Who Was Caesar Augustus?

The first Roman Emperor and ruler when Jesus Christ was born

Who Was Caesar Augustus?
Portrait of Caesar Augustus, Rome Italy. ROMAOSLO / Getty Images

Caesar Augustus, the first emperor in the ancient Roman Empire, was ruling when Jesus Christ was born. He issued an order which he could not have known would fulfill a biblical prophecy made 600 years before he was born.

Caesar Augustus

  • Also Known as: Gaius Octavius; Octavian; Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus
  • Known for: Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) was the first Roman emperor and one of the most successful. He reigned for 45 years and was ruling at the time of Jesus Christ's birth.
  • Bible References: Caesar Augustus is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 2:1.
  • Born: September 23, 63 BC, Rome, Italy
  • Died: August 19, 14 AD, Nola, Italy
  • Father: Gaius Octavius
  • Mother: Atria
  • Grand Uncle and Adoptive Father: Julius Caesar
  • Spouses: Clodia Pulchra; Scribonia; Livia
  • Daughter: Julia Caesaris
  • Descendants: Tiberius Julius Caesar (later emperor), Nero Julius Caesar (later emperor), Gaius Julius Caesar (later emperor Caligula), seven others.
  • Hometown: Rome
  • Occupation: Military commander, Roman emperor

The prophet Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in the tiny village of Bethlehem:

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." (Micah 5:2, NIV)

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Caesar Augustus ordered a census taken of the entire Roman world, possibly for tax purposes. Palestine was part of that world, so Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus Christ, took his pregnant wife Mary to Bethlehem to register. Joseph was from the house and line of David, who had lived in Bethlehem. There would have been no reason for Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth for the birth of their baby except for Caesar Augustus' decree. 

Who Was Caesar Augustus?

Historians agree that Caesar Augustus was one of the most successful Roman emperors. Born Gaius Octavius in 63 BC, he reigned as emperor for 45 years, until his death in 14 AD. As the grand-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, he took the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian). He used the popularity of his great uncle's name to rally the army behind him.

When he was 18 years old and studying in Greece, Julius Caesar was assassinated. As Caesar's heir, Octavian entered into a power struggle for the throne. Within a few years, he defeated both Cassius and Brutus, the primary conspirators against Caesar. When Lepidus was forced into retirement, the areas he controlled (Gaul and western North Africa) fell to Octavian.

Eventually, he gained full control of the Roman world at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who both committed suicide. That victory brought Egypt into the Roman provinces and founded the Roman Empire with Augustus as the sole ruler. The Roman Senate honored him with the title Augustus, which means "reverend," "the exalted," or "the venerable," in recognition of his efforts to restore order after the Roman civil war.

Caesar Augustus brought peace and prosperity to the Roman empire. Its many provinces were governed with a heavy hand, yet with some local autonomy. In Israel, the Jews were allowed to maintain their religion and culture. While rulers like Caesar Augustus and Herod Antipas were essentially figureheads, the Sanhedrin, or national council, still held power over many aspects of daily life.

Ironically, the peace and order established by Augustus and maintained by his successors helped in the spread of Christianity. The extensive network of Roman roads made travel easier. The Apostle Paul carried his missionary work westward over those roads. Both he and the Apostle Peter were executed in Rome, but not before they had spread the gospel there, causing the message to fan out on Roman roads to the rest of the ancient world.

Accomplishments

Caesar Augustus brought organization, order, and stability to the Roman world. His establishment of a professional army ensured that insurrections were put down quickly. He changed the way governors were appointed in the provinces, which reduced greed and extortion. He launched a major building program, and in Rome, paid for many projects from his own personal wealth. He also encouraged art, literature, and philosophy.

Caesar Augustus' 45-year reign is known as Rome's golden age. At his death, the Senate officially declared him to be a god.

Strengths

He was a daring leader who knew how to influence people. His reign was marked by innovation, yet he retained enough traditions to keep the populace satisfied. He was generous and left much of his estate to soldiers in the army. To the extent possible in such a system, Caesar Augustus was a benevolent dictator.

Weaknesses

Caesar Augustus worshiped the pagan Roman gods, but even worse, he allowed himself to be worshiped as a living god. Although the government he set up gave conquered provinces like Israel some local control, it was far from democratic. Rome could be brutal in enforcing its laws. The Romans did not invent crucifixion, but they used it extensively to terrorize their subjects.

Life Lessons

Ambition, when directed toward worthwhile goals, can accomplish much. However, it is important to keep our ego in check.

When we are placed in a position of authority, we have a duty to treat others with respect and fairness. As Christians, we are also called to observe the Golden Rule:

"Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6:31, NIV)

Key Bible Verse

"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." (Luke 2:1, NIV)