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24 Oct 51 CE
81 CE - 96 CE
Construction is finally completed on the Colosseum of Rome in the reign of Domitian.
14 Sep 81 CE - 18 Sep 96 CE
85 CE - 86 CE
Dacians invade Moesia and defeat the Romans.
Resolved to avenge Fuscus' defeat, Domitian sends another army to Dacia under Tettius Iulianus. This general is victorious on the mountainous pass of Tapae, in the south-west of modern Romania.
Domitian adds to Rome's Forum Romanum a statue of himself riding a horse.
18 Sep 96 CE
Christian History Timeline: Persecution in the Early Church
250 Emperor Decius orders universal sacrifice church leaders arrested Origen jailed and tortured Pope Fabian martyred, as are bishops of Antioch and Jerusalem Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, and Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, flee
251 Decius dies Cyprian returns to Carthage and deals with lapsed Christians Novationist schism
252–53 Emperor Callus revives persecutions of Decius
254 Origen, weakened from torture, dies
257–60 Emperor Valerian hounds clergy Cyprian, Pope Sixtus II, and others martyred
261 Emperor Gallienus issues rescript ordering toleration
270s Emperor Aurelian establishes state cult of the Unconquerable Sun (birthday, Dec. 25) and threatens persecution
275 Porphyry writes Against the Christians
298–302 Christians in army forced to resign
303 Great Persecution begins February 23. Four edicts call for church buildings to be destroyed, sacred writings burned, Christians to lose civil rights, clergy to be imprisoned and forced to sacrifice, and (in 304) all people to sacrifice on pain of death
305 Diocletian and Maximian abdicate hiatus in persecution
306 Constantine named Augustus by troops in the East, Maximinus II renews persecution (through 310) Council of Elvira, in Spain, passes severe penalties for apostates
311 On death bed, Galerius issues edict of toleration Maximinus II continues persecution in Egypt Donatist schism begins
312 Constantine defeats Maxentius to take control of Western Empire
313 Constantine and Licinius meet at Milan resulting “Edict” of Milan grants toleration of Christianity
324 Constantine defeats Licinius to become sole Roman emperor
Significant Social, Religious, and Political Events
18 Caiaphas becomes high priest
26 Pontius Pilate appointed prefect of Judea
30 Crucifixion of Jesus
39 Herod Antipas dies
43 Rome invades Britain London founded
46–58 Paul’s missionary journeys
48 Jerusalem Council
64 Great fire in Rome
66 Jewish War begins
70 Jerusalem taken by Romans
74 Masada captured
79 Mt. Vesuvius erupts, destroying Pompeii
95? John exiled to Patmos Book of Revelation written
101–102, 105–6 The Dacian Wars Empire reaches greatest extent
132 Second Jewish War led by bar Kokhba (through 135)
140–160 Heretic Marcion and Gnostic teacher Valentinus active
164 Fifteen-year plague breaks out
172 Montanism, an apocalyptic movement later condemned, begins in church
195 Theological writer Tertullian converts to Montanism
212 Roman citizenship extended to every freeborn person
216 Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, a non-Christian sect, born of
230 First Persian War (further wars in 243–44, 254)
232 First known house—churches built
248 Goths attack Rome
259 Shapur I of Persia captures Valerian in battle
268 Goths sack Athens, Corinth, and Sparta
270 Saint Antony, monastic pioneer, seeks solitude in Egyptian desert
285 Roman Empire divided into western and eastern empires
293–303 Emperor Diocletian creates administrative Tetrarchy reforms army, currency, and taxatation establishes price controls
311 Eusebius writes Ecclesiastical History
314 Constantine summons Council of Arles to deal with Donatist schism Lactantius writes On the Death of the Persecutors
318 Arian controversy begins
325 Constantine summons First Council of Nicea to deal with Arian question
328 Athanasius, defender of orthodoxy, elected bishop of Alexandria
330 Constantinople dedicated as Empire’s new seat
337 Constantine baptized shortly before death
Key Roman Emperors
31 B.C.–A.D. 14 Augustus
138–61 Antoninus Pius
161–80 Marcus Aurelius
193–211 Septimius Severus
222–35 Severus Alexander
235–38 Maximin Thrax
286–305, 307–308 Maximian
305–306 Constantius I
306–337 Constantine I “the Great”
310–313 Maximinus II Daia
Primary sources for timeline are The Rise of Christianity, by W. H. C. Frend (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) The Triumph of the Meek by Michael Walsh (London: Roxby, 1986) A History of Christianity, edited by Ray C. Petry (Englewood Cliffs,
By the Editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #27 in 1990]
3. His family grew from obscurity to the highest rank of Ancient Rome
The story of Domitian’s family is quite remarkable, as in just 4 generations, they worked themselves up from complete obscurity to actually ruling the Roman Empire.
Starting out as loyal supporters of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, which started the Roman Empire after the fall of the Republic, it culminated into his father Vespasian holding the rank of Consul in the year that Domitian as born, 51 A.D.
This was a pretty impressive achievement for a man whose nickname was the “mule-breeder,” don’t you think?
The Early Republic
The power of the monarch passed to two annually elected magistrates called consuls. They also served as commanders in chief of the army. The magistrates, though elected by the people, were drawn largely from the Senate, which was dominated by the patricians, or the descendants of the original senators from the time of Romulus. Politics in the early republic was marked by the long struggle between patricians and plebeians (the common people), who eventually attained some political power through years of concessions from patricians, including their own political bodies, the tribunes, which could initiate or veto legislation.
The Roman forum was more than just home to their Senate.
In 450 B.C., the first Roman law code was inscribed on 12 bronze tablets–known as the Twelve Tables𠄺nd publicly displayed in the Roman Forum. These laws included issues of legal procedure, civil rights and property rights and provided the basis for all future Roman civil law. By around 300 B.C., real political power in Rome was centered in the Senate, which at the time included only members of patrician and wealthy plebeian families.
Roman Timeline of Events - Table of Contents
Roman Empire Wall Map
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The Twelve Tables are the first attempt to make a law code, and remained the only attempt for nearly one thousand years.
Typically, Roman prisons were not used to punish criminals, but instead served only to hold people awaiting trial or execution.
The Tribune of the Plebes (tribunus plebis) was a magistracy established in 494 BC. It was created to provide the people with a direct representative magistrate.
A copy of the acts of the Deified Augustus by which he placed the whole world under the sovereignty of the Roman people.
This book reveals how an empire that stretched from Glasgow to Aswan in Egypt could be ruled from a single city and still survive more than a thousand years.
This second edition includes a new introduction that explores the consequences for government and the governing classes of the replacement of the Republic by the rule of emperors.
During the period, the government of the Roman empire met the most prolonged crisis of its history and survived. This text is an early attempt at an inclusive study of the origins and evolutions of this transformation in the ancient world.
Swords Against the Senate describes the first three decades of Rome's century-long civil war that transformed it from a republic to an imperial autocracy, from the Rome of citizen leaders to the Rome of decadent emperor thugs.
Rome's first emperor, Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, has probably had the most lasting effect on history of all rulers of the classical world. This book focuses on his rise to power and on the ways in which he then maintained authority throughout his reign.
Domitian Timeline - History
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Emperor Domitian, the self-proclaimed 'Lord and God' and ruthless dictator, reigned from AD 81 to 96. He was the son of Emperor Vespasian and the brother of Titus, the conquerors of Jerusalem in AD 70. Late in life, Domitian become very superstitious. In fact, on the day before he was murdered.
This article was first published in the Spring 1999 issue of Bible and Spade.
Emperor Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” and ruthless dictator, reigned from AD 81 to 96. He was the son of Emperor Vespasian and the brother of Titus, the conquerors of Jerusalem in AD 70. Late in life, Domitian become very superstitious. In fact, on the day before he was murdered, he consulted an astrologer. During this time he also consulted Apollo, the god of music and poetry, as well as light, truth and prophecy! Commemorating his superstition, the emperor minted coins depicting Apollo on one side and a raven, associated with prophecy, on the other (Jones 1989: 266).
The ancients believed a bird’s flight could foretell the future (Kanitz 1973–1974: 47) and Domitian looked to the raven to foretell his immediate future. Ironically, Suetonius, a Roman historian and senator, records, “A few months before he (Domitian) was killed, a raven perched on the Capitalium and cried, ‘All will be well,’ an omen which some interpreted as follows: . . . a raven . . . could not say, ‘It is well,’ only declared ‘It will be well’“ (Rolfe 1992: 385). Emperor Domitian died soon after and all was well!
The Apostle John, exiled to the island of Patmos about AD 95, received a more sure word of prophecy. Not from a raven or Apollo, but from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The Book of Revelation begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place” (Rv 1:1). He goes on to say, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it, for the time is near” (Rv 1:3).
Emperor Domitian minted coins with the head of Apollo, (right) and the raven (left). He consulted Apollo, Roman god of music, poetry, light, truth and prophecy, for knowledge of the future. Depicted as a handsome young man, Apollo was also identified with Helios, the Greek sun-god. Emperor Domitian consulted the raven because its flight pattern was believed to predict the future. Christians have a “more sure word of prophecy.”
The Book of Revelation is a polemic against Emperor Domitian and the Roman world. While Domitian looked to Apollo and the raven to foretell the immediate future, the omniscient Lord Jesus Christ, infinitely greater than Domitian, revealed the future of the world in this book. He instructed John to:
write the things which you have seen [the vision of the glorified Son of Man—Rv 1], and the things which are [the situation of the seven churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century AD—Rv 2–3], and the things which will take place after this [all the future events recorded in Rv 4–22] (1:9).
This article will examine several aspects of Domitian’s reign and John’s exile to Patmos.
In the 19th century, Bible scholars, linguists, pilgrims, travelers and military intelligence officers from America, England and the Continent began visiting the lands of the Bible. They described sites, recorded manners and customs, drew maps and sketched landscapes. This research began to open up the world of the Bible, making it no longer just a theological treatise, but a Book about real people, events and places. Another dimension these explorers provided students back home was intelligence information for European countries awaiting the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Remains of a gate built by Emperor Domitian at Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale) 6 mi north of Laodicea, Turkey. While he had his name inscribed on the gate when it was constructed, Domitian’s name was removed after his death, by edict of the Roman Senate.
At the turn of the 20th century, Sir William Ramsay explored, excavated and wrote about Asia Minor. Among his important works was Letters to the Seven Churches, about the world of Revelation 2–3. An important recent study on the setting of Revelation 2–3 is Colin Hemer’s Ph.D. dissertation under F.F. Bruce at the University of Manchester in 1969, entitled The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting.
I have tried to “follow in the footsteps” of these great explorers. First, by reading the accounts of their travels and, secondly, traveling to the places they visited, making my own observations and taking pictures. From this perspective, we will consider the historical setting of Revelation 1:9 and the Apostle John’s exile to Patmos. I begin with the assumption that Revelation was written in AD 95, during the reign of Emperor Domitian, not in the reign of Nero (Thomas 1994: 185–202).
A dedicatory inscription for the Sabastoi Temple in Ephesus. The name of Emperor Domitian had been chiseled out of the top four lines as a result of the damnatio memoriae issued by the Roman Senate.
The Self-Deified Emperor
Emperor Domitian had a definite ego problem! In Imperial Rome the senate would deify an emperor upon death (Kreitzer 1990: 210–17). However, like Gaius Caligula, and well attested by ancient writers, Domitian could not wait until death and deified himself.
Seutonius (AD 75-ca. 140), in his Lives of the Caesars, wrote: "With no less arrogance he began as follows in issuing a circular letter in the name of his procurators, ‘Our Master and our God bids that this be done’" [Dominus et deus noster hoe fieri iubet] (Rolfe 1992: 367).
He also delighted in the adulation of the people in the amphitheater when they shouted
“Good Fortune attends our Lord and Mistress” [Domino et dominae feliciter] (Rolfe 1992:367).
In Panegyricus (33.4), Pliny the Younger (ca. AD 61–113) wrote a tribute to Emperor Trajan:
He [Domitian] was a madman, blind to the true meaning of his position, who used the arena for collecting charges of high treason, who felt himself slighted and scorned if we failed to pay homage to his gladiators, taking any criticism of them to himself and seeing insults to his own godhead and divinity who deemed himself the equal of the gods yet raised his gladiators to his equal.
Dio Cassius, in his Roman History, wrote:
For he even insisted upon being regarded as a god [theos] and took vast pride in being called ‘master’ [despotus] and god [theos]. These titles were used not merely in speech but also in written documents” (Cary 1995: 349).
One Juventius Celsus . . . [conspired] . . . against Domitian . . . When he was on the point of being condemned, he begged that he might speak to the emperor in private, and thereupon did obeisance before him and after repeatedly calling him “master” [despoton] and “god” [theon] (terms that were already being applied to him by others) (Cary 1995: 349).
Later writers repeat the same claim and even embellish it (Jones 1992: 108). However, in Silvae 1.6:83–84, Statius claims Domitian rejected these titles. Other contemporary evidence seems to support the view that Domitian claimed deity. Unfortunately, no inscriptions with such titles on them have been discovered. Dio Cassius again adds an important detail, when he wrote:
After Domitian, the Romans appointed Nerva Coceius emperor. Because of the hatred felt for Domitian, his images, many of which were of silver and many of gold, were melted down: and from this source large amounts of money were obtained. The arches, too, of which a very great number were being erected to this one man, were torn down (Cary 1995: 361).
Upon his death, the Roman Senate was:
overjoyed . . . [assailed] the dead emperor with the most insulting and stinging kind of outcries . . . Finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated (Rolfe 1992: 385).
This decree, the damnatio memoriae, destroyed all the statues and inscriptions of Domitian, such as Domitian’s arch at Hierapolis and dedicatory inscriptions at the Temple of the Sabastoi in Ephesus (Friesen 1993a: 34).
A coin minted by Emperor Domitian in AD 84, depicting Jupiter, chief deity of the Roman pantheon. Also known by his Greek name Zeus, he is holding a thunderbolt (fulmen) in his right hand as a sign of his deity.
A marble portrait of Domitian with an oak-leaf crown, the so-called corona civica, found in Latina, Italy, and now in the National Roman Museum, was probably buried before the emperor died (Sapelli 1998: 24).
What could not be destroyed were coins minted by Domitian because it was impossible to recall all of them. They also provide evidence of Domitian’s boast of deity.
In an article entitled “The Jesus of the Apocalypse Wears the Emperor’s Clothes,” Dr. Ernest Janzen of the University of Toronto provided two lines of evidence from numismatics for Domitian’s claim to deity. First are coins minted in AD 83, called the DIVI CAESAR (“divine Caesar”) coins. Minted in gold and sliver, they had the bust of Domitia, the wife of Domitian, on the obverse with the inscription DIVI CAESAR MATRI and DIVI CAESARIS MATER, the mother of the divine Caesar! On the reverse was their infant son, born in the second consulship of Domitian in AD 73 and who died in the second year after he became emperor (AD 82) (Rolfe 1992: 345). He is depicted as naked and seated on a zoned globe with his arms outstretched surrounded by seven stars! The inscription surrounding it, DIVUS CAESARIMP DOMITIANIF, means “the divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian. “The infant is depicted as baby Jupiter, head of the Roman pantheon of gods, Janzen (1994: 645–647) said:
The globe represents world dominion and power, while stars typically bespoke the divine nature of those accompanied . . . the infant depicted on the globe was the son of (a) god and that the infant was conqueror of the world.
If he was the son of a god, then who was god? Of course, his father, Domitian! I cannot help but use my sanctified imagination and wonder if John did not have this coin in front of him when he penned “and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to His feet . . . He had in His right hand seven stars” (Rv 1:13, 16). He refers back to this vision in the letter to the church at Thyatira, when the Lord Jesus identifies Himself as the “Son of God” (Rv 2:18).
The second bit of numismatic evidence comes from the coins with the fulmen (“thunderbolt”), the divine attribute of Jupiter, on them, Janzen (1994:648, footnote 55) points out:
In 84 Domitian struck a reverse type Jupiter holding thunderbolt and spear. The first issue of 85 continued this type but the second issue witnessed the fulmen in Domitian’s hand. He and Jupiter would “share” the fulmen for the year 85–6 after which Jupiter remained as a regular type, only without fulmen. From 87–96 Domitian alone held the fulmen, persuasive evidence of a developing megalomania which place [sic] the fulmen in Domitian’s hand and are [sic] clearly patterned after the Jupiter with fulmen type.
One numismatic expert says this type “clearly suggests a parallel between himself and Jupiter tonaus (the thunderer) or the father of the gods” (Mattingly, cited in Janzen 1994: 648, footnote 55).
The dead and deified son of Emperor Domitian sitting on a globe (the earth) with his arms stretched out. Minted between AD 81–84, this is a rare coin because he is grasping for only six stars. Usually the coins have seven stars, like the seven stars in the right hand of the glorified Son of Man (Rv 1:16).
Martial, the first century Howard Stern of Rome, confirms this idea in his writings. One of his epigrams, written in AD 94, describing the Gens Flavia (Jones 1992: 1, 199, footnote 1) says:
This piece of ground, that lies open and is being covered with marble and gold, knew our Lord (domini) in infancy . . . Here stood the venerable house that gave the world what Rhodes and pious Crete gave the starry sky [Helios, the sun god, was born on Rhodes according to some traditions Zeus, the chief Greek god, was born on Crete] . . . But you the Father of the High One did protect, and for you, Caesar, thunderbolt (fulmen) and aegis took the place of spear and buckler (Bailey 1993b: 249).
Sometimes Martial even calls Domitian the “Thunderer” (Bailey 1993b: 157), a title that usually belongs to Jupiter (Zeus) (Bailey 1993b: 311)! Domitian put himself on the same level as Jupiter. Elsewhere in Martial’s writings he calls Domitian “lord” (Bailey 1993b: 75, 231, 249, 257, 261) and “lord and god” (Bailey 1993a: 361 1993b: 105, 161). Interestingly, after the death of Domitian, Martial repudiates these titles attributed to Domitian (Bailey 1993b: 391). Apparently, he reflected the sentiments of the day while Domitian was alive. Martial may not have believed it, but that is what Domitian wanted and that is what he got.
Another interesting sidelight, is the initials PM on some of Domitian’s coins. Standing for pontifex maximus, it represents the high priest as head of the Roman religion. Biblically, this title belongs to the Lord Jesus (Heb 4:14).
It appears that in AD 85/86 something triggered Domitian to openly claim deity. What it was, I do not know, but the response in Asia Minor was a temple dedicated to the Sabastoi (“emperors”).
A coin minted by Emperor Domitian between AD 92 and 94. The head of Domitian is depicted (left). The reverse (right) shows Domitian standing and holding a thunderbolt in his right hand. Symbol of deity, the thunderbolt (fulmen) is usually associated with Jupiter/Zeus. The Roman goddess Minerva (Athena of the Greeks) stands behind Domitian.
The Sabastoi Temple in Ephesus
In 1930, Austrian archaeologist Josef Keil began to excavate an artificial terrace near the southwest corner of the Upper Agora in Ephesus, Turkey. As excavations progressed, it became clear that this terrace, measuring 85.6 x 64.5 m. supported the foundation of a temple (Friesen 1993b: 66).
In one of the vaults the “head and left forearm of a colossal akrolithic [wooden statue with extremities made of stone] male statue” was discovered, which lead the excavator to identify it as the Temple of the Sabastoi (Friesen 1993b: 60).
The structure was an octastyle temple of the Ionic order, measuring 34 x 24 m at its base. “The cella had an interior measurement of about 7.5 x 13 m” (Friesen 1993b: 64). East of the temple stood an altar (Friesen 1993b: 67). The north side of the terrace had a three-story facade. The top level had engaged figures of various deities, supporting the terrace above. Originally the facade had 35–40 engaged figures of Eastern and Western gods and goddesses. Today, two figures, Attis and Isis, both Eastern deities, have been restored (Friesen 1993b: 70, 72).
In the last 125 years of research and excavations at Ephesus, 13 inscriptions dedicated to the provincial temple in Ephesus have been discovered. These rectangular marble blocks were placed by various cities of Asia Minor in recognition of Ephesus being the neokoros (“guardian” or “caretaker”) of this temple (Friesen 1993b: 29, 35). In these inscriptions the name Domitian is chiseled out, and in some cases Theos Vespasian is in its place (Friesen 1993b: 37). Removal of Domitian’s name came from the Roman Senate’s edict to erase any mention of Domitian.
Several questions should be asked regarding this temple. First, to whom was the Temple of the Sabastoi dedicated? It probably held a statue of Domitian, possibly his wife Domitia (Friesen 1993b: 35), and probably included the rest of the Flavians: Vespasian, his father, and Titus, his older brother.
The north side of the Sabastoi Temple in Ephesus. The two pillars on the left are the eastern deities Attis and Isis that supported the platform where the statue of Emperor Domitian stood. The structural design of this portion of the temple was symbolic of the gods and goddesses supporting the new deity, Emperor Domitian.
Second, when was the temple fully functional? Friesen (1993b: 44, 48), doing careful detective work with the inscriptions, suggests the date of September AD 90. Most likely it was begun after Domitian expressed the opinion that he was a god (AD 85/86).
Third, whose head did the colossal statue represent? When first discovered in 1930, the excavator identified it as Domitian. Georg Daltrop and Max Wegner later questioned this identification. On the basis of facial features from portraits, they suggest it depicted his older brother Titus. However, other art historians still think it belongs to Domitian (Friesen 1993b: 62). This akrolithic statue, made of a wooden body, now disintegrated, and stone extremities, stood about 25 ft tall (Friesen 1993b: 63, 1993a: 62). The left hand had a groove in it where a spear was placed. This description accords historically with Ephesian coins depicting the Temple of the Sabastoi with a statue in front holding a spear (Friesen 1993b: 63).
Remains of the statue of Emperor Domitian found in the Sabastoi Temple. Made of wood and marble, the statue stood about 25 ft high.
Fourth, where was the statue placed in the temple complex? Some have suggested it was outside in the courtyard. However, the torso was probably wooden and would deteriorate in the inclement weather. Friesen (1993a: 32) notes that the back of the head was not finished, thus “the statue could only have been displayed in front of a wall where visitors were not expected to go behind it.” The most logical place was inside the temple. Most likely, similar statues of the other Flavians were inside (Friesen 1993b: 62).
Fifth, what did the temple complex symbolize? Approaching the Temple of the Sabastoi from the Agora, with its northern facade and engaged deities supporting the temenos, was intentionally symbolic. Friesen (1993b: 75) remarks:
The message was clear: the gods and goddesses of the peoples supported the emperors, and, conversely, the cult of the emperors united the cultic system, and the peoples, of the empire. The emperors were not a threat to the worship of the diverse deities of the empire rather the emperors joined the ranks of the divine and played their own particular role in that realm.
Ephesus, with its harbor, was the major commercial center of Asia Minor. Pilgrims and traders mixed their commercial ventures with cultic worship of the emperors. I suggest that first century Ephesus was a prototype of the future religious and commercial center predicted in Revelation 17 and 18, called “Mystery Babylon” and controlled by the Antichrist. Interestingly, Farrar (1888: 355), in his monumental The Life and Work of St. Paul, says of Ephesus:
Its markets, glittering with the produce of world’s art, were the Vanity Fair of Asia. They furnished to the exile [of] Patmos the local colouring of those pages of the Apocalypse in which he speaks of “the merchandise of gold, silver” (Rv 18:12, 13).
Reconstructed plan of the altar and temple of the Sebastol (Greek for “Emperors”) in Ephesus. It was constructed sometime after AD 85/86, in response to Domitian’s claim of deity.
The first century church could relate to this.
In the midst of all this commercial and cultic activity, believers in the Lord Jesus Christ took a stand for Him (Rv 2:2–3). The Apostle John, one of their elders, refused to participate in emperor worship and preached against it. While on Patmos he received the revelation from the Lord Jesus, a polemic against emperor worship and Domitian in particular. Revelation 1:9 says that John was on Patmos “for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
The serious Bible student knows there are at least three different interpretations for that verse. First, the Lord sent John to the island specifically to receive the revelation. Second, John voluntarily went to the island to preach the gospel. Third, he was banished by the Roman government because of preaching the gospel (Thomas 1992: 88, 89). The third is most likely the primary interpretation, but the other two are correct as well! John was exiled because he preached the gospel and against emperor worship, but the Lord in His sovereignty used this opportunity to give him the book of Revelation and while he was there, he had opportunities to proclaim the gospel.
Conclusion of the Matter
I wonder if the Apostle John ever saw the statue of Domitian in the Temple of the Sabastoi? If he had, I am sure he refused to bow and worship it, or even burn incense on the altar before it. What a contrast between this lifeless stone statue of a mere mortal and John’s vision of the resurrected and living Savior:
One like the Son of Man, clothed in a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and His hair were white like wool, as white as the snow [Domitian was bald!], and His eyes like a flame of fire, His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters He had in His right hand seven stars [as opposed to a spear in Domitian’s left hand], out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength (Rv 1:13–16).
When John saw this One, he fell down as dead (Rv 1:17a). He worshipped Someone infinitely greater than the mortal and dead emperors. He worshipped the One who was the “First and the Last,” and the One “Who lives, and was dead and is alive forever more” (Rv 1:17b, 18).
Is it any wonder that John also recorded the statement of the four living creatures, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God (Kurios ho theos) Almighty. Who was and is and is to come” (Rv 4:8)? The contrast of the “Lord Gods” was obvious for any believer living in the first century. Domitian tried to legislate public and private morality, yet he himself was immoral: an adulterer, involved in incest, responsible for the murder of his niece Julia. She died from a botched abortion after Domitian impregnated her. Others were murdered at Domitian’s command, because he felt they were a threat to his rule. He was blasphemous. He abused animals. Sitting in his room he would catch flies and stab them with a “keenly sharpened stylus.”
On the other hand, the Lord Jesus Christ is “holy, holy, holy.” The One who could not sin, would not sin, and did not sin (Jas 1:13, 2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15). He was the spotless Lamb of God (1 Pt 1:19). Domitian called himself Dominus Dues Domitianus (D.D.D). Yet the Lord Jesus is the “Lord God Almighty,” El Shaddai!
Domitian was born October 24, AD 51, and murdered September 18, AD 96. He was cremated and his ashes, mingled with those of his niece Julia, were buried in the temple of Gens Flavia on the Quairinal Hill in the sixth Region, built over the house where he was born (Jones 1992: 1 Richardson 1992: 181). Yet, the Eternal Son of God is the One “Who was and is and is to come!” Domitian reigned only 15 years (September 13, AD 81-September 18, AD 96), but King Jesus will reign for a thousand years as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rv 19:16 20:4–6). Believers in the Lord Jesus during the first century would have been encouraged (and blessed) by reading the Book of Revelation.
1993a Martial’s Epigrams, Vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge MA: Harvard University.
1993b Martial’s Epigrams, Vol. 2. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge MA: Harvard University.
1995 Dio Cassius Roman History, Epitome of Book LXI-LXX. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge MA: Harvard University.
1993a Ephesus: Key to a Vision in Revelation. Biblical Archaeology Review 19.3: 24–37.
1993b Twice Neokoros, Ephesits, Asia and the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family. Leiden: E J Brill.
1986 The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting. Sheffield: JSOT.
1994 The Jesus of the Apocalypse Wears the Emperor’s Clothes, SBL 1994 Seminar Papers. Atlanta: Scholars.
1989 A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins. London: Seaby.
1973–1974 Domitian the Man Revealed by His Coins. Journal for the Study of Ancient Numismatics 5: 45–47.
1990 Apotheosis of the Roman Emperor. Biblical Archaeologist 53.4: 210–217.
1993 The Letters to the Seven Churches. Peabody MA: Hendrickson.
1992 Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Domitian. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge MA: Harvard University.
1998 Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme. Milan: Electa.
1992 Revelation 1–7. An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody.
Editorial note- All Scripture quotations in this article are from the New King James Version.
Persecution in the Early Church: A Gallery of the Persecuting Emperors
From A.D. 30 to A.D. 311, a period in which 54 emperors ruled the Empire, only about a dozen took the trouble to harass Christians. Furthermore, not until Decius (249–251) did any deliberately attempt an Empire-wide persecution. Until then, persecution came mainly at the instigation of local rulers, albeit with Rome’s approval. Nonetheless, a few emperors did have direct and, for Christians, unpleasant dealings with this faith. Here are the most significant of those rulers.
Perhaps the first to persecute Christians—inadvertently
Sickly, ill—mannered, and reclusive, Claudius devoted his early days to the quiet study of Etruscan and Carthaginian history, among other subjects. Understandably, he was an embarrassment to the activist imperial family. But the murder of his nephew, the emperor Gaius, in 41 propelled him to the throne nonetheless. During his reign, he wisely avoided potentially costly foreign wars, extended Roman citizenship at home, and showed tolerance toward a variety of religions.
However, “since the Jews were continually making disturbances at the instigations of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome. . . . ” So writes the Roman historian Suetonius about events in Rome around 52. “Chrestus” may have been a thorn in the side of Roman politicos anxious to be rid of him and his cohorts. Or “Chrestus” may be the way uninformed bureaucrats pronounced the name about which Jews argued: Christus. Such arguments between Jews and Christians were not unknown (e.g., in Ephesus Acts 19). Claudius likely and inadvertently was the first emperor, then, to persecute Christians (who were perceived as a Jewish sect)—for, it seems, disturbing the peace.
Savage madman in whose reign Peter and Paul were martyred
Nero, a man with light blue eyes, thick neck, protruding stomach, and spindly legs, was a crazed and cruel emperor, a pleasure-driven man who ruled the world by whim and fear. It just goes to show the difference an upbringing makes.
His mother, the plotting Agrippina, managed to convince her husband, Claudius, to adopt her son Nero and put him, ahead of Claudius’ own son, first in line for the throne. Maternal concern not satisfied, she then murdered Claudius, and Nero ruled the world at age 17.
The young Nero, having been tutored by the servile philosopher and pedophile Seneca, was actually repulsed by the death penalty. But he resourcefully turned this weakness into strength: he eventually had his mother stabbed to death for treason and his wife Octavia beheaded for adultery. (He then had Octavia’s head displayed for his mistress, Poppaea, whom years later he kicked to death when she was pregnant ) The Senate made thank offerings to the gods for this restoration of public morality.
Unfortunately, that is but the tip of the bloody and treacherous iceberg of Nero’s reign. Yet such activities overshadow the few constructive things he attempted, albeit without success: the abolition of indirect taxes (to help farmers), the building of a Corinthian canal, and the resettlement of people who had lost their homes in the Great Fire of Rome in 64.
Nero tried to pin the blame for that fire on the city’s small Christian community (regarded as a distinct, dissident group of Jews), and so, appropriately, he burned many of them alive. Peter and Paul were said to have been martyred as a result. But the rumors persisted that Nero had sung his own poem “The Sack of Troy” (he did not “fiddle”) while enjoying the bright spectacle he had ignited. That business about singing was not unreasonable, for Nero had for years made a fool of himself by publicly playing the lyre and singing before, literally, command performances.
Political turmoil finally forced the troubled emperor to commit suicide. His last words were, “What a showman the world is losing in me!”
Does Revelation depict him as a hideous beast?
The historian Pliny called Domitian the beast from hell who sat in its den, licking blood. In the Book of Revelation, John of the Apocalypse may have referred to Domitian when he described a beast from the abyss who blasphemes heaven and drinks the blood of the saints.
Domitian repelled invasions from Dacia (modern—day Rumania)—something later emperors would have increasing difficulty doing. He also was a master builder and adroit administrator, one of the best who ever governed the Empire. Suetonius, who hated Domitian, had to admit that “he took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and provincial governors that at no time were these more honest or just.”
But there was something wrong with Domitian. He enjoyed catching flies and stabbing them with a pen. He liked to watch gladiatorial fights between women and dwarfs. And during his reign he was so suspicious of plots against his life, the number of imperial spies and informers proliferated, as did the number of casualties among suspect Roman officials.
Domitian was the first emperor to have himself officially titled in Rome as “God the Lord.” He insisted that other people hail his greatness with acclamations like “Lord of the earth,” “Invincible,” “Glory,” “Holy,” and “Thou Alone.”
When he ordered people to give him divine honors, Jews, and no doubt Christians, balked. The resulting persecution of Jews is well-documented that of Christians is not. However, the beast that the author of Revelation describes, as well as the events in the book, are perhaps best interpreted as hidden allusions to the rule of Domitian. In addition, Flavius Clemens, consul in 95, and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, were executed and exiled, respectively, by Domitian’s orders many historians suspect this was because they were Christians.
But what goes around, comes around. An ex—slave of Clemens, Stephanus, was mobilized by some of Domitian’s enemies and murdered him.
Skilled ruler who established policies for treating Christians
So well did Trajan rule that senators and emperors of the later Empire wished that new emperors should be “more fortunate than Augustus, better than Trajan.”
Trajan began his rule intent on conquests that would excel those of his hero Julius Caesar. Although he did not succeed, his conquest of Dacia turned out to be the last major conquest of ancient Rome.
Between military campaigns, Trajan found time to be an effective, albeit conservative, civilian administrator, protecting the privileges of the senate. He is also known for the impressive public works he undertook, especially his Aqua Trajana, the last of the aqueducts to serve Rome Trajan’s Baths, which included soaring concrete arches, apses, and vaults and the complex and magnificent Forum of Trajan.
A series of letters with Bithynian governor Pliny display Trajan’s concern for the welfare of the provinces. Unfortunately for Christians, this concern was combined with suspicious preoccupation with state security and a tendency to interfere in internal affairs of ostensibly self-governing cities. In one letter he tells Pliny how to deal with Christians “They are not to be hunted out. [Although] any who are accused and convicted should be punished, with the proviso that if a man says he is not a Christian and makes it obvious by his actual conduct—namely, by worshiping our gods—then, however suspect he may have been with regard to the past, he should gain pardon from his repentance. ”
Even though relatively temperate, the great Trajan became the first emperor known to persecute Christians as fully distinct from the Jews. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was perhaps the best known to have suffered death during his reign.
Marcus Aurelius (161–180)
Great Stoic philosopher whose reign fueled anti-Christian hostilities
Marcus Aurelius actively pursued military campaigns nearly his entire reign. From 161 to 167, Rome battled the invading Parthians in Syria. To repel Germanic tribes who were marauding Italy and then retreating across the Danube, Marcus personally conducted a punitive expedition from 167–173. On an expedition to extend Rome’s northern borders, he suddenly died in 180 at his military headquarters.
This is not, of course, the Marcus Aurelius we’ve come to know and love. That Marcus ruminated eloquently in his philosophical Meditations. Having converted to Stoicism early in life, these personal reflections display lofty and bracing austerity: we must show patient long—suffering our existence on this earth is fleeting and transitory. Yet, there is also this humane strain in Marcus: all men and women share the divine spark, so they are brothers and sisters. “Men exist for each other,” he wrote. “Then either improve them, or put up with them.”
As for himself, he tried to improve them. It was during his reign that the Institutes of Gaius, an elementary handbook about which our modern knowledge of classical Roman law is based, was written. Also, numerous measures were taken to soften the harshness of the law against the weak and helpless.
Except those Christians. Officially, Marcus took the position of his predecessor Trajan, also followed by Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. But his philosophical mentors convinced him that Christianity was a dangerous revolutionary force, preaching gross immoralities.
So under Marcus, anti-Christian literature flourished for the first time, most notably Celsus’s The True Doctrine. More regrettably, Marcus allowed anti-Christian informers to proceed more easily than in the past, with the result that fierce persecutions broke out in various regions. In Lyons in 177, the local bishop was martyred, bringing Irenaeus to the office. In addition, Justin, the first Christian philosopher, was martyred during Marcus’s reign.
During the reign of the magnanimous, philosopher—king Marcus Aurelius, then, Christian blood flowed more profusely than ever before.
Septimius Severus (193–211)
Consummate soldier in whose reign Perpetua was killed
Severus was a soldier, first and last. He militarily dispensed with Pescennius Niger, rival emperor in the east, in 195, and then with Clodius Albinus in 197, rival emperor in the West. In 208 he set out for Britain to shore up its defenses, and on that trip succumbed to illness in 211. At death, he is said to have summoned his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, and said, “Keep on good terms with each other, be generous to the soldiers, and take no heed of anyone else.”
That generosity to soldiers was one of Severus’s trademarks. During his reign he raised their pay 67 percent and ennobled the military so that it became a promising path for many different careers. In addition, the deity most popular with soldiers, the sun-god Mithras, began to edge out the competition in the Roman pantheon.
During the first part of his reign, Severus was not unfriendly toward Christians. Some members of his household, in fact, professed the faith, and he entrusted the rearing of his son, Caracalla, to a Christian nurse.
However, in 202 Severus issued an edict that forbade further conversions to Judaism and Christianity. A persecution followed, especially in North Africa and Egypt. The North African theologian Tertullian penned his famous apologetic works during this period, but to no avail. Among others, the dramatic martyrdom of Perpetua and her servant Felicitas occurred under Severus. Clement of Alexandria also perished, as did the father of Origen. (Tradition holds that Origen, in his youthful ardor, wished to share his father’s fate, but his resourceful mother prevented his leaving the house by hiding his clothes. )
But the persecution ended at Severus’s death, and except for a brief bout under Maximinus (235–238), Christians were free from persecution for some 50 years.
Leader of the first Empire-wide persecution
For decades, Roman emperors had become increasingly concerned with the ragged edges of the Empire and the invading barbarian tribes that harassed them. Decius, from a village near the Danube, at the northern frontier of the Empire, recognized the military dimensions of the problem but perceived some spiritual ones as well.
He was concerned that traditional polytheism was weakening, and thought a resurrection of devotion to the deified Roman rulers of the past would help restore Roman strength. Naturally, monotheistic Christians stood in the way.
Although they still constituted a small minority, their efficient and self-contained organization, with no need of the state, irritated him. Consequently, Decius became the first emperor to initiate an Empire-wide persecution of Christians, apparently one with intensity. After executing Pope Fabian he is said to have remarked, “I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop of Rome.”
Although he did not actually order Christians to give up their faith, he did expect them to perform one pagan religious observance. When undertaken, Christians would receive a Certificate of Sacrifice (libellus) from the local Sacrificial Commission and so be cleared of suspicion of undermining the religious unity of the Empire.
As expected, many Christians succumbed to this pressure others paid bribes to receive the certificate. But many refused to compromise and died as a result. Origen was arrested and tortured during this time. Though released, he died within a few years.
Decius, a not—incompetent general, died in Scythia Minor (in modern—day Bulgaria and Rumania) while engaging in battle, the other tactic he thought necessary to shore up the troubled Empire.
He blamed Christians for the Empire’s woes
Valerian seems to have been honest and well intentioned, but he inherited an empire nearly out of control. Plague and civil strife raged within the provinces. At the eastern borders, Germanic tribesmen invaded with greater efficiency and more numbers. Meanwhile, attacks from the north were underway. Valerian, recognizing that one emperor could not simultaneously defend north and east, extended in 256–257 the principle of collegiate rule to his son and colleague Gallienus, who was already fully occupied to the north.
To divert attention from the troubles that beset the Empire, Valerian blamed the Christians. In August 257 he intensified Decius’s policies by ordering clergy to sacrifice to the gods of the state (although, with usual Roman pragmatism, they were not prohibited from worshiping Jesus Christ in private.) A year later clergy became liable to capital punishment. Pope Sixtus II and St. Lawrence were subsequently burned to death in Rome, and Cyprian was executed at Carthage. In addition, the property of Christian laity, especially that of senators and equites (a class immediately below senators) was confiscated, and Christian tenants of imperial estates were condemned to the mines.
In 259, the Persians, under Shapur I, launched a second series of attacks in Mesopotamia. (In the first, 254–256, they had captured and plundered 37 cities.) Valerian took an army into Mesopotamia to drive Shapur back from the beseiged city of Edessa. However, in May 260, Valerian was taken prisoner. In Michael Grant’s words, “The capture of a Roman emperor by a foreign foe was an unparalleled catastrophe, the nadir of Roman disgrace.”
Fortunately, soon after Valerian’s capture, in an attempt to win the favor of eastern Christians against the Persians, Gallienus lifted the edicts against Christians.
Gifted organizer who led the Great Persecution to extinguish Christiantiy
Diocletian was the most remarkable imperial organizer since Augustus, and that talent, unfortunately, was not lost on Christians.
He is most famous for his reconstruction of the Empire into a Tetrarchy. The Empire was divided between four men, two Augusti and, under them, two Caesars. However, the multiplying of ruling authorizes did not ease the transition of rulers, as Diocletian had hoped, but only made for more strife.
Diocletian also presided over a complete reconstruction of the Empire’s military system, which included the garnering of enormous taxes to pay for its half—million soldiers, a huge increase from the previous century. He tried to insure that tax burdens were equitably distributed, but for all its fairness, the new system tended to freeze people in their professions and social positions, and led, on paper, to a thoroughgoing totalitarian state (in practice, however, there was no way to fully implement the new rules).
Diocletian’s gift for mass organization, unfortunately, extended to things religious and patriotic. In 303, encouraged by his Caesar Galerius, and attempting to rouse patriotic feeling, Diocletian returned to hounding Christians, even though his wife, Prisca, belonged to the faith.
It was the first time in almost 50 years that an emperor had taken the trouble. Yet, as never before, the motive of this Great Persecution was the total extinction of Christianity. It was, it seems, the final struggle between the old and new orders, and therefore the fiercest.
The first of Diocletion’s edicts prohibited all Christian worship and commanded that churches and Christian books be destroyed. Two further edicts, required in the eastern provinces, ordered clergy to be arrested unless they sacrificed to pagan deities. By 304 this edict was extended to all Christians and was particularly vicious in Africa, under Diocletian co-Augustus Maximian.
After a serious illness in 304, Diocletian took the unprecedented step of abdicating the throne. Although called back for a brief period, he retired to farming in Salonae in Dalmatia (in modern-day Yugoslavia). The persecutions continued under Galerius, now promoted to Augustus. But falling seriously ill in 311, Galerius and his fellow emperors issued an edict canceling the persecution of Christians. The following year, Constantine emerged triumphant in the West after the battle at the Milvian Bridge. In 313 he and Licinius, soon to control the Eastern Empire, issued the Edict of Milan, which decreed full legal toleration of Christianity.
For all intents and purposes, no Roman emperor harassed Christians again. CH
By Mark Galli
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #27 in 1990]
Final Thoughts About My Visit to Palatine Hill
The Palace of Domitian was my favourite building on Palatine Hill because of the sheer size of its ruins. Even in partial disrepair, the palace looked so elegant and commanding.
While it was fantastic to get an up close look at Domitian’s Palace, it was the view from Circo Massimo below that really emphasized how large this structure actually was.
Even though I enjoyed my self guided-tour of Palatine Hill, I had to rely on the brief descriptions in my guidebook to make sense of the ruins. Maybe next time I would take a tour so that I could get more in-depth information about Palatine Hill.
Casa di Livia, a house owned by the wife of Augustus.
Elagabalus (Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) (204–222 CE)
Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme
Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, served as a Roman emperor from 218 to 222, a time that significantly impacted his placement on the list of worst emperors. A member of the Severan dynasty, Elagabalus was the second son of Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus, and of Syrian background.
Ancient historians put Elagabalus on the worst emperors along Caligula, Nero, and Vitellius (who didn't make this list). Elagabalus's besetting sin was not as murderous as the others, but rather simply acting in a manner ill-befitting an emperor. Elagabalus instead behaved as a high priest of an exotic and alien god.
Writers including Herodian and Dio Cassius accused him of feminity, bisexuality, and transvestism. Some report that he worked as a prostitute, set up a brothel in the palace, and may have sought to become the first transsexual, stopping just short of self-castration in his pursuit of alien religions. In his short life, he married and divorced five women, one of whom was the vestal virgin Julia Aquilia Severa, whom he raped, a sin for which the virgin was to have been buried alive, although she seems to have survived. His most stable relationship was with his chariot driver, and some sources suggest Elagabalus married a male athlete from Smyrna. He imprisoned, exiled, or executed those who criticized him.
Elagabalus was assassinated in 222 CE.
11 Roman Rulers Who Tried to Destroy Christianity (and Failed)
Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar suggested, not without historical proof, that the early Christians were considered dangerous to the Roman Empire — which was on its last legs without even realizing it — and thus they were persecuted since “right from the beginning Christianity was seen as a total, highly dangerous revolution.” Part of this comes from the fact that the Roman hierarchy considered its Greek-imported polytheistic panoply of gods as necessary to maintaining public order.
However, as we all know, it didn’t take long for the leaders of Rome to go from looking askance at these new Jewish “converts” to Christianity to murdering them wholesale.
Why this swing to the extreme?
Well, for one thing it’s always good for a single-party demagogue to have a scapegoat when things go wrong, and traditionally the Jewish people have had that role thrust on them. For another: if the rulers are also murderers, it makes elimination of their enemies much easier on their non-existent conscience.
But who were these lunatic leaders? Here are 11 of the worst:
The first, worst and best-known of the psychopathic Caesars, it didn’t hurt his successors that he’d committed such atrocities, as it made them easier to re-institute, or simply to continue with the carnage. His story and legend is so well-known that there’s no need to repeat it here, save that he began a blanket persecution of Christians. However, as Socialists like to find nice things to say about mass-murdering maniacs like Stalin (e.g., that he “industrialized the Soviet Union”), it has been attributed to Trajan that “Nero’s rule excelled all other emperors.” While it is true that Nero’s reign began well enough and he did get a lot of building done, he also commenced the full-blown slaughters of believers in Christ, and carried out atrocities that even our jaded post-modern sensibilities cringe at.
2. Vespasian (69-79)
Another emperor whose legacy included not only the persecution of Christians but the demolition of the beloved Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70. His decade-long rule saw Rome plant boots (or at least footprints) in both Bavaria and Britain. Vespasian was unique in that he’d been a senator and a soldier, so perhaps it’s no surprise he was Machiavellian before there was a term for it. He saw the formation of his dynasty, whose main legacy was the lunatic Domitian.
3. Domitian (81-96).
Almost every major writer of the time from Pliny to Suetonius claims that Domitian, who wound up ruling longer than almost any other Roman ruler in that period, was a tyrant. St. John the Apostle and Evangelist would agree, as he was immersed in a tub of boiling oil in AD 95 at the explicit command of this emperor. However, as we are told by Butler’s, the oil acted only as a refreshing bath, and Domitian had St. John, the Beloved Disciple, exiled to the isle of Patmos by Domitian, where he wrote the Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse) under inspiration.
According to the ancient writer Pliny, Trajan was at best a monarch, at least an autocrat, and at worst a tyrant. Even-handed in dealing with the Roman Senate during his lifetime — no small feat, as the emperors had at best a “stressed” relationship with that once-august body — the senators officially deified him upon his death, hence the famous “Trajan’s Column” in Rome, which stands to this day. For all of the publicity as being one of “Good Caesars,” he continued the persecution of the Christians unabated, and for good measure, expanded the Roman Empire more than any other ruler since Caesar Augustus by military conquest. He was also a fan of the bloody displays of horror of the gladiatorial games.
Like Trajan, he was of Spanish descent (and perhaps Trajan’s cousin) and famous for his wall in northern Britain. Hadrian kept Trajan’s policy on Christians in place — there was no active house-to-house hunting out of them, but those who flouted the norms of the Roman polytheistic belief-system were persecuted. A poet-warrior, he took the fight to Britain (hence the wall), Africa, and ordered another brutal bulldozing of the Palestinian Jews.
6. Marcus Aurelius (161-180)
Made famous in his time for being the Stoic philosopher-warrior and in our time by Richard Harris’ portrayal of him in the 2000 movie Gladiator, unquestionably Christian persecution increased during his reign, though some historians are quick to point out that this can’t be directly traced back to the emperor himself. “It’s good to remember that Christian persecution during this era was not quite as centralized as we think it to be: it was sporadic, and based more on various states and provinces rather than within Rome itself,” notes one professor of history. Regardless, Marcus Aurelius, for all his many military conquests, philosophical brilliance and centralization of Rome did nothing to prevent the persecution of Christians and perhaps much to foster it.
7. Maximinus the Thracian (235-238)
With Maximinus Thrace, we are on surer grounds of Christian killings on the part of the centralized Roman state, particularly in the person of the emperor. An authority no other than Eusebius states in his watershed history of the early Church that in the persecution of 235 Maximinus sent Sts. Hippolytus and Pope St. Pontian into exile, where they were reconciled and died on the Isle of Sardinia.
One of two of the later Roman emperors (the other was Diocletian) who put their boots on the throat of Christian believers. In 250 Decius decided that all Christians had to pay homage to the Roman gods or be killed and he was as good as his evil words. This carnage became known as “The Decian Persecution” as it came directly from the Emperor himself. This persecution took the life of no less a personage than Pope St. Fabian. The persecution went so far as to prohibit Christian worship in the empire — period. Mercifully, Decius died one year after his edict had been in effect.
Valerian was a man whose reign (and reign of terror) got out of hand. Like Decius before him, he continued the killing of Christians, including such great saints as Lawrence the Deacon, Denis of Paris, Cyprian and Pope Sixtus II. However, he was continuously at war with the Persians, who wound up capturing the emperor who died in their captivity — which sent shockwaves throughout the empire, and was a harbinger that the Empire itself was beginning to show signs of dry-rot.
Even worse than Decius, Diocletian brought about the “Great Persecution” which took the killing of Christians to all areas of the far-flung Roman empire. In one refreshing change of pace, Diocletian, who created so many early-martyr/saints by his sheer blood-lust, actually retired from office toward the end of his life. However, the damage was done and his pogrom against Christians was one of the all-time worst.
11. Constantius and Galerius (early 4th century)
These count as one selection, as the former ruled in the West and the latter in the East. Both continued a reign of terror which included, at the very least, the destruction of Christian churches, as well as the destruction of Christians themselves. However, Christian history has been kinder to Constantius since (a) he was “married” to St. Helena, who found the True Cross in the Holy Land, and (b) was the father of Constantine the Great (272-337), whose Edict of Milan in 313 established “tolerance” of Christianity — and, according to legend, he was baptized by St. Eusebius of Nicomedia. His father, however, was not, as some have maintained, a “closet-Christian” — and, worse, Galerius made up for Constantius’ diffidence on Christianity with all-out full-bore persecutions.
It’s worth noting that this list is incomplete on a number of levels. For one, the transition from one emperor to another was almost never a smooth transition of power in pre-Christian Rome. For another, there were often several competing combatants for the throne, sometimes lasting years at a time. Finally, there was the “tetrarchy,” where there were four rulers simultaneously.
But these are the men who, for good or ill, ruled the Roman empire while it tried its best to put-down the “heresy” of Christianity. We can all be glad that ultimately, by God’s grace, they failed, and Christianity went from being a persecuted sect to the state religion by the end of the 4th century.
Kevin Di Camillo Kevin Di Camillo is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.