In Rome, the mausoleum of Caesar Augustus has recently been reopened to the public after many years of neglect. This place of the dead, located north of the old city along the Tiber River, is once again on the tourist map and alive with activity.
Augustus, whose real name was Gaius Octavius (or Octavion), was a man of great ambition. This is evidenced by the fact that he began designing his own mausoleum even before he was named the emperor! It is the largest cylindrical tomb in the world, originally crowned with a large bronze statue of the great leader, and surrounded by pillars and a plaque listing all of his accomplishments.
Octavion’s career began after the betrayal and murder of his famous great-uncle Julius Caesar by Brutus on March 15th (the Ides of March) in 44 BC. At the time, a comet appeared in the sky that was so bright, it could be seen around Rome’s vicinity for an entire week. Most people interpreted this cosmic event as proof that Caesar was a god. Octavian soon proclaimed his adopted father to be divine and later titled himself to be a “son of god” when he became emperor in 27 BC. He would also later change his name to Augustus, a title of ultimate majesty and divinity. The cult of emperor worship became firmly established under his reign, complete with inscriptions like, “Emperor Augustus Caesar, God and Lord.”
In a sense, Augustus did the kinds of things only gods can do. He brought peace to the empire through the Pax Romana. He instilled unity out of the great diversity around the region. He established laws to ward off the chaos of warring hordes and built roads to connect peoples and regions. No wonder the birthday of Augustus was hailed as a euangelion, a proclamation of good news. The emperor was the kyrios after all, the lord of the world, the one who claimed the allegiance and loyalty of subjects throughout the empire. When he would come in person to pay a visit to a colony or province, the word for his royal presence was parousia.
In the Epistles, the Apostle Paul introduced a new kind of gospel message, the euangelion of the Lord Jesus Christ, the kyrios of the whole world. Paul’s mission was to bring the whole world, all nations, under the authority of this universal God and Lord. He announced this euangelion to Rome without fear because this message was the good report of God’s forgiveness and salvation for all subjects who believe, both Jew and Gentile alike.
Ultimately, there is only one Lord of the Universe, and he does not share power. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.
In this gospel message of the death and resurrection of the Son of God on behalf of sinners, the justice and mercy of the one true God is on full display, with the promise that in his parousia on the last day, all things in heaven and on earth will finally be revealed once and for all. Ultimately, there is only one Lord of the Universe, and he does not share power. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.
The last words of Augustus were, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” The last words of Jesus before his ascension were, “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The so-called god and lord Caesar Augustus died in 14 AD, on the 19th day of the eighth month. But the true Son of God and Lord of all, Jesus Christ, rose from the dead in 33 AD, and is now risen and living, ruling and reigning over all things. Augustus may have been the “first citizen” (princeps civitatis), but Jesus is the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn of the dead, the “Living One.”
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col 1:15-20).