The Historical Milieu of Christ's Birth
Part 1 - Rome
On December 25, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (the exception being the Russian Orthodox Christians, who celebrate Christmas on January 7). It is a feast that has become riddled with controversy, as men for the last few hundred years have sought to minimize its significance. For the Christian, the birth of the World’s Savior is obviously an event of great significance; for the historian, likewise, the birth of arguably the most important man in history bears more than a little importance. As a Christian historian, therefore, it is almost a requirement that I should examine the history surrounding the birth of Jesus, and see how exactly God prepared the world for his coming.
We begin in Rome. Although Christ’s life took place in Palestine, formally small Italian city of Rome controlled Palestine and the rest of the known world at the time of the Incarnation. In the twilight of the era before Christ, Rome was celebrating her second emperor, Caesar Augustus. Augustus had brought Rome out of the civil war that followed the assassination of his uncle, Julius Caesar. For the first time in centuries, Rome was at peace, no longer involved wars of conquest or internal disputation. It was a time known as the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Augustus made sure the city of Rome, and thereby the entire empire, remembered this period of peace. In particular, he closed the temple of Janus, a Roman god (where we get the name for the month January). This temple was used primarily in praying for peace. Sacrifices were offered in the hope that something like the Pax Romana would occur. When it did happen, as hoped, there was no need for the temple to stay open. Augustus, in a lavish ceremony, placed a Roman military spear across the doors of the temple, officially declaring the Empire in a state of peace. This lasted until after his death. Christ was born before Augustus’s death, and thus the Prince fo Peace was born in a time of universal peace.
This peaceful precedent was not the only preparation for Christ’s coming that involved Caesar Augustus. Augustus became emperor of Rome in 29 BC around the age of 34. As he got older, he became more beloved, and some senators sought to erect a temple to Augustus. Augustus was unsure if he should allow it, so he sought the advice of an oracle. The sibyl there told Augustus that a greater king would come and rule Rome. Augustus went out, and then he saw a vision. The sky opened and a woman holding an infant appeared. The sibyl told Augustus that the infant was to be the divine ruler of the world. Augustus told the senators, who agreed to build a temple at the spot to a virgin goddess. The historical details of the vision are sketchy, and the above story comes more from a medieval manuscript than a life of Augustus. However, there is some archaeological evidence that the story predates the medieval legend (See Paul F. Burke, “Augustus and Christianity in Myth and Legend,” New England Classical Journal 32, No. 3 (2005) 213-220.).
Related to Augustus’s vision is the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Virgil, a Latin poet more famous for his epic poem The Aenead, wrote some smaller poems called eclogues. The fourth of these, written around 40 BC, refers to a young boy who will rule Heaven and Earth. The initial prompt for such a poem was probably Augustus’s expected victory (since he had not yet completely squashed his enemies); however, the poem so closely resembles a passage from Isaiah that some scholars believe Virgil was inspired by the prophecies of the prophet concerning the coming Messiah as recorded in the Septuagint, which was popular reading for some Romans. The boy in the poem is linked with Lucina, the goddess “who brings children into light,” a proper association for the Hebraic Messiah. Concerning the boy, Virgil also says,
He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his father's worth
Reign o'er a world at peace.
As mentioned above, Augustus was responsible for the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, and could very well be the boy destined to rule the world in peace mentioned in the poem. The similarity to Isaiah, though, is too close to ignore, particularly because Isaiah refers to the Messiah as the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Virgil also notes, interestingly enough, that “The serpent too shall die,” as one of the results of his Messiah’s coming. Did he make the connection between Genesis 3:15 and the coming Jewish Messiah? Virgil was a smart man, and if he had read much of the Septuagint, he might have followed the systematic thought behind the Jewish writers, and he very well might have connected the prophecies from Genesis to those found in Isaiah. The prophetic poem that makes up the Fourth Eclogue is too similar to Hebraic prophecies of Christ to be a coincidence.
One last event in Rome closes this first part of examining the milieu surrounding Christ’s birth. Virgil noted in his above mentioned eclogue that the Earth will erupt with joy for the arrival of the Messiah:
For thee, O boy,
First shall the earth, untilled, pour freely forth
Her childish gifts, the gadding ivy-spray.
This sounds simply like an artistic description of the Earth’s joy in the Messiah. It would indeed be merely a literary device, if something similar had not happened historically. Sometime between 38 and 30 BC, between two and ten years after Virgil composed this poem, an incredible amount of oil flowed up from the ground and spilled into the Tiber River. The oil came from the small suburb of Rome called Trestevere, though the area was at that time called Taberna Meritoria. The story is recounted not only in Christian literature (St. Jerome mentions it in his additions to Eusebius Chronicle of the Church, and another Christian writer named Paulus Orosius draws the connection between the Pax Romana, the oil, and the coming of Christ) but also in a pagan Roman history by Dio Cassius, who wrote in his Roman History (XLVIII, 43), “Now many events of a portentous nature had occurred even before this, such as the spouting of olive oil on the bank of the Tiber, and many also at this time” (The translator makes a note that the word translated as “olive oil” can also mean regular oil). The story is one of history, not merely of Christian legend. Whether it directly predicts the birth of Christ is another matter, but the fact that it is so close chronologically to Virgil’s seemingly prophetic poem makes the connection between the birth of Christ and the bubbling oil seem reasonable. This is not the only instance of physical phenomenon happening in concurrence with Christ’s birth (the more famous example, the Star of Bethlehem, is examined later in this series). It seems all of creation awaited the blessed event of the Incarnation.
We have examined preparations for the Messiah in the capital imperial city of Rome. Next time, we will examine how other parts of the world, particularly to the east of Palestine, prepared for the coming of Christ.