Who was Pontius Pilate?

Pilate has come down to us as one of the more enigmatic figures of ancient Roman history. Little is known about his early years but it is now certain that he existed as prefect of Judea since a stone with his name on it was found during archaeological excavations in 1961. It is assumed that he was an Italian who was born to the Pontii clan in the vicinity of the town of Samnium in central Italy, as that is where this family name originates. All Pontii’s were members of the equestrian order, those who were rich enough to own horses, therefore we know Pilate was born into a family of high social rank.

As a young man Pilate carved out a military career for himself and probably rose through the ranks via friendship and patronage with Sejanus, a fellow equestrian and the powerful head of the 9,000 strong elite Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s final line of personal defence. Sejanus was thus a confidant of the emperor Tiberius himself. As a rising star on the edge of Rome’s inner circle, Pilate captured the affections of a young woman by the name of Procula, who was the illegitimate daughter of Claudia, third wife of Tiberius. Procula was also the granddaughter of Caesar Augustus. Pilate was indeed a social climber. It is most probable that Sejanus himself recommended Pilate for the position of prefect of Judea in the year 26AD as a good choice for protecting Judea, which was on the eastern edge of the empire, with hostile Persian influence beginning just 50km east of the great lake of Galilee. Because of her social pedigree, Pilate obtained the rare privilege of taking his wife Procula with him on his assignment to this restive part of the empire.

At that time large numbers of Jews lived in Rome as well as Israel and this created a potential threat to the emperor Tiberius. Just 37 years earlier all Jews had been banished from Rome after the emperor’s sister publically declared her allegiance to the Hebrew god. Several years later they had been allowed back into the capital, and they came in large numbers. Tiberius needed a prefect who could delicately handle the beliefs and famous dogmatism of the Jews. So how did Pilate fare on that score? Almost immediately he arrived in Judea, there was trouble. Pilate proved to be a bad choice for this most delicate of diplomatic positions. He showed himself over and over again to be a coarse, antagonistic and tactless governor. His military background led him again and again to resort to a military solution for a religious problem. He lacked the refined personality of the leading classes of Rome.

If you would like to read more about the life of Pilate, and the last few days of the life of Jesus, please use this link to go to my essay called The Death of God.

Kevin