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The Romans in Israel

by Elizabeth McNamer

St. Luke, in his prelude to the birth of Jesus, tells us, "In those days Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole world. This first census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria." All through the Gospels we are aware of a Roman presence in Israel. Just who were they, how did they get there and how did the Jews function under Roman rule?

It all began as a family quarrel sometime in the year 63 B.C. Two brothers from the Hasmonean dynasty, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, vied for the throne in Jerusalem. They were descended from the great Maccabees, the family that had succeeded in ousting the abhorred Greeks from Israel some hundred years before. The Maccabees had established themselves as high priests and kings in Israel in no uncertain terms.

For a hundred years the mighty Romans had been advancing eastward. In 67 B.C. General Pompey reached Syria and established it as a province for Rome. Cities were built to assure Rome's eternal presence in the area and Pompey settled for a time at least before he would assert his rights in Rome. One day he received two messages for help from Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Neither one was ready to relinquish power and called on Rome to intervene. Pompey was only too happy to come to their assistance.

What should have been settled over the weekend turned into a 500-year nightmare. Inviting the Romans in to solve the problem was engaging a lion to destroy a mouse. Like the man who came to dinner and never left, the Romans considered the invitation permanent. Mighty Rome was not to be trifled with. It took its duty seriously. When it came to the aid of a smaller state, it formed an alliance that was irrevocable and any attempt to negate it was regarded as a rebellion. Rome settled the dispute in favor of Hyrcanus, but he scarcely had time to thumb his nose at his brother when he realized that he had lost all power and that the noble Hasmonean Empire was at an end.

It was Rome's custom to place a friendly king on the throne of any country on their borders that they had no wish to govern. They called them client kings. Hyrcanus was allowed to rule a small territory, but he ruled only in name. The real power was in the hands of his minister Antipater, a man who had proved himself a friend to the Romans, and he would become the father of a man who would be an even greater friend: Herod the Great. The Romans had come to Palestine and they would remain there, looking down their long noses at the inhabitants until their Empire fell in the late fifth century A.D.

The Roman Empire

In the year 37 B.C., the young Octavian became Emperor of Rome with the title Augustus Caesar. He confirmed Herod, as he did client kings in many other places, as king of the Jews. Herod owed allegiance to Rome, but he could do anything he liked within his territory as long as foreign policy did not get out of line. Should he fail to please the Romans he would be immediately deposed.

Rome's empire encompassed the whole of the known world. They had an ingenious government. The Empire was divided into provinces and able men were sent there to govern. On arrival, a governor, accompanied by his engineers, architects, builders and army, set about constructing roads and cities to establish their permanent presence. Once can see the remains of these ancient cities all over the Middle East today.

During the time of Augustus the Pax Romana was in force. Rome was not engaged in war. But they were always prepared for it. Roman soldiers operated all over the Empire. Nine legions were concentrated in the East. A legion was composed of foot soldiers holding Roman citizenship. They were professionals who had signed up for 25 years. A legion consisted of ten cohorts divided into six "centuries" of 100 men each. Each century was commanded by a centurion. There were one hundred cavalry attached to each legion, so that there were somewhat over six thousand men in all. They were armed with heavy javelins and short thrusting swords as well as a small dagger. They wore helmets and mail shirts made of small iron rings and they carried large curved wooden shields.

In addition to the legions, auxiliary forces were drawn from the province. Those serving in these forces did not have Roman citizenship. They were organized into cohorts like the legions and could be called upon by the governors for help at any time. While a century of soldiers was present at Capernaum (Jesus cured the centurion's son), it is now thought that these were not Romans but were part of the army of Herod Antipas. Capernaum was on the border of his territory and taxes were collected here, particularly from the fishermen. At the time of Jesus Roman soldiers would have been found only around Caesarea Maratima where the Roman procurator lived. They would have been called into use when the great festivals were being celebrated in Jerusalem to prevent uprisings, or they would be needed in the execution of criminals by crucifixion.

Living under Roman rule had some advantages. Generally they allowed freedom of religion (unlike the Greeks had done) and did not interfere with the religious practices of the people they governed. The governors of provinces built temples to their own gods. where sacrifices were conducted daily. But it was the Roman method of taxation that most stung. Provinces had to pay taxes. An amount was estimated and the country split up into tax districts. As Rome had no civil service, taxes were collected by private syndicates who made a large profit by overcollecting. Taxes on goods were very high. Not surprisingly, tax collectors were despised.

Herod the Great

During the time of Herod the Great there were probably no Roman soldiers to be found in Israel. He had his own private army, and auxiliary units could always be called in if there was trouble. Like the Romans, Herod set out on a great building program. Among the towns he erected was Caesarea Maratima on the coast of the Mediterranean. This splendid town had a theater, an amphitheater, a stadium, a chariot-racing arena, public baths, a temple to Augustus, a splendid palace for himself and a false harbor so that he could import his marble and wine and all the commodities needed by a king. No expense was spared in the building of the city and he invited the emperor Augustus to the opening.

But Herod never lived there. He died in 4 B.C. before it was entirely completed and his territory was divided among his sons, who received the title tetrarch rather than king. Archelaus got Judea; Herod Antipas, Samaria and Galilee; Philip Herod, Trachonitis, Gaulanitis and Batanea.

Judea, which contained the holy city of Jerusalem, was going to be the most difficult to govern. At Passover the year after Herod died, thousands of pilgrims came pouring into the temple. Archelaus sent his troops (he had 3,000 of them) to control the crowd, but the crowd turned on the soldiers and stoned them to death. Some 3,000 people ended up being killed in the ensuing conflict. The governor of Syria took it upon himself to place a legion at Jerusalem to keep the peace. But at Pentecost more crowds came pouring in and climbed on the temple porticoes to pelt the Roman soldiers. The whole country was soon up in arms and the governor of Syria returned with more legions. Two thousand of the rebels were captured and crucified.

Enter the Procurators

Archelaus proved to be such an inept and cruel ruler that in A.D. 6 the people of Judea asked that a Roman procurator be appointed in his place under the watchful eye of the governor of Syria (Quirinius). The Syrian governor ordered a census of all property in order to estimate taxes and to sell off the estate of Archelaus. This was bitterly resented by the Jews.

Since the high priest had failed to convince the Jews that a census should be taken, he was replaced by a new high priest, Annas, who would keep the position until A.D. 15. Archelaus's troops were taken over by the Romans and turned into auxiliary units. The proconsul was given supreme power. He had total authority over the region. He could imprison, flog or execute as he saw fit. He set up his government at Caesarea Maratima and moved into Herod's palace.

The first three procurators governed for only a year each. The next, Valerian Gratus, did a 17-year stint. Then, in A.D. 26, Emperor Tiberius appointed as procurator of Judea a man called Pontius Pilate.

Pontius Pilate is described as greedy, vindictive and cruel by historians of the time. He had nothing but contempt for Jewish customs. He was deliberately provocative. The soldiers had been forbidden to carry their standards into Jerusalem because the images of the emperor would offend the Jews. Pilate ordered his soldiers to take in the standards under cover of night. A mob descended on Caesarea and besieged him for five days. He removed the standards. A new aqueduct was needed to bring water into Jerusalem. Pilate paid for the building of an aqueduct with Temple taxes. This again infuriated the Jews. Afraid of a riot, Pilate had some of his soldiers dress like Jews, mingle with the people and, at the first sign of trouble, kill the potential troublemakers.

It was customary for the proconsul to go to Jerusalem for the main feasts. Thus for Passover in the year 30, we find Pilate in Jerusalem.

The Zealots

Gamla is poised on a rocky ridge protected on each side by sweeping valleys in the Galilean hills. Here the Zealot movement had been founded by Judas the Galilean and a Pharisee named Zadduk in A.D. 6, at the time of the census by Quirinius.

They preached that God alone was the ruler of Israel and that no taxes should be paid. Judas' family paid a higher price in other ways. His sons Jacob and Simeon were crucified in 46. His grandson Menachem was murdered in Jerusalem in 66. Another grandson escaped to Masada and committed suicide in 73.

In A.D. 66 a revolt against Roman rule was started in Galilee. The Romans sent in their greatest general Vespasian to deal with the situation. He did it with ruthlessness and efficiency. Some 5,000 zealots committed suicide by jumping off the Gamla cliff as the Roman army approached.

Most of the towns that we associate with the ministry of Jesus were destroyed—Nazareth, Capernaum, Chorazim, Bethsaida.

Vespasian was so successful that his soldiers declared him emperor and he returned to Rome, leaving his son Titus in charge.

Titus destroyed Jerusalem. Whether he intended to destroy the Temple is often questioned. It was one of the most magnificent buildings in the world. Some say it caught fire by mistake. But destroyed it was.

Some of the Zealots escaped to Masada where they stayed for nine months before killing each other rather than fall prey to the Romans.

We know a great deal about this period because of the writings of Josephus. He was an Israelite general in the army that fought against Rome. He tells us that had he not been thrown from his horse and sprained his wrist during one of the battles and taken for medical attention to Capernaum, the history of the world would have been changed.

Be that as it may, in the long run he turned traitor and joined the Romans. It is said that he sat with Titus watching the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He was taken by Titus to Rome, ensconced in an apartment and told to write a history of the Jewish wars. He also wrote a history of the Jews and his own life.

Elizabeth McNamer, one of the general editors of Scripture from Scratch and a frequent contributor, has a Ph.D. in adult education and religious studies from Montana State University and an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University. She teaches at Rocky Mountain College.

Next: The Canticles in Luke's Gospel (by Daniel W. Casey)


Praying With Scriptures  

Jesus told his followers, "Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you." He knew that they would probably think first of their Roman oppressors. Who comes to mind for you when you hear this? Take time to pray for those people today.



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