Before one can ask if Christians are opposing empire as a movement and in their preaching and in their writings, it is good to grasp how the Roman empire understood itself. In our co-edited book, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, Joe Modica and I solicited the classics scholar David Nystrom to sketch Roman imperial ideology and the imperial cult.
The features of Roman ideology about the Roman achievement were propped up by the following:
1. It was ordained by the gods.
2. It was just (law and military were about justice).
4. Stratified (this section tells the story of how intensive and self-conscious the Romans were about one’s location in society).
5. Urban and material.
6. Informal with power centered at the top.
7. Religion was a compact.
A notable discussion in this chp is about divine worship, and Nystrom nuances this away from what many today are saying about emperor worship, and a summary follows in the 3d paragraph below.
Here is Nystrom’s wide-ranging conclusion, each sentence of which summarizing myriads or at least cohorts, and I have broken up the paragraph to make it easier to see the major points:
The Roman Empire was vast and the means of administration available to the emperors were few. Rather than rely on brute force and the markers of personal ascendancy, the imperial strategy was to link the traditional ideology of Roman rule with the imperial house.
Coins, statuary and the imperial cult all thrust the emperor before the people in ways that evoked continuity with this ideology.
People worshipped Augustus as they worshipped their family ancestors and they thought of him as lord and king, but he was careful to link his role with traditional symbols and patterns of power. As lord he stood for more than himself. He stood for the entire compass of Roman civilization. His image and story conjured not simply his own person but the empire as an ordered world community that offered benefits to those who participated in its life.
It was ordained by the gods. It favored might and the exercise of power. It offered a life of virtue as it fashioned a type of commonwealth that prized social hierarchy and stability. It was world-wide and intentionally stratified affording benefits to conquered elites but little to the “lesser sort.” It prized tradition and its glory was linked to the self-adulation of its elites. It prized honor and offered material reward to satiate that desire. It was a vast household existing under the benign and generous influence of an emperor who symbolized the Roman way.
While there are spectacular exceptions, such as Caligula, Augustus and his successors employed the imperial cult not to fuel some megalomania but to instruct provincials on the patterns and benefits of Romanitas and so further the Roman project.
The message of the New Testament conjures a kingdom at variance with the Roman project at many points. The identity of the true King and Lord is but one among them, and at once implied the others.