The Roman Emperors of Early Christianity
Imperator Caesar Augustus (Octavian) 27 B.C.—A.D. 14
The power of the imperial state was firmly established. He became the princeps (the first citizen of the land). He ruled wisely and well. Politically, the new principate was a comprise the old republicanism and the dictatorship advocated by Julius Caesar.. The Senate was retained as the theoretical ruling body.
In 23 B.C., he was given the tribuntial power for life, which gave him control over the popular assemblies. He was appointed the permanent representative of the people. His rights were based on the constitution rather than an arbitrary seizure of power. Many reforms were made. Unworthy members were purged from the Senate. He sought to improve the morale of the people. He revived the state religion and rebuilt many temples. The Imperial cult, a worship of Rome as a state, was introduced to the provinces. In many places the emperor was worshiped as Dominus et Deus (Lord and God).
He took a census of the population and all property to consolidate the empire at large. Jesus was born (Lk. 2:1). Spain, Gaul, and the Alpine districts were subjugated. He strengthen the defense of the frontiers. His armies suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Germans in the Teutoberg forest. He organized the police and fire departments of Rome. He boasted that he found Rome brick and had left it marble.
Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus A.D. 14–37
He was the adopted son Tiberius. The imperium was conferred on Tiberius for life. He insisted that he divorce his wife and marry Julia, Augustus’ daughter. This was a bitter experience that soured his temper. He was distant, haughty, suspicious and easily angered. He was wise in his policies, but was never popular and was generally feared and disliked. Roman armies suffered reverses in Germany, so that he withdrew the frontier to the Rhine.
In A.D. 26, he retired to Capri. Aelius Sejanus, the captain of the praetorian guard, attempted to carry out a conspiracy to seize the principate. But in 31 Tiberius discovered his plans, and executed Sejanus. But the effect on Tiberius was disastrous. He became more suspicious and cruel. He died in A.D. 37. The Senate could breathe more freely. Jesus had his public ministry and died during his reign (Lk. 3:1).
Gaius Augustus Germanicus (Caligula) A.D. 37–41
Known as “Little Boots” by his soldiery He was made Tiberius’ successor by the Senate. He was popular. He pardoned political prisoners, reduced taxes, gave public entertainments, and endeared himself to the populace.
He demanded to be worshiped as a god, alienating the Jews in his realm. When Herod Agrippa visited Alexandria the citizens insulted him publicly and tried to compel the Jews to worship the images of Gaius. The Jews appealed to the emperor who paid them no attention but ordered his Syrian legate to erect his statue in the temple at Jerusalem. The legate was wise enough to delay action rather than to risk an armed rebellion. The death of Caligula in A.D. 41 prevented the issue from coming to a crisis. He recklessly expended the funds that Augustus and Tiberius had carefully gathered. He exhausted the public treasury. To replenish it, he relied on violent means: confiscation of private property, compulsory legacies, and extortion of every kind. His tyranny became so unbearable that he was assassinated by a tribune of the imperial guards.
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus A.D. 41 –54
The Senate debated the restoration of the republic at the death of Caligula. But this was quickly decided for them when the praetorian guard selected Tiberius Claudius Germanicus as emperor. He had not taken part in the political activities of Rome. An early illness left him weakened that his public appearance was embarrassing. He was not inferior mentally, he was a good scholar and proved to be an able ruler than his contemporaries expected.
Under his rule, Rome became a bureaucracy, governed by committees and secretaries. He extended citizenship to the provincials. His generals gained a foothold in Britain and conquered as far north as the Thames river. He was determined to restore the ancient Roman religion to its former prominence in society. He had a strong antipathy for foreign cults.
Under his rule, the Jews were expelled from Rome because of some riots that had taken place “at the instigation of Chrestus.” – Suetonius, Claudius 25, 4. Claudius took his niece, Agrippina, as his fourth wife, through the influence of his freedmen, Pallas. She gain succession for her son by a previous husband, Domitius. He was adopted by Claudius under the name of Nero Claudius Caesar. Nero married Claudius’ daughter, Octavia in A.D. 53. In A.D. 54, Claudius died, leaving Nero to the succession of the imperial throne.
Imperator Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus A.D. 54–68
The first five years were peaceful and successful. He managed his realm very well. Agrippina sought to maintain ascendancy over him which he and his advisors resented. In A.D. 59 he had his mother murdered and took full charge of the government himself. He was eager to enter upon a stage career than to excel in political administration. His carelessness and extravagance emptied the public treasury. He resorted to oppression and violence in order to replenish it. The Senate hated him. Many feared that he might give order for their death and for the confiscation of their property.
In A.D. 64 a great fire broke out in Rome destroying a large part of the city. Nero was suspected as having deliberately set it to make room for his new Garden House. In order to redirect the blame, the Christians were accused of causing the fire. Many were brought to trial and tortured to death. This was the first real persecution of Christians by Rome. Peter and Paul were martyred (Acts 25:10, 28:19). There is little evidence that shows extensive persecution. It probably did not affect any territory outside of Rome. Nero’s excesses rendered him unpopular. Several conspiracies against him failed, and suppressed by the execution of his enemies. A revolt of troops and provincials in Gaul and Spain caused Nero to flee from Rome. He was killed by one of his own freedmen at his command to avoid capture.
Tacitus (Publius Cornelius, c. 55–120, last great Roman classical historians; major source of information concerning first century A.D.), in His Annals xv. 44, writes:
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserve extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
Suetonius, (Gaius Suetonius Transquillus), an important Roman historian and influential writer, wrote of Nero, saying:
He devised a new form for the buildings of the city and in front of the houses and apartments he erected porches, from the flat roofs of which fires could be fought; and these he put up at his own cost. He had also planned to extend the walls as far as Ostia and to bring the sea from there to Rome by a canal.
During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city. (Nero 6)
He met his death in the thirty-second year of his age, on the anniversary of the murder of Octavia, and such was the public rejoicing that the people put on liberty-caps and ran about all over the city. Yet there were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produced his statues on the rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies. Nay more, Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, when he sent envoys to the Senate to renew his alliance, earnestly begged this too, that honour be paid to the memory of Nero. In fact, twenty years later, when I was a young man, a person of obscure origin appeared, who gave out that he was Nero, and the name was still in such favour with the Parthians that they supported him vigorously and surrendered him with great reluctance. (Suetonius, Nero 5 7)
Sulpicius Servers writes of the Neroic persecution of the Christians:
In the meantime, the number of the Christians being now very large, it happened that Rome was destroyed by fire, while Nero was stationed at Antium. But the opinion of all cast the odium of causing the fire upon the emperor, and he was believed in this way to have sought for the glory of building a new city. And in fact Nero could not, by any means he tried, escape from the charge that the fire had been caused by his orders. He therefore turned the accusation against the Christians, and the most cruel tortures were accordingly inflicted upon the innocent. Nay, even new kinds of deaths were invented, so that, being covered in the skins of wild beasts, they perished by being devoured by dogs, while many were crucified or slain by fire, and not a few were set apart for this purpose, that, when the day came to a close, they should be consumed to serve for light during the night. In this way, cruelty first began to be manifested against the Christians. Afterwards, too, their religion was prohibited by laws which were enacted; and by edicts openly set forth it was proclaimed unlawful to be a Christian. At that time Paul and Peter were condemned to death, the former being beheaded with a sword, while Peter suffered crucifixion. (Sulpicius Severus, Chronicle 2. 29)
Servius Galba Imperator Caesar Augustus A.D. 68
Galba succeeded Nero but was not the choice of the legions. He adopted his successor Lucius Calpurnius Piso. Former supporter with aspirations to be emperor, Ortho persuaded the praetorian guards to kill him and to make him emperor.
Imperator Marcus Otho Caesar Augustus A.D. 69
His rule was short-lived. The Senate concurred his appointment, but Vitellius, the legate of Germany, marched on Rome with his troops. Ortho was killed in battle and Vitellius took his place.
Aulus Vitellius Imperator Germanicus Augustus A.D. 69
He was recognized by the Senate, but he was unable to control the soldiery, nor could he establish any stable government. The army of the east step in the affairs of state and made its general, Vespasian, emperor. Leaving his Titus in charge at the siege of Jerusalem, Vespasian proceeded to Egypt, where he gained control of the country and cut off the food supply of Rome. He captured and conquered Rome. Vitellius was killed, and Vespasian was proclaimed ruler.
Imperator Caesar Vespasianus Augustus A.D. 69–79
He was a plain soldier. He was frugal in his habits and vigorous in his administration. He suppressed revolts among the Batavia and among the Gauls, while Titus completed the reduction of Jerusalem. The city was destroyed and the province was put under a military legate. Upon the death of Nero he proceeded to Rome to become emperor, leaving his son Titus to besiege Jerusalem. He strengthened the frontiers by reducing dependent principalities to the status of provinces. The treasury was made solvent by strict economy. He built the famous Colosseum. He died in A.D. 79, leaving his office to Titus. He was the first of the Flavian Dynasty of which Titus and Domitian are included.
Imperator Titus Caesar Vespanianus Augustus A.D. 79–81
Titus’ reign was brief and did not allow time for the accomplishment of remarkable deeds. He was one of the most popular emperors. He sponsored magnificent entertainments. His personal generosity helped to disarm the Senate who feared that he would be a dictator like his father. Pompeii and Herculaneum and the villages of the Bay of Naples were destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius. He did as much as he could to rescue as many as possible. Months later, Rome suffered a severe fire destroying the new Capitol, the Pantheon and Agrippa’s Baths. Titus sold his furniture to contribute to the general need. He erected new buildings including a large amphitheater. He was the general who conquered Jerusalem against the Jewish Zealots in A.D. 70.
Imperator Caesar Domitianus Augustus Germanicus A.D. 81–96
Upon the death of Titus in A.D. 81, the Senate conferred the imperial power upon his younger brother Domitian. He was a thorough autocrat. He tried to raise the moral level of Roman society be restraining the corruption of the Roman stage by checking public prostitution. The temples of older gods were rebuilt. Foreign religions were suppressed, especially those who sought converts. A persecution of Christians was attributed to him, though evidence for any extensive legislation or action against them during his reign is lacking. He demanded worship for himself and insisted on being hailed as Domimus et Deus.
The imperial cult preceded Domitian by many reigns. It came in with the empire. Those in the eastern Mediterranean, where worship and deification of rulers had a long history, integrated the worship of Augustus into their public cults. The presence of this practice in Asia Minor was a significant force in social life of the Asian province from the time of Augutus. In Rome it evolved from the private worship of household gods. The imperial cult continued long after Domitian.
He was a good manager. He was hard by nature and suspicious by rivals. He made many enemies. He was pitiless in his vengeance when their plots were uncovered. The last years of his reign were a nightmare to the senatorial order. They were kept in constant fear of spies and informers. His own family did not feel safe. In self-defense, they procured his assassination.
Domitian succeeded Titus as emperor, but unlike his brother, he was humorless, and cruel. He waged war against the Sarmatians, the Chatti, and the Dacians. He was hostile to the Roman Senate, and started a reign of terror that kept Rome in a state of constant apprehension. He extorted money from the wealthy men to satisfy financial pressure. Because of the revolt of Germany in the winter of A.D. 88/89, he became intensely fearful of all his rivals and listened to idle gossip that suggested disloyalty among his subjects. Domitian was killed by his wife’s steward Stephanus, who conspired to kill him under the guise of disclosing a conspiracy.
Writers from Domitian’s time — Quintalian (Marcus Aurelius Claudius, A.D. 34–100, writer and teacher; instructor of Domitian’s great-nephews and Pliny the Younger), Frontinus (Sextus Julius, A.D. 40–103, consul, governor, general and writer), Statius (Publius Papinus, 45–96, widely read poet of the Flavian era), Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, A.D. 40–104, one of the greatest epigrammatic poets in all Roman literature), and Silius Italicus (A.D. 26–101, remarkable epic poet; an associated of Pliny the Younger and Martial) — praised Domitian’s military exploits and successes.
But in contrast post-Domitian sources of the public rule of Domitian — Pliny the Younger (c. 61–122, praetor, legate, friend of Trajan), Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius (Historian born to Roman senator of Nicaea in Bithynia) — speak in condemnation and in a negative voice. Suetonius writes of Domitian in his The Twelve Caeasars:
12 Reduced to financial straits by the cost of his buildings and shows, as well as by the additions he had made to the pay of the soldiers, he tried to lighten the military expenses by diminishing the number of his troops; but perceiving that in this way he exposed himself to the attacks of the barbarians, and nevertheless had difficulty in easing his burdens, he had no hesitation in resorting to every sort of robbery. The property of the living and the dead was seized everywhere on any charge brought by any accuser. It was enough to allege any action or word derogatory to the majesty of the prince. Estates of those in any way connected with him were confiscated, if but one man came forward to declare that he had heard from the deceased during his lifetime that Caesar was his heir. Besides other taxes, that on the Jews was levied with the utmost rigour, and those were prosecuted who without publicly acknowledging that faith yet lived as Jews, as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people. I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised…
13 When he became emperor, he did not hesitate to boast in the Senate that he had conferred their power on both his father and his brother, and that they had but returned him his own; nor on taking back his wife after their divorce, that he had recalled her to his divine couch’. He delighted to hear the people in the amphitheatre shout on his feast day: ‘Good Fortune attend our Lord and Mistress.’ Even more, in the Capitoline competition, when all the people begged him with great unanimity to restore Palfurius Sura, who had been banished some time before from the Senate, and on that occasion received the prize for oratory, he deigned no reply, but merely had a crier bid them be silent. With no less arrogance he began as follows in issuing a circular letter in the name of his procurators, ‘Our Master and our God bids that this be done.’ And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation. He suffered no statues to be set up in his honour in the Capitol, except of gold and silver and of a fixed weight. He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of the city, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: ‘It is enough.’ He held the consulship seventeen times, more often than any of his predecessors. Of these the seven middle ones were in successive years, but all of them he filled in name only, continuing none beyond the first of May and few after the Ides of January. Having assumed the surname after his two triumphs, he renamed the months of September and October from his own names, calling them ‘Germanicus’ and’ Domitianus’, because in the former he had come to the throne and was born in the latter.
In the twelfth Sibylline Oracle, a third-century Jewish text, Domitian’s reign is praised as good, described as “a great kingdom whom all mortals will owe throughout the end of the earth and then there will be rest from war throughout the whole cosmos… from east to west, all will be subject willingly, and… upon him heavenly Sabbaoth, the imperishable God dwelling in heaven, will bring glory” (Sib. Or. 12.125–132).
The notion of Domitianic persecution appeared in the fourth-century work of Eusebius. In Eusebius’ sources and other Christian writings earlier than Eusebius, Domitian is not presented in such totally negative terms. According to Eusebius, John was caught in that persecution. Ecclesiastical History 3.17–18 reads:
17 Many were the victims of Domitian’s appalling cruelty. At Rome great numbers of men distinguished by birth and attainments were for no reason at all banished from the country and their property confiscated. Finally, he showed himself the successor of Nero in enmity and hostility to God. He was, in fact, the second to organized persecution against us, though his father Vespasian had had no mischievous designs against us.
18 There is ample evidence that at that time the apostle and evangelist John was still alive, and because of his testimony to the word of God was sentenced to confinement on the island of Patmos. Writing about the number of the name given to antichrist in what is called the Revelation of John. Irenaeus has this to say about John in Book V of his Against Heresies: ‘Here there been any need for his name to be openly announced at the present time, it would have been stated by the one who saw the actual revelation. For it was seen not a long time back, but almost in my own lifetime, at the end of Domitian’s reign.’
The second-century writer Hegesippus states that Domitian is one of three emperors who hunt down “the lineage of David,” (Eus. Hist. Eccl. 3.20.5). The Christian apologist, Melito, defending Christianity before Marcus Aurelius, made claims that Christianity and the Roman Empire grew up together and that Christian religion was good for Roman expansion (Eus. Hist. Eccl. 4.26.7–8). He said only Nero and Domitian were bad emperors who attached the church (Eus. Hist. Eccl. 4.26.9). Tertullian argues similarly in his Apology (Tert. Apol. 5).
The Jewish and Christian standard assessment of Domitian is that he was an evil emperor. In the cities of Asia, Domitian may have been seen as a good emperor, but not by those in Rome.
Nerva A.D. 96–98
He was selected by the Senate, probably considered a safe candidate. Advanced in years and of mild demeanor The army resented Domitian’s assassination. The Flavians were popular in military circles.
House, H. Wayne, Charts of the New Testament. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981.
Thompson, Leonard L., The Book of Revelation, Apocalypse and Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Frank, Harry Thomas, Hammond’s Atlas of the Bible Lands. New Jersey: Hammond Incorporated, 1984.
Bunson, Matthew, A Dictionary of the Roman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
The New Testament Background, Writings from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire that Illuminate Christian Origins. Edited by C. K. Barrett. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989.
Penguin Classics, Eusebius: The History of the Church. England: Penguin Books, 1965.