The word ‘god’ in the Roman Empire

The following is an English translation of the Danish edition of the book The Complete Roman Emperor – Imperial Life at Court and on Campaign:

“Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, Titus, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Septimus Severus were all declared divine after their death. Deceased emperors had their own cults, shrines and priests, the so-called SodalesAugustales…

Did the worshipers really believe in the divinity of the emperor? After all, he was a human being. In the Roman world the idea of divinity was quite different from that of modern, and mainly monotheist religions. To a Roman it was absolutely lawful to ascribe divine honour to somebody whose social status was far above his own: the master over his slave, the general over his soldiers, the emperor over his subjects. Divinity was not an absolute but a relative category.”[i]

It is therefore not surprising that early Christians regarded Christ as divine without identifying him with God the Almighty.  After all, even in the Hebrew Bible the word ‘god’ was used on men and angels.

Still, the Christians refused to offer incense to the image of the emperor. Quoting the Old Testament, Jesus himself had said: “You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone.” (The Gospel of Matthew chapter 4 verse 10.)[ii]

One thing is to call somebody a god, something else to offer him a service that exclusively belongs to God the Almighty.[iii]



[i] Michael Sommer, Romerske kejsere – Livet ved det kejserlige hof og under felttog (Copenhagen: Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck, 2010), 37.

[ii] The New English Bible (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1970). Jesus quoted from Deutoronomy chapter 6 verse 13, where the Hebrew text has the Divine name (יהוה: YHWH) where The New English Bible has “the Lord.” (את־יהוה אלהיך תירא ואתו תעבד)

[iii] Compare the Bible book of Exodus chapter 20 verses 2-6.

About Antiochene

Writer and translatorliving in Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey) and Copenhagen.
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