02.01.15 Romans. The Roman Empire belted the Mediterranean Sea, at times called a Roman lake, and extended into Europe. It eventually included twelve language groups and was so huge that Rome could hardly administer. In 63 B.C., the Roman General Pompey easily took control of Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in a battle that cost the lives of twelve thousand men, women, and children. The Romans were seen as a friend by some, as an enemy by others; but soon all discovered them to be incredible oppressors.
The Roman military power brought forth a fearful peace known as Pax Romana meaning peace to Rome and quiet to the provinces. At the head of this incredible empire was a single man, Octavianus Caesar – now better known by his imposing title, Caesar – who ruled as absolute lord and dictator. His continuous challenge however, was to maintain peace over the three rebellious Jewish provinces of Galilee, Perea, and Judea. Between the years 63 B.C. and the so-called “First Revolt” in A.D. 66, there were 13 revolts and many riots.
As to philosophical and religious values, the Romans adopted beliefs from the Greeks, Etruscans, and Epicureans. They enjoyed the Greek culture with all its gods and goddesses, but while many believed in these religious myths, agnosticism became increasingly commonplace. Emperors considered themselves to be gods and by the end of the first century (A.D.), Emperor Domitian required his subjects to offer sacrifices to him and to call him “Lord and God.”
The Roman world was one wherein a small aristocratic group controlled the wealth and power while a massive peasantry produced a large agricultural surplus and, to a smaller extent, the other necessary products. The common people in occupied lands, such as the Jews of Judaea, were essentially economic slaves. They were taxed so heavily that they lived in constant poverty without any hope of escape. Hence, they had a dire hope that a messiah would come to deliver them. However, any action or discussion that could have been interpreted as leading to a possible revolt resulted in death. The Romans were especially sensitive to a possible revolt, not only for national pride, but also because the Jewish land was the frontier to the rising Parthian Empire in the east. And Israel was the most problematic region they had to govern – riots and rumors of riots and rebellions were constantly in the air.
Historians tend to be cruel in their comments about the Romans, and do not give them credit or grace for anything. But in fact, while the Romans were cruel, they did make some attempts to be considerate of their Jewish subjects. For example,
- Emperor Augustus and his wife sent brazen wine vessels to the temple in Jerusalem along with other costly gifts. Philo says that Augustus personally also provided two lambs and an ox for sacrifice, but Josephus said the cost was borne by the Jewish people.
- No demand was ever made upon the Jews, except during the reign of Caligula, for them to worship the emperor. All other people groups of the empire, including the Samaritans, worshiped the emperor along with local deities.
- All the emperors, to and including Vespasian, attempted to honor Jewish sensitivities by not minting coins for circulation in Judea with the image of the emperor or a Roman god, but these coins only had his name and traditional Jewish emblems. However, coins minted in other provinces did have his image and often his claim of divinity. For example, in the year 4 B.C. Emperor Augustus minted a coin with his image and the words “son of God,” meaning he was the son of the god Apollo. These coins were at times carried by pilgrims to Jerusalem festivals where they became the subject of debate and controversies. Such a coin was given to Jesus – one with the idolatrous image on one side and the legend of Jewish subjection on the other.
- The Romans respected the Jews by not bringing any image that represented the emperor or Rome. Unfortunately, as is explained elsewhere, Pilate violated this policy shortly after he took control of Judea. Nonetheless, the Romans for the most part, honored this practice. For example, when Vitellius, the legate of Syria marched against Aretas, an Arabian king, he was about to cross Jewish lands. Since Roman soldiers always carried the likeness of the emperor on their standards, the Jews objected. According to Josephus, he rerouted his march as not to offend the Jews and the images of the emperor never entered Jewish lands.
- The Romans granted the Jewish people religious freedom. Judaism was one of the recognized religions of the empire, but not so with Christianity. Everyone had to worship Julius Caesar as a “son of a god,” but not the Jewish people. In fact, Judaism was under Roman protection as evidenced in two accounts reported by Josephus.
- When the pagan residents of Dora erected a statue of the emperor in the synagogue, the Jews went to the legate Petronius who ordered the statue to be removed.
- When a soldier destroyed a Torah scroll, he was put to death by the procurator Cumanus.
In response to Roman kindness, the Jewish people in the diaspora prayed for the emperor in their synagogue services. It is unknown if the Jews in Galilee, Perea, and Judea did likewise.
. The historical periods of Rome are as follows: Roman Kingdom 753-509 B.C.; Roman Republic 509-27 B.C.; Roman Empire 27 B.C. – A.D. 476.
. Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 423. See “Pax Romana” in Appendix 26.
. Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus. 72-73; Mellowes and Cran, Executive Producers. From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. (DVD). Part 1.
. See Appendix 25 for a listing of false prophets who had messianic expectations and for a partial listing of revolts and social disturbances from 63 B.C. to A.D. 70.
. The Etruscans lived centuries earlier northwest of Rome. Their influence continued but was minimal.
. Agnosticism is the belief that the existence of God is unknown and probably unknowable.
. Metzger, New Testament. 61.
 The subject of high taxation that resulted in economic slavery is presented by Josephus, Antiquities 17.11.2 (307-308). See also 02.03.03 “Economy” and 03.06.04 “4 B.C. The Death of Herod the Great.”
. Crossan, Who Killed Jesus. 39.
. Josephus, Wars 5.13.6; Philo, Legat. Ad Cajum 37.
. Philo, Legat. Ad Cajum 23; Josephus, Wars 2.10.4 and 17.2-46; Schurer, The History of the Jewish People. First Division, 2:76.
. Suetonius, Deified Augustus 94.4; Franz, http://www.lifeandland.org/2009/02/the-angelic-proclamation-to-the-shepherds-luke-28-15/
. Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 2:419.
. Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.3.
. Mellowes and Cran, Producers. From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. (DVD). Part 1.
. Josephus, Antiquities 19.6.3.
. Josephus, Antiquities 20.5.4; Wars 2.12.2.