The New Testament picks up the story again in the final years BC. But the untold intervening period was immensely significant, for it set the political scene into which the awaited Messiah was to make his entrance.


The era began with the rise to power of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, who defeated the Persian Emperor Darius in 333 BC.
Destroying the city of Tyre in Phoenicia, he then moved into Egypt and built Alexandria in its stead. With full control of the enormous Persian Empire, Alexander then pressed on through Babylonia, moving ever eastwards, until he finally conquered the Punjab.
At his early death in 323 BC his generals took control. Ptolemy Sotor became Governor of Egypt, Seleucus ruled Babylonia, and Antigonus governed Macedonia and Greece. By the turn of the century, Palestine was also enveloped within the Alexandrian Empire.


At that stage a new force gathered momentum in Europe: the Republic of Rome.
In 264 BC the Romans ousted the Carthaginian rulers of Sicily.
They also captured Corsica and Sardinia.
The great Carthaginian general Hannibal then retaliated by seizing Saguntum (in modern Spain) and advanced with his troops across the Alps, but he was checked by the Romans at lama.

Meanwhile Antiochus III - a descendant of the Macedonian general Seleucus - became King of Syria. By 198 BC he had rid himself of Egyptian influences to become master of Palestine. His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, occupied Jerusalem, an action that promptly gave rise to a Jewish revolt under the Hasmonaean Judas Maccabaeus. He was killed in battle, but the Maccabees achieved Jewish independence in 142 BC.


In a continuing struggle, the Roman armies destroyed Carthage and formed the new province of Roman North Africa. Further campaigns brought Macedon, Greece and Asia Minor under Roman control. But disputes raged in Rome because the Carthaginian (or Punic) wars had ruined the Italian farmers while simultaneously enriching the aristocracy, who built large estates utilizing slave labour. The Democrat leader Tiberias Gracus put forward proposals for agrarian reform in 133 BC but was murdered by the Senatorial Party. His brother took up the farmers' cause but he too was murdered, and the Democrat leadership passed to the military commander Gaius Marius.  


By 107 BC Gaius Marius was Consul of Rome. The Senate found its own champion in Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who eventually deposed Marius and became Dictator in 82 BC. A horrifying reign of terror ensured until the Democrat statesman and general Gaius Julius Caesar gained popularity, and was duly elected to primary office in 63 BC.








In that same year, Roman legions marched into the Holy Land, which was already in a state of sectarian turmoil. The Pharisees, who observed the rather strict ancient Jewish laws, had risen in protest against the more liberal Greek culture. In so doing, they also opposed the priestly caste of Sadducees. The unsettled environment rendered the region ripe for, invasion. Seeing their opportunity, the Romans, under Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great), subjugated Judaea and seized Jerusalem, having annexed Syria and the rest of Palestine.


Meanwhile the Roman hierarchy was undergoing its own upheavals. Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus formed the first ruling Triumvirate in Rome, but their joint administration floundered when Caesar was sent to Gaul, and Crassus went to supervise matters in Jerusalem. In their absence, Pompey changed political camps, deserting the Democrats for the republican aristocrats - whereupon Caesar returned, and civil war ensued. Caesar was victorious at Pharsalus, in Greece, and gained full control of the Imperial provinces when Pompey fled to Egypt.


Until that time, Queen Cleopatra VII had been ruling Egypt jointly with her brother, Ptolemy XIII. But then Caesar visited Alexandria and liased with Cleopatra, who had her brother, assassinated and began to rule in her own right. Caesar went on to campaign in Asia Minor and North Africa, but on his return to Rome in 44 BC he was murdered by Republicans on the Ides of March. His nephew Gaius Octavius (Octavian) formed a second Triumvirate with General Mark Antony and the statesman Marcus Lepidus. Octavian and Mark Antony defeated the foremost of Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, at Philippi in Macedonia, but Antony then deserted his wife Octavia (Octavian's sister) to join Cleopatra. At this, Octavian declared war on Egypt, and was victorious at the, Battle of Actium, following which Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.


Palestine at this juncture comprised three distinct provinces: Galilee in the north, Judaea in the south, and Samaria in between. Julius Caesar had installed the Idumaean Antipater as Procurator of Judaea, with his son Herod as the Governor of Galilee. Antipater was killed shortly afterwards, so Herod was summoned to Rome and there appointed King of Judaea.


To the majority of his subjects, Herod was an Arab usurper. He had converted to a form of Judaism, but he was not of the Davidic succession. In practice, Herod's authority was confined to Galilee; Judaea was actually governed by the Roman Procurator at Caesarea. Between the two of them, the regime was harsh in the extreme, and more than 3,000 summary crucifixions were carried out to coerce the population into submission. Prohibitive taxes were levied, torture was commonplace, and the Jewish suicide rate leapt alarmingly.


This was the brutal environment into which Jesus was born: a climate of oppression controlled by a puppet monarch backed by a highly organised military occupational force.




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