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Notebook: Great Cities of the Bible - Rome

J Grant


The city of Rome is introduced to the pages of Scripture late in the narrative. No mention of it is to be found before Acts 2 where note is made of the presence of some from Rome in Jerusalem when Peter spoke on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2.10). The next reference is to the fact that Aquila and Pricilla, who were living in Corinth when they met Paul, had been expelled from Rome because they were Jews (Acts 18.2). It was to this city that Paul was brought as a prisoner when he appealed to Caesar to hear his case (see Acts 26.32; 28.16). To make such an appeal was the right of every Roman citizen and Paul had used this as a means of reaching Rome. He had planned for many years to go to this great capital of the Roman Empire.

Legend placed the foundation of this mighty city in 753 BC by two brothers, Romulus and Remus. The Etruscans, a race whose rule extended from Bologna in the north to the Naples area in the south, ruled over Rome from 616 BC to 509 BC. It is probable that the Etruscan kings turned the scattered housing of the area into a city.

The foundation of the republic

With the expulsion of the kings, and the declaration of a republic, the expansion of Rome into a great empire commenced. In 396 BC Veti, the area to the north of Rome, was captured, almost doubling the size of Rome’s territory. In 390 BC, however, the Gauls attacked Rome, defeated its army of 15,000 men, and laid the city waste. After this defeat many considered that Rome should be abandoned, but Camillus led the way in having the city rebuilt and it would be over 800 years before Rome fell to the barbarians again. As protection against the enemy, in 378 BC a great wall, known as the Servian wall, 3.6m thick and 7.5m high, was built to protect the city.

Expansion in the Italian peninsula

Rome then turned its attention to southern Italy. The Latin League was annexed following a four year war. Each city in the League came under the rule of Rome yet retained its internal autonomy. Many of the citizens were given citizen’s rights without the right to vote. This brilliant strategy was the pattern that Rome, to a great extent, would follow in the years ahead.

War continued against the Samnites and, despite a defeat, Rome recovered and was victorious in annexing a large part of Southern Italy. The Greek city states in that area remained to be conquered, and despite the assistance given by King Pyrrhus Rome triumphed and by 272 BC all of the area had accepted the terms that had been given to the Latin League. Rome now was the dominant power in the Italian peninsula. The first of the great Roman roads, the Via Appia, led south from Rome.

Further expansion of Roman power

There now stood two mighty powers that were opposed to each other. Carthage in North Africa at this time viewed the growing power of Rome as a threat. The three Punic Wars that followed, however, established Rome as the dominant power in the Mediterranean area. The first of these wars is best known for the epic journey of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who took his armies, with their war elephants, across the Alps. At first successful, defeating Rome at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC), he was unable to drive home his victory and occupy Rome. The Roman senate ordered Scipio to Africa to defeat Carthage. Hannibal was ordered back to Carthage, but was defeated by Scipio at Zama (202 BC).

The Second Punic War is reckoned by historians to be the most significant. Philip V of Macedonia was an ally of Carthage, and Rome, noting his increasing power, defeated him (197 BC). This was repeated in 168 BC and Macedonia and Greece became provinces of Rome. The authority of Rome was established both in the east and the west. In 146 BC Corinth, the wealthiest city in the area was destroyed. This was a departure in tactics for Rome, showing the brutal nature of their behaviour, and determination to establish their authority. This was seen again in the Third Punic War which brought about the destruction of Carthage.

The establishment of the Empire

For approximately 100 years the republic continued its expansion. But this was accomplished by troubles on the home front which came to a head about 60 BC. Three men established a secret "Triumvirate" – Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar. Their purpose was to gain power and Caesar was successful in becoming Consul in 59 BC. At the end of his term of office he went to Gaul and embarked on the conquest of that province. In this he was successful and, as was the custom at that time, made himself very wealthy. Crassus died in battle with the Parthians. In 49 BC Caesar returned from Gaul and, in defiance of the Senate, crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome. Pompey and Caesar were now rivals but Pompey, after defeat in Greece, fled to Egypt where he was put to death. Caesar now was supreme and in 44 BC announced that the dictatorship, which had been given to him by the people, would be perpetual. This was unacceptable to many, and on 15th March, 44 BC he was murdered as he entered the Senate.

Octavian, a nephew of Caesar, who was not yet twenty years of age at the time of the murder, emerged as victor from the battles that followed. In 29 BC he returned to Rome determined to end the decades of civil war that had afflicted the republic. Having renounced all of his offices he was re-appointed by the Senate and assumed the title of "Princeps" or "First Citizen". He is better known as Augustus Caesar, effectively the first Emperor. He was followed in that office by Tiberius in AD 14, by Caligula in AD 26, by Claudius in AD 41, and by Nero in AD 54. Rome, at the peak of its power, now ruled the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. The borders reached from the Euphrates in the east to the north of what we now know as England in the west.

Rome and the gospel

Scripture does not reveal to us, apart from the reference noted above that some from Rome heard Peter preach in Jerusalem at Pentecost, how the gospel had spread in the capital of the empire. When Paul came to Corinth (Acts 18.1-2) he met a married couple, Aquila and Priscilla, Christians who had left Rome due to an edict issued by Claudius to expel all Jews from that city. Paul would have heard much from them regarding the imperial capital. Certainly, the apostle had it in mind to go to Rome and bring the gospel into the centre of the empire (Acts 19.21) and to meet the Christians there. At the beginning of the Epistle to the Romans he addressed these believers as "beloved of God, called to be saints" (Rom 1.7). This epistle was carried by Phebe, a "servant of the church" (Rom 16.1) at Cenchrea, the port of nearby Corinth.

Paul’s plans to come to Rome were centred on his wish to go to Spain (Rom 15.24). As he wrote, he was on his way to take the gift that had been gathered by the saints in Macedonia and Achaia for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Following that he would travel to Spain and, on the way, visit Rome. He wished to meet the Christians and enjoy fellowship with them.

Circumstances, however, were very different when he did go, as a prisoner, having appealed to Caesar after his arrest in Jerusalem (see Acts 21.17-26.32). During the journey he endured shipwreck on Malta, but eventually reached Rome, being encouraged by brethren who met him at "Appia forum, and The three taverns" (Acts 28.15). He was then held under house arrest in his own hired house. There he brought the gospel to the Jews, and for two years received all who came to him. At that time he wrote the epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Amongst others, Timothy was with him in Rome (see Phil 1.1; Col 1.1; Philem v.1)

After two years he was released and visited the saints, but was arrested again during the reign of Nero. During his last imprisonment he wrote the Second Epistle to Timothy. He knew that "the time of (his) departure" was at hand (2 Tim 4.6). Only Luke was with him. He had sent some of his companions, Crescens, Titus, and Tychicus, away to serve elsewhere. Demas had forsaken him, no doubt under the guise of serving elsewhere. He urged Timothy to come and bring Mark with him. We do not know if they arrived before his execution, but, irrespective of that, there was laid up for Paul "a crown of righteousness" (2 Tim 4.8). He had fought the good fight, he had finished his course and he had kept the Faith (2 Tim 4.7).

There is no evidence that Peter ever visited Rome, and the Word of God does not indicate that this city should be the centre, and source of control of church life. All that was to come later, a movement that was contrary to Scripture.


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