Roman Emperor Worship

From the time of Alexander the Great, eastern monarchs had become demigods whose native citizens worshipped them and performed sacrifices dedicated to them. As early as the second century B.C.E., rulers routinely adopted the title epiphanes, a term that means "the divine presence coming into light." Although Octavian, the first emperor of Rome, ostensibly refused to be worshipped as these eastern leaders, he did allow his name to be joined with the goddess Roma and his image to be placed in sacred places throughout the empire. Gradually the worship of his divinity took root in the Near East, especially after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. when he adopted the title Augustus meaning "revered" or "honored." The province of Pergamum dedicated a temple to Augustus and Roma in 29 B.C.E. In the west, his stepson Drusus dedicated an altar to Augustus and Roma in 12 B.C.E. at Lugdunum, the modern Lyon, and by the end of his reign there was one in almost every province. It was not until after his death, however, that Augustus was proclaimed a god of the Roman state when a senator at his funeral attested to seeing him ascend into heaven.

This association of deification and death prevented other emperors from allowing themselves to become deified during their lifetimes. They did, however, allow their genius, "divinity," to be worshipped. Among the Julio-Claudians, Caligula (37-41 C.E.) built a temple and established a priesthood and ritual dedicated to his divinity in his own lifetime, and Claudius (41-54 C.E.) officially inserted the worship of the imperial genius into the state religion; the Flavian emperor Domitian (81-96 C.E.) referred to himself as dominus et deus, "lord and god." By the second century C.E., the Roman emperor had melded into local religious rituals all over the empire and was worshipped as a god, although there was no strict imperial religion with priests and prescribed rituals. Beginning with Diocletian in the late third century, court ceremonial surrounding the person of the emperor became increasingly elaborate. The emperor wore a purple robe, the symbol of his absolute power, and all who entered his presence were required to kiss the hem of the purple robe in a ritual called the adoratio purpurae, "adoration of the purple," and to approach his presence on their knees. Christians, as all citizens, were required to swear an oath to the genius of Caesar or be charged with treason. As offensive as emperor worship was to Christians, it nonetheless continued even after Constantine had proclaimed Christianity a legal religion.

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