Back to Main Menu



Excavations at the site of the first century Ephesus have revealed much about the city and the province of Asia Minor. These discoveries, substantiated by first century writers (Dio Cassius, Pliny, Tacitus and others) provide a considerable body of information about conditions in that part of the world during the reign of Domitian. A German historian, Ethelbert Stauffer, has effectively brought together these findings in a background study of the period. The book is entitled Christ and the Caesars. We have drawn from this source in forming our picture of life in Asia Minor during these last years of the apostolic age. We have also consulted Roman Rule in Asia Minor by David Magie, professor of Classical Antiquity, Princeton.

"The rule of Domitian", Prof. Magie writes, "marked a great advance in the process of centralization, bringing with it a despotism greater than that exercised by any of the Emperor's predecessors."1 Though he was a "merciless tyrant" to those who opposed him, Domitian was able to make himself popular with the masses. Except for the Jews and the followers of Christ, most of the people in Asia Minor approved of this Caesar and his rule.

A great statue of the emperor Domitian has been uncovered by archaeologists. It stood during the supremacy of that Caesar in the sports stadium of Ephesus. Along with that statue there were discovered images of the imperial priests bearing likenesses of their god-emperor Domitian. Ephesus had become the center of the cult of Caesar worship in Asia, and the rites of this imperial religion were associated with festivals, sporting events and government functions. Ephesus, famous for its temple of the goddess Diana, was called on inscriptions "the city loyal to the emperor". Records from Domitian's time speak of imperial letters of grace, imperial mysteries and sacrificial festivals. Domitian thus imposed upon these provincial people not only the rule of Rome but a system of worship proclaiming himself an incarnate Deity. The high priest of this cult was the religious head of all the priests in Asia Minor and also served in a political capacity. The new Temple of Domitian where the high priest officiated was also the seat of government. 2

The rituals of emperor worship were impressive, and it seems that the populace was very much caught up in its pomp and ceremony. The people of Asia Minor enjoyed being a part of the great Roman Empire, and they embraced the worship of Caesar with some enthusiasm, at least for a time.

"After the sacrifice to the emperor there followed a grand procession through the decorated and crowded streets to the place where the festival games were held. Now the ritual became a truly public affair. For those who joined in it had streamed together not only from the city, but from all Asia and the whole world. As the waves thunder on the shore, writes an author of that time, so do the assembled masses thunder and toss expectantly in the sports ground." 3

The Asiarchs (local priest-rulers of the Imperial cult) performed their functions well, and the cult of Caesar prospered in all the cities of Asia Minor. Evidences are to be found everywhere. In Pergamos, Smyrna, Thyatira, Sardis and Philadelphia coins have been found depicting Domitian as a god. An inscription from Laodicea glorifies Domitian as the incarnation of the Roman god Jupiter.4

Roman authority and the worship of Caesar were very much a part of life in Asia Minor, and those who refused to participate in the popular religious exercises often found themselves a persecuted minority. This would have been all the more true of those who actively witnessed against these practices. The enthusiasm of the provincial people, writes Stauffer, became at times a raging fury against the followers of Christ. This was particularly true in A.D. 95, a year in which several dissidents who refused to worship the emperor or his image were executed for treason. "In Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos and elsewhere there were severe anti-Christian riots and executions."5

Against this tide of paganism the ecclesias in Asia had to maintain their particular way of life. The popularity of Caesar worship, associated as it was with sports and entertainment, was most inviting probably to the young, and the brethren must have witnessed vigorously against it. In Ephesus the apostle John would have been the chief elder and spokesman for the ecclesia. As the cult of Domitian was introduced and gained prominence, the son of thunder must have opposed it as he had formerly resisted the errors of the Judaizers and was now opposing the teachings of the Gnostics. Credibility is thus given to those ancient traditions which tell us that the venerable apostle was arrested for his witness, taken to Rome to appear before Caesar, and then sent back, not to Ephesus, but to exile on Patmos. The witness refused to keep silence however, nor would the Spirit allow him to do so. His letters to seven ecclesias in Asia Minor and a powerful, if mysterious Apocalypse became the fruit of his isolation. That Domitian was fearful of men like John is verified by his interview with the grandsons of Jude, the brother of Christ.

The story of Jude's grandsons is recounted by Hegesippus, a Jewish convert to Christianity, who wrote in Palestine about A.D. 150. In his history of the apostolic Ecclesia he discussed the impact of Christianity upon the emperor Domitian. He writes: "At that time there was yet remaining of the kindred of Christ the grandsons of Jude, who was called his brother according to the flesh. These some accused as being of the race of David, and Evocatus brought them before Domitian Caesar. For he too was afraid of the coming of Christ, as well as Herod." These grandsons of Jude were interrogated by the emperor Domitian, and they assured him that they were poor laboring men. Hegesippus continues: "Being asked of Christ and his kingdom, of what kind it was and when it should appear, they answered that it was not worldly and would be in the end of the world; when he coming in glory should judge the quick and the dead, and render to every man according to his works."6 Domitian was concerned about any rumor of a threat to his position from any section of his empire.

Domitian's persecution of those who opposed his cult continued until his death in A.D. 96. Apollonius of Tyana, with whom we have made an earlier acquaintance, turns up in Ephesus at the end of the period. He was delivering a lecture there when he learned of the emperor's assassination. "Take heart, gentlemen," he announced to those assembled, "for the tyrant has been slain this day".7

The apostle John was released from his Patmos exile and allowed to return to Ephesus, and for a few years the ecclesias enjoyed a period of relative peace. Nerva, who succeeded Domitian, released many prisoners and exiles and followed a course of restraint.8 Dio Cassius wrote that this emperor "forbade the making of gold or silver statues in his honour", that he restored the property of those who had been unjustly deprived by Domitian and abolished many of the sacrifices and spectacles.9 The first century Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote that Nerva reversed the tyrannical policies of Domitian and "restored liberty" to the empire.10 Unfortunately, Nerva's reign lasted just two years.

Caesar worship continued under Trajan and succeeding emperors, but it was not enforced with quite the same zeal as it had been under Domitian, nor was the Asian populace so caught up in it. Pliny, the military governor of Asia Minor under Trajan (98-117 A.D.) describes conditions of his day as compared with the earlier excesses. To him Domitian had been a cruel tyrant, whereas Trajan was an enlightened despot who sought to "reclaim" his subjects as loyal adherents of Roman paganism.11 It was still "illegal" to follow Christ, however, and persecutions were resumed. The way of the Truth was never an easy path in the days of the Caesars.

1 Magie, Roman Rule in Asia Minor, pp. 576-577.

2 Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars, pp. 150-191.

3 Ibid., p. 170.

4 Ibid., p. 173.

5 Ibid., p. 173.

6 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, ch. 20.

7 Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book III, ch. 20.

8 Dio Cassius, Roman History, Book lxviii.2.

9 Ibid.

10 Tacitus, Agricola, 3.

11 Pliny, Letters, Book X.xcvi.