The Roman empire during the time of Peter and Paul

In the days of the apostles Peter and Paul, mighty Rome ruled most of the known world.

And the Roman Emperor ruled the Roman empire which was the vast backdrop against which the events recorded in the New Testament were set.

In Rome, in the month of October, in the year 54AD the Emperor Claudius died suddenly at the age of 64 after eating a plate of mushrooms.

All of Rome was in no doubt he had been poisoned by his wife Agrippina.

Claudius had been pushed into marrying Agrippina in the year 48, even though she was his neice.

She was the great grand-daughter of Augustus, the emperor who had ordered the famous census that drew Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

Aggrippina was a dominating woman who had already got through two husbands.

Ambitious and unscrupulous she got rid of her enemies by poison or trumped up charges.

The rightful heir to the seat of Roman power was Caludius's son, a young man called Britannicus.

However, Aggrippina had other plans and had her son from a former marriage declared as Emperor.

His name was Nero.

She then had Nero made guardian of Britannicus, and arranged for Nero to marry Britannicus's sister Octavia.

Emperor Claudius has not been fortunate in his choice of wives.

His first wife Messalina was grossly unfaithful and eventually disgraced him by staging a form of public marriage to her lover, a politician called Silius.

He had them both executed.

Aggripina then started to foment jealousy between Nero and Britannicus, who as the rightful heir to power would always be a potential threat to her blue eyed boy Nero.

So in the year 55, at the age of only 18, Nero copied his mum's style of doing business and had Britannicus poisoned.

Aggripina married yet again. To man called Germanicus.

However she did not get the chance to live happily ever after with her new husband.

She survived a complicated attempt to drown her in a sabotaged boat, escaping with only a light shoulder injury, but a freedman called Anicetus was dispatched to her house where she was killed in a much less complicated manner.

It was her blue-eyed son Nero who had his mum murdered.

So to provide a quick summary of government affairs around the years 50-60AD I will summarise.

Claudius married Messalina but had her executed.

He then married Aggripina who had him poisoned.

She made her son Nero emperor over the rightful heir Britannicus.

Nero had Britannicus poisoned.

And then had his mother murdered.

This form of government was not a government that the people could vote in or out every four to five years as in the democratic west.

All too often the strongest tyrant could rise to the top and stay there until a stronger and more devious tyrant murdered his way to the throne.

During its more than 500-year run, about 20 percent of Rome's 82 emperors were assassinated while in power. These included Caligula, Galba, Vitellius, Domitian. Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Carcalla, Geta, Diadumenian, Elagablus, Maximus Thrax, Commodus (etc etc)

The excellent film 'Gladiator' directed by Ridley Scott gives a good feel for the ways of Roman rule back in the day.

Back to Nero.

Despite his bloody ascension to power, his first five years of rule met with senatorial approval.

Astutely advised by his childhood tutor, the famous philosopher Seneca and by Burrus, the Prefect of the Praetorians, the young emperor showed an enlightened public face, declaring allegiances to the popular principles of Emperor Augustus, reprieving many from death sentences, abolishing oppressive taxes, distributing money to the common people and giving extra grain to the Praetorian guards.

He was excessively vain, and loved nothing more than to stage great spectacles where thousands of young men were paid to applaud him.

However, beneath his carefully nurtured public persona he had a vicious pastime which revealed his true character.

Along with a few of his cronies he would often roam the streets at night in many disguises beating up, and sometimes murdering completely innocent people.

To help date these events in your mind it might be helpful to know that Saul had his remarkable conversion on the road to Damascus some 25 years earlier, and now in the year 59/60AD he was about to embark on his fourth and final epic journey - his deporation from Jerusalem to Rome, where the young 23 year old Nero was steadily eroding the powers of the senate (Roman parliament) and centralising all power around himself.

Eventually the situation was arrived at where the Senate would simply pass whatever law Nero wanted.

Christians were terribly persecuted throughout the empire.

Then on the 18th or 19th of July 64AD, under a full moon, a fire broke out in the Roman circus in the middle of Rome.

Fanned by the wind it quickly spread throughout the city, and for 6 days it burned fiercely, destroying 10 of the 14 city regions.

Nero was in Antium when the fire started and then returned to direct the fire fighting, organising shelter for the homeless and distributing food and cheap corn.

But rumours began to circulate.

Rumours that claimed that he had ordered the fire and watched it from the Tower of Maecenas, singing his own aria to the sack of Troy.

Whether this was true or not is difficult to tell, but after the fire had done it's terrible work Nero delighted in restyling the city into a grander and more pleasing state with a rectangular street system and taller buildings, and finally building a palace of unparalled grandeur called his 'Domus Aureus'

There he established a statue of himself some 120 feet high. (Over 36 metres)

However the rumours that he had burnt the capital city down would not go away, so he looked for someone else to get the blame.

And who better than the Christians.

Despite his continual persecution, especially in Jerusalem, these peculiar people known as the Christians were increasing at a remarkable rate not only through the Roman empire but also in the capitol itself.

Saul, who became known as Paul after his conversion, was one of the people most responsible for the spread of this new faith. He had been kept under house arrest, out of harm's way up until the previous year.

Then he was released and according to Romans 15:24 he went to Spain.

However, even under Roman guard in house arrest he had been active in strengthening and building up this new faith. He had written powerful letters to the young churches at Ephesus, Colosse and probably to Phillipi in 64AD (He was imprisoned at Rome and at Ephesus)

He wrote his letter to the church at Rome in 60AD.

Another apostle, the man called Peter, had journeyed to Rome and had also strengthened the church there.

The Bible does not mention this fact but according to church tradition, Peter and Paul taught together in Rome and founded Christianity in that city. Eusebius cites Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth as saying, "They taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time."

And according to Origen (184–253) and Eusebius, Peter "after having first founded the church at Antioch, went away to Rome preaching the Gospel, and he also, after [presiding over] the church in Antioch, presided over that of Rome until his death".

His first letter (1 Peter) was written to the five Roman provinces also around 60AD.

These strange people who would not worship the twelve Roman gods nor participate in the raucous annual feast of Saturnalia on December 25th would be perfect scapegoats for the fire.

So just as Hitler turned on the Jews Nero turned on the Christians and accused them of starting the fire and then proceeded to hunt them down as an act of 'lawful retribution'

He had them slain in their tens of thousands. Had their property taken away from them. Had them thrown into jail and tortured.

The historian Tacitus described what followed.

To be rid of this rumour, Nero fastened the guilt on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts they were torn by dogs and perished; or were nailed to crosses; or were doomed to the flames. Nero threw open his garden for the spectacle and exhibited a show in the circus. (The Christans. Bamber Gasgoine p26)

As you will have gathered, under Nero it was not a great time to be a Christian.