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In popular culture Christians were being killed in the Colosseum because they did not want to accept the Emperor as a god. An example can be the novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, who won the Nobel Prize for this. The Colosseum is a Catholic sacred place, however, not because it was used to kill Christians, but because many people died there.

The Jews for example had never accepted Caesar to be a god and nothing happened. The Greeks had their own Pantheon, very similar but a little different.

How (in reality) did the Roman Empire treat people who did not want to accept Roman gods? Were they killed or punished (eg. with a fine)? Or was it just not important to anyone?

In Wikipedia an article (with a "citation needed" remark) states:

In western Classical Antiquity, theism was the fundamental belief that supported the divine right of the state (Polis, later the Roman Empire). Historically, any person who did not believe in any deity supported by the state was fair game to accusations of atheism, a capital crime. (...). Christians in Rome were also considered subversive to the state religion and persecuted as atheists

(but maybe atheism was something worse than just believing in another religion)

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    "The Jews for example had never accepted Caesar to be a god and nothing happened." Apart from Masada.
    – MCW
    Oct 10, 2013 at 11:25
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    Also note, although I don't have any citation for this, that prosecution of such offenses was highly discretionary. There were plenty of things that were illegal, but were ignored unless some official wanted to score points with his patron, or was in a bad mood.
    – MCW
    Oct 10, 2013 at 12:15
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    You may also want to bound the time. Life was different under Augustus than under Diocletian (who if I recall, required worship of himself as a living god), than under Caracalla.
    – MCW
    Oct 10, 2013 at 12:16
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    Again without citation, remember that until the 17th century most states had a state religion, and to refuse to participate in the state religion was tantamount to refusing to participate in the state. That is a very suspicious activity that borders on treason. Combine that with the fact that the Roman state religion asked for very little (a pinch of incense); refusing that participation was very suspicious.
    – MCW
    Oct 10, 2013 at 16:35
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    @MarkC.Wallace the siege of Masada was the result of the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire and had nothing to do wether the Jews followed the official Roman relligion (if there was such a thing). When the Jews didn't revolt against the Romans they were left alone without any persecussion. Moreover, Judaism was quite popular in Rome among the aristocrats. Jul 25, 2015 at 8:44

2 Answers 2

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Romans never believed the emperor to be god. This is a popular misconception. The emperors could be declared divine (divus) by the senate (god-like), which is not the same as being a god (deus).

At the same time there was a cult of the emperor's genius: the Romans believed that each person had a supernatural protector (genius), similar to Christian concept of guardian angel. As such, there were temples, dedicated to geniuses of particular emperors and their family. Venerating them would show the loyalty of a person, while refusing to do so would mean the refusing person does not wish good to the person whose genius is venerated.

There was an exception made specifically to Jews, which was a result of harsh contention. Jews had to prove that by refusing venerating the geniuses they still remained loyal to the emperors and did not bring misfortunes to them. I think they were required to make other contributions to the success of the emperor, not prohibited by their religion, such as praying for his health and achievements in their temple.

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    Good answer +1. but there is an important addition to be made: the fine distinction between divinus and divus was more often than not lost on the less Latinized people of the Eastern provinces - so they often thought of the emperor as simply divine, and the imperial government while not quite encouraging this misunderstanding, certainly did nothing to dispel it. Oct 11, 2013 at 7:48
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    Lewis and Short write: "After the Aug. period divus became a frequent epithet for the deceased Roman emperors in the historians, and on coins and inscriptions."
    – fdb
    May 13, 2014 at 13:21
  • Christians were virulently anti Roman not just "anti Roman"(and Greek for that matter) Gods. You actually don't get "Emperors as a God" until the Christians come along. Also there were Kings...the most spectacularly King Louis XIV who declared his reign and that of all other Monarchs in Europe as ordained by God personally...meaning even above the Church. Nov 16, 2016 at 4:59
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This is a bit of a loaded question. Rome did not have an official or state religion. While the Romans were a highly religious society their religion was too fragmented and divisive to have a state religion.

The state or Caesar did not care about their religious practices either way as long as it did not seek to interfere with the authority of the state and thus the emperor. The punishment for that would in all likelihood be treason related and death.

Christians were subject to mass executions because the rulers saw it as a threat to their authority and not because they didn't recognise Caesar as a god or as authoritative. Ironically Christianity became the first state religion in 380.

If we consider the account of Jesus he wasn't Crucified because of any religious incitement. Indeed the procurator questioned him and found that he didn't incite any disobedience towards Roman authority or to overthrow the empire and actually told people to subject themselves to it so did not transgress any law. It was found that his claim to authority was purely a religious and spiritual one which the Roman empire neither concerned itself with or saw it as having authority over. He was handed over to the Jews due to political reasons.

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