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Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Romans in Israel
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
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
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
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
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.
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 destroyedNazareth, Capernaum, Chorazim, Bethsaida.
Vespasian was so successful that his soldiers declared
him emperor and he returned to Rome, leaving his son Titus in
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
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