The Roman empire (Romans 4)

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Illustration: Emperor Claudius

Tradition claims that Rome was founded in 753 B.C. and originally ruled by a series of kings. Located at a cluster of hills on the Tiber River in central Italy, Rome from its earliest years pressed against the Etruscans to the north and the Latin and Greek colonists to the south in a lengthy process of gaining control of the Italian peninsula. The Roman monarchy  ended around 509 B.C. and was replaced by the republic. Most of Italy was under Roman control by the mid-third century B.C., and in the latter part of that century Rome fought a series of wars against the North African city of Carthage (the Punic Wars). In the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) Rome suffered a series of catastrophic defeats against the Carthaginian Hannibal but ultimately prevailed due to sheer force of will, thereby gaining control of the western Mediterranean. Moving into the eastern Mediterranean, the Romans subdued the Greeks, Anatolia (Turkey), Syria and the Holy Land. Egypt’s independence ended when the last pharaoh, Cleopatra, committed suicide before the onslaught of Roman forces in 30 B.C.

Meanwhile the government in the Roman republic, which had been designed with a complex set of checks and balances, became increasingly paralyzed and characterized by political strife. Generals such as Gaius Marius (ca. 157-86 B.C.) and later Lucius Cornelius Sulla (ca. 138-78 B.C.) demonstrated that a successful general could control Roman politics solely with his army. Gaius Julius Caesar (ca. 100-44 B.C) exploited this to the full and, after conquering Gaul (France) and then defeating his rival Pompey the Great (ca. 106-48 B.C.) in a civil was, was declared dictator for life in Rome. Conservatives in the Senate assassinated him in an attempt to restore the republic, but it had run its course. In a series of civil wars, Octavian (Augustus Caesar), great-nephew and adopted heir of Julius Caesar, established himself as sole uler of the Roman world.

This began the period of Roman history known as the Principate (27 B.C. – A.D. 285), during which the Roman world was ruled by a series of emperors. After a long decline, Emperor Diocletian (A.D 245-316) restored order and divided the empire into four administrative districts. Diocletian’s abdication was followed by another period of war and confusion, from which Constantine the Great (ca. 280-337) emerged victorious. He moved his capital city to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople (modern Istanbul), and declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman empire. The western empire declined and collapsed in 476 with the abdication of Romulus Augustulus, but its eastern counterpart survived as the Byzantine empire until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The Roman Principate provides the political and cultural framework for the writings of the New Testament. Cities that fell under Roman control had various histories of relations with Rome. Tarsus, for instance, was a free city that was not taxed, and Corinth and Philippi, as official Roman colonies, were permitted certain legal benefits. Roman citizenship, although widely extended, was not granted to all who loved under Roman control. An extensive system of roads benefited both the military and commercial pursuits of the empire. With an economy based largely upon agriculture and slavery, the ranks of the lower classes swelled.

The Roman world incorporated a confusing array of religions, cults and superstitions. In addition, Roman emperors were deified at death, and all within the empire were expected to manifest their loyalty to Rome by participating in the imperial cult, paying homage to the current Caesar as lord. When Christians refused to do so, they were accused of treason. Even so, the peaceful conditions that prevailed at this time (the pax Romana or “peace of Rome”), the common Greco-Roman culture and the vast transportation system allowed Christianity to flourish.


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