The Roman Era
(63 BC - NT Times)

by Al Maxey

(Pompey) (Julius Caesar) (Augustus) (Antigonus) (Herod the Great)
(Divided Kingdom) (Jesus)

In the year 753 BC, about 31 years before Samaria fell to the Assyrians, legend has it that Romulus and Remus founded the city of Rome. Over the next several centuries this city grew and developed, and in time began to extend its power and authority, and to acquire territory around it. Soon much of the known world would come to be controlled by Rome. For centuries the mighty Roman Empire dominated the civilized world. Its contribution to civilization, and its influence on the thoughts and lives of men, has been surpassed by few other empires. It was the government in control during the time of Jesus Christ and the early church.


As noted previously, Judea was deadlocked in a civil war between two brothers, and also between two religious sects, both desiring to control the land. Pompey was sent by Rome to intervene. After a three month battle Jerusalem fell and the Romans took control of Palestine. They placed Hyrcanus II in the position of High Priest, and made Antipater their Minister to oversee the affairs of Judea. Aristobulus II, and some of his supporters, were taken prisoner and sent back to Rome. Enroute to Rome, Alexander (the son of Aristobulus II) escaped and attempted to organize a revolt against his uncle Hyrcanus II. This revolt was quickly put down by the Romans. Alexander was forced to surrender, but the Romans were merciful and spared his life.

The Jews in Jerusalem were greatly distressed over the destruction done during the battle to capture the city. Pompey killed over 12,000 Jews when he entered Jerusalem. He also entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and committed other "profane deeds" which offended the pious Jews. He did not destroy the Temple, however, nor did he carry off any of its sacred objects, as other conquerors had done in the past. The worship of God was allowed to continue, and the Jews were allowed to remain relatively independent so long as they caused no disturbances and paid a yearly tribute (tax) to Rome.


Pompey, also known as Pompey the Great, lived from 106 - 48 BC. He was one of Rome's greatest generals and statesmen, and also a member of The First Triumvirate (a group of three men in ancient Rome who shared power equally --- a term meaning "government by three"). His time of authority, however, was not a pleasant one, as it was filled with struggles and intrigues.

During this time, Aristobulus II managed to escape from Rome. He returned to Palestine, raised an army, and again civil war broke out as a struggle for power ensued. With the assistance of Antipater, Rome again was able to put down the revolt of Aristobulus. As a reward for his efforts, Antipater was given additional authority and power over Judea by the Roman government. In effect, he became Rome's puppet ruler over Palestine. Hyrcanus II remained as the religious leader of the people, but really held no political power to speak of.

In the meantime, Pompey was having problems of his own back in Rome. He and a man by the name of Julius Caesar were in a life and death struggle for power.


Julius Caesar, who lived from 100 - 44 BC, finally settled his struggle with Pompey in 48 BC at the Battle of Pharsalus. In this battle Pompey was killed, and Julius Caesar then became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire. Antipater, who had previously supported Pompey, was an excellent diplomat and managed to convince Julius Caesar that he was now loyal to him. Julius Caesar allowed him to remain in his position of power in Palestine.

Julius Caesar also manifested a very lenient attitude toward the Jewish people throughout his kingdom, and granted them many special favors, among which was the right of full religious freedom. A year after Julius Caesar came to power Antipater died, and his son Herod became Procurator of Judea. Three years later, in March, 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated.


With the murder of Julius Caesar there began a struggle for power among three men --- Cassius, Antony, and Octavian. Cassius was the first of the three to be defeated, and then for the next decade Antony and Octavian struggled for power. Antony was finally defeated on September 2, 31 BC in the Battle of Actium. Octavian then became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, taking the title Augustus.


After his defeat, Antony fled to Egypt where he found safety for a time with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt and a member of the famous Ptolemaic Dynasty. Augustus pursued Antony into Egypt in the hope of eventually capturing him. When Cleopatra saw the Roman army approaching, she and Antony (who were lovers) made a pact to commit suicide together. Cleopatra, however, deceived Antony and only pretended to commit suicide. Antony, believing her to be dead, ran a sword through his body, and died a short time later.

On August 1, 30 BC Octavian (Augustus) entered Alexandria, Egypt with his army. Legend has it that Cleopatra tried to charm Augustus with her beauty, but Augustus found her disgusting. It is said that Cleopatra was so crushed by this insult that she later committed suicide by allowing herself to be bitten by an asp on her neck. With the death of Cleopatra, the long line of the Ptolemies came to an end.

Augustus returned to Rome where he continued his reign until the year 14 AD, at which time Jesus would have been in His late teen years. Thus, Augustus was the Roman Emperor at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ and during the early years of His life.


Returning to the small area of the empire known as Palestine, we discover that after the death of Antipater, his son Herod became the leader of the Jews. This was around the year 47 BC. Herod was able to maintain his position of leadership for about seven years before serious trouble arose.

ANTIGONUS (40 - 37 BC)

Because Rome was in a power struggle between Antony and Octavian, a man by the name of Antigonus, who was the son of Aristobulus II, saw an opportunity to make a play for power in Palestine. He put together an army from among the Parthians, captured Jerusalem, and declared himself King and High Priest.

Herod fled to the Romans, where he won the favor of and became close friends with Antony. In 37 BC Herod, with an army of Roman soldiers, recaptured Jerusalem and executed Antigonus. Antony then bestowed upon Herod the title "King of the Jews." Later on, when Herod thought that a rival king had been born in Bethlehem, he ordered the murder of all the infants in the area (Matthew 2).


Herod, later known as Herod the Great, was extremely crafty and devious, and did everything in his power to strengthen his position. Not only had he won the friendship of Antony, and thus of Rome, but he also married a girl named Mariamne, who was the granddaughter of Hyrcanus II, and thus a descendant of the Hasmoneans. This move further strengthened his claim to the throne.

Shortly after recapturing Jerusalem in 37 BC, Herod appointed Hananiel of Babylon to be the new High Priest. This greatly upset Alexandra (Herod's mother-in-law), since she had hoped that her son and Mariamne's brother, Aristobulus, would receive that appointment. When Herod refused to reconsider, she appealed to Cleopatra (whom she knew had a great deal of influence over Antony) to talk to Antony and persuade him to bring pressure on Herod. Alexandra's plan worked, and Herod reluctantly removed Hananiel and appointed Aristobulus as the High Priest.

Shortly after this, Aristobulus was found drowned and Alexandra was convinced that Herod had arranged it. She again appealed to Cleopatra. Antony called Herod to Rome to explain himself. Convinced that Herod would never return alive, Alexandra began making plans to take over the kingdom. Herod, however, did a good job of explaining himself and was allowed to return to Palestine. To prevent any further disturbances, he immediately executed nearly every member of his family!

As the conflict intensified between Antony and Octavian, Herod fought on the side of his friend Antony. However, when Antony was defeated on September 2, 31 BC in the Battle of Actium, he quickly switched his loyalty to Octavian and convinced him that he would be just as true a friend to him as he had been to Antony. Octavian (Augustus) accepted this, and allowed Herod to maintain his position of power in Palestine.

Although much of Herod's reign was one of trouble and misery, not only for himself but also for the Jews, nevertheless he did accomplish a great deal of good for the land of Palestine. Entire cities which had been destroyed by war were rebuilt. Herod also built several fortresses for protection against enemy attacks, the most famous of which was Masada. In the 18th year of his reign, in an effort to win the affection of the Jewish people, Herod began the work of enlarging and beautifying the Temple. This task would take many years, and Herod would not live to see it completed. The work was still going on when Jesus visited it as a child. A reference to this lengthy construction is found in John 2:20 where the Jews said to Jesus, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" The work on it was not completed until 64 AD --- just six years before it would be destroyed in 70 AD.

Although Herod tried often to win the hearts of the Jewish people, he was never able to do so. He was a foreigner, an Idumean, and was not a Jew at heart, which the people knew. The last years of his life were miserable and tormented; intrigue and jealousy filled the royal court. Herod contracted an incurable disease (probably intestinal cancer) which almost drove him insane. He was largely confined to his bed toward the end, and the odor was so foul from his disease that people could scarcely come near him.

His acts of cruelty and ruthlessness were also well known. As he lay dying, he ordered a large number of Jewish noblemen to be killed at his death so that the people would be in a state of mourning at his own death. He massacred the children of Bethlehem when he heard that a "King of the Jews" had been born there. He also strangled to death a few of his own sons when he discovered that they were plotting to take over the throne. This brought the famous statement from Augustus, "I'd rather be Herod's hog than his son" (Herod refused to kill his hogs out of respect for the Jewish dietary laws). Herod died in 4 BC, shortly after the birth of Christ, at the age of 70.


At the death of Herod, the Jews begged Augustus not to appoint another ruler over them like Herod. After much deliberation, Augustus decided to split the Jewish kingdom into three parts, and appoint a different ruler over each section. These officials would have far less power than Herod had, and most of the control would come from Rome. These three rulers, all of whom were sons of Herod the Great, were:

The most wicked of the three was Herod Archelaus (whom we encounter in Matthew 2:22-23 --- speaking of Joseph: "But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth"). He married Glaphyra, the wife of his half-brother, divorcing his own wife in order to do so. This outraged the Jews, and when a rebellion broke out in Jerusalem during the Passover season, his troops killed over 3000 Jews. His was a reign of terror. In the ninth year of his reign, a delegation of leading men from Judea and Samaria went to Rome to appeal to Augustus to have him removed.

Augustus agreed to their demands and removed Herod Archelaus. He also confiscated his fortune and banished him to Gaul. This section of Palestine was then placed under a military governor (a Roman Procurator who was directly responsible to the Emperor). There would be fourteen of these procurators up to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, three of whom are of special interest to the study of the New Testament times:


A few months prior to the death of Herod the Great, the long awaited incarnation of the Messiah occurred. In the city of Bethlehem Jesus was born. With His birth and subsequent ministry to men a new era began .... not only for the Jewish people, but for all of mankind. The "400 years of silence" had now come to an end, and in the dispensation about to begin God would speak to the world in His Son (Hebrews 1:2).

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