Background Texts for Understanding Imperial Cults

Revelation to John • Nelson Kraybill and Loren Johns

Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary • July 2002

 

Historian Dio Cassius (155–230 c.e.), discussing events of 29 b.c.e. when Caesar Augustus was gaining control of the Mediterranean world:

 

1. “At that time Caesar was attending to general matters, and he permitted the establishment of precincts to Rome and to (his) father Caesar … in Ephesos and in Nicea, for these were the most distinguished cities in Asia and in Bithynia respectively. He ordered the Romans who had settled among them to honor these two. But he allowed the foreigners—whom he called Hellenes—to consecrate precincts to him, the Asians in Pergamon and the Bithynians in Nicomedia. Beginning there, this (practice) continued under other emperors, not only among the Hellenic nationalities but also among the others, in so far as they are subject to the Romans. For in the city (of Rome) and in the rest of Italy there is no one who dared to do such a thing, however worthy of renown.”

Dio Cassius 51.20.6-9. Trans. and adapted from Loeb by Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John (Oxford University, 2001), 25-26

 

About 9 b.c.e., the provincial council of Asia announced a competition to suggest the highest honors possible for Augustus. The proconsul (top provincial government official), Paullus Fabius Maximus, won the prize with this entry:

 

2. “[It is difficult to know whether] the birthday of the most divine Caesar is a matter of greater pleasure or greater benefit. We could justly consider that day to be equal to the beginning of all things. He restored the form of all things to usefulness, if not to their natural state, since it had deteriorated and suffered misfortune. He gave a new appearance to the whole world, which would gladly have accepted its own destruction had Caesar not been born for the common good fortune of all. Thus a person could justly consider this to be the beginning of life and of existence.… Therefore, it seems proper to be that the birthday of the most divine Caesar be the one, uniform New Year’s day for all the polities. On that day all will take up their local offices, that is, on the ninth day before the Kalends of October.… A decree of the koinon of Asia should be written encompassing all his virtues, so that the action devised by us for the honor of Augustus should endure forever.”

OGIS 458 1.3-30 (Friesen 2001, p. 33)

 

Decree of Council of Asia in response to entry by Maximus, ca. 9 b.c.e.

 

3. “Whereas the providence that ordains our whole life has established with zeal and distinction that which is most perfect in our life by bringing Augustus, whom she filled with virtue as a benefaction to all human­ity; sending to us and to those after us a savior who put an end to war and brought order to all things; and Caesar, when he appeared, the hopes of those who preceded […] placed, not only surpassing those benefactors who had come before but also leaving to those who shall come no hope of surpassing (him); and the birth of the god was the beginning of good tidings [euangelion] to the world through him.… For this reason, with good fortune and for salvation this was decided by the Hellenes of Asia. The new year will begin in all the cities on the ninth day before the Kalends of October, which is the birthday of Augustus.…”

—Friesen 2001, p. 34

 

Oath of Loyalty to Caesar Augustus, 3 b.c.e., northern Asia Minor

 

4. In the third year from the twelfth consulship of the Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of a god … the following oath was taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia and the Roman businessmen dwelling among them: “I swear by Jupiter, Earth, Sun, by all the gods and goddesses, and by Augustus himself, that I will be loyal to Caesar Augustus and to his children and descendants all my life in word, in deed, in thought, regarding as friends whomever they so regard … [so] that in defense of their interests I will spare neither body, soul, life, nor children.…”

—Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, II, p. 34