Altar of the Firstborn of God, Apparition of Mary, Ara Primogeniti Dei, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar of Heaven, Basilica Sanctae Mariae de Ara Coeli, Blessed Virgin Mary, Caesar Augustus, Christians, Christmas, Church of Saint Maria, Constantine the Great, Jews of Rome, Nativity, Pope Saint Callixtus I, Rome, Saint Bede the Venerable, Tiburtine Sybil, Trastevere
Posted by Dr. Taylor Marshall
The Roman reign of Caesar Augustus was an era of peace, prosperity, and felicity. Augustus took an imperial census during this era of peace, at which time he closed the temple of Janus for the third time, in the fortieth year of his reign. The Prince of Peace would be born into this historical parenthesis of peace. According to Saint Bede the Venerable, “A lover of peace, He would be born in a time of the most profound quiet. And there could be no plainer indication of peace than that a census should be taken of the whole world, whose master Augustus was, having reigned at the time of Christ’s nativity for some twelve years in the greatest peace, war being lulled to sleep throughout all the world.”[i]
Tradition holds that Caesar Augustus learned from the oracle of the Tiburtine Sybil that a Hebrew child would silence all the oracles of the Roman gods. Tradition also records that the Blessed Virgin Mary, holding the Christ Child in her arms, appeared to Caesar Augustus on the Capital Hill. Augustus recognized that this vision corresponded to the oracle concerning the Hebrew child. In response to this apparition of Mary and Jesus, Augustus built an altar in the Capitol in honor of this child with the title Ara Primogeniti Dei, meaning “Altar of the Firstborn of God.” Over three hundred years later, the Christian emperor Constantine the Great built a church at this location of the apparition and altar, which is called Basilica Sanctae Mariae de Ara Coeli, meaning “Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar of Heaven.”[ii]
If one visits the church today, he will observe murals of Caesar Augustus and of the Tiburtine Sibyl painted on either side of the arch above the high altar. These images recall the oracle, which prophesied the advent of the Hebrew “Firstborn of God.” In the fifteenth century, this church became famous for a statue of the Christ Child carved from olive wood taken from the Garden of Gethsemane outside Jerusalem. The church’s connection to the birth of Christ made it a fitting place for devotion to the infancy of the Savior.
Meanwhile in the Jewish district of Rome, on the day of Christ’s nativity, a fountain of oil flowed out from the earth in the tavern of a certain man in what is today called Trastevere—the region south of the Vatican and to the west of the Tiber River. This fountain of oil revealed to the Jews of Rome that the Messiah had at last been born, since Messiah or Christ means “anointed with oil.” To this very day, the Church of Saint Maria in Trastevere marks the location. The Emperor Septimius Severus, who reigned from A.D. 193 to 211, granted the location to the Christians. In A.D. 220, Pope Saint Callixtus I established the site as a church, and his relics still remain under the church’s high altar. The church has been rebuilt several times and can still be visited to this very day. There are just a couple of interesting connections between Christ and Rome.
This post is derived from Dr. Taylor Marshall’s brand new book: The Eternal City: Rome & the Origins of Catholic Christianity. Please continue reading here.
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[i] Quoted by Cornelius a Lapide in his Commentary on Luke at Luke 2:1.
[ii] This tradition is confirmed by Baronius, citing Suidas, Nicephorus, and others, in the materials of his Annals.