The Roman Empire at the time of Jesus and the early church was a powerful and dominant political, economic and cultural force. When reading the “doings” of the social elite during this era I’m left with a feeling of déjà vu when compared with society today.
The Roman dynasties from the time of Jesus to Paul’s letter and his time in Rome are shown below,
Roman imperial dynasties
Augustus 27 BC – 14 AD
Tiberius 14 AD – 37 AD
Caligula 37 AD – 41 AD
Claudius 41 AD – 54 AD
Nero 54 AD – 68 AD
Nero ruled at the time of Paul’s letter to the Romans and his time in Rome. For some useful more detailed insight into this period follow the link.
Nero succeeded Claudius when he became Emperor in 54 AD at the age of 16; three years before Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. Born in 37 AD, Nero committed suicide in 68 AD at the age of 30, when isolated and on the verge of being assassinated after a military coup, supported by his Senate.
Understanding a little of Nero helps understand what Rome was like at the time and helps to compare with the times of today.
Nero’s father seemingly was an unsavoury fellow, having been accused by the Emperor Tibertus of treason, adultery and incest. He was also reportedly a murderer. He escaped punishment due to the death of Tiberius but died when Nero was three. His mother was Agrippina the younger, a great-granddaughter of Caesar Augustus.
There was much political intrigue leading up to Nero becoming Emperor. When Caligula became Emperor he banished Nero’s mother and neutralised any chance Nero would have at the throne. However he and his wife and infant daughter were murdered in 41, enabling Claudius, Nero’s uncle to come to the throne. He allowed Nero’s mother to return from exile. Claudius killed his own wife in 48 and married Nero’s mother, adopting Nero in 50. Being older than his stepbrother he became emperor. He married his stepsister Claudia Octavia in 53. There is speculation that Nero’s mother poisoned Claudius and she had a strong influence over his early reign.
His life; as was the case with many then and seemingly is the life of many dictator rulers even of the modern day, was on the one hand characterised by scandal, intrigue, power play and immorality, ruthlessness in dealing with opponents, both real and imagined, and an obsession with popularity. Yet he also concentrated on diplomacy, trade, the development of culture and sport (building theatres and promoted athletic games). He also was also in many ways sympathetic to the poor.
Nero was adopted by his great uncle Claudius and succeeded Claudius on his death. His had three different names, Lucius at birth, Nero Claudius from 50 AD (presumably on his adoption by Claudius) and his as Emperor was Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
On the diplomatic and military front he went to war with and negotiated peace with the Parthan Empire (58-63), he successfully suppressed a British revolt (60-61). The first Roman-Jewish war started during his reign in 60 AD.
He was ruthless enough to have executed his own mother (59 AD) and reportedly killed his younger stepbrother, Britannicus in 55 AD, who his mother was trying to engineer to replace him as Emperor because of her loss of control over Nero. Britannicus, the true son of Claudius died on the night before was to be proclaimed an adult and eligible to become Emporer. He was also known to have many of his opponents killed as well.
Nero also had affairs and was reputed to frequent brothels. One such liaison was with Poppaea Sabina the wife of a friend. He eventually married her in 62 when she fell pregnant and after divorcing Octavia on the grounds of infertility and later executed her.
Nero was the one who started the persecution of Christians through very brutal means. This was initiated as a means of distracting the attentions of the Rome populace on the cause of the fire of Rome in 64 AD, as rumours were spreading that it was initiated by Nero to make way for a new palace. Blaming the initiation on Christians gave the people an easy target. The persecutions were particularly brutal – old animal skin would be sewed around a Christian and starved dogs set on them; whole families would be herded into the Coloseum and set on by lions, others were burned by first being covered with tar and crucified.
Some accounts give Nero as the Emperor at the time of the killing of both Peter (upside-down crucifixion) and Paul (beheaded) in Rome. There are differing accounts as to whether Nero actually gave the orders for the deaths, some holding him to account, whilst others say not as he reportedly was moved not to kill any more Christians. What is fact is Nero created the environment of persecution that led to their deaths. 4th Century theologians believed Nero to be the Anti-Christ.
In pursuit of popularity or maybe some genuine concern for poorer people he simplified taxation, reducing powers of tax collectors, banished corrupt officials and reduced taxes from 4.5% to 3.5%. To reduce food prices he also declared merchant ships importing food as tax exempt. Yet he allowed the introduction of a law that previous slave owners could revoke freedom for misbehaviour. After the fire of Rome he enacted a public relief effort and reconstruction. He reportedly got personally involved in the relief effort.
The economy at the time was characterised by deflation and his construction efforts were akin to a public works programme, although they were a bit too extravagant at times with the canal of Corinth Project having to be abandoned.
The Great Fire started on 18th July 64 in shops selling inflammable goods, burning for 5 days and completely destroying 3 of the 14 Roman districts and damaged 7. Urban legend has it that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”, in truth Nero was reported by one historian not to be in Rome at the time and him playing the lyre and singing was a rumour. When he heard of the fire he returned to Rome and organised a relief effort, paying the costs out of his own funds, personally taking part in the search and rescue of survivors. He also opened his palaces to provide shelter to victims.