Emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus was in the winter of his years when he assumed the head of the Roman Empire. It’s conceivable he may have never really wanted wanted the position as he was in his mid-fifties and it was customary for men his age and status to retire from a civil or military career. However, such was not his fortune. When his uncle and adopted father, Caesar Augustus, born Gaius Octavious, then later known as Augustus, died in 14 A.D., the throne was thrust upon him since the only other possible successor, a grandson named Agrippa Postumas, was banished into solitary confinement under suspicions of treason. So now in the year 14 A.D., a middle-aged Tiberius wanting it or not was master of the known world.
Tiberius made it easy on himself though; and perhaps, given his age and reluctance to rule, he should have. Beginning in 25 A.D., He spent the back half of his reign living in isolation in a luxury resort palace on the island of Capri, just off the southern coast of Italy. He didn’t totally forget his duty. He left a trusted man named Lucius Aeliuis Sejanus, commander of the imperial Praetorian Guard, to run the day to day affairs of the empire in Rome as co-consular. Tiberius so trusted Sejanus that he allowed his state police unit, which was the size of two legions (about 10,000 men), to be stationed and housed inside Rome’s city walls.
But Sejanus had his own ambitions. With Tiberius far off he proceeded to exert his authority by using his Praetorians to bully and manipulate citizens and even senate members. For a time he was the most influential and feared citizen of Rome. No one dared defy Tiberius’ most trusted Sejanus. With senatorial approval statutes of himself were erected in the capital. Even his birthday was declared a national holiday. Naturally, where power dwells men are attracted to it, especially men who are closest to it.
Pontius Pilate was an up and coming mid-level bureaucrat of the Praetorian Guard, serving as a Tribune to one of its cohorts. He saw opportunity with one of the guard’s own, Sejanus, a brother if you will, being placed into such an exalted and unquestioned position; and Sejanus was always on the look-out for those he could trust to consolidate his power base.
Over in the province of Judea Valerius Gratus, Roman governor there was a man winding down his own personal life cycle. He sought retirement from his post and Sejanus had just the person in mind to replace him, his colleague, Pontius Pilate. Pilate desired the upward mobility that serving in that troubled portion of the empire would bring too. In his mind Sejanus was most definitely “the future” what with an aging co-emperor in Tiberius. So he accepted the position in 26 A.D.
There were many responsibilities imposed on Roman governors but there were but a few deemed crucial. One of them was to ensure that the locals pay their taxes. The second was to enforce the local laws to keep the people happy so they would pay. The third called for using Roman military power whenever the two were not obeyed. Put another way, if the provincial taxes were being paid then do not deliberately hassle the locals.
But Pilate was emboldened by Sejanus’ anti-Semitic attitudes. On numerous occasions he instigated acts Jewish religious authorities found offensive; so much so that they sent delegations to Rome to protest. For instance:
He authorized the hanging of graven images of Tiberius Caesar from the outer walls of the Tower of Antonia that could be seen from the Temple in Jerusalem.
He confiscated Temple funds to finance the building of a fresh water aqueduct for Jerusalem.
Later, when he expected a demonstration by the general populous over the raid of the treasury to build the water way, he ordered soldiers to be dressed in plain clothes and positioned around and intermingled in the crowds. When the Jew’s protests grew to a riot he gave the order for the soldiers to disperse them.
“They  inflicted much greater blows than Pilate had ordered, punishing equally those who were rioting and those who were not, showing no mercy in the least. Caught unarmed, as they were, by men who had prepared their attack, many of them were killed on the spot, while others ran away wounded.” Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities.
When Jewish delegations went to Rome and complained they had to do it before Senate but because Sejanus was anti-Semitic and held authority over everything the complaints went nowhere. Yes, Sejanus had things pretty well just the way he liked them but little did he know.
In the late summer of 31 A.D., informants leaked word to Emperor Tiberius, in-between his carnal pleasures back on Capri, about Sejanus’ abuse of power. With a huge force at his disposal inside Rome, the emperor knew that if he didn’t remove Sejanus quickly a coup could occur and the entire capital seized setting off a civil war. The legions Tiberius needed to help him were stationed at the far ends of the empire. It would take months before they could be in a position to help him.
So the emperor chose the tactic of stealth. He wrote the Senate that he was stepping down from his throne. Naturally, his co-consul, Sejanus would lose his power too. When word of this reached the military rank and file loyalty toward Sejanus was diminished in expectation of some new emperor worthy of their loyalty was soon coming. Next, the emperor wrote a series of letters again to the Senate. He always opened them with a denouncement for one displeasing act or another but always ended each giving praise and high-fives to Sejanus.
The final one though, which arrived late in the day on October 17th called for another meeting of Sejanus before the Senate first thing the following morning. When read aloud it began praising Sejanus awarding him with new power. Unknown to Sejanus, the command of his Praetorians was taken from him the evening before by secret messenger. A guard detail now surrounded the Senate meeting place just out of sight. When the letter turned to denouncing Sejanus and calling for his execution the signal was given and he was trapped and taken into custody. He was later strangled and his body dumped into the Tiber River.
Days and weeks later were filled with friends, family and acquaintances of Sejanus being executed or imprisoned. Pontius Pilate wasn’t forgotten either. An imperial courier was sent to Judea with a decree calling for him to appear before Emperor Tiberius. Luckily for Pilate Tiberius died and was replaced by Caligula, the announcement coming right after the order to appear.
Being an ambitious, upwardly career minded fellow Pilate searched him mind for a way to demonstrate his loyalty to the new emperor. Meanwhile, his informants began telling him about how some would be “King of the Jews” was holding court in the wilderness of the province. Some were even calling him a god when there was now only one god- Pilate’s new and beloved Emperor Caligula. Yes, this was what Pilate needed; an opportunity to show the emperor that he would crush any treasonous act against the empire!
Imagine Pilate’s deflation when he had Christ before him and he deduced that this “eternal kingdom” he presided over was not an earthly one! So as much as he probably hated doing it he sent Christ back to the Jewish officials with the instruction he had done nothing to deserve the death penalty under Roman law.
One faction of the Jews who hated Christ were the zealots who once hoped the Galilean would lead a military revolt to oust the hated Romans. The Jewish religious leaders feared him because he was someone who questioned their authority and King Herod wanted any rival to his throne disposed of. They all wanted him dead but could not execute him without Roman approval.
So Christ was eventually brought before the governor again on Good Friday. Pilate refused to execute this king of the Jews, until, nearing the end of the judgment session against Christ, the crowd began yelling “We have no king but Caesar!” “Crucify him!”
Then, one of the Jewish rabbis stepped forward. He turned to face the crowds, and with his hands and arms outstretched over his head, signaled to the multitude to cease shouting. The curses and shouting stopped. He stepped a bit closer to Pilate’s judgment seat and stated: “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Furthermore, “Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar!”1 There, Pilate was, stuck!
In an instant Pilate’s mind recalled the prime directives he was ordered to carry out as a provincial governor- Keep the taxes flowing to Rome, enforce the local law, or use Roman steel to make these things so. He remembered the Jewish delegations that found their way to Rome over one issue or another he had with them. He remembered the fate of Sejanus, and how anyone, anyone at all deemed in the slightest way was treasonous to the emperor was done away with.
Yes, Pilate had a simple decision to make. It was either go along with the crowd with something he knew was fundamentally wrong, or risk being called before the judgment seat of his god: Emperor Caligula. So, he washed his hands in full view of the multitude and stated “I am innocent of the blood of this person. You see to it.”2
Then the savior of the world, the grand, cosmic author of the personal, and political ambitions that led to his conviction, allowed himself to be led away to face the terrible and cruel punishment and death intended for him. From the perspective of everyone who sided against and abandoned him he was the most out of control person in the empire. Yet He was sovereign over all, and come the third day he would confirm it.
- John 19: 12 (NKJV).
- Matthew 27: 24b (NKJV).
- Contributions from “Pontius Pilate” a novel by Paul L. Maier, Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University.