Living off the dead : the relationship between emperor cult and the cult of the saints in late antiquity

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Living off the dead : the relationship between emperor cult and the cult of the saints in late antiquity

By Brahm Callahan

Master’s Thesis, Boston College, 2008

Introduction: Throughout antiquity people were concerned with their relationship with the god or gods they put their faith in. Whether that higher power was Jupiter Optimus Maximus or Jesus Christ, people were legitimately worried about their standing with their respective God or gods. As a result, each society developed means of maintaining good relationships with their gods. The religions of the Roman Empire and Christianity seemed to be polar opposites. During the period they were in co-existence, the proponents of each took it upon themselves to point out the differences between each religion. In reality, both Roman religion and Christianity shared many common threads, and many aspects of Christianity developed directly out of Roman religion.

So while on the surface, Christianity and Roman religion seemed entirely different, it is clear that Christianity drew on certain aspects of Roman religion when establishing major tenets of Christian beliefs. The following paper will argue that two seemingly unrelated aspects of Christianity and Roman religion, emperor cult and the cult of the saints, were in fact directly connected and that the cult of the saints drew directly from emperor cult.




Emperor cult developed in an effort to show reverence to deceased emperors and to establish a connection between living emperors and their deified predecessors. Emperor cult matured alongside a plethora of other cults, and consequently was integrated into the pantheon of official cults of the Roman Empire. The cult of the saints also developed in an effort to display reverence to the deceased martyrs and holy persons of the Christian faith. The cult of the saints, however, played a more significant role in the development and establishment of the Christian religion than did emperor cult in the religion of Rome.

Both emperor cult and the cult of the saints were firmly established over the majority of civilized world. From the Christian west through Asia minor and the East, there are viable examples of both forms of cult and their involvement in society. However, the attitudes and roles of the cults of emperors and saints were drastically different in Asia minor and the East than they were in the West. For that reason, this paper will focus mainly on emperor cult and the cult of the saints in the West. In addition to focusing mainly on the West, this paper will be limited to a specific timeframe for each cult. The examples of emperor cult began with the apotheosis of Julius Caesar (c.a. 42 B.C.E.) and roughly ended with the rule of Constantine the Great (early 4th century C.E.). The timeframe involved in the study of the cult of the saints is not as specific, but roughly begins in the third-century C.E. and ends in the eighth-century C.E.

Click here to read this thesis from Boston College

Sharan Newman