Tertullian, Apology XXXIII-XXXIV

The necessity of the emperor’s human nature

Name of the author: 
197 CE
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For a general introduction to Tertullian and his Apology, please see the commentary on Apology V.

In these two chapters, Tertullian argues for the necessity of the emperor being understood and honoured as a human being, and not afforded divine honours. This, Tertullian suggests, actually robs the emperor of his status as a powerful earthly ruler: one cannot be both God and emperor. In chapters XXX and XXII, Tertullian has made clear that while Christians will not worship Roman gods, or swear by Caesar’s genius, they are respectful of imperial rule and wish for the empire’s stability to be maintained, largely because its continuation staved off the impending eschaton. As Tertullian states in the opening sentence of chapter XXXIII above, these points have been sufficiently made; although, he does add that Christians can legitimately claim “Caesar is more [theirs] than [the Romans’]” on account of the emperor being put in his position of authority by the Christian God. This Christian claim over the emperor, Tertullian argues, means that they actually do much more than worshippers of Roman gods to keep the emperor safe, as the God of the Christians is the only deity with any actual power (verse 2).

Moreover, Tertullian states in verse 2 that Caesar’s welfare is better served if it is acknowledged that he is inferior to God, as this will ensure that he remains in God’s favour. The implication is that to elevate the emperor to the level of a divinity might anger God, and cause him to remove from Caesar the power he has given to him. To call the emperor a god is not only ridiculous, but leads to an illogical end in Tertullian’s mind, as a man cannot be both emperor (a human position) and god (verse 3). The title of emperor, he suggests, is prestigious enough in itself that nothing above that should be sought by a human being. Verse 4 offers a curious illustration of Tertullian’s point by evoking the image of a Roman triumph, where the emperor on a chariot partakes in a procession celebrating and displaying all that he has captured and conquered in battle. Tertullian claims that these glorious displays of the emperor’s power and authority bestow on him such a high degree of honour that it is necessary for a (hypothetical) voice to remind him that he is “but a man.” This cautionary voice is only necessary in the first place due to the extreme glory of the emperor, and so for Tertullian it is unwarranted that he be given any further honours on top of those he already possesses.

Chapter XXXIV begins with a reference to Augustus, who famously did not want to be known as “Lord” (dominus) (Suetonius, Augustus 53). Tertullian claims that he himself is happy in theory to refer to the emperor as “lord,” but only in the more general sense of the word (meaning something akin to “master”), and as long as he is not being required to call the emperor “lord” at the expense of God. Tertullian understands a hierarchical arrangement whereby God is above Caesar (therefore “lord” over him), and Caesar is above his subjects (and so can be called “lord” in that he is their master). As long as this hierarchy is respected, using the term “lord” in a casual sense is not problematic; however, because of its connotations of divinity, one must be wary not to attribute such a quality to the emperor. Myles Lavan has analysed the evolution of the vocabulary of mastery, drawing upon frequently upon Tertullian, and argues that there is a prominent tendency to use such vocabulary to refer to Roman power and Rome’s relationships with its allies in the second half of the second century CE (see “Florus and Dio”).

 Tertullian proceeds to ask how the emperor can be both pater patriae (father of the fatherland) and its “lord,” as he argues that the former is a more pious title that implies something deeper than “lordship,” which evokes authority. He continues to claim that to be pater patriae, in the same sense that the head of a family is known as pater (father), something more than power (i.e. attentive care) is required (however, see Ovid, Fasti II.119-144, where the bestowing of the title pater patriae upon Augustus suggests something much less soft than Tertullian’s implication!). Verse 2 further elaborates on the notion of causing offence by wrongly giving titles to those to whom they do not legitimately belong. Just as it is an offence to God to give divine honour to the emperor, it would be insulting to Caesar to give another man the title of emperor. If one wishes for God to favour the emperor and ensure his continued protection, then worship ought to be given only to God.

Bibliographical references: 

“Was Tertullian a Jurist?”

Rankin, David Ivanarticle-in-a-bookStudia Patristica 31: Papers presented at the Twelfth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1995Elizabeth A. Livingstone335-342“Was Tertullian a Jurist?” Studia PatristicaLeuvenPeeters1997

“On the Problem of Church and Empire in Tertullian’s Apologeticum”

Evans, Robert F.article-in-a-bookStudia Patristica 14: Papers Presented to the Sixteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1971Elizabeth A. Livingstone21-36“On the Problem of Church and Empire in Tertullian’s Apologeticum” Studia PatristicaBerlinAkademie Verlag1976

“Tertullien et les poètes latins,”

Braun, Renéarticle-in-a-bookApproches de Tertullien: vingt-six études sur l’auteur et sur l’oeuvre (1955-1990) René Braun“Tertullien et les poètes latins”ParisInstitut d'Études Augustiniennes1992


Dunn, Geoffrey D.bookTertullianLondonRoutledge2004


Ferguson, Everettarticle-in-a-bookEarly Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures Paul Foster85-99“Tertullian” LondonSPCK2011

“Pagan Perceptions of Christianity”

Barnes, Timothy D.article-in-a-bookEarly Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600Ian Hazlett 231-243“Pagan Perceptions of Christianity” LondonSPCK1991
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