The Beginnings of the Empire What follows in this and the next three essays is a short biography of most of the Roman emperors up through the time of the emperor Constantine the Great. The hope is that the information may be useful to the student of the New Testament.
Nero holds the infamy of being the most recognized of emperors behind only that of Julius Caesar. He reigned from 54 until his death in 68, and was the last of the Julian dynasty. Though not mentioned by name in most of the ancient biblical manuscripts, it was undoubtedly to Nero that Paul had appealed to in the record in Acts. It is recorded that in order to deflect suspicion from himself as the starter of the great fire that destroyed Rome in 64 (which probably was not the case), he attempted to lay the blame generally on the “seditious” Christians. If that notion was not true, what is nonetheless true is that Christians were severely persecuted through the later years of his reign, and particularly under his own hand. For some reason this is disputed by a few prominent modern historians. However, the earliest recorders (such as Eusebius and Seutonius) unanimously identify Nero as the starter of the persecutions within Rome. The Roman historian Tertullian stated, “Consult your histories; you will there find that Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect, making progress then especially at Rome.”
It is also recorded that Nero drove his chariot at night, around his palace compound using the burning bodies of condemned Christians trussed up in oil soaked hides, ignited, and raised to offer light on his way.
At some point just prior to or during his reign, Christianity came to be understood by the Roman authorities as a distinct religion rather than as some splinter sect of the Jews. But there was not any real attempt to bridle Christianity on their parts. The Christians, as had been the case with the Jews, were granted the same tolerance (or intolerance) as with all other foreign religions. The rule was, don’t cause trouble, pay the obliged taxes, and thereby live peacefully under Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome). In quick time, the Christians fell from favor with the Roman officials due to the continued diligent work of the Jews to overthrow what they considered a seditious and spurious religion. And, if nothing else, the Romans at this point were especially adept at handling insurrections of any sort.
It is during the reign of Nero that the Jews in Judea began their most infamous revolt in late 66. Nero dispatched Titus Flavius Vespasianus, or Vespasian, commander of the eastern Legions, to quell the uprising in 68. By the time that Nero committed suicide later that same year, Vespasian had subdued most of Judea and was in the process of isolating Jerusalem. Vespasian returned to Rome leaving son Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Junior carried the same name as his father, but was known as Titus) in charge of the Legions to complete the siege and subjugation.
The Empire at this time was embroiled in more civil strife and there were brief struggles for control within. After the death of Nero there were three named emperors before Vespasian seized total control of Rome.
Historians both ancient and modern unanimously hold that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome during the reign of Nero. There are several ancient historical records available in confirmation (some of them reasonable, others not).
The three emperors in the two-year period following the suicide of Nero (the actual time of their collective reigns was just short of 17 months) were Galba, Otho, and Vitelius (68 — 69).
Galba (Servius Sulpicius Galba) ruled seven months six-days while Otho (Marcus Salvius Otho) ruled just three days although he served unofficially as emperor in the interim following the death of Galba. The remainder of the time went to Vitelius (eight months twenty-seven days).
Rome was besieged with insurrections immediately when Galba became emperor. Following Galba’s death, Otho’s reign did not outlast the troubles of the week of his coronation; and the civil strife that had begun following Nero’s death was ended only by the return of Flavius Vespasian to Rome. The city was razed as Vespasian subdued the insurrections and seized power following a difficult battle against Vitelius and his supporters in December of 69. Of the three emperors only the last may be remembered at all and then for all the wrong reasons. Vitelius (court name: Aulus Vitelius Germanicus) was an immense man renowned for his debauchery, lack of manners, and gluttony. The Roman historian Tacitus called him a pig.
Vespasian is listed by historians as the first emperor of the Flavian Dynasty. He was the grandson of a commoner and the son of a regular soldier, who through his own military prowess eventually rose to status of Consul and commander of the Legions. Soon it was claimed that he also had an obscure relation by adoption to Tiberias, who had himself claimed an equally obscure relation to Augustus and therefore to the Julian line (as most of the others also had done). For all practical purposes the Jewish nation ceased to exist during his reign. As noted, Titus, the dutiful eldest son, and no military slouch, completed the siege of Jerusalem in August of 70 destroying most of the city.
Although modern historians doubt his accounting, Josephus (General Joseph Ben Matthias) stated that some two million Jews were slaughtered during the siege or carried into captivity by the conclusion of the events. As the city had been isolated for nearly a year prior to the assault, conditions were terrible within, and the hopelessness of the situation had plenty of time to sink in.
As noted, Titus had completed the siege of Judea in 70 AD, and much of Jerusalem was burned and destroyed, including the looting of the temple and its subsequent burning by the Jews. The genealogical records that had been housed in the temple were there destroyed by the Romans effectively ending the Levitical priesthood. So, the nation of Israel ceased to exist along with its established worship.
This certainly was the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecies of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 24 and Luke 21, although the fulfillment may have had its completion by the second destruction of Jerusalem under Hadrian in 135. At any rate, it is quite clear that the fortunes of the Jews in this area of the world entered a serious decline beginning in year 70 from which they would never recover. Some later historians mention Vespasian or Titus, as persecutors of Christians although there is no corroborating historical information to substantiate any theory.
Titus was appointed emperor by rights of succession in 79 while Vespasian was still alive and he ruled under his father’s tutelage until 81. He was the older brother of Titus Flavius Domitianus — known as Domitian.
The Christian apologist and historian Irenaeus preferred Titus, or more correctly Teitan, as the name is transliterated from the Greek, as the one identified in Revelation chapter 13 by the number “666.”
Titus was widely honored in his day. He was considered to be level headed and steady. He was also praised for his successful military campaigns which helped to solidify the holdings of Rome, at least for the time being, and most notably for his defeat of the Jews and the subjugation of Judea.
Titus had been a steadying force but was followed on the throne by brother Domitian who ruled from 81 to 96. Domitian was an egoistical monster of similar stripe to Nero, and as Vespasian was now also dead when the younger Flavian acceded to the throne, there was no force for restraint.
Some historians state that the persecution of Christians expanded dramatically during Domitian’s reign. However, noting that he maintained debaucheries, there is simply no historical evidence of any persecutions during his reign, despite mention of a handful of individual trials for heresy which took place in Rome. These are listed by both Eusebius and the Roman historian Dion Cassius. Eusebius’ List of Martyrs did have its beginning during Domitian’s reign, but comparatively speaking, it is not a very long list, with less than one hundred names most of whom were identified in the second and third century. It is interesting to note that Edward Gibbon speculated that the inquisition in Spain was responsible for more Christian martyrs than were all of the rest emperors combined excepting Nero, of course.
Domitian demanded to be addressed as Dominus ac Deum noster (Our Lord and God). Members of his household and military staff conspired together and assassinated him four years prior to the end of the first century.