Jews, though surrounded by powerful neighbors, succeeded in maintaining its independence.
At first the Maccabees had been animated by a religious motive; the revolt had been due not to an interference with what may be called civil liberty, but to the desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes of the Temple and to the attempt at prohibiting the worship of Jehovah. As time went on, however, the Maccabean rulers became more worldly in their purposes and thus alienated the devout element among their people. Hence the little kingdom became an easy prey to the next great world empire which appeared upon the scene.
That empire was the empire of Rome. Originally a small city-state in Italy, Rome had gradually extended her conquests until she came into conflict with Greece and with the Greek kingdoms of the Eastern world. Weakened by many causes, the successors of Alexander soon succumbed, and among them the monarchs of Syria. Judea could not resist the new conqueror. In 63 b.c., the famous Roman general, Pompey, entered Jerusalem, and Jewish independence was at an end.
The Roman control was exerted in Palestine for a time through subservient high priests, until in 37 b.c. Herod the Great was made king. Herod was not a real Jew, but an Idumæan; and at heart he had little or no attachment to the Jews' religion. But he was wise enough not to offend Jewish feeling in the outrageous way that had proved so disastrous to Antiochus Epiphanes. Throughout his reign Herod was of course thoroughly subservient to the Romans; though a king, he was strictly a vassal king. Herod reigned from 37 b.c. to 4 b.c. His kingdom embraced not only Judea, but all Palestine. It was near the end of Herod's reign that our Saviour was born. Thus the reckoning of the Christian era, which was instituted many centuries after Christ, is at least four years too low; Jesus was born a little earlier than 4 b.c.
When Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 b.c., Rome was still a republic. But before many years had elapsed Julius Cæsar assumed the supreme power, and the ancient Roman liberties were gone. After the assassination of Cæsar in 44 b.c., there was a long period of civil war. Finally Augustus was triumphant, and the Roman Empire began. In the long reign of Augustus, 27 b.c. to a.d. 14, our Saviour was born.
The political events which have just been outlined did not take place by chance. They were all parts of the plan of God which prepared for the coming of the Lord. When Jesus finally came, the world was prepared for his coming.