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Rome and the Roman Empire

Holman Bible Dictionary

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International rule the government in Rome, Italy, exercised after 27 B.C. when the Republic of Rome died and the Roman Empire was born. The reasons for the fall of the republic are not anymore clearly demonstrable than those surrounding the later fall of the empire. They were the product of a complicated interaction of numerous components that included: changes in the values, wealth, and education of the upper classes; innovations in finances, agriculture, and commerce; expansion of the senate; enormous increases in citizenship; unrest among the classes; problems in maintaining order in the districts in and around Rome, and difficulty in recruiting sufficient personnel for the army. The major factor in its demise seems to have been political. The senate lost political control of the state, and into that vacuum Julius Caesar stepped with ambitions of control that the senate found intolerable. His declaration of himself in early 44 B.C. as perpetual dictator provoked his assassination on the Ides of March by a group of senatorial assassins led by Brutus and Cassius. Caesar's generals, Antony and Lepidus along with Caesar's heir Octavian, formed a temporary ruling triumvirate. They defeated Caesar's assassins in the battle at Philippi in 42 B.C. This finally resulted in the exclusion of Lepidus and the division of the empire into the West, controlled by Octavian, and the East, controlled by Antony. Antony's military failure against the Parthians led to his excessive reliance on Egyptian resources and created a correspondingly inordinate influence of Egypt's Queen Cleopatra on the Roman ruler. Octavian was able to use Antony's reliance on Egypt against him, persuading the senate that Antony wanted to make Alexandria the capital of the empire. The two led their armies against each other in 31 B.C. at Actium in Greece, resulting in the defeat of Antony and the eventual suicide of both Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian became sole ruler and in 27 B.C. took the name: Augustus Caesar. The republic bcame the empire, and Octavian became what Julius had only dreamed of becoming—the first emperor of Rome.

Augustus was extremely efficient as an administrator and corrected many of the problems that plagued the old republic. He, unlike Julius, treated the senate with respect and gained theirs in return. He, as the adopted son of the previous ruler, inherited the affection of his army. The relationship proved so popular that, after Augustus, every emperor had to be either the real son or the adopted son of the previous emperor to command the allegiance of the army and of the people of the empire. Augustus reduced the senate gradually from 1,000 to 600 and made membership in it hereditary, although he reserved the privilege of nominating new senators.

A major achievement involved sharing power over the empire's provinces. Senatorial provinces were created, over which the senate had jurisdiction and to which they appointed governors or proconsuls. These were peaceful provinces requiring no unusual military presence. Gallio, the brother of Seneca, was made proconsul over the southern Grecian province of Achaia in A.D. 51 during the time Paul was in Corinth (Acts 18:12 ). Imperial provinces were controlled by the emperor. He appointed procurators over these potentially volatile areas, where the Roman legions or armies were stationed. Pontius Pilate was such a procurator or governor over Judea (Luke 3:1 ).

Augustus inaugurated an extensive program of social, religious, and moral reform. Special benefits were given to those couples who agreed to have children. Adultery, which previously was widely condoned, was made a public crime entailing severe penalties. Traditional religion was stressed, and 82 pagan temples were renovated. Many ancient cults were revived, further accentuating the time-honored view that the peace and prosperity of the republic was dependent upon the proper observance of religious duty. Augustus became pontifex maximus in 12 B.C., establishing him as both political and religious head of state.

An extensive building program was undertaken. Augustus added another forum to the already existing Roman Forum and Forum of (Julius) Caesar. The forum served as a judicial, religious, and commercial center for the city, containing basilicas, temples, and porticoes. Later, other fora were built by Vespasian, Nerva, and Trajan, all of them just north of the old Roman Forum. The great variety of other new structures included theaters, libraries, temples, baths, basilicas, arches, and warehouses. For entertainment purposes, the first permanent amphitheater in Rome's history was built. Extensive water systems were constructed that included artificial lakes, canals, aqueducts, and flood control. The sewage system was renovated. A police force of 3,000 men was created along with a fire-fighting force that numbered 7,000.

The first several emperors ruled at the time of the beginning of the Christian movement in the Roman Empire. Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) and conducted His ministry during the reign of Augustus's successor, Tiberius (A.D. 14-37; compare Luke 3:1 ). The latter's image was stamped on a silver denarius that Jesus referred to in a discussion about taxation (Luke 20:20-26 ). In about A.D. 18, Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, built his capital on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and named it Tiberias after the emperor. Tiberius was an extremely able military commander and a good administrator, leaving a large surplus in the treasury when he died. He followed Augustus's example of not expanding the borders of the empire and thus avoiding war. The pax Romana (peace of Rome) which Augustus had inaugurated was preserved, providing easy, safe travel throughout the empire. Paul undoubtedly referred to this in Galatians 4:4 when he wrote: “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son” (author's italics). Tiberius was never popular with the senate and chose to leave Rome at the first opportunity, choosing after A.D. 26, to rule the empire from his self-imposed seclusion on the Isle of Capri. In this year Pontius Pilate was appointed governor of Judea, a post he held until A.D. 36, just prior to the death of Tiberius in A.D. 37.

Tiberius was succeeded by his mentally unbalanced grandnephew, Gaius (Caligula), who proved to be a disaster. During his reign (A.D. 37-41) and that of his successor, his aging uncle Claudius (A.D. 41-54), most of the ministry of the apostle Paul took place. Claudius is reported to have expelled Jews from Rome who were creating disturbances at the instigation of Christ (compare Acts 18:2 ). Initially, his contemporaries viewed Claudius as inept, but he proved to have considerable hidden talents of administration and turned out to be one of Rome's more proficient emperors. He was responsible for the conquest of southern Britain in A.D. 43-47, although it took another 30 years to subjugate northern Britain and Wales. His fourth wife, Agrippina, is mentioned on a recently discovered sarcophagus in the Goliath family cemetery on the western edge of Jericho. She poisoned Claudius in A.D. 54 to speed up the succession of Nero, her son by a previous marriage.

Nero (A.D. 54-68) was in some respects worse than Caligula. He was a man without moral scruples or interest in the Roman populace except for exploitation of them. Both Paul and Peter seem to have been martyred during Nero's reign, perhaps in connection with the burning of Rome by Nero in A.D. 64, an event that he blamed on Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that when the fire subsided, only four of Rome's fourteen districts remained intact. Yet Paul wrote, “All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor's household,” (Philippians 4:22 NRSV). Nero's hedonism and utter irresponsibility led inevitably to his death. The revolt of Galba, one of his generals, led to Nero's suicide.

Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, three successive emperor-generals, died within the year of civil war (A.D. 68-69) that followed Nero's death. Vitellius's successor was Vespasian, one of the commanders who had taken Britain for Claudius and who was in Judea squelching the first Jewish revolt. He was declared emperor by the Syrian and Danube legions and returned to Rome to assume the post, leaving his son Titus to finish the destruction of Jerusalem with its holy Temple in the next year (A.D. 70). This event was prophesied by Jesus toward the end of His life when He said: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Luke 21:20 NRSV).

The aristocratic Julio-Claudian dynasties that had reigned until the death of Nero were happily replaced by the Flavian dynasty, which issued from the rural middle class of Italy and reflected a more modest and responsible approach to the use of power. Vespasian's reign (A.D. 69-79) was succeeded by the brief tenure of his son Titus (A.D. 79-81), who at his death gave way to the rule of his brother Domitian (A.D. 81-96). The fourth century historian Eusebius reported that the apostle John was exiled to Patmos (compare Revelation 1:9 ) in the reign of Domitian. Eusebius also claimed that in Nerva's reign the senate took away Domitian's honors and freed exiles to return home, thus letting John return to Ephesus.

Nerva's reign was brief, lasting little more than a year (A.D. 96-98). He was succeeded by Trajan (A.D. 98-117), who bathed the empire red in the blood of Christians. His persecution was more severe than that instituted by Domitian. Irenaeus wrote in the second century that John died in Ephesus in the reign of Trajan. The persecution of the church, depicted in the Revelation of John, probably reflects the ones initiated by Trajan and Domitian. Trajan, the adopted son of Nerva, was the first emperor of provincial origin. His family roots were in the area of Seville, Spain. Marcus Aurelius, a later emperor of Spanish descent (A.D. 161-180), also persecuted the church.

Trajan adopted Hadrian, his nephew by marriage, who succeeded him (A.D. 117-138) and quickly abandoned his predecessor's only partially successful attempts to conquer the East. More than half of Hadrian's reign was spent in traveling throughout the empire and involving himself deeply in the administration of the provinces, an activity for which he was especially talented. He left evidence of his propensity for building all over the Mediterranean world including the arch at the entrance to the precincts of the Athenian temple of Jupiter, the Ecce Homo Arch in Jerusalem, his villa near Rome, and the magnificent Pantheon in Rome, whose perfectly preserved construction continually awes the visitor. Hadrian will be best remembered by those of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, however, because of his attempt to hellenize Jerusalem by changing the name of the city to Aelia Capitolina, by erecting a temple to himself and Zeus on the site of the previous Temple of Solomon, and by prohibiting circumcision. The brutal way in which he put down the unavoidable revolt from A.D. 132-135 was consistent with Hadrian's declaration of himself as another Antiochus Ephiphanes (the second century B.C. hellenizer who, while king of Syria, also dehysecrated the Jewish Temple and precipitated the Maccabean Revolt). See Intertestamental History.

The success of the Roman Empire depended upon the ability of the legions to keep peace throughout the world. Pax Romana was the key to prosperity and success. Greek and Latin were universal languages; nevertheless, most of the conquered countries retained their own languages as well, including Celtic, Germanic, Semitic, Hamihytic, and Berber. Not since that time has the world been able to so effectively communicate in common languages. If the Mediterranean Sea is included, the Roman Empire was roughly the size of the continental United States, reaching from Britain to Arabia and from Germany to Morocco. One could go from one end of the Mediterranean to the other by boat in three weeks. Less effectively, one could travel 90 miles a day on the fine network of roads that interlaced the empire, including the Appian Way and the Egnatian Way.

The quality of the Greco-Roman culture disseminated by Rome was strongest in the areas bordering the Mediterranean and weakest in those farthest removed from major routes of communication. The most effective resistance to the culture was, as might be expected, among the eastern countries such as Egypt, Syrian, Mesopotamia, and the Levant (Syria-Palestine) which had the longest history of civilization. Western Europe, with a comparatively recent and uncivilized history, was no opposition and was soon thoroughly and permanently immersed in the phenomenon of western civilization.

Education in the empire was the prerogative of the wealthy. The poor had neither the time, the money, nor the need for an education that was designed to prepare the upper classes for positions of public service. The goal of education was to master the spoken word. Successful civic life was tied to proficiency in the language. Oratory was indispensable. Grammar and rhetoric were the primary subjects of study with emphasis on style over content. Among Latin authors, Virgil, Terence, Sallust, and Cicero were studied most while Homer, Thucydides, Demosthenes, and the Attic tragedians were the favorite Greek writers.

In the beginning of the empire, religion was diverse and almost chaotic. Both politicians and philosophers attempted to bring the same order to religion that they achieved in other aspects of Roman life. The Roman emperor was the head of the state religion, which included worship of the emperor and the traditional gods of Rome. The emperor functioned as semidivine while alive and as a god after his death. John may refer to emperor worship in Pergamum, where the first Asian temple to a Roman emperor was erected, in his references to the place “where Satan's throne is” (perhaps meaning the altar of Zeus; Revelation 2:13 NRSV). Mystery religions such as Mithraism, and the worship of Cybele and Isis were abundant. Philosophical systems, such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, functioned virtually as religions for agnostic intellectuals. Judaism, with its monotheistic emphasis, and Christianity, with its Judaistic origin and equally high code of ethics and morals, were anomalies. The inevitable clash between Judeo-Christians and the Romans was a clash between monotheism and polytheism, between morality and immorality.

John McRay

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Rome and the Roman Empire'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​r/rome-and-the-roman-empire.html. 1991.
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