What would happen if the world ended right on schedule? Suppose the Rapture came on May 21st or the end of the Mayan Calendar on December 21st really is the end – do you think someone would notice?
Actually, the world has ended. The Rapture, more or less, already came and went. We just weren’t paying much attention. As usual, it’s all about the Romans.
54AD is a good time to start the story. The Roman Empire ruled right up to the fringes of barbarian territory and the remnants of Persian civilization, meaning that as far as anyone could tell the whole world. There wasn’t anyone left in the Mediterranean to take them on.
Nero took the throne in 54 after poisoning his uncle, the Emperor Claudius. No one could stop him largely because there was no threat from the outside to give people a sense of urgency. The guards who were loyal to Nero protected him, and that was that.
As time went on the problem wasn’t just Nero’s corruption or descent into decadent madness. Everyone had seen this before with each of the Emperors that came after Augustus, the last one to earn the title in a time of crisis when they needed a steady hand. Claudius had been a capable but doddering old bureaucrat, but with his assassination the madness started again.
It was obvious that this could not hold forever. A folk story had been making the rounds that the old order was going to be swept away and replaced by a hero from the East. Why the East? It’s not clear, but the East was both where the sun rose and the connection to the only developed civilization that might possibly challenge Rome, namely Persia. It made a good story – and it was clear that something had to give.
The stories of a savior from the East started to harden into more and more elaborate prophesies as it became clear that Rome was far to corrupt to hold on its own. The most common form of this prophesy had been that Herod Agrippa, King of Israel and a Roman puppet, was the man who would save Rome. That should have died when Herod did in 44AD, but the population’s seething resentment to Roman rule continued.
At this time a mysterious figure known as “John” wrote down a Christian version of these prophesies. In it, the savior from the East was none other than a risen Christ who would exact vengeance on Rome for the terrible slaughter of Christians – more on this later. He used coded language to depict the depravation caused by the “Four Horsemen” or Emperors after Augustus who ruled so terribly – Tiberius (an archer) on a white horse, Caligula the killer on a red horse, Claudius (who standardized wages and prices) on a black horse, and finally Nero as death itself on a Pale Horse. Rather than mention the Emperor by name it was reduced, in common numerological practice, to “666”.
Things came to a head in 64AD when the Roman Senate developed some unusual backbone and told Nero that he could not clear an adjoining middle-class neighborhood to expand his palace for the purpose of throwing larger parties. Within a short time that neighborhood – and about a third of Rome – mysteriously caught fire. This crime against Rome itself turned exasperation with Nero into seething hatred. It was alleged that he played his lyre (not a fiddle!) while watching the city burn.
Nero, like any good politician, not only denied responsibility, but found an easy scapegoat. He blamed an obscure religious group, called “Christians”, who went against the norms of the day and easily stood out. He ordered all the Christians rounded up to be put to death in public spectacle.
No one bought it. By 68AD it was clear Nero had to go and his own guard finally knifed him. The problem was that in a desperate bid to hold onto power Nero had carefully killed anyone who might have been a threat to him long before, leaving the entire royal family of Julius wiped out. The only possible result was chaos.
A series of general fought for the title of Emperor, three of whom were able to claim the crown only to be swiftly killed in what was called “The Year of Four Emperors“. An addition third of Rome burned in the wars and the population was starving. The old prophesies about a savior from the East became just about the only source of hope. Israel along with a few other provinces went into a general rebellion to cast off the Romans forever. Even without Herod, Israel was bent on filling the prophesy.
The Roman governor of Israel was a man named Vespasian. He was a popular general with no noble background who was commanding, wise, and very likable. Vespasian was many people’s pick to be the next Emperor, but he was busy putting down the rebellion in his own province. Finally, in 69AD, he was convinced that with the old prophesy of a savior from the East in his hands he was just about the only one who actually could bring order to Rome. Vespasian sailed home – stopping off in Egypt for a large shipment of grain to feed the starving people of the ravaged Rome to cement his popularity.
It worked. Vespasian came to Rome in triumph and the Senate and people eagerly greeted him as, indeed, the savior.
Vespasian’s son Titus stayed behind in Israel where things kept getting worse. It was a battle of two different versions of the same prophesy and it was turning into a kind of death match. Rome versus Jerusalem, only one could survive. Rome could not allow a renegade province to succeed in revolt and Israel saw this as her big chance. Things came to a head in 70AD when the last holdouts in the temple of Jerusalem, called the Zealots, made a final stand and the Second Temple was eventually burned. The defeated Israelis were forced to flee their homeland, not to return until 1948.
Vespasian, for his part, set about rebuilding Rome quickly and quietly. One of the first things he constructed was the Coliseum, the symbol of Rome to this day. Despite all appearances that it was doomed, Rome survived – but Jerusalem did not. Under Vespasian’s capable rule the Empire was restored and life returned to normal. In 79AD Vespasian became the first Emperor to die quietly of natural causes.
There were at least three major versions of the great prophesy that told what was to happen when the old order of Rome was swept away. The Jewish one ended in bitter destruction and the loss of Israel. The Christian one we know today, and often apply whenever it looks like an endtime is pending. The one that came true, however, is that a capable man took charge and quietly rebuilt the Empire – though very few people know who Vespasian is today.
But the events predicted in the book of Revelation have already happened, just not in the way that most people think.