Many people are familiar with the stories in the New Testament gospels of Luke and Matthew about Jesus’ conception and birth. But what is less well known is how common such stories are when the lives of great men are told. From the initial announcement of an impending conception (to Mary in Luke, to Joseph in Matthew) to the signs and portents signalling the birth of the miraculous child, ancient Greek and Roman writings share a lot with the gospel accounts.
Virgil, writing in the early first century AD, wrote about a promised child, the offspring of the gods, who would bring a golden age of peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire – in other words, the emperor. Augustus Caesar’s birth was foretold by portents, according to the Roman historian Suetonius. Unusual astronomical occurrences were understood as divine omens in Roman culture, so it is no wonder that Jesus’s birth – like Augustus’s – was depicted as important using a miraculous star.
Alexander the Great’s birth also had meteorological omens surrounding it. Plutarch tells us that both Philip and Olympias, Alexander’s parents, were sent dreams from the gods announcing Alexander’s birth. Olympias dreamed that her womb was struck by lightning, while Philip dreamed that he put a seal on his wife’s womb in the image of a lion. Most significant, though, is the report that Philip spied a divine serpent sleeping next to his wife, which he took as a sign that he should avoid sleeping with her himself, since it was clear that she was to conceive from a divine rather than human source.
Just as Matthew records Herod’s attempts to stop the prophesied child by killing all newborn babies, Suetonius tells a similar account of Roman leaders attempting to prevent Augustus’s rise to power by ordering that no male child be reared. In Matthew, Jesus and his family escape the “Massacre of the Infants” by fleeing to Egypt – whereas in Suetonius (like in the Moses story) fathers- and mothers-to-be thwart the murderous plans, in the Roman case, by preventing the decree from being officially registered with the treasury.
Although both Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’s lineage through his non-biological father Joseph, Jesus is depicted as God’s own offspring.
Augustus Caesar was also adopted by his father, Julius Caesar, and likewise considered himself the descendent of a god – Venus Genetrix. Augustus traced his lineage to Venus through his ancestor Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. Romulus, and his twin brother Remus, were conceived by the virgin priestess after the god Mars impregnated her. This priestess, as Virgil reports, was herself descended from Venus through her ancestor Aeneas, Venus’s beloved son.
Alexander the Great’s divine parentage was reinforced he grew up. Just as the adult Jesus was publicly claimed by God as his son in all four gospel accounts, Alexander’s father, Zeus Ammon, confirmed his son’s divine identity. Plutarch tells us that when Alexander approached an Egyptian oracle to ask whether he had avenged his father’s murder, the priest made him rephrase his request, since his father was not a mortal man, and addressed Alexander in oracular speech as “O son of Zeus”.
One of the most common places to find stories of miraculous births is in the life of heroes, often born of a union between a god and a human being. Hercules, perhaps the most famous of the Greek heroes, is the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene, for example. Zeus disguised himself as Alcmene’s husband in order to trick her into bed with him. The divine parentage that Hercules enjoyed enabled him to do many wondrous feats.
Woodcut, the birth of Asclepius by Alessandro Benedetti (circa 1450)
Likewise, Asclepius, son of Apollo, rescued from the womb of Coronis, was gifted with miraculous healing abilities and was later considered divine in his own right.
Since Matthew and Luke don’t agree with each other about what happened when Jesus was born, it’s especially interesting that they both relate something miraculous in their narratives. The idea of Jesus’s own miraculous birth may have supported the Gospel’s claims about Jesus’ miracle working ability, including healings and other wondrous feats.