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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Augustus (2)

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AUGUSTUS.—The designation usually applied to Cains Octavius, son of Caius Octavius and Atia, grandson of Julia the sister of C. Julius Caesar, grand-nephew of the Dictator and ultimately his adopted son and heir. He was born 23rd Sept. [Note: Septuagint.] b.c. 63, not far from the ‘House’ on the Palatine afterwards built for him; declared Emperor b.c. 29; honoured with the title of ‘Augustus’ b.c. 27; died 19th Aug. a.d. 14 at Nola, when he had almost reached the age of 77.

If we take b.c. 6 as the corrected date for the birth of Jesus, we find that Augustus was then in his 58th year, had already been Emperor 23 years, and had before him 20 more. Though his reign thus runs parallel with the Christian era for 20 years, there is but a single allusion to him in the Gospel history (Luke 2:1). In the NT writings there are but three other instances of the use of the name Augustus. Of these one only (Acts 27:1) can be held as possibly pointing to him, the other two (Acts 25:21; Acts 25:25) mean the reigning Caesar ( Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘Emperor’), in both cases Nero. Even that solitary allusion to Caesar Augustus might have had no place in the Gospel record, had it not been St. Luke’s aim to ‘trace the course of all things accurately from the first.’ In ‘drawing up his narrative’ he makes it evident that Nazareth, not Bethlehem, was the home of Joseph and Mary, and that the ‘enrolment,’ originating in a decree of Caesar Augustus, was the occasion of the journey from Nazareth within a little time of the expected birth. The Syrian governor is named with the view of fixing the date, as was the custom in those days. Theophilus, as a Roman official, would have access to the list of provincial governors, and must have at once understood the exact period meant. Thus Augustus’ contact with Jesus, so far as Scripture deals with it, begins and ends with Luke 2:1.

It need not surprise us that there is no further reference in the 20 years of contemporaneous history that followed. The birth of Jesus took place in a remote part of the Empire and in an insignificant town of Judah. The first 30 years of His life, with the exception of the brief sojourn in Egypt, were spent in the obscure, even despised, Nazareth. Among His townsmen He was known only as the carpenter (Mark 6:3), or the carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:55). Though the arrival of the wise men from the East, with the inquiry as to the birth of ‘the King of the Jews,’ ‘troubled Herod’ and ‘all Jerusalem with him’ (Matthew 2:3), the commotion caused by their advent soon passed with the tyrant’s death in b.c. 4. Even the Massacre of the Innocents ‘from two years old and under’ in Bethlehem may never have been heard of in the palace of Augustus, or, if heard of, would have made very little impression, owing to the many acts of cruelty that had marked Herod’s reign. It was about this very time that Augustus is reported to have said that it was ‘better to be Herod’s sow than his son’ (Macrob. Saturn, ii. 4).

For St. Luke, with his wider outlook as a cultured Greek writing to a Roman official, it was quite natural to give a distinct place in his record to the decree about the census as leading up to the birth in Bethlehem. The object of the decree is given in the Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 correctly as ‘an enrolment’ (ἀτογραφή), not necessarily involving ‘a taxing’ as well. As on this occasion it did not lead to any serious uprising of the Jews, as in a.d. 6, it must have been only a census in accordance with Jewish customs: ‘all went to enrol themselves, every one to his own city.’ The historian is careful to point out that it was part only of a world-wide enrolment (‘all the world’). In the light of later research, we can add that this decree seems to have introduced a periodic census in the Roman Empire. The carefully chosen language of St. Luke distinguishes between the going up from Galilee as an act once for all completed (ἀνέβη), and an enrolment begun and having a continuance (ἐπορεὺουτο πἀντες ἀτογράφεσθαι).* [Note: It is true, indeed, that the imperf. may point, not to a repetition of the census, but simply to the fact of its going on for some time (cf. Winer, Gram. of NT Greek [Eng. tr.]9, p. 335).] The further description of the census as ‘the first’ accords with this, not the first under Quirinius, but the first of a series. For those to whom St. Luke wrote the decree was memorable as ‘the first’ that affected the Jews. Other enrolments may have taken place before it under Augustus, as the review by the Emperor himself in the celebrated Monumentum Ancyranum bears, but there is no contradiction between that and the Evangelist’s testimony. Three distinct censuses are there named (in b.c. 28, b.c. 8, and in a.d. 14). Only the number of Roman citizens is given in each case, as all others might not have been considered worthy of being mentioned in the Emperor’s Memorials. Important light has recently been thrown on the system of enrolments in the Roman Empire through the labours of various scholars referred to by Prof. W. M. Ramsay in his volume Was Christ born at Bethlehem? The tombs and even the dust-heaps of Egypt are proving that enrolments of households there were quite common, and even that a cycle of 14 years was observed. Applying this cycle to the period immediately before and after the Christian era, we bring out well-known dates, b.c. 8 and a.d. 6, the former marking a Roman-citizen census taken by Augustus, and the other that of the ‘great census,’ when the disturbances took place in Palestine which were quelled by Quirinius. There is thus a strong presumption, amounting almost to proof, that b.c. 8 is the most likely date for the issue of the decree referred to in Luke 2:1. The delay between b.c. 8 and b.c. 6, so as to have it coincide with the corrected date for the birth of Jesus, may be accounted for by the strained relations existing about the time between Augustus and Herod, and also between Herod and his subjects. As it seems to have been the first enrolment of Jews under the Empire, it is easy to cooceive that time was needed to overcome Jewish scruples.

The real difficulty, however, as to this alleged census under Quirinius lies in reconciling St. Luke’s testimony with the facts of secular history. The Syrian governors in the period of b.c. 9–4 are given by Schürer as C. Sentius Saturninua (b.c. 9–6) and P. Quintilius Varus (a.c. 6–4). As a.c. 4 is the generally accepted year of Herod’s death, the possibility of a governorship of Quirinius at the time of the execution of the decree of Caesar Augustus is thereby excluded. Many therefore have been ready to say, with Mommsen, that St. Luke has ‘erred.’ Even Tertullian is quoted against the Evangelist, when he affirms that an ‘enrolment’ was made by Sentius Saturninus. And yet his testimony, while it differs from that of St. Luke as to the name of the governor of Syria, supports none the less the fact that there was a census earlier than the famous one of a.d. 6. The evidence in favour of an earlier as well as later governorship of Quirinius is now admitted to be so strong, that Mommsen and others have fully accepted it. The only question that remains is as to where we are to place it. Important help towards the solution of it has been found in the inscription discovered at Tivoli in 1764, now preserved in the Lateran Museum of Christian Antiquities. On it are recorded the exploits of a Roman official, with the honours awarded to him in the time of Augustus. While no name has been preserved, we are told that he was proconsul in Asia, and that he twice governed Syria and Phœnicia. The only one, known to us, who satisfies these conditions is Quirinius. Where then, in the interval immediately before the birth of Jesus in b.c. 6 or at latest b.c. 5, are we to find room for his earlier Syrian governorship? It must be between Saturninus and Varus, or as a contemporary of the one or the other. If we can find proofs in history of a double ‘hegemony’ in provincial government, we may consider that only there can the solution lie. In the history of Josephus we have a singular confirmation of this twofold governorship. A Volumnius is named in relation to Sentius Saturninus as ‘the hegemon of Caesar’ (Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] i. i. p. 350). Why might not Quirinius have been the military governor, while Saturninus was the civil administrator? In view of the progress of discovery in recent years, may we not hope that some additional fragment of the Tiburtine inscription will be found, and definitely settle the much debated question as to the historical accuracy of St. Luke? See art. Census.

Though secular history from b.c. 6 to a.d. 14 furnishes us with no trace of any influence having been exerted by Augustus on Jesus or by Jesus on Augustus, we are able to trace, in the remarkable career of Augustus, a singular preparation for the Christian era. In nothing is this more manifest than in his unification of the Empire. When Augustus finally defeated Antony at Alexandria in b.c. 31, he was the one ruler left in the whole Roman world. The only adverse influence with which he had thereafter to contend was found among the heads of the old families in the Roman Senate. In the course of the next 10 or 12 years he so skilfully guided the affairs of the State, that he was clothed with every attribute of supremacy which it seemed possible for the State to bestow. The title of ‘Princeps Senatus’ was revived in b.c. 29, and had new significance given to it. In b.c. 27 the Senate conferred upon him the proconsular imperium for 10 years. This put into his hands an all but absolute military power throughout the empire. At this same time he received the title of ‘Augustus,’ a name having to do with the science of augury [or from augeo, as an-gustus from ango], and suggesting something akin to religious veneration. Though even then he wished himself to be considered as having a primacy only among equals, yet, as wielding the power both of purse and sword, he had become really the master of the Roman world. Nor was he content with this. The tribunicia potestas was granted to him in a sense more extended than ever before. While he appeared to assume it year by year, it really became his for life, and was the symbol of his sovereign authority, being used to mark the years of his reign. In b.c. 23 the whole machinery of the State had definitely and permanently passed into his hands. When the Christian era dawned, Augustus had for 17 years exercised a dominion unrivalled in its nature and extent, entitling it to be spoken of as over ‘the whole world.’ And yet there was no one in his day that felt so much the need of limiting the extension of the Empire. Among his last instructions there was one enjoining his successors not to seek enlargement, as it only made the work of guarding the frontiers more difficult. One of his greatest anxieties during his later years, owing to the deaths of Marcellus, Agrippa, Lucius, and Gaius, had to do with the succession to the Imperial throne. While the Christian era had not yet reached its first decade, he had only Tiberius, his step-son, to look to as his successor. At an early period of his reign Augustus had given himself to the development of a complete system of road-supervision for Italy and the provinces. The celebrated pillar of gilded bronze, the ‘Milliarium Aureum,’ of which but a fragment of the marble base can be seen to-day near the ascent of the Capitol, was set up by Augustus on ‘his completion of the great survey and census of the Roman world’ (Lanciani). On it were marked the distances of all the principal places along the main roads from the city gates. Where these roads led, civil government was found established, with a representative of the Emperor or the Senate, and with tribunals for the administration of justice. Anyone claiming to be a Roman citizen had the privilege of appeal to Caesar, and could be assured of a safe conduct to Rome. Safe and comparatively speedy modes of travel were assured.

Our knowledge of the government of the provinces under Augustus is too limited to admit of any clear and full description of it. Suctonius (August. 47) has given us the principles on which he acted in dividing the provinces between himself and the Senate, in these words: ‘The provinces which could neither be easily nor safely governed by annual magistrates he undertook himself.’ In other words, those that required a strong force to hold them in subjection, or whose frontiers were exposed to attack on the part of restless and powerful enemies, he retained in his own hands. The others, which could he easily governed and had nothing to fear from surrounding peoples, he handed over to the Senate. This arrangement placed in his hands almost the whole military forces of the Empire. The Emperor’s legates, commanding the provincial troops, were not only appointed by him, but could be suspended or dismissed at his pleasure. The provinces were divided into groups according as they were administered by consuls, praetors, or simply knights. Even those that appeared to be entirely under the control of the Senate were restricted in their appointments by the Emperor, as the list of those eligible had to be submitted to him, and all on the list must have served, with an interval of five years, as consuls or praetors. In the case of Syria we find an imperial province exposed to inroads from warlike peoples on its Northern and Eastern borders, and therefore in need of a military more than a civil commander over it to act as its hegemon. The term answers best to our Viceroy. This was the position which Quirinius probably held, and he would have power from Augustus to allow in Herod’s dominions a census that would as little as possible offend Jewish prejudices.

Each set of provinces had its own separate treasury. The revenues from the Imperial provinces flowed into the Emperor’s fiscus, and out of it were taken the enormous sums spent on the great military roads, which became the highways for Christianity. To the Senate, Augustus granted the right of minting copper only, reserving gold and silver for the Imperial treasury. As the result of these and other measures the Empire enjoyed unusual prosperity. Augustus also bestowed great care on the selection of his legates, closely watched over their administration, and made it all but impossible for a corrupt governor to escape swift punishment. To this in great measure the Empire owed its popularity in Augustus’ time.

There was another remarkable preparation for the world-census in the ordnance survey initiated by Julius Caesar, and completed only after 25 years of labour on the part of four of the greatest surveyors of the age. The main object of it, no doubt, was the taxation of land, the most profitable source of revenue under the Empire. Thus a completely organized and a world-wide Empire, in absolute dependence upon its supreme ruler in Rome, had become an accomplished fact ere the Christian era had dawned.

As this new era approached, signs were multiplying of a desire for peace on the part of ruler and ruled, though it is scarcely true that the actual year of the birth at Bethlehem was distinguished by the prevalence of universal peace. To the immediately preceding period, b.c. 13–9, belongs the famous ‘Altar of Peace,’ whose actual site has been laid bare within very recent years (1903–1904) under the Via in Lucina, a little way off from the Corso, the old Flaminian Way. The very same year in which Augustus became Pontifex Maximus owing to the death of his former co-triumvir Lepidus, the Senate decreed the erection of an ‘Altar of Peace,’ which at first was to have been set up in the Senate-house, but was afterwards placed on the edge of the Campus Martius. One of the chief features of the period to which it belongs was the closing of the temple of Janus. Horace, writing in b.c. 13 (Epp. ii. i. 255 and Odes iv. xv. 9), speaks of the closing as a recent occurrence. Twice before in the reign of Augustus, in b.c. 29 and b.c. 25, this temple had been closed (Mon. Anc. 13), ‘when peace throughout the whole dominions of the Roman people by land and sea had been obtained by victories,’ and ‘only twice before his birth since the foundation of the city,’ in all five times up to the Christian era. The Gades (Cadiz) inscription is a remarkable confirmation of b.c. 13 as the date of the third closing of the temple of Janus in Augustus’ time.

The monument entitled the ‘Ara Pacis Augusti’ is of unusual proportions and of exquisite workmanship. Within the walls of a massive marble screen there was placed the altar on an elevated base, pyramidal, and having marble steps leading up to it. The screen was splendidly decorated both within and without with sculptures in high relief. The outer side of the screen had two distinct bands of ornamentation: the lower floral, the upper a procession with figures, many of which might have been actual portraits. The best known of these processional reliefs are to be found in the Gallery of the Uffizi at Florence, one is in the Cortile Belvedere of the Vatican, and one in the Louvre, Paris.

The altar was a splendid tribute to Peace, but it was a peace after many and bloody victories, reminding us of the saying, ‘where they make a desert they call it peace’ (Tac. Agricola, 30), and it was also a peace that was not to last. Yet there the altar stood on the field of Mars, as the reign of the ‘Prince of Peace’ was ushered in, and became for ages thereafter a witness to the Pax Romana of the Augustan age. Far more of it remains to the present time than of the triple arch of Augustus set up in celebration of his victories, of which only the bare foundations can be seen between the temple of Julius and that of Castor and Pollux.

The energies of Augustus found scope for themselves in other lines, and all with the object of building up his world-wide Empire that he meant to last in the ages to come. At the beginning of his reign he put his hand to the restoration of the State religion. In b.c. 28 he claims to have ‘repaired 82 temples of the gods’ (Mon. Anc. 20), earning for himself the title given him by Livy (Hist. iv. xx. 7), ‘the builder or restorer of all the temples.’ The sacred images, we are told, had become actually ‘foul with smoke’ or were ‘mouldering with mildew.’ The ancestral religion was dead, belief in the gods had all but disappeared. Nor was it only the repair of edifices for religious worship that he took in hand; from him the sacred colleges and brotherhoods received a new impulse by his becoming a member himself of one and all of them. Through him their endowments were greatly increased. With great ceremony was observed the centenary of the city, for which Horace prepared his well-known ode, as the inscription found in the Tiber in 1871 so strikingly confirms (‘carmen composuit Q. Horatius Flaccus’). The worship of the Lares was restored. At crossways and street corners three hundred small shrines were set up, whose altars were adorned twice a year with flowers. One of the latest discoveries is that of a shrine of the Lares Publici in front of the Arch of Titus, on the branch of the Via Sacra leading up to the Palatine by the old Mugonian Gate. New temples were erected, the most notable being that of Apollo behind his own ‘Domus.’ A new spirit also was infused into the rites and ceremonies of the old worship, to which the writings of Virgil contributed in a special degree.

The hardest task yet remained in the social and moral reformation of his people. As early as b.c. 25 we find Horace (Od. iii. vi.), in this reflecting probably the opinion of his master, affirming the necessity of ‘a reformation of morals as well as a restoration of temples and a revival of religion.’ In a later ode (xxiv.) he promises immortality to the statesman who shall bring back the morality of the olden time. The action taken by Augustus about that time was effective, temporarily at least, for his praises were celebrated as ‘one Who by his presence had cleansed the family from its foul stains, had curbed the licence of the age, and recalled the old morality.’ The text of his laws enacted for this purpose has not come down to ns, but their date may be taken as from b.c. 18 to 17, or about 12 years before the Christian era. His own example, unfortunately, did not enable him to take up a very high position on the subject of marriage. He had put away Scribonia in order to marry Livia, whom he took from her husband Tiberius Nero. Again and again he interposed to dissolve existing marriages, when his policy as to the succession required it. High motives, therefore, we do not expect to find in his legislation on marriage. Nothing could have brought out more, clearly the impotence of such legislation than the openly scandalous character of his daughter Julia. In b.c. 2, the very year when he was hailed by the Senate as the father of his country, he became aware of what had long been in everyone’s knowledge. So keenly did he feel the scandal that he shunned society for a time, and even absented himself from the city. His only remedy was her banishment to Pandataria. Never afterwards was she allowed to set foot in Rome. Nor did she see again the face of her father, whom she outlived only by a few short weeks. There were not wanting schools of philosophy that vied with each other in leading men to virtue. Greek philosophers of note were welcomed to the halls of the ‘Domus Augusti.’ But no system of morals or philosophy had yet appeared that could show the way of attaining to the Divine likeness by the bestowal of a new nature, until Christianity came upon the scene.

The same moulding hand that built up the Empire can be traced in the modification through which Caesar-worship passed under Augustus. The deification of Julius by the Senate in b.c. 42 was only what was to be expected. The decree ran: ‘To the Genius of the divine Julius, father of his country, whom the Senate and Roman people placed among the number of the gods.’ In the very heart of the Roman Forum, from b.c. 29, there was to be seen, on an elevated platform, a most beautiful marble temple proclaiming the deification of the great Julius. Augustus never allowed such worship of himself during his lifetime as had been the case with Julius. From the earliest period of his reign there is evidence that he allowed it in the provinces, but only in conjunction with ‘Rome,’ and the formula enjoined for all that were not Roman citizens was ‘Rome and Augustus.’ In the case of citizens the one name allowed, along with Rome, was that of ‘the divine Julius.’ For his Roman subjects he would be neither ‘rex’ nor ‘divus,’ but outside the favoured circle of Roman citizenship he had less scruple in receiving for himself a share of divine honour, believing that it formed the binding link that was needed to knit all the parts of his wide Empire into one great unity.

As to the permanence of this ‘cult’ in the provinces, under the joint title of ‘Rome and Augustus,’ there is still a measure of uncertainty. Dr. Lindsay believes the balance of evidence is in favour of ‘Rome’ having been left out even in Augustus’ lifetime. In that case ‘Augustus’ signified ‘not the person of the Emperor, but the symbol of the deification of the Roman State, personified in its ruler.’ Certainly that might have admirably served to establish his State policy, and make him believe that he had accomplished all that human ingenuity could to make his Empire as enduring as it was world-wide.

On his death in a.d. 14 a modification necessarily came, when the Senate decreed that thereafter he should be known as ‘Divus Augustus.’

The priesthood of this Imperial ‘cult’ was divided into two classes, the one representing the State religion in a province, and the other having charge of religious ceremonies in the cities. The provincial priests were responsible only to the Emperor as Pontifex Maximus, and had, in the West at least, jurisdiction over the municipal priests. The way was thus prepared for the development of a full hierarchical system, which became afterwards the model for the Roman Church, with its Pontifex Maximus in Rome, its Metropolitans in each province, and the municipal priests in the cities. The ‘cult’ itself spread with great rapidity, was binding on every Roman subject with the ‘exception of the Jews only, and prepared the way for the application of the prime test for the Christians of the early ages: ‘Sacrifice to the Emperor or death.’ The man of all others, who created the conditions in which Christianity was to find that supreme test, was Augustus. The Universal Empire, with its ruler as an object of worship, had not long become an accomplished fact when the God-man, in contrast with the man-god, appeared,—‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ No contrast could well be greater than that which distinguished (in b.c. 6–a.d. 14) this world-ruler from the Founder of Christianity:—Augustus, a perfect master in State-craft, merciful to his foes only when he had made his position absolutely sure, only somewhat more advanced in his morality than the men of his age, full of self-esteem, as the last scene of his life reveals, yet entitled to be considered by the world in which he lived as its ‘chief benefactor’ (Luke 22:25); Jesus, though in His twelfth year able to claim a relationship with the Father in heaven such as distinguishes Him from every other son of man, yet remaining for those 20 years of His life at Nazareth as the carpenter’s son, all unknown to the great world without, subject to His reputed father and His ‘highly favoured’ mother, ‘advancing in wisdom’ as in stature, and above all ‘in favour with God and man.’ Of the whole of Augustus’ work there now remains little but crumbling or half-buried ruins, but the name of Jesus ‘endures,’ and gives evidence of the truth of the prophecy which points to the world’s kingdom as becoming His, and His reign as being ‘for ever and ever’ (Revelation 11:15).

Literature.—Mommsen, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, also The Roman Provinces, and History of Rome; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] Index, s.v. ‘Octavianus Augustus’; W. M. Ramsay, Was Christ born at Bethlehem?, The Church in the Roman Empire; Shuckburgh, The Life and Times of the Founder of the Roman Empire; John B. Firth, Augustus Caesar and the Organization of the Empire of Rome; Baring Gould, The Tragedy of the Caesars; T. M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries; Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire.

J. Gordon Gray.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Augustus (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/a/augustus-2.html. 1906-1918.

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