The Gospel of Mark Antony – 2 – Parallel Lives, Parallel Cults
A closer look at the spectre haunting Christianity
In Chapter 1, I broached the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth actually existed, and introduced Francesco Carotta’s very weird hypothesis that the historical model underlying the Lamb of God was one Gaius Julius Caesar. I finished with a quick overview of Caesar’s character and accomplishments, the purpose of which was to establish, first, that Caesar’s memory has been tarnished by his enemies and their fellow-travellers down through the ages; and, second, that his character shares many of the personality traits associated with Jesus – most notably the strong emphasis on mercy, and the over-riding concern with the welfare of the poor.
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On its own that doesn’t come anywhere near close to establishing the plausibility of the Jesus-Caesar connection. For that, we need to look at some of the specific incidents in Caesar’s biography, which is what we’re going to do now. Most of what follows is a distillation of Francesco Carotta’s work, which goes into a great deal more detail than I’m capable of here; in other words, this is a light gloss that leaves a lot out. With that out of the way, here we go.
Caesar claimed descent from Venus1, with his divine ancestry by way of the Roman founder Æneas. Similarly, Jesus was said to be descended from the line of David, and to be the literal son of Yahweh. It may also be notable that the dove was a symbol of Venus, and plays a prominent role in Christian symbolism.
Caesar had an early encounter with the Greek king Nicodemes, as a young man on a diplomatic mission2; Jesus had a fateful encounter with Nicodemus, a member of the ruling Sanhedrin and one of Jesus’ early followers.
Caesar became flamen dialis3, high priest of Jupiter, when he was young, and was later elevated to pontifex maximus4, the highest religious office in Rome; Jesus quite clearly filled the role of a religious teacher, was referred to as rabbi, and was known for being a precocious student who regularly stumped his religious teachers5.
Caesar associated with plebs and commoners; Jesus went among the sinners.
Caesar went north into Gallia; Jesus went north into Galilee.
On his return from Gallia Caesar crossed the Rubicon river; Jesus crossed the river Jordan. Both river crossings were fateful.
After crossing the Rubicon, Caesar laid siege to and took the city of Corfinium, thus initiating the civil war; after crossing the river Jordan, Jesus went to Cafarnaum6, and began his ministry.
Caesar came into conflict with Pompeius Magnus, his former friend and rival for the people’s affections; Jesus came into conflict with his former friend and rival John the Baptist, the preacher who prepared the way.
Just as Pompey’s support served to elevate Caesar to the height of Roman politics, it was John’s baptism of Jesus that jump-started Jesus’ ministry.
After losing a decisive battle to Caesar in the civil war, Pompey fled to Egypt and was beheaded by king Ptolemy’s thugs; John the Baptist met the same end at the order of King Herod. Jesus and Caesar were both deeply grieved by this turn of events.
During the civil war, there was an incident in which, attempting to bring his army across the sea with too few ships, in desperation Caesar secreted himself aboard a small vessel. The wind turned against the ship, and the helmsman despaired; Caesar then revealed himself and told him to cheer up, for the luck of Caesar was with them. There are parallels with the incident in which Jesus walked on the water: Jesus was attempting to send away the people; he sent his disciples across on a small boat, the wind turned against them, and they despaired; Jesus then appeared out of nowhere and told them to calm down7.
Caesar had an infamous love affair with Cleopatra, widely regarded by Romans as a whorish seductress8; Jesus had an affair with the prostitute Mary Magdalene.
Caesar entered Rome in a classical Roman triumph (in fact, four of them, which was unprecedented), with the people lining the streets and cheering him; Jesus entered Jerusalem in similar fashion, with the people heralding his arrival waving palm fronds.
During his triumphs Caesar celebrated with epulae, lavish public feasts, one of which was reported to have set 22,000 tables throughout the city, during which several thousand eels were served, along with generous amphorae filled with wine rather than water; when some ingrate complained that an epula fell short of the generosity of Caesar, he threw another, larger banquet to make his point. Reforming the grain dole by limiting eligibility to the truly poor (and thereby preventing the grain from being appropriated by the black market) was also one of his policy goals. Jesus’ miracles involved feeding his followers with loaves and fish – the feeding of the 5000, and the feeding of the 4000.
Caesar was begged by the Roman people to make himself king, and accused by the senators of wanting to become king, yet repeatedly refused the honour, going so far as to rebuke Mark Antony when Antony offered him the laurel wreath of kingship during a festival; Jesus was begged by the people to make himself king, and accused by the scribes of wanting to make himself king, yet he repeatedly refused to do so, insisting that he had not come to be the king of Judea, and rebuked his apostles when they pressed him on it.
Caesar was betrayed by one of his closest friends, Marcus Junius Brutus; Jesus was betrayed by one of his apostles, Judas. Note how similar the names Junius and Judas are. Both betrayals involved conspiracies of the ruling council, of senators on the one hand, and of the Sanhedrin on the other; both conspiracies were driven by envy of the people’s love for, and concern over losing their power and prestige to, an upstart.
The killing blow on the Senate floor was delivered by the senator Gaius Cassius Longinus; while extra-biblical, Christian tradition has it that Jesus was put out of his misery by the centurion Longinus, who stabbed him in the side with a lance, thus giving birth to the legend of the Spear of Destiny9.
Ah-hah! You say. But Caesar was killed by getting stabbed a dozen times by a mob of angry senators, whereas Jesus was crucified. Where’s the correspondence there? And indeed, yes, Caesar died leaking all over the Senate floor. His funeral, however, was rather interesting. Mark Antony had a wax effigy of Caesar created, in the pose in which Caesar had been found dead, wounds and all, which for the purposes of display was affixed to a cross together with his bloody robes. The effigy was raised in front of the crowd so that the plebs could see for themselves what had been done to their champion. Antony was a showman that way. From Appian (amusingly, at the link, it says the translation was done by none other than John Carter):
When the crowd were in this state, and near to violence, someone raised above the bier a wax effigy of Caesar - the body itself, lying on its back on the bier, not being visible. The effigy was turned in every direction, by a mechanical device, and twenty-three wounds could be seen, savagely inflicted on every part of the body and on the face. This sight seemed so pitiful to the people that they could bear it no longer. Howling and lamenting, they surrounded the senate-house, where Caesar had been killed, and burnt it down, and hurried about hunting for the murderers, who had slipped away some time previously.
The mechanical device in question was a tropaeum, a cruciform device on which things were hung for display. Caesar was known for showing off his various war trophies on tropaea, and often placed the device on his coinage, to the degree that tropaea became symbolically associated with him.
Caesar’s funeral turned into a riot. The people were enraged, and they just lost it. They ended up piling up a gigantic pyre in the middle of the Forum from every available piece of wood they could find, and sent Caesar up to the gods in a vast conflagration. Throughout the night people gathered to weep and throw valuables onto the pyre, sacrificing jewellery, gold, and fine clothing. That was something of a departure from decorum; bodies weren’t supposed to be cremated inside the city limits (nor bodies buried there), since the boundaries of the city demarcated an internal, sacred space (as was the case with all ancient cities). Obviously, the people weren’t too bothered about sacrilege in this case. In addition to grieving like they’d never grieved before, they were too busy also burning the Senate, and murdering those accused of having taken part in the assassination, to be too terribly concerned with propriety.
It’s notable that a Jewish delegation is specifically reported to have kept a vigil by the pyre throughout the night; Caesar had apparently treated them well, and they were especially aggrieved by his murder. This establishes that Caesar wasn’t only a hero to the citizens of Rome; more importantly, it shows that Caesar was highly thought of in the Jewish community.
Now, I’ve read a fair bit of history. Political leaders getting assassinated is pretty common. So are large state funerals. This is probably the only example I’m aware of in which an entire city was driven so desperately mad with grief at the murder of their leader that they rioted, burned the city to the ground, and tore anyone they thought had anything to do with it limb from limb. Just in case you were wondering just how loved Caesar was.
In the aftermath of the funeral, the people were already beginning to treat Caesar as a god – Divus Julius. That in itself was more or less standard practice in antiquity: there was a long-standing custom of deifying heroes, who would have shrines built to them, feasts celebrated in their honour, and sacrifices made to their memory. The custom was so similar to the beatification of saints that it’s almost certain the Catholic practice is an adaptation of the heroic tradition. In a sense, it was almost the basis of European paganism. As the classical historian and philologist Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges showed in his careful reconstruction of the religion of antiquity The Ancient City, paganism wasn’t so much organized around the worship of Jupiter and the rest of the Olympian pantheon, as it was based upon household worship of ancestral spirits or lares – the household gods. In other words, it was a basic assumption that when one died, one became a god ... it was just a question of how great of a god one would become.
Now, you may recall that Caesar’s death was on the Ides of March – the 15th of the month. His funeral was held on the 17th, which in Rome was the festival of the Liberalia, held in honour of the Bacchus analogue Liber Pater, who was associated with vegetation, fertility, and wine. The Liberalia was a celebration of nature’s annual resurrection, and symbolic association of this festival with Caesar’s funeral establishes a connection with rebirth. It’s also of note that women would hand out special cakes, and wine would be consumed; there’s a similarity with the Eucharist's bread and wine there, and it’s also been suggested that there’s a connection between the Roman Liberalia cakes and such Easter confections as hot cross buns.
Notably, Easter falls between late March and late April, depending on when the first full Moon after the vernal equinox occurs. The temporal coincidence of dates between Easter and the Liberalia is suggestive. It seems to go further, however. In his 1957 book Christ and the Caesar’s, the German theologian Eugene Stauffer noted that
The Roman people glorified the dead Caesar in a unique passion-liturgy, which echoes the ancient eastern laments for the death of the great gods of blessing, and many of whose motifs show an astonishing connexion with the Good Friday liturgy of the Roman mass.
Carotta’s book goes to some trouble reconstructing the liturgy of the Caesarian passion, and demonstrating the many parallels with the Christian Easter celebration, the elements of which he notes do not seem to be reflected in the Gospels.
Four months after Caesar’s death, during the month that bears his name, festival games were held to commemorate his memory. During the festival an extraordinarily bright comet, the Sidum Iulium or Caesaris astrum, appeared. This was visible to the naked eye for a full week, which is just remarkable. It was visible during the daytime, which is pretty rare; it’s one of only 5 comets known to have been brighter than any star in the sky. Indeed it may have been the brightest comet in recorded history.
Caesar’s comet sealed the deal. The people saw it, not just in Rome but across the Roman empire, because how could you not, and given the timing they concluded that they were watching Caesar’s spirit rise to the heavens as he took his place in the Pantheon. He fell, he died, and he rose again.
The Sidum Iulium became a symbol of Caesar, appearing on coinage for some time thereafter as succeeding emperors sought to associate their name with his10. Initially, it was depicted as a seven-pointed starburst, with an eighth spoke with a fuzzy head indicating the body of the comet. Over time, this became more stylized, evolving into a symmetrical six-pointed star-burst with the head of the comet at the top. This was remarkably similar to the Christian Chi Rho, which comes from the first two letters of the Greek Christos, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ.
An astronomical phenomenon is also associated with the Jesus narrative, albeit admittedly the Star of Bethlehem appears during Jesus’ birth, not his death. It’s been suggested that that Star of Bethlehem might have been the planet Venus, a supernova, a comet, or even an alignment of the planets. It’s pretty unlikely that astronomically sophisticated magi would have found anything about Venus remarkable, so that can be ruled out. An alignment of Jupiter and Saturn happened around the time of Jesus’ supposed birth, but to me this just doesn’t seem remarkable enough11. There’s no historical evidence for a supernova (or ‘guest star’ as the Chinese called it) appearing around 1 Anno Domine; nor have modern astronomers found any supernova remnants that match the time frame. So there goes that. As for comets, the closest that anyone’s come is a ‘broom star’ in Chinese records that appeared in 5 A.D., which doesn’t quite match. As with everything else about the Jesus story, the Star of Bethlehem doesn’t seem to correspond to anything we can identify in reality, at least if we take the myth at face value.
In the years that followed, the cult of Divus Julius sprang up quite organically across the Roman empire. The veterans of Caesar’s legions carried the cult everywhere, and it seems to have found an enthusiastic reception given Caesar’s fame, the love which the people had for him, and the memorable events surrounding his death. This cult was not popular with the Roman elite, who initially tried to forcefully suppress it, but gave up after Octavian and Antony, the leaders of the Caeasarian faction, applied political pressure. The cult became the basis of the Roman imperial cult, which gradually extended its pantheon by elevating Augustus Caesar to divine status after his death, apotheosizing later emperors, and eventually morphed into worship of the current, living Emperor as a living god.
So we have two figures who match up pretty damn closely in terms of biographical details and character traits. One of them we know for certain existed; the other’s existence is more debatable. Further, the definite historical figure was acknowledged as a beloved saviour and worshipped as a literal god across the entirety of the known world, in a political context in which his cult became intimately intertwined with all aspects of state and public life. He left a mark so deep in history that his name means ‘ruler’ and we mark freaking time according to his scheme. His death was accompanied by a violent emotional release such as the world had never seen for the death of one man. The other, by contrast – if we assume the various miracles were mere fabulism and not actual instances of physics breaking down – was at best a wandering street preacher in a colonial backwater that, it should be emphasized, was inhabited by a people that were roundly despised by everyone in the rest of the empire ... in other words, not a group of people from whom everyone is likely to adopt a religion.
Furthermore, around the 3rd or 4th century or so, you have the relatively abrupt disappearance of the imperial cult, accompanied by the equally abrupt rise to dominance of the Christian church which ... was simply adopted by the empire as, in effect, the new imperial cult.
A Church whose twin seats are in Rome and Byzantium ... which also, coincidentally enough, were the political centres of the Western and Eastern Roman empires. Notably, there is no seat in Jerusalem.
A Church whose sacred writings are all in Latin and Greek ... not, say, Aramaic. Despite Aramaic having been the nominal mother tongue of the founding figure and most of his disciples and followers.
A Church which still calls its head the Pontifex Maximus, the same title used by the Romans ... and the same office inhabited by one Gaius Julius Caesar.
All of this looks just a little bit too convenient to me. It fits just a little bit too snugly to be one big remarkable coincidence.
That, then, raises the question: how did this happen? How did a religion based on a mythical figure come to entirely displace a widespread religion based on someone everyone knew had actually existed?
This is where I part ways with Francesco Carotta.
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That was actually pretty common back then. Almost everyone who mattered was descended from Zeus or Hercules or Perseus or whoever. I don’t even think they were generally lying; it’s likely they believed it, the same way so many Americans really thought they had that great-great-Cherokee-grandmother who then mysteriously failed to leave any trace in their 23andMe.
There were rumours that Caesar let himself be seduced and defiled by Nicodemes, rumours which followed him around for his entire career, and which he vociferously denied. Given that Caesar was a notorious womanizer I doubt the truth of that story, but more importantly, I’ve always felt that the very fact that Caesar’s political enemies considered this to be ammunition against him to be compelling evidence that the ancient world was not so open-minded towards homoeroticism as contemporary activists would have everyone believe.
He who brings offerings
Yeah that’s a bit thin in terms of comparison, but I bet you didn’t know Caesar was a high priest, and I wanted to work that in somewhere.
In English this village is spelled Capernaum, but Carotta renders Capernaum as ‘Cafarnaum’, which much more strongly resembles Corfinium. I think this might be a language issue: Capernaum is the English spelling, but it seems that in Italian (Carotta’s original language) and Spanish it’s rendered Cafarnaum. The original pronunciation seems to have been something like ‘Kfar Nahum’, so I’m not sure why the English is ‘Caper’ instead of ‘Cafer’, as the latter sounds closer to ‘Kfar’.
Carotta also points out that most of the Gospels refer to a sea in this passage, whereas geography indicates that it must have been a lake.
Her later seduction of Mark Antony did little to change this perception.
Longinus, by the way, was apparently not a terribly common Roman name.
2That association was so deep that Caesar’s name became synonymous with Emperor. It survives today in kaiser and czar. Kaiser, by the way, is closer to the correct pronunciation of his name.
There was a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction on Dec 21st, 2020; do you remember this as particularly notable?