The Roman Empire and the Greco-Roman World at the Time of the New Testament

The first-century Roman world of the NT lay culturally at the intersection of Hellenism (Greek language and culture) and Roman imperial rule. Hence, to understand this world, it is important first to explore the spread of Hellenism and the rise of Roman might.


Although the Greeks had settled and conducted commerce throughout the Mediterranean world long before Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.), this Macedonian conqueror is most associated with the spread of Hellenistic (i.e., Greek) culture. Alexander, tutored in Greek philosophy and culture by Aristotle, inherited the reins of Macedonian and Greek leadership from his father, Philip, in 336 b.c. In short order, Alexander marched through Asia Minor, continued south through Syria and Palestine, was welcomed as ruler of Egypt, and conquered the forces of Persia. Alexander was received with awe in many of these lands, which led their inhabitants (esp. members of the various ruling elites) to accelerate their reception of Hellenistic culture—including Greek language, education, and religion.

In 330 b.c. Alexander received the title of “Great King” of Persia. Yet his short life ended in 323 b.c.without a clear successor. Eventually a few of Alexander’s generals (later termed the Diadochoi, meaning “successors”) claimed different portions of his former territory, establishing their own dynastic lines—the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Seleucids of Persia (and portions of Asia Minor), and the Antigonids of Macedon (see map, The Empires of Daniel’s Visions: The Greeks).

As it had so frequently before, Judea again lay between the competing powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Although first under Ptolemaic control, Judea was absorbed into the Seleucid Empire (198 b.c.) during the reign of Antiochus III “the Great” (see maps, The Empires of Daniel’s Visions: Early and The Empires of Daniel’s Visions: Late). The appeal of Hellenism was not lost on the Judeans, and some sought a wholesale adoption of Greek practices through sending their sons to Greek secondary schools. Pro- and anti-Hellenistic factions formed in Judea. Meanwhile, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV “Epiphanes,” desiring a subservient and financially supportive Judea, decided to force Hellenistic religious practices on the Jewish people. Circumcision was declared illegal, scriptural texts were destroyed, and pagan worship was instituted. In 168/167 b.c. the Jerusalem temple was despoiled, as prophesied in Daniel (Dan. 11:31; cf. 9:27; 12:11; 1 Macc. 1:54); Jesus draws on this image of the “abomination of desolation” in reference to future events (Matt. 24:15–16).

In reaction to the policies of Antiochus IV, the Hasmonean family (also known as the Maccabees) launched an uprising led by Mattathias and his sons (esp. Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan, and Simon). A combination of guerilla warfare and larger geopolitics (esp. Seleucid losses in Asia Minor and internal coups) led to the success of this Jewish rebellion (see map, The Maccabean Kingdom). For several decades Jews regained autonomy over Judea. The Hasmoneans established their own royal dynasty, with Jonathan also proclaiming himself high priest (152 b.c.) although he was not of the proper Zadokite lineage. Many of the Jewish factions known during the time of the NT (e.g., Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) likely stem from reactions pro and con to the Hasmonean reign.

Meanwhile, in the west, Roman power was growing. Successive wars with Carthage and Macedon left Rome victorious over the western Mediterranean by 146 b.c. Roman expansion continued eastward toward Syria (see map, The Rise of the Roman Empire). In 63 b.c. Pompey marched into Jerusalem and entered the temple. Feuding Judean leaders found that the surest way to secure the Judean crown was to align oneself with Rome. Herod the Great, who was not even fully Jewish, befriended Rome and thus captured for himself the kingship of Judea and surrounding territories (37–4 b.c.; see note on Matt. 2:1and map, The Setting of Matthew).

The Rise of the Roman Empire

c. 753 b.c.a.d. 117

From its earliest beginnings as a small kingdom centered in Rome, the Roman Empire eventually grew to become one of the most powerful empires the world has ever known. After solidifying control over the Italian peninsula, the Romans fought a series of wars (the Punic Wars) with the growing Carthaginian Empire and absorbed their territory in Africa and Hispania. Pushing eastward into Greece, Asia, and Syria, and westward into Gallia (Gaul) and western Hispania, the Romans continued to expand their territory until they ruled the entire Mediterranean region by a.d. 117.

The Rise of the Roman Empire

However, Roman internal politics were far from stable in the first century b.c. The historic rule of the Roman senate was diminishing with Roman military expansion. The senate attempted to play various generals (notably Julius and Pompey) off one another. In 49 b.c. Julius crossed the Rubicon River beyond his allotted territory, won handily against Pompey, and assumed dicatatorial power. A later senatorial revolt led to the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 b.c.). Quickly a new alliance was formed as Antony and Octavian defeated the senatorial rebels at Philippi (42 b.c.). Friction arose between these men, and eventually Octavian destroyed the forces of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium (31 b.c.). By 27b.c. Octavian received the title “Augustus,” and the lifelong tribuneship was his in 23. The empire had begun. Throughout much of the NT period the family of Augustus held the imperial title (see chart).

Augustus31 b.c.a.d. 14
Tiberiusa.d. 14–37
Gaius Caligulaa.d. 37–41
Claudiusa.d. 41–54
Neroa.d. 54–68

Judean politics after Herod the Great continued in subjection to Rome. Herod’s last will was validated by Augustus, leaving Herod Antipas over Galilee and territory to the north (4 b.c.a.d. 39; see notes onMatt. 14:1; Mark 6:14a), Herod Philip over northern Transjordan (4 b.c.a.d. 34; see note on Luke 3:1), and Archelaus over Judea (4 b.c.a.d. 6; see note on Matt. 2:22 and map, The Setting of Matthew). The Romans, judging the rule of Archelaus to be inadequate, removed him in favor of a string of Roman governors over Judea. The most famous of these governors, Pontius Pilate (who reigned a.d. 26–36), was much despised for his despotic acts (see note on Luke 23:1). Favor with Rome allowed Herod’s grandson Agrippa I to rule briefly over Judea (a.d. 41–44; see notes on Acts 12:1; 12:20–25), but his early death again left the governorship of Judea in the hands of Roman procurators. The Jewish historian Josephus graphically depicts the unwise and often heinous acts of this string of procurators.

Eventually anger with Rome spilled over into the Jewish revolt (a.d. 66–73/74). The Romans could not permit rebellion in any of their territories, let alone in an important commercial trade center such as Palestine. Thus Vespasian and his son Titus (both future emperors) were sent as generals to suppress the rebellion, which they accomplished with precision and cruelty (see map, The First Jewish Revolt). The destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple (a.d. 70) transformed Jewish religion forever. Subsequently, there was a suppressed uprising of Diaspora Jews (esp. in Egypt, a.d. 115–117) during the reign of Trajan. Some Jews hoped for a rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, but the ineffective Second Jewish Revolt in Judea under Bar Kochba (a.d. 132–135, during the emperorship of Hadrian; see map,The Bar Kochba Revolt) resulted instead both in a ban on Jews entering Jerusalem and in the building of a temple to Zeus on the former Temple Mount.

The First Jewish Revolt

a.d. 66–73

Years of growing Jewish resentment toward Roman rule and paganism eventually erupted in full-scale revolt in a.d. 66. The revolt was ignited in Caesarea and quickly spread to Jerusalem, Judea, Idumea, parts of Samaria, and Galilee. The following spring, the Roman general Vespasian began his systematic campaign to crush the rebellion, beginning in Galilee and then moving south into Samaria and along the coast. Meanwhile, Jewish forces began to fight among themselves in a bitter power struggle between various Zealots and aristocratic leaders, thus weakening their ability to fend off the Romans as they advanced into Judea. In a.d. 70 the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, but isolated resistance still continued even as late as a.d. 73, when the stronghold of Masada was finally taken by the Romans.

The First Jewish Revolt

The Bar Kochba Revolt

a.d. 132–135

News of Hadrian’s plans to transform Jerusalem into a thoroughly Roman city, complete with pagan temples, dashed Jewish hopes of one day rebuilding the temple of the Lord. In response, Jewish leaders prepared for revolt by stockpiling weapons and supplies in various underground caverns and other fortresses. The leader of this new revolt, Simeon Bar Kochba, was supported by the Sanhedrin and was even hailed as the “Messiah” by many prominent Jews. Resistance, however, was limited primarily to Judea, and eventually the Romans systematically reclaimed all territory in revolt. After the fall of the Sanhedrin fortress of Bethther, the last vestiges of resistance fled from Engedi to nearby caves, where some survived but most perished at the hands of the Romans.

The Bar Kochba Revolt

Amid this history, Jesus Christ launched his ministry in a Galilee governed by a Roman client king, a Judea under Roman procurators, and a Judaism tinged with Hellenism. After his crucifixion by the Romans and his resurrection, his gospel was carried by the apostles directly into the heart of Greek culture and Roman power.

Social Structure, Economics, Politics, and Law

The social structure of the Roman world differed in some important ways from modern life. For example, it is debated whether ancient Rome had a “middle class.” Outside the cities, agrarian life largely consisted of either subsistence farming or of great estate farms. Commerce was key to the life of the empire, and the Pax Romana (“peace of Rome”) largely relied on safe, well-guarded trade routes (both by land and by sea). Cities thrived with commercial enterprise, as well as with artisan, religious, and intellectual life. Public entertainment included theater, musical performance, rhetorical contests, athletics, and gladiatorial combat.

The central Greco-Roman social unit was the family. Marriage was deemed of great importance, even if sexual activity outside of marriage was prevalent (especially on the part of husbands) and divorce was widely practiced. Patriarchal assumptions were strong, with the father possessing control over, and legal responsibility for, the family. Inheritances were normally passed substantially to male children (whether biological or adopted for purposes of inheritance). The role of women varied throughout the empire: some had great autonomy and wealth while others were cloistered and rarely appeared in public. Children were commonly seen as a blessing, though infanticide and abortion were sometimes practiced. Most households, aside from the poorest, included slaves.

The Roman economy was highly dependent on slavery. Slaves came from conquest in war, voluntary entrance into slavery, or birth into a slave family. There was thus no single racial profile for a slave. The lives of slaves also varied considerably. State-owned slaves who worked in the brutal conditions of the mines had a short life expectancy. Agricultural slaves toiled in the fields. Household slaves served as cooks, hairdressers, servants, and concubines; yet, they could also be trained to positions of significant authority, even administrating businesses for their owners. Such slaves could be granted their freedom, thus achieving the status of “freedmen” and earning the economic benefits of a continued patronage relationship with their former owners. For this reason, some people voluntarily entered into a set period of slavery to wealthy aristocrats (for more on this, see note on 1 Cor. 7:21).

Patronage relationships were central to economic and political life. The wealthy would agree to be the “patron” of certain “clients,” assisting them economically. In return the clients would support their patron by voting for him in his run for political office and by furthering his economic interests. In theory, a chain of patron/client relationships extended from the less prosperous in society all the way up to the emperor, who was the great patron of all Rome.

Citizenship in the NT-era empire was gained by birth to citizen parents, emancipation from slavery to citizens, military service, or special edict. Laws generally prescribed less severe punishments for Roman citizens (see notes on Acts 16:37; 22:22–29), and citizens could appeal their legal cases to Rome (cf.Acts 25:10–12). Despite apparent inequities, a clear legal code, administered through various political officials, is often considered Rome’s great contribution to Western society.

Roman government applied a centralized hierarchy of control, while simultaneously granting some freedom of local self-government. Large cities often retained the right to vote for their leaders, who served in economic, religious, and political civic duties. Some regions (such as much of Palestine in the 1st century) were governed by “client kings,” whose monarchical rule was validated by the emperor. The empire was divided into senatorial and imperial provinces, depending upon whether the Roman senate or the emperor appointed the provincial governors. Generally the more outlying (and less militarily secure) provinces were imperial appointments (such as Syria and the regions throughout Palestine), although the emperors also retained control of some important agricultural regions (esp. Egypt).

Education and Philosophy

Most people in antiquity could not afford an extensive education. Slaves were trained for their specific duties; the poor continued in family agrarian life or were apprenticed to a specific craft. However, education was central to the Hellenistic ideal. Formal education was generally private. Certain slaves, called pedagogues, could be responsible for overseeing the education of their master’s children through hiring teachers (see “guardian” in Gal. 3:24–25). That teacher would educate the children in a set curriculum, including reading and writing, literature, mathematics, Greek and/or Latin, rhetoric, and philosophy. Rhetoric (the study of verbal persuasion) was necessary for political and legal life, and philosophy was considered the highest expression of learning.

Philosophy involved investigation into the physical and conceptual makeup of the world (metaphysics as well as science) and into ethics. Most religions in antiquity did not substantively address ethical matters (Judaism and Christianity were significant exceptions); rather, this was the realm of philosophy. Various competing philosophical systems were taught around the first century (see chart).

Middle PlatonistsExpanded and dogmatized upon Plato’s concept of the realm of ideas/forms as more substantial than their individual physical expression.
SophistsEnamored with the successful execution of rhetorical argumentation (sometimes regardless of the particular position taken in the argument).
CynicsContended for a more naturalistic way of pious living, often engaging in shocking verbal and physical feats to make their points.
EpicureansBelieved that all that exists were miniscule packets of matter (atoms), that humans were entirely composed of aggregate matter (thus ceasing to exist upon death), and that life was consequently about maximizing earthly pleasure through friendships and enjoyment of life.
StoicsArgued that the world was fundamentally the expression of a rational force (the logos), and that harmonious good living required an exaltation of reason over spontaneous emotions in all of life.

Religion and Magic

Most today think of Roman religion in terms of its pantheon of gods and goddesses, such as Jupiter, Venus, and Mars (or their Greek counterparts Zeus, Aphrodite, and Ares). Certainly, this pantheon was central to civic life. Touring an ancient city, one would see dozens of temples (some of immense size) dedicated to such deities. These gods were thought to act as benefactors both to the individual and to the city. Yet, should one neglect these deities, they could become angry and injure the individual or society. Thus, the charge of “atheism” against early Christians (who refused to worship such gods) was effectively a concern that rejection of civic gods could lead to widespread catastrophe. Ancient pagan worship assumed a kind of ritual contract where, if specific words were said, and if certain sacrifices or libations were performed, the god/goddess was obligated to respond to benefit the worshiper.

Nevertheless, beyond the great gods of the pantheon, each household also worshiped some of the hundreds of other lesser deities that were thought to rule every aspect of human life. Thus Roman houses typically had at their entrance a shrine, a lararium, where daily libations were poured to these household gods.

Hero worship in antiquity could lead to the elevation of great conquerors as gods. Thus some revered Alexander the Great as a god in his lifetime. Perhaps it was this tendency that allowed the emperor, as patron of the whole empire, to be received as a god, especially in Asia Minor where extravagant temples to the emperors were built even before the NT period. Some emperors (esp. Gaius Caligula, Nero, and Domitian) were known to encourage their own worship.

By the first century a.d. mystery religions had become widespread throughout the empire, conducting secret ceremonies to gods and goddesses of Asian or Egyptian origin. The inductees learned the mysteries and participated in secretive worship practices.

Magic, though often viewed with suspicion, still played a central role in Roman life (e.g., Acts 13:6; 19:13–20). Alongside the worship of gods of healing (such as Asklepies), magic provided healing remedies, as well as promoting potions, incantations, and charms to provide material and physical blessings or curses. The Romans were also concerned with knowing the future through dreams, prophetic oracles, and various forms of divination (i.e., the reading of portents such as animal entrails, astrological signs, etc.; cf. Acts 16:16).

Most people in antiquity were involved in syncretistic worship of multiple deities. Yet some were attracted to monotheistic beliefs, especially those of Judaism and Christianity. Judaism had been granted official legitimacy by Rome, and evidences of Diaspora Jewish communities abound throughout the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. While some admired Judaism’s worship of a single god and its high ethical ideals, others believed its practices (esp. circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws) to be ridiculous. Christianity was often suspected and persecuted for its “atheistic” beliefs (since it rejected all other gods), its worship of a crucified Lord, its practice of the Lord’s Supper, and its view of all Christians as “brothers and sisters.” Nonetheless, the Christian hope thrived; it was declared a legitimate religion under Constantine in the fourth century and eventually grew to become the dominant faith of people throughout the Roman Empire.

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