The Birth of Jesus and Virgil’s 4th Eclogue

One of the most interesting Greco-Roman parallels to the birth of Jesus is found in the famous fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Written at the time of the Peace of Brundisium (40 B.C.), following decades of civil war, it is an ode to a coming “Golden Age” (for the cycle of Ages—Gold to Iron—cf. Hesiod, Works and Days ll. 106-201, and the similar concept in many cultures worldwide).

SICILIAN Muses, let us sing a somewhat loftier strain. 2Not all do the orchards please and the lowly tamarisks. 3If our song is of the woodland, let the woodland be worthy of a consul.
4Now is come the last age of the song of Cumae; 5the great line of the centuries begins anew. 6Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; 7now a new generation descends from heaven on high. 8-10Only do thou, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall first cease, and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Thine own Apollo now is king!
11-12And in thy consulship, Pollio, yea in thine, shall this glorious age begin, and the mighty months commence their march; 13under thy sway, any lingering traces of our guilt 14shall become void, and release the earth from its continual dread. 15He shall have the gift of divine life, 16shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen of them, 17and shall sway a world to which his father’s virtues have brought peace.
18-22But for thee, child, shall the earth untilled pour forth, as her first pretty gifts, straggling ivy with foxglove everywhere, and the Egyptian bean blended with the smiling acanthus. Uncalled, the goats shall bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the herds shall fear not huge lions; 23unasked, thy cradle shall pour forth flowers for thy delight. 24The serpent, too, shall perish, and the false poison-plant shall perish; 25Assyrian spice shall spring up on every soil.
26But soon as thou canst read of the glories of heroes and thy father’s deeds, 27and canst know what valour is, 28slowly shall the plain yellow with the waving corn, 29on wild brambles shall hang the purple grape, 30and the stubborn oak shall distil dewy honey. 31Yet shall some few traces of olden sin lurk behind, 32-33to call men to essay the sea in ships, to gird towns with walls, and to cleave the earth with furrows. 34-35A second Tiphys shall then arise, and a second Argo to carry chosen heroes; a second warfare, too, shall there be, 36and again shall a great Achilles be sent to Troy.
37Next, when now the strength of years has made thee man, 38-39even the trader shall quit the sea, nor shall the ship of pine exchange wares; every land shall bear all fruits. 40The earth shall not feel the harrow, nor the vine the pruning-hook; 41the sturdy ploughman, too, shall now loose his oxen from the yoke. 42Wool shall no more learn to counterfeit varied hues, 43but of himself the ram in the meadows shall change his fleece, 44now to sweetly blushing purple, now to a saffron yellow; 45of its own will shall scarlet clothe the grazing lambs.
46“Ages such as these, glide on!” cried to their spindles the Fates, 47voicing in unison the fixed will of Destiny!
48Enter on thy high honours—the hour will soon be here—49O thou dear offspring of the gods, mighty descendant of Jupiter! 50Behold the world bowing with its massive dome—51earth and expanse of sea and heaven’s depth! 52Behold, how all things exult in the age that is at hand! 53O that then the last days of a long life may still linger for me, 54with inspiration enough to tell of thy deeds! 55-57Not Thracian Orpheus, not Linus shall vanquish me in song, though his mother be helpful to the one, and his father to the other, Calliope to Orpheus, and fair Apollo to Linus. 58-59Even Pan, were he to contend with me and Arcady be judge, even Pan, with Arcady for judge, would own himself defeated.
60Begin, baby boy, to know thy mother with a smile—61to thy mother ten months have brought the weariness of travail. 62-63Begin, baby boy! Him on whom his parents have not smiled, no god honours with his table, no goddess with her bed!
(transl. H. R. Fairclough, Loeb edition, 1916).

This “Golden Age” is connected with the birth of a child, somewhat similar, perhaps to situation in Isa 7:14 and 9:6-7 (cf. the earlier articles on these passages). Indeed, there are a number of images and motifs in this poem that could almost have been lifted out of Isaiah. It has been suggested that Virgil is drawing upon Jewish or related Near Eastern sources in some fashion (note the details in lines 18-25); though overall the idyllic pastoral picture owes more to Theocritus and other Greco-Roman poets than it does to foreign works. As with Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7, the identity of the child here is uncertain; many proposals have been made, the most common of which are:

  • The son of Asinius Pollio (the consul in lines 3, 11-12)
  • A son of Octavian (Augustus)—his wife Scribonia was pregnant at the time (but she would bear a daughter)
  • The child is symbolic of the Golden Age

Certainly, Augustus would come to be associated with a reign of peace (Pax Augusta) and be called “savior of the world” (on this Imperial background to the birth of Jesus esp. in the Gospel of Luke, see a previous Christmas season note). Not surprisingly, some Christians saw in this poem a (pagan) prophecy of Jesus’ birth (e.g., Lactantius, Institutes 7:24; Oration of Constantine §§19-21; but cf. Jerome, Epistle 53, for a contrary opinion). There are likely several reasons for this:

  • Reference to the Cumaean Sibyl in line 4—the Sibyls were seen as predicting the coming of Christ in other early Christian traditions (see below)
  • The “Virgin” in line 6 (here the virgin is ‘Justice’)
  • The child’s connection to the new age, especially the miraculous fertility which comes upon the earth (lines 18-25ff, 40-45)
  • Divine (honorific) attributes seem to be given to the child in lines 15-17
  • The (very) rough similarities with details in Isaiah 7:14ff (cf. the time indicators related to the child’s age in lines 26ff, etc)
  • The depiction of the birth and connection with the mother in lines 60-63 may have conjured up associations with Mary and the virgin birth.

Mention of the Sibyl, along with the possibility of Jewish (or Near Eastern) influence in parts of the poem, have led some scholars to theorize that Virgil may have had access to Sibylline “oracles” similar to those which have come down to us today (cf. especially the 3rd book of the Sibylline Oracles). As I discussed in a previous note, these surviving books are a mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian material—the pseudepigraphic Christian books and sections are largely a reworking of the Jewish oracles, meant to integrate the birth and life of Jesus into the fabric of biblical and world history.

The Births of Augustus and Jesus

The announcement of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke is related in some way to that of the Roman emperor (Augustus). This is not just a matter of a chronological setting for the narrative; the mention of Augustus (2:1, cf. parallel reference to rulers in 1:5; 3:1f) almost certainly is of theological (christological) importance. Consider the following points of comparison between Augustus and Jesus:

1. Son of God. Gaius Octavius was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar (so, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus); upon the deification of Caesar (recognized as ‘god’, Jan 1, 42 B.C.), Octavianus effectively became “son of god” (divi filius). This status only increased in strength as he was proclaimed emperor (Imperator, ratified 29 B.C.) and given the title Augustus (27 B.C.).

2. Bringer of Peace. Augustus pacified much of the Empire, as detailed in his own account (cf. Res gestae divi Augusti II.12-13 [34-45]) and that of other Roman historians. The shrine of Janus in the capital, open in time of war, was finally closed during Augustus’ reign, and the ‘peace of Augustus’ (Pax Augusta) was proclaimed (the famous altar ara pacis augustae).

3. Savior. Augustus was called “savior” (swth/r)—e.g. “savior of the whole world” (swth=ra tou= su/npanto$ ko/smou) in an inscription from Myra (V. Ehrenberg and A. H. M. Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius [Oxford:1949], no. 72).

Most notably, the Roman government established a new calendar (the Julian) which set the birthday of Augustus (Sept 23) as the start of the new year. A letter from proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus (c. 9-5 B.C.) to the territories of Asia under his charge, reads as follows (abridged):

It is subject to question whether the birthday of our most divine (emperor) Caesar spells more of joy or blessing, this being a date that we could probably without fear of contradiction equate with the beginning of alI things, if not in, terms of nature, certainly in terms of utility, seeing that he restored stability, when everything was collapsing and falling into disarray, and gave a new look to the entire world that would have been most happy to accept its own ruin had not the good and common fortune of all been born: CAESAR. Therefore people might justly assume that his birthday spells the beginning of life and real living and marks the end and boundary of any regret that they had themselves been born. And since no other day affords more promise of blessing for engagement in public or private enterprise than this one which is so fraught with good fortune for everyone…. it is my judgment that the one and the same day observed by all the citizens as New Year’s Day be celebrated as the birthday of Most Divine Caesar, and on that day, September 23, all elected officials shall assume office, with the prospect that through association with observances connected with the existing celebration, the birthday observance might attract all the more esteem and prove to be even more widely known and thereby confer no small benefit on the province. Therefore it would behoove the Asian League to pass a resolution that puts into writing all his aretai, so that our recognition of what redounds to the honor of Augustus might abide for all time. And I shall order the decree to be inscribed in (Greek and Latin) on a stele and set up in the temple.

Along with the letter is the decree, which reads (in part):

Decree of the Greek Assembly in the province of Asia, on motion of the High Priest Apollonios, son of Menophilos, of Aizanoi whereas Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with arete for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order; and whereas Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him; ….. (proconsul Paul Fabius Maximus) has discovered a way to honour Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his nativity; therefore, with the blessings of Good Fortune and for their own welfare, the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23, which is the birthday of Augustus; and, to ensure that the dates coincide in every city, all documents are to carry both the Roman and the Greek date, and the first month shall, in accordance with the decree, be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.

I have emphasized several phrases above in bold. Even more well-known is the so-called Priene Calendar Inscription, related to this decree, of which note especially lines 31-42 (again key phrases emphasized below, along with the corresponding Greek):

It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [swth/r], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [e)pifanei=n] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [h@rcen de\ tw=i ko/smwi tw=n di’ au)to\n eu)aggeli/wn h( gene/qlio$ tou= qeou=],” which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

For the above letter of Paulus Fabius Maximus and the Asian decree, see Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field (1982), p. 217;
the translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription is courtesy of Craig A. Evans, Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel

The birth(day) and appearance of the ‘savior’ is called “good news/tidings”, the same word typically translated as “gospel”. The closest Gospel parallel is found in the Angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:10-14 (note the italicized portions):

10And the Messenger said to them, “Do not fear! For see—I bring a good message [eu)aggeli/zomai] to you of great joy which will be for all people: 11that today is brought forth for you a savior [swth/r]—which is Anointed, Lord—in the city of David! 12And this (is) the sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in cloth-bands [i.e. swaddled] and lying (down) in a feeding-(trough).” 13And suddenly there came to be with the Messenger a full crowd of (the) heavenly army praising God and saying,

14do/ca in the highest (places) to God,
and upon earth peace in [i.e. among] men of (his) eu)doki/a.”

(For more on the translation of this passage, and other critical notes related to the Infancy Narratives, see the recent Christmas article)

It cannot be mere coincidence that the Gospel here has such points of contact with the emperor Augustus (2:1). However, in order to understand the significance of this properly, the points of difference must be clearly brought out:

  • The announcement comes from a heavenly Messenger, and according to the pattern of angelic appearances elsewhere in Scripture.
  • The Savior is also called: (a) Anointed (Xristo/$), that is, an anointed ruler sent by God to his people; and (b) Lord (Ku/rio$), that is, the very title given to YHWH himself.
  • Though well-wrapped, the new-born Savior is lying in an animals’ feeding-trough—generally understood as a sign of humility and condescension, perhaps even as a symbol of Incarnation (see also Isa 1:3).
  • The message is especially addressed to the lowly in society.
  • Heaven and earth are united at the moment of revelation, in a powerful, mysterious way (verse 14)

do/ca e)n u(yi/stoi$ qew=|
kai\ e)pi\ gh=$ ei)rh/nh e)n a)nqrw/poi$ eu)doki/a$