AUGUSTUS: GODS AMONG US

THE EMPEROR

In 44 BC Octavian marched on the last true world empire, Rome, demanding that they give him the role of consul. Octavian, the heir of Julius Caesar was known from the year 27 BC as Augustus. This was a title conferred on him by the senate meaning ‘revered one’, granting Augustus godlike status. Augustus would eventually become the first and arguably the greatest emperor of Roman history, a character looming larger than life. During his life and increasingly through the passage of time, Augustus came to be viewed as a god and was worshiped as such through the institution known as the Imperial cult.

The practice of deifying an individual is of course not an anomaly within human culture. Significant examples of the deification of humans include, in the ancient world, the Egyptian Pharaoh’s who were believed to be inseparable from the sun god, Ra. Other figures throughout history that were perceived to have extraordinary gifts beyond human explanation include Pythagoras and Alexander the Great.

THE CHILD

The most well known individual to ever be hailed as a divine descendant was Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ came from the humblest of backgrounds. He was born in approximately 6 BC to Mary, a woman who told the world that she had conceived through the Holy Spirit. This was the most scandalous of circumstance as it appeared that Mary was an adulterer. Additionally, contrary to societal expectations, Mary’s betrothed had not divorced his wife but had gone forward with the wedding. Growing up, Jesus most likely learnt carpentry from his father Joseph. Further evidencing Jesus’ lackluster background was the place of his upbringing, Nazareth. Nazareth was a town in the Roman province of Judea. The low regard for Nazareth is illustrated by the exclamation of a potential follower of Jesus upon finding out Jesus’ place of residence, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”[1]

Jesus did not hail from a pedigree that one would expect of a savior or deity, especially in his time.

During the period of Jesus’ ministry, participation in the Imperial cult was heavily encouraged in the Roman provinces. The emperor’s that ruled during Jesus life time, Augustus who was followed by his step-son Tiberius, would have been worshiped by many with reverence. Their images would have been spread around the empire through means of coins and their presence felt through the taxes the people were forced to pay. Thus, when Jesus began his ministry in approximately 27-29 AD the vast majority of people would have scoffed at his claim to divinity. Despite his humble beginnings however, some chose to follow Jesus, believing him to be the “Messiah and the Son of the living God”.[2]

THE CHOICE

Most people who have claimed to be a god have done so to garner respect and ascertain wealth from those around them. For example, Augustus did not interact with the everyday Roman. Rather than attributing his success to the people he surrounded himself with or to some sort of higher power he credited himself. This self-affirmation is seen in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus) which is an autobiography or love letter of sorts from Augustus to himself. The piece begins with Augustus stating that “At the age of nineteen on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army by means of which I restored liberty to the republic, which had been oppressed…. For which service the senate, with complementary resolutions, enrolled me in its order.”[3] Augustus, in this document continues to describe his deeds portraying himself as a benevolent dictator stating that “Wars, both civil and foreign I undertook throughout the world, and when victorious I spared all citizens who sued for pardon…. I preferred to save rather than destroy.”[4] Augustus ensured that this document was recorded in multiple places including the moratorium of the Julio-Claudians. Augustus desperately wished for his actions to be recorded so as to not be forgotten in the passage of time.

Throughout the gospel there a numerous accounts of Jesus’ miracles, which included raising people from the dead and healing the sick. Jesus came to earth with the clear mission that he was to share the good news of salvation to all and to die as a ransom for many. Unlike Augustus who recorded his works in anywhere he could think of, Jesus let his actions speak for themselves. Jesus’ actions were so significant that years later those who followed him were impressed to record the miraculous things that they had seen Jesus do.

Augustus’ rule heralded in an age known as the ‘Pax Romana’, an unprecedented time of peace within Rome. Jesus Christ also claimed to bring peace but one of a different nature to that provided by Augustus, peace of the soul. Jesus once said:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

– John 14:27

Many individuals especially in the ancient world were regarded as deities for the way in which they were able to create infrastructure to meet the people’s physical needs.  Jesus claimed instead to be able to meet the spiritual needs of the people. The story of the woman at the well in which Jesus offered water of a different kind “living water” of the type that would “never run dry” to a woman who was viewed by her community to be an irredeemable sinner. Jesus stands apart from all those before and after who have claimed divine descent.

Jesus’ uniqueness from all other god claiming powers within humanity, forces one to consider that perhaps Jesus was just what he claimed to be, the son of God who died to bring us salvation. Following Jesus requires one to, as what was said in reply to the Nathanael’s comment, to come for themselves “and see”.[5]

[1] John 1:46

[2] Matthew 16:15-17

[3] Res Gestae Divi Augusti

[4] Ibid

[5] John 1:46

By Kira-leigh Josey

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