Several Roman emperors are mentioned in the New Testament, although not all of them are named in the text.
Augustus (Octavian) Caesar
Caesar Augustus was the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus’s birth in c.5 or 6BC. Luke tells us, “At that time, Augustus Caesar sent an order that all people in the countries under Roman rule must list their names in a register” (Luke 2:1) Octavian was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated in 44BC. He became the undisputed and sole emperor after defeating Mark Antony (after whom the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem was named) and Cleopatra (the Queen of Egypt) at the maritime Battle of Actium in 31BC.
In 27BC, Octavian was honoured by the Roman Senate with the title ‘Augustus’, meaning ‘revered’ or ‘more than human’. When Herod the Great built a new port city on the site of Strato’s Tower in c.21BC, he named it Caesarea Maritima, in honour of Caesar Augustus. Paul was held for two years at Herod’s Palace in Caesarea between 57 and 59AD (see Acts 23:35 & 24:27 and Map 26).
Roman harbour at Caesarea Maritima
When Augustus died in 14AD, he was succeeded by his son Tiberius. Luke tells us that John the Baptist began preaching during the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (in 26/27AD) (see Luke 3:1-2). Herod Antipas (who imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist in 28AD for criticising his marriage (see Mark 6:14-28) named his new capital Tiberias in honour of Tiberius (see Map 7).
Tiberius was followed in 37AD by his great-nephew Gaius, called Caligula because of the little boots he wore as a child. Caligula was popular at first, but after an illness upset his mental stability, he embarked on a reign of terror.
He was succeeded in 41AD by his uncle, Claudius, who invaded Britain in 43AD. Claudius was the emperor in 44AD at the time of the famine that prompted Saul and Barnabas to take a gift from the church in Antioch to the Christians in Jerusalem (see Acts 11:27-30 and 4 on Map 22). In 49AD, Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, this was because the Jews were always fighting about ‘Christos’ – a reference to the ongoing conflict between Jewish Christians (such as Aquila and Priscilla) and traditional Othodox Jews.
The Colisseum amphitheatre in Rome
Claudius was followed by his 17-year-old stepson Nero in 54AD. Paul appealed to the Emperor Nero in 57AD (see Acts 25:11) and was subsequently acquitted after a hearing before the emperor in c.62AD. Nero later became a brutal psychopath, blaming Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD and sending them to their death in the amphitheatre. Both Paul and Peter were executed by Nero shortly after the outbreak of the Romano-Jewish War in 66AD, when anti-Jewish frenzy was at its height.
Nero committed suicide in 68AD and (after a year of three unsuccessful claimants) was succeeded by Vespasian, who returned from active service in Judaea in 69AD to take up the reigns of power.
Ten years later, in 79AD, Vespasian was succeeded by his son Titus, who had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish War in 70AD.
Images on Titus's Arch showing the looting of the Temple in 70AD
Titus died suddenly in 81AD and was followed by his younger brother Domitian, who continued to persecute Christians because they wouldn’t worship the Roman gods or sacrifice to the Emperor (and were therefore considered to be ‘godless atheists’ who would arouse the fury of the Roman gods). It was Domitian who ordered the exile of the apostle John to the Aegean island of Patmos in c.89AD (see Revelation 1:9 and Map 29). Domitian was assassinated in 96AD and was followed by Nerva (96-98AD) and Trajan, Nerva’s adopted son.
Trajan was succeeded in 117AD by Hadrian who visited Britain in 122AD and built the 76 mile / 122 km long Hadrian’s Wall to keep the ‘barbaric’ northern British tribes out of the ‘civilised’ Roman south. In 130AD, Publius Aelias Hadrian embarked on a grand tour of the empire and arrived in Jerusalem. The Jewish inhabitants asked Hadrian to allow them to rebuild the Jewish Temple. Instead, he established a Roman ‘colonia’ (a military colony) in Jerusalem, built a temple to Jupiter (Jove), and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina (‘the city dedicated to the worship of Hadrian and the Capitoline god Jupiter’).
Hadrian's Temple, Ephesus
Circumcision and the religious practices of Judaism were outlawed, and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem. This led to the Jewish Revolt of 132AD, led by Simon Bar Kochbah.