The worship of Roman emperors is a well-documented fact that continues to capture the attention of scholars working in that field. I am fascinated by the subject, mainly because I’m currently in the throes of writing a book on Revelation, so it comes with the territory. At any rate, I thought I would make a few comments about the imperial cult and toss it on the blog.
While a lot could be said about the phenomenon itself, one thing is for certain: The imperial cult was politically advantageous for everyone involved—for Caesar and the communities that participated in it (e.g., the cities of Asia Minor). For Caesar, it was good for patriotism, fostering allegiance to the empire. For the cities, it helped earn points with Caesar to gain access to things like economic and military assistance when they needed it. Much of imperial worship, then, was political in nature. However, it cannot be reduced down to just the political aspect.
One example why comes from Dio Cassius, a second-century Roman historian. In his Roman History, he tells of a certain king Tiridates, the ruler of Armenia during the time when Nero was emperor of Rome. Knowing full-well that the mighty Roman Empire was the big kid on the block, Tiridates wanted to make it clear where his political loyalty resided—namely, with the Roman emperor. With an entourage of thousands of people accompanying him, Tiridates made his way to Rome. Dio gives us a glimpse of the sort of man Tiridates was, as well as the scope of his royal escort:
…Tiridates presented himself in Rome, bringing with him not only his own sons but also those of Vologaesus, of Pacorus, and of Monobazus. Their progress all the way form the Euphrates was like a triumphal procession. Tiridates himself was at the height of his reputation by reason of his age, beauty, family and intelligence; and his whole retinue of servants together with all his royal paraphernalia accompanied him. Three thousand Parthian horsemen and numerous Romans besides followed in his train. They were received by gaily decorated cities and by peoples who shouted many compliments. Provisions were furnished them free of cost, a daily expenditure of 800,000 sesterces for their support being thus charged to the public treasury. This went on without change for the nine months occupied in their journey.
Dio says that Tiridates met Nero in the city of Neapolis, at which point Tiridates “knelt upon the ground, and with arms crossed called him [Nero] master and did obeisance.” From what we gather from Dio’s account, Tiridates’ kneeling before Nero was a political act of loyalty, as this is clearly what motivated him to meet Nero in the first place. However, it would be too simplistic to say that this was just about politics (especially when we think of “politics” from a modern, American perspective). There was more going on. The words “did obeisance” are an English translation of Dio’s proskynēsas. This word is the inflected form of proskyneō and is often associated with worship and bowing when in the presence of God (e.g., Matt. 14:33; Rev. 4:10).
In much of the modern world, we tend to keep politics and religion separated. But this was not so in the ancient world. In fact, ancient people would have had no concept of separating the two. To them, such an idea would have been incomprehensible. So, while I think Tiridates’ bowing was political in nature, we cannot fail to see the religious aspect of his kneeling before Nero.
After the initial meeting between Nero and Tiridates, Dio reports how the emperor took him back to Rome for a public ceremony at the Forum, which was followed by a massive celebration. Dio describes the scene:
The entire city [of Rome] had been decorated with lights and garlands, and great crowds of people were to be seen everywhere, the Forum, however, being especially full. The centre was occupied by the civilians, arranged according to rank, clad in white and carrying laurel branches; everywhere else were the soldiers, arrayed in shining armour, their weapons and standards flashing like the lightning. The very roof-tiles of all the buildings in the vicinity were completely hidden from view by the spectators who had climbed to the roofs. Everything had been thus got ready during the night; and at daybreak Nero, wearing the triumphal garb and accompanied by the senate and the Praetorians, entered the Forum. He ascended the rostra and seated himself upon a chair of state.
Dio depicts the event well. The emperor is given prime focus and attention, the accompanying imperial officials and soldiers decked out in their uniforms—all being surrounded by citizens roaring with patriotic fervor. You can almost “feel” as if you were in the crowd itself. Dio continues:
Next Tiridates and his suite passed between lines of heavy-armed troops drawn up on either side, took their stand close to the rostra, and did obeisance [proskyneō] to the emperor as they had done before. At this a great roar went up, which so alarmed Tiridates that for some moments he stood speechless, in terror of his life. Then, silence having been proclaimed, he recovered courage and quelling his pride made himself subservient to the occasion and to his need, caring little how humbly he spoke, in view of the prize he hoped to obtain.
This is quite revealing, for it goes to show what was expected of people who desired to gain the good graces of the Roman emperor—especially of a narcissistic emperor like Nero. In full view of the crowd, Tiridates addresses Nero, publicly expressing his devotion and worship, saying,
“Master, I am the descendant of Arsaces, brother of the kings Vologaesus and Pacorus, and your slave. And I have come to you, my god, to worship you as I do Mithras. The destiny you spin for me shall be mine; for you are my Fortune and my Fate.”
Notice how Tiridates calls Nero “my god” (theos). Nero is thus the object of not merely political loyalty but also religious worship. The word translated as “worship” is the same word used above for the words “did obeisance” (proskyneō). Accompanied with Tiridates’ confession of Nero as “god,” the word proskyneō is set clearly in a context of worship. Nero responds to Tiridates’ pledge of allegiance and worship by saying,
“Well have you done to come here in person, that meeting me face to face you might enjoy my grace. For what neither your father left you nor your brothers gave and preserved for you, this do I grant you. King of Armenia I now declare you, that both you and they may understand that I have power to take away kingdoms and to bestow them.”
Dio’s account goes on to say that, after Nero finished talking, Tiridates was ceremonially placed underneath the emperor’s feet and given a diadem to wear on his head. After this, a costly celebration and feast was thrown to commemorate the occasion of Tiridates’ pledge of loyalty and worship to the emperor.
It is true that, according to Dio’s further account, Tiridates did not care much for Nero’s narcissism and held him in disdain. Thus, his “worship” of Nero was hardly sincere. At the end of the day, Tiridates was just a savvy politician. That being said, what this episode does teach us is that political allegiances were often associated with, and couched in the language of, religious devotion and worship. For ancient people, politics and worship were often two sides of the same coin. The fact that Tiridates’ worship was insincere is beside the point. The fact that he felt he had to express his political allegiance in the language of worship is telling enough. In the ancient world, especially in places like Asia Minor, one way a person could convincingly pledge their political allegiance would be to wrap it with terms of religious devotion.
What this means is that we cannot chalk the imperial cult up merely as a geopolitical phenomenon (as important as this component was). In fact, “The imperial cult… was much more than a mere political tool; participants actually worshiped the emperor as divine.” In this vein, we should not fail to see the religious side of things. One might very well say that, for many folks in the first century, religion was political and politics was religious.
David A. deSilva, Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation’s Warning (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 29.
Dio, Hist., 63.1.2-63.2.3 in Dio Cassius, Dio’s Roman History (vol. 8; trans. Earnest Cary; Loeb Classical Library; New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1925), 8:139–41. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Dio are taken from this edition.
Dio, Hist., 63.2.4-63.3.1.
Dio, Hist., 63.3.4-63.4.3.
Dio, Hist., 63.4.3-63.5.2.
Dio, Hist., 63.5.2-3. I have made very minor alterations to Earnest Cary’s translation in order to modernize it (e.g., changed “thy” to “your,” etc.; cf. Dio Cassius, Roman History, 8:142–43).
Dio, Hist., 63.5.3-4. As above, I have made minor alterations to Cary’s translation in order to modernize the text. Cf. Dio Cassius, Roman History, 8:143–45.
Dio, Hist., 63.5.4-63.6.3.
See e.g., Dio, Hist., 63.6.4 – 63:7.1.
Alan S. Bandy, “Persecution and the Purpose of Revelation with Reference to Roman Jurisprudence,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 23, no. 3 (2013): 377-398, citing 393.
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