"To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace." …Tacitus, Agricola
Making a Desert…
Jesus was born into the Greco-Roman World. He was born when the Roman Empire ruled supreme over the eastern Mediterranean. It was at the hands of a Roman Governor that he was sentenced to death and it was on a Roman cross that he died. In the years to come, it was by the might of the Roman Empire, the Temple would be destroyed and Jerusalem burned to the ground. In this part of the series, we will examine the political environment in which Jesus would have lived and worked. As well as this, we will look at the political figures in and around the time in order to understand the political scene of ancient Palestine.
After the roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem, he appointed Hyrcanus II high priest and 'ethnarch', a lesser title than king which basically meant he ruled the nation. He also installed Antipater the Idumaean as a military governor, and Antipater in turn appointed two of his sons, Phasel and Herod, as governors of Judea and Galilee. During the rulership of the Hasmoneans, the region was a fully independent Jewish kingdom; however with Palestine no longer independent, it was up to Hyrcanus II as a client king of the region to pay tribute to Rome, support Roman politics and aid Roman military actions in the eastern Mediterranean. With Rome as his patron, he was allowed autonomy within his boarders and promised the protection and support of the Empire.
Aristobulus II, a brother to Hyrcanus II, was not happy with the situation. He and his son, Antigonus, revolted. While Aristobulus II had been carried captive to Rome and assassinated by friends of Pompey, his son continued the struggle after his death. Antigonus allied himself with the Parthians, the principal threat to Rome at the time and in 40 BCE, they overran the region, establishing him as king and high priest. While Hyrcanus II and Phasel were captured, Herod managed to escape and fled to Rome.
Here, Herod was supported by Mark Antony and Octavian, better known to the world as Augustus. Herod was declared King of Judea by the Roman Senate and was given the support of Roman troops so that he could claim his crown. It is important to understand, that in appointing Herod king and offering military support, Rome was protecting its client and opposing its enemy, an enemy who had allied itself with Rome's enemy.
Herod, with Rome's troops and Rome's support, won the war.
The House of Herod…
However, many Jews were not pleased seeing Herod as their king, as most Jews did not consider him to be a true Jew as he belonged to the Idumaean family. The Idumaean family, successors to the Edomites of the Hebrew Bible, settled in Idumea, formerly known as Edom, in southern Judea. When the Maccabean John Hyrcanus conquered Idumea, he required all Idumaeans to obey Jewish law or to leave; most Idumaeans thus converted to Judaism. Most Jews resented this region and it's people, seeing them as only 'half-Jewish'. Another problem was that Herod had succesfully supplanted the Hasmoanean family, which still commanded much loyality and public favor. In an attempt to please the crowds he married a Hasmonean princess, Mariamme. In fear of revolt, over the course of serveral years he slowly began elimating the remaining members of the Hasmoneasen bloodline, including his wife and his two sons by her.
Once he had conquered Palestine, Herod was master of the region, but with Rome as his patron, he could not act out of kilter with her interests. Herod could run his kingdom his way however on crucial points, Augustus had the last word. Herod engaged in great building schemes, which employed tens of thousands of workers, he increased trade in the region, he made crown regions more prosperous and he ruthlessly suppressed all opposition, including minor protest. His most famous and ambitious project however was the expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He ruled Palestine for thirty-three years and in that time had executed three of his sons on grounds of sucpected treason. Augustus who had approved the trials remarked, "I'd rather be Herod's pig than Herod's son."
When Herod died in 4 BCE, Augustus reviewed the two wills he left behind. Augustus decided that it would be best to divide his kingdom among his three sons, Archeluas, Philip and Antipas. Archeluas was appointed to rule Judea, Samaria and Idumaea, Antipas inherited Galilee and Peraea, while Philip received the more remote parts of Herod's kingdom.
Governing Galilee and Controlling Judea
At the time of Jesus, the political arrangements in Galilee were the same as they had been before Herod's death. Antipas followed the same terms and conditions any client king would: he paid tribute, cooperated and supported Rome, and maintained public order. He created his own coins as a sign of his 'independent rule', bearing agricultural designs, which Jews found acceptable. His place was decorated with many lavish statues of animals, something that many didn't approve of. Our sources indicate that Antipas made no attempt to impose any Greco-Roman customs on the Jewish population, in fact it seems that Antipas was a fairly Law observant Jew. The lack of uprising during his rule indicates that Antipas was not excessively oppressive and did not demand taxes that exceeded the standard.
Over time, Archeluas proved to be not a very good client king as he couldn't maintain order with his subjects protesting against his actions, eventually he was exiled and replaced by a Roman official appointed by Augustus. This Roman officer was appointed a governor of Judea, Samaria and Idumaea. From 6 to 41 CE the was titled was 'prefect', while from 44 to 66 CE he was known a 'procurator'. This prefect (as he was in Jesus' day) lived in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, residing in one of the luxurious palaces constructed by Herod the Great. The prefect had 3000 troops at his command, a number that was useful for keeping the presence and appearance of order but was hardly enough to maintain order when serious trouble threatened.
Jerusalem housed the major Roman garrison, Antonia Fortress, and other fortresses could be found in the major cities in Judea however these were generally very lightly garrisoned. Rome did not actually govern on a day-to-day basis, towns and villages generally ran by themselves, being run by the elders with one or more serving as magistrates. If something serious did happen, a message would be sent to the prefect where he would intervene and make the final ruling. If things got truly out of hand, the legate of Syria, who was superior to the Judean perfect, could assist who had four legions at his disposal totalling approximately 20000 infantry and 5000 cavalry. During the major festivals, the Roman prefect and additional troops came to Jerusalem to ensure public order. Public assemblies and gatherings were carefully watched, festivals in Jerusalem were known to be hazardous.
The Real Problem…
While Rome didn't rule Judea on a day-to-day basis, for the ordinary people of the Jewish homeland, Rome was an unseen force, but a force that was still there and still posed a problem. In the case of the client kingdom, Antipas' rule and forces would have been the political entity but everyone knew that Rome was the power behind the throne. Everyone knew that Rome was the source of both the wealth and might in the region. Everyone knew that Herod Antipas had to kneel before Caesar. Everyone knew that Rome saw the Jews as an inferior race with an inferior god in comparison to their pantheon of gods and goddesses. Everyone knew that their taxes were going to the tyrant king Caesar and his empire. Every common Jew believed Rome was the source of their problems.
The majority of Jews wanted freedom from Rome's control, as we will see next week, many believed that that freedom was going to come through God's acting in some way, most commonly, the figure known as the Messiah. In the next part of the series, we will look at the religion of Judaism at the time of Jesus. I will be focusing on the Israel's beliefs and hopes, including the covenant election, the Torah, particular practices of the day and the divisions within the faith.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?