The Origins of Christianity and the Universe, Pt 2: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar
This is a continuation of an earlier article, The Origins of Christianity and the Universe: Constantine and the Cosmic Microwave Background, but can be read as a stand alone article as well.
Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323BC under mysterious circumstances. Some say he died due to disease. Others that he was poisoned. Others that he died of a broken heart after the death of his longtime companion and lover Hephaestion. Whatever the reason, Alexander died as the son of a god, rather than as just a mere mortal.
This was very controversial. Alexander’s companions, who had grown up with him as a boy and had campaigned with him as a man, were used to his taking the lead. He was the son of a king, after all. But the Greeks and Macedons did not have a tradition of deifying their kings. This was seen as an Oriental vice, along with soft clothes, perfumes and make-up.
The Greeks had no shortage of gods and Alexander would have known Homer’s epic poems of the fall of Troy and Odysseus long journey back to his kingdom of Ithaca extremely well, both of which were filled with the stories of the gods and their fights among each other and against mankind. After a visit to the desert temple of Amun in the Libyan desert, Alexander declared that his father was not Philip II of Macedon but rather Zeus-Ammon. He had become the son of the greatest god in Egypt and Greece.
The Greek city states were very religious but the gods that they worshipped were diffuse in their power. While some gods were more powerful than others, take Zeus for example, they did not enjoy a monopoly on power.
Religion was also a two way bargain between mankind and the gods. Gods were worshipped on the basis of what they would offer mankind. Athens, for example, was named after Athena on the basis of the fact that Athena offered the citizens of that city a better deal than Poseidon, who was competing for the role.
Gods were not goody-two-shoes either. They could be malicious and cruel. They fought among each other – the clash between the Titans, the primeval Greek gods, and the Olympians, the next generation of Greek gods, is a great example. They also fought proxy battles, pitching favoured humans against each other, as described in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Gods also took human form on a frequent basis and fathered offspring with humans, resulting in half god / half human demigod hybrids. Zeus and Poseidon were particularly prolific fathers of demigods: Heracles, Helen of Troy, Perseus and Minos were Zeus’s demigod children and Theseus was the son of Poseidon.
After Alexander died his generals split the empire into multiple parts and one of his leading generals, Ptolemy, stole Alexander’s sarcophagus and rushed it back to the new city of Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt. He declared himself Pharaoh and took on the Egyptian tradition of the Pharaoh being a living god. His dynasty were to rule Egypt from 323BC all the way to 30BC when Cleopatra VII killed herself with a poisonous snake and the Roman’s took direct control over Egypt as a colony.
Which brings us to Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian and Jesus Christ.
The Fall of the Roman Republic
Julius Caesar was never an emperor. He was born in the Roman Republic and died in the Roman Republic. Like all educated Romans, Julius Caesar was given a classical education which included Greek thought and oratory. He could speak and write Greek and most of the eastern part of the expanding Roman-controlled territories also spoke Greek, rather than Latin, as their main language. Despite their military, legal and architectural superiority the Romans felt culturally inferior to the Greeks.
Like the Greek city states, the Romans did not deify their leaders. Quite the opposite, in fact. Not only were their leaders consuls, not kings, but they were elected for periods of one year, had limits on the number of terms that they could serve consecutively and had to rule in consort with another consul: the junior and senior consuls had significant constraints on their power.
As the Romans expanded out of Italy, following the defeat of the great Carthaginian general Hannibal in 182 BC, they became increasingly exposed to, and aware of, the gods that other people around the Mediterranean worshiped. It rapidly became clear that there were a lot of overlaps with the Roman gods and the gods of the people that they conquered. Zeus, for example, was not only the Greek god Zeus but also the Roman god Jupiter and the Egyptian god Ammon: the same god, but in different form and with a different name.
Roman expansion upset the balance of power within the Republic. Constant war meant that soldier citizens were unable to meet all of their obligations at home, on their farms, and in the battlefield. Many lost their properties as they were unable to pay their debts due to prolonged absence. Failure to pay their debts could result in selling themselves and their family members into slavery. Roman victories also brought about a huge amount of wealth for the senators that led the Roman armies. Roman victories resulted in a flood of slaves, which meant that the rich could get richer and the poor faced ruin as slave labour produced goods and services that were cheaper than could be done by free labour.
Roman society began to fragment, with fewer and fewer people owning the vast bulk of the wealth of the Republic. The senatorial class itself was under threat as a few senators became significantly wealthier than the others, enabling them to bribe their way into running the most lucrative provinces and commanding the best armies, enabling them to become even wealthier and powerful. Before the rise of Julius Caesar the Roman republic had been ravaged by civil wars as powerful senators battled other senators. The losers and their allies in these battles were “proscribed” and had their property confiscated and were frequently murdered, further concentrating power in the hands of a few. The young Julius Caesar was almost killed in one of these proscriptions.
So when the Senate ordered Julius Caesar, who had become increasingly rich and powerful after his successes in Gaul and Spain, to disband his army and return to Rome in 50BC as his governorship of Gaul had ended, Caesar refused. In January 49BC he famously crossed the Rubicon – the demarkation of his province with Italy proper- claiming (quoting a Greek playwright, in Greek) that “the die is cast” and took the advance party of his army to Rome.
Most of the Senate fled before Caesar arrived and many abandoned Italy for the provinces, where they prepared to fight on. Caesar chased them all down and defeated them. Eventually, the final remnants were defeated in Greece at Pharsalus and their leader, his former friend and son-in-law, Pompey the Great (who was actually older than Caesar) fled to Egypt.
Egypt was being convulsed by a civil war between Ptolemy’s descendants. The Greek Ptolemies had not only adopted the Egyptian custom of being living gods, but also the habit of brothers and sisters marrying each other and having children together to keep the genetic line pure.
Pompey the Great landed in Egypt without an army and on the run from Julius Caesar. He was picked up by the forces of the child Pharaoh Ptolemy. They promptly murdered him, cut off his head and sent the head and his seal-ring to Caesar, seeking to ingratiate themselves with the victorious Roman in order to bring Caesar on their side in the war against Ptolemy’s wife and older sister, Cleopatra.
Big mistake. Caesar was furious. Perhaps because his victory over Pompey had been stolen from him, or that his long time friend and ally had been murdered, or that the Egyptians had had the audacity to kill a great Roman senator without Caesar’s permission. Whatever the reason, Caesar promptly hooked up with Cleopatra, defeated Ptolemy and Egypt was unofficially absorbed into Rome’s expanding republican “empire”.
Caesar was heavily influenced by his time with Cleopatra. Here he was, a mere citizen, sleeping with a living god, who was nominally Egyptian- Cleopatra was famously the first Ptolemeic Pharaoh who could actual speak Demotic (Egyptian)- but was ethnically and culturally Greek. And yet Caesar was the undisputed master of the entire Mediterranean. The most powerful man in the entire known world. And he was not a god. Yet Cleopatra was?
The Roman republican structure of government was by this stage on life support. The Romans once had had kings, in the distant past. The last king, the superbly named Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, had been killed and a republic of sorts had been created. The republic was in reality an oligarchy of powerful families that had passed down their rank of senator to their offspring. So while power was concentrated in the hands of the senatorial oligarchy, within the oligarchy itself no one family dominated and had absolute power.
Roman expansion had resulted in the concentration of power into fewer and fewer members of the oligarchy. Caesar had informally ruled the republic with the help of Pompey the Great, who really was an amazing general in his youth, and the wealthy financier Marcus Crassus, who was one of the wealthiest men in all history. This group of three would become known as the First Triumvirate.
This three legged stool was reasonably stable, and neither Caesar, Crassus or Pompey had a clear advantage. When Crassus died in 53BC, however, the balance of power shifted and Caesar and Pompey fell out after the death of Caesar’s daughter Julia, the much beloved wife of Pompey.
So the famous murder of Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey on the 15th March 44BC was really the last gasp of a senatorial oligarchy who wanted to reset the clock and bring power back to a more widely spread out group of ruling old families. Caesar had named his great nephew Octavian as his heir to not only his fortune, but more importantly his name (he was posthumously adopted) and the allegiance of his soldiers. In the event that Octavian pre-deceased Caesar, Marcus Junius Brutus – he who struck the last dagger blow that killed Caesar – was to have been his heir.
Octavian was originally named Gaius Octavianus, after his biological father. After Caesar’s death he was renamed Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Most people referred to him at the time as just Caesar. In 42BC Octavian managed to get Julius Caesar deified: he was posthumously named a god and temples were erected to worship Caesar.
And since Caesar was a god and Octavian was his son, it meant that Octavian was now the son of a god and so he added the name Divi Filius (son of the divine) to his name, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius. In 38BC he changed his name again and added the title Imperator (the honorific title that soldiers gave their generals after a military success) and was renamed, Imperator Caesar Divi Fililus. In 27 BC the Senate, which was by this stage increasingly sycophantic and had dropped all attempts to revert to being a Republic, voted to give him another honorific – “Augustus” and so he was renamed Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, the name he held onto until his death in 14AD.
A quick recap
We have covered a lot of ground and we are about to reach the Christian equivalent of the Big Bang, the birth of Jesus, so it is time for a quick recap.
- Thanks to Alexander the Great’s conquest and subsequent empires established by his generals, Greek thought and religion dominated the eastern part of the mediterranean from Greece in the north all the way to Egypt in the south.
- Greek republicanism and democracy had been gradually replaced by monarchy and imperialism as it moved south and east and had adapted to the local customs of the people that Alexander’s generals ruled.
- The Greeks had a tradition of demigods, but they were typically characters from the distant past. Alexander’s great innovation was to become a demigod in his own lifetime. In this he was merely adopting local customs, Egyptian Pharaohs had been living gods for a long time, but was also setting a precedent for what was acceptable to Greek and subsequently Roman culture (although you can argue that his likely murder by his generals was a reaction to his push for universal power on earth and in heaven).
- As the Roman Republic expanded throughout the Mediterranean, it gradually became apparent that their Roman gods had very similar counterparts throughout the region. In effect, there were gods with similar qualities but had different names, in the same way that the word “bread” was different in Demotic (Egyptian), Greek and Latin: Ammon-Zeus-Jupiter, is a good example. The next step, of consolidating gods of different qualities into one single god with different aspects to his character, would take place over the next few hundred years.
- Roman Republicanism was similar in structure to that of the Greek city states and had created a reasonably broad sharing of power among the ruling oligarchy. In the same way that Alexander’s rapid expansion had concentrated more power and wealth into his hands, the rapid Roman expansion concentrated more power and wealth into the hands of a few key senatorial generals.
- Julius Caesar was the last of the Roman Republican leaders and the last man standing of the First Triumvirate (Caesar, Crassus and Pompey). He had become the most powerful man in the Mediterranean. His time with Cleopatra, a living god, would have changed his perception of his own standing. This caused a final backlash by republican senators, who murdered him.
- His adopted son, Octavian, used Caesar’s wealth and armies to crush the republican backlash. Octavian made Julius Caesar a god and thus established himself as the son of god. To his contemporaries, however, it would have been obvious that he was not, in fact, the son of a god (or even the son of Julius Caesar, even if Caesar had been a god).
- As Roman gods became universal, pan-Mediterranean, gods and normal, albeit high status, people were becoming gods and demigods, the concept of what it meant to be a god was being undermined. What if the old gods and the new human gods were not gods at all? What if there was a one true god that predated all of these false gods?
Then, sometime between 4BC and 1AD the Christian equivalent to the Big Bang happened: Jesus, a Jew, was born in Bethlehem.
Before we get to his part of the story on the origins of Christianity, however, we need to go back in time again and briefly pick up the story of Yahweh, the jealous God of Abraham, and his covenant with the people who would become known as the Israelites.