Honours for the Emperors and Imperial Cults

Honouring the emperor and other imperial officials was an important part of civic life in the cities of Asia Minor.  Cities, communities, associations, and individuals could concretely show their respect for these imperial benefactors by erecting statues, monuments, plaques, and buildings, dedicating them to the emperors or other officials (“monumental honours” as I sometimes call them).  Despite the views of Jews like the author of Revelation, who outright condemned any connection with Roman imperialism (he would not want you to honour the “whore” or the “beast”), other Jews and Christians, such as the author of 1 Peter (2:11-17), were more willing to demonstrate their honour without engaging in actual worship.  In fact, failure to engage in sacrifices for the emperor and other gods became the test, in some circumstances, of whether one was a Christian or not (see the discussion of Pliny the Younger and the Christians in Bithynia and Pontus).  The author of 1 Peter writes: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. . . Honor everyone, Love the family of believers.  Fear God.  Honor the emperor.”  So virtually all early Christians and Jews refrained from religious rituals that recognized the emperors as gods, but scholars have often neglected these other areas of participation in Roman culture: Christians and Jews could be involved in honours for emperors, imperial officials, and local elites, as I explain in my book.

There was more to honouring the emperor than this, however.  In the eastern, Greek part of the empire, it was quite common for inhabitants in the cities to offer cultic honours to the emperors (whether living or dead) in the form of sacrifice and other rituals,  and to establish “imperial cults” devoted to worshipping the emperors as gods.  It is useful to distinguish between four levels of imperial cults:

(1) First, there was the official cult of deceased emperors centred at the city of Rome itself.  At the death of popular emperors, a special ceremony took place which involved the senate inducting the deceased emperor into the realm of the gods.  This official Roman cult clearly stopped short of “worshiping” a living emperor as a god.

(2) Second, there were provincial imperial cults and temples organized by institutions that claimed to represent the civic communities of a given Roman province.  In Asia, this central organization was known as the “Assembly (koinon) of Asia” and the imperial cult temples founded by this organization were primarily under the direction of the “high-priests of Asia”.  Examples of this provincial level are the cult and temple for Domitian at Ephesos (built in the late 80s CE) and the cult and temple for Trajan at Pergamon (built in the early second century), which included festivals and games in his honour.  In Asia Minor, it became common in various contexts, including provincial cults, to refer to a given emperor as  “god Sebastos” (“Sebastos” was the Greek equivalent for the Latin “Augustus”) and to refer to the emperors (and some other members of the imperial family) collectively as the “Sebastoi gods,” “the revered gods.”

(3) Third, there were civic imperial cults which were devoted to honouring the Sebastoi (or a particular emperor) at the city level. These cults were established using donations from local benefactors or prominent families, who could then serve as priests, for instance.  A good example of such a civic temple is the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, which was dedicated to “Aphrodite, the Sebastoi gods, and the people”.

(4) Fourth, there were other local or unofficial shrines, monuments and expressions of honour for the emperors as gods in unofficial settings (e.g. small groups, families, individuals), including associations.  There is much evidence, discussed in my book, for associations’ imperial cult activities, including mysteries in honour of the emperors as gods.  The “hymn-singers” at Pergamon, for instance, devoted their attention to cultic honours for the emperors in both official settings and within their group in the first and second centuries (IPergamon 374; IEph 3801).  They had a yearly celebration which involved mysteries in the lamp-light for the “revered ones”.  The worshippers of Demeter at Ephesos likewise integrated sacrifices and mysteries for the emperors into their religious festivals, and the list of examples could go on.  Participating in cultic honours for the emperors was one way in which associations felt at home in imperial culture, but Christians and Jews refrained from these specific forms of honours which placed the emperors in the realm of the gods.


Read more about worship of the emperors in the following articles: