History of Christmas: Caesar Augustus


Perhaps it is fitting that our last historical character in the History of Christmas series should be the first person mentioned in St. Luke‘s story of the first Christmas. But he was not Jewish, nor a shepherd, nor a Magi. Instead, he was 1500 miles away, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, after whom is named the month of August. Were it not for his imperial decision, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth, the home of Mary. And this would have messed up all the Old Testament prophesies.

Early Life

Augustus succeeded Julius Caesar. Octavius, as he was previously known, was about 18 when Julius died. Julius was his maternal great-uncle who was assassinated in 44 B.C. His mother was the daughter of Julia, the sister of Julius. Octavius was the son of a senator, placing him in the upper class of patricians in Roman society. Julius himself launched Octavius’ career when the latter delivered the public funeral speech for his grandmother Julia when he was only 12. At the age of 15 or 16, he was elevated to the exclusive College of Priests. At 17 he accompanied Julius in the triumph over his opponents defeated in Africa.


Julius’ will was kept by the Vestal Virgins at their temple in the Roman Forum. While some alleged it was forged, the will named Octavius as his adopted son and heir. While Augustus (Octavius, Octavian, Octavianus) would become the first Emperor of Rome (think: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,)  he would not have called himself that, rather he would have called himself “First Citizen of Rome,” and his rule, the Principate.

It was because of Augustus’ decree that Mary and Joseph, descendants of the often-married King David, returned to Bethlehem, the City of David. It was here that Mary’s firstborn child was born, according to Luke, and laid in a manger. Certainly, they had not called ahead, and there were a lot of travelers at the time, being the Christmas season and all. Not to mention the census.

Roman Palestine

College of Pontiffs

College of Pontiffs

Some sixty years earlier, the Roman General Pompey had conquered the geographical area of Palestine. It was at this time a “client kingdom” ruled by a local king, Herod the Great, who was directly responsible to the Roman emperor. In addition to being emperor, as a member of the College of Priests, he was a religious reformer, for he tried to revive the drooping interest in Rome’s state religion. By his day, the average Roman had abandoned his beliefs in the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon and philosophical skepticism was growing, while the more credulous joined the foreign eastern mystery cults. Feeling that this neglect of the gods was demoralizing Roman society, he set about his religious revival with enthusiasm bestowing temples and shrines on the Empire, restoring eighty-two temples in the city of Rome alone. He became “pontifex maximus” (highest priest) in the state cult and tried to spark a moral renewal in society.

Decline of Marriage

Many Roman men and women of the time were indulging in a very easy morality to escape what they called “the tedium of marriage,” and soon marital and birth rates had dwindled alarmingly. One day, August was disturbed enough to stalk into the Forum and devise a crude test of the situation: he told a crowd of men gathered there to separate into two groups, the bachelors on one side, the married men on the other. Seeing the handful of husbands he said:

What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! … What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? … You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!

… and on to other such gems of imperial logic.

Marital Reforms

Augustus followed this with legislation designed to reverse the tide by making promiscuity a crime while conferring political advantages on a father of three children. Bachelors who shirked “the duty of marriage” were penalized in their right to inherit, and they could not even secure good seats at the games! Bachelors trying to circumvent such penalties by “marrying” infant girls were quickly countered by setting the minimum age for engagement at ten for girls, with a two-year upper limit for the length of engagement.

Imperial Motivation

Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey

Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey

Perhaps it was to gauge his success in raising the marriage and birth rates that Augustus was so concerned about the imperial census, for he took several, as in the Christmas story, during his lengthy reign. Such enrollments, of course, were also the basis for the Roman system of taxation, but the Emperor was pleased enough with the results that he proudly mentioned his censuses in eighth place among the thirty-five “Acts of Augustus” for which he wished to be remembered, items that were later engraved on two bronze plaques outside his mausoleum. A subscription for the “Acts of Augustus” also appears at the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey, pictured here.

Census Requirement

Some scholars have doubted that imperial Rome would require her subjects to return to their original homes for such enrollments. But this requirement has been supported by the discovery of a Roman census edict from 104 A.D in neighboring Egypt.

Gaius Vibius Maximus, prefect of Egypt, says: The house-to-house census having been started, it is essential that all persons who for any reason whatsoever are absent from their homes be summoned to return to their own hearths, in order that they may perform the customary business of registration…

Had Augustus ever seen these three names on the census returns from Bethlehem?

Joseph Ben-Iacob, carpenter
Mary Bath-Ioachim, his wife
Yeshua or Jesus, first-born son

Historical Significance

It is very unlikely, and certainly, he never learned the significance of what happened in Bethlehem because of his decision to take the census. And at the time of Augustus’ death in 14 A.D., Jesus was about 19 years old, an apprentice carpenter in Nazareth, and the Emperor still could not possibly have heard of him. Augustus would have been astounded to know that later ages would assign his own death to the year 14 A.D. (Anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”) rather than the Roman date, 767 A.U.C. (Ab Urbe Condita, “from the founding of the City”) all because of this unknown subject, born in Bethlehem. And as the years went by this “King of the Jews” would lead a kingdom far more vast than Augustus ever knew.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

Taken in part from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

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