As I wrote last week, in our Thursday evening classes, we have begun a new series on the New Testament in its Historical Setting. The point of the class is to look at the events and nations and non-biblical personalities that shaped the times and writings of the New Testament.
There can be no doubt that the primary political and social influence on the 1st Century was Rome. But Rome had endured a long and violent history—as well as glorious achievements in literature and architecture—before the birth of Christ. The first lessons will be a look at the origins and history of Rome from the founding through the Republic and into the Empire.
Last week, we discussed the origins of Rome and the beginnings of the Roman Republic. This week, from the First Triumvirate of the Republic to the Age of the Caesars.
When the victorious Pompey returned from Judea to Rome, he formed an uneasy alliance known as the First Triumvirate with the wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus (who suppressed a slave rebellion led by Spartacus in 71 B.C.) and another rising star in Roman politics, Gaius Julius Caesar. After earning military glory in Spain, Caesar returned to Rome to vie for the consulship in 59 B.C. From his alliance with Pompey and Crassus, Caesar received the governorship of three wealthy provinces in Gaul (modern-day France) beginning in 58 B.C. He then set about conquering the rest of that region for Rome.
But do not underestimate the influence of power invested in three. Even that had a profound influence on Christian theology.
With incredible feats of engineering, brilliant tactics and strategies, and a remarkable devotion to leadership, Caesar defeated the Gauls, greatly expanding the frontiers and provinces of the Republic.
After Pompey’s wife Julia (Caesar’s daughter) died in 54 B.C. and Crassus was killed in battle against Parthia (present-day Iran) the following year, the triumvirate was broken. With old-style Roman politics in disorder, Pompey stepped in as sole consul in 53 B.C. Caesar’s military glory in Gaul and his increasing wealth had eclipsed Pompey’s and the latter teamed with his Senate allies to steadily undermine Caesar.
Caesar was declared an outlaw and ordered to disband his legions and return to Rome for trial. In 49 B.C., Caesar and one of his legions crossed the Rubicon, a river on the border between Italy from Cisalpine Gaul. Caesar remarked, The die is cast. There was no turning back. By crossing into Italy with his troops, Caesar was declaring Civil War. Caesar defeated Pompey and his Senate allies in a series of battles. Pompey fled to Egypt where he was assassinated by the Egyptians. Caesar was infuriated and all but annexed Egypt.
By the time he was done, Caesar was declared dictator for life in 45 B.C.
Less than a year later, Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March (March 15, 44 B.C.) by a group of his enemies (led by the republican nobles Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius). Consul Mark Antony and Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir, Octavian, joined forces to crush Brutus and Cassius and divided power in Rome with ex-consul Lepidus in what was known as the Second Triumvirate. With Octavian leading the western provinces, Antony the eastern, and Lepidus North Africa, tensions developed by 36 B.C. and the triumvirate soon dissolved.
In 31 B.C., Octavian triumphed over the forces of Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (the onetime lover of Julius Caesar) in the Battle of Actium. In the wake of this devastating defeat, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.
By 29 B.C., Octavian was the sole leader of Rome and all its provinces. To avoid meeting Caesar’s fate, he made sure to make his position as absolute ruler acceptable to the public by apparently restoring the political institutions of the Roman republic while in reality retaining all real power for himself. In 27 B.C., Octavian assumed the title of Augustus, becoming the first emperor of Rome.
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