On Wednesday September 12, the students and I visited the Roman Forum as a way to explore the Greco-Roman context for the New Testament. We had a wonderful tour guide, Nicoletta Messini, who met us at the monument to Victor Emmanuel II in Piazza Venezia and walked us down the Via dei Fori Imperiale to the Forum. As we approached the Forum she pointed out to us the Mamertine prison just outside the Forum on the northwest side where, according to tradition, Peter and Paul were imprisoned before their deaths by martyrdom. This observation immediately linked all that we would see to the context of the NT in Rome. The two apostles probably walked through the Forum when it was at the height of its magnificence in the early days of the Empire (1st century AD).
Once we entered the Forum, Nicoletta explained that it was the center of political, religious, economic and social life from the founding of the city in 753 BC through the period of the “kings,” the Republic (509-31 BC), and the Empire until the city was sacked by Alaric in the early 5th c. AD. We saw many of the major sites: the huge Temple of Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina, the Basilica Aemilia, the Temple of Julius Caesar where his body was cremated after his assassination in 44 BC, the Sacra Via (the central road that runs through the Forum and was the route for triumphal processions), the majestic Curia or Senate House with its various artifacts including the 4th c. column base showing the suovetaurilia (the sacrificial bull, ram and sow), Temples to Vesta, Saturn , Castor, etc. Throughout the tour Nicoletta continued to stress how religion, government and social life were integrated in pagan Roman and how the Romans were open to new cults like that of Isis and Mithras, but did not accept the strict monotheism of both Judaism and early Christianity and therefore emperors periodically persecuted Christians for failure to honor the Roman gods or the emperor’s cult. She also pointed out to us the irony of how many of the originally pagan buildings became Christian churches: the library constructed by Vespasian became the Church of Ss. Cosmas and Damian and the Temple dedicated to Antoninus Pius is the church of S. Lorenzo in Miranda.
For most of the students the tour ended with a close look at the triumphal Arch of Titus at the summit of the Sacra Via on the eastern end of the Forum just before the road descends to the Colosseum. This arch celebrates Titus’ victories in the Jewish War and the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. On one underside of the arch, we were able to see the relief depicting a triumphal procession bringing to Rome the altar of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem decorated with trumpets and the Menorah (the seven-branched golden candlestick). This event, of course had enormous repercussions for both Jews and Christians. It marked the end of Judaism as a sacrificial religion and led to the Rabbinic Judaism of late antiquity that still persists today. For Christianity, it was the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction (see Mk 13, Matt 24; Lk 21) which would inaugurate the woes and challenges of the Messianic Age.
As we begin to study Mark’s gospel this week, we will be challenged to reflect on the striking difference between Roman culture with its emphasis on status, order, and power and the preaching of Jesus who, when the disciples wanted the privilege of sitting at his right hand and left in his glory, said:
“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:42-45)