I’ve been writing about a recent trip to Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor (current-day Turkey). I’ve written about the architectural features of Greek and Roman cities and about Roman religion, including the cult of emperor worship. It wasn’t until I returned that I realized something was missing from first-century Asia Minor. This was occupied territory at the time but there wasn’t much evidence that there had been a military presence–no soldier’s barracks, armories, or other military installations. At the time, there was no Roman legion stationed in the area. The situation was quite different from Palestine, which had a strong occupying force. According to Richard A Horsley, who edited Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, there wasn’t even a bureaucracy in place to ensure compliance with Roman policies. So what controlled the populace?

There’s no need to exercise control over people if those people are controlling themselves, and it seems that’s what happened. The historian renowned for explaining how this happened was S.R.F. Price; his thesis was described in Rituals and Power: The Imperial Cult and Asia Minor (1984). The highly civilized Hellenistic cities of the region had succumbed under the onslaught of Roman power. For centuries before, they had a tradition of venerating local rulers who had been benefactors of their cities. These royal cults were associated with religious worship–the honor given to benefactors was similar to the honor given to the ultimate benefactors, the gods. The emperor received the same sort of treatment, and it didn’t take much to go from ‘the emperor is like a god’ to ‘the emperor is a god.’ After all, in polytheism there’s always room for more divinities. And worshiping the emperor gave people a sense of meaning and identity that had been lost to them when they came under Rome’s control. As Horsley explains,

“Since the subject peoples cannot change the dominant order, they need to justify, perhaps even want to glorify that order and articulate their own place within it.” p. 24

Sites for emperor worship were typically located outside Rome, not in Rome itself. It was usually not the emperor who took the initiative in establishing shrines, temples, and festivals in his honor but the local elites, who had an interesting relationship with the Roman authorities. Roman power  was exercised not via administrators but through a complex web of patron client relationships. Your patron protected and helped you; you were obliged in turn to praise and honor him. The emperor was the ultimate patron; local cities and aristocrats were his clients. What better way to honor your patron than build a temple or conduct a festival in his name? The elites competed for the opportunity to underwrite such elaborate demonstrations of veneration for the emperor. Here, for example, are the remains of a large fountain building erected by Ephesian bigwig Tiberius Claudius Aristion and his wife in honor of the goddess Artemis and Emperor Trajan:

And religious activities such as worshiping the emperor weren’t cordoned off from the rest of life. Those of us familiar with the separation of church and state, or even those from nations that have a state church, can’t fully appreciate how intertwined religion was with public affairs. At the theatre there were statues to the gods, including the emperor. The same was true if you shopped at the agora or visited the baths. An excerpt from Prince’s book reprinted in Horsley’s volume points out how the upper square of Ephesus, redesigned during the reign of Augustus, was built so as to foster emperor worship. For example, between the magistrate’s office (where the sacred fire to Hestia burned) and the small auditorium where the city council met, there was a temple dedicated to Julius Caesar (or perhaps Augustus: scholars are uncertain):

Another example of the intrusion of the imperial cult in public spaces is a the large statue of Hadrian outside the baths in Aphrodisias:

It was a mark of divinity that Hadrian was portrayed naked and with an idealized male form.

There were regular feasts and festivals designed to give divine honor to the emperor. Spectacles were held in his name. Bruce Winter, in Divine Honors for the Caesars: The First Christian’s Responses, indicates that gladiatorial contests and animal fights were almost always organized by the high priest of the imperial cult. Winter also provides a calendar from the early first century giving the high and holy days to be celebrated by the populace. Most of the days listed called for some sort of veneration of the emperor. Here is the calendar for January:

January 7      On this day Caesar first took the fasces.

January 16    On this day Caesar was named Augustus. Supplicatio to Augustus.

January 30    On this day the altar of Peace was dedicated. Supplicatio to the imperium of Caesar Augustus, Guardian of the Roman Empire.

What will you do, then, if you’re a gentile convert to Christianity and your trade guild holds a feast in which the food has been sacrificed to the emperor? Or what if there’s a procession honoring the emperor going past your house and everyone along the route is expected to offer a sacrifice in the great one’s honor? What if you’re asked to proclaim that Caesar is god and lord? You can’t cite separation of church and state–there’s no such concept. Nor is there such a thing as religious freedom. It’s your duty as a good citizen to take part. The peace and stability of the empire depends on the devotion of its people, so to refuse is to undermine the well-being of society (or so everyone believes). What will you do?

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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.