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Roman Emperors in the First Century

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Caesar Augustus 27 BC - AD 14
Tiberius AD 14 - 37
* Caligula AD 37 - 41
* Claudius AD 41 - 54
* Nero AD 54 - 68 **
* Galba AD 68 - 69 (7 months)
* Otho AD 69 (4 months)
* Vitellius AD 69 (8 months)
Vespasian AD 69 - 79
Titus AD 79 - 81
* Domitian AD 81 - 96 **
Nerva AD 96 - 98
Trajan AD 98 - 117 **
Hadrian AD 117 - 138

* emperors who were either murdered or committed suicide
** emperors who persecuted Christians

The Julio-Claudian Dynasty (Augustus to Nero)

1) Caesar Augustus (27 BC - AD 14)

The first emperor, the son of Julius Caesar, given the title 'princeps', meaning 'first citizen'. His real name was Octavian, and took the title Augustus, meaning 'revered one'. The Roman Republic had broken down, having become too big, corrupt and mismanaged, needing an emperor. He fought his way to power, removing the leaders of the old Republic, especially Mark Anthony. He was a wise ruler, living a life of simplicity. He created an efficient civil service, and improved the city of Rome. His rule was remembered as a golden age. Many provincial people hailed him as a god, the beginning of Caesar worship, although he never enforced this worship. He was deified after his death by the Roman Senate and shrines to him were built throughout the empire. Jesus was born during his reign, in 6 BC.

2) Tiberius (14 - 27)

Tiberius was the step-son of Augustus, and was the emperor during Jesus's ministry and crucifixion. He was morose, suspicious and unpopular, gaining a reputation as a depraved and brutal ruler. It was said that not a day passed without an execution. He was an efficient ruler, following the example of Augustus. He actively discouraged Caesar worship. For the last eleven years of his reign, he was absent from Rome, leaving the government in the hands of Sejanus, who was a powerful and unscrupulous lieutenant. There was great rejoicing when Tiberius died.

3) Caligula (37 - 41)

Caligula was the grand-nephew of Tiberius, and was welcomed as a popular hero. His real name was Gaius, but was nick-named Caligula (which means 'little boots') because of the military boots he wore as a boy. He pardoned political offenders and reduced taxes. Power went to his head and he became mentally imbalanced after a severe illness, insisting he was divine. He proposed his horse as consul and made a marble stall with purple blankets for it. He imposed caesar worship on the Jews, who had previously been exempt. In AD 40, he planned to place his image in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple, which would have led to Jewish rebellion, but he was assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard before his plan was carried out.

4) Claudius (41 - 54)

Claudius was a good, sensible emperor, the uncle of Caligula. He was made emperor by the palace guard, when they found him hiding in the palace after they had assassinated Caligula. He was ungainly and paralytic, thought by many to be a fool, although he was quite an intellectual. He reversed Caligula's policy of Caesar worship, allowing the Jews to worship their own God. His wife forced him into adopting Nero, her son from a previous marriage, as his son and successor, in precedence over his own son Britannicus. In AD 49, he expelled the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2). According to Suetonius this was, "because the Jews of Rome were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city". At this stage, Christianity was seen as being a sect of Judaism by the Roman government. Claudius was murdered in AD 54, by his wife Agrippina, who fed him poisonous mushrooms.

5) Nero (54 - 68)

Nero did not insist on Caesar worship, not taking his divinity seriously. He allowed the Jews to return to Rome. Paul appealed to the emperor, and would have been tried by Nero, unless released beforehand. From this time, Christianity would have been distinct from Judaism in the eyes of the Roman government. In AD 64, Rome was destroyed by fire, and to divert accusations that Nero himself started it to clear the city for his building programme, he blamed the Christians, who he savagely persecuted. Both the apostle Peter and Paul were martyred during this persecution.

In AD 66, Vespasian was ordered to level Jerusalem. It took two years to set up the siege, then another two years to starve them out and take the city. Nero's suicide ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

The Year of Four Emperors (Galba to Vitellius)

Following Nero's death, there was anarchy and civil war in Rome. AD 69 is known as the 'year of the four emperors', when there were five emperors within eighteen months. During this turbulent time, commanders of different legions fought each other to take power.

6) Galba (June 68 - Jan 69)

He was a military commander, who rebelled against Nero and seized power. He remained emperor only seven months, Galba had snubbed his friend Otho when he named his successor, so Otho murdered Galba and the named successor, helped by the Praetorian Guard, who gave the office of emperor to Otho.

7) Otho (Jan 69 - Apr 69)

The military commander of south-west Spain. He remained emperor only four months, before the legions on the River Rhine, claiming their general Vitellius to be emperor, marched on Rome, defeating Otho's forces near Cremona. Otho committed suicide.

8) Vitellius (Apr 69 - Dec 69)

Vitellius was only emperor for eight months. Legions on the River Danube, who supported their general Vespasian, marched on Rome, and killed Vitellius.

9a) Domitian (emperor regent for 6 months)

Vespasian was conducting the siege of Jerusalem when he was declared emperor, after the death of Vitellius. Domitian and Titus were the sons of Vespasian. Domitian was only eighteen years old when his father was declared emperor. Titus was left in Jerusalem to finish the job, and Vespasian returned to Rome. On his journey back, he seized Egypt to consolidate his position. This took six months, during which time his other son, Domitian, acted as emperor. When Vespasian returned, Domitian stepped down, and Vespasian thanked him for not deposing him.

The Flavian Dynasty (Vespasian & two sons)

9b) Vespasian (69 - 79)

Vespasian began a new dynasty of the Flavians. He was a wise ruler, not interested in Caesar worship, and brought in a new era of peace, restoring the city and economy after the year of civil war. He built many roads and united the empire. There was no persecution of the Christians. Jerusalem fell at the beginning of his reign.

10) Titus (79 - 81)

Titus was the older son of Vespasian, and only ruled for two years. He was the general who conquered and destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. A triumphal arch was erected in Rome to celebrate this victory.

11) Domitian (81 - 96)

Domitian was the second son of Vespasian. He was full of suspicion and fear, and terrorised Rome with tyrannical rule for fifteen years, executing opponents. He claimed to be a god, calling himself "dominus et deus noster”, meaning “our lord and god". Domitian has the reputation of being a persecutor of the church, but it appears that persecution was more localised in the Province of Asia. He was finally killed by one of the members of his household. Following his assassination, the Roman Senate passed an edict commanding that every reference to the name of Domitian should be erased.

Five good emperors (Nerva to Marcus Aurelius)

12) Nerva (96 - 98)

Nerva was a respected lawyer and was chosen by the Roman Senate, rather than the army. He had been the consul (attorney-general) under Vespasian and Domitian. He began the era of the 'five good emperors'. Each chose a successor and trained him for the job of emperor, resulting in a long period of stability, during which the empire reached its greatest extent.

13) Trajan (98 - 117)

Trajan was a Spanish commander, who expanded the empire to its greatest geographical area and prosperity. He also expanded the system of local government.

14) Hadrian (117 - 138)

Hadrian was also a brilliant Spanish general, trained by Trajan. He drew back the boundaries of the empire from difficult areas, building the wall between England and Scotland.

The other two of the so-called five good emperors were Antoninus Pius (138 - 161), and Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180).

Persecutions of Christians

1) Nero (AD 65)

In AD 64, there was the great fire in Rome, for which the Christians were blamed as a scapegoat to take attention off Nero. He was suspected of starting the fire to clear the city so he could continue with grandiose plans for improvements and rebuilding. In January and February AD 65 there was a short brutal persecution of Christians. Many Christians were crucified, thrown to lions, wrapped in garments and burned to death. This persecution was limited to the city of Rome and Peter and Paul were martyred during this time. This persecution upset the Roman citizens, who supported the Christians.

2) Domitian (AD 95)

A short severe period of persecution, when at least 40,000 Christians were tortured and killed. This was a local persecution by Roman governors in Asia Minor, who demanded that all citizens showed their loyalty to the Roman Empire by worshipping the Emperor.

3) Trajan (AD 98)

Pliny, who was a governor in Bithynia and Pontus, wrote to Trajan for more definite instructions on how to deal with Christians. Trajan's reply was that Christians were not to be hunted out, but if they were accused of refusing to sacrifice to the gods and convicted, they must be punished. If they were willing to sacrifice to the gods, they should be pardoned. This local ruling protected the Christians against systematic persecution.

As a result of the refusal of the Christians to take place in emperor worship, they were seen as enemies of the community. They were often seen as scapegoats for all kinds of disasters, famine and disease. They were often targets for mob violence, rather than systematic persecution by the state.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.