Greece was not the last western influence on Israel, and another, more powerful empire came out of the central Mediterranean. This empire was Rome, and there was quite a bit of contention between the Romans and the Jews, ending in a major Jewish Diaspora. The history of Rome and the Jews (and later the Christians) is highly intertwined, and Rome may have been the single most influential force on European history to date. The Romans, their ideals, and the consequences of their rule will stay with us through at least the next one thousand years of our history series, even after the empire itself fell victim to the unending march of Time.
The Beginnings of Rome through the Republic to the Empire
Rome had humble beginnings as a city among seven hills in central Italy, and it was probably settled as early as 1000 BCE. Just like any other city, it started out as a small settlement, nothing even remotely like a city. The Romans themselves believed the founding to be 753 BCE, and that was the year they celebrated as their city’s founding. It was at first ruled by Etruscan kings, but that soon gave way to a more representative form of government known as a republic – soon being about 200 years. The Republic was initiated in 510BCE, and it had a Senate consisting of land-owning males. The Senate appointed two consuls, who would rule like a dual king, but the term limit was one year. This ensured turnover and rule benefiting the people, because a tyrant was unable to consolidate power quickly enough. Even if he had, the Senate could remove him and replace the tyrant with a more benevolent consul. The dual nature of it ensured the direction of the government stemmed from at least two different minds. This was actually a very effective form of government, and it lasted for 500 years until the 20s BCE. During the Republic, the influence of Rome spread, and the city pulled more and more territory into its orbit.
The Republic was really an empire, as it ruled over various people with their own cultures and languages. Today we differentiate it from “The Roman Empire”, because, even though it fit most of the definition of an empire, it still had consuls. That all changed with an ambitious general. Julius Caesar was assigned to Gaul (modern France) and conquered additional territory without official orders. Then he marched on Rome itself. This struggle was part of the Roman Civil Wars, which occurred at the end of the Republic. Caesar marched into Rome and became the dictator of the entire empire. The Empire officially begins with Augustus, Caesar’s successor, when he received extraordinary powers from the Senate. This is the point when the Republic was transformed into a true empire. For us, though, Israel fell under Roman rule during the Republic, so let’s back up a bit to 63 BCE.
Israel falls under Roman authority and revolts
In the early 1st century BCE, the Romans granted the Hasmonean king some authority under the Roman governor of the city of Damascus. However, the Jews did not particularly like the ruler, and they revolted several times. In 37BCE, Herod became king of the Roman province of Judea, courtesy of the Romans. He was a great builder and even remodeled the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews, however, did not like him, either. Then, right before the birth of Jesus, Israel came under direct Roman rule (it had been governed by proxies). The Romans did not approve of the Jewish way of life, often because they refused to recognize the Roman gods. One practice that made the Romans so successful in building an empire was their inclusion of local gods into the pantheon. They were happy to have more gods, and the local people were happy to keep their own. The monotheism of Judaism, however, does not allow this amalgamation of gods – there should only be one, true God. Hence the conflicts.
Jesus was born into this conflict. His birth year traditionally is the year 0, but scholars think it is more likely to be about year 4 BCE. Either way, this gives some context into Jesus’s life, as He lived at a time that Jewish life and culture was being threatened by the Romans more and more. In fact, not long after His death, the Jews revolted again in 66 CE. The Romans had grown quite weary of the rebellious Jews and decided to end their uprisings once and for all.
Rebellion and Decimation
The first Jewish-Roman War broke out, but by 70CE, the Roman forces under Titus and Vespasian crushed the resisting Jewish forces. Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the Temple destroyed. It is thought that Titus did not intend to destroy the Temple, partially as his predecessor, Herod, had spent plenty of money remodeling it just a few decades earlier. Regardless of intentions, the city and the Temple were completely destroyed, and according to a scholar at the time, over one million people perished, mostly Jewish. A further 100,000 were enslaved. Others simply fled Judea for other parts of the empire. Today, these numbers are considered impossible, but nonetheless, it was an extremely destructive event in Jewish history.
The event is also a splitting point between Christianity and Judaism. The nascent religion of Christianity was still closely tied to Judaism at the time, but the siege was a catalyst for the split. Christians started to differentiate themselves from Jews, and some claimed the destruction of the Temple was punishment for rejecting the teachings and Messianic nature of Jesus. Furthermore, the despair brought by the second destruction of the Temple and the complete domination of Rome brought some Jews into Christianity.
Moreover, the active pressuring of the Jewish people from Rome accelerated migration. In Jewish history, from the end of the siege in 73CE, the Diaspora becomes a permanent state for the Jews. They are never allowed to rule over their homeland from this time until the 20th century when Israel was reestablished as a Jewish state in the former British territory. The Jews had to live in exile from their homeland, often hanging on to their traditions by maintaining close-knit communities external to the host culture. Many others, though, assimilated into the local culture and disappeared from the annals of the Jewish timeline. At any rate, here was a major turning point in the history of the Abrahamic religions.
The rule of Rome over Judea lasted until 313CE, so the Romans will be with us for a while. Even after the end of Roman rule in Judea, the Roman Empire was instrumental in launching Christianity into a true world religion. The Abrahamic religions would no longer be confined to small kingdoms in the Middle East but become a dispersed religion consisting of converts. Then Rome will become the center of the Catholic Church, dominating Europe throughout the Middle Ages. That does not even touch upon the eastern half of the Empire centered in Constantinople, but that will all be mentioned in future articles. The next article will focus on the life of Jesus during this time of upheaval in Jewish history, and we will start exploring the basis for the rest of the series, which will focus now on the history of Christianity.