Over the last couple of days, I read The Twelve Caeasars (cf. Wikipedia) by Suetonius. I marked up my print copy while listening to a 13-hour audio book. It is a gossipy chronicle with a fascinating perspective on the lives of the first twelve Roman Caesars that significantly intersects with Second Temple Judaism and the birth and spread of Christianity:
- Julius Caesar (49-44 BC)
- Augustus (31 BC-AD 14): He was the emperor who issued the census when Jesus was born.
- Tiberius (AD 14-37): He was the emperor during Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.
- Gaius Caligula (37-41)
- Cladius (41-54): He expelled the Jews from Rome, leading Aquila and Priscilla to move to Corinth (Acts 18:2).
- Nero (54-68): His rule breaks down into two parts: sane (54-62) and insane (62-68). Paul probably wrote his famous letter to the Christians at Rome in about 57 (including the exhortation in Romans 13:1-7 to submit to governing authorities). Nero apparently is responsible for the great fire of Rome in 64, which he then blamed on the Christians.
- Galba (six months in 68-69)
- Otho (four months in 69)
- Vitellius (69)
- Vespasian (69-79): He was laying siege to Jerusalem when he heard that Nero passed away, so he returned to Rome and left his son Titus to complete the conquest.
- Titus (79-81): He sacked Jerusalem in 70.
- Domitian (81-96): The book of Revelation likely responds to his severe persecution of Christians.
- 1-6 = the Julio-Claudian dynasty
- 7-9 = three minor emperors struggling for control during civil war
- 10-12 = the Flavian dynasty
I won’t list all the places I noted interesting insights relevant for NT studies. Instead, here are four broader reflections:
Christians in the Roman Empire were under the authority of corrupt, immoral despots.
- Many of the Roman Caesars illustrate the saying “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Gaius Caligula, Nero, and Domitian in particular became inhumane monsters.
- Many of the Roman Caesars were outrageously immoral with reference to sex (e.g., unconstrained fornication, adultery, homosexuality, incest, and worse), money (e.g., bribery, unjust taxation, false accusations to steal a rich person’s estate), and power (e.g., cruelty, extravagance, flattery, lies, massacres, assassinating even one’s family members, exposing newborn babies). Such behavior for the most part was culturally acceptable for them.
- Many of the Roman Caesars were hypocrites. For example, Domitian’s immorality flatly contradicted the harshness with which he punished “unchastity.” In one instance, he ordered a guilty Vestal Virgin “to be buried alive, and had her lovers clubbed to death in the Comitium” (Domitian 8).
It is easy for modern Americans, for example, to overlook this when applying the NT’s teaching on the relationship between Christians and government. Christians, in my view, are right to be repulsed by the moral implications of an Obama presidency with reference to abortion, but it is also worth reflecting that their government could be far worse.
2. Manhood and Womanhood
Augustus instituted some stricter laws that encouraged marriage and large families (Augustus 34):
When he then discovered that bachelors were getting betrothed to little girls, which meant postponing the responsibilities of fatherhood, and that married men were frequently changing their wives, he dealt with these evasions of the law by shortening the permissible period between betrothal and marriage and by limiting the number of lawful divorces.
A perennial temptation for young bachelors is to selfishly postpone the family responsibilities that come with marriage.
In stark contrast to Christianity, the Caesars generally had a very low view of women, who had significantly less freedom and respect than men. Women, in turn, craftily used their feminine charm and sexuality in political power plays.
The most powerful men in the world could not find ultimate satisfaction in anything. Some of the Caesars lived in constant fear of assassination. Others were constantly promoting themselves and blowing out the candles of everyone else so that their own candle would look brighter. For example, “Any good-looking man with a fine head of hair whom Gaius [Caligula, who was himself balding] ran across had the back of his scalp brutally shaved. . . . In short, however low anyone’s fortune or condition might be, Gaius always found some cause for envy” (Caligula 35).
4. Common Grace
The non-Christian (and some anti-Christian) Caesars nevertheless displayed some remarkable wisdom. For example, after some governors recommended a provincial tax increase, Tiberius replied, “A good shepherd shears his flock; he does not flay them” (Tiberius 32).