Later Christian writers looked back to the origin of their faith and saw the work of divine providence in the coincidence of the birth of Jesus and the reign of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Under Augustus and his successors, the empire stretched from the northwest corner of Europe to Egypt and from Mauritania to the Black Sea. It brought fifty million or more inhabitants under relatively stable rule—an ideal setting for the growth of a new religion.

Rome Before the Emperors.

Roman imperial institutions and ideas of citizenship went back to the Republic and Rome's origin as a city‐state. According to tradition, the city of Rome (Map 14:B2) was founded by Romulus and Remus in 753 BCE at the northern edge of the plain of Latium in central peninsular Italy. Initially, the city‐state was ruled by a king with the advice of the Senate, a council of elders from Rome's leading families who served for life. Important decisions, such as declarations of war, were ratified by an assembly of citizen‐soldiers. The last king was expelled in 509 BCE, and his function was assumed by a pair of consuls elected annually by the citizen assembly from the body of senators. Later political thinkers interpreted these institutions as a mixed constitution with elements of monarchy (consuls), aristocracy (senate), and democracy (assembly), but in reality the senatorial aristocracy seems to have been most influential in making decisions.

Rome began its expansion in Latium as early as the regal period, but it was not until 338 BCE that Roman hegemony there was secured. From that base Rome came to dominate Italy by 270 BCE and the western Mediterranean following the two great wars against Carthage (264–241 BCE and 218–201 BCE); then the Romans moved quickly to establish hegemony over the whole Mediterranean basin with the defeat of Philip V of Macedonia (197 BCE) and Antiochus III of the Seleucid empire in Syria (189 BCE). Rome dominated from the early second century BCE but annexed these areas as provinces only slowly over the next century and a half. Syria and parts of Asia Minor came under direct Roman rule as a result of Pompey's eastern campaigns in the 60s BCE.

Rome's unparalleled victories yielded vast concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of some citizens. The world empire left the city‐state constitution and idea of citizenship outdated. Roman citizenship, a status inherited from citizen parents, had formerly entailed privileges of participation in politics in the city and responsibility for military service. As Roman power spread, though, citizenship was diffused well beyond the city by the establishment of citizen colonies in Italy and abroad and by selective grant to the conquered (first to their Latin neighbors, then to all free Italians). Participation in voting assemblies in the city of Rome was impracticable for most of these new citizens, yet citizenship continued to bestow privileged status, legal rights to marry and make contracts under Roman law, and provocatio (protection of a citizen from arbitrary whipping or execution by magistrates through appeal to higher authorities).

The traditional Republican constitution was ultimately inadequate to the tasks of governing a vast empire abroad and of containing political competition at home. In striving with each other to attain the highest honors, senators resorted to escalating violence, culminating in two decades of civil war initiated by Julius Caesar in 49 BCE and finished by his adopted son, Augustus, who established himself as the first emperor.

Roman Imperial Social Structure.

Augustus sought to legitimize his new regime by claiming to restore the Respublica and incorporating Republican institutions and aristocratic families. He styled himself princeps or first citizen, a traditional title for the leader of the Senate that avoided drawing attention to his autocracy. As part of his program of restoration, Augustus reaffirmed the traditional social order and strengthened its hierarchical divisions. It was a hierarchy based on wealth, respectable birth, and citizenship. High rank was marked by special clothing, the best seats at public spectacles, and various legal privileges.

At the top of the hierarchy were six hundred senators, propertied citizens of great wealth (at least one million sesterces or about one thousand times the annual salary of a legionary) who were chosen for the traditional senatorial offices at Rome. Equestrians or knights held second rank; they were citizens of free birth who possessed a census of at least four hundred thousand sesterces. Through the centuries of the empire they were recruited to serve in the imperial administration in increasing numbers. In addition to this imperial elite, each of the thousands of cities of the empire had its own local aristocracy from which was chosen a governing council consisting of a hundred or so of the town's wealthiest men (many of whom did not have Roman citizenship). These leisured elites became collectively known by the early second century CE as the honestiores or “more honorable men,” in contrast to the humbler masses or humiliores, who constituted more than 90 percent of the population.

Several important distinctions of status divided ordinary working people. There were the citizens, concentrated mainly in Italy in Augustus's day but increasingly scattered throughout the provinces by the settlement of colonies and by imperial grant to favored individuals and communities. Noncitizen free provincials formed a huge amorphous group. The empire encompassed enormous cultural variation between city and countryside, and between regions. If Latin was spoken by the urban elites of the western empire and Greek was the primary tongue in the eastern cities, ordinary provincials continued to speak their native tongues, whether it be Aramaic in Palestine or the Punic language around Carthage. They also continued to worship their own gods, which in some cases were assimilated to the Roman gods. Roman emperors and officials could be sensitive to the cultural diversity: the early governors of Judea tried to avoid affronts to Jewish monotheism, but later ones were less careful. When Florus attempted to take a large sum from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem in 66 CE, he provoked a fierce rebellion that required seven years, the destruction of Jerusalem, and widespread slaughter to suppress.

Beneath the free population in the social hierarchy were slaves. Slavery as an institution was taken for granted; there were no serious abolitionist movements in antiquity. Slaves formed a substantial proportion of the population in Italy (perhaps one‐third), where they were heavily involved in all aspects of economic production. In most of the provinces slaves were common only as domestic servants. By law, slaves were property who could be bought or sold, beaten or tortured at the owner's whim. As the attitudes of owners varied, so also did the living conditions of slaves.

Imperial Political and Administrative Structures.

The emperor ruled the peoples of the empire from Rome with the help of men chosen from the elites; with the demise of Republican elections, the popular voice in politics was lost. The capital city had a population of about one million and encompassed extremes of wealth and poverty, lavish public monuments and filthy, cramped apartments. Much of the population, perhaps even a majority, was made up of slaves and freedmen from the eastern Mediterranean, Germany, and elsewhere. Rome was able to grow to be the largest city of pre‐industrial Europe because of the privileges of conquest: provincial agriculture was taxed, and part of the grain was sent to Rome to feed the masses. To keep the urban plebs quiet, the emperor also put on various spectacles, including the gladiatorial fights and wild beast hunts, in which some Christians met their end. Despite the food distributions and public entertainment, violence occasionally broke out in the city, prompting emperors to expel foreigners or to find scapegoats. So Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (see Acts 18.2), and Nero began the official persecution of Christians when he needed scapegoats to blame for the great fire of 64 CE.

Italy was the land of citizens. As such, it was privileged with exemption from the land tax until the late third century CE. No governors were set over Italy; administration was largely left to the municipalities, with important matters referred to imperial officials in Rome.

Beyond Italy lay the Roman imperium, including client kings and directly ruled provinces. The Romans were slow to annex areas around the Mediterranean as provinces because they lacked a developed administrative apparatus. It was convenient to leave the governing of some peripheral areas to local kings in return for support of Rome in matters of foreign policy through occasional tribute and troops for Roman wars. Client kings paid heed to the authority of the emperor and the senior governors of nearby provinces. Accounts of the reign of Herod the Great, the best‐known client king, illustrate how dependent he was on the continuing goodwill of the emperor and his officials, which he curried by careful attention to their wishes as well as by gifts and bribes. Gradually, as in Palestine, the client kingdoms were added to the list of directly ruled provinces.

The several dozen provinces were administered by governors sent out from Rome. Their two principal concerns were the maintenance of law and order and the collection of taxes. Roman administration can be characterized as general oversight by a handful of imperial officials who relied on local leaders. The major provinces were governed by senators in different capacities. Provinces with legions were administered by imperial legates appointed by the emperor from among those senators he considered most reliable. Syria, with the largest legionary army of the eastern empire, was a province of this type. Major provinces without armies, such as Achaea, where supervised by senatorial proconsuls chosen in the Senate. Judea from 6 CE was one of those lesser provinces administered by equestrians (initially army officers called prefects, then imperial agents with the title of procurator). All governors held broad authority, limited by their responsibility to the emperor, who issued some instructions for administration (mandata); equestrian procurators also occasionally received guidance from senatorial governors of neighboring provinces.

Governors were accompanied to their provinces by minimal staffs, including friends and relatives who acted as advisory councils. The meager staffs were supplemented by military officers and soldiers acting as major figures of authority in provincial administration (as in Acts 22.23–30; 27.1). In their judicial capacity, governors heard the cases of Roman citizens who were subject to Roman law, and also adjudicated some other serious cases. For the most part, noncitizens were subject to local law and custom, and were left to local magistrates (Acts 16.19–23). Roman governors, reluctant to become entangled in squabbles among the natives, were often content to hold local leaders responsible for the preservation of order in their noncitizen communities. This tacit arrangement explains both the worry of Caiaphas that disorder would provoke violent suppression from Rome (John 11.49–50) and the aloofness of the Roman proconsul Gallio when Paul was brought before him (Acts 18.12–17). It also accounts for the slow and sporadic pattern of persecution of the Christians before 250 CE. Roman governors were instructed to punish with death anyone brought before them who persistently admitted to being a Christian, but they were not actively to seek out Christians. As a result, in the province of Africa the first execution on the charge of Christianity did not come until about 180 CE.

Most provincials encountered Roman government over the matter of taxes—taxes on the land, on the people who worked the land, on goods moving across provincial borders, on inheritances, on sales in the market, to name but a few. The Romans did not impose a uniform tax system on conquest, but usually took over local arrangements and contracted out the collection to private agents, the publicani, infamous for their rapacious methods of enrichment (see Publicans). Julius Caesar began to phase out these middlemen at the highest levels, but they continued into the Principate to collect indirect taxes, such as custom duties. In order to assess the main land and head taxes, imperial officials occasionally carried out censuses in which provincials were required to register themselves and their property. The imperial legate Quirinius oversaw such a census in Judea in 60 CE, which, on grounds of date and Roman administrative procedures, seems to be impossible to reconcile with the account in Luke 2.1–5 (see Christmas; Chronology, article on Early Christian Chronology).

In Augustus's day, the resources of the Roman empire were sufficient to fulfill the relatively light demands of the state, but they were limited by the agricultural base and the stagnant technology of the economy. Under the Christian emperors of the later empire, increasing demands for money and recruits to support the growing army and bureaucracy were met by more determined resistance. As the “barbarian” tribes pressed ever‐harder against the frontiers, the limits left emperors unable to ward off the threats. In 410 CE, the Eternal City was sacked by Alaric and his Visigoths; the last Roman emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the German leader Odoacer in 476 CE.

See also Roman Army; Tribute and Taxation, article on Roman Empire


Richard P. Saller