The Ascensions of Christ and Caesar
A picture is worth a thousand words, so today we will rather look at the iconography…
A famous depiction of Christ’s Ascension is the Christus Helios, a late third century Roman ceiling mosaic, which is said to show Jesus as the sun god Helios (Sol or Sol Invictus) riding to heaven in his chariot. Since the historical Jesus was Julius Caesar, we find the iconographical predecessor in the first century BCE, a relief depicting the apotheosis and ascension of Caesar as Divus Iulius (“God Julius”), riding to heaven in his chariot. The main characteristics are exactly the same: god, chariot, wheel, horses with raised forelegs, plants, and the general theme of ascension. Here are the images:
It is striking that the Christ mosaic, which reiterates Caesar’s apotheosis, is found at the heart of St. Peter’s Basilica—underground beneath the central baldachin. It is even more striking that this image of Christ is in fact inside the mausoleum M, the tomb of the Julian dynasty—Julius Caesar’s family. The Dionysian vines on the mosaic might even refer back to the Dionysian character of Divus Iulius: Caesar received his state funeral and resurrection as god on the third day after his death, on the day of the Liberalia, a Roman festival for the god Liber Pater, an early syncretistic variant of Dionysus.
Due to the rays shooting from behind his head, Christ is usually interpreted to be a sun god here. In reality these rays are not the rays of the sun, but go back to the sidus Iulium (“Julian star”), the great comet of 44 BCE. Caesar was officially consecrated in 42 BCE, which was the apotheosis of the Roman imperial cult that also included the ascension of the god. But the comet, which appeared in July 44 BCE during Caesar’s funeral games, was seen by the people as Caesar’s soul in heaven, a popular ascension before the senatorial consecratio one and a half years later (Dio HR 45.7.1; Suet. Jul. 88). On the following coin we see Divus Iulius on the left holding a spear and a Victoria. He is crowned with the Julian star by the Son of God (Divi filius) Octavian (with shield). During this time Octavian crowned all statues of Divus Iulius with replicas of the comet (Serv. Aen. 8.681; Serv. Buc. 9.46 sq.; Sil. Pun. 13.862–64; Dio HR 45.7.1; Suet. Jul. 88), and this was the origin of the rayed iconography in early Christianity.
[Nota bene: That many early Christians used to pray toward the east, and not toward Jerusalem, awaiting Jesus as the “Light from the East”, can be explained by the fact that Caesar in heaven, “the brightest star of the universe” (Val. Max. 6.9.15), appeared in the northern sky and moved from east to set in the west (Ramsey-Licht 1997, 130–32), together with a “torch” that also “ran across the sky from east to west” (Dio HR 17.4; Obs. De prod. 68), and especially by the incident when the statue of Divus Iulius had magically turned to the East under the reign of emperor Vespasian, a symbol of the new rule over Rome originating from the Flavian victory in Palestine (Suet. Vesp. 5.7), eventually succeeded by Christianity more than two centuries later.]
There is yet another very famous depiction of the Ascension, a Reiderian plate created around 400 CE and currently displayed in the Bavarian National Museum in Munich, where Jesus grasps the hand of God in heaven, an incident that is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. However, in reality it originated from a vision of Caesar, whose last dream during the night before his assassination prefigured his later apotheosis and ascension: Caesar flew above the clouds and clasped the hand of Jupiter (Suet. Jul. 81.3).