Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Gen Eds H8a: The Roman Empire

Arch of Titus,
celebrating victory over Jews
The eighth unit of world history in this series is "The Age of Rome."

This is part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. The series consists of ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
Caesar Augustus
1. After some five hundred years as a republic, the Roman elite traded in their right to self-govern for the security and potential peace of an emperor. [1] In 27BC, Augustus became the first emperor of Rome. After decades of civil war, he ushered in a peace that came to be known as the Pax Romana or the Pax Augusta, the "peace of Augustus."

Augustus did largely clear the Mediterranean of pirates and the Roman roads of thieves and highwaymen. He extended the Roman roads which shot straight as an arrow around the empire. Under his reign, the Romans added Egypt to their control and completed the conquest of Spain. They also inched northward into Germania.

Perhaps of most interest to Christians is the fact that Jesus was born during his reign, in about 6BC.

2. The first five emperors of Rome were Augustus (27BC-AD14), Tiberius (14-37), Caligula (37-41), Claudius (41-54), and Nero (54-68). [2] These are probably the five kings mentioned in Revelation 17:10. Jesus conducted his earthly ministry under the reign of Tiberius, as did John the Baptist. He was the specific Caesar in view when Jesus said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Matt.22:21).

Caligula was assassinated. In 39 he had the insane idea of setting up a statue of himself in the temple of Jerusalem. The Roman governor wisely procrastinated. The order for Petronius to commit suicide only arrived after Caligula was dead.

Paul's mission took place under the rules of Claudius and Nero. Under Claudius, Christian Jews were expelled from Rome, including Priscilla and Aquila, who were part of the Pauline mission. 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians seem certainly written during Claudius' reign. His other writings would then have come during the reign of Nero.

Nero is likely the king that Revelation refers to as one who had a fatal wound that had healed (Rev. 13:12; 17:11). [3] The title "Caesar Nero" adds up to 666 if you treat the letters as numbers rather than letters (Rev. 13:18). It was Nero that crucified the apostle Peter and beheaded Paul. And Nero was emperor when Paul wrote Romans 13:1. And anyone reading 1 Peter 2:17 would have initially thought of Nero.

He committed suicide in the year 68.

The Flavians
3. The Jewish War took place from 66-72. It was a revolt of the Jews against Rome, an attempt to free themselves from its rule. It failed of course, effectively ending in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. [4] Much of Mark 13 likely refers to various events of this war. There is a tradition, for example, that the believers of Jerusalem did flee to Pella in keeping with Mark 13:14. Luke understands this verse to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20). [5]

After the death of Nero, 69 was the Year of Four Emperors. Two were murdered and one committed suicide. This made way for Vespasian to become emperor (69-79), who at the time had surrounded Jerusalem with the Roman army. His son Titus would complete the siege and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Mark and Matthew were likely finished during the time of Vespasian, Hebrews also in my dating.

Titus then reigned after his father (79-81), and then his other son Domitian (81-96). Luke-Acts was likely written during these reigns. John and Revelation are traditionally dated to the reign of Domitian (or we might suggest they reached their current form at that time). 79 was the year when the volcano Vesuvius erupted, freezing the city of Pompeii in time.

From Nerva to Commodus (96-192)
4. The next five emperors enjoyed relatively peaceful reigns (the Five Good Emperors), although it is during this era that we begin to see a rise in the martyrdom of early Christians. Ignatius of Antioch was put to death around 110 by Trajan (98-117). A governor by the name of Pliny the Younger would write Trajan about that time about how Christianity had permeated the countryside of Pontus where he was governing. He put to death those who were too stubborn to renounce their allegiance to this competing king, Christ.

The early Christian Polycarp died during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-61), although he was put to death by a governor for refusing to burn incense to the emperor. He was 86 years old at the time. Emperor worship had become standard during this time and is possibly alluded to in Revelation 16:2.

Hadrian's Wall (AD122)
Justin "Martyr" was put to death under Marcus Aurelius (161-180). Marcus Aurelius is famous for his grand Stoic philosophy in the secular world, but we might know him better for his actions toward this famous Christian. The reign of Commodus (177-92) is often thought to be a turning point in the history of the empire, perhaps the beginning of its decline. [6]

Under the emperor Hadrian (117-38), the famed "Hadrian's Wall" was built in Britannia. The Romans had ruled southern Britain from the days of Claudius. They would continue to dominate there until 410, the year when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths.

6. Commodus was strangled to death. After him, twenty-five of the next twenty-six emperors died violently, mostly by murder, although a small number were either executed, died in war, or committed suicide. One of the only ones to die of natural causes was Septimus Severus (193-211). [7]

This political instability clearly was part of Rome's decline. In addition, it was overstretched, with an empire that stretched from Britain to Egypt. It's population began to decline, not least because of plague in the 200s. In 212, the emperor Caracella granted Roman citizenship to everyone in the empire, in an attempt to increase the Roman base. Many soldiers were foreigners, who lacked the loyalty or chance of advancement leading them to fight as earlier generations had.

But the emperors could not administrate the empire's wide holdings, and Germanic tribes increasingly became a preoccupation to the north. Trade declined significantly. The historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94) controversially suggested that Christianity weakened the empire because it undermined traditional devotion to the state. Many, however, disagree with this hypothesis.

In general, this part of Roman history is sometimes called the "crisis of the third century." In 284, the Roman empire was more or less split into three different empires: Gaul (France), Palmyra (Turkey, Palestine, Egypt), and the Roman center (including Spain). Aurelian (270-75) reunited it in 284, marking what is sometimes considered the dividing point between the time of classical and late antiquity.

An important year from a Christian perspective was 250, when the emperor Decius (249-51) made an edict requiring all Romans to offer a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a Roman magistrate. Decius was trying to restore traditional Roman values, attempting to revive the empire. It of course created a crisis for Christians, who could not in good conscience do so. The result was the worst persecution of Christians yet. Decius was killed in battle the next year against the Goths.

7. Christians enjoyed about 40 years of tolerance until the emperor Diocletian (284-305). In 303 he initiated the last and most intense of the Roman persecutions. He purged the Roman military of all Christians, burned copies of Scriptures, forbade public worship, and demanded sacrifices to Roman gods. Perhaps some 3000 Christians were put to death.

One effort Diocletian made to try to save the empire was to divide it into two administrative jurisdictions. In 285, he appointed Maximian as a subordinate co-ruler in Rome, while he focused his his rule from Byzantium in the east.

Constantine the Great (306-337)
8. Constantine was in Britain on a military campaign when his soldiers acclaimed him as emperor in 306. In the year 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine is reputed to have seen a vision of the cross in the sky with the words, "In this sign you will conquer" written beneath. After the battle, he had solidified his status as emperor in the west. In 324 he beat the claimant to rule in the east, becoming the sole emperor of the whole empire.

He shifted the capital of the Roman empire to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople in 330. This half of the Roman Empire would become the Byzantine Empire and continue to exist until the Ottoman Turks took the city in 1453.

Constantine is perhaps better known for the imprint he left on Christianity, although whether that impact was ultimately more positive or negative is a matter of dispute. On the one hand, he made Christianity a legal religion with the Edict of Milan in 313. In the year 325, he summoned the Council of Nicaea in hope that Christians might come to some agreement on the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ. The result would become official in the Nicene Creed that was finalized in 381 at the Council of Constantinople.

Constantine himself was not baptized until his deathbed, perhaps because he was unsure whether sins committed after baptism could be forgiven.

9. In 381, Theodosius 1 (379-95) made Nicene Christianity the only legal religion of the empire. Contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not force the Roman empire to become Christian. It was Theodosius, 44 years after his death, who did so.

For a brief time, Julian the Apostate (360-63), half-brother of Constantine, tried to reverse the Christian trajectory of the empire. He revoked all the monies and lands Constantine had given to the church and forbade "Galileans" (Christians) from being teachers of rhetoric and grammar. In Julian is the lesson that often before a trajectory of history reaches its final destination, there is a final gasp of the dying resistance. So it was that after Nicaea, Arianism had a massive resurgence before it finally lost the historical battle.

Fall of Rome
Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410. The sacking would not stop until the final emperor (at least in name), Romulus, was overthrown by Odoacer. This event, in 479, is often considered the end of the Western Roman empire.

A final push to restore the Roman empire took place under the eastern emperor Justinian I (527-65), who is sometimes called "the last Roman." His soldiers retook Italy from the Visigoths, North Africa from the Vandals, and even the southernmost part of Spain. But the problem of over-extension simply returned, and these lands fell away again in the years after his death.

Justinian enacted legal reforms that are still part of civil law in the modern age, the so called Code of Justinian. At the same time, Justinian is known for finally closing Plato's Academy in 529, considered by some to be the beginning of the Dark Ages. An outbreak of bubonic plague largely ended the cultural flourishing of his reign in the 540s.

  • In times of great danger or conflict, people will often surrender their freedoms or core values for security.
  • Over-extension, especially when coupled with oppressive taxation, is a frequent characteristic of empires and organizations right before their final decline.
  • Persecution sometimes strengthens your enemy. What doesn't kill them makes them stronger.
  • If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
  • There is often a final gasp of opposition before a historical trajectory is definitively established.
  • A comfortable movement often becomes a weak movement.
Next Week: History 8b: The Roman Republic

[1] The imagery of Star Wars partially comes from this transition from republic to empire.

[2] The Julio-Claudian line.

[3] Anyone reading Revelation 17:9 initially would have thought of Rome when it mentions a city of kings with seven hills. Similarly, "Babylon" was a well-known cipher for Rome after Rome destroyed Jerusalem as Babylon had six hundred years earlier (cf. Rev. 18).

[4] Although technically we might say it officially ended with the taking of Masada in AD72.

[5] There are a number of places where I consider some evangelical scholarship to come up lacking on obvious conclusions because of putting tradition over evidence. In my opinion, no one putting the emphasis on the evidence will conclude that Luke-Acts was written before the destruction of the temple. Similarly, the way Matthew 22:7 is presented seems to confirm that Matthew was also written after the destruction of the temple.

[6] The movie Gladiator fictionally has Commodus poison his father Marcus Aurelius. However, there is no evidence of this.

[7] I feel quite confident that the character Severus Snape in Harry Potter was named after him.

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