Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | May 17, 2008

The Greco-Roman culture from which the Church emerges

The Greco-Roman cultures from which the Church emerges – Part 1




An important insight that needs to be understood when considering the Roman Empire is to acknowledge how it viewed itself.  The Roman Empire considered itself the successor to the Greek Empire, which was given the task of civilizing the rest of the world with its ideals and philosophy.  There was a profound sense that they were civilized and all other cultures in the world were barbaric.  It was the privilege of this empire to bring order and liberty to the rest of the world, which should be grateful for this noble accomplishment.  As the Roman Empire expanded its borders it felt the burden to continue to extend the empire and bring civilization to the neighboring territories.  It was within this context that Rome gradually shifted from a republic to an empire ruled by and emperor and not a king.  This transition was a delicate one that continued to possess a precarious relationship with the Senate, which was the original governing body.  It should be noted that this body continued as a formal institution until 1453 in the Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople when it fell to the conquering Ottoman Empire. 


This movement from republic to empire was opposed vociferously by influential Roman’s such a Cicero.  He opposed the creation of an empire vigorously and wanted to maintain the republic and the rule of the Senate.  However, it became abundantly evident, as the empire expanded, that this desire was impossible logistically due to the inability of this large empire to function without an emperor.  As Julius Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, emerged as the first official Roman Emperor he ushered in what many Roman’s believed to be great period known as the Pax Augustus (the Augustus peace).  The Pax Augustus was a period that was romanticized by many ancient Roman writers, including the poet Virgil.  The importance of this peace on the Mediterranean for the growth and spread of Christianity cannot be understated.  It provided the security realized with the cessation of war within its borders.  Moreover, it also facilitated safer sea travel with the elimination of the threat of piracy and land travel with the construction of interconnecting trade routes4.


The title Caesar was derived from the family name of Julius Caesar, which eventually emerged as a synonym to emperor.  This evolved into other languages such as the Russian term Czar/Tzar and German term Kaiser.  This continuity in terms was important, especially after the fall of Constantinople with the concept of the translatio emperidi (translation of empire) from Rome to Constantinople to St. Petersburg.  This continuity was at least claimed by the Russian Tzar who sought to acquire the imperial dignity of Roman Empire for himself.  This was indicative of the Russian use of the double headed eagle, which was an intentional symbolism seeking to establish a continuity of authority with the Roman Empire.  The ancients would employ this concept in there claims of being derived from god’s or goddesses (i.e. Alexander the Great from Apollo and Julius Caesar from Venus).  The translatio emperidi was not just unique to the Tzar of Russia.  It was also a characteristic of the reign of Charlemagne who was crowned in 800 ad assuming the title of Holy Roman Emperor, which incidentally was used continually until its cessation initiated by Napoleon approximately 900 years later.


The Roman Emperor emerged as a figure that was seen as embodying the virtues or the “genius” of Rome.  This view eventually led to the imperial cult which was known for their practice of rituals and worship of the Roman Emperor.  Although, this practice was widespread in the empire, it was not largely practiced within the city of Rome itself being isolated to the provincial lands.  The emperor encouraged his own veneration or worship among the conquered people of the empire, however would have classified the practice as inappropriate for the actual people of Rome.  Nonetheless, Rome did practice “apotheosis” or the ideal that a mortal man could be made into a god.  This was actually ratified by the Senate which possessed the authority to formalize a dead hero’s elevation to divine status.  This elevation to divinity after death was seen as a real benefit to the individual in the after-life. 






4 Everett Ferguson Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; WB Eerdmans, Third Edition 2003) p 617


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