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Caesar, Christ, and the Restoration of the Golden Age

Volume 1 | June 6, 2022

Joshua Noble, Author

Theme: Religion & Politics

Discipline: Western Antiquity

The idea that we are a shadow of what we once were, that humanity has in some way deteriorated from an earlier superior state, is at least as old as European literature itself. In the Iliad, Homer observes several times that two modern men could not even lift the stones that his ancient heroes tossed around with ease, “weak as men are now” (5.304; cf. 12.449; 20.287).1. A roughly contemporary poet, Hesiod, gave this general notion a paradigmatic literary shape, presenting human history as a step-by-step decline from an original Golden Age, in which people lived a life of peace and harmony, to the present Iron Age, which was dominated by strife and warfare.

Several centuries later, Virgil turned this trope on its head, using the by-then traditional myth of the Golden Age not merely to illustrate a deterioration of human society, but to promise a restoration of ancient virtue and bliss that would spring forth from Rome. Further, Virgil identified the man who would bring about this renewal: the emperor Augustus, who would, so to speak, “make Rome golden again”: “Augustus Caesar, the child of a god . . . will establish the golden ages again in Latium” (Aen. 6.792-793). The idea that the emperor would reinstitute some former, pristine “Golden Age” proved to be a catchy one; many later emperors, such as Nero, were also credited with this feat. Moreover, certain Jewish and Christian authors began to adopt the Golden Age motif to tell their own stories of impending restoration, stories that differed from or even openly countered the imperial one.

In this essay, I will first briefly introduce the Golden Age myth as it appeared from Hesiod down to the time of Virgil. Next, I will show how Virgil altered the myth in several influential ways, making it into a vehicle that would be used for imperial self-promotion. Finally, I will explore how Luke employed elements from this myth for his own depiction of the dawning of a new age, one that did not rely on a Roman political system for its institution.

The Golden Age Myth in Hesiod

While there has been no shortage of speculation about the roots of the Golden Age myth, the earliest recorded version is that of Hesiod.2 Writing around the turn of the seventh century BCE, Hesiod included it along with several other tales in his poem Works and Days. The myth purports to show “how gods and mortals came from the same source” (Op. 108), but the story’s function, both in its own right and as part of the larger poem, is difficult to determine. Hesiod begins his account by describing the first, “golden” race of humans: 

Golden was the race of mortal humans that the immortals who live on Olympus made first. They lived at the time of Cronus, when he was king in heaven. They lived like gods, having a carefree heart, without toil and misery . . . . All good things were theirs: the wheat-giving earth bore fruit spontaneously, in abundance and without envy. Contented and at peace, they lived off their lands with many good things, rich in sheep, and dear to the blessed gods (Op. 109–120).3

The Golden Age is followed by a silver one, already “much worse” (Op. 127) than its predecessor. This age is characterized by acts of “reckless outrage” (Op. 134) and an unwillingness to offer fitting service to the gods. The Bronze Age adds in the horrors of war; this race was “terrible and mighty, and they took interest in the woeful works of Ares and in wanton acts” (Op. 145–146).

After a brief respite as a race of heroes momentarily pauses humanity’s decline, Hesiod completes his description by presenting the last and worst age, the Iron Age, which he identifies with his own time:4 

They will not cease from toil and misery by day nor from being oppressed at night, and the gods will give them grievous cares . . . . Father will not be united to children, nor children to father . . . . They will take justice into their own hands, and there will be no reverence . . . . And shrieking, evil-loving, horrible Envy will accompany all miserable humans (Op. 176–196).

The basic thrust of the myth is thoroughly pessimistic. It presents human history as a progressive deterioration from an initial state in which people lived in harmony with nature, the gods, and each other. The present marks the lowest point of this slide: people must struggle to eke out a living from the earth, and mutual hostility characterizes our relationships on both the divine and human levels. There is no hint here that this decline will or even can be reversed.

While later versions of the myth changed some of the details, adjusting the number of the races and inserting or removing certain features, the overall trajectory remained the same.5 The past greatness of the Golden Age stood as a reminder of the ills of the present, but offered no hope of a remedy for them.

Virgil’s Innovations to the Golden Age Myth

Veering from this centuries-long tradition, Virgil’s first reference to the Golden Age speaks not of the distant past, but of the near future. In the fourth poem of his Eclogues, Virgil states that he is going to speak about matters “somewhat greater” (4.1) than the pastoral concerns of the preceding poems:

Now the last age of the Cumaean song has come; the great series of ages is born anew. Now the Virgin also returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new race descends from the height of heaven. But you, chaste Lucina, show favor to the boy when he is born; because of him the Iron Race will now at last cease and a Golden Race will arise in the whole world (Ecl. 4.4–10).

Virgil is clearly invoking the traditional Golden Age myth here, but for the first time in the myth’s history, he proposes that this fabled utopia will return.6 This return is apparently imminent or already beginning, and in this poem Virgil connects it with the birth of an unidentified boy.7 In a later work, he will explicitly identify who is bringing about this second Golden Age.

Before this identification, however, Virgil gave another innovative and influential description of the Golden Age in his next poem, the Georgics. Referring to the original Golden Age, Virgil presents it as a time when land was not held as private property: “Not even marking or dividing the open field with a boundary was allowed. They used to seek the common good” (Georg. 1.126–127). As with the idea of a return, this appears to be a Virgilian invention: no prior version of the myth had even hinted at the idea of common property as a feature of the Golden Age.

The Golden Age myth reappears once more in Virgil’s last work, the Aeneid. Again, Virgil speaks of the Golden Age as a future reality, and now he attributes its return to a clearly identified individual:

This man, this is the one whom you have so often heard promised to you, Augustus Caesar, the child of a god, who will establish the golden ages again in Latium throughout fields formerly ruled by Saturn, who will extend his empire beyond both the Garamantes and the Indians (Aen. 6.791–795).

Whether or not Virgil had a particular child in mind when he was writing the fourth Eclogue, some twenty years later he now explicitly credits the emperor, Augustus, with bringing about the Golden Age’s return.

Virgil’s three innovations to the Golden Age myth are noteworthy in and of themselves, but they are doubly important because they did not stop with Virgil. Subsequent authors picked up all three of these changes. After Virgil, claims that the Golden Age has or will soon have returned became frequent, and this return was regularly connected to the Roman emperor. Philo reported that when Gaius became emperor in 37 CE, “the life of Cronus recorded by the poets was no longer believed to be a mythical fiction” (Legat. 13). Numerous texts described the accession of Nero as signaling that “the Golden Age is reborn” (Calpurnius Siculus, Ecl. 1.42) and that “the days of Saturn have returned . . . and secure ages have returned to the ancient ways” (Eins. Ecl. 2.22–24).8 This practice continued into the second century CE and beyond. Hadrian issued coins announcing a new saeculum aureum (“Golden Age”), and Commodus had the senate officially proclaim his reign a Golden Age (Dio Cassius, Hist. rom.15.6).9 Martin West counts no fewer than sixteen emperors who were attributed with bringing about a return of the Golden Age.10

Similarly, after Virgil common property became one of the most distinctive features of the Golden Age.11 The Augustan historian Pompeius Trogus wrote about the reign of Saturn as a time when “no one possessed any private property, but all things were common and undivided for everyone” (Ep. 43.1.3). Seneca returned to this idea several times in one of his letters, calling the Golden Age “fortunate times, when the benefits of nature lay open for the community, to be used in common,” when “everything was divided among those of the same mind” (Ep. 90.36, 40). Writing in Greek, Plutarch spoke of the same tradition, referring to the “fabled community of goods of the time of Cronus” (Cim. 10.7).

While claims of a returning Golden Age and descriptions of the first Golden Age as a time of common property were both frequent in the early imperial period, they rarely appeared together. No emperor was going to eliminate private property. The closest that anyone got to uniting the two themes was the orator Aelius Aristides. Speaking in Rome in the mid-second century CE, he stated that Hesiod himself would have recognized the return of the Golden Age in Rome’s achievements (Or. 26.106), and he specifically asserted that Rome had fulfilled the ancient dream of an “earth . . . common to all”:

You have done this in fact, measuring out all the inhabited world, joining riverbanks with all sorts of bridges, cutting down mountains to be fit for horse-travel, filling up desolate places with post-stations, and civilizing everything (Or. 26.101).

Aristides was able to claim that Rome had brought back the Golden Age of common property only by reducing it to the idea of widespread accessibility.

Jewish and Christian Uses of the Golden Age Myth: The Sibylline Oracles and the Book of Acts

While the Golden Age myth typically served either to illustrate human decline or to bolster the Roman emperor, Jewish and Christian authors made a different use of the idea. Several clear examples occur in the Judeo-Christian Sibylline Oracles. In the first two books, the author explicitly invokes the Golden Age at 1.283–284, and then twice uses clearly recognizable Golden Age characteristics to depict the rewards of the righteous:12

Then the great God who dwells in heaven will again become the savior of pious men in every way. Then there will also be abundant peace and unity, and the fruitful earth will again bear more produce, not being divided and no longer enslaved (Sib. Or. 2.27–31).

The earth will be equally shared with all, not divided by walls or fences, and it will then bear more produce spontaneously. Property will be common and wealth undivided. In that place there will not be poor or rich, tyrant or slave; there will no longer be someone great or small, no kings and no leaders. Everyone will be together in common (Sib. Or. 2.319–324).

The basic outline of the post-Virgilian Golden Age myth (utopia, then a “fall”, with the promise of a return to utopia) made it an appealing motif for Jewish and Christian eschatology. The idea of common property does not occur in biblical descriptions of either the first or the last state, but it was likely included in these passages because it had become an integral part of the Golden Age idea. 

The imperial connotations of the myth may have contributed to its appearance in the Sibylline Oracles as well, though not because these texts are trying to praise the Roman emperor. On the contrary, the Sibylline Oracles are often harshly critical of Rome. The first eschatological passage quoted above follows a prediction that God “will scatter the people of seven-hilled Rome” (Sib. Or. 2.17–18). The eighth book, which contains its own Golden Age-inflected description of the resurrection (Sib. Or. 8.205–212), is even more hostile: it refers to the empire as “the famous unlawful kingdom of the Italians” (Sib. Or. 8.9), attacks specific emperors (Sib. Or. 8:50–72), and declares that Rome “will be utterly destroyed and will be burning ash forever” (Sib. Or. 8.103–104).13 The regular use of the Golden Age myth in imperial propaganda may have made its appropriation even more appealing to these anti-imperial authors.

Another appropriation of the Golden Age myth is arguably present in another first or early-second century Christian text: the book of Acts. The regular association of common property with the Golden Age made it possible to allude to this myth through a reference to having all things in common.14 This may well be responsible for the otherwise-unexpected appearance of common property in Acts 2 and 4.15 In two passages describing the lifestyle of the earliest Jerusalem Christians, Luke states that they “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44), and that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but all things were common to them” (Acts 4:32).16 A contemporary reader would likely have thought of the Golden Age myth merely due to the mention of common property, but other aspects of the summaries in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35 also encourage such a reading. These summaries are commonly identified as describing the lifestyle of a “new age,” inaugurated by the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.17 Like the original Golden Age, they describe the community as enjoying divine favor (“day by day the Lord added to their number,” Acts 2:47) and interpersonal harmony (“the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,” Acts 4:32).

Additionally, this incipient Spirit-filled age is presented as not merely a new development but also a restoration of a previously lost state. The gift of the Spirit is initially marked by people “from every nation” (Acts 2:6) miraculously being able to understand the speech of the disciples, reversing the curse of Babel.18 Further, according to Peter, the Spirit also marks the arrival of the “last days” (Acts 2:17). The new community stands at the beginning of the last days, which will culminate with the return of Christ, at the “time of universal restoration” (Acts 3:21). The Jerusalem believers, therefore, with their Golden-Age lifestyle, represent the “beginnings of the restoration.”19

By the time that Luke is writing the book of Acts, multiple emperors have already purportedly brought about the return of the Golden Age. Of course, each successive claim puts the lie to the previous ones. Luke’s allusion to this Roman myth of restoration, strengthened by his description of the early believers’ practice of common property, further challenges its imperial use.20 The restoration that Rome has promised, the renewal of human harmony and divine blessing, has indeed come to pass, but not through Augustus or any of his successors. Instead, it has been brought about by Jesus Christ, born in the backwater town of Bethlehem due to “a decree . . . from Emperor Augustus” (Luke 2:1).

  1. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (London: Viking, 1990); all other translations of ancient texts are mine unless otherwise noted.
  2. Similarly structured accounts are found in the Bahman Yasht, the Mahabharata, and Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Dan 2. For the claim that these, along with Hesiod’s myth, are all derivatives of a single Ur-myth, see Richard Reitzenstein, “Altgriechische Theologie und ihre Quellen,” in Hesiod, ed. Ernst Heitsch, Wege der Forschung 44 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1966), 523–44.
  3. Hesiod, along with most of the Greek tradition, speaks of a “Golden Race” (χρύσεον γένος), while Latin authors tend to describe it as a “Golden Age” (aurea saecula or aurea aetas); for a discussion of this shift in terminology, see H. C. Baldry, “Who Invented the Golden Age?” CQ 2 (1952): 87–90.
  4. The Heroic Race, which stands out from the other four races by both not being identified with a specific metal and representing an improvement over the previous race (Op. 158), was not picked up by subsequent authors in their versions of the Golden Age myth.
  5. Plato gives a two-stage version of the Golden Age myth in the Statesman (269d–274e), and the third-century BCE poet Aratus presents three metallic ages in his Phaenomena (100–136). Aratus deviates from the standard account of the Golden Age itself by including agricultural labor; most other accounts describe it as a time when the earth produced food spontaneously.
  6. “The Virgin” in Virgil’s poem is a reference to the goddess Justice, who deserted humanity to become the constellation “the Maiden” at the end of Aratus’s version of the Golden Age myth. The “reign of Saturn” is the equivalent of the “time of Cronus,” which is where Hesiod located his Golden Age (Op. 111).
  7. The child has been proposed to be that of the poem’s addressee, Pollio (Bodo Gatz, Weltalter, goldene Zeit und sinnverwandte Vorstellungen [Hildesheim: Olms, 1967], 103), Antony (Ian M. le M. Du Quesnay, “Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue,” Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar 1 [1976]: 31), or Octavian (Inez Scott Ryberg, “Vergil’s Golden Age,” TAPA 89 [1958]: 116 n. 15). More commonly, the child is taken as a symbol of the new age rather than any specific historical child (so, e.g., Karl Galinsky, Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996], 92).
  8. Seneca, too, referred to Nero’s accession as inaugurating a new Golden Age (Apoc. 4.1; Clem. 2.1.4). Within a couple of decades, Seneca appeared as a character in the play Octavia, now undercutting the idea of a Neronian Golden Age; see Oliver Schwazer, “The Pseudo-Senecan Seneca on the Good Old Days: The Motif of the Golden Age in the Octavia,” Scripta Classica Israelica 36 (2017): 2–13.
  9. RIC II, p. 356, no. 136.
  10. Martin L. West, ed., Hesiod: Works and Days (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 177.
  11. For other examples, see Germanicus, Arat. 118–119; Ovid, Am. 3.8.41–42; Metam. 1.135–136; Oct. 403; Seneca, Phaed. 528–529; Tibullus, El. 1.3.43–44.
  12. Books 1 and 2 of the Sibylline Oracles form a single text, but one that has been reworked at a later date. The most common view is that the original text was written by a Jewish author in or around the first century CE, and that some portions were revised or added by a second-century Christian author. For discussion of the date and authorship of Sib. Or. 1–2, see Jane L. Lightfoot, The Sibylline Oracles: With Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on the First and Second Books (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 97–105, and Olaf Wassmuth, Sibyllinische Orakel 1–2: Studien und Kommentar, AGJU 76 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 465–512.
  13. Like Sib. Or. 1–2, the eighth book of the Sibylline Oracles also likely was written by multiple authors. Most of lines 1–216 are thought to have been written during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180 CE), perhaps by a Jewish author, while the rest of the work is clearly Christian and likely stems from the third century; see John J. Collins, “Sibylline Oracles,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009), 1:415–417.
  14. Plutarch’s reference to the Golden Age at Cim. 10.6–7, noted above, makes this clear. Plutarch states that Cimon’s decision to make his house and land common “in a way … brought the fabled community of goods of the time of Cronus back to life again.” Plutarch seems to think that the practice of common property on its own would be enough to make one think of the Golden Age myth, and perhaps implies that this would be the first thing that an observer might recall.
  15. For a more extensive argument for this claim, see Joshua Noble, Common Property, the Golden Age, and Empire in Acts 2:42–47 and 4:32–35, LNTS 636 (New York: T&T Clark, 2020), 118–35.
  16. All biblical quotations are taken from the NRSV.
  17. Among many examples, see F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 121; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, AB 31 (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 250; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, SP 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 50.
  18. The parallels between the Babel story and Acts 2 are not only thematic, but lexical as well. For a defense of a Lukan allusion to Gen 11, see Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. Introduction and 1:1–2:47 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 842–44.
  19. C. M. Blumhofer, “Luke’s Alteration of Joel 3.1–5 in Acts 2.17–21,” NTS 62 (2016): 514.
  20. The bibliography on Luke’s perspective on the Roman Empire is massive and covers the entire spectrum of possible opinions. In the past couple of decades, the most common approach has been to see some degree of ambiguity in Luke’s presentation of the Empire. Rather than being purely pro-imperial or anti-imperial, Luke’s position may be more accurately described as “supra-imperial,” which Karl Galinsky describes as the idea that “the emperor and the dispensations of empire go only so far. They are surpassed, in a far more perfect way, by God and the kingdom of heaven” (“In the Shadow (or Not) of the Imperial Cult: A Cooperative Agenda,” in Rome and Religion: A Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue on the Imperial Cult, ed. Jeffrey Brodd and Jonathan L. Reed, WGRWSup 5 [Atlanta: SBL Press, 2011], 222). For a reading of Luke-Acts along these lines, see C. Kavin Rowe, “Luke-Acts and the Imperial Cult: A Way through the Conundrum?” JSNT 27 (2005): 279–300.
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