The champions of the independence of the Jewish nation and the purity of the Jewish religion were the family of the Maccabees or Asmonaeans. A hundred years before the birth of Christ the first Hyrcanus was reigning over a prosperous and independent kingdom. But in the time of the second Hyrcanus and his brother, the family of the Maccabees was not what it had been, and Judea was ripening for the dominion of Rome. Pompey the Great, the same conqueror who had already subjected Cilicia, appeared in Damascus, and there judged the cause of the two brothers. All the country was full of his fame.
In the spring of the year 63 Pompey came down by the valley of the Jordan into Judea, his Roman soldiers occupied the ford where Joshua had crossed over, and from the Mount of Olives he looked down upon Jerusalem. From that day Judea was virtually under the government of Rome. It is true that, after a brief support given to the reigning family, a new native dynasty was raised to the throne.
Antipater, a man of Idumaean birth, had been minister of the Maccabaean kings in Judea. In the midst of the confusion of the great civil wars, the Herodian family succeeded to the Asmonaean. As Pepin was followed by Charlemange, so Antipater prepared a crown for his son Herod.
At first Herod the Great espoused the cause of Antony, but he contrived to remedy his mistake by paying a prompt visit, after the battle of Actium, to Augustus in the island of Rhodes. This singular interview of the Jewish prince with the Roman conqueror in a Greek island was the beginning of an important period for the Hebrew nation. An exotic civilization was systematically introduced and extended. Those Greek influences, which had been begun under the Seleucids, and not discontinued under the Asmonaeans, were now more widely diffused: and the Roman customs, which had hitherto been comparatively unknown, were now made familiar in Judea.
Herod was indeed too wise, and knew the Jews too well, to attempt, like Antiochus, to introduce foreign institutions without any regard to their religious feelings. He endeavored to ingratiate himself with them by rebuilding and decorating their national temple. A part of that magnificent bridge which was connected with the great southern colonnade is still believed to exist, remaining, in its vast proportions and Roman form, an appropriate monument of the Herodian period of Judea.
The period when Herod was reigning over Judea and other parts of Palestine, under the protectorate of Augustus, was chiefly remarkable for great architectural works, for the promotion of commerce, the influx of strangers, and the increased diffusion of the two great languages of the heathen world. The names of places are themselves a monument of the spirit of the times. As Tarsus was called Juliopolis from Julius Caesar, and Soli Pompeiopolis from his great rival, so Samaria was called Sebaste after the Greek name of Augustus, and the new metropolis, which was built by Herod on the sea-shore, was called Caesarea in honor of the same Latin emperor. Antipatris, on the road (Acts 23:31) between the old capital and the new, still commemorated the name of the king's Idumaean father. We must not suppose that the internal change in the minds of the people was proportional to the magnitude of these outward improvements. They suffered much and their hatred grew towards Rome and towards the Herods.
A parallel might be drawn between the state of Judea under Herod the Great, and that of Egypt under Mahomet Ali, where great works have been successfully accomplished, where the spread of ideas has been promoted, traffic made busy and prosperous, and communication with the civilized world wonderfully increased, - but where the mass of the people has continued to be miserable and degraded.
After Herod's death, the same influences still continued to operate in Judea. Archelaus persevered in his father's policy, though destitute of his father's energy. The same may be said of the other sons, Antipas and Philip, in their contiguous principalities. All the Herods were great builders, and eager partisans of the Roman emperors: and we are familiar in the Gospels with that Coesarea (Caesarea Philippi), which one of them built in the upper part of the valley of the Jordan, and named in honor of Augustus, - and with that Tiberias on the banks of the lake of Genesareth, which bore the name of his wicked successor.
But while Antipas and Philip still retained their dominions under the protectorate of the emperor, Archelaus had been banished, and the weight of the Roman power had descended still more heavily on Judea. It was placed under the direct jurisdiction of a governor, residing at Caesarea by the Sea, and depending, as we have seen above, on the governor of Syria at Antioch. And now we are made familiar with those features which might be adduced as characterizing any other province at the same epoch. They are the praetorium (John 18:28), the publicans (Luke 3:12, 19:2), the tribute money (Matthew 22:19), soldiers and centurions recruited in Italy, Caesar as the only king (John 19:15) and the ultimate appeal against the injustice of the governor (Acts 25:11). In this period the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus took place, the first preaching of His Apostles, and the conversion of Apostle Paul.
But once more a change came over the political fortunes of Judea. Herod Agrippa was the friend of Caligula, as Herod the Great had been the friend of Augustus. When Tiberius died, he received the grant of an independent principality in the north of Palestine. He was able to ingratiate himself with Claudius, the succeeding emperor. Judea was added to his dominion, which now embraced the whole circle of the territory ruled by his grandfather. By this time Apostle Paul was actively pursuing his apostolic career.