Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4. If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon. The standard view of Emperor worship found in many popular commentaries comes from William Ramsay, writing at the turn of the 20th century:
“…in no part of the world was there such fervent and sincere loyalty to the emperors as in Asia. Augustus had been a saviour to the Asian peoples, and they deified him as the Saviour of mankind, and worshiped him with the most whole-hearted devotion as the ‘present deity’.” (W. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909) 115.
Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome. Augustus is known in some inscriptions as CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar. Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty. Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue. Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor. As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.
Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Domitian 13). Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god. While this is is likely legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian. Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14 refers to Domition exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.” Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitan liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.” Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble. (In Oratorio 45:1, see also First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15).
How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor? Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira). At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C. The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “synagogue of Satan.” In short, a Christian in Asia Minor could not avoid the Imperial Cult.
It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor. The provincial cult allowed the Roman network of social obligations to be extended to virtually the whole population. If you lived within the empire, then you were a social client of the Emperor and owed him supreme allegiance. It is not hard to see, therefore, the struggle which Christians in the late first century would have showing allegiance to Rome – if that allegiance required worship of the Emperor, then the Christian must refuse or compromise their faith.
This is where the Book of Revelation has a great deal of contemporary significance – how does one remain a Christian and loyal to a country which is not Christian at all? Can Christians living under an oppressive government demonstrate loyalty to God and the state? This is not an academic question, or something that applies only to people living in some kind of Orwellian nightmare state. American Christians are certainly living in a post-Christian America where loyalty to their country may become a form of idolatry. Does Revelation address this sort of a problem?
Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. Philadelphia: The Westminster, 1955.
David A. deSilva, “The ‘Image Of The Beast’ And The Christians In Asia Minor: Escalation Of Sectarian Tension In Revelation 13” TrinJ 12 (1991): 185-208.