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?)