Will the sudden and meteoric rise of a future European strongman mirror the rise to power of Rome’s first emperor?
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“There’s something wrong with the world!”—“Things aren’t the way they used to be!”—“When I was a child, life was simpler, happier.” How many times have we heard these or similar statements?
Untold numbers sense that something is “off” with mankind and its societies. Consider the troubles playing out on the world stage.
Ever since the United States ended World War II by raining the first atomic bombs upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nations—including rogue governments—have scrambled to start their own nuclear programs.
Iran, whose leaders in past times have called America “the great Satan” and threatened to wipe the Israeli regime “off the map,” insists that its pursuit of nuclear energy is peaceful.
North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons, and regularly “reminds” the international community of this through testing. Its government stated it will consider it an act of war if North Korean ships are searched for illegal weapons, as the United Nations and the U.S. proposed.
Islamic Pakistan, along with neighboring rival India, has long possessed nuclear armaments. As Taliban forces battle against Pakistani troops, the rest of the world wonders what would happen if religious extremists seized control of Pakistan’s nuclear missiles. Would the Hollywood images of a future apocalypse—an end-of-the-world nightmare in which mankind erases itself from existence—become reality?
Elsewhere, Israel—having long enjoyed a close and unquestioned relationship with the U.S.—now feels pressure from Washington to bend even further to satisfy Palestinian demands. For the first time ever, only six percent of Jewish Israelis consider the views of the U.S. President’s administration pro-Israel, according to a Jerusalem Post-sponsored Smith Research poll.
In the midst of global economic uncertainty, Russia states it may push for a “new world currency” to replace international reliance on the ever-declining American dollar.
And on America’s home front, long-time auto giant General Motors—whose financial health once served as an economic barometer for the state of the nation—filed for bankruptcy protection, eliminating jobs and dealerships. What does this mean for the American people?
Stroll through U.S. malls and shopping centers; where are the debt-laden, “I want it now!” crowds of five, three or even two years ago? Walk by neighborhood mom-and-pop stores of candy shops, delis, barbers, tailors, etc.; which ones have not gone out of business?
A dying newspaper industry—the rising rates of home foreclosures, bankruptcies and unemployment—the emergence of tent cities—“enlightened” societies redefining marriage and family—all while secularism and religious extremism abound.
As world events worsen and intensify, students of prophecy turn to mystic writings of ancient civilizations—they listen to psychics and obscure religionists babble about the future—they seek meaning in pseudo-religious best-selling novels—finally, some blow the dust off their Bibles, turn to Daniel, Revelation, Matthew 24 and other passages, and wonder, “Is this the time of the end?”
One third of Scripture is prophecy. Think of it as news told in advance. Ultimately, God’s Word foretells the greatest good news: the establishing of a perfect, just and merciful supergovernment—the kingdom of God (Isa. 9:6-7).
But before humanity will experience the unprecedented universal peace and prosperity that only the government of God can usher in, the Bible also speaks of dark times ahead: 130-pound hail stones bombarding the earth—massive armies gathering for the final “war to end all wars”—government-sanctioned religious persecution—famine, pandemics, earthquakes, mass religious confusion and deception—and the appearance of a political strongman.
These prophetic “last days” foretell of a charismatic, Caesar-like, political world leader—whom God’s Word refers to as “the beast”—suddenly rising to power, forcing his “mark” upon the masses, and leading humanity to the brink of destruction.
History offers a clue as to how this prophetic tyrant will rise to world dominance.
The ancient city of Rome emerged as a formidable power under the rule of successive kings. But the citizens grew tired of the brutal, totalitarian reigns of monarchies. Not wanting to live under the chaotic bureaucracy of pure democracy, as practiced among Greek city-states, the Romans chose to be governed by a republic.
In times of emergency, the Roman Senate appointed dictators to limited terms, enabling them to bypass bureaucratic red tape in administering government affairs. A man elected to the office of dictator had to be careful not to be seen as trying to accumulate or hold on to power, else he would be accused of trying to make himself king—a charge that would surely end in his execution.
However, in 82 B.C., Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (138-79 B.C.) marched on the city and made himself the first permanent dictator. Ironically, he did this to restore the republic, whose influence diminished during Rome’s first full-scale civil war. Sulla strengthened the Roman Republic through constitutional reforms, enlarged the senate and increased its legislative powers. He placed severe restrictions on running for political positions so that ambitious men could not build a base of power and ultimately make themselves king.
As dictator, Sulla also initiated a terror campaign to purge Rome of its enemies—real or imagined—anyone who might pose a threat to the republic once it was restored. He kept an official list of enemies, and made it a capital crime to harbor anyone listed. The dictator rewarded citizens for killing, capturing or turning in those marked for execution, which resulted in the deaths of some 9,000 men, women and children (most of whom had been wrongly accused).
Listed among Sulla’s enemies was Gaius Julius Caesar of the Julii. As patricians, the Julii were members of Rome’s original aristocracy. Caesar was married to a daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, and was a nephew (by marriage) of Gaius Marius—two of Sulla’s most dreaded foes. Years earlier, Marius allied with Cinna and had Sulla officially exiled as soon as the military commander and his army left Rome on a war campaign. Marius instituted a bloodbath against pro-Sulla supporters, and repealed laws that Sulla had put in place. Both men had died before Sulla’s march on Rome.
Julius Caesar’s family connections to Marius and Cinna marked him for official execution. While he hid from house to house, his relatives, who happened to be Sulla supporters, begged the aging dictator to spare Caesar’s life. Sulla reluctantly relented, but warned that, in the ambitious young Julius, “you will find many a Marius.”
Satisfied that he had done enough to restore the republic and prevent men from seizing too much power in the future, Sulla shocked everyone when he voluntarily retired from office. He died soon after.
Caesar, Pompey and others took note of how Sulla had made himself answerable to no one. While Sulla had considered it a noble act to voluntarily give up absolute power, Caesar and his peers thought it foolish. Instead of admiring him for restoring the Roman Republic, some saw Sulla’s power grab as a blueprint for the future, and asked, “If he could do it, why not me?”
Julius Caesar grew to be known by friend and foe alike for being ambitious, bold, savvy and unpredictable. Despite his patrician family background, the commoners embraced him for his tendency to defy convention. Regarding self-confidence and shrewdness, Caesar was a master of self-promotion, participating in triumphs (military parades highlighting a general’s victory in a war campaign), writing public accounts of his successes, and exaggerating the size of the “hordes” he claimed to have defeated.
When captured by pirates in the early years of his career, Caesar lived aboard their ship as though he was not their prisoner. Upon learning the asking price of his ransom, he had them increase it. Exercising and participating in games aboard ship, Caesar calmly commented that when the ransom was paid, he would raise a fleet, hunt them down and crucify them. The pirates laughed—but when the ransom was paid and they released him, Caesar raised a naval force, captured his captors, and had them crucified (though he did show “mercy” by slitting their throats beforehand). All this while only a private citizen.
When his beloved aunt Julia died, Caesar boldly spoke at her funeral and did not shy away from also lauding her deceased husband, Marius—a socially dangerous move in a society accustomed to praising Sulla only, not his enemies (for fear of deadly consequences).
Those who know only the briefest historical background of Julius Caesar are at least aware that the famous Roman leader commanded successful military campaigns. Most victories were due to his ingenuity, resolve and boldness; others to time and chance. Caesar also gained a reputation for often granting mercy to the defeated, an uncommon trait in the ancient world.
Yet Caesar had proven himself a formidable politician, as both a lawmaker and administrator. In addition to studying oratory and being a writer, he rose up the rungs of Rome’s political ladder and gained a reputation for making practical legislative decisions and governing with a stern, but understanding, hand. He came to be respected for his decision-making, fair dealings, and extending mercy (though this was usually to project a favorable image among the masses).
For instance, when Caesar moved to Spain to establish his career, he settled disputes between Spanish debtors and their Roman creditors. He brokered a deal that limited the percentage of wages creditors could collect—at the same time, making sure not to anger the lenders (to whom Caesar knew he would look to financially advance his political career). He limited garnishments to 66 percent, enough to satisfy creditors while not rendering the borrowers homeless.
At an age much younger than previous candidates (normally an elderly statesman at his career’s end), Caesar successfully ran for Pontifex Maximus—high priest of Rome—an important, lifetime political position that presented opportunities to generate income. He was not above using bribes to win.
In his later years, Caesar became dictator of Rome and pushed controversial legislation too far, too fast, too soon, undoing legislation Sulla had enacted. Making enemies in the senate, a conspiracy developed, which led to Caesar’s assassination in the Senate House at Rome on March 15, 44 B.C.—known today as “the Ides of March.”
“If Caesar had not been murdered in 44 BC, he might have lived on for 15 or 20 years,” the Encyclopaedia Britannica states. “His physical constitution was unusually tough, though in his last years he had several epileptic seizures. What would he have done with this time? The answer can only be guessed from what he did do in the few months available. He found time in the year 46 BC to reform the Roman calendar. In 45 BC he enacted a law laying down a standard pattern for the constitutions of the municipia, which were by this time the units of local self-government in most of the territory inhabited by Roman citizens. In 59 BC Caesar had already resurrected the city of Capua, which the republican Roman regime more than 150 years earlier had deprived of its juridical corporate personality; he now resurrected the other two great cities, Carthage and Corinth, that his predecessors had destroyed. This was only a part of what he did to resettle his discharged soldiers and the urban proletariat of Rome. He was also generous in granting Roman citizenship to aliens. (He had given it to all of Cisalpine Gaul, north of the Po, in 49 BC.) He increased the size of the Senate and made its personnel more representative of the whole Roman citizenry.
“At his death, Caesar was on the point of starting out on a new military campaign to avenge and retrieve Crassus’ disastrous defeat in 53 BC by the Parthians. Would Caesar have succeeded in recapturing for the Greco-Roman world the extinct Seleucid monarchy’s lost dominions east of the Euphrates, particularly Babylonia? The fate of Crassus’ army had shown that the terrain in northern Mesopotamia favoured Parthian cavalry against Roman infantry. Would Caesar’s military genius have outweighed this handicap? And would Rome’s hitherto inexhaustible reservoir of military manpower have sufficed for this additional call upon it? Only guesses are possible, for Caesar’s assassination condemned the Romans to another 13 years of civil war, and Rome would never again possess sufficient manpower to conquer and hold Babylonia.”
Born Sept. 23, 63 B.C., Gaius Octavius (known as Octavian) was the nephew of Julius Caesar, who took special interest in guiding the course of his future. Octavian, at age 12, delivered a funeral speech for his grandmother Julia (Caesar’s beloved aunt), became a member of the board of priests (pontifices), and later accompanied the dictator on his triumphal procession. Caesar, through his will, legally adopted Octavian as his son, making the young man his chief personal heir. In January 42 B.C., the state officially recognized Caesar as one of Rome’s deities—which, in the eyes of the people, meant that Octavian was the son of a god.
Octavian (whose adopted name was Gaius Julius Caesar) earned the people’s favor by continuing the public games Caesar had instituted, and gained a sizable share of allegiance among the soldiers who had followed the late dictator into war.
While still in his youth, Octavian became a Roman senator (senators such as famous orator Cicero mistakenly believed they could manipulate him under their control, in hopes of restoring the republic). After achieving victory over Marc Antony’s forces, Octavian’s soldiers compelled the senate to grant him a consulship. “Under the name of Gaius Julius Caesar he next secured official recognition as Caesar’s adoptive son” (ibid.).
Octavian suffered from sudden bouts of illness throughout his life, and lacked the military genius of his adopted father. Despite this, Octavian was just as ambitious as Caesar had been—and just as politically shrewd. He allied himself with his former schoolmate and close friend, Marcus Agrippa, a more than capable field commander who was the strategic mind behind the victorious battles Octavian attained.
Octavian studied the decisions that had brought Caesar success—and also learned from his mistakes, accumulating and consolidating autocratic power, all while maintaining that his political maneuverings were an effort to restore the Roman Republic.
In 27 B.C., Octavian decreed that he was transferring power back to the Roman Senate and the people, declaring he had restored the republic. Confident that he had retained enough power and authority behind the scenes, Octavian publicly offered to resign from all his offices and relinquish control of his provinces. He knew the senators would say no—which they did.
The senate, as did the general public, enjoyed the relative peace, production and security—Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”)—that came under one-man rule. Octavian instituted public works, such as a network of roads used to connect the cities, provinces and client-states, further trade, and maintain order in the expanding empire. He set up a permanent bodyguard (the Praetorians) and a fire brigade with police duties, which later led to establishing a regular police force. He created a military treasury for retirement monies, which kept soldiers, both active and retired, from becoming disgruntled. He organized a fleet to enforce Roman interests in the Mediterranean Sea, held an empire-wide census, and reduced the size of the senate while enlarging its powers (so that it would benefit his reign).
Declining his offer to step down, the Roman Senate granted Octavian the position of princeps (“first among equals” or “first citizen”) and granted him control over Spain, Gaul and Syria—three strategic provinces where most of Rome’s legions just happened to be stationed.
Essentially, Octavian had pulled a “bait and switch”—publicly appearing to relinquish dominance, while in reality tightening his grip on the reins of power, such as influencing the senate to appoint certain men as proconsul over provinces he did not govern.
Among other titles and offices the senate bestowed upon him, Octavian received the title Augustus, meaning “renowned,” “majestic,” “venerable,” “worthy of honor.” In effect, Augustus Caesar, in his quest to gain absolute control, became Rome’s first emperor—yet never referred to himself or allowed others to call him by that title. Instead, he was called “first citizen,” and also received the title pater patriae: “father of the country.”
(Does the use of the word “Caesar” seem shocking to you today? Consider. Governments appoint energy czars, drug czars, etc. Do people realize that, in effect, they are calling them “caesars”? Down through the centuries, strongmen used various forms of what became the imperial title “Caesar”—Kaiser in German, Czar in Russian—to designate themselves as emperor.)
When Augustus died (Aug. 19, A.D. 14), Roman citizens middle-aged and younger had never experienced life under a strong republic or a period when a “First Citizen” was not solely in charge. The populace, having grown accustomed to decades of relative peace, security and flourishing trade markets, saw no need to restore a republican form of government. Augustus had years previously carefully groomed his stepson Tiberius to take his place. The republic was dead; for the next nearly 500 years, the Roman Empire was here to stay.
The Roman Senate officially recognized Augustus Caesar as a god. History remembers the first Roman emperor as a great administrator, a man of culture, an author of numerous writings (all lost), a master of propaganda and the game of political chess—and a cruel despot who was more than willing to execute political ruthlessness when he felt it necessary.
Prophecy describes the final strongman as a charismatic leader, known for his mastery of “flatteries” (Dan. 11:21, 32-34). As a grandmaster of diplomacy akin to the political genius of the Caesars of old, this future autocrat will pull off an orchestrated “confederacy” that will shock the world (Psa. 83:3-8; Obadiah 7). Even the participants will be amazed by the devastating aftermath of their plan.
Ten European rulers, each leading a nation or group of nations (Rev. 17:12), will hand over executive power to this future figure (vs. 13, 17)—just as the Roman Senate did to Augustus. Thus, a modern-day “Caesar” will head a great economic-political-religious-military empire. Those who desire to bask in the unprecedented economic prosperity that this new Caesar will bring (Rev. 18:10-19) must first take his “mark.” Notice: “And he causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Rev. 13:16-17).
As for this man’s identity, time will reveal it. Until then, Jesus Christ instructs, “Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass” (Luke 21:36).