Great Cities of the Bible #3: Rome
By Elizabeth Prata
Great Cities of the Bible #1: Damascus
Great Cities of the Bible #2: Babylon
This is the third of a 4-part series on the Great Cities of the Bible. I’ve written about Damascus and Babylon in the first two parts. Damascus first because it is among the first cities mentioned in the Bible and is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. And I chose Babylon second because its presence from Genesis to Revelation dominates the Bible’s spiritual and historical landscape.
Now we turn to Rome. GotQuestions notes that – “Rome is not mentioned in the Old Testament but figures prominently in the New Testament. Although the city of Rome is not often directly mentioned, every place and event in the New Testament has Roman rule as its background.“
Part of the reason I’m doing this series is because we tend to be myopic in our day and age, thinking we are the most advanced or the most sophisticated or our culture is the best. It’s hard to physically go see that in Babylon because it is mostly a ruin now. Damascus is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the Arab world, but sadly, the ongoing war has destroyed much of it by now. However ROME! Ahh, Rome, one can wander the streets and see many buildings from the Bible days intact. One can envision Paul standing up in court…writing his ‘Jail Epistles’ (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon). We can visit the Colosseum where so many Christians were martyred.
Rome is both the city and was an Empire. It is urban setting and also a character itself in the Bible history. It is a city past from Bible days, a thriving city today, and it is an Roman empire future in prophecy. Rome was the oppressor of the Jews in Judea but its engineered roads allowed for the dispersed believers to bring the Gospel out to the world.
It was first called The Eternal City (Latin: Urbs Aeterna; Italian: La Città Eterna) by the Roman poet Tibullus in the 1st century BC, and the expression was also taken up by Ovid, Virgil, and Livy. Rome is also called “Caput Mundi” (Capital of the World).
Rome is also known as the City of Seven Hills, due to the hills that it is founded on and provide a backdrop. This may become important later when in prophecy, discussed more in the postscript.
For almost a thousand years the continent’s people were either one of the unfortunate tribes conquered and absorbed into the vastly growing Roman empire, or were one of the privileged Romans citizens enjoying the engineering marvels the Romans invented and especially Pax Romana (widespread peace) during the 200 years of the Empire’s height. Paul the Apostle was a Roman Citizen, and this fact allowed him to escape one of the intended beatings, to stand in a Roman Court and plead his case, and at the end, legend says, given the less painful execution of beheading.
Rome was said to be founded around 625 BC in the areas of ancient Italy’s center known as Etruria and Latium. Etruria was home to the mysterious people of the Etruscans (from which we get the name Tuscany). Not much is known of the Etruscans, except they were a sophisticated culture, master bronzesmiths, their tombs were expertly painted, they formed city-states all over Tuscany as far south as Rome, and began sewer and other construction projects in Rome. It is said that the Etruscans had a heavy influence on the conquering Romans.
For about a hundred years or so, this merging and overlap of the Etruscans and the Romans led to the period known as the Age of Kings, which came to an end when the Etruscans disappeared, and the Roman Republic was born. (510 BC). It was during this time that Romans codified their laws and were led by the citizens (upper class senators and knights).
They continued to expand their empire with masterful military strategies and successive victories. By 338 BC they had conquered the entire Italian peninsula and a few years later gained control of the Mediterranean as a dominant maritime power.
The time of Jesus’ birth through his death & resurrection, the rise of the Church, and the last of the first generation witnesses (31BC to 90 AD and beyond) was known as the Imperial Rome era. During this period, Rome saw decades of peace, prosperity, and expansion. Its maximum land expansion occurred in about AD 117, near when Apostle John died. Its empire spanned three continents including Asia Minor, northern Africa, and most of Europe as far north as Scotland.
Unlike many other conquering empires, Rome allowed worship of personal gods. They were a pantheistic society. We remember in Daniel 1 when Nebuchadnezzar besieged and conquered Jerusalem and carried off its captives, “among them from the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.7 Then the commander of the officials set names for them; and for Daniel he set the name Belteshazzar, for Hananiah Shadrach, for Mishael Meshach, and for Azariah Abed-nego.” (Daniel 1:6-7). The practice of forced assimilation was common. The boys were given new names, forced to eat what was eaten by the natives, and forced to worship what the natives worshiped, namely, the king. But unusually for an Empire, that was not Rome’s practice.
Definition: Assimilation is one outcome of acculturation. It involves the complete adoption of the ways of life of the new cultural group, resulting in the assimilated group losing nearly all of its original or native culture.
Rome practiced assimilation. Captured peoples from the many wars were brought to Rome as slaves but allowed to practice their religion and maintain their culture. The building in Rome called The Pantheon was originally a temple built for all Roman gods, then later any gods. Pan means “all” and “theos” means “gods”.
The Roman Empire was a primarily polytheistic civilization, which meant that people recognized and worshiped multiple gods and goddesses. Despite the presence of monotheistic religions within the empire, such as Judaism and early Christianity, Romans honored multiple deities. They believed that these deities served a role in founding the Roman civilization and that they helped shape the events of people’s lives on a daily basis. Romans paid allegiance to the gods both in public spaces and in private homes. While the Roman state recognized main gods and goddesses by decorating public buildings and fountains with their images, families worshipping at home also put special emphasis on the deities of their choosing. Source
The Jews in Judea were overseen (oppressed) by Rome, which sent it governors and soldiers to keep the peace, but largely (except for taxes to keep up the empire) they were allowed to continue as they were and that included worship.
Romans built things. Bridges, temples, mansions, aqueducts, and roads. They had sewers, hot and cold running water, and spas. They had colosseums for their beloved games. It was the roads that allowed the dispersing Christians to take the Gospel to the outermost parts of the empire and beyond. It was the spread of the Latin language in the huge Empire that allowed folks to understand one another when sharing the Gospel with natives. The Roman influence on art and architecture was massive and stands to this day. They loved games and competitions, and they built amphitheaters to play them in. The round and oval stadiums we see today are derived from the Romans. They even held “naumachia” in them, or sea battles. They engineered a system where the amphitheaters could be flooded to host maritime competitions with ships!
Because of their sophisticated government, art, engineering, culture, and lifestyle, the Romans often referred to all other tribes as “barbarians.” They deeply believed they were a superior race to the Germanic tribes or the Celts, both of which they had conquered. However, the Romans for all their marvels and sophistication in the arts, were still pagans, which means, barbaric themselves. Any culture that enjoys live bloody competitions to the death, which invents crucifixion as a method of execution, or dips Christians in tar and sets them alight for garden illumination, is barbaric themselves. No veneer of art or poetry or law can hide the fact that without Christ, any society will die. And the Romans did. After its Pax Romana era came to a close, the city declined until 410 when the Visigoth King Alaric successfully sacked the city of Rome. The “Eternal City” was no more.
After Alaric and the beginning of the Middle Ages, Rome slowly fell under the political control of the Popes, and in the 700s, Rome became the capital of the Papal States, which lasted until 1870. Even today, Vatican City is a sovereign state inside Rome. The Pope is one of the very the last absolute monarchs on earth. An Absolute Monarchy, which Vatican City is governed by, is defined as “a form of government in which a single person—usually a king or queen—holds absolute, autocratic power. In absolute monarchies, the succession of power is typically hereditary, with the throne passing among members of a ruling family.”
“Absolute monarchies, where the monarch is the final authority, are few and far between these days. There are currently five, excluding subnational monarchies: Brunei, Eswatini, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Vatican City.”
In Revelation 17:7, we read that Babylon the harlot is riding on a beast having seven heads and ten horns. The seven heads are called seven hills or seven mountains in verse 9. Everyone at the time that passage was written was so familiar with Rome being called the city of seven hills it is likely that they understood this to be Rome. As Daniel 2 describes the flow of the world empires from beginning to end in a vision of a statue, will the last empire be a revived Roman Empire? One that includes an absolute monarchy, that already exists today, led by a false prophet (of the Catholic Church?) Many think so.
Book- SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. (I’m reading this book. It’s good).
Essay- Rome and the Apostle Paul
Essay: What is the significance of Rome in the Bible?
Sermon: The Rise and Fall of the World part 3 (if you are interested in the revived Roman Empire)