The War That No One Can Find
Roman historians have expressed a great deal of uncertainty about events that happened during the period from 6 B.C.E. to C.E. 4. They call it that dark decade. To be sure, there are several records of various events which occurred at this time but they are often contradictory, not complete, or else they are heavily flavored with excessive bias and flattery. Most historians prefer to walk cautiously within the history of this period. However, the research we are providing in this book can bring much enlightenment to this time.
The key to the whole thing is to find the year in which King Herod died. Once it is realized that this happened in early 1 B.C.E. and not 4 B.C.E., an abundance of historical evidence bursts on the scene that can take away much of the ambiguity with which this period bristles. The fact is, scholars have been misplacing major events some three years too early in the history of Rome and Palestine. But once the reconstruction of the chronological events is recognized, the historical records which have come down to us begin to make perfectly good sense. As an example, a major war occurred within this period, but the proof of its existence has eluded historians over the years. They cannot find it because they try to place it three years before it actually occurred. But by dating Herod’s death in 1 B.C. (which is proper to do), it is now possible to find several Roman documents that mention not only that war, but other historical events of the period begin to make sense. What is that war that presently cannot be found?
This is the war that Jewish scholars call The War of Varus. It is the war that took place in Galilee, Judaea and Idumaea just after the death of Herod which started with the massacre of the 3000 Jewish worshippers in the temple at the Passover of 1 B.C.E. Josephus stated that this war against the Jews which was directed by the governor of Syria, Quintilius Varus, took place in Palestine, but it has been a puzzle to historians that there appear to be no contemporary Roman accounts that justify it as occurring. Imagine a period in the remote future when some Iraqi documents might be found of a war in Iraq in which American, British, French and other allied forces fought against Iraq which scholars at that future time misdated to 1988. But try as they may, no records could be found in the United States that such a war took place in that year. If, however, those future historians looked at United States’ records for January and February of 1991 (three years after 1988), they would have an abundance of records that such a war occurred.
This is the very thing that has happened to The War of Varus, which took place in the spring and summer of the year following Herod’s death. Jewish records make it clear that this major war occurred, but there is no Roman testimony (whether it be literature, coins, or inscriptions) that would justify such a war in 4 B.C.E. But let us be clear. There are no records if we place The War of Varus in 4 B.C.E. as most scholars have done. But if the war is correctly dated three years later to 1 B.C.E., we find that there are a number of important Roman references to it. Everything makes sense in a remarkable way.
The War of Varus
This was a significant war. Josephus stated that for Rome to gain the victory, it involved the totality of the regular Roman military forces in the province of Syria (about 20,000 men involving three legions plus auxiliaries and allied troops). This war was located in what Rome considered to be one of the most strategic regions in the Empire. In no way could this war be called a minor skirmish. It was well recognized in Jewish circles (both ancient and modern) that it was one of the most serious military operations to occur in Palestine from the time of Pompey (63 B.C.E.) until the Roman/ Jewish War of A.D. 66/73. 1 Such a war had national as well as international implications. About a tenth of the Empire’s population was Jewish. They were scattered in most of the cities, but there were heavy concentrations of Jews in the east. Not only that, there were probably as many Jews in Parthia (Rome’s arch enemy) as there were in Palestine. Any war involving Jewish revolutionaries which took three Roman legions plus auxiliaries to overcome could not have been a minor military action.
Wars involving the Jews were not looked on by the Romans as mere provincial affairs of little import, especially if those wars were based upon Jewish messianic expectations. This was a problem to Rome. The messianic aspect of The War of Varus was evident. Over 6000 Pharisees not long before the war had predicted to the house of Pheroras, the brother of Herod, that Herod’s kingdom was prophesied to end and “the eunuch” would then have children. 2 This was clearly the messianic age that they were predicting to come with signs and miracles. The Pharisees were the popular leaders of the Jews and the ones most laypeople looked to with confidence. The majority of the Jewish population was then expecting a world ruling messianic king to arise on the historical scene. And indeed, Josephus tells us that after Herod’s death many “kingly upstarts” emerged in Judaea and this reflects the general expectancy of the Jews that the messianic age was then imminent.
Rome would have been well aware of these national aspirations of the Jews. And when the revolt broke out after the 3000 Jews were massacred in the temple during Passover, and since the event had messianic overtones to it, Rome flexed its legionary muscles to quell the uprising. Since the Jews in Parthia would have known what was going on in Judaea, and with Parthia a rival of Rome anyway, this was no time for Rome to be resting on its laurels. With the Jews in revolt, it was an indispensable time for Rome to take action and to get their armed forces to full strength. In such a situation, the security of the eastern provinces if not the Empire itself was at stake.
One of the principal reasons Rome gave Herod the kingship was to make him a bulwark against the Parthians. 3 While Herod was alive he did just that. But now, with Herod dead and his kingdom in rebellion, with the full armed forces of the Romans in Syria fighting to overcome it, and with only the client kings of Cappadocia, Pontus and Commagene protecting the frontiers with Parthia, it was no time for Rome to be discharging professionally trained legionaries from the armed services. But note this. If this War of Varus took place in the summer and autumn of 4 B.C.E. as scholars have felt up to now, a most unlikely state of affairs was then happening in the Roman military. We have the plain statement of Augustus himself that he had been steadily discharging many of his soldiers and giving them handsome bonuses from 7 to 2 B.C.E. 4 Within that six year period, there were no major wars involving Roman troops while this continual discharging of soldiers was going on. And though Augustus tells us that there was a temporary respite from the discharging in 5 B.C.E., from 4 B.C.E. on to and including 2 B.C.E. the demobilization of the Roman army continued unabated. Rome fought no wars from 7 to 2 B.C.E.
No Roman/Jewish War from 7 to 2 B.C.E
Professor Syme describes the discharging of these soldiers at this period as evidence that peace and security was then found throughout the Empire. “The titulature of the ruler [Augustus] registers no fresh imperatorial salutation for many years after he was acclaimed ‘imp.XIV’ in 8 B.C.E.” 5 Salutations such as these were given to the emperors when the Romans had secured victories in war. But none were given to Augustus from 8 B.C.E. up to and including 2 B.C.E. So peaceful was this period that Syme describes the third closing of the temple doors of the god Janus to this time. This was a sign that peace was then secure throughout the Empire. And with the steady demobilization of the legionaries from 7 to 2 B.C.E. (with the exception of 5 B.C.E.), it surely indicates a time of peace and harmony within the Empire.
Now for a difficulty. Scholars today who place Herod’s death in early 4 B.C.E. are also required to place The War of Varus in the summer of 4 B.C.E. right in the middle of this Augustan peace. They have had to do so because of their erroneous selection of the March 13, 4 B.C.E. eclipse of the Moon as that associated with the death of Herod. But this is nonsense and this makes the Roman records three years out of phase with reality. Herod actually died in January, 1 B.C.E. This means that The War of Varus took place in the summer and autumn of that year. Look at what this means and how sensible the historical records now become. Augustus steadily discharged his legionaries from 7 to 2 B.C.E., and there was peace throughout the whole Empire during that period of time. But with the Palestinian war breaking out in the spring of 1 B.C., the demobilization of the legions had to stop. The Romans from then on mustered their armed forces and reserves for war. The same thing happened with the United States when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The United States government quit discharging military men (even lengthening the stay of those scheduled to be discharged) and called up the reserves to fight a significant war in the volatile Middle East. The similarities are most interesting.
Correctly Dating the War of Varus
The War of Varus actually broke out in Palestine in 1 B.C.E. And at that very time, the Roman records show that the Armenians in the northeastern section of the Empire also began to stir up rebellion. While this was happening, the Parthians further east also in 1 B.C.E. maneuvered to take advantage of the deteriorating military situation in Rome’s eastern provinces. Understanding that The War of Varus was in 1 B.C.E. can make these known activities of the Armenians and the Parthians understandable.
There was another prime reason why we can know that The War of Varus was in 1 B.C.E. When significant conflicts took place outside the official boundaries of the Empire such as the war just after Herod’s death, it was customary for the emperor to be awarded an “imperial acclamation” if victory were achieved by Rome. And, as Professor Syme has noted, Roman records show that Augustus did in fact receive such an “acclamation” (his fourteenth) in 8 B.C.E., but not another until C.E. 1. If Varus’ war occurred in 4 B.C.E., as scholars have wanted to believe, why was there not an “acclamation” in 4 or 3 B.C.E.? That victory over the Jews had all the earmarks for gaining such an award for Augustus. But if that war and victory were in 1 B.C.E. (as actually was the case) then an “acclamation XV” in the following year of C.E. 1 becomes perfectly reasonable. Professor Barnes has made it clear that the war which gave Augustus his “acclamation XV” in C.E. 1 to 2 must have occurred sometime between June, 2 B.C.E. and C.E. 1. 6 The dating of The War of Varus to the summer of 1 B.C.E. fits the historical scenario perfectly. Augustus’ acclamation XV was actually given to him for Varus’ victory over the Jewish rebellion.
Indeed, there is far more to it than that. When the proper chronology is recognized, more historical material can be understood about Roman affairs in the eastern provinces. Let us look at the matter closely.
Roman History Can Now Make Sense
We have stated that the lunar eclipse associated with Herod’s death was that of January 10, 1 B.C.E. Two prominent rabbis were martyred on the eve of that eclipse. A few weeks later the Passover occurred on which 3000 Jews met their deaths in the temple precincts in protest over the rabbis’ executions. This led to the outbreak of war in late spring of 1 B.C.E. and Varus entered the conflict in early summer. In the meantime, Archelaus, the successor of Herod, had sailed to Rome to plead his case that Herod’s kingdom should be given to him. When Augustus in Rome heard the case for and against Archelaus in late spring, he had at his side his grandson Gaius Caesar. 7
But soon, knowledge of the new Palestinian war and the seriousness of it reached Rome. This was the time when Gaius Caesar was dispatched hurriedly to Syria “under the stress of necessity.” 8 It looks like he was sent via the lower Danube region. The primary purpose of his mission was to “compose the troubles in Armenia.” 9 what a logical time for the Armenians on the northeastern frontier to start trouble. With Varus and all the legions of Syria then fighting a major war in Palestine, this left a vacuum in Roman military defense in the border areas with Parthia and in Armenia. Gaius Caesar’s assignment was to speed toward Armenia through the Danube region. Why via the Danube?
The Roman historian Tacitus said that the strategic reserves of the Roman armed forces were located in Dalmatia. 10 Two extra legions were stationed in that area specifically for deployment purposes in times of national emergency. These were special troops that were trained to speed to areas of need. Another Roman historian, Dio Cassius, said that Gaius had been given the command of the Danube legions in 2 B.C.E. when all was peaceful. 11 And there was general peace from 7 to 2 B.C.E. but with the revolt in Judaea starting in the spring of 1 B.C.E., followed soon with the insurrection in Armenia and the stirrings in Parthia, diligent and decisive action was then needed and Gaius journeyed east to put down these belligerent maneuvers.
When Gaius Caesar was given charge of the Danube legions in 2 B.C.E., the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus said he then made a leisurely journey through some of the provinces under his command, but now in mid summer of 1 B.C.E. he was “dispatched to Syria” 12 and “under the stress of necessity.” 13 Since the Danube legions were his direct responsibility, he no doubt mustered some of the reserve forces located in that region and promptly hastened them toward Syria. It is interesting that when Varus went to war against the Jews, there were only three legions in Syria, but in the early years of Tiberius (a few years later) there were four. 14 It is very possible that one of the reserve legions was sent at Gaius’ behest to buttress the three Syrian legions normally stationed in the area. This movement of troops to the eastern frontier at this time is substantiated by Professor Syme, referring to the comments of Velleius Paterculus. 15
A strange thing then happened before Gaius reached Armenia. When he came to the island of Samos in the Aegean, he met the exiled Tiberius (the later emperor). From that encounter he made the decision to go first to Egypt and then to the northern parts of Arabia. What an odd route to take if he were supposed to be heading directly to “compose the troubles in Armenia.” So why did Gaius go to Egypt and why was it necessary to be in northern Arabia in the late summer and early autumn of 1 B.C.E.? The answer comes from a 1st century Roman historian called Pliny. He said that Gaius went into Arabia to achieve military victories. He went to fight a war. He fought the war and obtained great fame for the victories he achieved. 16 Interestingly, Pliny said these military accomplishments of Gaius occurred north of the Gulf of Aqaba. He only “looked at” the Arabian peninsula, he did not enter it. This tells us something about the area of Gaius’ battles.
Gaius’ Battle Was In Palestine
This war that Gaius fought was either to the east of the Aravah (the region between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba) or to the west of it. If east, then he would have been in conflict, most likely, with the Nabataean Arabs. Professor Bowersock, though, discounts this possibility since the Nabataeans were noted for their docility and unbellicose manner of life. 17 This evaluation is true. Even in The War of Varus, the Romans had to dismiss the Nabataeans as unreliable in fighting the Jewish rebels in Idumaea. 18
It is almost certain that Gaius’ victories were accomplished west of the Aravah. This region was the southern part of Herod’s kingdom known as Idumaea. And remarkably, this location is the very region where the last fighting in The War of Varus took place. There were 10,000 Jewish insurgents in the area that had to be pacified. 19 And note this. This last bit of “mopping up” operations, as our new chronological reconstruction shows, occurred in the autumn of 1 B.C.E. This would have been the exact time that Gaius Caesar was in the region securing those victories that brought him fame. So important was this expedition of Gaius that the celebrated King Juba of Mauritania wrote an account of it and dedicated the book to Gaius himself. 20 This war was not a minor affair.
It now looks probable that when Gaius reached Samos in the Aegean, he was told that the conflict in Palestine was about to end. His presence at the conclusion of the war could help stabilize the whole region and give Rome an “imperial” victory with himself as the heir to the Empire commanding the final military actions. So, Gaius instead of going to Armenia went first to Egypt and hurriedly continued on to Idumaea to bring the war in Palestine to an end. He then went to Jerusalem where he failed to allow the customary devotions to be given “to the Jewish God.” 21 From there, he and Varus must have gone to Antioch with two of the legions while one legion was left in Judaea. He would have arrived in the provincial capital of Antioch by late 1 B.C.E. or at the beginning of C.E. 1. He would then have joined forces with the one or two legions he sent to Syria from the Danubian reserves. This would have given him the needed reinforcements he required for his own operations soon to occur against the Armenians. But this does not end the story.
History Now Makes Sense
Two other historical documents which now make sense whereas before they were a puzzle to historians. There is an eyewitness account of The War of Varus which tells about the person who secured the victory. This Jewish writer who lived in Judaea (and wrote a work called The Assumption of Moses) said that the war was conducted by a “king” who had come from the west to gain the triumph. 22 The reference has normally been applied to Quintilius Varus because historians up to now have assumed the war mentioned by this Jewish writer took place in 4 B.C.E. This, of course, was three years before Gaius Caesar arrived on the scene in late 1 B.C.E. But we now know that Gaius was in this very region at the conclusion of The War of Varus. And much truer to the Jewish author’s account, Gaius came directly from the west to end the war and he had all the credentials to be called a “king.” Varus hardly fits the account. The Roman governor was not a “king” and he came from the north, not the west! Even this reference is helpful in showing that The War of Varus ended in 1 B.C.E. and that Gaius (“a king”) was there to help in the “mopping up” operations.
An Ancient Inscription Settles It
The next point is even more significant. In 1960 an inscription was found in Greece that mentioned these activities of Gaius while he was on his mission to the east. It refers to some splendid victories. Though it does not specify exactly what they were, what was written on this inscription has an important bearing on our question under discussion. The inscription states, “Gaius, the son of Augustus, who was fighting the barbarians for the safety of all mankind” (italics mine). So important was the conclusion of this war mentioned on the inscription that it records there were “lavish and varied spectacles, so that what took place then rivaled what had come before.” 23 For festivals of victory to be held as far away as Greece that were so sumptuous (and to be continued annually) that nothing ever excelled them, surely means that some conquest of great importance was being celebrated. It must have been a prominent triumph because it was reckoned that Gaius had been fighting “for the safety of all mankind.”
Even when one allows for inscriptional adulation, it is hardly possible that the inscription is referring to some minor skirmishes. The victory in some major war was being honored. But what war could this have been? Because scholars have misdated The War of Varus in the past to 4 B.C.E., about the only suggestion for any 1 B.C. conflict has been the possibility of Rome fighting against some nomadic Arabs wandering up from the Arabian Peninsula. One wonders how a Roman victory over such intruders could be construed as being “for the safety of all mankind”? But if the inscription is telling us about The War of Varus in 1 B.C.E., the information it records makes perfectly good sense.
The inscription also states that Gaius was victorious over “barbarians.” This term can be interpreted variously, but it would apply most particularly to people who lived outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Added to this, we have the Pisan cenotaph (another inscription) which mentions this same expedition of Gaius and it states that Gaius’ victories were accomplished “beyond the Roman frontiers.” 24 The region of Idumaea in 1 B.C.E. would fit the description precisely. The areas of Galilee, Judaea, Peraea (across the Jordan River) and Idumaea were formerly the lands controlled by Herod. Though Herod was associated politically with the Empire in close alliance, his kingdom was technically outside imperial territory. It only became provincial in C.E. 6/7 when Quirinius assumed governorship of Syria and Palestine. However, in 1 B.C.E. Idumaea was still “beyond the Roman frontiers” as far as the Roman government was concerned.
The War Was In Palestine
Besides this, there were other reasons to call the area of Palestine “barbarian” at that time. Rome would have considered the Jewish rebels as fighting against the philosophical and political concepts within the Hellenistic principles that then dominated Roman thinking. If there were any people at the time who would naturally have been against such Roman philosophical thinking and would have been called “barbarians,” it would have been the Jews of Palestine after the death of Herod. This would especially have been true because they had just fought a major war with Varus and his Roman legions. We have some modern parallels. Recall that during World War 2 the Americans, British and other allies were quite accustomed to call Germans and Japanese “barbarians” (and, of course, the axis powers had uncomplimentary things to say about the allied powers). It is the nature of humans to use such terms in times of war or their immediate aftermath. Thus, it is no problem in believing that the Romans would have referred to the Jews at this time as “barbarians.”
This belief is further strengthened because the inscription found in 1960 stated that Gaius had been fighting “for the safety of all mankind.” The Romans must have considered their victory of great consequence. After all, as stated before, there were Jews who had messianic convictions at that time scattered throughout the Empire as well as Parthia. What if all the Jews decided to fight against Rome? This, of course, was an unlikely proposition but the potential for such a thing was always there. There was also the possibility for fifth column subversion by the Jews as well as their active aggression against the Empire which gave Rome concern. Putting an end to the resistance in Palestine must have given the Romans the feeling of having accomplished a major victory. It could have been stated that Gaius’ final victories in Idumaea were “for the safety of all mankind.”
Such an appraisal is reflective of Roman beliefs at this period. Tacitus, a century later, gave ordinary Roman opinion of the Jews when he said they customarily hated “all mankind.” 25 Even the apostle Paul felt that Jewish social beliefs at the time were “contrary to all men.” 26 Josephus records a plethora of Gentile antipathy against the Jews within this period we are discussing. 27 The emperor Claudius wrote to the people of Alexandria in C.E. 41 saying that the Jews and their opinions were “a general plague infecting the whole world.” 28 We only give these references to show ordinary Roman belief about the Jewish population during the period of our discussion. If there were ever a people “out of step” with the rest of the world at that time, it was the Jews. It is well within reason that those mentioned on the inscription as being like “barbarians” that Gaius subdued “for the safety of all mankind” were the final Jewish insurgents in Idumaea who fought in The War of Varus. 29
Once these historical indications are placed into proper chronological sequence (as I am showing in this book), the history of the eastern provinces becomes sensible. It could even be said that the basic information in the New Testament that Jesus was born before the death of Herod, coupled with the history of Josephus that Herod died not long after an eclipse of the Moon (and the eclipse was that of January 10, 1 B.C.E.) are the very keys that make the Roman historical records understandable.
Truly, Herod died in early 1 B.C.E. and The War of Varus took place in the summer and autumn of 1 B.C.E. with Gaius Caesar in Idumaea for the conclusion of that war. The historical records become perfectly understandable. This means that The War of Varus has been found within the Roman and Greek records after all. It also allows the historical statements of the New Testament concerning the nativity of Jesus to take on a new credibility. Jesus was born in 3 B.C.E. (within the period stated by most early Christian scholars) and we now find this substantiated by the records of Roman history.
1 Josephus, Contra Apion I.34.
2 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.41–45.
3 Josephus, War I.284–285.
4 Res Gestae, 16.
5 Sir Ronald Syme, The Crisis of 2 B.C., 3.
6 T. Barnes, The Journal of Roman Studies (1974). 23.
7 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.229; War II.25.
8 Dio, LV. 10.6.
9 Tacitus, Annals, IV. 1.
10 Ibid., IV.5.
11 Dio Cassius, LV. 10.6.
12 Vellius Paterculus, II. 101.1.
13 Dio Cassius, LV.10.6.>
14 Tacitus, Annals, IV. 1.
15 Sir Ronald Syme, History in Ovid, 68.
16 Pliny, Natural History, XII.55ff.
17 Strabo, XVI,4.23.
18 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.295–298; War II.76–79.
20 Pliny, Natural History, VI.31.
21 Suetonius, Augustus, 93.
22 Assumption of Moses, 6:8.
23 Zetzel, Greek, Roman, Byzantine Studies, XI (1970), 250ff.
24 Bowersock, The Journal of Roman Studies, LXI (1971), 227.
25 Zetzel, Greek, Roman, Byzantine Studies, XI (1970), 250ff.
26 1 Thessalonians 2:15.
27 Josephus, Contra Apion, passim.
28 Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, 369.
29 See note in my second edition of Birth of Christ Recalculated, 85.
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