Reginald Foster who, while admitting that Tiberius got “a little nasty” toward the end, repeatedly asserted that, “he was not a bloody tyrant, he was a hard man” who had plenty of good points. Christians, in centuries past anyway, would likely have agreed. I first discovered this long lost tradition when writing up a long article on the “Popes and Caesars” and that tradition was that Emperor Tiberius was considered to be something of a crypto-Christian by what we might today call the pop-culture of early Christendom. For people who are familiar only with the version of Tiberius seen in movies and on television, this would certainly come as a shock and yet, for a very long time there was a widely held belief that the second Emperor of Rome was almost a Christian in his conscience.
The story, handed down from historians such as Eusebius Pamphilius and Tertullian is that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate sent reports to the Emperor about the activities of Jesus Christ and His disciples. Tiberius was, of course, the emperor when Christ conducted His ministry, was crucified, died and resurrected and it was Tiberius whom Christ referred to when He said, “render unto Caesar” and so on. According to these Christian historians, when Emperor Tiberius learned about Jesus, his heart was rather moved by the accounts and he raised the issue of deifying Christ and including him among the Roman pantheon. This, however, was refused by the Roman Senate which held that it was only by their vote that someone could become a god and this worked perfectly well with the Christians who, of course, held that the divinity of Christ was not dependent on a vote by Roman politicians. That having failed, Emperor Tiberius still insisted that the Christians not be persecuted, nor even “accused” and, these historians assert, it was this decision which enabled Christianity to grow and spread in its early, formative years when it could have most easily been suppressed.
Eusebius Pamphilius summarized it this way:
“Tiberius, therefore, under whom the name of Christ made its entry into the world, when this doctrine was reported to him from Palestine, where it first began, communicated with the Senate, making it clear to them that he was pleased with the doctrine. But the Senate, since it had not itself proved the matter, rejected it. But Tiberius continued to hold his own opinion, and threatened death to the accusers of the Christians. Heavenly providence had wisely instilled this into his mind in order that the doctrine of the Gospel, unhindered at its beginning, might spread in all directions throughout the world.”
Today, as mentioned, all of this is discounted, however, even if one does, it still makes a very powerful point about what Christians considered important in the days of and immediately following the original, Christian, Roman Empire. Whether true or not, this story illustrates the centrality of the imperial monarchy in Christian thinking. Romans, after all, remained Romans even after becoming Christian and their loyalty to the empire and to Caesar did not change, nor could it have been expected to since both Christ Himself and His apostles commanded obedience to the imperial authorities. The story of the Tiburtine Sybil foretelling the birth of Christ to Emperor Augustus, the story of Emperor Tiberius being sympathetic to Christianity, the story of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the “Thundering Legion”, the story of Emperor Commodus and his Christian mistress, the story of Emperor Constantine’s vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, dismiss them all as a pack of fables if you like but the very fact that they were once so widely told makes a very profound point about the priorities and the ideals of the original Christians.
In practical terms, this can also allow one to better understand why there was such an emphasis placed on the sacred nature of the imperial monarchy in the east, all the way up to the end of the Russian Empire in 1917 as well as helping to explain the often contentious relationship between the popes and the German emperors in the west. The more important something is, the more likely that it will be fought over. This was a tradition so central in fact that it survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire, was imitated by the First German Empire and by other monarchies that grew up in western Europe such as in England (where more of these traditions survive than anywhere else) and in France where the tragic King Louis XVI, heir to his own sacred royal traditions, called for, “one King, one law, one faith”, he was hearkening back, wittingly or not, to that original, united and finally Christian imperial realm with a Roman Caesar at its head. So, in the end, whether Emperor Tiberius was truly sympathetic to the cause of Christ or whether modern-day Christians would even wish to claim him (I would, but I recognize the vast majority would be horrified by the very idea), is not finally the point. The point is that such stories are either true and thus illustrate the divine guidance of the imperial monarchy from the beginning, or they are not true and thus illustrate how important the imperial monarchy was to early Christians who wished them to be so. Either way, we are inevitably drawn back to the fact, the idea and the ideal of The Empire.