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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Augustus Caesar: Savior, Founder, and Son of God

Gaius Octavius Augustus Caesar, emperor and princeps of the Roman people, died in the forty-first year of his reign, at the age of seventy-six. In that same year, 14 CE, Jesus son of Joseph was in his middle teens, past the age of maturity for a Jewish male of his time, and would have been fully engaged in his chosen career. Augustus had no reason to be aware of the existence of Jesus, but the latter would certainly have known about the great emperor. Coins commemorating the death of Augustus circulated in Galilee, where Jesus lived, and other coins, statues, official decrees, and even milestones provided a regular reminder that the Roman emperor was in control.

On the surface, Jesus and most other Jews in Palestine were numbered among the great majority of people in the empire who were subjugated by the Romans and either apathetic or antagonistic toward them. At a deeper level, however, no thinking person in the empire could ignore entirely the emperors and their representatives in the provinces. Even local officials might have seemed distant to an average resident of the empire, but these governors, generals, legates, and others had the authority to enact far-reaching social and economic policies, not to mention life-and-death powers over individuals. Understanding the influence of Roman authority, even at the farthest extent of the empire, is essential to tracing the development of the Jesus movement. The basis for much of the power and influence of Rome in the first century CE was the long and eventful reign of Augustus Caesar—Julius Caesar's grandnephew, originally named Octavian.

Julius Caesar had laid the foundations of Augustus's empire. After successfully waging war in Gaul during the 50s BCE, Caesar was voted dictator for life over the expiring Roman republic in 49 BCE. Despite his continuing military successes, Caesar's opponents soon tired of his autocratic rulership and divine pretensions, and they assassinated him on the “Ides [15th] of March,” 44 BCE.

To many aristocratic Romans, Caesar's demise vindicated the republic, the form of government that had served the Romans since 509BCE. Roman military forces had been expanding the republic's influence over ever-wider territories. Beginning with central Italy, Roman power eventually extended westward to Baetica in southern Spain, southward to parts of North Africa, and eastward over Macedonia, Greece, and parts of Asia Minor, all the way to Syria and Palestine at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.

The republic was an oligarchy controlled by an elite, self-perpetuating body of Roman citizens, the senators. Two consuls were elected for one-year terms to lead the senate and, through it, all of Rome. Magistrates were also elected to rule the captured territories, known as provinces, although sometimes the provinces were controlled through special arrangements such as client kings. It was with this kind of Roman approval and support that Herod the Great was appointed by the senate as king of the Jews in 40 BCE. Thus, the Roman republic had long functioned as an effective system of government, especially for the aristocratic segment of society that controlled it. When Julius Caesar usurped the power of the senate on the basis of his prowess as a military general, he offended others in the ruling class, and eventually perished at their hands.

After Caesar's death in 44 BCE, his grandnephew and adopted son, Octavian, joined with two other military leaders, Mark Antony and Lepidus, to form a coalition to rule the empire. This triumvirate broke down quickly, however, and a major civil war erupted between the forces of Mark Antony in the east and those of Octavian in the west. In 31 BCE, at the battle of Actium off the coast of western Greece, Octavian prevailed, and Mark Antony fled to Egypt, ruled by his consort Cleopatra VII. Their suicides quickly followed, and the victorious Octavian gained sole control of Egypt and the entire Roman Empire. From that time on, Egypt remained the personal property of the emperor and the source of much wealth for him.

Octavian was also quick to reinforce the imperial boundaries. In Judea he confirmed Herod's rule as client king, even though Herod had sided with Antony in the civil war. Octavian knew that control of the eastern frontier was essential, and Herod had shown that he would go to great lengths to maintain peace in his region.

Octavian consolidated his power in Rome by celebrating a triumphal procession (29 BCE) and adopting the name Augustus (27 BCE), a venerable religious title emphasizing his regard for Roman traditions. He bore this title for the remainder of his reign, and in his honor every emperor after him was also called Augustus. Because his accession ended a bloody civil war, Augustus won support from most of Roman society. The Pax Augusta (“Peace of Augustus”) was celebrated with festivals, coin issues, statues, and monuments around the empire. The most famous of these was the ornate Ara Pacis (“Altar of Peace”) set up for Augustus in Rome.

The Pax Augusta brought stability to the empire as a whole, but its benefits were not spread evenly. While some enjoyed freedom and prosperity, subject peoples and those on the fringes of society experienced oppression. Such inequity often leads to unrest and even insurrection, and some scholars have viewed the ministry of Jesus as a hostile response to oppression by the Romans and their representatives in the east. Certainly the Roman treatment of Jesus and later of his followers indicates that they were considered a threat to the peace.

Although the senate recognized the importance of order and stability, it tended to look with suspicion on the success of any individual. Senators watched nervously as Augustus used his control over the armies to enhance his own authority and prestige. Having learned from the fate of his adopted father, Augustus gave the appearance of attending to senatorial concerns. He maintained traditional forms of leadership, while restructuring the government in a way that made the republic little more than a quaint memory. In the Res gestae divi Augusti—an extensive statement of his accomplishments inscribed in public places throughout the empire—Augustus says, “I accepted no authority given to me unless it was according to custom” (1.6). Augustus avoided inflammatory titles, preferring to be known as “princeps,” a traditional designation for a leading senator. “I presided over all in official rank, but I held no more power than my fellow magistrates” (Res gestae 6.34). Notwithstanding such modest professions, the rule of Augustus went unchallenged. The senate could confirm his honors and titles, but this meant little more than recognizing the status quo: Augustus's absolute control of the armies gave him absolute control of the empire.

Generally, Augustus avoided direct claim to divine status, but he found other ways of using the gods to enhance his authority. In the Greco-Roman world, the vast majority of people believed that life was controlled by innumerable divine forces. To ensure a happy life, these divinities had to be appeased through sacrifices and other acts of devotion. Some gods remained aloof from human beings; others intervened directly in everyday affairs. Even human beings could manifest different levels of divinity. Military or athletic heroes and exceptional rulers were acclaimed as gods posthumously, and sometimes while still alive.

Thus it is not surprising that after his death the followers of Jesus struggled with the connection between their leader and God. Given his accomplishments, it is natural that the Jesus movement quickly came to understand Jesus as son of God, and eventually as God incarnate. But although the faith in Jesus developed in the polytheistic Roman world, its roots were firmly planted in Jewish monotheism. Calling Jesus “God,” then, raised significant questions about how there could be more than one god. For three centuries there were many attempts to resolve this issue, until the Council of Nicea in 325 CE developed a credal formulation and declared all others heretical.

Augustus, on the other hand, contended with the issue of divine honors during his own lifetime. Since his adopted father, Julius Caesar, had been posthumously proclaimed to be a god by the senate (42 BCE), Augustus had used the title son of god (divi filius) as part of his official nomenclature on coins and inscriptions throughout the empire, announcing to all that the reign of Augustus enjoyed divine sanction. Augustus also promoted his special connection to the god Apollo, who was famous for using his chariot to pull the sun across the sky each day. The establishment of a temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill in Rome (28 BCE) served both to honor the god and to remind the people that he was the patron of Augustus.

To solidify support in the provinces for himself and for Roman rule, Augustus allowed worship of himself as part of the honors given to the deified city of Rome. Gradually, new temples to Roma and Augustus arose in cities throughout the empire. The Roma and Augustus temple in Athens was erected on the Acropolis, close to the Athenians' most sacred buildings, symbolizing the powerful role that the emperor had come to play in Greece. In some places, Augustus himself came to be worshiped as a god, although officially he was reluctant to accept such honors.

Scholars often associate extravagant honors for the emperor with the eastern provinces, but Augustus also received spectacular tributes in the west that suggested a connection with the divine. Excavations in Rome have revealed the remains of an enormous sundial system inscribed on the pavement of the Campus Martius, a military assembly ground, arranged so that on Augustus's birthday the sundial's shadow moved along the center of the grid and ascended the steps of the Ara Pacis, suggesting that the sun-god was leading the celebration in the emperor's honor.

In many ways, Augustus owed his success as princeps to the use of a variety of popular media to promote loyalty among his far-flung subjects. Whether minted on coins, chiseled in sculptured images, or written into the latest literature, messages promoting the emperor came to the attention of anyone living under Roman control. Coins announcing the vast array of imperial accomplishments flooded the empire. Some were minted in Rome and distributed, others served as statements of loyalty from local officials. Many coins highlighted a connection with the divine by depicting Augustus on one side, with a scene symbolizing a deity on the other. Coin issues commemorated major events, including the building of roads and aqueducts, military victories, the founding of temples, and travels of the emperor. Because coinage came in a variety of denominations, from small copper coins to large commemorative medallions, the emperor's images found their way into the hands of a wide cross-section of residents of the empire. These images portrayed a variety of imperial activities, but their purpose was always to elicit support for the emperor and his policies by promoting his extraordinary deeds.

The emperor's accomplishments were also celebrated in a variety of sculptural materials and formats. Many busts of Augustus, standing figures, and even equestrian statues have been discovered. Often such representations were originally rendered in bronze, but few have survived (the value of the material to later generations meant that most metal statues were melted down).

Remains of marble statuary are much more common. Carved relief panels preserve a glimpse of Roman life and ritual. The famous reliefs on the reconstructed Ara Pacis in Rome include images of the gods and of a procession, most likely the one commemorating the dedication of this altar to the Augustan peace. Numerous marble statues and sculptural fragments of Augustus indicate the extent to which his image was used as a reminder of Roman presence and power. Displays from imperial statuary also permitted subjects to show respect and loyalty. The fixed media of carved statues allowed for a degree of control of the emperor's image unavailable in a modern multimedia culture. When Augustus died in 14 CE, he had ruled for over forty years and was almost eighty years old, but his image as portrayed on works of art throughout the empire was still that of a powerful and energetic young princeps.

Augustus also benefited from the literary works of supportive authors. Gaius Maecenas, his close friend and political ally, is credited with financing the efforts of authors like Virgil and Horace, who used the written word to extol the virtues of Rome and especially of Augustus. Although Virgil's epic The Aeneid tells the story of the mythical founding of Rome, it also looks forward to: “Augustus Caesar, offspring of a god, who will establish again the golden age in the fields where Saturn ruled, and will extend his empire…to a place beyond the stars” (Aeneid 6.792–95). Written at the outset of the reign of Augustus, this work can be read as a prophecy of the greatness to come, and also as a contribution to its fulfillment.

The Carmen saeculare by Horace was also sponsored by Augustus to mark the beginning of a new era in Roman history in 17 BCE. As part of the three-day celebration, a children's chorus sang Horace's hymn and amplified the glory of Rome: “Now Faith and Peace and Honor and venerable Modesty and disregarded Virtue have courage to return, and prosperous Plenty appears with her cornucopia” (Carmen saeculare 57–60). Credit for this prosperity goes to Augustus, a point Horace makes explicitly elsewhere: “Your reign, O Caesar, has brought abundant produce to the fields…has removed crime and recalled the ancestral ways by which the Latin name and the strength of Italy were distinguished, and the reputation and power of our empire extended from the resting place of the sun to its rising” (Odes 4.15.4–16).

This remarkable ancient “media blitz” contrasts sharply with how the message of the Jesus movement was transmitted. Although written words about the significance of following Jesus are attested by the mid-first century CE in Paul's letters, we have no record of anything being written about the life and teachings of Jesus until several decades after his death. Without the benefit of accomplished authors, coins and statues bearing his image, or impressive monuments, the stories of Jesus circulated from person to person. Against all odds, those stories and the faith they engendered survived periods of obscurity, times of tribulation, and even the threat of persecution and death. As uncovered and reconstructed by modern scholars, the remnants of the propaganda efforts for Augustus are impressive, but considering the limited resources they had to work with, the first followers of Jesus should be credited with an even more successful public relations campaign.

In 12 BCE, Augustus assumed the position of pontifex maximus, the chief of the official priests of Rome, who was responsible for ceremonies intended to ensure the well-being of the Roman state. This was a concentration of power in which the unchallenged political strength of Augustus was combined with ultimate religious authority. Until the fourth century CE, all succeeding emperors served as pontifex maximus.

Augustus also set a precedent for most of his successors when he received the title pater patriae (“father of his country”) from the senate in 2 BCE. The title, which earlier had been awarded to Julius Caesar and to the great Roman orator Cicero, emphasized that Rome was indebted to the holder as to a father. It also had to bring to mind the absolute power of the father (patria potestas) within the Roman family. Under Roman law, the paterfamilias had life-and-death control over family members.

During his later years, Augustus promoted social legislation aimed at encouraging childbirth and securing the future of the empire. He himself, however, was not to have the satisfaction of a natural male heir. Instead, he adopted as his successor the general Tiberius, also a member of the Julio-Claudian family, who ruled after the death of Augustus in 14 CE.

Some of Augustus's titles and appellations continued to be used by his successors, and several came to be shared by other figures of great authority. A number of these titles were later applied to Jesus. The Jesus followers were not equating their leader with Augustus; they would have thought such a comparison inappropriate. But the influence of Augustan power pervaded the empire, and similarities of usage did not go unnoticed. Many of those who referred to Jesus as “son of god” knew perfectly well that a Latin form of the phrase was among the most frequent designations for Augustus and his successors. Another example of shared terminology was the Greek term euaggelion (“good news”), often used to introduce announcements about the emperor and his deeds. The same term—usually translated as “gospel”—was used by the earliest followers of Jesus to describe the message they preached, and later as the designation for written stories about Jesus' life and teachings.

When Augustus died forty-five years after his victory at Actium, the Roman people celebrated his memory and the Roman senate recognized that their deceased princeps had become a god. In Palestine the young Jesus and his friends probably paid little attention. The death of Augustus did nothing to relieve the smothering effect of Roman oppression on the Jews and other subject peoples. Later, of course, the imperial power established during the long reign of Augustus would profoundly influence the followers of Jesus, but ultimately their movement would transform the empire.

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