When Augustus became the first emperor and instituted a system that would pass power to his heirs, he could never have imagined how bad things would get. When he died in 14 AD without a male heir, his stepson Tiberius became Emperor. He tried to do what Augustus had done in balancing power with the senate, but wasn’t nearly as good as it. A dark and detached person, he spent much of his time away from Rome, lounging in his private villa while Rome faced many problems. Legendary tales were written of his debauchery and excesses. Over time much resentment grew over his abuses of power, to the point where he put many Romans on trial for treason, seized their property and had them executed. The most important event to happen during his reign was unknown to him. Jesus was crucified in the province of Judea, and eventually his followers would grow and forever change the Roman Empire and the world. When Tiberius died after 20+ years as Emperor, Romans rejoiced. They had no idea of the terror that was coming.
His grand-nephew Caligula became Emperor at 24 years old. He ruled for less than 4 years, but became one of the most infamous tyrants the world has ever seen. At first, things started out great. The son of a war hero, he was initially seen as a savior by Romans. He promised to forget the trials Tiberius had ordered and work with the senate. He commissioned some ambitious building projects and increased his own power before exhibiting some truly bizarre behavior after a year or 2. Nearly all the ancient historians tell of his cruelty, perversion and appetite for extravagance. He was probably also insane. Because he was so loathed by all of Rome, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Many stories of his life have been exaggerated or fabricated to defame and devalue Caligula’s name. The most famous story about him is that he named his horse a council (important senate official). While this is debatable, he did dine with the horse and fed it golden barley, and the horse did have a marble stall, ivory manger, and a collar of jewels. Many other things about Caligula are not up for debate- he was one bad dude for sure- and if even a fraction of the stories about him are true than he was evil enough.
Aside from being mad with power, killing off his mother and brothers and his political rivals, marrying his sisters, and turning the palace into a brothel he was also most likely insane. All great Emperors were also supposed to be great military leaders, so Caligula led a huge army north to conquer Britain. WHen they reached the English channel, he ordered his soldiers to attack the seashore and pick up as many sea shells as they could before returning home. He also proclaimed himself an actual God, and asked to be worshiped as one. He ordered a giant statue of himself placed in the temple in Jerusalem, an act which only made the violence in Judea even worse. Before the statue was done, Caligula was assassinated by his own guard. His statues were torn down, his name defamed, and Rome plunged into chaos. His assassins attempted to overthrow the government and turn Rome back into a Republic.
As the only blood heir, Caligula’s uncle Claudius quashed the rebellion and took power. He was un unlikely candidate and 50 when he became Emperor, but over the next years he returned at least a little stability to the empire. He led military campaigns and conquered Britain and North Africa, and built 2 mighty aqueducts that led water to Rome. Most of his family had been killed, so after a few failed marriages he married his niece Agrippina. This was a fateful mistake. Agrippina had one goal in marrying her uncle: to place her own son, Nero, on the throne. She convinced him to adopt Nero as his step-son. When Claudius became ill, she took the opportunity to poison him, and when that failed she poisoned him again. Nero became the emperor, and brought about a legendary reign of terror on Rome.
So why does any of this matter? Well, for one, the Emperors of the 1st century are an extreme character study on the dangers of absolute power. They used that power to make huge advances in architecture while building ancient Rome. Far more importantly, their rule co-exists with the rise of Christianity. When you understand how twisted Ancient Rome and it’s rulers were, the radical counter-message of love and servanthood found in Christianity becomes that much more apparent. Could anything be more opposite from the lives of these emperors than Jesus when he says, “the greatest among you must be a servant”? No wonder the good news of Jesus spread like a wildfire. I think today, 2,000 years later, it’s easy for us to lose sight of that radical message of love. Understanding the worst of ancient Rome gives us a context for the New Testament and a faith that eventually conquered Rome itself.