|Writing to Learn: Christianity
In A.D. 203 Vibia Perpetua, wealthy and twenty two years old sat nursing her infant in a Carthage jail while awaiting execution. She had received her death sentence for a refusal to sacrifice to the gods for the Roman emperor’s health and safety. As the jailer came and dragged her off to the city’s main square, where (as was typical) a crowd had gathered. Perpetua had later described in her journal what happened next: “my father came carrying my son, crying ‘perform the sacrifice; take pity on your baby’! Then the governor said ‘think of your old father; show pity for your child! Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the imperial family.’ ‘I refuse’, I answered. ‘Are you a Christian? asked the governor. ‘Yes’. When my father would not stop trying to change my mind, the governor ordered him flung to the earth and whipped with a rod. I felt sorry for my father; it seemed they were beating me. I pitied his pathetic old age.” The brutality of Perpetua’s later punishment also failed to break her will: she was gored by a wild bull and stabbed by a gladiator, as she died, she professed her faith. Perpetua has become a saint for her martyrdom. Her story in early Christianity was not unique. Considering this story: how did Perpetua and other early Christians present a problem for the Roman state? Why do you think Christianity had such appeal?
Writing to Learn: Roman Empire
The Roman Empire began in 27 B.C.E. After the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. the empire was thrown into 17 violent years of civil war. There was political intrigue surrounding the group that emerged to battle for supremacy: Marc Antony and Octavian.. After emerging victorious following the battle of Actium, Octavian created his new monarchical government the ‘principate’. He ingeniously disguised the new monarchy as a republic. He retained old institutions, such as the Senate, Tribunes, Consuls, and the courts—while reshaping the distribution of power in his hands. He even chose his new title carefully, referring to himself as ‘the first man’ or “Princeps”. This new model made him the emperor based on a Hellenistic model, albeit without the names and retaining the façade of republicanism. Why do you think Octavian was careful to present the Roman populace with an idea that he was restoring Republicanism? Why do you think this new political shift led to an unprecedented 200 years of peace within Rome?
Writing to Learn: Augustus Caesar
Octavian was the adopted nephew of Julius Caesar. His rise to power was rapid and convincing. In order to hold power, the new Emperor adopted some unique policies to control how he was perceived. Consider:
Mandated slogans proclaiming him the “father of the country”
Roads had built and honored as gifts of his generosity.
Built the huge forum of Augustus which also acted as a shrine to the god Mars, the Roman god of war. The site was dedicated with heroic imagery of warfare, the Roman past, and his own personal greatness.
Commissioned epic poetry by brilliant writers such as Virgil who placed Augustian imagery and references in some of the epic stories of the past, as he did in the Aeneid.
Placed himself in the role of Pontifex Maximus
Why do you think Augustus took this path to leadership? Do you think it was likely to be successful?
Writing to Learn: Rome a modern city during the Pax Romana
No European city would reach the population of Classical Rome until London in the year 1800. One poet described it in these terms: “ One man jabs me with his elbow, another whacks with a pole, my legs are smeared with mud, and from all sites big feet step on me.”
Given that Rome was a remarkably “modern” city for the classical age. What other problems or interesting traits do you think that this city had?
Writing to Learn: Roman Empire and Slavery
In the year 73 B.C.E a savage slave revolt broke out in the southern part of Rome. Some estimates have placed the death toll from this event as high as 100,000. Slaves occupied the lowest rung in society’s hierarchy and provided the basis of imperial workforce. Slaves wer given citizenship upon gaining their freedom. Rome was unique in that they used slaves in non-agrarian tasks, those who worked manufacturing and agriculture worked in dire conditions. “through their clothes you could see all over their bodies the scars from whippings. Some wore only loincloths. Letters had been branded on their foreheads and irons bound their hands and ankles.”
Discuss your perception of the Roman institution of slavery, and how in the long run this institution crippled the Roman economy?
Writing to Learn: Roman Gladiators
Consider the following: “Look at the mob coming to the show—already they’re out of their minds! Aggressive, heedless, already in an uproar about their bets! They all share the same suspense, the same madness, the same voice”. Observers would come to the coliseums, and other venues throughout the Empire, to bear witness to these spectacles. The Romans favorite events included: battle recreations, hunting of fierce beasts from around the expanding Empire, poorly armed dissidents and Christians paired with well trained gladiators, and even mock naval battles in flooded arenas.
What does this attraction say to you about Rome? Is there evidence for why it may have arisen? Would this impact the future of the Empire?
Writing to Learn: Origins of Christianity
Most Jews at the time of Christ’s birth in 4 B.C.E were highly displeased with foreign rule. In many cases they became so discouraged that they looked at their struggle against Roman rule as one that would only end in an apocalyptic struggle. With the forces on earth that were evil (think of Hellenistic treatment of Jews) being overthrown by a Messiah or anointed one. In the year 4 B.C.E. Judea was an angry province, having lived under Herod the Great, the Jews felt increasingly persecuted and under duress having to practice the state religion. As time progressed and Jesus teachings became increasingly popular in the villages of Galilee he began to teach about the “Kingdom of God” which was open to all believers regardless of their apparent sinfulness or social standing. As time passed, Jesus took his teachings (and miracles according the Old Testament) to urban centers and then onto Jerusalem the major city in the region.
Considering this background:
Why do you think Jesus was viewed as a threat by the Romans? Why do you think his message began to have great appeal during the Roman Empire?