The Star of Bethlehem
Chapter 11 

The Two Governorships of Quintilius Varus

Read and Listen Once the eclipse of January 10, 1 B.C.E. is accepted as the one referred to by Josephus, it follows that Herod would have died a few days afterward (say January 28th ). A little over two months later the 3000 Jews were massacred in the temple at Passover and then ensued The War of Varus in the late spring and summer of 1 B.C.E. This means, obviously, that Quintilius Varus was certainly governor of Syria in 1 B.C.E. and Josephus shows that he had taken over the governorship in the latter part of the previous summer (2 B.C.E.) when Antipater the heir to King Herod had returned from Rome to Jerusalem. “At that time there happened to be in Jerusalem Quintilius Varus, who was sent to succeed Saturninus as governor of Syria.” 1

We thus have an interesting question regarding the governors of Syria at this crucial time in history. We find that Quintilius Varus was twice governor of Syria. Coins have been found which show that Varus was supervisor over Syria in the 25th, 26th and 27th years of the Actian Era (6 to 4 B.C.E.). And in the reference quoted above, Josephus states that Sentius Saturninus was governor just before Varus became governor again in 2 B.C.E. and he ruled in that capacity (this second time) from 2 B.C.E. till at least C.E. 1. So, between Varus’ two governorships of Syria, Sentius Saturninus ruled from the middle of 4 B.C.E. to the middle part of 2 B.C.E.

Remarkably, the early Christian apologist Tertullian, who lived in the late 2nd century and was by profession a lawyer and well acquainted with Roman governmental affairs, said that the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was conducted when Sentius Saturninus was governor of Syria. And Tertullian in his work An Answer to the Jews, stated that Jesus was born in a year that we now recognize as 3/2 B.C.E. 2 This fits precisely with our reconstruction of history during this dark decade. It means that Quintilius Varus was governor of Syria from 6 to 4 B.C.E., followed by Sentius Saturninus from 4 to 2 B.C.E., and then followed again by Varus from 2 B.C.E. to at least C.E. 1.

The Two Governorships of Quintilius Varus

If it can be shown historically that Quintilius Varus was in fact twice governor of Syria, it would give a great deal of validity to the chronological reconstruction I present in this book. And truly, that proof can be given.

In the year 1764, an inscription was found near Tibur (Tivoli), about 20 miles east of Rome. It described in Latin the exploits of a Roman military commander who held several important offices during the emperorship of Augustus. Though the complete inscription has not come down to us (all data on its peripheries have worn away), it does afford some interesting details about the man it describes. What remains of the text is reproduced below. The inscription itself is shown with some supplements by Professor Mommsen given in italics. The inscription tells us several things which narrow its applications to only a few men who were military commanders in the time of Augustus. It is not a difficult matter to find out who the man was. Let us see.

rEGEM • QVA • REDACTA • IN • POTestatem    imp. caesaris

AVGVSTI • POPVLIQVE • ROMANI • SENATVs   dis immortalibus

SVPPLICATIONES • BINAS • OB • RES • PROSPere ab eo gestas et

IPSI     •     ORNAMENTA     •     TRIVMPHalia      decreuit

PRO • CONSVL • ASIAM • PROVINCIAM • OPtinuit   legatus pr. pr.

DIVI • AVGVSTI • iTERVM • SYRIAM • ET • PHoenicen optinuit.

For one, the man referred to had been a proconsul of the province of Asia. This province was located in the western part of modern Turkey. It was one of two senatorial provinces in the Roman Empire during the time of Augustus which was governed by men who were normally former consuls. 3

This tells us something about the man of the inscription. He had been a consul. Of the four million or so Roman citizens, fewer than 100 men were consuls during the rule of Augustus. Indeed, Augustus himself mentioned that his principate had witnessed 83 consuls in office. 4 This fact narrows the identification of the man to one of those 83 or so consuls. But even more narrowing can be done. Professor Syme has proved that an award of the ornamento triumphalia which the man of the inscription received was only bestowed on victorious generals after 12 B.C.E. 5 This probably shows that nearly half of the 83 Augustan consuls could be eliminated for consideration because of being politically active only before that year. However, Quintilius Varus was consul in 13 B.C.E., and was an ex-consular official (and able to be proconsul of Asia) for 15 years or so after 12 B.C.E. This fact indicates that Quintilius Varus could be considered as one of the men described on the stone of Tibur.

Secondly, the inscription gives another clue to the man’s identity. It states he had been governor of Syria. Though there are a few periods of time during the emperorship of Augustus when no one knows who was governing Syria, there are names of nine or ten men revealed in history. 6 If one reckons only the governors after 12 B.C.E. (to agree with the time of the ornamento triumphalia), the number would be reduced to six or seven men. Again, Quintilius Varus was one of them.

Thirdly, the word regem is used at the beginning of the inscription. This denotes that a king (living or dead) had been described. This indicates that the government of the king had been conquered or restored. 7 This specification could precisely tally with the career of Quintilius Varus. Soon after the death of King Herod, a general insurrection took place among the Jews in Galilee and Judaea. Varus stepped in with three legions to quell the rebellion and to restore Herod’s kingdom to Rome. Quintilius Varus is a candidate in this point as well.

Fourthly, the inscription specifically says the man was given decorations for securing two victories in that war (supplicationes binas). And that is exactly what Quintilius Varus did in Palestine. Josephus clearly distinguished his victory in Galilee and the one in Judaea. 8 Again, the inscription is appropriate to Quintilius Varus in a precise way.

Fifthly, and most importantly, the stone of Tibur says the man was twice governor of Syria. I have given historical and numismatic data, completely independent of the inscription, to show that Quintilius Varus was twice governor of Syria. Interestingly, the inscription implies that the man’s governorship was in two non-consecutive terms. It could hardly be said he was twice governor when he simply had two terms in succession. Even in this point, Quintilius Varus fits the man of the inscription perfectly.

Sixthly, the mention of the man having two non-consecutive terms of office narrows the men to be considered dramatically. How many people had been twice governor of Syria in the time of Augustus? There are really only two candidates. One is Sulpicius Quirinius (whom we will speak about in the next chapter) and, as we have shown in this book, the other was Quintilius Varus.

To be sure, others have been suggested. L.R. Taylor thought that Titius could be considered. Yet there is not the slightest hint that he was twice governor of Syria and Syme has shown that Titius would have been much too old to receive the ornamento triumphalia given only after 12 B.C.E. 9 Professor Groag thought Plautius Silvanus might be the man of the inscription. One of his main reasons for suggesting this was because the inscription was found in the vicinity of the tomb of the Plautii family. (The truth is, it was discovered east of the Plautii sepulchre and on the slopes of the hill leading up to Tibur, not near the Plautii monument in the plains area near the Lucano bridge.) Besides this, there is no proof that Plautius Silvanus was ever governor of Syria, let alone twice in office. Other scholars have thought that Calpumius Piso may be the man. Still, like Plautius Silvanus, nothing shows he was governor of Syria during the reign of Augustus.

With Sulpicius Quirinius, however, it is a different story. Everyone knows he was governor of Syria in C.E. 6/7, and Luke attributes to him a former tenure (as many feel today) at an earlier time when Jesus was born. These two governorships make Quirinius a definite contender. Yet, there are problems. The inscription mentions a war against a king or kingdom. The war in which the ancient writers have singled out Quirinius for praise was that against the Homonadenses in Asia Minor north of the Taurus mountains. But the fact is, as Sherwin-White points out, the Homonadenses had no king. 10 Some have thought that Quirinius conducted the Homonadensian War when he was first governor of Syria, but to wage war against people living on the northern parts of the Taurus Mountains from the region of Syria makes not the slightest military sense. 11

Another point concerning Quirinius is this: it could be rationally said that he had three “governorships” of Syria, not simply two. His first rule would have been at the nativity of Jesus, as testified by Luke; his second when he became rector to Gaius Caesar from C.E. 1 to 4; his third when he assumed a governorship of Syria in C.E. 6/7. The inscription, however, records “twice” not thrice.

A final point speaks decidedly against Quirinius being the man of the inscription. The ancestral home of Quirinius was at Lanuvium, 12 while the inscription was found about 30 miles north — eastwards at Tibur. There is no historical record to show that Quirinius was ever associated with the city of Tibur. Since Quirinius died without descendants, 13 it is reasonable that a monument to his career could have been raised up in Rome or in Lanuvium (or in any other area where he had been prominent), but there is no reason for a memorial to be in Tibur. Yet, for Quintilius Varus it is different. The ancestral home of Varus, and where he had a magnificent estate, was at the very place where the inscription was found ― it was at Tibur!

Seventhly, this fact that the inscription was found in the area of Tibur is powerful evidence in favor of Quintilius Varus. His family had long lived in the vicinity. Horace, who resided just east of Tibur, referred to Varus’ father (Ode 18) and mentioned his death with familiar terms by calling him Quintilius (Ode 24). See Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, vol.III, p. 1231. Though Varus’ family was wellborn and of patrician rank, it was not elevated in prestige until Quintilius Varus was made consul in 13 B.C.E. From then on, their fortunes began to change. This was especially so when Varus was appointed governor of Syria. Velleius Paterculus said that Varus entered the rich province of Syria as a poor man, but left the province a rich man and the province poor. 14

And rich he was. On a low ridge just across the River Anio from Tibur, Varus built one of the grandest villas of the time. The foundational remains and the remnants of three walls surrounding the interior of the residential villa are still to be seen, and they witness to its former grandeur. The extent of his living quarters was about 200 by 300 yards (or meters) ― a little over 12 acres.

And what a beautiful spot it was! The villa was situated on the ridge so that those looking southeastwards towards Tibur could observe the verdant canyon of the Anio and the several waterfalls plummeting to the valley below. The western area gave a panoramic view of the plains which reached to the Mediterranean and Rome could be seen 20 miles (32 kilometers) in the distance. There was hardly a more favorable site for a villa.

The fact that this location was the home of Quintilius Varus has been recognized by those in Tibur for generations. A tract on the declivity of Monte Peschiavatore bore the name of Quintiliolo as far back as the 10th century, and the little church at this spot is called La Madonna di Quintiliolo, an appellation which may possibly have been derived from the family name of Varus. 15

The agricultural lands supporting such a large residential villa no doubt embraced many surrounding acres. It was normal for the governors of Roman provinces to bring back to their ancestral estates or their other lands great quantities of money. They bought up hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of acres and formed gigantic estates.

“Agrippa rose out of nothing: he came to own the whole of the peninsula of Gallipoli. Statilius possessed a variety of properties in Istria, whole armies of slaves at Rome. ... Loilius left millions to his family — the spoil of the provinces.” 16

And when Quintilius Varus came back from the province of Syria, he had its riches in his possession. This would have allowed him to buy thousands of acres around his residential villa, and this would have made his estate one of the most majestic in the area. (As a sidelight, even after Varus’ death, Tacitus described his son as being very rich. 17 )

All of this surely means that Varus secured much land in the western part of Tibur where his villa was located. This brings us to an important point concerning the inscription. Just where was it discovered?

Sanclemente, writing about 30 years after it was found, said the inscription was discovered “outside the Roman gate” of the western wall of Tibur. He also said it was located “in the hill of Tiburtina” (that is, on the slopes of the hill leading up to the town), and “between the Via Tiburtina [the Roman road to the city] and the Villa Hadriana located southwest of the city.” 18 It is unfortunate that Sanclemente did not give a more precise location, but he gave enough that a reasonable area for marking the discovery is ascertainable. Since it was found outside the Roman gate, this surely means it was not far from the gate. He also said it was on the slopes of the hill and not in the plains area to the west. This also brings it close to the city.

Since it was located between the Roman road and the Villa Hadriana, it was found in a southwesterly direction from the city gate. The circle on the accompanying map gives a reasonable area for the discovery.

Why is this factor important? Simply because it shows that the inscription was found about half a mile south of the doorstep of Quintilius Varus’ residential villa. And since Varus must have had extensive land holdings around his villa, it could be said, with a great deal of confidence, that the inscription was found either on or certainly adjacent to the very estate of Varus. The location of the discovery makes this a powerful witness that the man of the inscription was Quintilius Varus.

A Difficulty

While all the above information seems in favor of the inscription of Tibur (called the lapis tiburtinus) as referring to Quintilius Varus, there is a problem with it. The phrase “divi Augusti” is part of the text. This title, showing that the Senate reckoned Augustus as divine, was only bestowed on him after Augustus’ death in C.E. 14, but Quintilius Varus died in C.E. 9. This was one of the main reasons for Mommsen and Ramsay to conclude that the inscription was Quirinius’ because he died in Rome seven years after the death of Augustus. However, the theory will not stand. L.R. Taylor and Meyer Reinhold both maintained that the phrase “divi Augusti” only means the inscription itself was composed after the death of Augustus ― not that the man himself lived after A.D. 14. 19 And this is true. Indeed, the fact that it was produced after the death of Augustus is a point in favor of it being an inscription to the honor of Quintilius Varus.

Let us now look at some historical information which can indicate that the inscription does refer to Quintilius Varus. To do so, we must recount an important historical event in Varus’ later life.

After Varus’ two tenures in Syria, he was given a command on the frontier of Germany. In the year C.E. 9, he and three legions met with a disastrous defeat in the Teutoburg forest of Germany. The troops were massacred and Varus himself committed suicide. His body was buried with the last remnant of his army but it was later disinterred, his body humiliated, and his head finally sent to Augustus by the Germans.

This was considered a major disaster by Rome, and so it was. Augustus was so upset with the defeat, and with Varus himself, that for the rest of his life (from C.E. 9 to 14) he commemorated the day of defeat with lamentation. He would often dash his head against the wall and proclaim: “Oh, Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions.” 20 Until the death of Augustus, who was so distraught with the defeat of Varus, there would have been little desire for anyone to raise up a monument to him, even at his ancestral home. But something different happened with the accession of Tiberius to the emperorship in August of C.E. 14.

One year after the death of Augustus, the new emperor Tiberius ordered Germanicus to muster nine legions to avenge the defeat. 21 Germanicus and his legions approached the region of the Teutoburg forest. When he and his troops got to the area, they found the whole of the landscape littered with the whitened bones of the dead Romans.

“Touched by this affecting circumstance, Germanicus resolved to pay the last human office to the relics of that unfortunate commander [Quintilius Varus] and his slaughtered soldiers.” 22

They found the place where Varus was killed and buried. They also gathered up the bones of their former comrades, buried them with honor, and then raised up “a monument to the memory of the dead.” 23 Germanicus and all the troops considered themselves as performing the last obsequies to their kindred, and their brother soldiers. Thus, Quintilius Varus and his fallen legions were all given an honorable Roman burial.

What has this, however, to do with the inscription found at Tibur? In every way, a great deal. Sufficient time had passed for Quintilius Varus and his troops to be honored for their defense of the homeland.

There are good reasons for believing this. Quintilius Varus had been close to Tiberius. He was co-consul with him in 13 B.C.E. Not only that, a recent discovery of a fragment of papyrus, which gives a funeral oration of Augustus at the death of Agrippa (in 12 B.C.E.), records that Quintilius Varus and Tiberius were brothers-in-law. 24

Normally, one would think such relationships would make the two men close friends. And besides that, the son of Varus was the son-in-law of Germanicus, who honored Varus in Germany. Varus’ son was also a great-nephew of Tiberius, as Tacitus said he was “nearly related to the emperor.” 25 There would have been every reason for a sepulchre inscription of some kind to be raised up at Tibur for Varus after the death of Augustus. And indeed, we have the express statement by Velleius Paterculus that Varus was given a burial with honor at the tomb of his family. 26

A perfect time for such things would have arrived after Germanicus secured his victories over the Germans (C.E. 16). While Augustus was still alive such an honor for Varus would have been difficult. But after C.E. 16 it would have been a different story. Thus, the phrase “divi Augusti” is no problem in identifying the man of the lapis tiburtinus with Quintilius Varus. In fact, it helps to confirm that it belongs to Varus. [See Appendix One for more historical information which supports this.]

What is the outcome of these historical indications? They help to show,

All the data taken together provide a reasonable picture of what was happening in Palestine and Syria during the period of Jesus’ nativity.

With this information, we can logically show who the governors of Syria were for the period from 7 B.C. to A.D. 1.

Titius............................. Prior to 7 B.C.E.
Q.Varus.......................... 7 or 6 to 4 B.C.E.
S.Saturninus.................... 4 B.C.E. to 2 B.C.E.
Q.Varus (a second time).... 2 B.C.E. to C.E. 1
G.Caesar......................... C.E. 1 to C.E. 4

1 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.89. Quintilius Varus was distantly related to Augustus through marriage of his grandfather to Augustus’ sister. The image of Quintilius Varus can be seen on coins, along with images of Augustus and Gaius (later Emperor Gaius Caesar and otherwise known as Caligula) at named officials/varus.html. A closeup of the coins can be seen at named officials/rpc798.html. One wonders what was the important occasion to warrant the image of all three men on the coin. The coin is not specifically dated on its front or back.

2 Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, ch.8.

3 Vermes and Millar, The New Schurer, 1.255.

4 Res Gestae, V.25.

5 Sir Ronald Syme, The Titulus Tiburtinus, 586.

6 Vermes and Millar. The New Schurer, I.254–260.

7 Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 165.

8 Josephus, War II.68, 72–79.

9 Sir Ronald Syme, The Titulus Tiburtinus, 594.

10 Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 165.

11 Sir Ronald Syme, Klio, XXVII (1934), 133f.

12 Tacitus, Annals, III.48.

13 Ibid., 22.

14 Vellius Paterculus, II. 117.2.

15 Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, II. 1204.

16 Sir Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution, 381.

17 Tacitus, Annals, IV.66.

18 De vulgaris aerae emendatione, Rome (1793), 414.

19 Taylor and Reinhold, Journal of Roman Studies (1936), 161ff.

20 Suetonius, Augustus, 23.

21 Tacitus, Annals, I.62.

22 Ibid., 61.

23 Ibid., 62.

24 Sir Ronald Syme, The Crisis of 2 B.C., 8.

25 Tacitus, Annals, IV.66.

26 Vellius Paterculus, II. 119.5.

Click here to order the print version of: The Star that Astonished the World

Go to ASK Home Page •  Print Page

© 1976-2014 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions