History of Christmas: Caesar Augustus

Bill Petro
6 min readDec 16, 2021

Perhaps it is fitting that our last historical Nativity character in the History of Christmas series should be the first person mentioned in St. Luke‘s story of the first Christmas. But he was not Jewish, nor a shepherd, nor a Magi.

Instead, he was 1500 miles away, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, after whom is named the month of August. Were it not for his imperial decision, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem but Nazareth, the home of Mary. And this would have messed up all the Old Testament prophesies 😉

Augustus’ Early Life

Augustus succeeded Julius Caesar. Octavius, as he was previously known, was about 18 when Julius died. Julius was his maternal great-uncle who was assassinated in 44 B.C. Octavius’ mother was the daughter of Julia, the sister of Julius. He was a senator’s son, placing him in the upper class of patricians in Roman society.

Julius himself launched Octavius’ career when the latter delivered the public funeral speech for his grandmother Julia when only 12. At 15 or 16, he was elevated to the exclusive College of Priests. At 17, he accompanied Julius in the triumph over his opponents defeated in Africa.

Augustus’ Succession

Temple of the Vestal Virgins, Roman Forum, Rome

The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family. They were entrusted with Julius’ will at their temple in the Roman Forum. While some alleged it was forged, the will named Octavius his adopted son and heir.

While Augustus (Octavius, Octavian, Octavianus) would become the first Emperor of Rome (think: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,) he would not have called himself that, instead he would have called himself “First Citizen of Rome,” and his rule, the Principate.

Because of Augustus’ decree, Mary and Joseph, descendants of the often-married King David, returned to Bethlehem, the City of David. It was here that Mary’s firstborn child was born, according to St. Luke’s narrative, and laid in a manger. Indeed, they had not called ahead, and there were many travelers at the time, being the…

Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, historian. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com