Behind Luke’s Gospel: The Roman Empire During the Time of Jesus

Celebrated as a hero after the strife of civil war, Augustus was considered the great source of peace for Rome. After defeating the enemies of Rome, he was celebrated as a great “savior” to the people who would have likely been hopeless had victory not been achieved.[7]  The themes of freedom, justice, peace and salvation permeated his reign. Whenever the great deeds of Augusts were proclaimed, they were presented with the Greek term euangelion, which is translated, “good news” or, “gospel”.  From those themes emerged what John Dominic Crossan has called a “Roman Imperial Theology,” which “was advertised with poems and inscriptions, coins and images, statues, altars, and structures.”[8]  Through this cultic propaganda, the Empire justified its dominance throughout Rome and the conquered territories.[9]  Before exploring the dimensions of the so-called “emperor cult,” it will be productive to examine Augustus’ reign in relationship to his subjects.

Subjects of the Emperor

In order to remain in high regard before the Roman Senate, Augustus never fully claimed to be the ‘dictator’ of Rome (although it seems that for all practical purposes he wielded such authority).  The structure of his leadership was similar to that of a constitutional monarchy, in which he was able to acquire great power without creating animosity between him and the senators.  Early in his reign, Caesar Augustus came to recognize the necessity of providing for three particular groups of Romans: 1) senators and equestrians, 2) the citizens of Rome, and 3) the soldiers of the Roman military.  Such an approach to leadership gained him much popularity among his people.[10]

In Christians and Roman Rule in the New Testament: New Perspectives, Richard J. Cassidy describes the political and economic conditions of Augustus’ rule in detail.  The senate and equestrian classes (including Augustus) enjoyed great wealth from the purse of conquered peoples and the trade that increased as the borders moved outward.  Not only so, but many slaves were acquired during the military conquests that were to the benefit of the wealthy people of Rome.  Augustus appeased the general population of Rome’s citizens by instituting a free monthly distribution of grain to each local family. These portions were distributed in conjunction with the monthly games for the populace to enjoy (often referred to as “bread and circus”).  For those who served in the Roman military, one that by the end of Augustus’ rule included about twenty-five legions, there were also great benefits that were granted by the emperor on their behalf.  Compensation for soldiers included monthly salaries, discharge payments, opportunity for full Roman citizenship, and land grants for many who served twenty-five years or more.  In fact, those who received land grants were strategically placed into clustered settlements at key locations throughout the Empire.  This helped deter any would-be agitators of the Roman peace, and promoted loyalty to the emperor beyond Rome.[11]

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