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.

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