Empire in Rome

Empire in Rome April 30, 2013

Before one can ask if Christians are opposing empire as a movement and in their preaching and in their writings, it is good to grasp how the Roman empire understood itself. In our co-edited book, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, Joe Modica and I solicited the classics scholar David Nystrom to sketch Roman imperial ideology and the imperial cult.

The features of Roman ideology about the Roman achievement were propped up by the following:

1. It was ordained by the gods.
2. It was just (law and military were about justice).
3. Vast.
4. Stratified (this section tells the story of how intensive and self-conscious the Romans were about one’s location in society).
5. Urban and material.
6. Informal with power centered at the top.
7. Religion was a compact.

A notable discussion in this chp is about divine worship, and Nystrom nuances this away from what many today are saying about emperor worship, and a summary follows in the 3d paragraph below.

Here is Nystrom’s wide-ranging conclusion, each sentence of which summarizing myriads or at least cohorts, and I have broken up the paragraph to make it easier to see the major points:

The Roman Empire was vast and the means of administration available to the emperors were few.  Rather than rely on brute force and the markers of personal ascendancy, the imperial strategy was to link the traditional ideology of Roman rule with the imperial house.

Coins, statuary and the imperial cult all thrust the emperor before the people in ways that evoked continuity with this ideology.

People worshipped Augustus as they worshipped their family ancestors and they thought of him as lord and king, but he was careful to link his role with traditional symbols and patterns of power.  As lord he stood for more than himself.  He stood for the entire compass of Roman civilization.  His image and story conjured not simply his own person but the empire as an ordered world community that offered benefits to those who participated in its life.

It was ordained by the gods.  It favored might and the exercise of power.  It offered a life of virtue as it fashioned a type of commonwealth that prized social hierarchy and stability.  It was world-wide and intentionally stratified affording benefits to conquered elites but little to the “lesser sort.”  It prized tradition and its glory was linked to the self-adulation of its elites.  It prized honor and offered material reward to satiate that desire.  It was a vast household existing under the benign and generous influence of an emperor who symbolized the Roman way.

While there are spectacular exceptions, such as Caligula, Augustus and his successors employed the imperial cult not to fuel some megalomania but to instruct provincials on the patterns and benefits of Romanitas and so further the Roman project.

The message of the New Testament conjures a kingdom at variance with the Roman project at many points.  The identity of the true King and Lord is but one among them, and at once implied the others.

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  • I guess I have a radically different idea of what justice is! 🙂

    The opportunity is here to do great follow up about The “empire” of God…which is upside down. (and maybe that’s pretty obvious)

  • Other scholars I have read point to Augustus consciously molding the idea of Caesar as the paterfamilias (head of the household) for the empire. During the era of the Republic, it was the heads of various powerful households that ruled Rome and fought each other. With the collapse of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, Augustus needed imagery that justified him as the singular ruler over all. Augustus took the idea of household and cast Rome as the household writ large.

    Paul does the same thing with the church, except in his case a rigid hierarchy of status gives way to a God who is paterfamilias and everyone is a brother and sister, the most egalitarian relationship in the ancient household. I’ve read that one of the most subversive and threatening things the early Christians did was come together as people from across the various strata of Roman hierarchy and worship together. Roman authorities saw this a disturbing challenge to the social order.

  • Tyler Tully

    I’m really looking forward to this book, sir. I think this is an extremely important area of praxis that we have long neglected. Thanks for the post.

  • I concur with you, Michael! This is important context — since so many look to established culture as acceptable and miss the counter cultural drive of Jesus and Paul.

  • Percival

    In those terms it seems almost … benevolent. I suppose that is why the book of Revelation pictures Rome/Babylon as a prostitute. She seduced the kings of the Earth, but she is pictured as drunk with the blood of the saints.

  • Tony Springer

    Great post Scot and thanks for including the conclusions by Nystrom, especially on the Augustan restoration of Roman tradition. We should remember that the Roman Empire, as established and settled by Augustus, began only a few decades before Peter preached his sermon on that Pentecost Sunday.

  • mattDavis!

    Thanks for that comment (#2) Michael, that makes a lot of sense. I haven’t had the opportunity to get into the literature on this issue yet, do you have any helpful starting points?

    I think that the sibling praxis of the Early Church is something is very easy to neglect but is well worth holding on to. We spend so much time focusing on preaching to build up Christian families that we can easily neglect being Brothers and Sisters to one another.

  • Luke A

    Percival # 5,

    I think that’s the point; Rome wasn’t overtly wicked and evil. To her people, she was the hope of the world. But strip some layers back, and you see something very different….
    An interesting read fom more of a socio-historical perspective is Tom Holland’s “Rubicon.” Flows almost like a novel, but covers the last years of the Republic before Augustus.