Imperial Cult (1)

Imperial CultRoughly forty festivals were celebrated annually in Rome, and they were separated into sacred and secular days. Temples and shrines within the capital and throughout the empire commemorated significant political events and victories due to the intervention of gods or goddesses. However, government, politics, and religion were primarily in the control of educated, landowning males who usually belonged to the military aristocracy. There was a sort of collective piety underlying the culture of Rome, for honoring its deities guaranteed success in battle and good relations with government officials, since they ultimately served as agents of the pantheon.

Religion was central to Roman identity, as its myriad of gods demonstrates, for its practice adjusted with each new era or cultural advance of the empire. As further territories or kingdoms were conquered, additional divinities were adopted, modified, or integrated into its system. In essence, there was no separation of religion and state; in fact, men elected to public office might also serve as augurs or pontiffs. Priests maintained high profiled lives, and the title “Pontifex Maximus” was the highest sacred office. Beginning with Augustus that function was subsumed into the imperial office and thus became a role of the emperor. State-sponsored worship consisted primarily of prayer, sacrifice, and ritual, rather than of proper traditions, customs, or beliefs.

The Roman imperial cult involved offering divine honors to a living or dead emperor, some of whom were elevated to the status of gods due to the efforts of successors or the senate; others proclaimed divinity while alive. In fact, many emperors insisted on being addressed with terms like “god,” “lord,” or “savior.” While Tiberius, Claudius, Vespasian, and Trajan resisted divine honors, Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Hadrian, Commodus, Severus, Decius, and Diocletian were convinced of their divinity and demanded worship. In fact, beginning with Nero and Domitian, those who refused to revere them in this manner were punished.

Under Antoninus Pius the demand to offer sacrifice before the emperor’s statue became a test of Christian loyalty to the state, and noncompliance resulted in death. The senate under Marcus Aurelius permitted the imperial cult to use condemned prisoners in the arena instead of the more expensive gladiators, and this often included members of the church. Decius (249-251) issued an edict that resulted in the first general persecution of the faith, for every Roman inhabitant was required to offer sacrifice to the gods and to obtain a certificate confirming it. In this sense, it was designed to expose impiety in unconventional religious traditions such as Christianity, and hence it became an instrument of persecution.

to be continued …