Pontius Pilate

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman governor{$I[g]Roman Empire;Pontius Pilate[Pilate]} A provincial Roman official, Pontius Pilate became infamous as the magistrate who presided over the trial of Jesus Christ.

Early Life

Nothing is known of the life of Pontius Pilate (PI-laht) before he was appointed prefect of Judaea and Samaria; even subsequent references to him, except in the New Testament and religious writings, are cursory. He belonged to none of the great Roman families and apparently left no descendants. Even his first or given name is unknown. The name Pontius, representing his gens, or tribe, would indicate that he was not Roman in ancestry but Samnite. The Samnites were an Italian people conquered by the Romans in 295 b.c.e. His family name, Pilate, means “cap,” “helmet,” or “spear,” a fact that is of little help in tracing his lineage.

Pilate was of the equestrian class, a rank roughly equivalent to the knighthood of later European history. Because of this social rank and the fact that his patron Lucius Aelius Sejanus was commander of the Praetorian Guard, the elite troops who protected the emperor and served as the local police force, it is almost certain that Pilate gained recognition through military service, most likely in the Praetorian Guard itself.

The military background and apparent lack of any administrative or political experience would explain Pilate’s mistakes in governance. One of the reasons for the success of the Roman Empire was that it respected, or at least permitted, the exercise of the religions, customs, and laws of subject peoples as long as these did not interfere with Roman control. While they could be ruthless, the Romans did not impose a totalitarian regime on conquered peoples, who had their own local officials and were generally free of Roman control in their day-to-day lives. The function of a Roman governor was to maintain order and to see that taxes were collected and sent to Rome. Pilate, however, would needlessly provoke the local Jewish population; a more experienced or more competent official would probably have had a better understanding of his subjects, their religion, and their sensibilities.

Life’s Work

Pilate was appointed the fifth prefect of Judaea and Samaria in 26 c.e., during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Pilate succeeded Valerius Gratus, who had a relatively quiet term of office and managed to avoid conflict between the Roman troops and the turbulent Jewish revolutionaries, or zealots. Gratus resided in Caesarea; his primary concern was the acquisition of wealth, which he managed to secure through his control of appointments, especially to the office of high priest. During his tenure, he made four appointments to the office.

On assuming his duties, however, Pilate took a more hands-on—and more confrontational—approach toward the Jewish people. On his arrival in Palestine, the new governor, in accordance with plans made beforehand with Sejanus, moved the headquarters of the Roman garrison from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Pilate himself also was to take up winter residence there.

The Roman army entered Jerusalem with their standards under cover of darkness. The standard consisted of the figure of an eagle with outspread wings and a thunderbolt in the claws mounted on the end of a spear. A banner or bust with the likeness of the emperor was attached. When the city awoke to find the Roman eagles before the Herodian palace, which was to be Pilate’s residence, the populace was furious. To bring the standards with their graven images almost within the precincts of Holy Temple was, to the Jews, an abomination of abominations, a gross violation of God’s commandment.

Because Pilate had not yet taken up residence in Jerusalem but was still in Caesarea, a good part of the crowd, together with Jews from other areas, hurried to Caesarea. There, they surrounded Pilate’s house, demanding that the standards be removed. After five days of demonstrations, Pilate lost patience. The demonstrators were asked to move to an open area where Pilate would speak to them and respond to their grievances. This was part of a plan by Pilate to get the demonstrators in an area where they could be surrounded by his troops, who had weapons concealed under their mantles. When his troops were in position, Pilate told the crowd that unless they dispersed and left him in peace, he would order the soldiers to cut them down. To Pilate’s chagrin, they reportedly answered that they would rather die than permit idolatry and disobedience to a commandment of their God; they then lay down and bared their necks, ready to die as martyrs. At this point, Pilate...

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