So how did the household of Caesar work? In the era of the Roman Republic, there was a degree of local autonomy in the provinces. Governors (proconsuls) had considerable freedom so long as taxes were paid and they suppressed insurrections. There was no fixed Roman bureaucracy in the various regions. When a governor left, he took all of his staff with him and the new governor came with his own staff.
During the era of Augustus, the beginning of the Empire, governors became only men who had a close personal relationship with Caesar and were in a devoted patronage relationship with him. There was some input from local authorities but this largely vanished by the second century C. E. Governors administered their work through underlings who had a close patronage relationship with the governor. Thus, the entire government of the Empire was transformed into one giant patronage pyramid with Caesar at the apex.
After 27 B.C.E., Augustus governed by creating two types of provinces. There was an inner ring of provinces around Rome called senatorial provinces. These were governed along the lines of the old Republic. The outlying provinces became known as the imperial provinces. Together with client states established along the perimeter of the Empire, these regions formed a buffer between the Empire and potential enemies. The Emperors stationed their legions in these areas as they were the most vulnerable to attack and most susceptible to uprisings. These provinces were quasi-military districts run by prefects often with a legion under their command who had considerable leeway in how they governed. Judea was one such area and the Galileans had a particularly strong reputation as troublemakers.
The Romans were largely content to let the various locales operate according local custom with regard to matters of daily life so long as taxes were paid and order was kept. Yet increasingly the patronage system seeped into local areas and centralized Roman control of the cities developed. James Jeffers suggests that it is best to see Roman governance accomplished through cities that ruled over their surrounding countryside. (115) What must be appreciated is that the purpose of the Roman government was not continuing service to the people but rather the perpetuation of Republic and later the Empire.
Religion came to play a central role in the life and of the governance of the people; especially the cult of Emperor worship. The Emperor cult began in the Eastern part of Empire prior to Augustus. There was already a predisposition to worship rulers as Gods (ex. Egypt with Pharaoh and the Greeks with Alexander.) The Western part of the Empire found this idea to be more peculiar. Jeffers writes that a more intentional effort had to be made to institute the cult in the West. They seized upon the idea of genius. The Romans had the idea of a genius, a “divine spirit that presided over his life and from which his power emanated.” (101) Within the household, Romans frequently burned incense to the genius of the paterfamilias. Augustus suggested that the Emperor Cult was worshiping his genius and not him personally, once again drawing on the household imagery with the Emperor as the paterfamilias of the household.
Some Romans believed that the civil war that brought down the Republic was in part due to a failure to worship the traditional Roman gods. Augustus played on this to reinvigorate worship of the Gods with himself now added to the panoply. While Rome never required exclusivity of worship for the Emperor, the Emperor was expected to be worshiped all across the Empire along with local gods. There was one exception.
During a battle at Alexandria in the winter of 48-47 B.C.E., Julius Caesar’s forces became trapped in the city. The leader of the client state of Judea, Antipater, came to Caesar’s rescue. Out of gratitude, Jews were granted religious freedom, freedom from military service, and the right to maintain the temple. They were exempted from worship of the Emperor and from pagan rituals, wherever they were in the Empire. This exemption extended to Christians as long as they were seen as a Jewish sect, which they were up until the 60s C.E. (Jeffers, 121-122)
With the notable exception of the Jews, Augustus had placed the Empire well on the way to becoming the household of Caesar, with its members united to Caesar personally through patronage and through religious ritual. This brought considerable tranquility to a society that had been rife with civil war and divisions. Augustus, the son of God had brought the good news of peace to the Empire. Many of the leaders of the Empire looked askance at those who did not uphold the ancient traditions and religion of the Empire. Toleration of non-conformity could potentially plunge the Empire back into chaos and division. The leaders were also well aware of the resentment toward them held by some of the peoples they ruled. Then there were the disturbing trends they noticed like the emerging and wildly popular Isis mystery cult run by women that made its way from Egypt to cities all throughout the Empire. Isis worshipers, Jews and Christians were suspect from the beginning for their “anti-social” religious behavior. Romans constantly viewed them as a threat to the household of Caesar.
Next, we look at voluntary associations.
(For more on Roman rule and administration, see Jeffers Chapter 6 and for more on the role of religion see Chapter 5.)