Topics for this Section:

Second Introduction: Temples of the Imperial Cult

The veneration of rulers as deities in their own lifetime has a long tradition in Greece and Asia Minor. The Spartan general Lysandros was the first Greek to be revered as a god in 404 BC on Samos. In the epoch of Hellenism, the cult of the ruler spread widely during the Empire of Alexander the Great. It blossomed under the kings which followed him. The roots for this manner of veneration are complex, and feature a mixture of traditions from the Near East, the Greek hero-cults and the glorification of city benefactors.

Shortly after the first Roman engagement in Asia Minor, namely the war against Antiochos III, the cult of Dea Roma (the personification of the city of Rome) was established in Smyrna in 195 BC. In the year 1 BC, this was followed by cults for various Roman generals, for example Lucullus in Thyateria or Sulla at Halicarnassus. After the end of the civil wars and the beginning of the reign of Augustus, the cult of the ruler in Asia Minor attained a new intensity. Although Augustus himself reacted cautiously to this development, a plethora of temples and altars were constructed to honor the emperor and Dea Roma. It is important to distinguish between purely local cults, and/or those dedicated and established at the provincial or imperial level. The latter required the approval of the Emperor, and held especially high prestige value. The cities which possessed such an official temple to the emperor were permitted to call themselves neokoros, which means roughly “guardian of the temple”. The achievement of this title played a significant role in the competition for fame among the cities of Asia Minor. Just as a neokoria could be given by the emperor, it could also be taken away, as for example when an Emperor was repudiated after his death.

The cult of the emperors spread quickly in Asia Minor. It is worth noting that the cult of the emperor functioned less as a sign of the megalomania of the Roman Caesars, than as a means of binding the population of the province to the Roman state. The polemics of the Christian authors should be read with this proviso in mind.