Imperial Divine Honors and Early Christianity

Interpreters of the New Testament should strive to present the fuller and more complex picture of cultic activities that occurred within the cities and provinces of the Roman world, which included not only imperial and but also traditional divine honors.

Se also Paul and Imperial Divine Honors (Eerdmans, 2024).

By D. Clint Burnett
Johnson University
May 2024

          Imperial divine honors are cultic acts that Greeks and Romans gave to Roman emperors and their family members that resembled in kind but differed in degree those that they offered to the traditional gods. Such honors consisted of any one or combination of the following: priests/priestesses, processions, prayers, sacrifices, hymns, altars, festivals, games, cultic images, divine titles, shrines, and temples. Contrary to popular belief, there was no single empire-wide grant of imperial divine honors in the Roman Empire that the reigning emperor oversaw and administered. What is often called “the imperial cult” actually consisted of countless grants of divine honors that Rome/her colonies, provinces, cities, associations, and individuals established, most often as local expressions of gratitude for imperial benefaction. Numerous ancient sources, especially inscriptions, highlight this fact. For example, the emperor Augustus’s ancient biographer, Nicolaus of Damascus, observes that cities and peoples in the Roman Empire “consider [Augustus] worthy of honor . . . and reward him with temples and sacrifices in exchange for the greatness of his virtue and his benefaction for them.”[1] In many cases, the granting of imperial divine honors had a second, closely related objective, the securing of political and religious capital for denizens of the empire who sought future munificence. 
Historians have developed a fourfold typology for imperial divine honors depending on where they were located, which body politic (or lack thereof) established them, for whom they were established, and who partook in them. The first type, Roman, are grants of postmortem divine honors found in Rome and her colonies that focused on emperors and imperial family members whom the Roman senate divinized.[2] These honors were not for every emperor or imperial family member because the senate only divinized those members of the imperial family who concretely benefited the state, bestowing the title “Divinized” (divus for a male and diva for a female) on them and giving them a priest, temple, and altar.[3] 
The second type, provincial, are imperial divine honors that provinces established, funded, and administered most often for living emperors and sometimes their family members almost always to show appreciation for imperial munificence. In most of the Greek East, the bestowal of such cults was a negotiation process among representatives of the province’s cities, the Roman provincial governor, the reigning emperor, and the Roman senate. During the Julio-Claudian period, most grants of provincial imperial divine honors included a cultic partner with the emperor such as the goddess Roma. The Flavian emperors tended to be worshiped alone or with each other in the same grant of provincial imperial divine honors.[4] Given that Roman officials participated in the founding and running of these cults, most often they reflected the theological conservatism of Roman imperial divine honors. Thus, with few exceptions, official surviving documents such has coins and inscriptions do not call the reigning emperor a god, which somewhat follows the practice in Roman imperial divine honors of waiting until the death of the honorand before hailing them as divi (the Latin plural of divus). 
The third type of imperial divine honors, civic, are grants of such honors that cities provided most often for living emperors and their family members to render appropriate gratitude for their benefaction. Because the number of cities in the Roman Empire far outweighed the number of provinces, civic imperial divine honors make up the bulk of our ancient evidence for imperial cultic activity. These cities had their own local traditions, some of which stretched back into the Archaic and Classical periods of Greek history, and they tended to honor emperors and their family members in keeping with these customs, which sometimes included hailing living emperors and their family members as gods. 
The final type of imperial divine honors, private, are the least studied of all types. They consist of those that private individuals or associations established most often for living emperors and their family members to show appreciation for their beneficence. These cults are not that widely attested in our ancient evidence, but surviving references to them in Greco-Roman literature, inscriptions, and archaeological remains from cities like Ephesus suggest that private imperial divine honors were part of domestic shrines of elite homes and in the private religious spaces of associations.[5] 
These types of imperial divine honors were not celebrated in isolation of honors for traditional gods but were wedded to them. The records of the Arval Brothers, a college of priests in Rome who belonged to the Roman senate, attest to the association of Roman imperial and traditional divine honors in Rome. These documents consist of an epigraphic collection of sacrifices that the Arval Brothers offered between 21 BCE and 304 CE known as the Arval Acta. To provide an example, on 13 Oct 58 CE, eight Arval Brothers gathered on Rome’s Capitoline Hill to sacrifice a male cow to Jupiter, Divinized Augustus, and Divinzied Claudius respectively, a female cow to Juno, Minerva, Public Felicity, and Divinized Augusta respectively, and a bull to Nero’s life-force for the purpose of celebrating the anniversary of Nero’s accession to the imperial throne.[6] 
The provincial imperial divine honors about which we know the most is that of Roma’s and Augustus’s (called such after 27 BCE) in Pergamum. This cult was established in 29 BCE and consisted of a large temple (yet to be discovered) with all the cultic trappings (altar, cultic images, priests, and sacrifices), and an imperial festival that was held at regular intervals.[7] Roma’s and Augustus’s cult played a key role in Asia. Coin series minted for the province in 19 BCE depict the temple with the legend “Common to Asia” in Latin, important decrees affecting the province were deposited in the temple, and the priests who served at its altar were from leading aristocratic Asian families.[8] 
An excellent example of the intertwining of civic imperial and traditional divine honors is the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias in Caria, which is a temple complex that two local aristocratic families had built and maintained between 20 and 60 CE.[9] The Sebasteion consists of a monumental gateway, two ninety-meter-long porticoes separated by a 14-meter-wide paved area, and an elevated temple at the opposite end of the gateway. The two porticoes were three stories high and the upper two stories held about 200 marble friezes picturing various Julio-Claudians in the likenesses of the Olympian gods, Greek myths from Rome’s and Aphrodisias’s past, and personifications of nations that Julio-Claudians pacified. Inscriptions from the temple and myths depicted in the reliefs indicate that the Sebasteion was devoted to the patron goddess of the city, Aphrodite, the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and the divine personification of the city’s citizens.[10] The first portions of dedicatory epigraphs on the inside and outside of the gateway read: “This gateway and the honorary statues on it (are dedicated) to Aphrodite, the Augustan gods, and the citizen-body.”[11] The beginning of two dedicatory epigraphs from the northern portico evince that the structure was dedicated to “Aphrodite, the Augustan Olympian Gods, and the citizen body.”[12] Two inscriptions from the southern portico note that it was dedicated to “Aphrodite, the Augustan gods, and the citizen-body” as well as “Aphrodite, god Augustus Tiberius Claudius Caesar, and the citizen-body.”[13] While the first portion of the dedicatory epigraph from the temple is missing, R. R. R. Smith concludes that it was “surely” dedicated to Aphrodite and the citizen body alongside Tiberius and Livia.[14] Friezes on the second story of the south portico depict the connection among Aphrodite, Aphrodisias, and the founding of Rome by Aphrodite’s son, Aeneas, who fled from Troy to Rome after the Greeks sacked his city in the legendary Trojan War.[15] The purpose of these reliefs is to integrate Aphrodisias into Rome’s mythic past and thus to highlight the prominent role that Aphrodisias played in Rome’s history and that of Julio-Claudian dynasty: Aphrodite, the patron goddess of the citizens of Aphrodisias, was the mother of Aeneas and the Julio-Claudians.[16] The inscription on a base from the Sebasteion that once held a statue of Aphrodite underscores this conviction as it calls the goddess “the first mother of the Augustan gods.”[17] 
          Finally, private imperial divine honors were incorporated into domestic shrines. The second century CE biographer of emperors Suetonius testifies that he owned a bronze statuette of Augustus depicted as a boy that he gave to the emperor Hadrian who “cares for it among the household gods of his bedroom.”[18] The incorporation of private imperial divine honors into domestic cults is confirmed by the discovery of a domestic imperial shrine in an elite apartment (insula) in Ephesus known as House 7 in a block of such apartments (insulae) known as Terrace House 2.[19] The shrine dates between 14 and 37 CE and consists of busts of Tiberius and Livia that were part of a domestic shrine in a niche in the wall, which included the head of the household’s domestic gods.[20] 
There are two interrelated ways that the combining of imperial with traditional divine honors in the above types of grants of imperial divine honors speak to the interpretation of the New Testament documents and early Christianity. First, this melding means that often it is inappropriate to isolate imperial divine honors from traditional divine honors, especially to the exclusion of the latter as a significant opponent and background for earliest Christianity. The authors and audiences of the New Testament texts were well aware that imperial divine honors were associated with those of traditional gods (as well as the fact that gods tended to be worshiped together) as they would have observed imperial statues set up next to images of the gods, read provincial and civic decrees linking imperial to traditional divine honors, and/or witnessed imperial processions and sacrifices where offerings were made to the gods and emperors and their family members or to the gods on behalf of the latter. For this reason, New Testament authors do not reference imperial divine honors directly and explicitly. The only exception is John the Prophet, the author of Revelation, who singles out such activity in Asia Minor (13:1–18). For the most part, New Testament authors condemn pagan cultic activity in general (Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Cor 8:4; 12:2; 2 Cor 6:16; Gal 4:8; 1 Thess 1:9; 1 John 5:21; Rev 9:20). 
Second, because of the connection of imperial to traditional divine honors, exegetes should not relegate the latter to a lower tier of ancient religiosity. There is a stream of New Testament scholarship for whom this is the case, particularly those who advocate anti-imperial readings of New Testament texts.[21] One prominent interpreter even suggests that because of imperial pressure imperial divine honors were somehow more important for the inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world than their traditional cults.[22] However, a thorough examination of the sources for cultic activity in Greco-Roman cities evinces the prominent place of imperial divine honors, but not to the extent that they overshadowed or replaced traditional pagan cults.[23] This much is clear from the New Testament texts themselves. The only cults and/or deities mentioned by name in the New Testament documents are those of traditional gods: Zeus and Hermes in Lystra (Acts 14:8–18, esp. 12–13), a Pythian Spirit in Philippi (Acts 16:16–18), Artemis of the Ephesians in Ephesus (Acts 19:23–40, esp. 24, 27, 28, 35), and Justice on the isle of Malta (Acts 28:4). The instance of the riot in Ephesus in Acts 19:23–40 is illuminating because even though there was a shrine for Augustus in the Ephesian upper agora of Ephesus and a temple of Augustus in the famous temple complex of Artemis, the charge against Paul revolves around the displacement of the cult of Ephesian Artemis. There is no mention of imperial divine honors in the city, even the one in the boundaries of Artemis’s temple complex.[24] What this means for interpreters of the New Testament is that we should strive to present the fuller and more complex picture of cultic activities that occurred within the cities and provinces of the Roman world, which included not only imperial and but also traditional divine honors.


[1] ες τιμῆς ἀξίωσιν τοῦτον οὔτω προσεῖπον οἱ ἄνθρωποι ναοῖς τε καὶ θυσίαις γεγαίρουσιν, ἀνὰ τε νήσους καὶ ἡπείρους διῃρημένοι καὶ κατὰ πόλεις καὶ ἔθνη τό τε μέγεθος αὐτοῦ τῆς ἀρετῆς καὶ τὴν εἱς σφᾶς εὐεργεσίαν ἀμειβόμενοι (Nicolaus of Damascus, Vit. Caes. 1).

[2] Because Roman colonies functioned as miniature Romes (Aulus Gellius, Noct. att. 16.13.9) and were beacons of Roman language (Latin), ideology, customs, traditions, politics, and religion, they tended to follow Roman imperial cults with few exceptions. See Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1:328–34.

[3] See Appian, Bell. civ. 2.148; Cassius Dio 51.20.8–9; Tacitus, Ann. 15.74. The senate established Roman imperial divine hoinors for only five of the twelve first century emperors, Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, Titus, and Nerva.

[4] For provincial imperial divine honors see Barbara Burrell, Neokoroi: Greek Cities and Roman Emperors (Leiden: Brill, 2004). For the temple of the Flavians at Ephesus see Steven J. Friesen, Twice Neokoros: Ephesus, Asia & the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family, RGRW 116 (Leiden: Brill, 1993), 29–36.

[5] Hilke Thür, “Art and Architecture in Terrace House 2 in Ephesos,” in Contested Spaces: Houses and Temples in Roman Antiquity and the New Testament, WUNT 285, eds. David Balch and Annette Weissenrieder (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 237–264; IPergamon 374.

[6] John Scheid, Commentarii fratrum Arvalium qui supersunt: Les copies épigraphiques des protocoles annuels de la confrérie arvale (21 AV.–304 AP. J.-C.) (Rome: École Française de Rome, 1998), §27.9–14.

[7] The inclusion of Roma in this temple is a detail that Cassius Dio (51.20.6–9) omits, but one that more contemporary sources confirm. See Burrell, Neokoroi, 18–37, 147–62.

[8] RPC 1.2217, 2219; OGI 458 = IPriene 105.

[9] R. R. R. Smith, “The Imperial Reliefs from the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias,” JRS 77 (1987): 88–138; Smith, The Marble Reliefs from the Julio-Claudian Sebasteion (Darmstadt: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2013).

[10] Suetonius, Jul. 6.1.

[11] Ἀφροδίτηι, θεοῖς Σεβαστοῖς, τῶι δήμωι τὸ πρὸπυλον καὶ τὰς ἐν αὐτῶι τιμὰς. See Smith, Marble Reliefs, 15–16.

[12] Ἀφροδίτῃ, θεοῖς Σεβαστοῖς Ὀλυνπίοις καὶ τῷ δήμῳ. See Smith, Marble Reliefs, 17–18.

[13] Ἀφροδείτῃ, θεοῖς Σεβαστοῖς τῶι δήμῶι . . . Ἀφροδίτηι star θε()ι Σεβαστ(ῶι) <Τιβερ>ίωι Κλαυδίωι Κ[αί]σαρι star τῶι Δήμωι. See Smith, Marble Reliefs, 19–20.

[14] Smith, Marble Reliefs, 20–23.

[15] Vergil, Aen. 1.1–49.

[16] Smith, “Imperial Reliefs,” 97.

[17] Προμήτορα θεῶν Σεβαστῶν (IAph 9.34).

[18] quae dono a me principi data inter cubiculi Lares colitur (Suetonius, Aug. 7).

[19] For more on the Terrace Houses see Sabine Ladstätter with Barbara Beck-Brandt, Martin Steskal, and Norbert Zimmermann, Terrace House 2 in Ephesos: An Archaeological Guide, trans. Nicole M. High with Emma Sachs (Istanbul: Homer Kitabevi, 2013), 75–83.

[20] Presumably, the owner of the house received a benefaction from Tiberius and Livia, possibly Roman citizenship, and set up the shrine to show appreciation. See Thür, “Art and Architecture,” 246.

[21] For example, Richard Horsley, ed., Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997); Horsley, ed., Paul and the Roman Imperial Order (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 2004); Horsley, ed., Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul (Atlanta: SBL, 2004).

[22] N. T. Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols. [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013], 1:311–47, quote from 332) although noting that imperial cults were associated with traditional cults concludes, “Thus, though for the most part it was true that imperial cults took their place alongside, and sometimes blended with, local and traditional customs, there was always at least the veiled threat: whatever else you do, this one matters.”

[23] We must not forget how long traditional, not imperial, cults lingered in the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity. See Beard, North, and Price, Religions of Rome, 1:381–88.

[24] For the Augusteum in the temple complex of Artemis see the bilingual Greek and Latin inscription IEph 5.1522. For a recent discussion of Ephesian imperial cults see François Kirbihler, “Ruler Cults and Imperial Cults at Ephesos: First Century BCE to Third Century CE,” in Religion in Ephesos Reconsidered: Archaeology of Spaces, Structures, and Objects, NovTSupp 177, eds. Daniel Schowalter, Sabine Ladstätter, Steven J. Friesen, and Christine Thomas (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 195–207.

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