As Roman influence spread throughout the Mediterranean world in the second and first centuries BC, largely through military force, the Romans came into contact with a variety of foreign cultures, religions, and ideas, including those of both Athens and Jerusalem. Upon encountering these vibrant and venerable traditions, one feeling in particular pervaded their assessment of themselves in the light of these other cultures: they felt overwhelmingly inferior. As a result, the Romans sought to imitate what they found in these other cultures, especially in the culture of the Greeks, adopting Greek mythology, philosophy, art, literature, and even history as their own. Much of what survives for us today of the ancient Greeks was passed on through the work of the Romans.
Although the Romans were, in comparison with the Greeks and the Jews, nearly bereft of any significant cultural achievements of their own, their greatest achievement, and the one for which they merit a chapter in this series, was the unity they brought to the Mediterranean world. Although the Greeks and the Jews had interacted previous to the Roman conquests, their greatest period of interaction began after they were both subject to the Romans. The Romans brought a unity and order to the Mediterranean that it had never before known.
Not only did the Romans bring a variety of cultures from throughout the Mediterranean world together, they also imposed an orderliness on these cultures that contributed significantly to the later development of Christianity. The Roman penchant for legal codes was one that, as we will see, was particularly influential.
It was into the cultural context of the Roman Empire in the first century CE that Jesus Christ was born. And it was in this cultural context, which combined the best and, at times, the worst, of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, that the Christian Church grew up.
Names to know
- Augustus Caesar – first Roman emperor
Places to know
- Rome – city in the Italian peninsula from which the Romans emerged
- Roman unity of the Mediterranean
- Roman legalism
* = highly recommended
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*Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
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