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P. Sulpicius Quirinius


Gold piece showing a Roman magistrate with two lictors.
Gold piece showing a Roman
magistrate with two lictors (!!)
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (c.45 BCE? - 21 CE): Roman senator, famous as governor of Syria.

In a sense, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius is among the most famous Romans. He is mentioned in the gospel of Luke:

In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This census took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Because Jesus of Nazareth was born at the time of this census, this line from the Christmas story is well-known to many Christians.

But we know a lot more about Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. He was born in the neighborhood of Lanuvium, a Latin town near Rome; his family was rich but did not boast any senators or magistrates. Octavian's rise to power and his founding of the empire -he was from now on called Caesar Augustus- offered these people many opportunities for upward social mobility. Quirinius was one of them. In 15 BCE, Augustus appointed him as governor with the rank of proconsul of a province called Crete and Cyrenaica. Here, he subjected the Nasamones, a native tribe.

Roman careers always followed the same course (cursus honorum). One could not be a proconsul unless one had served as praetor; and this position was unattainable unless one had reached an age of about 30 years and occupied magistracies like the aedileship, the quaestorship and a military tribuneship. Although we know nothing about Quirinius' earlier career, we may assume that he had occupied these functions and knew much about the administration of the Roman empire.

In Cyrenaica, Quirinius successfully fought against the Garamantes, a tribe in the Sahara desert dwelling to the south of Cyrene. As a war hero he returned to Rome and was in 12 elected consul, still the most important office in the empire - after the emperor himself of course. Quirinius' colleague was a man named Gaius Valgius Rufus, otherwise known as a poet. After this success, Augustus appointed Quirinius as governor of Galatia and Pamphylia (central Turkey). Between 5 and 3 he fought against a brigand tribe that was called Homonadensians.

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Bust of Gaius Caesar. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.
Gaius Caesar (British Museum)

Perhaps, he was later appointed as governor of the very rich province of Asia, but this is not entirely certain. Anyhow, Quirinius had shown that his successes in the Sahara were not incidental. He was a capable commander and Augustus trusted him. In the first years of our era, Quirinius was ordered to be rector ('guide') of Gaius Caesar, the grandson of Augustus and his intended successor. The young man was to visit the eastern provinces and learn something about government. He left Rome on 29 January 1 BCE. (Among the officers that escorted the him were the historian Velleius Paterculus, Marcus Lollius, and Seianus, the future praetorian prefect.) Quirinius was probably present when Gaius met the new Parthian king Phraataces on an island in the Euphrates, and must have been one of Gaius' military advisers when he invaded Armenia. Unfortunately, the young man was wounded and died on his return to the west (3 CE). Augustus now selected his stepson Tiberius as successor.

Ostracon, recording a part of a census. Nationalbibliothek, Wien (Austria). Photo Jona Lendering.
Ostracon, recording a census (more...) (Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)

Almost immediately, Quirinius was appointed as governor of Syria, one of the most important provinces of the empire, garrisoned with no less than four legions (III Gallica, VI Ferrata, X Fretensis, XII Fulminata). The area to the south, Judaea, was unquiet. Its leader, Herod Archelaus, had made big mess of his realm, and in 6, Augustus sent him into exile in Gaul.

Judaea now became an autonomous part of the Roman province Syria, ruled by a prefect. Quirinius was ordered to organize the taxation of the new prefecture. Until then, taxes had been paid in kind. However, during the census which Quirinius organized, the inhabitants were required to declare their property in money.  There are no indications that the Roman money taxes were higher than the taxes they replaced, but taxes in money were more onerous than taxes in kind, because a farmer had to borrow in case of a poor harvest. Besides, any Roman coin would bear an image of the goddess Roma or a legend saying that the man represented was the divine emperor: a violation of at least two of the ten commandments.

Not surprisingly, the Jewish peasants were unhappy. The high priest Joazar, however, was able to convince almost everyone to cooperate with the new authorities, since the alternative would be the return of the detested Herod Archelaus. But there remained some resistance. A Pharisee named Zadok and a scribe from Galilee named Judas of Gamala said that this taxation was equivalent to the introduction of slavery, and exhorted the Jews to assert their liberty. Their program was simple: God was Israel's only lord, and it was blasphemous to pay tribute to anyone else - including the Roman emperor. If they revolted, the Jews would find God as their zealous helper.


Tombstone of Q. Aemilius Secundus (Museo archeologico nazionale di Venezia (Italy).  Photo Jona Lendering.
Tombstone of Q. Aemilius Secundus, who conducted Quirinius' census in Apamea in Syria (Museo archeologico nazionale di Venezia)

It is unclear what happened next. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus writes that 'men received their teachings with pleasure, and the plot to strike boldly made serious progress' (Jewish Antiquities, 18.6). That there were disturbances can be deduced from a remark in the Acts of the apostles, where it is implied that Judas' band of followers was defeated and Judas was killed (Acts 5.37). The revolt is absent from the catalog of armed interventions by Syrian governors of the Roman historian Tacitus (Histories 5.9); it was not necessary to send the legions, which means that the rebellion cannot have been widespread.

However this may be, Quirinius' census and the riots that followed were remembered by the Jews. As we have already seen above, the evangelist Luke, writing two generations after the events, could assume that every reader knew Quirinius' governorship. Even later, Flavius Josephus commented that this revolt caused a change in the ancestral constitution. No longer were the peasants listening to those who had always been their leaders.

In 14, Augustus died and Tiberius succeeded him as emperor. Quirinius, now an old man, seems to have retained much influence.

Quirinius, now a very wealthy man, was married to Aemilia Lepida, a granddaughter of the triumvir Lepidus, who had been Rome's pontifex maximus. In 20, she was pregnant and claimed that Quirinius was the father. However, he denied that this was possible, divorced her, and accused her. She was convicted.

One year later, Quirinius died. He was accorded a public funeral. He had no children, neither with Aemilia Lepida, nor with his first wife, Appia Claudia.


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