Quirinius the Governor of Syria
WE come now to the last serious difficulty in Luke's account of the "First Enrollment". He says that it occurred while Quirinius was administering Syria.

The famous administration of Syria by Quirinius lasted from about AD.6 to 9; and during that time occurred the" Great Enrollment" and valuation of property in Palestine. [94] Obviously the incidents described by Luke are irreconcilable with that date.

There was found near Tibur (Tivoli) in AD.1764 a fragment of marble with part of an inscription, which is now preserved in the Lateran Museum of Christian Antiquities, as one of the important monuments bearing on the history of Christianity. The inscription records the career and honors of a Roman official who lived in the reign of Augustus, and survived that emperor. He conquered a nation; he was rewarded with two Supplicationes and the Ornamenta Triumphalia, i.e., he gorgeous dress of a triumphing general, with ivory scepter and chariot, etc.; he governed Asia as proconsul; and he twice governed Syria as legatus of the divine Augustus.

Though the name has perished, yet these indications are sufficient to show with practical certainty (as all the highest authorities are agreed -- Mommsen, Borghesi, de Rossi, Henzen, Dessau, and others), that the officer who achieved this splendid career was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. His government of Syria, AD.6-9, was therefore his second tenure of that office. He had administered Syria at some previous time. Is not this earlier administration the occasion to which Luke refers?

Here again, however, we are confronted with a serious difficulty. The supreme authority on the subject, Mommsen, considers that the most probable date for Quirinius's first government of Syria is about BC.3-1; but the question is involved in serious doubts, which Mommsen fully acknowledges. That time is doubly inconsistent with Luke: Herod was dead before it, and it is inconsistent with the whole argument of the preceding pages that the enrollment should have been postponed so long after the periodic year BC.9.

Again, Luke does not specify exactly what was the Roman office which Quirinius held at the time when this first enrollment was made. The Greek word which he uses hegemoneuontos tes Surias Kureniou occurs elsewhere in his History, indicating the office of procurator (Luke 3:1; so hegemon, Acts 23:24, 26, 33; Acts 24:1, 10 and Acts 26:30) and the noun connected with it is even used (Luke 3:1) to indicate the supreme authority exercised by the reigning Emperor in a province.

Hence the word, as employed by Luke, might be applied to any Roman official holding a leading and authoritative position in the province of Syria. It might quite naturally denote some special mission of a high and authoritative nature; and many excellent authorities have argued that Quirinius was dispatched to Syria on some such mission, and that Luke, in assigning the date, mentions him in preference to the regular governor.

We find, then, that uncertainty reigns both as to the date of Quirinius's first governorship, and as to whether Luke called him governor or intended to indicate that he held a special mission in Syria.

Let us now scrutinize closely the evidence bearing on the career of Quirinius. We shall find that, as in so many other cases, a firm grasp of the clue that Luke offers us will guide us safely through a peculiarly entangled problem, and will illuminate a most obscure page of history. The difficulties of the case are due to the contempt in which Luke's testimony has been held by the historians and one school of theologians, and the timorous and faltering belief of others.

The only certain dates in the life of Quirinius are his consulship in BC.12, his second government of Syria beginning in AD.6, his prosecution of his former wife, Domitia Lepida, in AD.20, and his death and public funeral in AD.21. It is certain that during the eighteen years' interval between his consulship, BC.12, and his second Syrian administration, AD.6, the following important events in his career occurred.

1. He held office in Syria, and carried on war with the Homonadenses, a tribe in the inner mountainous district lying between Phrygia, Cilicia and Lycaonia: he gained in this war successes which were judged so important that two solemn acts of thanksgiving to the gods (supplicationes) in Rome were decreed, and the decorations of a triumphing general were awarded to him. The two supplicationes were probably awarded for victories in two successive years, for a supplicatio was the compliment awarded for a successful campaign, and it is hardly probable that two such compliments would be paid to a general in one year for a single war against one tribe. Moreover, taking into consideration the difficult character of the country where the war occurred, the distance from Syria, the strength of the tribe which had successfully defied the armies of King Amyntas, and the stubborn resistance likely to be offered at point after point and town after town in their large territory, it is quite natural that two campaigns might be required for the whole operations. It is, however, not wholly impossible that two specially brilliant victories may have been gained in one year over the tribe, and that each was thought worthy of a supplicatio.

2. Quirinius governed Asia after his first administration of Syria. This was usually an annual office, and the probability therefore is that in his case also it lasted only one year. The exact date is uncertain. We know with great probability that

Asinius Gallus governed Asia in BC.6-5.

Cn. Lentulus Augur governed Asia in BC.2-1, also BC.1-AD.1 [95]

M. Plautius Silvanus governed Asia in AD.1-2.

Marcius Censorinus governed Asia in AD.2-3.

Further, Quirinius was probably in Armenia in AD.3, as tutor of Gaius Caesar. There are therefore open for Quirinius's tenure of the proconsulship of Asia only the years BC.5-4, or 4-3, or 3-2, or AD.4-5, or 5-6.

Again, as M. Waddington, the supreme authority on the subject, points out, the normal interval between the consulship and the proconsulate of Asia during Augustus's reign was five or six years. The only long interval known in that period is twelve years, viz., in the case of Cn. Lentulus Augur, who was consul BC.14 and proconsul of Asia BC.2. It is therefore not probable that Quirinius's proconsulate was postponed over such a long interval as sixteen years (BC.12 to AD.4). We therefore conclude that he was probably governor of Asia some years between BC.5 and 2, and at latest BC.3-2. Now, his Syrian administration was earlier, and therefore BC.4-3 is the latest that he can have spent in Syria.

Thus already we find ourselves led to a different opinion from Mommsen's theory.

3. When Lollius, the tutor of Augustus's young grandson Gaius Caesar, who was charged with the arrangement of the Armenian difficulties, died in AD.2, Quirinius was selected as his successor, obviously on the ground of his great experience in Eastern service. Thereafter he must have spent AD.3 in Armenia, and probably remained in company with Gaius until the latter, coming back towards Italy wounded and ill, died on the Lycian coast on 21st February, AD.4.

Zumpt, however, argued that Quirinius was sent to Armenia with Gaius Caesar in BC.1; and that afterwards Lollius took his place. We follow Mommsen; but it is obvious how difficult and slippery the whole career of Quirinius is, and how slow we should be to condemn Luke for an error in regard to him.

4. Quirinius married Domitia Lepida at some unknown date. He afterwards divorced her, and accused her of attempting to poison him in A. D.20. Suetonius mentions, as a fact which roused general sympathy for Domitia, that the accusation was brought in the twentieth year after. We ask, "After what?" Common-sense shows Mommsen and others to be right in understanding "the twentieth year after the marriage"; we therefore reject the other interpretation "the twentieth year after the divorce". [96] Mommsen supposes that the marriage was contracted in AD.4, when Quirinius returned from his honorable duties in Armenia, and that Suetonius makes a great exaggeration when he speaks of the twentieth year. But in such an obscure subject it is surely best to follow the few authorities whom we have, unless they are proved to be inconsistent with known facts. Suetonius is a good authority. Can we not justify him to some extent?

Domitia Lepida had been betrothed to Augustus's elder grandson, Lucius Caesar, and on his premature death was married to Quirinius. Now Lucius died on 20th August, AD.2. But the Romans of that period showed the minimum of delicacy in respect of marriages. As soon as the betrothed husband of a wealthy and noble heiress died, the place was open to reward some of Augustus's trusted servants; and no long delay is likely to have occurred in giving her a substitute for Lucius. It is probable that she was married to Quirinius in the autumn of AD.2, and thus the accusation was brought against her in the nineteenth year (according to Roman methods of counting) from her marriage. In round numbers the populace would talk of "the twentieth year," and thus Suetonius's expression is justified; he professes to be reporting the common talk about the trial.

We conclude, then, that Quirinius was in Rome in the autumn of AD.2; and was then honored with this grand marriage and the post of guardian to the future emperor, Gaius Caesar. But such honors as this imply that his career in preceding years had been very distinguished. Thus we become still more firmly convinced that his pro-consulate in Asia was past as well as his government of Syria, and that these positions, with the experience in Oriental affairs acquired in them, marked out Quirinius as the proper person to guide the inexperienced Gaius Caesar, and to set right the muddle which had been produced by the headstrong and ill-regulated conduct of Lollius, the previous guardian of the young prince.

These lines of reasoning make it most probable that the two years during which Quirinius was administering Syria and conquering the Homonadenses cannot have been later than BC.5-3, and may have been earlier.

The same result follows from the consideration that the punishment of the Homonadenses is not likely to have been postponed so late as the years BC.3-2. The presence of a tribe of barbarians, hostile and victorious, on the frontier of the Roman provinces Galatia and Pamphylia, and adjoining the dependent kingdom of Cilicia Tracheia governed by Archelaos, must have been a source of constant danger. We know that about BC.6 the pacification of the mountainous Pisidian districts in the south of the Galatic province was proceeding, and the system of military roads was being constructed; [97] and this operation was probably coincident with or even subsequent to the war against the Homonadenses.

But here we find ourselves face to face with the difficulty which has determined Professor Mommsen to place the first Syrian government of Quirinius in BC.3-1. Quinctilius Varus governed Syria for at least three years, 7-4 BC.: this is rendered quite certain by dated coins of Syrian Antioch struck in his name, [98] and by the statement of Tacitus that he was governing Syria during the disturbances that followed on the death of Herod. [99] Sentius Saturninus certainly governed Syria 9-7 BC., and Josephus says that he was succeeded by Quinctilius Varus. [100] There seems therefore no room for Quirinius's administration of Syria until we come down as late as BC.3; yet we have already seen that other lines of argument prompt us to place his Syrian government earlier than that year.

In this difficulty I see no outlet in any direction, whether favorable or unfavorable to Luke, except in the supposition that the foreign relations of Syria, with the command of its armies, were entrusted for a time to Quirinius, with a view to his conducting the difficult and responsible war against the Homonadenses, while the internal administration of the province was left to Saturninus or to Varus (according to the period when we place the mission of Quirinius). This extraordinary command of Quirinius lasted for at least two years, and had come to an end before the death of Herod in BC.4, for we know on the authority of Tacitus that the disturbances arising in Palestine on that event were put down by Varus; and this trouble, as belonging to the foreign relations of the Province, would on our hypothesis have been dealt with by Quirinius, if he had been still in office.

The question will be put, and must be answered, whether such a temporary division of duties in the Province is in accordance with the Roman Imperial practice. Such a theory is not permissible, unless it is defended by analogous cases and by natural probability. The theory was first suggested to my mind by the analogous case of the African administration, which from the time of Caligula onwards was divided in such a way, that the military power, and with it the foreign policy of the Province, was controlled by a Lieutenant of Augustus, [101] while the internal affairs of the Province were left to the ordinary governor, a Proconsul.

Almost simultaneously with my papers on the subject there appeared a memoir by Monsieur R. S. Bour, [102] in which he quotes some other analogies to justify this view. He points out that Vespasian conducted the war in Palestine, while Mucianus was governor of Syria, from which Palestine was dependent. Tacitus [103] styles Vespasian dux, which is not a strictly official title, but exactly describes his actual duty. He was a Lieutenant of the reigning Emperor Nero, [104] holding precisely the same title and technical rank as Mucianus. We suppose that Quirinius stood in exactly the same relation to Varus as Vespasian in regard to Mucianus. Quirinius was a special Lieutenant of Augustus, who conducted the war against the Homonadenses, while Varus administered the ordinary affairs of Syria. The duties of Quirinius might be described by calling him dux in Latin, and the Greek equivalent is necessarily and correctly hegemon, as Luke has it.

Again, Corbulo commanded the armies of Syria in the war against Parthia and Armenia, while Ummidius Quadratus [105] and Cestius Gallus were governors of Syria. Josephus speaks of Gallus, but never mentions the name of Corbulo. We suppose that Quirinius stood in the same relative position as Corbulo, and Josephus preserves the same silence about both.

The chief difference between the view which M. Bour holds and the theory which we advocate is that he distinguishes this position which Quirinius held in BC.7-6 from the first governorship of Syria, which, like Mommsen, he places after BC.4. This makes the unnecessary complication that Quirinius first commanded the Syrian armies, then after two or three years governed Syria, and then once more governed Syria. But M. Bour does not observe that even on the first occasion Quirinius was legatus Augusti; and it appears quite correct to say that in AD.6-9 he as legatus Divi Alugusti iterum Syria obtinuit, even if he had not been again governor of Syria after BC.7-6.

Moreover, in the inscription recording the career of (probably) Quirinius, there is no possible space to insert a distinct government of Syria between his successes against the Homonadenses and his second governorship. The inscription clearly implies that the Homonadenses were conquered in his first Syrian administration.

It is a matter of secondary importance that M. Bour supposes Saturninus to have ruled Syria while the enrollment of Palestine was going on, and yet acknowledges that this occurred in BC.7 or 6. As we have seen, Varus came to govern Syria in the summer of BC.7. [106]

The conclusion of the whole argument is this.

About BC.8-5, Augustus made a great effort to pacify the dangerous and troublesome mountaineers of Taurus, to prevent the continual plundering Which they practiced on the peaceable provinces to which they were neighbors, Asia, Galatia and Syria-Cilicia, and to avenge the death of the Roman tributary King of Galatia, Amyntas, in BC.25. On the one hand the governor of Galatia, on the other hand the governor of Syria, were both required in this work. Part of the mountaineers' country was nominally part of the Province Galatia, having been formerly in the kingdom of Amyntas (which had been transformed into the Province Galatia). But Galatia did not contain an army; and the administration of Syria-Cilicia had always to intervene, when Roman troops were needed during that period on the eastern Roman frontiers.

In BC.6 the first great step and foundation of the Roman organization was in process of being carried out among the western and northern mountaineers by Cornutus Aquila, governor of Galatia. A military road system was built among them, and a series of garrison-cities (Coloniae) was founded, Olbasa, Comama, Cremna, Parlais and Lystra. These fortresses were connected by the Imperial roads [107] with the governing center of Southern Galatia, the great Colonia Caesarea Antiocheia in Southern Phrygia adjoining Pisidia.

About the same time the military operations from the side of Syria were carried out. Josephus tells so much about Saturninus, as to make it clear that he was not engaged in an arduous and difficult war far away in the Taurus mountains, south from Iconium and Lystra. Either the war was later than his time, or it was conducted by a distinct official. As to the official's name there is no doubt. Strabo [108] tells us that it was Quirinius who conquered the Homonadenses and revenged the death of Amyntas. The period is, on the whole, likely to coincide with the connected operations of Cornutus Aquila on the north-western side.

Accordingly, the probability is that in BC.7, when Varus came to govern Syria, Augustus perceived that the internal affairs of the province would require all the energy of the regular governor, and sent at the same time a special officer with the usual title, Lieutenant of Augustus, to administer the military resources of the province, and specially to conduct the war against the Homonadenses and any other foreign relations that demanded military intervention. Moreover, Varus had no experience in war; and an experienced officer was needed. Thus, Quirinius conducted the war pretty certainly in BC.6, perhaps in 7 and 6, perhaps in 6 and 5.

The first periodic enrollment of Syria was made under Saturninus in BC.8-7. The enrollment of Palestine was delayed by the causes described until the late summer or autumn of BC.6. At that time, Varus was controlling the internal affairs of Syria, while Quirinius was commanding its armies and directing its foreign policy.

Tertullian, finding that the first periodic enrollment in Syria was made under Saturninus, inferred too hastily that the enrollment in Palestine was made under that governor. With full consciousness and intention, he corrects Luke's statement, and declares that Christ was born during the census taken by Sentius Saturninus. Luke, more accurately, says that the enrollment of Palestine was made while Quirinius was acting as leader (hegemon) in Syria.

The question will perhaps be put whether Luke could rightly describe the authority of Quirinius by the words "holding the Hegemonia of Syria". The preceding exposition leaves no doubt on this point. The usage of Luke shows that he regards Hegemonia in the provinces as the attribute both of the Emperor and of the officers to whom the Emperor delegates his power. Now that is quite true in point of fact. The Emperor primarily held the supreme authority in Syria (which was one of the Imperatorial provinces, as distinguished from those which were administered by the Senate through the agency of its officers, entitled Proconsuls). But the Emperor could not himself be present in Syria or in Palestine, hence he delegated to substitutes, or Lieutenants, the exercise of his authority in the various provinces which were under his own direct power. These substitutes, when of senatorial rank, bore the title Legatus Augusti pro praetore, and when of equestrian rank the title Procurator cum jure gladii; but both Legati and Procuratores are called by Luke Hegemones, as exercising the Hegemonia that belongs to the Emperor. Now Quirinius was exercising this delegated Hegemonia over the armies of the Province Syria, and it seems quite in keeping with Luke's brief pregnant style to say that he held the Hegemonia of Syria.

But why did Luke not name Varus, the ordinary governor, in place of dating by the extraordinary officer? If he had had regard to the susceptibilities of modern scholars, and the extreme dearth of knowledge about the period, which was to exist 1800 years after he wrote, he would certainly have named Varus. But he was writing for readers who could as easily find out about Quirinius as about Varus, and he had no regard for us of the nineteenth century. Quirinius ruled for a shorter time than Varus, and he controlled the foreign relations of the province, hence he furnished the best means of dating.

But why did Luke not distinguish clearly between this enrollment and the later enrollment of A. D.7, which was held by Quirinius in Syria and in Palestine? We answer that he does distinguish, accurately and clearly. He tells that this was the first enrollment of the series, but the moderns are determined to misunderstand him. They insist that Luke confused the use of comparative and superlative in Greek, and that we cannot take the full force of the word "first" as "first of many". They go on to put many other stumbling-blocks in the way, but none of these cause any difficulty if we hold fast to the fundamental principle that Luke was a great historian who wrote good Greek of the first century kind.


Quinctilius Varus, governor of Syria. The exact date is shown by the coins of Antioch, which bear the numbers ke, ks', kz' of the Actian era, accompanied by the name of Varus. Now the battle of Actium was fought on 2nd September, 31. When such an event was taken as an era, the years were not (as was formerly assumed by many authorities) made to begin from the anniversary of the event. The years went on as before; but the current year in which the event occurred was reckoned the year 1. Hence, in countries where the Greek year common in the Aegean lands, beginning at the autumn equinox, was employed, the year 1 of the Actian era was BC.32-31 (beginning 24th September, 32).

But that system could not be the one which was employed in reckoning the Actian years at Antioch, for the year 26 in that case would end in the autumn of BC.6. Now, coins of the Actian year 26 mention the twelfth consulship of Augustus, which did not begin till 1st January, BC.5; similarly coins of the year 29 (ending on that system in autumn BC.3) mentioned the thirteenth consulship of Augustus, which did not begin until 1st January, BC.2.

The Actian years in Antioch were therefore reckoned by a system in which the years began before 2nd September. It is probable that the year which was sometimes used in Syria, beginning on 18th April, may have been employed also in Antioch. But whatever the exact day of New Year was, the following table shows the system of Actian years in Antioch: --

Actian year 1 ended in spring (perhaps 17 th April), BC.30

Actian year 25 ended in spring (perhaps 17 th April), BC.6

Actian year 27 ended in spring (perhaps 17 th April), BC.4

Actian year 29 ended in spring (perhaps 17 th April), BC.2

Varus, therefore, came to Syria at such a time that coins marked 25 were struck after his arrival, i.e., he arrived probably soon after midsummer of that year, i.e., July to September, BC.7. He remained in Syria until at least the midsummer of BC.4, some months after the death of Herod.


The theory has also been advanced that Quirinius was one of a number of commissioners, appointed by Augustus to hold the enrollment throughout the Roman world, Quirinius being the commissioner for Syria and Palestine. In this capacity, also, Quirinius would be a delegate exercising the Emperor's authority, Legattts Augusti; and therefore he might rightly be said by Luke hegemoneuein tes Surias This theory is possible; it offends against no principle of Roman procedure or of language. It may be the truth. But, on the whole, it seems to have less in its favor than the one which has been advocated in the text. M. R. S. Bour [109] judges of it exactly as I have done. It was advocated in the summer of 1897 by Signor O. Marucchi in the Italian review Bessarione.


[94] Acts 5:37; Josephus, Ant. Jud., 17., 13; 18., 1, 1.

[95] Lentulus was in office in Asia on 10th May, BC. 1, and therefore, as Mommsen says, governed during the year 2-1 (Res Gestae D. Aug., p. 170). But, as Waddington sees (Fastes d'Asie, p. 101), Lentulus seems to have been still in office on 12th August, and therefore probably ruled Asia also in the year 1 BC. -- 1[AD.

[96] Mr. Furneaux takes the latter sense in his admirable edition of Tacitus, Annals, 3., 23, and so apparently does Nipperdey also; and it must be acknowledged that Suetonius's expression suits that. Sense and the historical facts, however, show it to be impossible.

[97] See my Church in the Roman Empire, p. 32; C. I. L., 3., No. 6974.

[98] See Note 1 at the end of Chapter 11.

[99] Probably about 1st April, BC. 4.

[100] Ant. Jud., 17., 5, 2.

[101] Legatus Augusti pro praetore.

[102] See Note 2 at the end of Chapter 11.

[103] Hist., 1., 10.

[104] Legatus Augusti pro praetore.

[105] He was unfit for the war, Mommsen, Rom. Gesch., 5., 382 f. Corbulo governed Syria for a time after Quadratus; but the burden apparently was too great, and Gallus was appointed.

[106] M. Bour also finds an allusion to the universal enrollment in a phrase of the Monumentum Ancyranum where the restored text was omnium prov[ inciarum censure egi or statum ordinavi]; but he has not remarked that the recovered Greek translation proves the sense and words to have been omnium prov[ inciarum Populi Romani]... fines auxi.

[107] basilikai hodoi, Church in Rom. Emp., p. 32; Lanckoronski, Stadte Pamphyliens, 2., p. 203.

[108] Strabo, p. 569. His account certainly suggests both that the revenge was not delayed so late as Mommsen's view implies, and that a good deal of time was needed to carry out all the operations involved, the foundation of new cities, the transference of population, etc.

[109] L'Inscription de Quirinius et le Recensement de St. Luc, Rome, 1897: a treatise crowned by the Pontificia Accademia di Archeologia. This skillful argument was presented to the Academy in Dec., 1806, and published in the late summer or autumn of 1897. It refers in a concluding note to my papers on the same subject in Expositor, April and June, 1897.

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