Rome, Rulers and Respect: The Historical Context of Romans 13

First and second century Roman historians provide a window through which to see the context of the Roman Christians in the time surrounding Paul’s letter to them. These historians’ accounts of the life and times in Rome are second-hand. When Paul wrote Romans, historians Suetonius and Dio Cassius had not yet been born, and Tacitus was two or three years old. Of these three, Tacitus, who was a close friend of Pliny the Younger, lived closest to the time of the events surrounding the book of Romans, and his accounting of that time period is the most detailed. Tacitus wrote, “I do but relate what I have heard and what our fathers have recorded.” The works of Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars) and Dio (Roman History) both corroborate and complement that of Tacitus (The Annals).

While it is difficult to pinpoint the beginning of Christianity in Rome, it is known that “visitors from Rome” were at Pentecost (Acts 2:10), Romans were converted to Christianity before Paul’s conversion (Rom. 16:7), Christians (namely, Aquila and Priscilla) lived in Rome during the reign of Claudius (Acts 18:2), and reports of the faith of Christians in Rome had already spread “in all the world” by the time Paul wrote to them (Rom. 1:8). These factors make the presence of Christianity in Rome likely from the mid to late 30s on into the reign of Claudius. The year AD 47 was about ten years before Paul wrote Romans and ten-plus years after his conversion. It is the year in which the following narrative begins.

The reign of Claudius and the rise of Nero

When Claudius was in the seventh year of his reign over the Roman Empire, his wife, Messalina, was at the height of her power. Many murders were committed at her bidding, and she forced others to commit suicide—sometimes only to quell her jealousy. As Messalina’s hate increased against Claudius’ niece, Agrippina, she was overcome with desire for another man and began an adulterous relationship with him. About a year later, when Claudius was away at the harbor city of Ostia, Messalina married the man with whom she was having an affair.

Claudius was told by one of his freedmen, “The people, the army, the Senate saw the marriage…. Act at once, or the new husband is master of Rome” (The Annals, Tacitus). When Claudius returned home, those perceived to have aided and abetted Messalina’s marriage were executed. Before the evening ended, Messalina, too, was killed. A new wife was soon sought for Claudius. He preferred his niece, Agrippina, the daughter of his brother, Germanicus.

Agrippina desired to marry her Uncle Claudius, and she wanted her son, Lucius Domitius, to marry Claudius’ daughter, Octavia. There were two problems with these plans: 1) the marriage of an uncle to his niece was unprecedented and looked upon as incestuous and 2) Octavia was already betrothed to someone else.

Agrippina enlisted the help of Vitellius. With a false accusation, he convinced Claudius to break his daughter’s current engagement and betroth her to Lucius Domitius. And, through a persuasive speech, he compelled the Senate and the people to bless and approve of Claudius’ marriage to his niece, Agrippina.

In AD 48 Claudius and Agrippina married. As Claudius’ former wife had done, his current one eliminated those who offended her. Agrippina’s son, Lucius Domitius, was now the stepson of Claudius and would soon become his son-in-law. But Agrippina wanted even more for her son. She wanted him to be adopted by Claudius as well, thus placing him at equal rank with Claudius’ biological son, Britannicus. Claudius complied with the wish of his new wife and adopted Lucius Domitius, giving him the name Nero.

It soon became evident that Claudius favored Nero over Britannicus. When the royal procession entered the games, Nero was clothed in a manly royal robe, while Britannicus, two years his senior, wore clothing relegated to boys. It was around this time that Claudius temporarily expelled Jews from Rome since they “constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius, in possible reference to Christus, or Christ).

In AD 53 Nero and Claudius’ daughter, Octavia, married. Agrippina continued to exterminate people either out of jealousy or fear that they hindered her power. Her rage soon turned against Claudius, and she plotted his death after hearing him say “it was his destiny to have to endure his wives’ infamy and at last punish it” (The Annals, Tacitus). During this time, Claudius began showing favor to Britannicus, which only enraged Agrippina even more. In the midst of this turmoil in the palace, Claudius became sick. Agrippina saw this as her opportunity to poison him and move Nero into the position of emperor. Agrippina succeeded.

When Claudius died, Agrippina had his body wrapped in warm blankets to feign that he was still alive. Prayers by the consuls and priests were offered for the emperor’s recovery, Agrippina kept people from leaving and entering the palace, and she announced to the empire that Claudius’ health was improving. Soon after, Nero emerged from the locked-up palace on a litter amid joyful shouts. Some looked around and asked where Britannicus was, but upon seeing and hearing no resistance, Nero “was unanimously greeted as emperor” in AD 54 (The Annals, Tacitus).

The reign of Nero

Agrippina held sway over her son, Emperor Nero, until he began an affair with a former slave. Nero had never loved his wife Octavia, so Octavia was not a threat to Agrippina. However, Agrippina was outraged at having to compete with a lowly freedwoman for the affections of her son. When Nero responded by distancing himself from his mother, Agrippina lavished him with much of her wealth. After reconciling with Nero, Agrippina convinced him that Britannicus was a threat to the throne. In AD 55 Nero secretly ordered that Britannicus be poisoned. As the poison choked out Britannicus’ life during a dinner with other nobles and their families, Nero calmly told those in attendance that Britannicus was simply having an epileptic seizure and would soon recover.

After Britannicus died, Agrippina continued to scheme for power for herself, while Nero fully exerted his own. He was known to disguise himself and wander the night streets of Rome with friends visiting brothels and taverns, stealing from merchants, and physically attacking citizens. Around this time Nero became infatuated with a married woman and was also known to have homosexual relationships.

In AD 58 the Senate made a decree that if a master was murdered by even just one of his slaves all his slaves would be executed. After citizens lodged complaints about the greed of tax collectors, Nero considered alleviating some of the indirect taxes. Yet, the Senate persuaded him not to by claiming it would bring ruin to the State.

Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians

By this time, the Christians in Rome were an eclectic group. There were Jews who had endured temporary expulsion by the Roman government, there were slaves who were in danger of execution if their masters were killed, and there were citizens subject to the exploits of tax collectors. It was around this time, with the backdrop of ten years of murders, adulteries, and injustices by the rulers of the Roman Empire, that the Christians in Rome received a letter from the apostle Paul which said in part,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed…. he is God’s servant for your good…. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (ESV, Rom. 13:1-7)

The terror of Nero

The following year, rumors of incest between Nero and his mother began to surface. Sensing her threat to his power because of her irresistible domination, Nero decided to kill his mother by a planned, yet accidental-in-appearance, shipwreck. Agrippina survived, but was quickly found and killed.

In AD 61, about the time when Paul arrived at Rome to await trial and begin his house arrest, Nero wanted to marry another man’s wife he greatly desired, so he falsely accused his wife, Octavia, of having affairs and an abortion. Octavia was exiled, murdered, and her severed head brought back to Rome.

In AD 64 Nero’s debauchery escalated. A few days after a banquet, complete with lakeside brothels and prostitutes attracting attention in unspeakable ways, Nero donned a bridal veil and publicly wed a man as “people saw the witnesses of the ceremony, the wedding dower, the couch and the nuptial torches; everything in a word was plainly visible, which, even when a woman weds darkness hides” (The Annals, Tacitus).

Soon after Nero’s homosexual wedding, Rome was engulfed in flames. In an attempt to deflect the accusations that he caused the fire so he could rebuild the city in honor of himself, Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and proceeded to torture, mock, and kill them. Some were covered with animal skins and ripped apart by dogs; some were crucified. Others were mounted on poles in Nero’s gardens and set on fire to light the night. Nero specifically targeted Christians, the followers of one named Christus who “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate” (The Annals, Tacitus).

It is possible that Paul was beheaded around the time of Nero’s persecution of the Roman Christians, just a few years after the apostle had written, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” of Rome—the place where, according to Tacitus, “all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”

(Tomorow: Can We Celebrate Independence without Celebrating Revolution?)

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There are 11 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

That's Nero in the picture, by the way.

"The point" here is that if Paul could describe a government as messed up as Rome in the terms he did, and reveal the obligations he did, we can hardly look at our own government and think we're entitled to rebel against it.

Brenda T's picture

I don't believe I've ever seen Nero superimposed over an American flag before now.

Shaynus's picture

My understanding of history, is that even the more debauched of Romans wouldn't have been for gay marriage, because they understood the importance of the social institution.

My takeaway from the story of Nero is:
1. Christians have to clear a high bar indeed before we start talking about government in such derogatory terms as "satanic" or "evil." Yes, a specific leader can be evil, but that's not the same as their government being evil. The whole sum of the parts is different from any one leader in particular.
2. Don't be so pessimistic about our nation today to think that we can't envision a more equitable future for America. If it could be said of Rome that they went from total depravity to a largely "Christian" society, then the same is possible for America. That said, I don't wish any kind of spiritual golden age would come about through government policy.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Shaynus,

While anything is possible for America's future, I don't think history supports your assertion that Rome eventually became a largely Christian society. Roman society was always pagan, even after it borrowed a few Christian words and concepts and tried to synchronize these with former beliefs - unless you accept Constantine as a true believer.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Brenda T's picture

It has been brought to my attention that I transposed a couple of authors with their works in the opening paragraph. It was Seutonius who wrote The Twelve Caesars and Dio who wrote Roman History.

Dio's text can be read here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/home.html

Seutonius' text can be read here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/ho...

Tacitus can be read here: http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html

Sorry for any confusion this error may have caused and thanks to the reader who caught it.

Shaynus's picture

Chip Van Emmerik wrote:
Shaynus,

While anything is possible for America's future, I don't think history supports your assertion that Rome eventually became a largely Christian society. Roman society was always pagan, even after it borrowed a few Christian words and concepts and tried to synchronize these with former beliefs - unless you accept Constantine as a true believer.

Yes, I hesitate to use the term "Christian society" for similar reasons you might. No, I don't think Constantine was a true Christian and there was a lot of harm with how he co-opted There was a time however, that Christianity exploded in the Roman world, and it did change society to a large degree deep into the middle ages. My point is that anything indeed is possible.

Charlie's picture

Chip Van Emmerik wrote:
Shaynus,

While anything is possible for America's future, I don't think history supports your assertion that Rome eventually became a largely Christian society. Roman society was always pagan, even after it borrowed a few Christian words and concepts and tried to synchronize these with former beliefs - unless you accept Constantine as a true believer.

Which almost all fourth-century experts do. Unless you have a primitivist theological agenda, it's difficult to get around that fact. Constantine had no discernible motivation to embrace Christianity when he did. The Christians then were not that numerous, certainly not influential, and the opposite of wealthy. Romans emperors were, for the most part, devoutly religious people. Certain modern accounts that fashion Constantine as a clever manipulator, a cool practitioner of realpolitik, are simply inappropriate for their ancient context. Certainly Constantine did things throughout his rule that raise our eyebrows, but so did most of the medieval kings of Christendom. We can't know their regeneration; we can assert that they viewed themselves as Christians. An accessible introduction to the history with provocative theological commentary is Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart. Leithart isn't defending Constantine from 4th-century scholars, for they agree with him, but from theologians and philosophers of religion who have failed to heed the historians.

Also, from Constantine onward, Christianity steadily overtakes the Empire. There are always holdouts of paganism, particularly among the elites, but there is only one openly pagan emperor thereafter, Julian. As Christianity became mainstream and even established, elite Roman intellectual culture and theology blend. For the most part, that's a good thing. The Nicene and Alexandrian Creeds and the Definition of Chalcedon, surely the best things to come out of the entire early church period, owe a considerable debt to Greek philosophy. When Christians moved too far toward incompatible philosophical positions, as Origen did at times, the Church condemned those propositions. In short, there is no reason to believe that the post-Constantinian Roman Empire was really pagan underneath the Christianity. It is true that the rural areas remained strongholds of paganism. Our word "pagan" is from the Latin paganus, country-person.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Bob T.'s picture

Romans 13 asks for submission to earthly government as ordained by God on the basis that the principles of human government are necessary for the suppression of evil and allowing that which is good. The immediate reason is because to not to submit may bring the wrath of government and be against the Christian conscience. It has been the classic Romanist and Reformed Romanist European interpretation that has advocated submission even when human government was obviously violating the reasons God had given authority to human government. The so called Nero context of the Romans passage does not call for submission to Nero. The passage is portraying a government with basic principles that Nero did and would violate thus releasing one from such duty. Some government entities within the Empire were still functioning for the basic good so could be submitted to.

If we are always to submit to all human authority then is there ever a time when mankind may change government? Are we doomed to passively allow those who take power first to rule in perpetuity? John Locke's two treatises of government were written to answer Robert Filbert's treatises that advocated the divine right of kings and the right of the Stuarts to rule over England and the colonies. His basis appealed to the OT Theocratic kingdom and its kings. One of the principles advocated by Locke was that Genesis the 9 Noahic covenant was the basis for God instituted government and that it placed such authority in the mediating authority of all men who become the proper basis for forming human government. Thus mankind is given inalienable rights by God. Government was to emerge from compacts made by men mediating their rights for the good of all.

There are those that view the American resistance to the English King as time established legitimate colonial governments resisting an older government out of which they had emerged and came to stand alone. Thus, we do not have rebellion against the authority of government but the organized resistance of the Colonial governments against the unrighteous authority and practices by a distant and arbitrary authority which was functioning against even its own now changed parliamentary principles. The declaration of independence, the functioning of a congress, the collection of taxation and the forming of Armies, all indicate functioning government authority as the basis for the war of independence. This was not rebellion against government that the Christian could not support but local established governments resisting the right of kings and distant unrighteous government.

The English parliament called it a revolution and the "rebellion of the Elders." They did so because so many of Washington's Colonels were Elders in the Presbyterian churches and they saw a religious foundation just like their own prior revolution of the Puritans.

In the early part of the 20th century Charles and Mary Baird led what came to be a rapidly expanding rewriting of American History. They laid the foundation for the Progressive view of American foundations in 1913. This view was the prevailing view form the 1920s on. The revised basis of American history was the prevailing view in the public schools and the universities. Many Christians went to universities and obtain their masters and doctorates in history and came away seeking to fit what they viewed as the correct view of American history in with their Christian world view. This progressive view has since been exposed and most historians acknowledge that the progressive view was filled with errors and lies. At a Christian University I was taught the progressive revised view. At a secular university I studied under a non Christian who used texts and presented material that exposed the revised view.

I would recommend that anyone interested in history get hold of the book "Telling the Truth About History," by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, And Margaret Jacob. Norton and Co., 1994. These are professors of history at three public universities. In speaking to the broader issue of historiography they give many admissions regarding the revised view and expose the lies of the progressive view. They were professors at UCLA, University of Pennsylvania, and The New School of Social Research. Hardly conservative schools.

The American war for independence was righteous, not against biblical principles, and involved a foundation of Christianity that had emerged in the great awakening. Without the great awakening there would have been no emerging war of colonial governments for independence from a distant government. We need to consider the scriptural passages on submission carefully and in light of all of scripture. The Heroes of the faith at Hebrews 11 have several listed whose acts of faith involved resistance to human government.

dcbii's picture

Brenda T wrote:
It has been brought to my attention that I transposed a couple of authors with their works in the opening paragraph. It was Seutonius who wrote The Twelve Caesars and Dio who wrote Roman History.

Fixed. I also deleted one duplicated paragraph that was completely identical to the one before it.

Dave Barnhart

Aaron Blumer's picture

Thanks, Dave. Don't know how we missed that... a copy/paste error of some sort, no doubt.

Andrew K.'s picture

Nice neckbeard, Nero. J-)

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