The Roman Imperial World

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 12.45.47 pm(This is the second blog based on Warren Carter’s book, “The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, 2009”. The first blog was “EMPIRE: FOREGROUND OF THE NEW TESTAMENT”)

What then was the structure of the Roman imperial world?

“In the first century, Rome dominated the territory and people around the Mediterranean Sea. Its empire extended from Britain in the northwest, through (present-day) France and Spain to the west, across Europe to Turkey and Syria in the east, and along North Africa to the south. Rome ruled an estimated 60 to 65 million people of diverse ethnicities and cultures.”


The empire was very hierarchical, with vast disparities of power and wealth. For the small ruling elite, somewhere between 3 and 5 percent, life was quite comfortable. For the majority non-elite, it was at best liveable and at worst very miserable. There was no middle class, little opportunity to improve one’s lot, and few safety nets in adversity.

Carter has a chapter in Christian Origins (People’s History of Christianity)  2006. This book attempts to write a history of Christianity from the bottom up. History is usually written by the elite. After all, it is mainly the elite who are literate. Few of the lower 95% are thus capable of giving their views. So most histories tell us about the kings, the wealthy, the bishops, the philosophers- basically those who have power.

As in two other compendiums of Biblical scholars, here again, Carter is called upon to write about Matthew’s gospel. Here he tells us about “Matthew’s People”.

“Most inhabitants of Antioch lived in atrocious and cramped conditions marked by noise, filth, squalor, garbage, human excrement, animals, disease, fire risk, crime, social and ethnic conflicts, malnutrition, natural disasters (especially flooding), and unstable dwellings (Seneca, Ep. 56; Martial, Epig. 12.57). Fear and despair were pervasive. The life expectancy for non-elites was low: for men twenty-five to forty years, less for women. Infant mortality was high: about 28 percent born alive in Rome died within a year; 50 percent did not survive a decade.”

He concludes with, “The poor comprised Matthew’s people.”


“The Roman Empire was also an agrarian empire. Its wealth and power were based in land. The elite did not rule by democratic elections. In part they ruled by hereditary control of the empire’s primary resources of land and labor. They owned its land and consumed some 65 percent or more of its production.”

In Christian Origins he gives an example of wealth disparity. “While Cato the Younger, by one estimate, enjoyed revenues of 550 to 600 sesterces a day from property valued at 4 million sesterces, an unskilled skilled laborer earned 1 to 3 sesterces (Matt. 20:2).”

Rodney Stark, a social scientist, in Cities of God estimates that about 5-10% of the population of the Empire lived in cities. The other 90-95% were rural dwellers.

Roman Empire structure Carter

This chart, used by Carter, is based upon Gerhard Lenski’s Model of Agrarian-Aristocratic Empires


The Roman Empire was also a legionary empire. In addition to controlling resources, the elite ruled this agrarian empire by coercion. The dominant means of coercion was the much vaunted Roman army.” The presence of the legions throughout the empire and the threat of military action ensured submission and cooperation.

Divine Sanction

In addition to ownership of resources, military force, and working relationships with the elite, emperors secured their power by claiming the favor of the gods. Their imperial theology proclaimed that Rome was chosen by the gods, notably Jupiter, to rule an “empire without end” (Virgil, Aeneid 1.278-79). Rome was chosen to manifest the gods’ rule, presence, and favor throughout the world. Religious observances at civic occasions were an integral part of Rome’s civic, economic, and political life.”

Because of their monotheism, devotion to a single god, while others in the Empire could worship any or many gods, the Jews were allowed some exemption by the rulers from worshipping the imperial cult. They could pray FOR the Emperor, but not TO the Emperor. But this exemption was not always upheld. Jesus, followers were seen as a sect of the Jews in the early centuries, and shared the same ambiguous exemption.

The Non-elite

“This is the world that most of the population, the non-elite, negotiated every day. Since the non-elite comprised about 97 percent of the population, it is not surprising that most early Christians belonged to this group. An enormous gap separated the non-elite from  the elite’s power, wealth, and status. There was no middle class and little opportunity for improving one’s lot. More often it was a matter of survival. There was no “Roman dream” of pulling oneself up by one’s sandal straps. Degrees of poverty marked the non-elite. There was little safety net. Many knew regular periods of food shortages. Poor health was pervasive. Infant mortality was high, with perhaps up to 50 percent not reaching age ten.”

Domination and Resistance

“Elites exercised material domination over non-elites, appropriating their agricultural production and labor. The hard manual work of non-elites and the coerced extractions of production sustained the elite’s extravagant and elegant way of life. There was a further, more personal, cost to non-elites. Domination deeply influences personal well-being and feelings. It deprives people of dignity. It is degrading and humiliating. It exacts not only agricultural production but an enormous personal toll of anger, resentment, and learned inferiority.”

So one of the factors provided by the early meetings of the Jesus people was to give persons a place where their personal identity, not affirmed in the Roman world was given worth. How important it must have been for those seen as ‘nobodies’ by the elite to be called children of God.

As mentioned earlier, Carter’s is not the only book covering the centrality of the Empire to understanding the New Testament and the early church. At the risk of repeating while showing similar views by other biblical scholars, I’ll include characteristics from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan

Marcus Borg in his book, “Convictions” in Chapter 8 also covers the characteristics of the Empire. For him there were four major facets:

They were ruled by a few- 

typically by a monarch, ranging from petty kings to emperors, and an aristocracy. Commonly called “ruling elites of power and wealth,” they, with their extended families, constituted about 2 percent of the population. Just below them was a class commonly called “retainers,” people employed by the elites to run the system: administrators, bureaucrats, high-ranking military commanders, stewards, scribes, and others, perhaps 5 percent of the population. Ordinary people— 90 percent or more— had no voice in how the system was structured.

They were economically exploitative

The ruling elites shaped the economic system in their own self-interests and did so to an extraordinary degree, typically acquiring half to two-thirds of the annual production of wealth. Wealth was largely the product of the peasant class (which included not only agricultural workers but also other manual laborers). The consequences for the peasant class were dire: systemic poverty, inadequate nourishment, marginal shelter, little sanitation, and a life expectancy about half that of the ruling class.

They were chronically violent

The ruling class used violence and the threat of violence to keep their own population subservient. There was also the violence of war. Because land was the primary source of wealth, war was about one group of ruling elites wanting to increase their wealth by going to war against another group of ruling elites in order to acquire more land.

They were legitimated by religion

Kings were crowned in the name of God and said to rule by divine right. Elite religion proclaimed that the way things were, the social order, reflected the will of God. God put it together this way. Thus those who objected to the domination system were disobeying God.

“This is the world of the Bible, the large historical context in which it came into existence. It is the world of Egypt. It is the world of the monarchy in Israel. It is the world of the foreign empires, beginning with Babylon, that ruled the Jewish people almost continuously from the exile of the sixth century BCE onward. It is the world of Rome in the time of Jesus and early Christianity. The Bible from beginning to end is a sustained protest against the domination systems of the ancient world.” [Italics mine.]

Also, John Dominic Crossan in Chapter 1 of his “God and Empire” delineated four characteristics:

Rome’s military power was based on the legions, each with six thousand fighting engineers at full complement. They were stationed along the Rhine, the Danube, the Euphrates, and the North African frontiers. The twenty-eight (and then only twenty-five) legions built well-paved all-weather roads (no mud) and high-arched all-weather bridges (no flood); with this infrastructure, they could move with all their baggage and equipment at a guaranteed fifteen miles a day to crush any rebellion anywhere. It was not nation-building but province-building, and the idea that such was not the military’s job would have seemed ludicrous to the legions.

Rome’s economic power grew along and upon that same infrastructure. Built for military use, it was thereafter available for travel and trade, contact and commerce. Furthermore, the cash payments to the legions along the frontiers helped to monetize the periphery. After military conquest, the imperial program was Romanization by urbanization for commercialization. And of course, those who oppose your globalization, then and now, come violently or nonviolently against you along the global arteries you have created.

Rome’s political power was established through a self-consciously Romanized aristocracy created across the entire empire that allowed some high local elites to be members of the Roman Senate. It was even eventually possible for a Romanized provincial to become emperor. “The Roman landholding elite,” concludes Michael Mann, “was about as ‘class-like’ as any group in any known society, past or present”. Local elites saw very clearly what they got in return for imperial loyalty.

Rome’s ideological power was created by Roman imperial theology, and it is not possible to overestimate its importance. Military power certainly secured the empire’s external frontiers, but ideological power sustained its internal relations. Do not think of it as propaganda enforced by believing elites upon unbelieving masses. Think of it as persuasive advertising accepted very swiftly by all sides. I return later to look at the content of that theology—in written text and on carved inscription—and at how it worked as the ideological glue that held the Roman world together.

“People got crucified not because they were spiritual, but because they posed a threat to the Roman system. Early Christians and New Testament writers engaged the empire largely ‘from below’ as the powerless and oppressed who had no access to channels of power, no voice, and no hope of changing the imperial system.”

“Even when the New Testament texts seem to us to be silent about Rome’s empire, it is, nevertheless, ever present. It has not gone away. The Roman empire provides the ever present political, economic, societal, and religious framework and context for the New Testament’s claims, language, structures,personnel, and scenes. The New Testament texts guide first century followers of Jesus in negotiating Rome’s power that crucified Jesus”

“In the first century Roman world, no one pretended religion and politics were separate. Rome claimed its empire was ordained by the gods. Those whom we think of as religious leaders in Jerusalem, such as chief priests and scribes, were actually the political leaders of Judea and allies of Rome.”

“Understanding Rome’s world, though, matters for reading the New Testament texts because these texts assume that readers know how the Roman world was structured and what it was like. The texts don’t stop to explain it to us. they don’t spell it out for us. Instead, we are expected to supply the relevant knowledge.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

What resources did the life and teachings of Jesus provide for his earliest followers? For my next blog or two I want to spell out what these are. Will it require a ‘spoiler alert’ to reveal that Jesus’ focus on teaching about the Kingdom of God is central.

4 thoughts on “The Roman Imperial World

  1. aizolnai

    Great intro and powerful reminder that we don’t know the RE as contemporaries did. I highly recommend Mary Baird “SPQR” as a (long) secular revisit w modern glasses, like yours for Testaments.


  2. Gee, totally different from us! Yep. (People seeing them from current perspectives tend to underestimate some differences and overestimate others. But the Roman practices of cutting deals with local elites against the interests of their own populations, or seeking peace through successful violence — These may be the most significant parallels, but probably not the only ones. [Violent entertainments intended to desensitize their people? Parallel unofficial government through good-old-buddy favor networks? Justifying unshared wealth as divine rewards for piety & virtue rather than covert theft…?])


  3. Pingback: Kingdom: Alternative to Empire: I Introduction – Subversive Church

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