The Romans were the dominant world power during the time of Jesus and the early church. As you read through the New Testament, you’ll see frequent interactions between Jesus, the apostles, and the Roman authorities.
But who exactly were these Romans? And what role did they play in biblical history?
The Rise of Rome
Rome started as a small settlement on the banks of the Tiber River in central Italy. According to legend, it was founded in 753 BC. Over the next centuries, Rome grew in size and influence, conquering neighboring tribes and lands. By the 1st century BC, Rome controlled the entire Italian peninsula.
Under influential leaders like Julius Caesar, Rome continued expanding. Eventually, the Roman Republic transitioned into the Roman Empire. At its peak in the 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain to Egypt, making it the largest empire the world had ever seen.
The Romans excelled at infrastructure, governance, and military might. They built an extensive network of roads and aqueducts across their territory. Roman law and administration unified the diverse cultures under its control. The Roman legions were a formidable fighting force, marked by discipline and tactical brilliance.
By the time of Jesus, Rome was the dominant superpower in the Mediterranean region. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace) ensured economic and political stability across the empire. The Romans tolerated local customs and religions as long as their authority was recognized.
It’s difficult to overstate Rome’s influence in the 1st century world. The events unfolding in Judea and the early church happened against the backdrop of over 500 years of Roman power.
Rome in Jesus’ Life
Jesus conducted his entire earthly ministry under Roman occupation. Galilee and Judea were part of the Roman province of Syria, governed by a Roman prefect who reported to Rome.
When Jesus was born, the paranoid King Herod ruled Judea as a Roman client. Herod was succeeded by his sons, and later by Roman governors like Pontius Pilate. The Jews chafed under Roman taxation and struggled to maintain their religious identity.
As Jesus traveled, taught, and performed miracles, Roman soldiers were an ever-present sight enforcing the will of Caesar. The Romans viewed Jesus with suspicion, seeing him as a potential revolutionary. However, Jesus rendered to Caesar what was Caesar’s, showing he had no intent to overthrow earthly rulers (Mark 12:17).
The Romans played a direct role in the climax of Jesus’ ministry. Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, oversaw the trial of Jesus. After being unjustly condemned by the Jewish Sanhedrin, Jesus stood before Pilate’s judgment seat (Matthew 27:2).
Pilate found no fault in Jesus and sought to release him (Luke 23:4). But, caving to political pressure, Pilate sentenced the innocent Jesus to crucifixion – a Roman form of execution. Roman soldiers flogged Jesus, jammed a crown of thorns on his head, and led him to Golgotha to die (Mark 15:16-24).
Ironically, the mighty power of Rome nailed the Messiah to the cross. Jesus submitted to death at the hands of the world’s greatest empire to fulfill God’s plan of salvation.
Rome in the Early Church
After Jesus ascended to heaven, the apostles set out from Jerusalem to spread the gospel. Once again, the heavy hand of Rome made its presence felt.
The book of Acts records several run-ins between the apostles and Roman authorities. In Philippi, Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned for casting a demon out of a slave girl (Acts 16:16-24). Later in Jerusalem, the Romans arrested Paul for causing a riot and held him in detention for two years (Acts 21:27-36).
Roman hostility was often incited by unbelieving Jews who rejected the gospel. They used the Roman magistrates against Christians, accusing them of unlawful activity (Acts 17:6-7).
The most infamous persecution occurred under Emperor Nero in 64 AD. Nero blamed Christians for the great fire in Rome and had many believers put to death in horrific ways. According to tradition, the apostles Peter and Paul were among the martyrs under Nero’s brutal persecution.
The persecution continued under subsequent emperors like Domitian. Being labeled a Christian was tantamount to treason against the Roman state. Confessing “Jesus is Lord” challenged Caesar’s claim to lordship. Thousands of believers were martyred for following Christ over Cesar.
However, the heavy-handed tactics only emboldened the church. As Tertullian famously wrote: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The gospel continued spreading despite Roman opposition.
Why Were the Romans So Opposed to Christianity?
The Romans allowed the provinces to retain their local customs and gods. However, they required the people to acknowledge the Roman gods and Caesar as lord.
The early Christians refused to participate in emperor worship. Their allegiance was solely to Christ. The exclusivity of the gospel challenged the syncretism of Roman religion and the imperial cult.
Christians also refused to serve in the Roman army. Their non-violence was seen as a threat to Roman security. Faced with such defiance, the authorities cracked down hard on this subversive sect.
The Romans were suspicious of any new religious movement. Christianity spread so rapidly in the empire, the Romans saw it as undermining their authority. Hence, they sought to crush the growing Christian sect.
Of course, the true reason Christianity clashed with Rome was spiritual. The powers of darkness hate the gospel and will use any means to squash it (Ephesians 6:12). But the persecution only fanned the flames of faith.
Rome Facilitated the Spread of the Gospel
Ironically, the Romans helped lay the infrastructure for the gospel to spread quickly. Their roads, trade networks, and culture connected the Mediterranean world.
Paul and the other apostles could travel easily along Roman roads between the provinces and major cities preaching the gospel. The universal language of Koine Greek enabled communication across the empire.
The Roman persecution scattered Christians from Jerusalem into other regions. As Acts 8:4 says: “Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.” Rome’s attempt to stamp out Christianity only decentralized and expanded it.
The Pax Romana created stability and open borders for the early missionaries. Christ was born into the perfect time and place tolaunch his church and take the gospel global. God used the Romans to prepare the way, even as they tried to destroy it.
So the next time you read about Romans in the book of Acts, remember they were unwitting participants in God’s plan. Our sovereign Lord directs all earthly powers to ultimately accomplish his purposes.
Key Roman Figures in the New Testament
To understand the Romans’ role, it’s worth highlighting the specific Roman authorities who appear in the New Testament:
Augustus Caesar – First emperor of Rome who reigned when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1). Augustus consolidated imperial power after Julius Caesar’s assassination.
Tiberius Caesar – Second emperor who began reigning during Jesus’ ministry (Luke 3:1). Pontius Pilate was appointed by Tiberius as prefect of Judea.
Herod the Great – Client king who ruled Judea under Rome’s authority when Jesus was born. Herod tried to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1-18).
Pontius Pilate – Roman prefect over Judea from 26-36 AD who presided over Jesus’ trial and ordered his crucifixion.
Cornelius – A Roman centurion who converted to Christianity through Peter’s ministry (Acts 10).
Sergius Paulus – Proconsul of Cyprus who sought to hear the gospel from Paul and believed (Acts 13:7-12).
Gallio – Proconsul of Achaia who dismissed charges against Paul (Acts 18:12-17).
Erastus – The city treasurer of Corinth who became a Christian ally of Paul (Romans 16:23).
Nero – The emperor who blamed Christians for the Great Fire in Rome and initiated mass persecution.
Tertullian – Early church father from Carthage who documented the extensive Roman persecution of Christians.
There are many other minor Roman officials peppered through the book of Acts. Again and again, the mighty Roman Empire collided with lowly disciples empowered by the Spirit.
Rome in Biblical Prophecy
Rome also appears prominently in biblical prophecies about the end times. Daniel 2 recounts Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about four world empires depicted as parts of a statue:
- Head of Gold – Babylon
- Chest of Silver – Medo-Persia
- Belly of Bronze – Greece
- Legs of Iron – Rome
The iron legs predict the strength of the Roman Empire. In Daniel 7, Rome is the fourth beast who “shall devour the whole earth” (7:23). These prophecies accurately foretold Rome’s ascendance 600 years before it happened.
Many scholars believe the Roman Empire also features prominently in the apocalyptic literature. In the book of Revelation, the Beast with seven heads may symbolize Rome and its emperors (Revelation 13:1). The Great Harlot named “Babylon” who rides the beast could represent Rome and its decadence (Revelation 17:5).
If so, Rome encapsulated the spirit of antichrist that will emerge again in the end times. As you study biblical prophecies about the final kingdom, don’t overlook Rome’s role as a historical forerunner.
The Legacy of Rome
The power and influence of Rome declined in the 5th century AD. However, its legacy continued shaping Europe and Christianity.
Rome left behind architectural wonders, extensive roads, and ideas about government that influenced Western civilization. Roman Catholicism headquartered in Rome traced its lineage to the apostles.
By God’s wisdom, the same empire that opposed the early Christians transformed into a “Christian” nation at the apex of Christendom. The blood of the martyrs tamed the beast.
So as you read the Bible, pay close attention to the clash between the fledgling church and the mighty Roman Empire. Through it, you’ll gain insight into how God sovereignly directs all earthly powers. The Romans unwittingly played into God’s eternal purposes.
What man intends for evil, God uses for good (Genesis 50:20). The Roman soldiers who nailed Christ to the cross were actually carrying out the Creator’s rescue plan for humanity. The Romans who persecuted the church only succeeded in spreading it wider and deeper.
Such irony and reversal reveal the wisdom and might of our God. He is Lord over every earthly power. No empire, government or authority can thwart the advance of the gospel and the growth of Christ’s Kingdom.
- Rome was the dominant world power in the 1st century when Jesus and the apostles lived.
- Jesus was crucified under orders from the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.
- The apostles frequently encountered opposition from Roman authorities as they spread the gospel.
- The Romans opposed Christianity because it undermined Caesar worship and Roman religious practices.
- Ironically, Rome’s infrastructure, culture and laws facilitated the rapid expansion of Christianity.
- Prophecies in Daniel depict Rome as the fourth and greatest human empire before the kingdom of God.
- Rome features prominently in biblical end times prophecies and may be represented as the Beast in Revelation.
- Rome’s legacy shaped European civilization and Roman Catholicism. God used Rome to spread Christianity despite its earlier persecution.