Skepticism Concerning the Ascension and Great Commission…

… of Romulus.

Jesus was not the first person in the Greco-Roman world alleged to have been called the Son of God, ascended into heaven, and given instructions to his followers. Indeed, all these claims were made for the founder of Rome, Romulus. The similarities and differences between the two accounts may offer some insights into how early Christians framed the message of Jesus’ ascension in the context of their evangelistic mandate.

According to Livy, a Roman historian whose life overlapped with Christ’s, the day of Romulus’ ascension started out much as any other. He had gathered the army on the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) just outside ancient Rome for a routine inspection: “Suddenly there broke a storm with a giant crash and peals of thunder, and a cloud enveloped him, so thick that he was snatched from the view of the assembled troops. From that moment on, Romulus was on earth no more” (Livy, 1.16.1-2, my trans.).”

After the storm fades to a perfectly fine day, the city is in shock. No one does anything. In one of Livy’s best turns of phrase, he says it was “as if they were struck by the fear of orphanhood” (velut orbitatis metu icta). The senators (or patricians, patres), who were standing closest to him, claimed that he had been “snatched up” (raptum – raptured!) by the storm. In the aftermath, two explanations circulated. One, which Livy says never amounted to anything more than “a thoroughly ignoble rumor” (perobscura fama), was that the patricians themselves had ripped Romulus to pieces under the cover of the storm. (Romulus’ mass appeal and populist policies often put him at odds with the patrician class.)

The explanation that caught on was that Romulus was a God, Quirites, and the son of a God, Mars. He had, for reasons unknown, suddenly ascended to heaven. Livy adds that this story achieved dominance largely by the speech of one patrician, Proculus Iulius (possibly an ancestor of Gaius Iulius Caesar?), who claimed that the ascended Romulus had appeared to him:

“Romulus, Quirites, founder of this city, at dawn this morning suddenly descended from heaven and revealed himself to me. I stood there reverently, overwhelmed with awe, praying that I might be allowed to look upon him. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘Proclaim to the Romans that it is the will of heaven that they should cultivate the art of war, and that they should know and teach their children that no human might can withstand Roman arms.’ When he had said this, he departed on high” (1.16.5-8).

What is perhaps most striking about this narrative is Livy’s unconcealed skepticism. Just before recounting the tradition, Livy asserted nothing in Romulus’ life and deeds was inconsistent with belief in his divinity. But for some reason, though he had lived as a God, Livy cannot believe that he departed like one. He seems to accept the account of Romulus’ disappearance, just not the explanation. When he first mentions the two explanations, he says that the people opted for Romulus’ divinity “because of their admiration of the man and because of the sudden panic.” He also calls Iulius’ speech a “stratagem” (consilio), implying that it was designed to diffuse the suspicion hovering around the patricians. After relaying Iulius’ speech, Livy becomes openly mocking. “How remarkable it is that they placed credence in that man’s report, and that the longing for Romulus felt by the people and the army was assuaged by trusting in his immortality.”

Indeed, to Livy the whole affair smells of a set-up. Romulus the populist disappears and a patrician gets a message from him telling the people what they most want to hear. Then, as Livy goes on to narrate in the next section, the patricians get down to the business of securing their power. Livy has accomplished several things at once with his editorializing. First, he does not contest Romulus’ divinity; Romulus’ life appears as sufficient proof. Second, in keeping with his practice, he avoids invoking direct divine intervention to explain an event. Third, he is able to explain the event in terms consistent with his political philosophy. The reader is left to wonder whether that “thoroughly ignoble rumor” contains a grain of truth. Livy does not actually assert this. There would be too many questions. How could the patricians have gotten the drop on so formidable a warrior as Romulus? Could they really have dismembered him without leaving a trace? What about all that talk of Romulus’ divine life? So skepticism, but no alternative explanation.

Here I’d like to reflect on how the story of Romulus might have affected the early Christians, who had their own story of the Son of God ascending to heaven and giving parting words to his followers. I am not suggesting that the Christians stole from the story of Romulus, nor even that there is any direct literary influence, only that the story of Romulus was a part of the cultural background for both the formulation and reception of the Christian gospel. Apart from the events stressed here, Jesus and Romulus were hardly at all alike.

It seems to me that the Christians would have had to deal with a spectrum of Romans arrayed between two poles: traditionalists who placed great stock in the ancient stories and who would have been perturbed by Livy’s cavalier mockery, and skeptics or philosophers who would have held more de-mythologized views of the divine. Perhaps Christians had an easier time with traditionalists. After all, someone inclined to believe the ascension of Romulus cannot a priori dismiss the claim of Jesus’ ascension, though the resurrection might still be a stumbling-block. Without going so far as to say that the report of Jesus’ ascension would be easy for them to accept, it was perhaps a part of their plausibility structure in a way that it was not for their skeptical counterparts and is not for modern, scientistic skeptics. Perhaps the bigger hurdle for these people would be viewing Jesus—the humble Jew who lived and taught compassion and died forsaken and in shame—as a better candidate for divinity than Romulus Quirites: triumphant general, mighty orator, founder of Rome. But precisely there the difference lay between Jesus and Romulus, Yahweh and Mars. One commands his followers to proclaim good news, the other to subdue the earth by force.

I suspect more of the Gospels, and certainly more of the early Christian apologies, were aimed at the skeptics. Unlike Romulus’ sudden and still not clearly explained disappearance, Jesus repeatedly predicted his death and resurrection. Moreover, Paul was able to give the Resurrection theological sense, so that it was not a magic trick. Whereas Romulus’ ascension was accepted on the testimony of one man who saw an opportunity for political gain, Jesus’ resurrection was testified to by many who courted peril by persisting in their witness. Unlike the Romans, who were quick to let their grief determine their beliefs, the disciples are portrayed as embarrassingly slow to believe. Their own hesitation, the Christians argued, rendered their subsequent testimony that much more credible. Perhaps, and I doubt that this could ever be proved, the disciples knew of Roman skepticism toward Romulus’ ascension and were thereby motivated to include just these kinds of corroborating details that Romulus’ tale lacked. In any case, having read both accounts today, I am more fascinated than ever at what some people are or aren’t willing to believe, and why.