The Ides of March: Caesar and Christ

15 03 2010

Today is the Ides of March.  On this day Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) was assassinated by a group of conspirators, lead by Marcus Junius Brutus  (85-42 BCE), who felt as if the old Republic of Roman was crumbling and a new entity, a kingdom, was arising in its place with Julius Caesar as King/Tyrant.

Nowhere explicitly is Julius Caesar mentioned in the NT; however, the future Roman domination of Judea that characterizes the social context of the NT is a ripple effect from Caesar.  (One might also note the influence, perhaps, on the name of one centurion of the Augustan Cohort who is named Julius [Acts 27:1, 3]).

An exhibit at the British Museum is displaying the only known gold coin which commemorates this event. The coin was pierced in antiquity and perhaps worn as a talisman in order to celebration “liberation.”  Numerous silver coins commemorating this event are extant.  This coinage was minted by the conspirators who felt they were liberating Rome from a tyrant.  (Of course, Octavian [the future Caesar Augustus] and Marc Antony felt differently).  For the next several years Rome was involved in civil war.  This link to the Guardian details this particular gold coin and its background.



5 responses

15 03 2010

Caesar was not assassinated because of his power (or accumulation of powers), but because of the way he used it. His alleged “autocracy” was not the reason. (After all, he held official and legitimate Republican offices.) The main reason was that he opposed the aristocracy, the optimates, the latifundists, their crimes and suppression of the people; the reason was that he solved the debt crisis (cf. i.a. Armstrong 2009 or the lecture below), initiated economic and agricultural reform, redistributed the wealth, fed the poor, forgave his enemies and was about to save Rome for the people’s cause, when the same people he had forgiven after the civil war assassinated him. The tyrant/autocracy argument is simply their propaganda, which is e.g. supported by the fact that they mocked him for his alleged pursuit of kingship, but it has no base in the actual *political* reality of the time. There’s a very good 75-minute lecture on the whole issue:

And it is also not true that “the future Roman domination of Judea that characterizes the social context of the NT is a ripple effect from Caesar”. That seems to be Anti-Roman (or rather: Anti-Caesarian) propaganda coming from a “Judeo-Christian”. Caesar stood for religious freedom, as pontifex maximus he was into reform, and he even granted special rights to the Jews. Many of the Jews loved him, for his reforms and support, but also because he had defeated Pompey, the man who had defiled the temple in Jerusalem. Suetonius reports that the Jews mourned for Caesar for several nights at his funeral site according to their customs. (It was Passover btw.)

But after his death some Jews sided with the assassins against the Caesarians and the Triumvirate/Octavian, and THIS schism destroyed the fragile (and surely not perfect) peace between Rome and the Jews created under Caesar. Augustus tried to mend it by continuing his father’s reforms, especially with regard to the Jewish religion, construction of synagogues in Rome, Ostia etc., but it was no use. Then under Tiberius (and especially Caligula!) things got worse, but it is important to understand that it was not Julius Caesar, but the Jews themselves who were the origin of the development that brought about the eventual conflict in ancient Palestine:

(a) Many Jews did not support Caesar and his reforms during his lifetime, and they rather wanted to side with the aristocratic and plutocratic senators in Rome; (b) More Jews broke with the Caesarian camp after Caesar’s assassination, opportunism galore; (c) the “Jewish War” was at first a civil war between rivaling Jewish factions, e.g. between fundamentalists and pro-Roman liberal Jews (or even Jewish Romans in Palestine), and only after some time Rome entered the conflict; (d) the Jews obviously did not learn from their defeat, and when Rome extended clemency and security, started to rebuild Jerusalem, they revolted again (under Bar Kosiba), only this time to be defeated and expelled for good. History clearly shows us that most of what happened is basically their own fault, based on their own wrong political decisions. (In any case, Palestine had been a region of turmoil long before Caesar.) Rome only came in late and under the Flavians started to clean the place up, because it was apparently necessary.

17 03 2010
David May

You have some interesting observations. I would note that this blog entry was only attempting to point out an interesting and unique coin was going on display at the British Museum. The comments associated with it were general in nature and certainly could be expanded in many different directions.

The coin is a perfect example of the propaganda that all sides use to get their agenda across. Julius Caesar was a master at propaganda with the symbols chosen for his coinage. See this particular link for an article related to his coinage: Caesar. Interestingly, in Rome the head of a living person had never appeared on a denarius before Caesar placed his. This breaking with precedent in Roman coinage must have been shocking for some. In fact, it was only a few months after this coinage was minted that Caesar was killed. (I am not drawing a direct cause and effect; as you note, there were many reasons why political factions were not thrilled [justified or not] with Caesar’s leadership).

While I wrote about the “ripple effect” of Roman influence into Judea, of course, it was not just Julius Caesar; many Romans, especially from the time of Pompey onward, influenced the social context of Judea. I might raise questions about how you describe the Jews (actually an anachronistic term, Judeans is more accurate) as being supportive of Caesar. When we speak of support for Caesar (or any Roman emperor or plutocratic senators), perhaps we need to speak in terms of sociopolitical status rather than ethnicity. The Gentile elites (kings, governors, prefects, etc.) and Judean elites (Herodians, chief priests, scribes, and synagogue authorities) formed an alliance with each other. The Judean elites threw in their lot with the powers-that-be that could best maintain their particular positions. If those powers (patrons actually) looked like they were not going to be successful, they would easily switch to a new patron (look at the changing patrons of the client Antipater, Herod the Great’s father). In fact, one could just as well find a patron among the Parthians, as the last Hasmonean king Mattathias Antigonus did with Orodes II. However, these are perfect examples of elites supporting other elites.

I doubt that the average person (the typical peasant, 80-90% of the population) would have been jumping up and down to support Caesar and the Romans (especially in the region of Galilee). The memory of Cassius’ mass enslavement around Magdala probably lingered in many people’s mind (Josephus, JW 1.180). Other acts of terrorism, from the burning of Sepphoris (JW 2.68) to Varus’ treatment of Emmaus (Ant. 17:291-95), form a particular negative view of the influence of Romans on the region. The Herodian-Roman coalition would certainly have been supported by many Judean elites, but probably not by the majority of the Judean population which experienced various forms of exploitation. While Caesar may have wanted to appear as savior (a title used to describe Augustus), he was not the type of savior for whom most common folks hoped.

20 03 2010

Very neat coinage. Thanks for sharing.

5 04 2010

Wow where did You find those pictures? Awesome.

5 04 2010
David May

This photograph comes from the British Museum.

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