The once-small city in Latium that became the government seat of the greatest world empire in ancient Bible times; today, it is the capital of Italy. Rome is located inland about 25 km (16 mi) up the Tiber River, on both banks, about halfway down the W side of the 1,130-km-long (700 mi) Italian peninsula.
Just when Rome was founded, and by whom, is shrouded in legend and mythology. Tradition says it was in 753 B.C.E. by a certain Romulus, its first king, but there are graves and other evidence indicating it was inhabited at a much earlier time.
The first known settlements were built on seven hills on the E side of the Tiber River. According to tradition the Palatine hill was the site of the oldest settlement. The other six hills located around Palatine (beginning in the N and turning clockwise) were Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, Aventine, and Capitoline. In time the marshy valleys between the hills were drained, and in these valuable areas dwellings, forums, and circuses were built. According to Pliny the Elder, in 73 C.E. the walls surrounding the city were some 21 km (13 mi) long. In time the hills and valleys to the W side of the Tiber were annexed, including the more than 40 ha (100 acres) occupied today by the Vatican. Before the great fire of Nero’s time, according to conservative estimates, the population of the city was well over a million people.
Rome’s Political Image. Over the centuries Rome experimented with many types of political rule. Some institutions were adaptations from other nations; some were innovations of her own. In his Pocket History of the World, H. G. Wells observed: “This new Roman power which arose to dominate the western world in the second and first centuries B.C. was in several respects a different thing from any of the great empires that had hitherto prevailed in the civilised world.” (1943, p. 149) Rome’s political complexion kept changing as various styles of rule came and went. These included coalitions of patriarchal chieftains, kingships, governments concentrated in the hands of a few families of noble birth, dictatorships, and different forms of republican rule in which the power conferred on the senators, consuls, and triumvirates (three-man governmental coalitions) varied, with typical party struggles between classes and factions. In the latter years of the empire there was a series of emperors. As is common with human governments, Rome’s political history was mottled with hatred, jealousy, intrigue, and murder, with many plots and counterplots generated from internal friction and external wars.
Domination of the world by Rome was a gradual development. First, her influence spread over the entire Italian Peninsula and eventually around the Mediterranean and far beyond. The name of the city became practically synonymous with that of the empire.
In international affairs Rome reached the zenith of her glory under the Caesars. Heading this list was Julius Caesar, appointed dictator for ten years in 46 B.C.E. but murdered by conspirators in 44 B.C.E. After an interval in which a triumvirate attempted to hold the reins of power, Octavian finally became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire (31 B.C.E.–14 C.E.). In 27 B.C.E. he succeeded in becoming emperor, having himself proclaimed “Augustus.” It was during the rule of Augustus that Jesus was born in 2 B.C.E. (Lu 2:1-7) The successor to Augustus, Tiberius (14-37 C.E.), was ruling during Jesus’ ministry. (Lu 3:1, 2, 21-23) Next came Gaius (Caligula) (37-41 C.E.) and Claudius (41-54 C.E.), the latter issuing a decree expelling the Jews from Rome. (Ac 18:1, 2) Nero’s rule followed (54-68 C.E.), and it was to him that Paul appealed his case.—Ac 25:11, 12, 21; PICTURES, Vol. 2, p. 534.
Roman emperors in the order of succession after Nero (through the first century) were Galba (68-69 C.E.); Otho and Vitellius (69 C.E.); Vespasian (69-79 C.E.), during whose reign Jerusalem was destroyed; Titus (79-81 C.E.), who previously had directed the successful assault on Jerusalem; Domitian (81-96 C.E.), under whose rule, tradition says, John was exiled to the penal island of Patmos; Nerva (96-98 C.E.); and Trajan (98-117 C.E.). It was under Trajan that the empire reached its greatest limits, the boundaries by then extending far out in all directions—to the Rhine and the North Sea, the Danube, the Euphrates, the cataracts of the Nile, the great African Desert, and the Atlantic on the W.—MAP, Vol. 2, p. 533.
During the declining years of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great was emperor (306-337 C.E.). After seizing control, he transferred the capital to Byzantium (Constantinople). In the next century Rome fell, in 476 C.E., and the German warlord Odoacer became its first “barbarian” king.
City Life and Conditions. Administration of city government was divided into 14 districts under Augustus, with a magistrate chosen annually by lot to govern each district. Seven fire-fighting brigades called vigiles were organized, each responsible for two of the districts. Just outside the NE city limits was stationed a special force of about 10,000, known as the Praetorian, or Imperial, Guard, for the protection of the emperor. There were also three “urban cohorts,” a kind of city police force, to maintain law and order in Rome.
The wealthy and influential often lived in palatial homes on the hills; their homes were maintained by large households of servants and slaves, sometimes numbering into the hundreds. Down in the valleys the common people were crowded together in enormous insulae, or tenement houses, several stories high, limited in height by Augustus to 21 m (70 ft). These tenement blocks were separated by narrow, crooked, dirty streets filled with the customary traffic and corruption prevalent in big cities.
It was in these poor sections that the historic fire of 64 C.E. resulted in the greatest suffering and loss of life. Tacitus describes the plight of “shrieking and terrified women; fugitives stricken or immature in years.” (The Annals, XV, XXXVIII) Only 4 out of the 14 districts of Rome were spared.
There were very few persons in Rome who could be called middle class; the wealth rested with a small minority. When Paul first reached Rome, perhaps half the population were slaves, brought there as prisoners of war, as condemned criminals, or as children sold by parents, slaves with no legal rights. The greater part of the free half of the population were paupers who practically lived off government subsidies.
Two things, food and entertainment, were provided by the state to keep these poor people from rioting, hence the satirical phrase, panem et circenses (bread and circuses), implying that this was all that was needed to satisfy the poor of Rome. From 58 B.C.E. on, grain was generally distributed free as well as water, which was brought many miles into the city by aqueducts. Wine was a cheap commodity. For the enjoyment of those so inclined, there were libraries available. For the entertainment of the general populace, there were public baths and gymnasiums, as well as the theaters and circuses. The theatrical performances consisted of Greek and Roman plays, dances, and pantomimes. In the great amphitheaters and circuses exciting games were held, chiefly spectacular chariot races and desperate gladiatorial contests in which men and beasts fought to the death. The Circus Maximus had a capacity of more than 150,000 persons. Admission to the games was free.
The high cost of these government expenses was not borne by the populace of Rome, for after the conquest of Macedonia in 168 B.C.E., Roman citizens were tax free. Instead, the provinces were heavily taxed, both directly and indirectly.—Mt 22:17-21.
Foreign Influence. In many ways Rome proved to be a great melting pot of races, languages, cultures, and ideas. Out of the forge of Roman politics the code of Roman law gradually emerged—laws that defined the rights and limitations of governments, courts, and magistrates and that provided legal devices such as citizenship for the protection of human rights. (Ac 25:16) Citizenship was extended to Rome’s confederate cities and to various colonies of the empire. It carried with it many advantages. (Ac 16:37-39; 22:25, 26) If not obtained by birth, it could be purchased. (Ac 22:28) In this and other ways, Rome sought to Romanize the territories she won and thus to strengthen her position as mistress of the empire.
One of the best examples of outside influence on Rome is found in her ruins of past architectural glories. Everywhere, the visitor to this museum city sees how she borrowed from the Greeks and others. The so-called Roman arch, which she used to great advantage, was not her own engineering discovery. Rome’s successes as a builder were also due in large measure to her use of a primitive form of concrete as mortar and as a major ingredient in making artificial stones.
The building program of Rome began in earnest in the last century of the republic and was thereafter given special impetus by the emperors. Augustus said he found Rome a city of bricks but left it a city of marble. For the most part, the marble was a veneer over the structural brick or concrete. There was a second rebuilding of the city, after the conflagration of 64 C.E. Among the more notable Roman structures were the forums, temples, palaces, amphitheaters, baths, aqueducts, sewers, and monuments. The great Colosseum and some monuments, like Titus’ archway depicting the fall of Jerusalem, either are still standing or are partly standing. (PICTURES, Vol. 2, p. 536) The Romans also made a name for themselves as builders of roads and bridges throughout the empire.
There was such an influx of foreigners that the Romans complained Rome was no longer Roman. Gravitating from all quarters of the empire, they brought with them their trades, customs, traditions, and religions. Whereas Latin was the official language, the international language was common Greek (Koine). That is why the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in Greek. Greek influence had its impact on the literature and methods of education too. Boys, and sometimes girls, were formally educated according to the Athenian system, being schooled in Greek literature and oratory, and the sons of those who could afford it were sent to one of the schools of philosophy in Athens.
Religion. Rome also became the recipient of every form of false worship. As historian John Lord described it: “Superstition culminated at Rome, for there were seen the priests and devotees of all the countries that it governed,—‘the dark-skinned daughters of Isis, with drum and timbrel and wanton mien; devotees of the Persian Mithras; emasculated Asiatics; priests of Cybele, with their wild dances and discordant cries; worshippers of the great goddess Diana; barbarian captives with the rites of Teuton priests; Syrians, Jews, Chaldaean astrologers, and Thessalian sorcerers.’”—Beacon Lights of History, 1912, Vol. III, pp. 366, 367.
Devotion to these religions, and indulgence in their wanton sex orgies, opened the door to total abandonment of moral virtue and righteousness among Romans of both low and high rank. According to Tacitus, among the latter, Messalina, the adulterous, murderous wife of Emperor Claudius, is an example.—The Annals, XI, I-XXXIV.
Outstanding among the religions of Rome was emperor worship. The Roman ruler was deified. Emperor worship was recognized especially in the provinces, temples being built in which they sacrificed to him as to a god. (PICTURE, Vol. 2, p. 536) In A History of Rome, George Botsford says: “The worship of the emperor was to be the most vital force in the religion of the Roman world till the adoption of Christianity.” An inscription found in Asia Minor says of the emperor: “He is the paternal Zeus and the saviour of the whole race of man, who fulfils all prayers, even more than we ask. For land and sea enjoy peace; cities flourish; everywhere are harmony and prosperity and happiness.” This cult proved to be a chief instrument of persecution for Christians, concerning whom this writer says: “Their refusal to worship the Genius, or guardian spirit, of the emperor was naturally construed as impiety and treason.”—1905, pp. 214, 215, 263.
Christianity Comes to Rome. On the day of Pentecost, 33 C.E., there were “sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,” present to witness the results of the outpouring of the holy spirit, and some of them were no doubt among the 3,000 baptized on that occasion. (Ac 2:1, 10, 41) Upon returning to Rome, they doubtless preached, resulting in the formation of a very strong, active Christian congregation whose faith the apostle Paul mentioned as being “talked about throughout the whole world.” (Ro 1:7, 8) Both Tacitus (The Annals, XV, XLIV) and Suetonius (The Lives of the Caesars, Nero, XVI, 2) referred to the Christians in Rome.
Paul wrote to the Christian congregation in Rome about 56 C.E., and about three years later he arrived in Rome as a prisoner. Although he had entertained desires of visiting there sooner and under different circumstances (Ac 19:21; Ro 1:15; 15:22-24), he was able, even though a prisoner, to give a thorough witness by having people come to his house. For two years, under these conditions, he continued “preaching the kingdom of God to them and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with the greatest freeness of speech, without hindrance.” (Ac 28:14-31) Even the emperor’s Praetorian Guard became acquainted with the Kingdom message. (Php 1:12, 13) So, as it had been foretold of him, Paul ‘gave a thorough witness even in Rome.’—Ac 23:11.
During this two-year detention in Rome Paul found time to write letters, those to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Evidently about the same time, Mark wrote his Gospel account in Rome. Shortly before or immediately after Paul’s release, he penned his letter to the Hebrews in about 61 C.E. (Heb 13:23, 24) It was during his second imprisonment in Rome, in about 65 C.E., that Onesiphorus visited him and that Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy.—2Ti 1:15-17.
Though Paul, Luke, Mark, Timothy, and other first-century Christians visited Rome (Php 1:1; Col 4:10, 14), there is no conclusive evidence that Peter was ever in Rome, as some traditions would have it. The stories about Peter’s martyrdom in Rome are based on tradition.—See PETER, LETTERS OF.
The city of Rome developed a very bad reputation for its persecution of Christians, particularly during the reigns of Nero and Domitian. These persecutions were attributed to two causes: (1) the great evangelizing zeal of Christians to convert others, and (2) Christians’ uncompromising stand in giving to God the things that are God’s rather than giving them to Caesar.—Mr 12:17.
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The Appian Way, over which Paul traveled en route to Rome