Rome was the major imperial power controlling the people, territory, and resources around the Mediterranean Sea from roughly the second century BCE to the fifth century CE.
The Roman Empire stretched from Britain in the northwest, through present-day France and Spain in the west, across Europe to Turkey and Syria in the east, and along north Africa and Egypt to the south. The Romans ruled some 60 or so million people of diverse ethnicities and cultures, and of varying social levels—the enslaved, slaves who had been freed, and those who had never been enslaved. The empire comprised more than thirty provinces. Provinces were territorial and administrative areas that supplied taxes and resources for the ruling elite.
The empire was very hierarchical and ruled by a small group of elites, mostly males, Power was centralized in Rome in the hands of the emperor and senators. This group of ruling elites comprised some 2-3 percent of the population, and they extended their power over provinces in several ways. The emperor or Senate appointed governors from among the elites to rule provinces. Pontius Pilate, mentioned in the New Testament (Matt 27:2; Matt 27:11-26), was one such governor. The emperor also appointed local client kings to rule on behalf of Rome and for Rome’s interests (so Herod in Matt 2). Rome also made alliances with local elites in cities such as Ephesus and Antioch. Local elites competed with one another to honor Rome and benefit their cities by means of such actions as funding public works, sponsoring festivals, providing food handouts, and creating local networks of clients.
Elites also controlled the empire’s military power, which was organized in the form of legions. By the mid first-century there were some twenty-eight legions, comprising up to six thousand soldiers and organized into various subgroupings. Soldiers were recruited from across the empire. Military dominance displayed imperial manliness over subjugated peoples. The military’s reputation for ruthlessness and skill in battle with superior training and equipment acted as a deterrent for revolt as well as an incentive to local peoples to submit. Wherever legions were stationed across the empire, their presence impacted local economies by coopting local resources such as animals, crops, labor, and recruits. This practice of forced cooption is reflected in Matt 5:41.
The elites also possessed and exhibited great wealth and status. They displayed it in fine housing, clothing, dining, food, social networks, and various forms of public service. Ownership of land was basic for elite power and wealth. Elites secured production from land and provincial resources by multiple levels of taxes (often paid in kind), tributes, rents, and loans. To not pay taxes was considered rebellion. Trade—empire-wide, inter-provincial, and intra-provincial—moved goods and supplies.
The empire was a slave economy, with slaves captured in battle or born into slavery providing labor and some skills. Estimates of numbers of slaves range from 15 to 30 percent of the population. Slave labor was assumed, and there was no movement to end this inhumane and exploitative institution.
Ruling elites not only sought the submission of nonelite bodies but also used propaganda to colonize their minds. Elites used various media—monuments, buildings, inscriptions, festivals, games, troops, coins, literary productions, etc.—to assert and sanction Roman rule. These media announced Rome to be the chosen agent of the gods’ will and blessings. Honoring the emperor in festivals, prayers, and sacrifices—not required but encouraged—recognized and secured the gods’ ongoing favor for the empire.
The rest of the population experienced varying degrees of powerlessness and poverty. A middling group of traders, bankers, and some artisans, perhaps 10 percent, lived securely above poverty. Life for many, however, was harsh. Most, estimated to be around 70-80 percent of the population, knew varying levels of poverty. Some, especially artisans with some skills and business acumen, managed to live around or slightly above subsistence levels throughout the year. Others cycled below sustainable levels at certain times during the year when employment was not available or crops failed or injuries or disease struck. Still others, such as beggars and the physically and psychologically damaged, struggled to survive on a daily basis.
Contagious diseases and deprivation were common, with many lacking significant immunity. Lifespans were often short and stressful for nonelites. Such living conditions are evident in the New Testament in accounts of healings and exhortations to provide material support for one another as resources allowed (Matt 25:31-46).
Subjects of the empire (most were not “citizens”) negotiated its power in different ways. Some, especially elites in provincial cities, competed for and benefited from imperial favors. Some, in Judea in 66-70 CE for example, resisted by military means. Most combined accommodation and cooperation with self-protective, dignifying, calculated acts of dissent such as pilfering, hiding production, rumors, coded talk, jokes, fantasies of revenge, millennial visions, acts of banditry, and different forms of social interaction.