Biblical Studies Imperial Cult and Early Christianity
Warren Carter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0030


The imperial cult or emperor worship honored the emperor during his reign (common in the eastern provinces), or in Rome after his death. Emperors in Rome could be declared divus after their death, thereby elevating them to the level of the gods or demigods. Worship could also be directed to their genius (a personification of innate qualities or guardian spirit) or numen (a personification of active power). Across the 1st century CE, emperors who were declared divus in Rome and the West included Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, and Trajan. Some other members of imperial families were also elevated, including the wife of Augustus, Livia; the sister of Caligula, Drusilla; the daughter of Nero, Claudia Augusta; and the daughter of Domitian; Julia Augusta. The worship of emperors practiced in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire resembled ruler-worship elsewhere in the ancient world. The repertoire of activities was typical of religious practices in the classical world and included variously temples, shrines, altars, images, sacrifices, priests, processions, feasts, oaths of loyalty and obedience, hymns, poems, prayers, incense, and contests in athletics, music, and imperial encomiums. Expressions of worship could take place in households, trade associations, and in municipal, provincial, and state festivals. Observance was neither uniform nor universal throughout the empire. Nor was observance mandatory. The cult was not promoted solely from above or from the center, but often by elites in cities and provinces as a way of conceptualizing and negotiating the political power exerted by Rome and its emperor as a display of divine power through this human figure.

Introductory Works

There are a number of helpful, shorter introductions to emperor worship that highlight important dimensions. An older introduction, Nock 1952, emphasizes the role of gratitude and power and includes discussion of Jewish interaction with emperor worship. Fears 1988 sets the imperial cult in relation to others forms of ruler worship in the ancient world. Gordon 1990 focuses on the roles of provincial elites in promoting imperial cult celebrations. Price 1996 concentrates on Augustus and Rome. Beard, et al. 1998 includes visual representations of cultic activity. Liebeschuetz 2000 offers a useful general introduction, as does Scheid 2003, which emphasizes the manifestation of divine power through human rulers. Herz 2007 focuses on roles and representations of emperors, while Rives 2007 sketches the diversity and ambiguity of practices that constituted imperial cult activity.

  • Beard, Mary, John North, and Simon Price. Religions of Rome. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    In addition to useful discussion (1.348–363), includes visual representations of cultic activity that are often cross-referenced to volume 2.

  • Fears, J. Rufus. “Ruler Worship.” In Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome. 3 vols. Edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger, 1009–1025. New York: Scribner’s, 1988.

    Sets the imperial cult or emperor worship practiced in the Roman Empire, in relation to ruler-worship practiced elsewhere in the ancient world. Fears defines it as comprising “the practice of offering sacrifices and other forms of cultic homage to a mortal ruler living or deceased” (p. 1009).

  • Gordon, Richard. “The Veil of Power, Emperors, Sacrificers and Benefactors.” In Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World. Edited by Mary Beard and John North, 201–231. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

    Includes discussion of elite provincial imperial priesthoods and euergetistic activity. Argues somewhat reductionistically that the cult was a type of veil whereby emperors and elites controlled the populace.

  • Herz, Peter. “Emperors: Caring for the Empire and their Successors.” In A Companion to Roman Religion. Edited by Jörg Rüpke, 304–316. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470690970

    Analyzes roles and representations of the emperor in relation to the imperial cult.

  • Liebeschuetz, J. H. W. G. “Religion.” In The Cambridge Ancient History. 2d ed. Vol. 11. Edited by Alan K. Bowman, Peter Garnsey, and Dominic Rathbone, 984–1008. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2000.

    Discusses the imperial cult in both the West and the East.

  • Nock, A. D. “Religious Developments from the Close of the Republic to the Death of Nero.” In The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 10. Edited by S. A. Cook, F. E. Adcock, and M. P. Charlesworth, 465–511. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

    Sees the ruler cult as expression of gratitude and/or the acknowledgement of power. Discusses Jewish interaction with it.

  • Price, Simon R. F. “The Place of Religion: Rome in the Early Empire.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2d ed. Vol. 10. Edited by Alan K. Bowman, Edward Champlin, and Andrew Lintott, 812–847. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 1996.

    Emphasizes the Augustan restructuring and the distinctive place of Rome

  • Rives, James. Religion in the Roman Empire. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

    Warns that the term “imperial cult” does not denote a single system of worship and discusses various and ambiguous ways in which the emperor was honored as well as the imprecise divide between human and divine. See pp. 148–156.

  • Scheid, John. An Introduction to Roman Religion. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

    Within the context of diverse Roman religious practices, briefly traces the development of emperor worship in Rome and the provinces, emphasizing different conceptions and practices, but emphasizing its function in defining the exceptional power of Augustus and his successors as a manifestation of divine power through a mortal being. See pp. 159–165.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.