The political background against which the early Roman suspicion of Christianity is to be set is dominated by the “imperial cult.” This is probably best understood as a highly elevated view of the Roman emperor, which resulted from the remarkable achievements of Augus- tus. It was no longer possible to regard Augustus simply as an outstanding ruler; he was widely regarded as a divus, being invested with some form of supernatural or transcendent significance. It was not regarded as necessary for imperial figures to be dead before they were accorded some form of divine status; there is ample evidence to indicate that at least some members of the imperial family (such as Julius Caesar) were treated as divine during their lifetimes.
The cult appears to have become especially significant in the two or three decades before the birth of Christ; by the second half of the first century – at which time Christianity was becoming a significant presence in the eastern regions of the empire – it had become firmly established as a routine aspect of Roman colonial life.
The cult seems to have taken different forms in the various regions of the empire. A distinction was drawn between the forms of the cult appropriate to Roman citizens and those who were not. In the east, the cult of “Rome and Julius” was prescribed for Roman citizens; others were required to take part in the cult of “Rome and Augustus.”
The cult appears to have been especially strong in those regions of the eastern empire in which Christianity would take root, such as the city of Corinth and the region of Galatia, both landmarks in the ministry of Paul of Tarsus. Imperial festivals became an important part of the life of Corinth during the first half of the first century. The figure of Julius Caesar was of particular importance to this cult, not least on account of his having given Corinth the status of a Roman colony shortly before his death. In Galatia, the imperial cult had become firmly established by the first decade of the century.
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