Which Roman emperor wanted to be worshiped?

Roman empire

As a political and cultural factor, the Roman Empire played a decisive role in the development of the Revelation - and indeed in a positive and negative sense. On the one hand, the largely tolerant religious policy enabled the dissemination and exchange of various cultural and religious elements. On the other hand, the imperial cult represented a threat and a test of the early Christian self-image.

The cultural diversity

The Roman Empire stretched from Mespoptamia to England in the first and second centuries and linked the Mediterranean with India through trade relations. The extent of this state and economic area and the religious tolerance, which basically applied throughout the empire, as long as it did not affect the state cult, made it possible for various cults and religions to spread and fertilize unhindered.

The Roman Empire and its provinces at the time of its greatest expansion under Emperor Trajan in 117. The map is taken from the corresponding page on Wikipedia.

A disparaging attitude towards the resulting syncretisms is not necessarily appropriate, because although it was customary to change and mix the forms of religiosity at will, at the same time the reflection of one's own cultural and religious elements in the mirror of other cultures was possible and opened up new interpretations and contexts of the own tradition.
The apocalypse of John in particular fulfills the demands in some respects intercultural imagery and cannot be understood without their background. In addition, it is also the mystery cults and the Hellenistic philosophy that are closely connected with the content of the Revelation of John.

A compilation of those involved in the supra-regional exchange Cultures can be found on this page under cultures.
Notes on the various Mystery cultsthat were represented in the Roman Empire can be found on this page under mysteries.
About the Hellenistic context philosophy, in which the revelation is, read on this page under philosophy.

Christians and the State

The early Christian community

The first Christian communities in the Roman Empire became no other than one Jewish sect perceived. Jewish communities were already known throughout the Roman Empire. Basically, the First Commandment allowed them to worship only one God. However, since they did not criticize the image cults of their environment, but simply rejected them for themselves, the Romans regarded them as unsocial, but were tolerated and legally protected by the state.

The Jewish house servant of a Roman noblewoman, Lee Boardman as Timon in the television series "Rome".

In the shadow of the Jewish communities, the early Christian community grew and was reluctant to break away from Judaism at first. The state initially let them go and, as a Jewish sect, did not force them to worship the emperors. But neither did he protect them against local arbitrariness. Their religion was increasingly seen - also because of the unstoppable growth of its following - as state-destroying and dangerous. At the same time, however, the Jewish resistance against the Roman state intensified, which ultimately led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the beginning of the Jewish diaspora.
Since the separation from Judaism, Christianity was also perceived by the Roman state as a separate cult. With this, the “new superstition” lost the state protection it had enjoyed as a Jewish cult.
However, there were three elements of the Christian faith that gave it a dynamic and were probably instrumental in its further development: the diaconal, the cultic and the salvation-historical element. It is significant that Christianity, unlike Jewish sects, associated a political claim with these areas and provoked criticism of the state or even open opposition.

The early Christian community already knew community care. Widows, poor, sick and needy people were supported in the community - entirely in the spirit of charity. This gave the early community a social character that left the exclusive self-image of other Jewish sects far behind and probably induced many people to participate.

As the good Samaritan, Christ leans towards someone who has been injured. Excerpt from the Codex of Rossano around 600 (Codex purpureus Rossanensis, Folio 7v)

The early community covered a mission that we would today call public-state, and thus critically opposed the political hierarchies and differences to a community of freer people. A political area of ​​tension was therefore also the service of one's neighbor.

[Charity as well as practicing diakonia are also a novelty against the background of the mystery cults. More on this on this page under mysteries. ]

In cult, Christianity was able on the one hand to absorb the spiritual needs of the time (by making the basic contents of the mystery cults generally tangible and accessible) and on the other hand to convey a feeling of simultaneous community and personal freedom (by connecting the individual with God in communal cult).

Fresco of a woman holding the chalice for the early Christian agape festival. Catacomb of Santi Pietro e Marcellino (Saints Marcellinus and Peter), Via Labicana, Rome.

The key point here is that for the individual, the relationship to God was neither one-sidedly bound to the community (normative) nor only to one's own person (spiritually), but rather collectively and personally at the same time.
This circumstance made it impossible for many Christians to betray the God with whom they are so closely connected. God and oneself were so closely connected that the imperial cult was tantamount to a denial of oneself.

Salvation history:
The work of Christ has left many wisdom, encouraging, and practical messages. His unexpected death and the (probably even less expected) resurrection, however, raised many questions about the future of the early church. These events sharpened the view of the spiritual (beyond) in the early Christian community and led the history of salvation increasingly into a spiritual perspective. (The risen Christ appeared as Pantocrator, as ruler of the world, who at the end of time will begin his rule from God's sphere of activity and allow the world to pass into a new creation.)

Christ Pantocrator in the Last Judgment, mosaic in the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, Florentine master, around 1300.

This perspective is clearly critical of the state. It questions the world and the reality of human institutions from the ground up and promotes distrust of the Roman state, the latter tendency not being part of the preaching of Christ, but rather in the environment of Jewish groups (Zealots, Essenes,) and within the difficulties the early church should have emerged.

Participants in the Roman state

However, not all Christians in the early church were in conflict with the Roman state. As the passage in Romans shows, where Paul outlines the relationship between the Roman state and the Christians in Chapter 13, there was at least the idea of ​​a peaceful coexistence, according to which state and public life were distinguished from civil and private life.

The imperial cult

In the Roman imperial cult, the people revered their emperors. The reigning or deceased Caesars were temple , erected in which their Portraits adored and Victim were offered. The imperial cult made them god kings.

The Roman imperial cult developed from the ancient ruler cult. The rulers of a people often combine ritual-religious and military-political claims. He was an executor of divine will and responsible for the common good and order. Often the people already believed him to be in the vicinity of the gods or believed him to be united with the gods after death. The best-known example is certainly the cult of the pharaohs.
The ruler's cult was then further developed by the Macedonian Alexander the Great. It was believed that after his death he was accepted into the community of gods because of his great deeds and help for the people and continued to help his admirers from there. The Romans came into contact with this ruler cult through conquests. The veneration of benevolent provincial governors, the Roman people and the Dea Romana developed.

The Roman imperial cult only finally began in the time of Augustus, who promoted the divine worship of the murdered Caesar. In doing so, he probably hoped to create a generally unifying cult beyond the local cults for the empire and to achieve a cultic unity and identity in the Roman Empire.

The statue of Emperor Augustus in the Vatican Museum, Rome

However, the idea of ​​a unifying state cult quickly grew into a religious-ideological claim to totality by the Roman state. The emperors Caligula and Claudius demanded divine honors for themselves. But a systematic propagation of the imperial cult that encompassed the entire empire did not come about until the last years of Domitian's reign, i.e. at the time when the revelation was written. Excavations in Ephesus, the first community to which John dedicated a letter, uncovered the remains of a temple of Domitiant and a colossal statue of the emperor, which had been forcibly destroyed after his death.
In this situation, Christians found themselves in distress. Because worshiping the emperor was out of the question for the believers. Under the pressure of the imperial cult, their religious stance acquired a political dimension.

You can find out more about the Roman imperial cult here.

Persecution of Christians

The persecution of Christians in the first centuries was aimed at suppressing the growing Christianity in the Roman Empire. At first they took place as spontaneous and locally or regionally limited, later imperially ordered, nationwide and systematic attempts to halt the development of the new religion and either to integrate it into the Roman social system or to permanently destroy its structure.

The Remorse of Nero, John William Waterhouse, 1878, private collection.

[They turned against all Christian groups, including those that the Old Church excluded as heresies, such as the Marcionites or Gnostics such as the Alexandrian Carpocrats. They ended with the Milan Agreement of 313, finally with the recognition of Christianity as the state religion by Theodosius I (380–391). ]

You can find more about the individual persecution of Christians at Wikipedia.

Rome as an adversary in Revelation

The beast, Satan, the dragon, the whore Babylon or the number 666 are commonly identified with the Roman Empire or with Roman emperors.

Who is behind the image of the dragon?
The woman clad in the sun and the dragon trying to devour her child: one of the scenes of the Apocalypse, fresco by Giusto de ‘Menabuoi, apse of the Baptistery of Padua.

With this, however, the horizon of a revelation is basically lost. As captivating as it may be to interpret John's revelation as a consolation for his own, an interpretation that connects the text exclusively with political and historical circumstances becomes one-sided and difficult.
You can find out more about the criticism of this approach on this website under impacts.


The Roman Empire offered a wide-ranging cultural exchange (symbolism, mystery cults, mythologies), on the background of which the visually powerful revelation was only possible and on which it is understandable again today.
Understanding the Roman Empire as the main adversary (Satan, beast, dragon, etc.) of the Apocalypse hardly corresponds to the original message and probably also not to the reality of the early Christian community, such as i.a. the reading of Romans 13 shows.
Revelation questions the power of the "kings" of the world, not just that of Rome. The Roman Empire appears rather as a concrete example of the totalitarian and human-limited claim to power that will be abolished in the new creation and already in the millennium.

Notes on the situation in the Roman Empire:

Jewish sects of antiquity

Ethnic group, ("Sons of Rechabs"; or Jonadabs Jer. 35,1-19) who demonstrate their faith through strict abstinence from wine consumption and permanent residence

During the Babylonian exile, the ethnic group that remained in their homeland, who responded to the innovations in the 4th century BC. Replaced returning Jews.

1st century Jewish party in Palestine that strictly observed the law.

radical national revolutionary group of the 1st century

Conservative party of the 2nd century BC BC - 1st century. She rejects the oral tradition of faith.

ascetic oriented group (around 159 BC - 70) with a community life in the style of monks.

The therapists were a mystical group of Jewish hermits in Egypt from the beginning of the 1st century BC. Chr.