Did the heavens predict a king?

Image depicting the three wise men The story of the Three Kings inspired a popular Christmas carol invoking the "star of wonder, star of night"

The story of the star of Bethlehem was not the first celestial event believed to predict the birth of a great king. Similar astrological predictions are entwined in the lives of leaders of the Roman empire, says Helen Jacobus.

Great leaders have long been associated with celestial bodies. Shortly after the murder of one of the world's most famous kings, Julius Caesar, in 44 BC, a strange astronomical event saw the great man promoted to an even higher plane.

A Roman coin, with the head of Julius Caesar engraved on one side This is a Roman coin from around 43 BC, depicting Julius Caesar. Some Roman coins depict a comet, witnessed at the time of Caesar's death

The Roman writer Suetonius tells us that, at the beginning of the celebratory games held in Julius Caesar's memory by his great nephew and heir Octavian (later the emperor Augustus), a bright comet rose and shone for seven days.

The apparition was believed be the soul of Julius Caesar; it was understood by the people to mean that he had become a god. The phenomenon was known as the Star of Caesar.

The belief that the souls of kings were related to divine celestial bodies became popular lore shortly thereafter.

In 42 BC, Julius Caesar was officially deified, becoming Divus Iulius (the Deified Julius, or the Divine Julius). The Temple of Divus Julius was built the same year in the Forum in Rome, and his statue behind the temple bore the image of the comet on his forehead.

Octavian used the heavenly portent for political ends, calling himself Divi filius (son of the Divine, a reference to Julius Caesar). He minted a coin in about 18 BC with the comet impressed on the reverse, its tail blazing upwards and eight rays radiating out of it.

The legend, Divus Iulius, was stamped across the starry spikes like a brand-name.

For Emperor Augustus, omens in the sky did not so much mirror the earthly realm as give it authority.

Comet C/2001 Q4 Comets are often referred to as "dirty snowballs", because they are made up of ice, dust and gas

The images on Roman coins are key records from the Empire, and Augustus created several that featured the goat-fish, Capricorn, possibly because it was the zodiac sign connected with his conception, or because the moon was in Capricorn when he was born.

An understanding of astrology and "the order of the heavens" was regarded as basic knowledge for any learned man, according to the late first century BC Roman scientific writer, Vitruvius.

Augustus also constructed a monumental sun dial on the Campus Martius in Rome, in 9 BC, which consisted of the names of the twelve signs of the zodiac inlaid in brass on the massive pavement.

The inscription on the base of the obelisk announced that Augustus had added Egypt to the empire. It was dedicated to the deified Caesar and the Sun god, Sol.

Augustus's message was clear: the Roman Empire had the blessing of the cosmos.

It was in this setting that the star of Bethlehem was viewed as the manifestation of the biblical prophecy in which a Messiah was predicted to be born.

Although it was written for Jewish readers - telling them the story of Jesus as their new king - the narrative in the New Testament would have been understood by Greeks and Romans, for whom the spectacle of Caesar's comet was still being recorded by historians.

So the early Christian writers may well have merged well-known elements from history and Judaism with information about ancient astrologers, the wise men from the East, and Greek astrological practice, to create a memorable story.

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