Written by Vladimir Moss



      The cult of emperor-worship was the last and most serious obstacle to the whole-hearted embrace of Rome by the Church, the reconciliation of Romanitas with Christianitas. 

     Now religion in Rome had always been a department of State. As J.M. Roberts writes: “It had nothing to do with individual salvation and not much with individual behaviour; it was above all a public matter. It was a part of the res publica, a series of rituals whose maintenance was good for the state, whose neglect would bring retribution. There was no priestly caste set apart from other men (if we exclude one or two antiquarian survivals in the temples of a few special cults) and priestly duties were the task of the magistrates who found priesthood a useful social and political lever.[1]

      Nor was there creed or dogma… Men genuinely felt that the peace of Augustus was the pax deorum, a divine reward for a proper respect for the gods which Augustus had reasserted. Somewhat more cynically, Cicero had remarked that the gods were needed to prevent chaos in society…”[2]

     The gods in question were not only the specifically Roman gods, but all the gods of the various peoples of the empire. The tolerant, ecumenist attitude of the Romans to the different religions of the empire was one of the causes of its survival. None of the pagan cults excluded the others – in the minds of some of the sophisticated intellectuals who studied Greek philosophy they were all different expressions of a single Divinity. It was a natural step from the empire tolerating the worship of all the gods to its worshipping itself. For if the gods were worshipped for the sake of the empire, then the empire was the supreme value.

     “The most capable emperors,” writes Alexander Dvorkin, “tried to… attach to the ancient popular cults the character of the worship of the state and its head. This patriotic deification of the Roman state began already in the time of the republic. The cult of Dea Roma was practised in Smyrna already in 195 BC. It became noticeably stronger thanks to the popularity of the Empire in the provinces, which were happy with the improvement in the level of administration under the empire’s laws…”[3]

     Emperor-worship seems to have begun with Julius Caesar; the most famous date in Roman history is the Ides of March, 44 BC, when Caesar was killed by a group of senators determined to preserve the republic from a return to one-man rule. As Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, “he turned down the throne but received the titles Father of the Country, imperator, dictator for life and consul for ten years, and he was declared to be sacred…”[4]

     Jonathan Hill writes: “A number of inscriptions in the east, dating from late in his lifetime, hail him as a living god. Caesar himself clearly approved of the development, since he had a month named after himself, built a temple to himself, and appointed his friend Mark Antony as his own chief priest.

     “Caesar’s nephew, Augustus, the first true Roman emperor, developed some aspects of this idea and abandoned others. He did not have temples and priests dedicated to himself, but since he was Caesar’s adopted son, he was known as ‘the divine son’. He avoided actually calling himself a god, but he did not stop other people from doing so – especially in the provinces and the eastern part of the empire. He revived the old position of pontifex maximus or chief priest in the city of Rome, but he took over the position himself. All of Augustus’ successors adopted the same title until AD 382. And after Augustus’ death, he was officially deified. This became standard procedure for every emperor, except for the particularly unpopular ones; a witness would swear to the Senate that he had seen the dead emperor’s soul ascend to heaven from his funeral pyre, and the Senate would agree that he was now a god. Even in their lifetimes, the emperors were held to be inspired by a divine spirit, ‘Caesar’s genius’, and people were expected to worship this spirit…”[5]

     Emperor-worship may have been imported from Egypt. Both Caesar and Augustus had been in Egypt; and Augustus was clearly impressed, as had been Caesar and Mark Anthony, by the civilization he found there - and by its queen, Cleopatra. (He brought back an obelisk to Rome and named himself after the month in which Cleopatra died, August, rather than the month of his own birth, September…)

     There is even a theory that Plutarch’s story of Cleopatra’s suicide by snake-bite was a rewriting of history ordered by Augustus, and that Cleopatra was in fact killed on Augustus’ orders in order to remove a dangerous contender to the throne of Rome. For Cleopatra had made her son, Caesarion, her co-ruler, and he, being the natural son of Julius Caesar, was a more direct heir to Caesar than Augustus himself. If Caesarion had become the emperor in Rome, then not only would eastern ideas of divine kingship been introduced still more directly into Rome, but Rome itself may have become an oriental despotism…

     Dio Cassius writes that Augustus “gave permission for sacred precincts to be set up in both Ephesus and Nicaea, dedicated to Rome and his father [Julius] Caesar, to whom he had given the title, the Divine Julius. These cities at that time held pre-eminent positions in Asia and Bithynia respectively. The Romans who lived there he bade pay honour to these two divinities, but he allowed the provincials, whom he styled Greeks, to consecrate precincts to himself, the Asians in Pergamum, the Bithynians in Nicomedia. From such a beginning this practice has also occurred under other emperors, and not only in the Greek provinces but also in the others that are subject to Rome. In the city of Rome itself and the rest of Italy, however, no emperor, no matter how deserving of praise, has dared to do this (i.e. style himself a god). Yet even there divine honours are accorded and shrines set up to emperors who have ruled well, after their demise."[6 

     It is no accident that the only martyr mentioned by name in Revelation is Antipas, Bishop of Pergamum, “where Satan’s seat is” (2.13). Pergamum was “Satan’s seat” because it was there that the worship of Augustus was first instituted. The altar at Pergamum later became the model for Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow…

     However, the same emperor was compelled to curb any excessive tendencies in this direction by his regard for the traditions of republican Rome, where “king” was a dirty word, and sovereign power was deemed to belong jointly to the Senate and the People. Julius Caesar had been murdered precisely because he made himself dictator. So Augustus, while wielding all power de facto, still maintained the fiction that he was merely “first among equals”. In this context, it is probably significant that Augustus allowed altars to be dedicated to himself only in the provinces, whose inhabitants “he called Greeks”, and not in Rome itself. The strength of this republican tradition, allied to other philosophical elements such as Stoicism, guaranteed that emperor-worship, as opposed to the worship of “ordinary” gods, remained an intermittent phenomenon. It was felt to be an essentially alien, non-Roman tradition throughout the imperial period. Thus if Augustus had a temple erected to his divinity, Tiberius rejected divine honours; if Domitian considered himself a god, Trajan emphatically did not.

     “After Augustus,” writes Roberts, “emperors always held the office of chief priest (pontifex maximus) and political and religious primacy were thus combined in the same person. This began the increasing importance and definition of the imperial cult itself. It fitted well the Roman’s innate conservatism, his respect for the ways and customs of his ancestors. The imperial cult linked respect for traditional patrons, the placating or invoking of familiar deities and the commemoration of great men and events, to the ideas of divine kingship which came from the East, from Asia. It was there that altars were first raised to Rome or the Senate, and there that they were soon reattributed to the emperor. The cult spread through the whole empire, though it was not until the third century AD that the practice was wholly respectable at Rome itself, so strong was the republican sentiment. But even there the strains of empire had already favoured a revival of official piety which benefited the imperial cult.”[7]

     Sometimes the emperors deified their favourites. Thus early in the second century the Emperor Hadrian deified his favourite Antinous, of whom St. Athanasius the Great writes: “Although they knew he was a man, and not an honourable man but one filled with wantonness, yet they worship him through fear of the ruler… So do not be surprised or think that what we have said is improbable, for quite recently, and perhaps even up to now, the Roman senate decrees that their emperors who reigned from the beginning – either all of them or whomever they choose and decide upon – are among the gods, and prescribes that they be worshipped as gods.”[8]

     The intermittency in the cult of the emperor was reflected, as we have seen, by intermittency in the persecution of Christians. Thus in the 150 years between Domitian and Decius, although Christianity remained technically illegal, the emperors initiated no persecution against the Christians, convinced as they were that they did not constitute a political threat. In 112, Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, “wrote a famous letter to the emperor Trajan asking him for advice about Christianity. Apparently many people had been accuse of Christianity, but when Pliny interrogated them, he found that they seemed to be innocent of the crimes of which they were usually accused. He executed them anyway because he thought that their ‘obstinacy and unbending perversity’ should be punished, but he was unsure whether it was a crime simply to be a Christian, or whether the criminality lay in the things that Christians were said to do.Trajan replied (rather briefly, suggesting that this matter was low on his list of priorities) that Pliny was acting quite correctly. Any Christian that turned up should be executed if they refused to sacrifice to the gods, or freed if they did sacrifice, but it was not worth making a special effort to find and arrest them. In around 125 AD, the emperor Hadrian told the proconsul of Asia that Christians needed to be shown to have done something illegal before being punished, and that people making groundless accusations should themselves be punished severely. Most governors during the second and early third centuries seem to have taken this approach, and many Christian communities seem to have been quite open about their faith.”[9]

     The emperors were often more favourably inclined towards the Christians than either the Senate, which remained a powerful bastion of paganism, or the masses, who tended to blame the Christians’ “atheism”, that is, their refusal to worship the gods, for the disasters that befell the empire. The Roman authorities generally looked for ways to protect the Christians, and were only compelled to adopt stricter measures in order to appease the mob – as we see, for example, in the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. It was therefore in the Church’s long-term interest to support the imperial power, enduring the occasional madmen, such as Nero and Domitian, and waiting for the time when the emperor would not only protect her against her enemies, but take the lead in converting the body of the empire to Christ.

     This looked as if it might happen already in the mid-third century, under the Emperor Philip the Arab, who was thought by many to be a secret Christian, and a little later under the Emperor Galerius, who declared his faith in Christ after witnessing a miracle of the Martyrs Cosmas and Damian.[10] It was probably in order to counter Philip’s influence that the next emperor, Decius, ordered all the citizens of the empire to worship the pagan gods, which led to many Christian martyrdoms. However, the persecutions of Decius and Valerian elicited a wave of revulsion in Roman society, and from the edict of Gallienus to the persecution of Diocletian, there was even a long period in which all the old anti-Christian laws were repealed and the Church was officially recognised as a legal institution

     “It is not, perhaps, a coincidence,” writes Professor Marti Sordi, “that Gallienus’ change of policy towards the senate went hand in hand with the official recognition of the Christian religion which the senate had forbidden for the previous two centuries. Gallienus broke completely with the pro-senate policy of the preceding emperors, he forbade the senators military command and he cut them off from all the sources of real power. It was this break with the senate, this decision on the part of Gallienus to do without its consent, that made it possible for the Emperor to grant to the Christians the recognition which was so necessary for the well-being of the empire, but which the traditionalist thinking of the senate had always feared so much.”[11]

     An important change in the relationship between the Church and the Empire was signaled when, in 270, the Christians of Antioch appealed to the Emperor Aurelian to remove the heretical bishop Paul of Samosata… It was Aurelian who introduced the monotheistic cult of the Unconquered Sun, the original faith of the future Emperor Constantine. And it would be Constantine who would make the crucial, epoch-making change from the monotheistic cult of the Unconquered Sun to the monotheistic cult of the Unconquerable Sun of Righteousness, the Lord Jesus Christ…


[1] M.V. Zyzykin writes: “In the beginning the priestly functions, being a constituent part of the imperium, had been carried out by State officials and only later were transferred to the particular duty of the priests…

    “[Religion] without the State did not have that independent life and task, distinguishing it from the task of the State, that the Christian religion has. Its task was to guard the material interests of the State. Each god was in charge of some aspect of earthly life and State life; prayers to the gods included only requests for material good things; each god was besought in accordance with his speciality, but the Roman gods did not touch the moral side of life...

     “Not one single god was concerned with questions of morality. None of the gods inspired or laid down moral rules. Care for the morality of the people lay on the family and the State; philosophical morality also appeared without the gods… It worked out that it was not the gods who ruled the will of the Romans, but the Romans – the will of the gods…

     “The priesthood among the Romans was not a special form of service established from on high. Among the Romans the right and duty to carry out sacrifices was indissolubly bound up with the imperium. In private life the priest was a representative of authority – the head of the family, of the tribe, of the college, of the brotherhood. In State life the natural priest was the head of the State… [Thus] the highest official of the State was the guardian of religion, and not only of State order…” (Patriarkh Nikon (Patriarch Nicon), Warsaw, 1931, pt. I, pp. 37, 38, 42, 43) (V.M.)

[2] Roberts, History of the World, Oxford: Helicon, 1992, p. 203. Still more cynically, Seneca said that “the wise man will observe all the religious rites because they are prescribed by law, and not because they are pleasing to the gods”.

[3] Dvorkin, Ocherki po Istorii Vselenskoj Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi (Sketches on the History of the Universal Orthodox Church), Nizhni-Novgorod, 2006, p. 29.

[4] Montefiore, Titans of History, London: Quercus, 2012, p. 59.

[5] Hill, Christianity. The First 400 Years, London: Lion Hudson, 2013, p. 130.

[6] Dio Cassius, LI, 20, in S. Ireland, Roman Britain: A Sourcebook, London: Routledge, 1996, p. 175.

[7] Roberts, op. cit., p. 203.

[8] St. Athanasius, Contra Gentes, 9. Cf. Arnobius (The Case against the Pagans, I, 37): “We worship one born a man. What of that? Do you worship no one born a man? Do you not worship one or another, yes, countless others? Indeed, have you not elevated from the level of mortals all those you now have in your temples and made a gift of them to heaven and the stars?”

[9] Hill, op. cit., pp. 137-138.

[10] Gilbert Dagron, Empereur et Prêtre (Emperor and Priest), Paris : Éditions Gallimard, 1996, pp. 142-143. Philip and his son and heir, also called Philip, were baptised by Hieromartyr Fabian, Pope of Rome. See Velimirovich, The Prologue from Ochrid, Birmingham: Lazarica Press, vol. 3, July 1, p. 5, August 5, pp. 157-158.

[11] Sordi, The Christians and the Roman Empire, London: Routledge, 1994, p. 117.

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