In Jesus’ day, Rome was the major world power. It controlled the Holy Land, and Jesus and his followers lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. Have you ever wondered why that was—when and how the Romans took over?
Those are just two questions about Rome in Bible times, but there are many more. If Herod was “king of the Jews” when Jesus was born, then why was Pontius Pilate—a Roman governor—in charge when Christ was crucified? St. Paul appealed his case to the Roman emperor—but which emperor was that? How did the cult of emperor worship, which St. John wrote against, begin?
Let’s look at Rome and the influence it had on the world in which Jesus lived.
Rome: a kingdom, then a republic
According to legend, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 B.C. Its founders were supposed to be twins—Romulus and Remus—who were grandsons of a king named Numitor.
The story goes that they were raised by a she-wolf, and when they quarreled at the time they founded the city, Romulus killed Remus. He thus became the original king of Rome. This led to a period known as “the Roman kingdom,” which lasted from 753 B.C. to about 509 B.C.
During this time, the Romans, like other peoples, were ruled by kings. However, they had enough of this form of government and overthrew their final king, Tarquinius Superbus, or “Tarquin the Proud.” The overthrow of the kings led to a period known as the Roman republic.
The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, which means “public thing” or “public matter.” Now the task of governing the state would be a public matter rather than the private prerogative of kings. Power was divided between two men, known as consuls, who were elected every year and had checks on their power, including term limits.
The Roman Republic lasted from about 509 B.C. until the first century B.C. Rome was not yet a world power, but its influence would grow.
Alexander: setting the stage
In the 300s B.C., the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great began a massive military campaign. In just a few years, his men conquered vast swaths of territory, including the Greek peninsula in the west, parts of the Indian subcontinent in the east, and Egypt in the south.
In Egypt, the pharaohs were regarded as gods, so when Alexander became ruler, he began to be worshipped—and he encouraged his troops to worship him as well. This helped set the stage for the later cult of the Roman emperors.
Alexander’s conquests also spread the Greek language internationally (which is why the New Testament was written in Greek). But Alexander’s reign was cut short. When he was thirty-two, he fell ill in Babylon (in modern Iraq) and died.
Afterward, four of his generals—Cassander, Ptolemy, Antigonus, and Seleucus—divided his empire among them. Israel was caught between two of the resulting kingdoms: Egypt (ruled by the descendants of Ptolemy) and Syria (ruled by the descendants of Seleucus). Warfare between the two meant harsh times for Israel, and at this point Rome enters biblical history.
The Maccabees: first encounter
One of the Seleucid kings, Antiochus Epiphanes, became a great persecutor of the Jews, and in 167 B.C., his oppression led the priestly family of the Maccabees to revolt and establish an independent Jewish state.
Facing the might of the Seleucid empire, the rebels were in a precarious situation and desperately needed a powerful ally. Their leader, Judah Maccabee, “heard of the fame of the Romans, that they were very strong and were well-disposed toward all who made an alliance with them, that they pledged friendship to those who came to them” (1 Macc. 8:1).
Consequently, he sent ambassadors to the Roman Senate and negotiated a mutual defense treaty (1 Macc. 8:17-32). For a time, the Jewish state derived great benefit from its alliance with Rome, but this would not last.
Divided we fall: Two versions
In the 60s B.C., two Maccabean brothers, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, became embroiled in a conflict over which of them should lead the nation. At the time, the Roman general Pompey the Great was campaigning in the east, and the brothers appealed to him to settle their conflict.
Pompey decided for Hyrcanus, and to put his decision into effect, he conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C. and installed Hyrcanus as high priest, taking Aristobulus back to Rome as a prisoner. Judaea thus became a client state of Rome, which is why it was under Roman control in Jesus’ day.
But the Romans also had internal conflicts, and eventually their system of government broke down. At one point, three men formed an alliance that gave them effective control of Rome. This alliance was known as the First Triumvirate (Latin, tri-, three, viri, men). It consisted of the military general Pompey the Great, the popular politician Julius Caesar, and the richest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus.
But the triumvirate was not stable. After Crassus died, Caesar and Pompey began to feud, and the Great Roman Civil War (49-45 B.C.) began.
Julius Caesar: one-man rule
Pompey lost the conflict and was assassinated, and afterward Caesar was proclaimed “dictator in perpetuity.” At the time, dictators weren’t viewed negatively. They were men appointed to run the state with a free hand, but only for a limited period, to keep them from turning into tyrants. However, making a man perpetual dictator was tantamount to making him king.
The Romans were proud of the liberty they had achieved by overthrowing their kings, and resentment against Caesar grew. He was soon assassinated by a conspiracy in the Senate on the famous “Ides of March” (March 15, 44 B.C.).
Nevertheless, in 42 B.C. the Senate deified him and built a temple in his honor, laying the literal foundation for the emperor worship to follow.
Augustus: the birth of empire
Caesar’s heir was his adopted son, Octavian. To defeat Caesar’s assassins, Octavian became part of a Second Triumvirate, which consisted of him, Mark Antony, and Marcus Lepidus. It lasted from 43 B.C. to 33 B.C., but when Lepidus fell from power, Octavian and Mark Anthony began feuding. Eventually, Mark Antony—along with his Egyptian ally and lover, Queen Cleopatra—committed suicide.
This left Octavian in sole control. Some wanted the Senate to vote him the title “king,” but he knew this would be dangerous, so he accepted only other titles. One became the name he is known by today: Augustus (“majestic”).
Another was a military title that meant “commander.” In Latin this word is imperator, and from it we get the word emperor. Augustus thus became the first of the Roman emperors, and he reigned from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. During his life, he called for the empire-wide enrollment during which Jesus was born (Luke 2:1).
Although Augustus had been ambitious and ruthless in his early days, once his power was consolidated, he was good ruler who gave the Roman world an era of peace and prosperity. This led many in far-flung parts of the empire to want to pay tribute to him as a god. Augustus allowed temples to be built in his honor—provided they were not in Rome itself.
When he died, there were rumors Augustus had been poisoned by his wife, Livia. The Senate deified him, and his worship began in Rome.
The rise of Herod
A little before 100 B.C., the Maccabean leader John Hyrcanus had conquered the neighboring kingdom of Idumea and forced the inhabitants to convert to Judaism if they wanted to stay in their land (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13:9:1).
One of the Idumean Jews, Antipater I, became an influential mover and shaker who courted the Romans’ favor. Julius Caesar appointed him procurator of Judaea in 47 B.C., and his sons Phasael and Herod were put in charge of Judea and Galilee, respectively.
After Antipater was poisoned in 43 B.C., his sons became embroiled in a conflict with a descendant of the Maccabees who wanted to reclaim the family throne. Phasael was captured and committed suicide, but Herod escaped and went to Rome.
This was during the Second Triumvirate, and both Octavian and Mark Antony pled Herod’s case to the Senate, which proclaimed him king of the Jews in 39 B.C. This trip forms part of the background to Jesus’ parable of the talents, in which “a nobleman went into a far country to receive kingly power and then return” (see Luke 19:11-27).
Herod then took possession of his kingdom by conquering it with the help of the Romans. Unfortunately, he became increasingly paranoid with age. He even had several of his relatives executed for real or perceived plots against him, and Augustus is reported to have quipped, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than son” (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11)—the joke being that, since Herod was a Jew, he didn’t eat pork, and his pig would be safe.
When, near the end of his reign, Herod was told that a new “king of the Jews” had been born, he did not hesitate to slaughter the male children in Bethlehem (see Matt. 2:1-18), forcing the Holy Family to flee to Egypt.
The arrival of the governor
Herod died in 1 B.C. (not 4 B.C., as commonly claimed), and a dispute arose about which of his remaining sons should have power. Augustus ultimately settled the matter when three brothers—Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip—traveled to him for his decision.
Each of the three bore the name Herod, so they are sometimes called Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Herod Philip. Each is mentioned in the New Testament.
Augustus divided the kingdom among the three brothers, giving Antipas Galilee and Perea, and giving Philip the northeastern part of his father’s kingdom (Iturea and Trachonitis). Augustus also confirmed Archelaus as Herod’s principal successor, giving him the territories of Judea, Samaria, and the family homeland of Idumea.
Archelaus had a poor reputation, so when the holy family returned from Egypt, Joseph didn’t resettle his family in Bethlehem—in Archelaus’s territory—but in Nazareth (Matt. 2:22), which was in Antipas’s territory. Archelaus made many enemies among his subjects, and eventually the Romans banished him to what is now France and assumed direct rule of his territory. This is why Judea had a Roman governor during Jesus’ ministry, even though other territories continued to be ruled by Herod’s sons.
Tiberius: unpopular successor
When Augustus died in A.D. 14, his adopted son Tiberius became emperor, and his reign started well. But with time, he became cruel, indifferent, and given over to his personal vices. This set a pattern for many future emperors, who would govern well in the beginning and poorly later on.
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius—A.D. 29—the ministry of John the Baptist began (Luke 3:1-3), quickly followed by the ministry of Jesus, who was about thirty years old at the time (Luke 3:23). Tiberius thus was the emperor during Jesus’ ministry.
Pontius Pilate was appointed the fifth Roman governor of Judea in A.D. 26, during Tiberius’s reign, and he served until A.D. 36, when the emperor recalled him due to complaints from his Jewish subjects.
In A.D. 33, shortly before the crucifixion, Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar. When Jesus asked whose image was on a coin (see Matt. 22:20-21), it would have been Tiberius’s, and when the crowds shouted, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15), they were referring to Tiberius.
Ironically, Tiberius didn’t technically have the title “king.” The Romans were too proud of having overthrown their kings for that. But the emperors were functioning as kings, and it was obvious to everyone in the empire that that was what they were.
When Tiberius died, it was rumored that he had been smothered by, or on the orders of, the next emperor.
When Tiberius died in A.D. 37, his adopted son, Gaius, became emperor. As a child, Gaius had worn a miniature soldier’s costume, complete with miniature boots. This led the troops to nickname him “Caligula” (roughly, “Little Boot”).
People were relieved to have a new emperor, but Caligula fell ill and, when he recovered, he had undergone a dramatic personality change. The Romans thought he had gone mad.
Caligula was extremely cruel and demanded to be worshipped as a god—not only by subjects in distant lands but in Rome itself. This was a new thing. No previous emperor had been worshipped in Rome while he was still alive.
Eventually, Caligula began comparing himself to the highest Greco-Roman god, Zeus/Jupiter. He also insisted that a statue of him be placed in the Jerusalem temple for the Jews to worship. This is part of the background to the prophecy that a “man of lawlessness” would declare himself to be a god in the temple (see 2 Thess. 2:3-4) and to the idea of people being forced to worship the image of the beast (see Rev. 13:14-15).
Caligula’s statue plan would have led to war, but the order was not implemented, because by this point his guards were fed up with his madness. They assassinated him in A.D. 41.
Claudius: unexpected emperor
After Caligula was assassinated, his guards were in the process of killing the imperial family when some of them found his uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain.
Claudius was regarded as a harmless fool. He had several birth defects, he was lame, and he stammered. Despite his reputation, he was quite intelligent. In fact, he was a historian, though today his works are lost.
To keep their jobs, the guards needed a new emperor, so they proclaimed Claudius emperor, even though this was something only the Senate could do. Eventually, the Senate was forced to comply.
During his reign, a great famine occurred. This famine is mentioned in the New Testament (see Acts 11:27-28).
Claudius also appointed one of Herod the Great’s grandsons, Herod Agrippa I, to be king of the Jews, temporarily replacing the Roman governors of Judea. This Herod martyred the apostle James, son of Zebedee, and attempted to martyr St. Peter (see Acts 12:1-19). Apparently due to riots between Christian and non-Christian Jews, Claudius also temporarily expelled many Jews from the city of Rome (see Acts 18:2).
In A.D. 54, Claudius’s wife, Agrippina, poisoned him so that her son Nero—whom Claudius had adopted—could be emperor.
At first, Nero was popular, but he did not like ruling under his mother’s thumb, and after five years he had her killed. He thus became infamous in the ancient world as a matricide.
Nero was vain and fancied himself an entertainer, often performing as a chariot racer, musician, actor, and poet. Because of his office, he was allowed to “win” numerous competitions.
After St. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem (see Acts 21:27-36), he used his Roman citizenship to appeal his case to Caesar, prompting the new Roman governor—Festus—to quip, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you shall go” (Acts 25:12). This Caesar would have been Nero, and although Paul spent two years in Rome waiting for his case to be heard (Acts 28:30-31), it appears he was eventually acquitted and released.
But Nero’s attitude toward Christians changed. In A.D. 64, a disastrous fire broke out in Rome, and people began to think Nero was responsible. To dispel the rumors, Nero decided to blame the fire on the Christian community, and he began a massive persecution. During this time, most likely in A.D. 65 or 66, St. Peter was martyred, and in 67, Nero’s officials had St. Paul beheaded.
At times, Nero received divine worship in Rome, though he was not as insistent about this as Caligula had been. He also began to exhibit such cruelty that people began to refer to him as a beast. It so happens that when the letters of the Greek word for “beast” (therion) are counted up in Hebrew, they total 666. So does “Nero Caesar,” and Nero is part of the background to the beast of Revelation (see Rev. 13:17-18, 17:9-10).
The Empire strikes back
One of Jesus’ most famous predictions—reflected in all four Gospels—is that the Jewish temple would be destroyed within a generation, after Jerusalem was surrounded by armies (see Luke 21:5-7, 20, 32). Given the geopolitical situation of the day, it was clear whose armies these would be.
The prophecy began to be fulfilled when, in A.D. 66, long-simmering tensions resulted in the outbreak of the Great Jewish Revolt. After Jews in Palestine rebelled against the Roman governor Gessius Florus and forced him to flee, the empire was quick to take action, and the general Cestius Gallus moved in to crush the rebellion. He failed, suffering a humiliating defeat at the battle of Beth Horon.
Afterward, Nero dispatched the general Vespasian, along with his son Titus, to deal with the rebels, who had reestablished an independent Jewish state. It took several years for the Romans to win, and Nero did not live to see it.
Nero had grown increasingly unpopular, and in A.D. 68 the Senate declared him a public enemy, forcing him to flee. He soon committed suicide, and among his last words were, “What an artist dies in me!” With the help of his scribe, Nero stabbed himself in the neck, which may be reflected in the fatal head wound the beast of Revelation suffers (Rev. 13:3).
Nero’s death set off a disastrous chain of events in which a series of short-reigned emperors battled each other for control of Rome. The city was convulsed by civil wars, and A.D. 69 became known as “the Year of Four Emperors.” The emperors Galba, Otho, and Vitellius each briefly reigned before stability was finally restored under Vespasian, who was recalled from the war in Judaea to take charge of the empire.
While Rome was tearing itself apart, so was Jerusalem. The rebels had split into three factions that were bitterly opposed to (and killing) each other, undermining the war effort against the Romans. The two great cities—Rome and Jerusalem, the world’s political and spiritual capitals—were thus simultaneously locked in fratricidal, life-or-death struggles. It was an apocalyptic time!
Order was restored first in Rome, under Vespasian, and then his son Titus finished the war in Judea. He besieged Jerusalem, and in A.D. 70 the temple was burned and then torn down stone by stone, fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy.