I recently wrote about a recent group tour to Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. The cities in which fledgling churches were planted by the Apostle Paul were under Roman rule, though many had been built by earlier kingdoms–Hittite, Lydian, Persian, Greek, Seleucid, Pergamene. Thus, we saw archaeological remains representing many nations, but the majority were Greek or Roman. Similarly, the temples and religious objects we saw were mostly devoted to the Greek pantheon of gods or their Roman counterparts. This post will be about that religious tradition and the challenge it posed for first century Christians.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Roman religion was initially animistic but gradually added gods. From an initial triad of Mars, Quirinus, and Jupiter, the Romans added the Greek deities and others from conquered peoples, so that eventually there was a large collection of gods to be worshiped. Worship typically took the form of communal rituals. Cities would often adopt a patron deity that became a particular object of devotion.

Temples were seen as a home of the god, and building your favorite deity such a dwelling was a way to have him or her present among the populace.  According to Wikipedia, “Their construction and maintenance was a major part of ancient Roman religion, and all towns of any importance had at least one main temple, as well as smaller shrines.” Virtually every archaeological site we visited had one or more large temples. In many instances, virtually nothing remained, as with the massive temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world:

Others had sufficient remains to suggest something of their original grandeur, such as the Temple of Apollo in Didyma:

Here is another impressive site, the Temple of Aphrodite in Aphrodisias:

Most of the  temples were rectangular and were on a raised platform, with steps leading up to the portico and entrance. Sacrifices were typically offered somewhere on the temple grounds but not in the central room of the temple. That central area was reserved instead for a cult statue of the god. Here is such a statue of Artemis, now in the Ephesus Museum:

And here is an altar for sacrifice to Apollo in Didyma:

When the first Christian churches were established in Asia Minor, the believers had to decide how to interact with Roman religion. The Romans did not demand belief in their pantheon of gods, but they did expect that everyone would participate in civic feasts and festivals, which inevitably included homage to those gods. One aspect of Roman religion that put special pressure on the Christians was the imperial cult. Starting in the time of Augustus, many emperors were named as gods. Augustus himself wasn’t enamored of the idea, but that didn’t keep the Senate from deifying him upon his death. Often, an emperor would ask that his predecessor be declared divine. Some emperors decided in their lifetime that they were gods and should be worshiped. For example Domitian (r. AD 81-96) had a temple built to himself in Ephesus: only the elevated base still stands:

The monumental head and arm from the statue of Domitian that stood in the temple is now in the Ephesus Museum:

Domitian may have thought of himself as a god, but the population didn’t agree with him. After his death, the Senate condemned his memory to oblivion, and his temple was rededicated to his father and brother.

I didn’t have an appreciation of how important emperor worship was until we visited the ruins at Aphrodisias. There we saw the partly reconstructed Sebasteion, a first-century temple devoted to worship of emperors. There was a large courtyard flanked by three-story porticoes; this was no small enterprise!

The porticoes were covered with friezes celebrating the exploits of various emperors. Many friezes were recovered and are on display in the nearby Aphrodisias Museum. For example, here is Claudius about to apply the death blow to Britannia:

To the Romans, emperors weren’t just politicians. They were deities sent to bring peace and deliverance. Jennifer Greer, an adjunct professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary who was on the trip, read to us a translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription found on two stones in the marketplace of the ancient city of Priene. It called for the institution of a new calendar system starting with the date of Caesar Augustus’ birth. Here’s part of the text:

“Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him…”

A savior sent to benefit humankind. Christians who read this would have thought of someone else sent to save us, Jesus Christ. The question they faced was who to worship: who is the true savior of the world?  It’s a question for every age, just as pertinent now as it was then. In future posts, I’ll explore the Christian response to the claims made by Roman religion.