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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.