His name provides two valuable clues to his background and ancestry. The family name, Pontius was that of a prominent clan among the Samnites, hill cousins of the Latin Romans. They had almost conquered Rome in several fierce wars. The Pontii were of noble blood, but when Rome finally absorbed the Samnites, their aristocracy was demoted to the Roman equestrian or middle-class order, rather than the senatorial order. It is Pilate’s personal name Pilatus that proves almost conclusively that he was of Samnite origin. Pilatus means “armed-with-a-javelin”. The pilum or javelin was six feet long, half wooden and half pointed iron shaft, which the Samnite mountaineers hurled at their enemies with devastating effect. The Romans quickly copied it, and it was this pilum in fact, that made the Roman Empire possible.
By the way, the picture above “Ecce Homo” (Behold the Man) of Pilate gesturing to Jesus, by Italian painter Antonio Ciseri hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence. I saw it there one Easter Day many years ago.
Some historians feel that Pilate rose to prominence and perhaps gained the governorship of Judea under the sponsorship of Sejanus. Some may recall that name from the BBC television rendition of “I, Claudius,” where the role was played by Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart. In Imperial Rome, Lucius Aelius Sejanus was, like Pilate, of the equestrian order. He was the prefect, or head of the Praetorian Guard, the personal body guard of the emperor. Sejanus was an ambitious man. He had the complete trust of the emperor Tiberius, who at this time was living in self-exile on the island of Capri while engaging in various debaucheries. It is quite likely that at this time Pilate was admitted to the inner circle of ‘amici Caesaris‘ or friends of Caesar, an elite fraternity of imperial advisers open only to senators or equestrians high in imperial service. This fact would play a part in the later trial against Jesus.
The emperor was getting old and paranoid. Sejanus took advantage of this and offered up to Caesar the names of senators he claimed were not loyal to Rome. Tiberius would convict them of maiestas, or treason. Their property and wealth were forfeit, and they usually committed suicide to avoid bringing public shame upon their name. Sejanus hoped to consolidate his power as well as advance himself in the confidence of the emperor, hoping perhaps to become co-consul with Tiberius. However his boldness did not go unnoticed and through the efforts of the future emperors Caligula and Claudius, the plots of Sejanus were made known to the emperor, and Sejanus himself was convicted of maiestas. His allies as well became suspect.
It is unlikely that Pilate was an incompetent official, for he ruled Judea from A.D. 26 to 36. It is doubtful that the emperor Tiberius, who insisted on good principal administration, would have retained Pilate for so long, the second longest tenure of any first-century Roman governor in Palestine. Never the less, the governorship of Judea was a most taxing experience and, aside from Good Friday, it seems from our sources Philo and Josephus that there were a number of other incidents in which Pilate blundered.
In what came to be called “the affair of the Roman standards,” Pilate’s troops once marched into Jerusalem carrying medallions with the emperor’s image or bust among their regimental standards. This provoked a five-day demonstration by the Jews at the Provincial capital, Caeserea, which protested these effigies as a violation of Jewish law concerning engraven images. Pilate finally relented and ordered the offensive standards removed.
Later, he built an aqueduct from cisterns near Bethlehem to improve Jerusalem’s water supply, but paid for it with funds from the Temple treasury. This sparked another riot, which was put down only after bloodshed, even though Pilate had cautioned his troops not to use swords.
On another occasion, Pilate set up several golden shields in his Jerusalem residence that, unlike the standards, bore no images, only a bare inscription of dedication to Tiberius. Nevertheless, the people protested, but this time Pilate refused to remove them. The Jews, with the help of Herod Antipas, formally protested to Tiberius. In a very testy letter, the emperor ordered Pilate to transfer the shields to a temple in Caserea, and ominously warned him to uphold all the religious and political customs of his Jewish subjects. This last episode occurred just five months before Good Friday.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Inspired in part from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time
P.S. An excellent historical novel is available by Paul L. Maier, professor emeritas of history at Western Michigan University called Pontius Pilate: A Biographical Novel