1. The first historic mention of Rome in the Bible is in 1 Macc. 1:10, about the year 161 b.c. In the year 65 b.c., when Syria was made a Roman province by Pompey, the Jews were still governed by one of the Asmonæan princes. The next year Pompey himself marched an army into Judea and took Jerusalem. From this time the Jews were practically under the government of Rome. Finally, Antipater’s son, Herod the Great, was made king by Antony’s interest, b.c. 40, and confirmed in the kingdom by Augustus, b.c. 30. The Jews, however, were all this time tributaries of Rome, and their princes in reality were Roman procurators. On the banishment of Archelaus, a.d. 6, Judea became a mere appendage of the province of Syria, and was governed by a Roman procurator, who resided at Cæsarea. Such were the relations of the Jewish people to the Roman government at the time when the New Testament history begins.
2. Extent of the empire.—Cicero’s description of the Greek states and colonies as a “fringe on the skirts of barbarism” has been well applied to the Roman dominions before the conquests of Pompey and Cæsar. The Roman empire was still confined to a narrow strip encircling the Mediterranean Sea. Pompey added Asia Minor and Syria. Cæsar added Gaul. The generals of Augustus overran the northwest portion of Spain and the country between the Alps and the Danube. The boundaries of the empire were now the Atlantic on the west, the Euphrates on the east, the deserts of Africa, the cataracts of the Nile, and the Arabian deserts on the south, the British Channel, the Rhine, the Danube, and the Black Sea on the north. The only subsequent conquests of importance were those of Britain by Claudius and of Dacia by Trajan. The only independent powers of importance were the Parthians on the east and the Germans on the north. The population of the empire in the time of Augustus has been calculated at 85,000,000.
3. The provinces.—The usual fate of a country conquered by Rome was to become a subject province, governed directly from Rome by officers sent out for that purpose. Sometimes, however, petty sovereigns were left in possession of a nominal independence on the borders or within the natural limits of the province. Augustus divided the provinces into two classes—(1) Imperial; (2) Senatorial; retaining in his own hands, for obvious reasons, those provinces where the presence of a large military force was necessary, and committing the peaceful and unarmed provinces to the senate. The New Testament writers invariably designate the governors of senatorial provinces by the correct title ἀνθύπατοι, proconsuls. Acts 13:7; 18:12; 19:38. For the governor of an imperial province, properly styled “legatus Cæsaris,” the word ἡγεμών (governor) is used in the New Testament. The provinces were heavily taxed for the benefit of Rome and her citizens. They are said to have been better governed under the empire than under the commonwealth, and those of the emperor better than those of the senate.
4. The condition of the Roman empire at the time when Christianity appeared has often been dwelt upon as affording obvious illustrations of St. Paul’s expression that the “fullness of time had come.” Gal. 4:4. The general peace within the limits of the empire, the formation of military roads, the suppression of piracy, the march of the legions, the voyages of the corn fleets, the general increase of traffic, the spread of the Latin language in the West as Greek had already spread in the East, the external unity of the empire, offered facilities hitherto unknown for the spread of a world-wide religion. The tendency, too, of a despotism like that of the Roman empire to reduce all its subjects to a dead level was a powerful instrument in breaking down the pride of privileged races and national religions, and familiarizing men with the truth that “God had made of one blood all nations on the face of the earth.” Acts 17:24, 26. But still more striking than this outward preparation for the diffusion of the gospel was the appearance of a deep and wide-spread corruption, which seemed to defy any human remedy.