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Religion in the Principate Era threw up many prominent figures. Due to their later prominence, historical records are most illuminating on Christian and Jewish leaders, but there were many cults in the Roman empire, outside of the existing Roman God of Jupiter, most notably the rise of the Sun Cults in the second century, which was briefly absorbed within the Roman official religion under Emperor Antoninus.

Pope Clement I

Clement is known for his epistle to the church in Corinth (c. 96 AD). Clement asserted the apostolic authority of all bishops and elders (presbyters) as rulers of the church in direct line from the apostles and Christ. The epistle was subsequently used to establish the papacy in Rome as the writing codifies hierarchical relations between bishops and church authorities. Clement was banished from Rome during the reign of Emperor Trajan and found himself working in a stone quarry. Without water for him or any of the workers to drink he knelt down to pray. Up above on the hill a lamb appeared, Clement went to the point where the lamb had appeared, plunged in his pick and water gushed forth. Many pagans and fellow prisoners converted to Christianity as a result of this miracle. Clement was later martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the black sea. In art Saint Clement is thus often depicted with an anchor at his side or tied to his neck.

Hillel the Elder

Hillel the Elder is a famous Jewish leader associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. He is also held as the founder of a dynasty of Sages who stood as the head of the Jews in the land of Israel until the end of the fifth century. He lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus. He descended from the tribe of Benjamin on his father’s side and the family of David through his mother. He is most commonly attributed to two sayings. One, “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?” and, two: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius converted to Christianity at a young age, rising to serve as Bishop of Antioch. Little is known about his childhood other than the fact that he was one of the children who Christ took into his arms and blessed. Ignatius is one of the five Apostolic fathers who formed the earliest authority within the church. His arrest by Roman authorities and transport to Rome is recorded in his own epistle to the Romans: “From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated.” He was executed in the Coliseum by being fed to wild beasts.

James brother of Jesus

James was an important figure in the Christian community of Jerusalem. James played an increasing role in the Christian community there, especially after the departure of Peter to Rome. He presided over the Church of Christendom until his death. James was stoned to death in Jerusalem by a disparate faction of early Christians.


Jesus of Nazareth lived and preached in and around Galilee. He was executed under the orders of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. Many locals believed he was resurrected three days after being buried and a cult grew up around his life and teaching. This cult formed the basis of the Christian faith.

John the Baptist

John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher and major religious figure who had the unique practice of baptism. John anticipated a messianic figure greater than himself and then proclaimed Jesus as that figure. Jesus later travelled to meet John and was baptized by him in the river Jordon. John met his death when he condemned Herod for marrying Herodias who was also the ex-wife of his brother. In retaliation Herodias demanded John’s execution but Herod himself was reluctant because he liked to listen to John and was mindful of his status as a holy man. Herodias then danced before Herod who was so pleased he offers her any gift in response. She in turn demanded the head of John the Baptist. Reluctantly, Herod agreed to this request and John’s head was delivered to her on a plate. The depiction of John’s severed head on a silver platter became a standard theme in Christian art.

Paul the Apostle/Saul of Tarsus

While not one of the twelve disciples, Paul taught the gospel of Christ to the first century world and was one of the most important figures of early Christian teaching. As both a Jew and a Roman citizen he was able to minister to both Jewish and Roman audiences. Paul was born in Tarsus and given the Jewish name Saul. Initially he was zealously opposed to the new Christian cult but he underwent a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus after which he took the name Paul. As his ministry developed Paul took various missionary journeys to places including Antioch, Jerusalem and Ephesus. On his final visit to Jerusalem in 57 AD, Paul was warned by the Christian elders that he had a reputation for being against the law. When a plot to kill him was unearthed Paul allowed himself to be taken voluntarily into Roman custody. He was held as a prisoner in Caesarea Maritima for two years until the governor suggested he go back to Jerusalem and face trial. Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen to appeal to the emperor. Paul arrived in Rome in 60 AD where he spent two further years under house arrest. He was later beheaded during the reign of Nero along with Peter.

Saint Peter

Peter, also known as Simon Peter, was one of the Twelve Apostles of Christ and a leader of the early church. Peter was a fisherman in Bethsaida named Simon when along with his brother Andrew he was called upon to be “fishers of men.” At the last supper Peter initially refused to let Jesus wash his feet and he infamously denied that he knew Jesus three times before the cock crowed on the night that Jesus was arrested. He was also the first person to enter the tomb after the disciples found it empty. Peter later founded the church in Rome and served as its first Bishop. He also met his martyrdom in Rome alongside Paul. Peter and Paul were executed by Nero as part of a purge of Christians, who Nero said were responsible for the Great Fire of 64 AD.


Polycarp was a 2nd century Christian bishop of Smyrna. He was executed at the age of 86 for refusing to burn incense to the Roman emperor. He was burnt at the stake and pierced with a spear as part of the persecution of Marcus Aurelius. When the soldiers arrived to carry out the execution he offered them a good supper and prayed with such devotion that several of them later converted.

Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate was a Roman prefect of the province of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. He served under the Emperor Tiberius. His primary function was military but as the representative of the empire he was also responsible for collecting taxes and had some judicial functions. Pilate was in Jerusalem during Passover to help keep order. Pilate is best known for his role in the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. Presiding over the trial Pilate personally found Jesus not guilty of any crime meriting death, with the blasphemy trial only a crime against Mosaic law not roman law. Only after the suggestion that Jesus took the position of King of the Jews was Pilate forced to agree to the execution.

Thomas the Apostle

Thomas, also known as doubting Thomas, was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. After the cult spread in the first century AD, Thomas took the gospels outside of the Roman empire, travelling as far as India. Thomas was a sceptic, and refused to believe in the resurrection of Jesus until he had seen the print of the nails and the scar on Jesus’ side. Thomas was also the only witness to the ascension of Mary (the virgin) into heaven. During her rise into the heavens Mary dropped her girdle and Thomas is regularly depicted in medieval and Tridentine Renaissance art with the girdle. Thomas sailed to India in 52 AD, landing at the port of Muziris from where he spread the Christian faith. He established the churches in Kerala that still exist today. Thomas was killed at Mylapore in 72 AD. Unlike many of his contemporaries his death was an accident. He was killed by a stray arrow that was meant to be aimed at peacocks.
Akiva ben Joseph

Akiva ben Joseph also known as Rabbi Akiva was from a humble Jewish family. His favourite maxim was, “Whatever God doeth, He doeth for the best.” On one occasion he found himself without anywhere to sleep in a city and so lay down outside the city walls. During the night a lion eat his donkey, a cat killed the rooster whose crowing would have woken him, and the wind blew out his candle. He remained loyal to his maxim. When morning came he discovered that a band of robbers had fallen on the city and carried all its inhabitants off to captivity. Akiva was martyred after he transgressed against Hadrian’s edicts on the practice and teaching of the Jewish religion. His skin was flayed with iron combs before execution.


Irenaeus was bishop of Lugdnunum in Gaul. He was born in the first half of the second century AD and hailed from the same Greek town of Smyrna as Polycarp. He was brought up as a Christian and did not convert. During the persecution of Marcus Aurelius the clergy of Lyon sent him to Rome with a letter. While he was away there was a massacre in Lyon and on his return Irenaeus became Bishop of Lyon. He is buried in the Church of Saint John in Lyon. The tomb and his remains were later destroyed by Huguenots in 1562.

Justin Martyr

Justin was born in Flavia Neopolis to a pagan family. His education saw him explore both Stoic and Platonist philosophy before his conversion to Christianity. He travelled spreading Christian teachings eventually reaching Rome where he set up his own school. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius he was tried along with six companions and beheaded.


Montanus founded an early Christian movement that was subsequently labelled a heresy. It called for a reliance on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and a more conservative personal ethic. Montanus was a priest of Apollo prior to his conversion. Montanus founded a New Jerusalem in Pepuza and Tymion in west-central Phrygia. Montanus along with two female colleagues spoke in ecstatic visions and urged his followers to follow a cycle of prayer and fasting. Word of the new prophecy spread as far as Africa and Gaul. The movement’s very public displays of faith brought the early Christian community a lot of unwanted attention and led to the sporadic execution of many Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.

Pope Victor I

Victor was a bishop of Rome and early Pope. In the early church there were differences between Christian church groups over the week in which Passover/Easter was celebrated. Most Christian leaders tolerated the differences but Victor was not happy with them and began to sever ties with those ancient churches whose leaders did not follow his authority.

Clement of Alexandria

Clement was an educated convert to Christianity, who was particularly influenced by the Hellenistic philosophy of Plato and the Stoics. He rejected paganism and converted to Christianity on account of its moral corruption. In 180 AD he reached Alexandria where he studied under Pantaenus. He was ordained by Pope Julian before 189 AD. His writings state that Eve was created from Adam’s sperm after he ejaculated during the night.


Elagabalus was born in Emesa, Syria in the second century AD. A cult of the sun-god deity formed around him in Emesa, which began to spread around the Roman Empire. The sun-cult arrived in Rome with Emperor Antoninus, who was also a high-priest of the cult, in 219 AD who placed the worship of the sun at the centre of the official Roman religion. The merged Roman sun god was called Sol Invictus and a temple was built on the Palatine. Elagabalus forced senators to observe him dancing around the altar of the sun-deity and at the summer solstice members of the senate were forced to pay homage to their emperor as priest. Elagabalus also placed imperial relics within the shrine of Elagabalium and forced Jews and Christians to pay homage to the sun-temple.

Pope Cornelius

Cornelius was bishop of Rome until his martyrdom. In 250 AD, emperor Decius ordered all citizens to perform a religious sacrifice in the presence of commissioners or face death. Several Christians refused and were executed, but many did as ordered by the Emperor and then attempted to re-enter the Christian church. Some leaders thought these people should be re-baptised but Cornelius did not think this was necessary. Pope Cornelius was elected pope in 251 but the Church remained split over the concept of rebaptism and he was ultimately exiled in 252 to Centumcellae where he died in June 253 AD.


Cyprian was bishop of Carthage. He was born in North Africa and received a classical education before converting to Christianity. Already a leading member of a legal fraternity, he became bishop of Carthage in 249, shortly after his conversion in 245. This rapid rise was not popular with many senior members of the clergy. During the Decian persecution, Cyprian chose to go into hiding rather than face execution. This was seen as an act of cowardice. After the persecution, Cyprian took a hard line on re-admitting those Christians who had lapsed, making them serve public penance. This hard line ultimately led to a schism in Carthage, including the election of a rival Bishop. During the later persecution of 256, Cyprian refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and was banished to Curubis. He was imprisoned until 258 AD when he was sentenced to death. Cyprian met his death bravely and removed his garments without assistance as well as kneeling down to pray and blindfolding himself. His was killed with a sword.


Mani was an Iranian prophet and founder of Manichaeism. Mani had visionary experience of his twin at the ages of 12 and 24. He later travelled to India where he studied Hinduism. He returned to Persia in 242 and joined the court of Shapur I. Shapur’s successor supported Mani, but later leaders incarcerated him. Mani died after less than a month in prison in 274 AD. He was executed by Shapur’s successor Bahram I. Mani’s followers depicted his death as a crucifixion in a conscious imitation of Christ.

Julius Bassianus

Julius was a Syrian high priest for the Temple of the Sun. He hailed from Syrian aristocracy a client kingdom of the Roman empire. Little is known about his early priesthood but by 187 AD he was installed as a high priest in the region.