History of Caesar Augustus: What Did He Have To Do With Christmas?


The first historical character mentioned in the Nativity story in St. Luke‘s narrative of the first Christmas was neither Jewish nor a shepherd nor a Magi.

Instead, he was 1,500 miles away, the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, after whom the month of August is named (though he was born on September 23, 63 B.C.) 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 😉


Augustus’ Early Life


Young Octavian, 30 BC

Augustus succeeded Julius Caesar. Octavius, as he was previously known (or Octavian or Octavianus), was about 18 when Julius died. Julius was his maternal great-uncle who was assassinated in 44 B.C. Octavius’ mother was the daughter of Julia, the sister of Julius. Although the family (gens) Octavia was a wealthy old equestrian branch of the plebian class, Julius Caesar had previously elevated it to the patrician class. Octavius was a senator’s son, placing him in Roman society’s upper class of patricians.

Julius himself launched Octavius’ career when the latter delivered the public funeral speech for his grandmother Julia when he was only 12. At 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.


Augustus’ Succession

Temple of the Vestal Virgins

Temple of the Vestal Virgins, Roman Forum, Rome

The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family. They were entrusted with Julius’ will at their temple in the Roman Forum. While some alleged it was forged, the will named Octavius 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; instead, he would have called himself “First Citizen of Rome,” and his rule, the Principate.

Because of Augustus’ decree, 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 St. Luke’s narrative, and laid in a manger. Indeed, they had not called ahead, and there were many 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, Roman General Pompey had conquered the geographical area that, two centuries later, would be called 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, the Collegium Pontificum, the highest-ranking priests of the state religion, 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 pretty much abandoned his beliefs in the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, and philosophical skepticism was growing. At the same time, 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 and 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


Roman husband “belted and bound” to wife

Many Roman men and women of the time indulged in a very easy morality to escape what they called “the tedium of marriage.” 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.

He passed the law Lex Julia et Papia-Poppaea: to encourage marriage, promote childbirth, and discourage adultery. Married men were given priority in government hiring, and women with three or more children were no longer required to have a tutor.


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 taxation system.

Still, the Emperor was sufficiently pleased 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. These items 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 of Augustus

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 discovering 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 he decided to take the census. 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

Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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