Titus was followed on the throne by his brother Domitian who ruled from 81 to 96. Domitian was an egotist like Nero, and as his father Vespasian was now dead, when the youngest Flavian acceded to the throne – there was no force for restraint. Some historians state that the persecution of Christians expanded dramatically during his reign. However, noting that he maintained debaucheries, there is no record of persecutions against anyone or any group despite the mention of a single trial for heresy. That incident was listed by both Cassius Dio and later by Eusebius.
I would not seek or wish to lesson things – to minimize the lives, purpose and deaths of the first martyrs, those who were killed for Christ. Those early saints are the truly strong and faithful – persons such as Stephen and Paul, who unwaveringly stood their ground, serving the Lord, though it led to a horrible death. Those “holy Apostles and Prophets,” with unknown brothers and sisters alongside, who did the same things and ended the same way, and all had a part in those first heavenly rewards that are so central to the Revelation of Jesus. It is described beginning in Chapter 5 as “the avenging of the Holy Apostles and Prophets.” It is also called “the first resurrection;” and its purpose and meaning are widely missed by scholars, teachers, and students alike.
With this offered and understood, books such as Eusebius’ List of Martyrs, did have its beginning during Domitian’s reign, but may have little to do with the first resurrection. And, it is not a “big” list, at less than one hundred names, many of whom were identified in the second and early third centuries and many without corroboration or historical thread. Edward Gibbon, in his landmark series Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, noted that the Spanish Inquisition initiated under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela, of the fifteenth century, was responsible for more Christian martyrs than the rest of the Roman emperors collectively beyond Nero. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs also is of little value in this, and for the similar reasons – there is no validation or identifiable substance in fact for many of the stories. But, the importance of “the avenging of the Holy Apostles and Prophets” is greater than the unknown names and lists. It has the greatest value to the Lord God and to Jesus Christ (and it will soon be introduced within the text). It was composed of exactly who the text then lists: apostles, prophets and saints – and it may have meant most of the twelve Apostles along with several prophets and many unknown saints of the first century. It is a part of the Revelation should never be lightened, glossed over or ignored.
Domitian demanded to be addressed with the appellation “Dominus ac deum noster” (“Our Lord and God”). Members of his household and military staff conspired together and murdered him four years prior to the end of the first century.
The Flavians pass, the Antonines begin and Christians are murdered
Domitian was succeeded by Marcus Cocceius Nerva who was quite elderly and feeble by the time he had been appointed Caesar (ruling only from 96 to 98). Nerva’s reign then was brief with nothing much either to commend it or to condemn it. However, in the oddest move of succession, he adopted Trajan as his son. Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus, was then about forty years old, and though well known in Rome, had been a total stranger to Nerva until this hasty act was suggested by the leading Senate counselor. Trajan apparently prospered by being in the right place at the right time, or so it might have seemed.
Trajan succeeded Nerva in 98 and ruled until 117. There was a revolt of the Jews in Judaea from 115 to 117 when many Jews were killed, and some Christians listed as martyred. The Christians ended up getting the worst of things with Christianity being officially listed in the empire as “religio illicita” for the first time, the tide was beginning to turn harder against the Christians, although there was by 117 no sanctioned empire wide persecution. During his reign, the Coliseum was opened for business and sporting pleasure. You may know that the Christians were one of the groups chosen to appear there as targets and victims. Despite that, Trajan was considered by historians as one of the best emperors.
The theologian and historian J. B. Lightfoot expressed that the laws discouraging the following of any religion against the state religion had always been in place in Rome:
“The law was there, if any one were disposed to call it into action. But for long period of time it lay dormant. Only now and then the panic of a populace, or the bigotry of a magistrate, or the malice of some influential personage, awoke it into activity. Sometimes it was enforced against one or two individuals, sometimes against collective numbers. But, as a rule, there was no disposition to deal hardly with the Christians, who were for the most part peaceful and industrious citizens. In this respect Christianity was on the same footing with other prohibited religions…The good emperors, as a rule, were not more friendly to Christianity than the bad.
“…The Roman religion was essentially political. The deification of the dead emperor, the worship of the genius of the living emperor, were the direct logical result of this political system. An arbitrary, unscrupulous prince might disregard this system; a patriotic Roman could not. Hence the tragic fact that the persecutions of Trajan and M. Aurelius were among the severest on record for the early church. On the other hand, the Christians had almost as much to hope, as to fear, from the unscrupulousness of a bad emperor. If the caprice of a Nero persecuted them, the caprice of a Commodus not only spared but favored them.”
Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus, or Hadrian, as he was commonly known, followed his near relative Trajan (117 — 138). The last and most thorough destruction of Jerusalem was completed under his watchful eye. This is also widely overlooked by both students and scholars. This revolt of the Jews was put down in three years (ending in 135). During this time, as already mentioned, Jerusalem was once again sacked and burned, and the temple mound and much of the city plowed up (you may recall Jesus had said, “…not one stone will be left upon another”). The Romans built a new city on the site named Aelia Capitolina: Aelia being a form of the name Aelius, honoring Hadrian, while Capitolina indicated that the city was dedicated to the Roman’s principal god, Jupiter Capitolina, whose temple (among others) had been erected atop the temple mount. During this period, the Romans officially renamed the region of Judaea Palestine, as it remains known today. For one day each year, the Jews could congregate on Mount Olivet to pray, weep and lament for the city; and this situation continued unaltered until the reign of Constantine. The Christian population of Jerusalem continued to increase until 637 when the Muslims (which means: “followers of Islam”), under the First Caliphate, seized Palestine and Jerusalem, along with a lot of other real estate.
Hadrian was followed by Titus Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus Pius). Hadrian had listed his adopted son, Aelius Verus, as his chosen successor, however Aelius Verus died shortly after being vested. Lucius Aurelius Verus, then was appointed to rule jointly with his father, Marcus Annius Verus at Titus Antoninus Pius’ request (161 to 169). Marcus remained the power on the throne while the younger Verus was content to partake of the vices accorded his position. For the son as with his father, nothing specific is recorded concerning any widespread persecutions of Christians during their reigns although scattered or local persecutions continued unabated. Pius had remained in the background until the death of Hadrian, when the Flavian dynasty in fact came to an end. With Titus Antoninus Pius now as sole emperor, the period of the Antonines began in earnest (138 — 161). Antoninus or Pius (meaning “dutiful in affection”), had no care for Christians and their assemblies were decreed illegal societies. There were many martyrs during the full period of the Antonines although they were generally known as “the five good emperors.” Do you not find it peculiar that history often gets things completely backwards when it comes to honors and appellations? Persecutions and martyrdoms began in earnest and essentially continued without a break from this point to near to the reign of Constantine.
The second of the Antonines was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (161 — 180). His given name was Marcus Annius Catilius Severus, and upon marriage he took the name Marcus Annius Verus, although he was and is better known as Marcus Aurelius. During his reign the Jews were restored to their religious freedom in all but Jerusalem. As in the time of the writing of the book of Acts of Apostles, the Jews still successfully promoted some Christian martyrs. Although such actions had continued under Marcus, nothing concerning empire wide persecutions is found in any historical records. However, he was emperor during the general Christian persecutions in the regions of Vienne and Lyons (modern day France), as was noted in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Marcus was the true ruler at the time although the younger Verus was still vested as coregent along with him.
Gaius Avidius Cassius briefly usurped the role of Caesar upon a false report of the death of Marcus in 175. However, he never made it to a coronation, although he was listed as emperor by the senate.
Commodus (Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) was the son of Marcus Aurelius, and following the deaths of first, Verus the younger and then his father, he assumed the throne (180—192). He entertained debauchery likened to Nero, Domitian and the Verus’s. He also favored the notion that he was a great warrior, appearing in over 800 contests in the Coliseum, some real and most choreographed (part of the plotline for the fictional film Gladiator). Depicted in the movie, Commodus tried to have a general by the name of Maximius Quintilian murdered, which is only partially true. Both Maximius and his twin brother Condianus were killed, although not in the Coliseum, nor directly by Commodus. Furthermore, they were neither generals nor soldiers – but simply model citizens of Rome of whom Commodus was madly envious. You should know that envy is high on the list of the “gifts” that just never stop giving. Need I state that we should not take our history lessons, either ancient or modern, from Hollywood movies. The truth is more often harsher than fiction.
Commodus’ favorite concubine, his chamberlain and the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard conspired together and poisoned him. The day following the death of Commodus, Pertinax (Publius Helvius Pertinax) was made emperor and reigned a few months before he too was murdered by the Praetorians (the emperor’s elite legion). With the death of Commodus, the Antonine dynasty came to an end.
Marcus Didius Salvius Julianus Severus, or Didius Julianus, then head of the senate, was wrongheaded enough to think that he should be appointed the next Caesar, after he heard of Pertinax’ murder. By this time, the throne was available to the highest bidder; and he came up with the requirement and was awarded the prize. As he was without friend or ally, he was quickly dispatched by the Prefect of the Praetorians, the Consul Septimius Severus. Pertinax and Julianus together ruled less than a year. Clodius Albinus, former governor of Britain then assumed the role of emperor though, once again, only for a brief time. He too, was killed in battle by the same Praetorian and Consul, Septimius Severus.