Part 6—The Sixth World Power—Rome
The Roman Empire ruled at the time that Christianity began. A better knowledge of ancient Rome will help you understand the circumstances under which Jesus preached and the climate that prevailed as his early followers spread Christianity throughout the then known world.
ROME, the sixth world power of Bible history, was ruling when Jesus was born and when his apostles preached. Greece, the preceding world power, had provided an international language with which Christian teaching could be carried throughout that part of the world—the Koine, or common, Greek. Now Rome provided the conditions and the roads that aided in the rapid spread of Christian truth.
Rome, once a small city in Latium, Italy, grew to head the greatest world empire of ancient Bible times. To start with, it expanded to control the Italian peninsula. It defeated mighty Carthage on the north coast of Africa. Spain, Macedonia, and Greece came under its control. Then it captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E. and made Egypt a Roman province in 30 B.C.E. At its height, this mighty empire stretched from Britain down to Egypt and from Portugal all the way over to Mesopotamia, the land of ancient Babylon. It completely surrounded the Mediterranean, which it called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea).
Many Roman ruins can still be visited throughout the realm of that far-flung empire. You can see Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, the magnificent aqueduct at Segovia in Spain, the Roman theater at Orange, and the arena in Arles (both in southern France). You can walk through the silent ruins of Ostia Antica, near Rome, and marvel at ancient Pompeii, south of Naples. In Rome you can imagine the excited crowds in the Colosseum and see the Arch of Titus that commemorates his destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 C.E., foretold by Jesus more than 35 years in advance.
In ancient Rome the wealthy had large households, with servants and slaves that sometimes numbered in the hundreds. The poor were crowded into multistoried tenements that lined dirty, crooked streets. Very few could be called middle class. The State provided free both a grain allowance and entertainment to keep the poor from rioting. Taxes levied on the provinces paid these expenses.
The Roman Army
The famed Roman army was made up of a number of legions. Each legion, composed of 4,500 to 7,000 men, was a complete army in itself. Its commander was responsible solely to the emperor. A legion was divided into 60 centuries, usually composed of a hundred men each. The century was under the leadership of a centurion, called an “army officer” in the New World Translation. It was a centurion who was in command of the four soldiers who put Jesus to death and who, observing the circumstances and miraculous phenomena surrounding his death, said: “Certainly this was God’s Son.” (Matthew 27:54; John 19:23) It was also a centurion, Cornelius, who was the first uncircumcised non-Jew to become a Christian.—Acts 10:22.
The legions had standards, apparently images or symbols made of wood or metal, that served a purpose similar to that served by modern flags. Considered sacred, these were guarded at the cost of human life. The Encyclopædia Britannica says: “The Roman standards were guarded with religious veneration in the temples of Rome. It was not unusual for a general to order a standard to be cast into the ranks of the enemy, to add zeal to the onset of his soldiers by exciting them to recover what to them was perhaps the most sacred thing the earth possessed.”
Roman Roads and Titles
Rome welded its subject nations into a world empire. It provided roads to make all parts of this empire accessible. And the people traveled! Just look at the list of places from which people had come to Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost 33 C.E. They were from Media far to the northeast, from Rome and North Africa far to the west, and from many places in between.—Acts 2:9-11.
Many of the routes laid down by Roman roadbuilders are still in use today. South of Rome, you can drive along the ancient Appian Way, on which the apostle Paul himself entered Rome. (Acts 28:15, 16) It has been said that the Roman roads “provided facilities for land travel not surpassed until the coming of the railroad.”—The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible.
In governing their far-flung empire, the Romans often retained local customs. Thus, authorities in different areas were known by many different names or titles. In Modern Discovery and the Bible, A. Rendle Short says that even “the recognized Roman historians” would not try to “give all these gentry their correct denomination.” Yet, he says, the Bible writer Luke “always manages to achieve perfect accuracy” in this matter. For example, Luke calls Herod a “tetrarch,” Herod Agrippa a “king,” Thessalonian officials “politarchs,” and Sergius Paulus, governor of Cyprus, “proconsul.” (Luke 3:1; Acts 25:13; Acts 17:6; Acts 13:7; see New World Translation Reference Bible, footnotes.) Sometimes it was just a coin found here or an inscription there that verified that this Bible writer used the right title at the right time. Such care and accuracy are an additional evidence of the truthfulness with which the Bible records the historical facts of the life and times of Jesus Christ.a
The Empire and Christianity
A thriving Christian congregation existed in Rome. It was likely formed by those who returned to Rome after accepting Christianity in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost 33 C.E. (Acts 2:10) The Bible book of Romans was written to this congregation about the year 56 C.E. Later, Paul came to Rome as a prisoner, and for two years he gave a thorough witness to people who visited his house of detention. Thus, members of the emperor’s Praetorian Guard learned of the Kingdom message, and even members of “the household of Caesar” became Christians.—Philippians 1:12, 13; 4:22.
Customs, laws, and regulations of the Roman Empire are often mentioned in the Bible. Augustus’ decree brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Jesus affirmed the propriety of paying the tax that Caesar demanded. Jewish priests pretended loyalty to Caesar in order to get Jesus put to death. And under Roman law, the Christian apostle Paul appealed his case to Caesar.—Luke 2:1-6; 20:22-25; John 19:12, 15; Acts 25:11, 12.
A Roman soldier’s armor—his helmet, breastplate, shield, shod feet, and sword—was used to illustrate the value of truth, the hope of salvation, righteousness, faith, preaching the good news, and God’s Word as defenses that help us to stand firm against Satan’s attacks. (Ephesians 6:10-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:8) It was to the example of a well-disciplined Roman soldier that Paul referred when he told Timothy to be “a fine soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:3, 4) However, the Christian’s warfare was spiritual, not fleshly. Thus, early Christians refused to serve in the Roman army. Justin Martyr (110-165 C.E.) said that Christianity “changed our warlike weapons,—our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage.” Many Christians lost their lives for refusing military service.
Rome reached the pinnacle of its glory under the Caesars. It would be good to review key facts about a few of them, as they were involved in Bible history.
In the year 44 B.C.E., Julius Caesar was assassinated. Octavian eventually became sole ruler. In 30 B.C.E., Octavian subjugated Egypt, bringing an end to the Greek Ptolemaic kingdom there. This brought a final end to the Grecian World Power that had existed since the time of Alexander the Great, 300 years earlier.b
In the year 27 B.C.E., Octavian became emperor. He assumed the title “Augustus,” meaning “exalted, sacred.” He renamed a month for himself and borrowed a day from February so that August would have as many days as the month named after Julius Caesar. Augustus was emperor when Jesus was born, and he ruled until the year 14 C.E.—Luke 2:1.
Tiberius, Augustus’ successor, ruled from 14 to 37 C.E. In the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign, John the Baptizer began to preach. It was also during his reign that Jesus was baptized, performed his three-and-a-half-year earthly ministry, and offered his life as a sacrifice. He was still reigning when Jesus’ followers began to spread Christianity throughout the then known world.—Luke 3:1-3, 23.
Gaius, nicknamed Caligula, ruled from 37 to 41 C.E. Claudius (41-54 C.E.) succeeded him and expelled the Jews from Rome, as is stated at Acts 18:1, 2. He was later poisoned by his wife, and her young son Nero came to the throne. A great fire swept through Rome in July 64 C.E., destroying about a quarter of the city. The historian Tacitus says that to take suspicion off himself, Nero blamed the fire on the Christians, who were then “torn by dogs and perished” and “doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.” During this persecution, Paul, who had preached from Jerusalem to Rome and perhaps even to Spain, was imprisoned for a second time. He was likely killed by Nero about 66 C.E.
Other Roman emperors that interest us include Vespasian (69-79 C.E.) under whose reign Titus destroyed Jerusalem, Titus himself (79-81 C.E.), and Titus’ brother Domitian (81-96 C.E.), who revived the official persecution of Christians. According to tradition, it was during this persecution that the aged apostle John was exiled to the penal isle of Patmos. There he was given the thrilling vision of the conclusion of these wicked human systems of things and their replacement by God’s righteous heavenly Kingdom, which John recorded in the Bible book of Revelation. (Revelation 1:9) John was apparently released during the reign of the next emperor, Nerva, 96-98 C.E., and his Gospel and three letters were completed after Trajan (98-117 C.E.) began to rule.
Decline of the Roman Empire
In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine decided to unify the people under one “Catholic,” or universal, religion. Pagan customs and celebrations were given “Christian” names, but the same old corruption continued. In the year 325 C.E., Constantine presided over the church council at Nicaea and decided in favor of the doctrine of the Trinity. Far from being a true Christian, Constantine soon found reason to kill his eldest son, Crispus, and his own wife, Fausta.
Constantine moved his government to Byzantium, which he first named New Rome and later Constantinople (City of Constantine). This city on the Bosporus, where Europe and Asia meet, remained the capital of the Roman Empire in the east for 11 centuries, till it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
Back in Rome, the western wing of the Roman Empire fell in 476 C.E., when the emperor was deposed by King Odoacer, a general of German descent, and the throne was left vacant. Charlemagne later tried to restore the western empire and in the year 800 C.E. was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. Then, in 962 C.E., Pope John XII crowned Otto I emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation—a title that was renounced only in the year 1806.
However, by that time a seventh and final world power of Bible history was emerging. As prophesied, it too would pass away, to be replaced by a permanent government, God’s heavenly Kingdom.—Revelation 17:10; Daniel 2:44.
b Thus, during Rome’s rule the angel could say about these world powers: “And there are seven kings: five have fallen [Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece], one is [Rome], the other [Anglo-America] has not yet arrived.”—Revelation 17:10.
[Map on page 26]
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The extent of the Roman Empire
[Picture on page 28]
The Appian Way on which Paul traveled on his way to Rome