They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Roman Hierarchy – Part 2

The two lowest classes of Roman citizens consisted of “freeborn” and specific types of slaves. “Freeborn” were people of lower economic status, but were born free men and Roman citizens. This class of people was termed, ”Plebians”. There was also a group of freed men, who had been slaves, but had either earned or bought their freedom. They were not entirely free, since their former masters still had some hand on them. Most “freeborn” and “freedmen” were fairly poor, but it was possible for them to achieve some status and wealth in business and trade. There was a synagogue of “freedmen” in Acts 6:9-12. Paul was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28), probably from the Plebian class – although there is no way of knowing for certain how Paul’s family became Roman citizens. Certain rights and rewards went along with this citizenship. Among these rights was the right to a fair trial before any punishment could be handed out. This fact enters the Acts story several times. A perfect example of these two classes, freeborn and freedmen, is found in Acts 22:22-29 and is really worth reading.

The lowest class in the Roman world was that of a slave. Slaves were property of their owners and were either born or sold into it, often through piracy. A huge trade developed that raised abandoned babies to be sold as slaves. Roman slavery was not racially based and slaves did not have to dress in a certain way. Slaves were a huge benefit to the Roman rulers because they bore the brunt of their industrious building projects.

Roman SoldiersThe last group of people that made up Roman society was the soldier. A soldier could come from any of the people groups but were mainly from the poorer classes. A Roman soldier received 225 denari a year, (4 denari a week) and was supplemented in his income by booty taken from captives or people that they had rule over. After completing twenty-five years of service in the military, soldiers were granted full citizenship status and were given 3,000 denari and a good plot of farm land on which to retire. Because of this law, land was soon in short supply around Rome and many of the new countries that were subdued were given to the retiring soldiers. With such a large fighting force, there was a constant need for new lands and this fueled the need to continue to conquer new territories.

The soldiers were formed into groups called legions. A legion consisted of five to six thousand men, (depending on the time period in history). Fifty different legions have been documented by historians, and approximately twenty-eight legions were assembled and ready and stationed around the Roman world. A centurion was a commander of one hundred of these men; thus there were sixty centurions in a legion. Centurions wore a colored, plumed crest on their helmets so that they could be seen and followed during battle. There are several centurions mentioned in the Bible. Jesus had an encounter with a centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 and healed his paralyzed servant. In Acts 10:1, a centurion named Cornelius, who was in the Italian regiment, had a dream and called for Peter to come visit him. There are also centurions mentioned in Acts 22:25 and Acts 23:23.
A Roman soldier was well equipped and well trained for his job (Ephesians 6:10-20). His issue of equipment was very interesting. They were given crossed sticks that served as a back pack frame to carry all their equipment, which could weigh up to ninety pounds. It had a tool kit, dish and pan and personal belongings. Roman law permitted them to require subjects to carry their pack for them a mile, even if the person was originally going in the opposite direction (Matthew 5:41). They could also force residents to feed and house them for up to three days. They had three weapons: a long wooden javelin with a metal point called “pilum”, a short sword called ”gladius”, and a small dagger called a ”pugio”, for the close-in work. They also carried a curved shield called a “scutum”. They would lock their shields together and advance on the enemy and were protected from any weapons coming in from above. They wore a metal helmet during battle that covered a good portion of their head.

Hopefully, these two short lessons will give us a better idea of the layers of the Roman Society that were present during the time of the Bible. Having this information as we read the Text will help us understand and imagine what life would have been like when Rome ruled the world; the world of Jesus and his disciples.

The Roman Hierarchy – Part 1

Roman Senate

Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate

The Roman Empire was at its height during the time of the New Testament. The influence of Rome on its territories was vast and all-encompassing. From architecture and art to language and education, Rome had a tremendous impact on all of life. In order to better understand how the nation functioned and had such a powerful grip on their citizenry, it is helpful to do a short study of the hierarchy of the different social classes of people that made up the Roman Empire.

There were three broad categories of people in the Roman Empire that everyone fell into: 1.) Citizens, 2.) Provincials (people they defeated), and 3.) Slaves.

It is estimated that one-third of the population of this time period were slaves. Slaves were vital to the Roman class system and most citizens owned slaves. Provincials were also a large portion of the population because of Rome’s constant military campaigns to conquer the world. Provincials were often granted citizenship in exchange for their loyalty to Rome. The actual citizens of the Roman Empire were the fortunate ones. To be a citizen of Rome carried many rights and privileges. There were three ways to obtain Roman citizenship:

  1. Receive it as a reward for some outstanding service to Rome
  2. Buy it at a considerable price
  3. Be born into a family of Roman citizens.

According to Roman law, all Roman Citizens were assured exclusion from all degrading forms of punishment. This law plays out often in the Paul stories in Acts.

Next, let’s take a look at the classes of people that made up the citizenry of the Roman Empire. At the top of the hierarchy was of course, the emperor. However, there was only one of those, so actually the highest class was the rank of Senator. The word, “Senatus”, means old man or elder, so the Roman Senate was literally a council of elders. The Senate was made up of wealthy aristocrats that were either appointed by the emperor or they inherited their position. Although the Senate did not have lawmaking powers, they wielded considerable authority. They received and sent ambassadors and appointed provincial governors and Proconsuls to their posts. Pilate was appointed governor of Judea by the Roman Senate in 26 A.D. Other biblical examples of governors include Quirinius in Luke 2:2, Sergius Paulus in Acts 13:7, and Gallio in Acts 18:17. The Senate also sent recommendations to other branches of government and these recommendations were seldom ignored. To be a Senator you had to prove that you had property and money worth at least one million sesterces (a typical yearly income for the family was approximately 1,000 sestertii). There was no salary for the senatorial position and while a senator you could not engage personally in any trade, business or anything else that was non-agricultural.

The next class below Senator was equestrian, originally a horse soldier. The basis for this class was strictly economic. You could be an equestrian if you could show that you had property worth at least 400,000 sesterces. By extension, your family members could also be equestrian if sufficient wealth could be shown. It has been recorded that families would choose to kill one of their newborns if they were afraid that by dividing the family inheritance, everyone might slip below the equestrian or senatorial rank. Equestrian could be involved in business, even the types that were off limits to the senators.

Public display of status was very important in Roman Society. The clothing of the upper class had distinctive features which made them visible to all. You could tell what class you were in by the clothing that you wore. Only men of the upper senatorial rank could wear purple, usually robes with purple stripes. Some scholars suggest that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, would have been the only person at the Pratoreum in Jerusalem who would have had a robe with purple coloring that the Bible says was put on Jesus before his crucifixion.

This finishes our brief look at the upper classes of the Roman hierarchy. In our next post, we will look at the lower classes and also look at the Roman soldier.