Judea and Roman Rule

Inscription from Caesarea mentioning Pontius Pilate

The death of Herod the Great showed how delicate his hold was on his subjects; it proved difficult to find a suitable successor. So the Romans decided to put Judea directly under Roman authority through the stationing of an equestrian prefect.  The rank of this official shows in itself that Judea was not a major Roman concern. A senatorial proconsul or an imperial legate reporting directly to the emperor would normally govern an area of prime importance.  Syria was such an area, as it faced the frontier of the Parthian Empire and was therefore a military zone of great interest to Roman security. Judea was just a land link between Syria and Egypt, so it needed mostly to be kept quiet and free of sedition.

The equestrian prefects that ruled over Judea were to find, however, that the Judeans could be very difficult to keep quiet.  One of them, Pontius Pilate, is all too well known to history as the man who authorized the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. But we will examine other moments of conflict that show how easy it was to miscalculate the moods of the Judean populace, particularly on matters of religion.


Herod the Great and His Dynasty


The Romans preferred to rule areas peripheral to their main interests through client kings. Such kings had to be effective leaders who held their subjects in a tight grip, and who could be counted on to provide the Romans with tribute, military assistance, and a general acquiescence to Roman values. In this regard, King Herod the Great was a virtual model of client kingship.  Through his ruthless control of the people in his realm and his ambitious building throughout Palestine, Herod made his kingdom a place that the Romans could be proud of. By building the city of Caesarea Maritima, he provided the area with its first proper port city, allowing easy access to the country from the sea. Named for Caesar Augustus, the “City of Caesar by the Sea” would be a congenial home to Roman officials, merchants, soldiers, and travelers.

The Herodian Temple Plaza and the Royal Basilica

This week we look at the building program of King Herod and the nature of his position in the eyes of his subjects. We will also see how his rebuilding of the Temple Mount brought the great edifice to the pinnacle of its magnificence and fame.  Through his building projects in particular, we will see how Herod is in many ways a Hellenistic ruler, though in Jerusalem itself, he will try to present himself as a righteous, Jewish king.

This week’s assignments:

  • February 23, read Josephus, chapters 2-6. (For a detailed description of the Temple Mount and the Temple itself, see pages 301-306)  Also recommended: read Hayes and Mandell, chapter 3.

Israel, Judah and Judea: Who are the Jews?

This week we address a simple question: who exactly are the Jews? This question raises some central themes about the nature of Judaism and its adherents in the first century CE. These can be separated into the people of Judea proper (Jerusalem and its surrounding area) and the peripheral Jewish communities ranging from Galilee to Syria, Egypt, Babylon and beyond—even in Rome.  Judaism was unique in this period in being largely focused on cult ritual in a single temple in Jerusalem, to which Jews paid a tax and made pilgrimage three times a year or as they could.  Such a centered, monotheistic cult was unusual in the ancient world, and aroused both curiosity and suspicion.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.

We will talk about specifically the Jews of the first centuries BCE and CE, and how they positioned themselves in historical and ritual time. We will talk about the Jewish calendar and what it conveys of their ritualized history, and the massive sacrificial economy of the Temple that so many people were engaged in in some way. We will compare Roman and Jewish animal sacrifice as a way to see the commonalities—later to disappear after the destruction of the Temple—between Jewish and Gentile worship in those times.

This week’s assignments:

  • February 16, read Cohen, chapters 1-2. Also recommended: Hayes and Mandell, Introduction.  Leviticus 1-7, Exodus 12.
  • February 18, read Cohen, chapters 3-4. Also recommended: Hayes and Mandell, chapter 2.

Roman Religion: The Age of Augustus

The Emperor Augustus as Jupiter

No single person had a greater influence on the world of the first century CE than Caesar Augustus. From around 31 BCE to 14 CE, he gradually converted the Roman Empire from an ancient Republic teetering towards disaster to a stable monarchy, though Rome could never call itself that.  The Roman Republic was founded on the negation of kingship, so Augustus had to engineer the façade of a “restored republic” in order to effect the profound changes he sought to make, positioning himself as “first man” of the Senate, or princeps senatus.  He preferred to style himself a kind of über-citizen than an emperor, and so we term this period of Roman history the Principate (from princeps).

And yet Augustus was definitely engineering a dynastic claim to power beyond is own lifetime.  In the process of returning Roman society to order, he took great care to use religion as a unifying force, posing also as both pater familias of the most important family and pontifex maximus, or chief priest of Rome. This week we’ll look closely at certain elements of Augustus’ use of religion to bolster his claims to power, and the various poses of Roman piety he adopted to convey the idea that his leadership was the right way to bring peace and stability to both Rome and its sprawling empire.

The article by John Scheid will give you a good sense of how tradition and innovation were intertwined in Augustus’ religious program.  You’ll also be able to read his own record of his achievements in the excerpts here from the Res Gestae, which are helpful for understanding how he wished to present himself as the first citizen of Rome. We’ll also take a more focused look at a particular state ritual, the Secular Games or Ludi Saeculares, and the primary source readings for this include an inscription detailing the days and rituals of this extended festival as well as the hymn written by the great poet Horace. Finally this week, we’ll read in Warrior about the origins of the imperial cult or emperor worship during his reign.

This week’s assignments:


Recommended reading beyond the syllabus:

Eck, Werner. 2007. The Age of Augustus. Second edition. Blackwell. ISBN 9781405151498.

Zanker, Paul. 1990. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. U Michigan Press. ISBN 0472081241.

Roman Religion: Imperial Aspects

We spoke last week about some basic features of Roman religion, the kinds of things even an average person would encounter in household religion, marriage, or death. We also talked about the organization of time (calendar) and space (temple), and how that shaped Roman religious experience generally. Some of these features go back to the primordial stages of Roman religiosity—and are therefore hard to assess in terms of accessible evidence. Now we shift to talk more about how Roman religion changed in response to the growth of Roman power.

By the first century CE, Roman religion was intertwined with the complexities of empire.  The Roman Empire itself sprawled from Britain to North Africa, from Spain to Syria. It comprised many nations with many divergent religious practices, from Celtic druidism to Jewish monotheism and the vastly ancient traditions of Egypt.  Imperialism transforms both the ruler and the ruled, and this certainly is true of the Romans, who came to adopt various foreign cults in the course of their imperial expansion. Isis, Mithras, and even Jesus found their followers not only on the fringes of the Empire, but also in the city of Rome itself, though acceptance of such foreign cults was never automatic.
 So it’s important to look at how Rome tried to control foreign religions that threatened to intrude upon traditional Roman values.

In addition to the permeation of foreign cults into the Roman cultural sphere, we must also look to peculiar forms of Roman religion that reflect Rome’s sense of its own power and right to rule; of these we will focus in particular on the triumph and the arena. Lastly, we will begin to discuss this week the growth of emperor worship, and what it means for the consolidation of Roman power under the principate.

This week’s assignments:

• February 2, read Warrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook, chapters 7-10
• February 4, read Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire, chapters 2 and 5. Click here for 1-2.

Roman Religion: Some Basic Aspects

One of the Di Penates
One of the Di Penates

This week we’ll focus on the Roman Calendar and basic aspects of household and agrarian cult that show the more archaic features of Roman religion. It is appropriate to “inaugurate” our discussion with the topic of divination (Warrior, chapter 2), since augury or the seeking of good omens was the way things always began in Roman society.

Many of Rome’s most ancient religious practices were thought to date from the period of the Kingship (753-509 BCE), with particularly important events playing out in the reigns of Romulus (the Founder of Rome) and Numa Pompilius (the religious “founder” of Rome). The truth is, we don’t know for certain if these tales of religious origin are true or not; but they were commonly so described and accepted. As with other aspects of Roman culture, religion was seen to have evolved thanks to a number of important foundational figures. This idea would return during the reign of Augustus, as we shall see.

Much of private life revolved around family-centered cults that might strike you as strange: the lares, ancestral deities that guarded the family; the penates, or “gods of the pantry” that secured the stores of the household and thus guaranteed security from hunger; and the genius or “divine double” of the head of the family, the paterfamilias, which protected family and client relationships. Rome itself was seen as a household through the cult of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. Her circular temple in the forum was attended by the vestal virgins, who tended the sacred hearth-fire of Rome.

Important cults that secured the wellbeing of the state were supervised by a number of officials, such as the pontifices (or pontiffs), the augurs (in charge of taking the auspices before any important state action), and the quindecemviri or “board of 15 men” who oversaw the consultation of the sibylline oracles. There were also a few priesthoods specific to certain gods, like the flamen dialis (priest of Jupiter) and the flamen martialis (priest of Mars), and the aforementioned college of vestal virgins.

Most importantly, the pontiffs controlled the calendar of Rome, in origin a lunar calendar that reckoned time from the new moon (not dark moon as we have it today, but the first appearance of a crescent) or calends, to the full moon or ides. From the ides onward one then counted down until the next new moon or calends, a system that will strike you as very impractical. We will discuss the sacred and profane divisions of time in the Roman year, and how the calendrical system evolved to the Julian calendar still in use today, though in modified form.

Your assignments for this week are:

  • January 26: Read Warrior, chapters 2-6
  • January 28: Read Rives, chapters 3-4


Further reading (for the future, if you’re interested):

Beard, Mary, John North, and Simon Price. Religions of Rome. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Feeney, Dennis. Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History. Berkeley: U California P, 2007.

Scheid, John. An Introduction to Roman Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2003.

Warrior, Valerie. Roman Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Welcome to Roman, Jew, and Christian!

Class has moved!  We will meet in room 15D in the basement of the Moody Residence Hall, otherwise known as the Honors Gardens. Decidedly more central and more pleasant. See you there TOMORROW (1/21)! 

For now, let’s just give you the assignments for week 1 right up front.

A Suovetaurilia Sacrifice
A Suovetaurilia Sacrifice

We begin with a simple interrogation of our key terms. What do we mean by religion? What is a cult? How does Judaic monotheism compare with the forms of religion around the Roman world?

The first task in understanding any ancient religion is to cut away some of what we moderns assume is true about religion. Much of our thinking is shaped by a number of factors NOT in play in the ancient world; namely,

1) the assumed “triumph of Christianity,” i.e. that it necessarily overcame all other forms of religion,

2) the idea that a religion must provide comprehensive worldview,

3) that a religion holds essential truths expressed in its scriptures,

4) that there is a hard distinction between politics and the sphere of religion,

5) that religion is a matter of individual choice and conviction.

Many of these assumptions derive in the US from a peculiarly Protestant outlook, particularly as regards the centrality of scripture and a dismissive attitude towards ritual.

So the first step is to jettison whatever your assumptions are about religion—and you can have fairly elaborate assumptions without even being religious—and look at some basic facts about religion in the ancient world.

This week’s assignments are:

  • Tuesday January 19: Read Warrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook, Introduction (pages 1-13). Pay particular attention to Warrior’s “six features of Roman religion,” on pages 7-13.
  • January 21: Read Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire, Introduction and Chapter 1 (pages 1-53).

Make sure you fully understand the significance of the map below, which will be discussed at greater length in the lecture on January 19.