You’re probably very familiar with St. Luke’s account of the Birth of Jesus in the Bible. If you’re Catholic, you hear those words read every year at Midnight Mass, and imagine St. Joseph and a heavily pregnant Virgin Mary, arriving in Bethlehem to enroll in a census, and finding no room at the inn. However chances are, you’re unaware that the home of the man whom St. Luke credited with playing a crucial part in the timing and location of that birth still stands.
This week Italian authorities announced that after 18 years of work and over $3 million in investment, restoration of the complex on the Palatine Hill in Rome known as the “Domus Augusti” or “House of Augustus” has been completed. It was the primary residence of Augustus and his family for decades, beginning around 28 B.C., and therefore in a real sense the center of the Western world at the time of his reign. The Domus Augusti will now be open to the public on a very limited, tour-only basis, and said tours will include sections of the villa which were not previously open to visitors.
For Christians in particular, there is something poignant about this residence. Certainly, there are historical problems with the timing of St. Luke’s account of a census in 1st century Judea, and the known history of the region in the Augustan Age. Not being a Biblical scholar, I will not attempt to address those issues here. Nevertheless, one cannot lose sight of the fact that decisions which affected the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ Birth, and therefore Jesus Himself, were made on this spot.
While the furnishings are long gone of course, it is still possible to get a sense of what living in the villa was like. Many of the walls of the home are decorated with bright, colorful frescoes of architectural vistas and swags of flowers. What is particularly striking about the Domus Augusti however, is that it is not particularly grand, and certainly not what one would imagine the home of an emperor to look like. So why would the most powerful man in Rome live in a house that did not reflect his status?
The answer lies in the fact that Augustus was a shrewd politician. He saw what had happened to his great-uncle Julius Caesar, the man who had adopted the young Octavian (as Augustus then was) as his heir before his assassination. He also knew that the way to have the people and the politicians stay in line was to keep them happy, in part by not seeming to live like a despot.
Thus, this residence is not the egomaniacal assemblage of later emperors such as Nero, but rather the well-appointed home of a man of means, albeit not one given to indulging in flights of fancy or frippery. The restrained character of the house was remarked on not only in Augustus’ time, but by later admirers. In his marvelous book “The Twelve Caesars” of around 121 A.D., the Roman historian Suetonius notes that the Domus Augusti was pretty much just as we perceive it today: “a modest dwelling, remarkable neither for size or elegance, having but a short colonnade with columns of local stone, and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements.” It seems a strikingly livable home, rather than an imposingly palatial piece of self-aggrandizement.
Of course, for anyone who loves history, grandeur is beside the point when visiting a structure like this. The thought of the conversations that took place in these rooms, as the Roman Empire spread across the known world, is tantalizing. To be able to wander down corridors where the real-life characters in Robert Graves’ superb novel, “I, Claudius” once met, to plot and plan with or against Augustus, is to hear the echoes of another time grow just that much stronger.
That being said, what truly gives me pause is the fact that this villa in Rome, and a more humble home in Bethlehem, stood at the exact same time. It is not hard to imagine that one evening, as Augustus stayed up late writing at his desk, or wandered through his garden with a case of insomnia, he was thinking upon many things, but no doubt confident of his own importance and legacy. Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to the Emperor, the most important person in human history was being born, 1400 miles away: a man whose importance and legacy would far outshine that of the man who lived in this comfortable Roman house. That connection, for me, is the real wonder of this structure.