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.
Domitian was succeeded by Nerva (96 – 98). Nerva’s reign was brief with nothing much either to commend it or to condemn it. Trajan succeeded Nerva in 98 and ruled until 117. There was a revolt of the Jews in 115 to 117 when many Jews died and many Christians were also 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 should already know that the Christians were the primary group chosen to appear there as targets and victims. In spite of all of that, Trajan was considered by historians as one of the best of the 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 widely overlooked by students and scholars alike.
This revolt of the Jews was put down in three years (ending in 135), during which time Jerusalem was once again burned and the temple mound and much of the city plowed up (“…not one stone will be left upon another”). The Romans built a new city upon the ruins which they named Aelia Capitolina. Aelia being a form of the name Aelius, in honor of Hadrian, and Capitolina indicating that it was also dedicated to Jupiter Capitolina, the Roman god whose temple (among others) had been erected on the site of the Temple ruins. Jews were not allowed to enter the new city.
During this time the Romans renamed the region of Judea Palestine, as it remains to this day. For one day each year the Jews were allowed to congregate upon Mount Olivet to pray, weep and lament for the city. This situation continued unimpeded until the reign of Constantine.
The Christian population of Jerusalem continued to increase until 637 when the Muslims under the Caliphate seized Palestine and Jerusalem.
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 known as the five good emperors. Persecutions and martyrdoms began in earnest and essentially continued without a break from this point until 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 had remained busy and successfully promoted many Christian martyrs. Although such actions continued under Marcus, nothing concerning empire wide persecutions is found in the historical records. However, he was emperor during the general Christian persecutions in the regions of Vienne and Lyons, as was noted by Edward Gibbon in his landmark study The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the source for much of the information found in these essays. Marcus was the true ruler at this time although the younger Verus was vested as co-regent with him.
As was noted, 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 then was the power on the throne while the younger Verus was content to partake of the vices accorded his position. Both emperors maintained homosexual lovers. 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 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, he assumed the throne (180 — 192). He entertained debauchery likened to Nero, Domitian and the Verus’s, and also favored the notion that he was a great warrior appearing in over 800 contests at the Coliseum, some real and some choreographed, hence the basis for the plotline in the fictional film “Gladiator.” As was depicted in the movie, he did in fact have a man by the name of Maximus Quintilian murdered (along with his twin brother Condianus) although not in the Coliseum, and not by his own hand. However, they were neither generals nor soldiers. They were simply well known model citizens of Rome against whom he harbored a raging jealousy. You should not get your history, either ancient or modern, from Hollywood.
Commodus’ favorite concubine, his chamberlain, and the prefect of the Praetorians conspired together and poisoned him.
The day following the death of Commodus, Pertinax (Publius Helvius Pertinax) was made emperor and he reigned for a few months before he too was also murdered by the Praetorians. With the death of Commodus what was known as the Five Good Emperors or 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 as the next Caesar when he heard of Pertinax’ murder. As the throne was now available to the highest bidder, he came up with the requirement and was awarded the prize. But as he was without friend or ally he was soon killed by the Prefect of the Praetorians, the 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.