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Ancient Rome

Jimmy Akin

Audio only:

Who were these Romans who play such a big part in the New Testament and in the life of the early Church? How did they get to be a world power, and what did they make of these new Christians?


Cy Kellett: Hello, welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host and delighted again to welcome Jimmy Akin, senior apologist here at Catholic answers for another of these kind of looks back into the history of the world as it relates to the Bible times and the Bible people. Jimmy, welcome back again.

Jimmy Akin: Thank you, Cy.

Cy Kellett: Jimmy, as you know, is the podcaster behind “Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World,” so you can follow him there. And he’s also the author of many books, which you can find at our website, shop.catholic.com. Okay, so we had been talking about the Egyptians and they are certainly very important in the Bible, but then later emerges this other people who also become, they become more important in the New Testament though, the Romans.

Jimmy Akin: A bunch of upstarts.

Cy Kellett: Those upstart Romans, right?

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Well that, so before we even start on the Romans then, by the time the Romans come around, what’s Egypt like? So since, let’s just dispose of Egypt. Egypt’s still there, or?

Jimmy Akin: Well it’s still here today, because I’ve been there a couple times.

Cy Kellett: I don’t mean the land! I mean like this Kingdom of Egypt or what? What do they find, there?

Jimmy Akin: Well, okay, so Egypt, we mentioned in a previous broadcast how Egypt’s history is kind of segmented. There’s what’s called the Old Kingdom, which is when the pyramids were built, then things fall apart. We have the first intermediate period and they get everything back on track and we have what’s called the Middle Kingdom and then things fall apart again. We have a second intermediate period. Then they get things back on track for the New Kingdom, which is when King Tut lived and Ramesses the Great lived, and so forth, and then things fall apart again. And they get conquered by Alexander the Great and he founds the city of Alexandria. He founded a bunch of cities all named Alexandria. It’s kind of like George Foreman and his sons.

Cy Kellett: He had a very high view of himself.

Jimmy Akin: He did, he wanted to be worshiped as a god, and Egypt is part of how he got a claim to that. We’re going to talk about Alexander the Great in a future show, too. But he became pharaoh of Egypt because Pharaoh was worshiped as a god. And so, that’s one of the ways Alexander made a claim on being a God. But he became pharaoh of Egypt and then he went on conquering. He died in the east and his generals divided up his kingdom. And there’s an interesting story behind all that. But one of his generals, a guy named Ptolemy becomes the head of the part of Alexander’s Empire that contains Egypt.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: And so he comes back, he makes Alexandria his capital. It’s a Greek city because it was founded by Greeks. And so you have this period of a few hundred years where the Greeks, the Greek Ptolemies, are ruling Egypt. All the people are still Egyptian, they still speak their Egyptian language and have their Egyptian religion. But you got these Greeks running the show and basically using Egypt as a business, they’re making lots of money off of Egypt.

Cy Kellett: Oh, okay.

Jimmy Akin: And Cleopatra was one of the Greek queens of Egypt and she lived just in the century before Jesus. So she’s going to come into the story, but that’s kind of where the Romans come into contact with Egypt in a big way, is in that century before the time of Christ, when Cleopatra was living. They have a lot of involvement with Egypt right then; and, spoiler warning, Egypt becomes a colony of Rome.

Cy Kellett: Okay. And so when did the Romans come on the scene then?

Jimmy Akin: Well, according to Roman historians, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC. Now that’s kind of a legendary date because they also say that the founding King of Rome was Romulus who was raised by a she-wolf and, you know, him and his twin Remus. And so there’s some legendary embellishment here, but it looks, 753 is a reasonable date for when Rome came around.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: But it wasn’t an empire at the time.

Cy Kellett: No, it’s pretty hard to start out as an empire.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, exactly.

Cy Kellett: So what is this Roman thing? Is it a colony of another place or is it a …

Jimmy Akin: People had moved in from different local tribes and the … Originally Rome was like other civilizations in that it was a monarchy. Monarchy was the standard form. You had a king, a rex in Latin, and…so Tyrannosaurus Rex means “the tyrant king.” And so you had kings originally here just like you did everywhere else. You didn’t have democracies or things like that, except in some of those crazy Greek city-states.

Cy Kellett: Wild Greeks.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. But the kings were kind of interesting. They were different than the kind of kings that we’re familiar with today or in European history, because the kings we’re familiar with had dynasties. It was a hereditary office that was passed down from father to son. That’s not how it was in Rome. In Rome, kings were elected. So every time a king would die, basically the upper-class, the nobles, the Senate, would have an election and elect a new king, and then he would be king until he died. And the Roman historians say there were seven kings in about the 250-year period that, the monarchy lasted from 753 to 509 BC.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: And so it was about 250 years. And these seven kings, starting with Romulus, would have reigned for an average of 35 years each. That’s not impossible…

Cy Kellett: Doesn’t seem very likely, now.

Jimmy Akin: But it’s not very plausible either, given the length of ancient lifespans and the violent deaths kings often met.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Jimmy Akin: So there’s probably some additional kings whose names had been lost to us. Probably in part, this is one of the speculations, because the Celts in the 300s BC sacked Rome and burned a lot of records.

Cy Kellett: Oh. Okay.

Jimmy Akin: And so that may be why we don’t know more about this period. But anyway, there’s these seven kings ending with a guy named Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, and he ended up losing power because his son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped a noble woman named Lucretia. So if you’ve ever heard of the rape of Lucretia, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s the downfall of the Roman monarchy. So as a result of Sextus’ actions, his father gets wrapped up in this scandal and loses power and is driven from office. And the Romans decide, “We’ve had enough with kings. We want to be a republic now.” And so we enter this new phase of Roman history, which is the Roman republic, and it goes from 509 BC to 27 BC.

Cy Kellett: That’s pretty impressive.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, that’s a 500 year run.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: And so how do they govern themselves without a king? Well, they still got the Senate, and they also have this up-and-coming body of plebs who are not nobility. They’re more ordinary people. They’re like tradesmen and stuff. They’re free, they’re not slaves, but they’re this up-and-coming lower class and they end up getting progressively more power, too. It becomes a power-sharing arrangement between the nobility and the ordinary people. But they still need government officials. And at the top, they have two guys, because they don’t want any one person to have all the power.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: And so what they do is every year, they elect to guys known as consuls. And the consuls are like the high officers of state. They are the ones making the decisions and there’s two of them. So neither one can just make decisions unilaterally.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: And because they do this every year, that’s actually how they end up dating years. They will say, “In the consulship of Pliny and Gallio,” this happened.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: And so they’d have a list then and you’d look back on the list. “Okay, when were Pliny and Gallio consuls together,” and that would tell you the year. They also had a guy named a tribune whose job was to look out for the interests of the common people.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: And there’s some interesting stories connected with … This is a very interesting period of history. The first of the consuls were a guy named Lucius Junius Brutus, and Lucius Tarquinius Collatus. And Lucius Junius Brutus is an interesting guy because during his time he’s–first consuls, right? He’s one of the first two. And so Tarquinius Superbus’ family has not been out of power for very long.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: So they might want to get back in power and they might form a conspiracy to get back in power. And they did. And their conspiracy involved two of Lucius Junius Brutus’ sons, Titus and Tiberius.

Cy Kellett: Really?

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. And so when the conspiracy comes to light and Lucius Junius Brutus realizes his two sons have been conspiring to put the royals back in power, what’s a father to do?

Cy Kellett: Oh, no.

Jimmy Akin: Well, I’ll tell you what a fathers to do. If he’s an upright, righteous Roman who’s going to obey the law, he’s going to put his own sons to death.

Cy Kellett: Oh, that’s a nice way to start.

Jimmy Akin: Which he did. And he showed emotion as the sentence was carried out. He’s torn up about it, but he was willing to put principle over family loyalty.

Cy Kellett: So this starts a pattern of kind of Roman uprightness and Roman kind of-

Jimmy Akin: Good government. Nobody is above the law, not even your own son.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, okay.

Jimmy Akin: Nepotism is not reigning quite as much as it used to. And there’s actually a neat line in the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta, “The Mikado,” because the Mikado is the Emperor of Japan and he’s established a law that any man who flirts is to be put to death. And we know that married men never flirt, but unmarried men might be tempted to. And so his own son, Nanki-Poo, is on the lam because he got caught flirting. And he’s thus subject, the son of the Emperor of Japan is thus subject to the death penalty if nothing changes. And at one point Nanki-Poo describes his father, the Mikado, as the Lucius Junius Brutus of his race.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: So there’s a lot of interesting stuff. Oh, another official that they had during the republic era is what’s called a dictator. A dictator, so the term, it doesn’t mean, didn’t mean then what it means today. Okay? Today, a dictator means an authoritarian person who’s automatically bad. And that’s not what a dictator was in Ancient Rome. The system of government they’ve devised for themselves has deliberately got a balance of power in it. So no one person can make all the decisions. That’s why you got the two consuls.
Well, what if the consuls can’t come to an agreement and you’ve got a crisis, and you need a decision and you can’t wait? You need someone to say what we’re going to do. And the “Sayer,” the “one who dictates,” that’s what the term means, is the one who decides. So the Senate in a crisis situation could appoint someone to be the “Sayer,” the dictator who’s going to say what we’re going to do. And so periodically they would have dictators, they would have temporary appointments. It was never a permanent thing…until it was.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, you could see how that might happen in time.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. Also, Rome during the republic ended up having contact with the Jewish state. Because remember, when Alexander the Great’s empire fell apart, his four generals got control of different pieces of territory. The Ptolemies got control of Egypt, and Seleucus, another of the general’s got control of Syria. And guess what’s right between Egypt and Syria? It’s Israel.

Cy Kellett: Trouble again.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. And so you have constant problems in Israel with the Ptolemies and even more with the Seleucids. And Rome in the Republican period was an expansionist power. It wasn’t an empire yet, but it was expanding its reach and influence and it went to war. This was in the 180s BC, went to war with the Seleucids in the a Roman-Seleucid War and they defeated a Saleucid King named Antiochus III or Antiochus the Great.
He was the father of Antiochus IV, who is the big villain in the books of the Maccabees. Antiochus IV is the one who tries to forcibly convert Jews to the Greek religion and he desecrates the altar in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig on it, and setting up an idol of Zeus Olympius, and so forth. So this is the father of the Big Bad in the Maccabees. So then the Maccabees come to power, they have a rebellion, and they need foreign allies against the Seleucids, among others. And they hear that the Romans are very efficient and very powerful and very willing to sign treaties of friendship with people. And so Judah Maccabee ends up negotiating a mutual defense treaty, a treaty of friendship with the Romans. And the Romans at this point in history are good guys. Because they’re republic and they’re not setting their sights on Israel, they’re help, at least in principle, willing to help out Israel and so forth. And so this is about 161 BC when they signed this treaty and they have some further ongoing contact. Then the next century is when the republic starts to fall apart and turn into an empire. And the key moment happens when Queen Amidala calls for a vote of no confidence in the Senate and the leadership of Chancellor Valorum.

Cy Kellett: I don’t think that that’s … I know that the banking guild is going to get involved in here somewhere.

Jimmy Akin: The Gracchi brothers were all over that.

Cy Kellett: Okay. So Queen Amidala had nothing to do with this.

Jimmy Akin: No.

Cy Kellett: But Julius Caesar did.

Jimmy Akin: That’s what Star Wars is patterned off of. It’s how a republic turns into an empire. So there are these elements of Roman history running through Star Wars. The real way it happened is, you had an informal alliance of three men: Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. And they, as an informal alliance of three guys, became known as the First Triumvirate. “The Three Men.” And basically between the three of them, they had accumulated enough power that they were basically running Rome. The trouble–and this was around 60 BC when the Triumvirate formed, but it didn’t last. In 54 BC, Crassus died in battle and that meant only two of the Triumvirs were still around, Pompey and Caesar. Pompey was in Rome at the time and Caesar was out in the fields leading an army. And there was a concern that he was going to try to take over himself, now that he had only one competitor to balance him. And so the Senate voted that he needed to surrender his army, or become an enemy of the state. And he said, “Option two please.”

Cy Kellett: So he crossed the-

Jimmy Akin: He crossed the Rubicon. So when, if you’ve ever heard the phrase “crossing the Rubicon,” the Rubicon was a river which was the line that you were not allowed to bring your army past coming to Rome, because they did not want you having your army in Rome. And so he was supposed to surrender his army before crossing the Rubicon. He did not do so. He marched to Rome with his army. Pompey fled initially, but then he marshaled an army and we had a civil war.

Cy Kellett: Yep. Okay.

Jimmy Akin: And the civil war, Pompey actually died pretty quick. He died in … The civil war broke out in 49, he died in 48 but the war kind of lingered until 45. Also during this period, Caesar goes to Egypt and meets Cleopatra, who’s the Greek queen of Egypt and she’s having a kind of succession dispute there with her brother and stuff. But Caesar ends up taking a shine to her and they go on a pleasure cruise of the Nile together, and they have a baby and the baby is named Caesarion. And so not a lot of people know Julius Caesar had a son with Cleopatra. And so then, Cesar takes, goes back to Rome, takes Cleopatra with him, and she’s kind of like, “Who’s this foreign lady?” But Caesar is accumulating so much power because, okay, so the other two Triumvirs are dead now. And Cesar is basically consolidating his hold on the state. He’s becoming another rex. But they don’t want another rex in Rome. They liberated, they pride themselves on not having a rex.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Jimmy Akin: And so-

Cy Kellett: It could be like getting one here in America.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Hundreds of years we’ve gone without a king. We don’t want a king now.

Jimmy Akin: Exactly. We could have them. We just can’t call them that. And so what happens is the senators are resentful and a conspiracy starts including a guy named Marcus Junius Brutus, who’s a descendant of Lucius Junius Brutus. And in March, on March 15th, the Ides of March–that’s a Roman way of talking about the middle of a month–on the Ides of March, the conspiracy springs into action and assassinates Julius Caesar, giving us the famous line from Shakespeare’s play, “Et tu, Brute?” “You also, Brutus? You’re among my assassins?” And so he dies and then they read his will. And wills were very important in ancient Rome. You can do all kinds of things in wills, including adopt people and make them your heir. And he did that in his will. He adopted his nephew, Gaius Octavius, who was then only 19 years old, and posthumously adopted him and made him his heir. So that makes Gaius Octavius a very important 19-year-old.

Cy Kellett: Extremely.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Cesar must’ve seen something in him. I mean, he must’ve been an extraordinary 19 year old or-

Jimmy Akin: He was no dullard.

Cy Kellett: Right?

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: And Caesar turned out to be right about that.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. So that leads to the formation of what’s called the Second Triumvirate. The Second Triumvirate involves … Now, Gaius Octavius is known as Gaius Julius Caesar. That’s his official name, his adopted name. He also continues to be called Octavius, and modern scholars often refer to him as Octavian. The other two members of the new Triumvirate are Marc Anthony and Marcus Lepidus. Well, just like the First Triumvirate was unstable, the Second Triumvirate was unstable, and Lepidus was driven into exile. Also Marc Anthony, now that Julius Caesar’s out of the picture, Mark Anthony starts sparking Cleopatra. And so they end up having a relationship too, including some kids. And you can read about them in Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra.

Cy Kellett: Yup. Or you can see Elizabeth Taylor.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: In the Cleopatra Movie.

Jimmy Akin: Right. So eventually we have a new civil war and Octavian’s forces battle with Marc Anthony’s and Cleopatra’s. And it kinda comes to a head at a sea-battle off the coast of Actium, the city of Actium. It’s called the Battle of Actium. And basically, Octavian wins, and so Anthony and Cleopatra are defeated. They go back to Egypt and the next year in 30 BC, Octavian invades Egypt and Anthony and Cleopatra both commit suicide. Also, because he’s the actual biological son of Caesar, Octavian has Caesarion executed. And he was 17 years old at the time. So he’s only a few years younger than Octavian.

Cy Kellett: It’s brutal. But it is the way the ancient world stabilized situations.

Jimmy Akin: It’s very, very ruthless. And we’re coming up to a very stable situation now, the Roman Empire. So Octavian has eliminated his rivals in 30 BC; and in 27 BC, the Roman is … That’s the conventional date for the birth of the empire, because what happens in that year is the Senate votes Octavian certain titles. It votes him the title princeps, which means he’s the First Citizen. And it also gives him the power of imperium, which was the highest form of authority that a person could exercise. So he’s the one who’s got imperium now. He’s the Imperator, he’s the…Emperor. And so we now have an empire, and they also gave him the title Augustus, which means “venerated.” You can hear you say someone’s an august person today, they’re a venerated person. And so that’s the name he’s known by today, the Emperor Augustus. Despite the ruthless way he came to power, he was regarded as an extremely good emperor. He was very efficient. He was considered a good and wise ruler. And he reigned for like 40 years because he came to office so young, and he could reign for that long.

Cy Kellett: An amazing organizational talent. Just an incredible leader.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. Yeah. He was concerned about all kinds of things, including the welfare of Rome. He had a law against bachelors. You know, “We need to keep the number of the … we need to keep the Roman population up, and none of these tricks, like getting yourself engaged to 12 year old girls. You get married and start having babies,” is what he told his knights. And he also, we know little things about his personality, like he had certain pet phrases like everybody does. They’re part of what linguists call your idolect, your own personal dialect. And one of his, that’s always struck me is, “Quick as boiled asparagus,” because since asparagus is really long and slender, it doesn’t have, it kind of maximizes its surface area. So it’s going to boil really quickly. So I like the physics of that phrase.

Cy Kellett: And that humanizes him, too. I mean, this is a person. He’s got his little idiosyncratic ways of talking.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. But his 40-year reign began a 200-year period known as the Pax Romana, or the Peace of Rome, where basically the western world, even though it had conflicts, was much more peaceful than it had been before. He then ended up dying in AD 14, which would have been when Jesus was about 15 or 16. So Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, and-

Cy Kellett: And at the very beginning of the Pax Romana.

Jimmy Akin: Yep. And it’s because of Caesar’s decree that the whole world should be in Rome, that’s what took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, which is part of why the prophecy about Bethlehem being the birthplace of the Messiah was fulfilled. It was through the instrumentality of a decree issued by Augustus.

Cy Kellett: And if you look at this from the perspective of the spread of the Gospel, it’s extraordinary that there was a world, really all of a sudden, that was-

Jimmy Akin: All these roads that the Romans were building. You could send missionaries down those roads.

Cy Kellett: It’s like there was a divine plan or something here to have the world be in condition to be ready to receive the Gospel and to have it go out in four directions from Jerusalem. It really does strike one that the world was prepared.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: That is really something. And and so he died in 14 and then …

Jimmy Akin: Tiberias, his adopted son, became emperor.

Cy Kellett: And they weren’t all good, these emperors, and we’ll have to talk about some of them later.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, we’ll talk about them more.

Cy Kellett: But I seem to remember a couple. Nero, he doesn’t, I don’t get a good impression on him. And then what was the other guy-

Jimmy Akin: He was really ingratiating at the beginning of his reign.

Cy Kellett: He was?

Jimmy Akin: He had this knack for remembering everybody’s name and it really impressed people. You’d meet him once and he’d know your name.

Cy Kellett: I just remember about Nero that-

Jimmy Akin: And then he could use that against you later.

Cy Kellett: Yeah. He won every singing contest that he ever entered.

Jimmy Akin: He was such a good singer. Won every single one, every single singing contest.

Cy Kellett: Yep, it had nothing to do with the judges being afraid. This guy won American Idol every time. Jimmy Akin, thank you very much.

Jimmy Akin: My pleasure.

Cy Kellett: Fascinating kind of prelude to the life of Christ in a certain way.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Yeah. Well thanks to everybody who listens to Catholic Answers Focus. We’d love having you here. Please give us a like or a comment where you get this podcast. Please do because that’s how we grow the podcast, or invite people to join Radio Club by going to CatholicAnswersLive.com and putting in their email to become Radio Club members. We don’t ask for anything. We just give you stuff for free. We’ll see you next time on Catholic Answers Focus.

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