Rome. The Eternal City. Throughout the Bible, this great city and empire cast a long shadow over the story of God’s people. From oppressive ruler to Christian converts, Rome left an indelible mark on the New Testament world.
But what happened to this once mighty empire? Where is biblical Rome today? As believers, understanding the ancient world of the Bible helps us better comprehend God’s Word. So let’s explore the ruins and legacy of Rome, both ancient and modern.
- Ancient Rome once ruled over a vast empire, including Israel during Jesus’ time.
- Today the city of Rome is the capital of modern Italy. It sits on the same location as ancient Rome.
- Ruins and artifacts scattered throughout Rome provide glimpses into biblical history.
- Rome rose to prominence through military conquest but eventually declined due to economic strife and invasions.
- Rome left a lasting legacy for Western civilization, including architecture, language, literature, and law.
- The Roman Catholic Church headquartered in Rome traces its roots back to the age of the apostles.
- Understanding Rome’s role in the Bible helps us grasp nuances in New Testament books like Acts, Romans, and Revelation.
The Rise and Fall of Ancient Rome
In the centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth, Rome emerged as the dominant empire of the Mediterranean world. Through military campaigns, Rome expanded its borders, conquered new lands, and subjugated peoples across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
This included the Promised Land. By 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem and Rome took control of Judea. During Jesus’ life and ministry, Rome and its representatives like Pontius Pilate ruled over the Jewish people with brute force.
The empire reached its territorial peak in the 2nd century AD, stretching from England to Egypt. Rome accomplished this through its mighty legions, advanced road systems, assimilation of local elites, and culture of conquest.
The Pax Romana (Roman Peace) enforced law, order, and stability across the empire. With all its power and architectural marvels like the Colosseum and Pantheon, Rome seemed like an invincible “eternal city.”
But by the 3rd century AD, Rome showed signs of decline as economic distress led to political turmoil. With a bloated military budget, devalued currency, and stagnating trade, Rome struggled to fund its sprawling empire.
Barbarian invasions delivered the final blow. Germanic tribes like the Visigoths and Vandals raided the empire, culminating in the Sack of Rome in 410 AD by the Visigoths. This shocking breach of the capital exposed the weakened state of Rome.
In 476 AD, the last Roman emperor was deposed and the western half of the empire collapsed. The eastern half endured another 1,000 years as the Byzantine Empire until falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.
So ended one of the longest-lasting empires in history. But even in decline, Rome left a monumental legacy on the West and biblical history.
Ruins of Ancient Rome in the Modern City
Remarkably, Rome still thrives today as a modern city. As capital of present-day Italy, Rome has grown to over 4 million residents in the metro area. The modern city sits on the same site along the Tiber River occupied by ancient Romans.
This means ruins of ancient Rome lie scattered right beneath the streets and buildings of the current city. Let’s tour some of the most prominent ruins and artifacts that offer glimpses into biblical history:
The Roman Forum – These ruins comprised the political, religious, and commercial heart of ancient Rome. Citizens gathered here amid temples, shops, and courts. The Forum hosted triumphal processions, elections, trials, and public speeches. According to Acts 19, Christians burned books on sorcery publicly in the Forum.
The Colosseum – This amphitheater epitomized Roman culture and cruelty. Gladiators battled to the death as enthusiastic crowds roared. The Colosseum could hold over 50,000 spectators. Early Christians were martyred here as entertainment. The Colosseum reminds us of the persecution faced by believers in Rome.
Mamertine Prison – This dungeon held prisoners and condemned men awaiting execution. According to tradition, Paul and Peter were imprisoned here before their martyrdoms under Nero’s persecution. A church now stands at the site.
Appian Way – Leading south from Rome sat this famous highway. On this road according to Acts 28, Paul entered Rome in chains yet preaching the gospel boldly. The Appian Way was Rome’s gateway for military expansion and conquest.
Arch of Constantine – This monumental arch celebrated Emperor Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. Prior to the battle, Constantine reportedly had a vision promising victory if he fought under the sign of Christ.
Catacombs – Beneath Rome’s streets sprawled hundreds of miles of tomb-lined tunnels. Persecuted Christians buried their dead and held gatherings safely in the catacombs outside the city walls. Wall paintings and tomb inscriptions tell stories of early Christian life in Rome.
Pieces of ancient Rome stand frozen in time across the modern city, from the Pantheon temple to Trajan’s Market. While visiting Rome today, believers can vividly imagine the world of the New Testament by exploring these well-preserved ruins.
Rome’s Influence on Western Civilization
At its cultural peak, Rome had few equals among ancient civilizations. Even as the empire crumbled, Rome bequeathed fundamental elements of Western civilization that continue today.
Consider Rome’s legacy across these facets of society:
- Language – Latin formed the foundation for the Romance languages of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. Latin and Greek root words permeate English.
- Architecture – Roman techniques pioneered concrete, arches, domes, and roads. These enabled aqueducts, bridges, and amphitheaters that stand as architectural marvels.
- Literature – The poetry of Virgil and prose of Julius Caesar influenced countless later writers and shaped the Western literary canon.
- Law – Rome established an enduring legal framework now called Roman civil law. Legal principles like justice for all free citizens took hold across Europe.
- Engineering – Roads, aqueducts, sewage systems, and innovations like hydraulic cement demonstrated remarkable Roman engineering capabilities.
- Religion – Roman religion blended Greek, Etruscan, and native gods, but later Christianity became Rome’s official faith until the empire’s fall.
- Government – Rome pioneered republicanism, democracy, and codified laws. This system later informed governing bodies in Europe and the Americas.
Across the domains of politics, art, urban design, and philosophy, ancient Rome furnished concepts and models that successor civilizations built upon. Rome lives on through its cultural DNA woven into Western civilization.
The Roman Catholic Church
Another vital legacy of Rome remains the Roman Catholic Church centered in the Vatican City. The Catholic Church governs over 1.3 billion followers worldwide as the largest Christian ecclesiastical body. It traces its origin to the apostles Peter and Paul evangelizing in Rome after Christ’s resurrection.
According to Catholic tradition, Peter became the first bishop of Rome or pope. Rome remembers Peter and Paul as martyrs put to death during Nero’s persecution in the 1st century AD. To this day, the Catholic Church upholds the pope as the unbroken successor to Peter’s authority.
While embroiled in corruption at times during the Middle Ages, the papacy in Rome held sway over medieval Europe. Catholic doctrines, rituals, and authority extended from Roman Christianity across the continent and eventually to the New World.
Today visitors can tour the Vatican museums housing Renaissance masterpieces. In St. Peter’s Basilica built over Peter’s tomb, millions flock to see Michelangelo’s Pietà and glimpse the glory of the Roman Catholic Church.
Outside the Vatican, catacomb churches and iconography across Rome testify to its sacred heritage. Through its global reach and rich traditions, the Roman Catholic Church nurtures the legacy of Christianity from ancient Rome until now.
Understanding Rome Helps Grasp the Bible
From Jesus’ crucifixion under Pilate to Paul’s Roman citizenship, the New Testament unfolds under the Roman Empire’s shadow. Grasping the history and culture of Rome aids our comprehension of biblical events.
For example, why would Jewish religious leaders consent to Roman authority rather than rebellion (John 11:48)? Rome’s regional governance through local elites like Herod offered stability most Jews preferred over independence.
Why was a Roman officer so impressed by Jesus’ authority (Matthew 8:5-13)? Romans valued hierarchy and honored those with recognized power to command.
Why was Paul treated leniently when arrested (Acts 22:24-29)? Paul’s hereditary Roman citizenship afforded him rights and legal protections.
Why did Nero’s persecution target Christians (1 Peter 4:12-16)? As a new movement separate from Judaism, Christianity came under suspicion in the empire as a dangerous “superstition.”
Understanding the Roman perspective sheds light on the New Testament’s background. From Paul’s Roman imprisonment to Revelation’s apocalyptic warnings against Emperor worship, grasping Rome’s role allows us to better understand Scripture in context.
The Eternal City Lives On
For over 1,000 years, Rome stood as the greatest city in the West and center stage for biblical events. Even after its fall, the culture, laws, and church of Rome continue shaping Western civilization and Christianity.
As believers, visiting modern Rome and its archaeological treasures profoundly connects us to biblical history. Walking the Appian Way like Paul, imagining the Colosseum packed with persecuted saints, and seeing Rome’s influence across Europe enriches our faith.
The power that once threatened to stomp out Christianity was itself conquered by the gospel. The eternal city lives on, and so does the Eternal Word. Rome’s legacy stands as a testimony that though “heaven and earth will pass away, my words will by no means pass away” (Luke 21:33).