In about the year 9 BC, a group of Greco-Romans in Asia Minor issued a proclamation—now known from the Priene Calendar Inscription—commemorating the birth of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. The text of the inscription declared the coming of the “savior” Caesar as a matter of “good tidings” and “good news.” This “god Augustus” brought peace for all the people of the empire.
Those familiar with the Christian scriptures will of course note the similarities here with a later proclamation of “good tidings” and “good news” found in the gospel of Luke. Luke writes of the birth of the new “savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This savior is also the “Son of God,” who will bring “peace to men.”
It was likely no coincidence that similar language was used in both cases. The Greek term “evangelion”—translated as “gospel” or “good news”—is indeed used in the Priene Calendar proclamation which also indirectly refers to Caesar’s exalted title of “Divi filius”—the son of the god.
Such words reflect Augustus’s view of himself and the language of state-sponsored propaganda at the time. Moreover, as noted by Joseph Ratzinger in his book on the Christian infancy narratives, Augustus was no mere political leader among others. He also asserted universal dominion over everything—”the whole ecumēnē.” 1 This is reflected in Luke’s recounting of how Augustus had declared that “the whole world should be enrolled.”
Yet by using such language, the Christian gospels and the Christians were setting up an irreconcilable conflict: this newborn king wasn’t Caesar. Moreover, it was also clear that Caesar and Christ could not logically both be universal rulers. Only one could exercise true dominion, and only one could be the true savior who would bring in a new age of peace.
Thus, when Christians celebrate Christmas, they commemorate the beginning of a long conflict between Caesar and Christ. This conflict would be borne out in the coming centuries as the status of the Roman state—and the status of the world’s states in general—was called into question by the new religion. This new religion was odd in that it fully rejected the divinity and dominion of political rulers and declared that the real savior of mankind—and his kingdom—is “not of this world.”
The Divine States and Empires of Old
This was something new. In countless ancient city-states, kingdoms, and empires, the worldly political rulers also claimed to be gods. This was rejected by some skeptics and cynics, of course, but such propaganda was also successfully employed in many cases. And when successful, it was immensely helpful in augmenting the power of the king and securing obeisance to the state. From Alexander the Great to the kings of the Levant, to the Egyptian pharaohs, countless rulers claimed to be a “son of god.” By the end of the first century, the emperor Domitian employed the title “master and god.”
Some cultures embraced less crude versions of this. For example, many Greeks and Romans in the centuries before Christ rejected the idea that their kings were deities. Yet many of these people nonetheless embraced the idea that the state itself was synonymous with divine power. This is reflected in the cults of divine personification of cities and kingdoms, such as the cult of the goddess Roma. These divine persons were owed sacrifices and religious obligations, and their authority in many cases imbued the state itself with what was regarded as divine power or a “mandate of heaven.”
The Desacralization of the State
Christianity—at least in the West—rejected this notion and instead embraced what historian Ralph Raico calls “the desacralization of the state.” This is the idea that there is a wide gulf between the divine kingdom and the worldly kingdom. In the fifth century, this idea became highly influential through the works of Augustine of Hippo with his book City of God. As Augustine notes, the City and God and the City of Man must never be confused and are forever distinct. The latter is unjust, ephemeral, and ruled by corrupt kings and emperors who, morally speaking, are often little better than marauding pirates. Only the former is owed any true moral or spiritual allegiance.
Augustine had set himself against the Roman conservatives, who still insisted the Roman state offered the world’s best hope for order, peace, and even salvation. Instead, Augustine was dismissive of the alleged greatness of the empire, and Raico summarizes Augustine’s attitude as one of “Rome Shmome.” Yes, Rome has been big and powerful. But so what? For Augustine, Rome’s military might and seeming permanence merely hid the reality of Rome’s status as just another worldly institution destined for extinction.
Raico notes that this idea has not been universal in Christian parts of the world. In the Greek east of the empire, caesaropapism endured for many centuries. But in the west—where weaker, decentralized regimes replaced the old empire—no prince could hope to assert a true claim to ruling in the name of the City of God. The scriptural directive to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” was thus put into practice more in the West than anywhere else. Indeed, according to Raico, Lord Acton had identified this view as “the origin of the idea of liberty”: Caesar is not God. God is not Caesar.
The Christmas Story’s Contempt for Caesar
Indeed, this view is baked into the Christmas story and its historical context.
The arrival of the new and true king is caught up with disobedience to world authority in many ways. Christ’s very birth is viewed as a grave threat to Herod, who rules as Caesar’s client king. When Herod demands the Magi report back on the child’s whereabouts, the Magi choose to disobey and deceive Herod. Rather than submit to Herod’s search for the child, the child’s guardian flees with the child to Egypt. Herod’s moral bankruptcy is subsequently illustrated by his Massacre of the Innocents.
But Christ was not a threat to Herod alone. As the gospels make clear, this new king was also the only true savior and son of God—in contrast to the mere poser Caesar.
This contrast long served as an insurmountable obstacle to new potential Caesars. Yes, many kings and emperors of late antiquity and the Middle Ages fancied themselves rulers of a new kingdom of God on earth. Frederick II perhaps came the closest to making the title seem plausible. Ultimately, however, the age of strong states, absolutism, and totalitarianism would be reserved for the modern world and the world of secularization and “enlightenment.” It was the men of the Renaissance who revived the old pre-Christian notions of the state as the source of virtue and order. Enlightenment scholars like Gibbon and Montesquieu pined for the old days of empire and the city-state, in which individuals would owe service and sacrifice to the state in the name of masculinity and martial glory. To the enlightened minds of men like Gibbon, Christianity made men too prone to embrace the kingdom “not of this world,” making them less inclined to perform great deeds of conquest and despotism.
These modern thinkers were partly right. On Christmas, the “good news” is not news of peace or salvation brought by “great deeds” performed with the bloody swords and iron fists of worldly princes. That story is as old as politics itself. Christmas has always been something else and something new.