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Rome: Domitian, the Flavians and Antonine Emperors

Titus had been a steadying force but was followed on the throne by his brother Domitian who ruled from 81 to 96. Domitian was an egotist of similar stripe to 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 historical record for persecutions of any kind against anyone or any group, despite the mention of a single trial for heresy. The one trial was listed by both Eusebius and Cassius Dio.

I would never seek to lesson things nor to demean those who died for the sake of the Gospel. With that noted, Eusebius’ List of Martyrs did have its beginning during Domitian’s reign, however, comparatively speaking it is not a lengthy list, at less than one hundred names, most of whom were identified much later in the second and third centuries and without any corroboration there either. Edward Gibbon (in his landmark series The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) suggested that the Spanish Inquisition initiated by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela was responsible for more Christian martyrs than were caused by the remainder of all the Roman emperors collectively beyond Nero.

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 assassinated him four years prior to the end of the first century.

The Flavians pass, the Antonines begin and Christians are killed

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, Nerva adopted Trajan as his son. Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus, who 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 seem.

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 many Christians were 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.

During the reign of Trajan, the Coliseum was opened for business and sporting pleasure. You may know that the Christians were one of the primary groups chosen to appear there as targets and victims. Despite that, Trajan was considered by historians as one of the best emperors.

The 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 widely overlooked by both students and scholars alike. 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 was plowed up (you may recall Jesus had said, “…not one stone will be left upon another”). The Romans built a new city upon its 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 on 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, Jews could congregate on Mount Olivet to pray, weep and lament for the city. This situation continued unimpeded until the reign of Constantine.

Hadrian was followed by Titus Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus Pius). With Hadrian the Flavian dynasty came to an end, and with Titus Antoninus the period of the Antonine Emperors began (138 — 161). Antoninus or Pius (a title 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.” Persecutions and martyrdoms began in earnest and essentially continued without a break from this point until near to the time 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. He also came from a prominent family and his father had held the appointment of Consul. 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 continued under Marcus, nothing concerning empire wide persecutions is found in any of the 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, (the source for the bulk of the detail found in these essays). Marcus was the true ruler at the time although the younger Verus was vested as co-regent with him.

The first chosen heir of Hadrian had been his adopted son Lucius Aelius Verus. He died shortly after appointment as co-emperor with Titus Antoninus Pius. His son, Lucius Aurelius Verus, then was appointed to rule jointly with Marcus at Titus Antoninus’ request (from 161 — 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.

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 officially 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 own father, 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 many 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 the true 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 envious. You should know that envy is one of those “gifts” that never stops giving. Need I state that we should not get our history lessons, either ancient or modern, from Hollywood.

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 had come to an end.

Marcus Didius Salvius Julianus Severus, or Didius Julianus, then head of the senate, was wrongheaded enough to think that he might be appointed as the next Caesar when he heard of Pertinax’ murder. The throne was available to the highest bidder, and he came up with the requirement and was awarded the prize. But as he was without either friend or ally, he was quickly dispatched by the Prefect of the Praetorians, Consul Septimius Severus. Pertinax and Julianus had 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 was killed in battle by the same Praetorian, Septimius Severus.