens voluntarily responded to various benefits of imperial power by bestowing them. Nor was there uniformity in how these events were celebrated. Most Emperors (including Domitian, if one relies upon extra-biblical accounts) wanted respect, but didn't foster being worshiped. Mostly, each Emperor was concerned with the end result of maintaining order and peace in the provinces and was less concerned about the means. Nonetheless, the Imperial Cult was around until the time of Constantine, who by that time had become a Christian and decreed Christianity as the state religion.

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