P. Sulpicius Quirinius

Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (c.45 BCE? - 21 CE): Roman senator, famous as governor of Syria.

Portrait of a Roman, ca. 20 CE

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.note

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.

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 Paphlagonia (central Turkey). Between 5 and 3 he fought against a brigand tribe that was called Homonadensians.

Gaius Caesar
Gaius Caesar

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.

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.

Ostracon from Elephantine, recording a census
Ostracon from Elephantine, recording a census

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.

Tombstone of Q. Aemilius Secundus, who conducted Quirinius' census in Apamea in Syria (CIL 03.6687)
Tombstone of Q. Aemilius Secundus, who conducted Quirinius' census in Apamea in Syria (CIL 3.6687)

It is unclear what happened next. There is no reference to a serious revolt in the catalog of armed interventions by Syrian governors of the Roman historian Tacitus;note 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.

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.

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 28 April 2020.