Blog Watch: A Talking Dead



The Roman emperor Antoninus Pius died in 161 CE. Although he was deified as Divus Antoninus, he has apparently chosen to leave the septentriones and repossess his bones. He now walks among the living again and maintains a blog, where he has just recently posted a short review of Francesco Carotta’s book Jesus was Caesar: “Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar: same initials, same man?” (archived). It is commendable that this Antoninus redivivus mentions another ancient man and god, Divus Iulius, and Carotta’s theory on what eventually became of that god, but upon closer examination we can notice lots of errors, patterns of bias, and it is particularly annoying that the sources are not always quoted correctly. So how about a couple of rebuttals and corrections? That shouldn’t be too hard, so we’ll get right down to business, even if we are aware that it is near impossible to convince biased people. Here are some examples. (To avoid confusion we will refer to this Antoninus simply as A.P. hereafter.)

We are already off to a good start with the title chosen by A.P.: “Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar: same initials, same man?” is misleading, because nowhere has Carotta made a case for the same-initials-argument JC=JC. This is in fact an old argument: Christ’s and Caesar’s corresponding initials were widely debated in Mediaeval and Renaissance times (Ronan 2005, 71), and still noted in the 19th century, for example by Victor Hugo (Le Rhin 4), including (by the way) a short reference to the similar concepts of the respective traitors Judas and Brutus (idem, op. cit.; cf. Gundolf 1926, 22 sq.).

However, so trivial and contrived are these alleged similarities that it is no wonder that no serious reviews have ever appeared, and no recognized authority, whether theologian, historian or philosopher, has yet engaged with Carotta.

This is clearly wrong. Readers will be of a different impression when going through the professional reception and notable reactions with regard to Francesco Carotta’s theory. At least on the continent—not exclusively, though, because there are also others like Sir Peter Stothard, who have written in favor of Carotta—there are some well-known and “recognized” authorities (let alone clerics) who support it, have spoken positively about it, or have engaged with Carotta academically, like Erika Simon, Fotis Kavoukopoulos, Luciano Canfora, Gerard Janssen, Paul Cliteur, Andreas Kinneging, Thomas von der Dunk, Riemer Roukema, Francisco Rodriguez Pascual, et al., and even those who are not following Carotta’s conclusion itself, often acknowledge his observations or the merit and justification of his work as a scientific theory, like Maria Wyke, Annette Merz, Antonio Piñero, et al.

Carotta’s entire theory springs from one unfortunate misconception: the claim that Julius Caesar was known as chrêstos (“worthy”), a word that could have been misconstrued (he argues) as Christos, “Christ”. […] he does not (cannot?) cite any source that actually calls Julius Caesar “chrêstos” (if Carotta knows of any, why does he not cite them?), […]

Carotta cites a source, an important one at that, namely the words of Pompey, who called Caesar chrêstós after the battle of Pharsalus (Plut. Pomp. 75.2). This raises the question: if Carotta cites a source, but A.P. nonetheless maintains that he does not cite any, is A.P. too senile to notice it—after all, he is almost 2000 years old… then we would be inclined to forgive him—, or too biased, or both?

[…] only a single inscription is known to name him as archiereus megistos […] [N.B.: emphasis in the original].

Here A.P. is pretending that a “single source” would be the same as “no source”. We are disappointed: why doesn’t he give the same argument as in the case of chrêstós and states that there are no sources even in this case? He would seem more credible to his peasant readers!

Undeterred, — indeed, oblivious to his blunder — Carotta continues with supplementary claims […].

Until now we have noticed blunder only by A.P., not by Carotta. And the rest is also true for A.P.: he is undeterred, and not only oblivious, but also unaware of his own blunder.

His conclusion, that Caesar’s statues “not only looked like a pietà, but the inscription on the base also evoked the Christ”, is patently ridiculous: none of the statues survive, so it is only Carotta’s opinion that they would have resembled a Renaissance pietà (don’t you require a Virgin Mary to make a pietà, in any case?), and none of the inscriptions (some two dozen are known, I believe) “evoke the Christ”.

That “none of the statues survive” is not true, at least if the Caesar Torlonia is a copy of the head of the statue of Caesar that Antony erected on the rostra, as the eminent archeologist Erika Simon suggested. It was to awaken feelings of both pity and revenge in the observer, as the frightened reaction of Cicero proves. Pietà is an Italian word, which means exactly pietà (“pity”, “mercy”, “compassion” etc.). A virgin Mary is not required to have a pietà in the original sense of the word. That is why Carotta’s conclusion—”If true, we would thus be standing before the Pietà of Caesar”—is only logical.

[N.B.: It seems to be a notorious illness of English native speakers, who seldom know foreign languages, to believe that the words they use had originally and always the same meaning they ascribe to them today: they are not aware that very often they deform the words, or accept only one of their meanings, which is usually the only one they know.]

It’s probably worth just giving a flavor of Carotta’s standard of scholarship here: (1) he claims that Pompey’s head was presented to Caesar in a bowl (as far as I can see, no ancient source specifies a bowl), “exactly what the Gospels tell us happened to John the Baptist” […].

Interesting. So no ancient Caesar source specifies a bowl. Conversely, though, the meaning of epì pínaki in Mk 6:28 is not clear. A charger maybe? A dish? A bowl? Or something else maybe? So if Mark is unclear, then we must ignore the parallel, so it seems. Nonetheless, there are all the other parallels, for example that both Pompey and John were decapitated, with their heads being presented, the one to Caesar the other to the “damsel”. Does the fact that the parallel concerning epì pínaki (allegedly!) does not work, mean that the rest has to be neglected, too? Are then the textual similarities between the literal expressions—ΤΩΙ ΚΑΙϹΑΡΙ vs. ΤΩΙ ΚΟΡΑϹΙΩΙ—purely imaginary or accidental?

But let’s look at Mark’s epì pínaki. It is striking that Mark does not say either that the head was presented on a πιναξ. First he says καὶ ἤνεγκεν τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ πίνακι, and later καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτὴν τῷ κορασίῳ. What is the primary meaning of πιναξ? Right, a “board” or “plank of a ship”. Can someone please tell us what this nautical context is supposed to mean in this pericope? John the Baptist surely wasn’t sailing when he was decapitated, right? Right. But with Caesar we can easily explain it, because Pompey was killed and beheaded when he was about to disembark from his boat at the coast of Egypt. His head was put on the “plank of a ship”, a trastrum (Luc. BC 8.671), of which πιναξ in its primary meaning is a good equivalent. Later his head was presented to Caesar, in whatever way—on the same plank or not. So if we are dealing with a diegetic transposition, it is clear that the sentence in the Gospel means that at first (Mk 6:27) they beheaded him, and (καὶ) [then] put his head on the plank, and (καὶ) [then; later] presented it, in whatever way. So we are dealing not with one event, but with a tight chronological condensate of the events in the original story of Pompey’s gruesome death—as so often in Mark, whose Gospel often reads like a series of abridgments. Easy as 1 2 3.

[…] he tries to equate Caesar’s Lepidus with Pontius Pilate by “syllabic metathesis” so that the name Lepidus mysteriously becomes Pilatus […].

When asked for an assessment, Greek linguist and PhD Fotis Kavoukopoulos, who graduated at the Sorbonne, considered this syllabic metathesis from LePiDus to PiLaTus plausible (cf. the documentary feature The Gospel of Caesar).

[…] he claims that both Barabbas and Judas are equivalent to the traitor Decimus Iunius Brutus (“et tu, Brute“), without realising that he has the wrong Brutus […].

This is clearly false: of course Carotta distinguishes between both Bruti, relating Barabbas to Marcus Iunius Brutus, and Judas to Decimus Iunius Brutus. Again we have to ask: is A.P. too senile to notice it, too biased, or both?

[…] he claims that Jerusalem is code for Rome, because “the other variant of the name (H)ierosolyma, even contains the letters of Roma in sequence: (H)ieROsolyMA“! [N.B.: emphasis in the original]

This is clearly a smear, because this was not the only possible reason, how Rome was transposed to Jerusalem. Carotta mentions other reasons, and this specific one is only an accidental semblance, but still in line with the typical puns made in the prophetic literature of that time.

Carotta claims that “We have shown some similarities and parallels between Caesar and Jesus”. That’s true, though they are all trivial (e.g. both crossed a river) […].

Those rivers are not trivial, because they were both boundary rivers. Here too we are disappointed that A.P. has failed to observe that Jesus did not cross the Jordan: It would have been an interesting point, particularly if we consider that Caesar does not mention the crossing of the Rubicon either. It would be important to ask why the crossing of those boundary rivers is mentioned neither in the Gospel nor in the Bellum Civile. But A.P. is not interested in relevant questions—for him it’s simply “trivial”—, so we omit it here.

[…] he suggests that […] the sour wine is a misinterpretation of the “quickly assembled stakes” (of the funeral pyre? Carotta does not explain this point) […].

Of course Carotta explains it, but A.P. has overlooked it again (see above).

He clearly has Plutarch’s description of Caesar’s funeral pyre in mind, rather than an honest attempt to interpret the Gospel accounts. “It is easy to detect that the passage from Mark is an abridgement of Caesar’s funeral”. Yes, it’s easy when you completely and totally misinterpret it!

This is a good remark. But the real question here is, who is responsible for this misinterpretation, and that’s the authors of the Gospel, who misinterpreted the history of Caesar.

“No word has been taken away or added”, he claims. No, not much! Just a complete rewriting of the Gospel account to fit the story of Caesar’s funeral!

Yes, this is Carotta’s thesis, but only quite: he does not assume that the Gospel was rewritten to fit the story of Caesar’s funeral, but instead that the story of Caesar’s funeral was rewritten to form the Gospel account, and it fits into the requirements of a diegetic transposition, of a translation and adaptation of Caesar’s legend from Rome to Jerusalem, from Gallia to Galilaea.

Golgotha (“the place of the skull”) is equated with the Capitol at Rome, because “the Romans derived Capitolium from caput“, the Latin for head.

This is isolated from the context, evidently imprecise on purpose, in order to let it appear as a stupidity: the Romans derived Capitolium not from caput, but from caput Oli, “the head of Olus”, because the skull of an Etruscan king of that name had once been found on that hill. In the mind of the Romans the Capitol was “the place of the skull of Olus”. This is a fact, and it is sufficient for explaining the translation of Capitol as Golgotha, which also means “place of the skull”.

He claims that Mark calls the place Kraniou Topos, which can be altered, “Capi > Kraniou; tolium > Topos“, to read Capitolium.

This is not what Carotta claims. Mark states as a fact that Kraniou Topos is the primary term, and that it translates as Golgotha (Mk. 15:22). Carotta does not say that it can be “altered”, but that a Greek easily could have wrongly separated CAPITOLIVM in the Latin urtext into CAPI-TOLIVM, instead of CAPIT-OLIVM, as the Romans did, for the simple reason that no Greek word can end with a T, as it is taught by the Greek grammarians. We then notice that the LI in TOLIVM has a shape similar to the Greek Π, and for that reason it could have been misread by the amanuenses, whose errors are well known to textual critics… but not to A.P., of course, who was born almost 2000 years ago, and who cannot possibly know modern philology. So we forgive him this understandable mistake.

Carotta again links the effigy with the tropaeum (two separate items in the story) when he claims that “the most functional and direct way to fasten such a wooden figure coated with wax to a tropaeum would involve nails through the hands” — of course, this is patently false: there are all sorts of ways to fix a wooden mannequin to a supporting structure, if you decide to do so.

This is true, and it is also the opinion of Carotta, who rejects the supposition that Caesars wax effigy was fastened using nails through the hands, as you can read in a recent article on the matter (Carotta-Eickenberg 2009, 14 sqq.). By the way: as the analysis of early Christian iconography shows, Christ was initially not affixed to the cross with nails either.

When Carotta claims that “we determined that Jesus was not crucified, and that a cross had indeed played the main role … during the cremation of Caesar”, he has deluded himself on both counts.

This is completely false and illogical: there is explicit mention of the tropaeum in the Caesar sources—not really an uncommon funerary prop for victorious military men in Rome, anyway—, and there is no explicit mention of a crucifixion in the Gospel. (It is only inferred by translations of the Greek verb σταυρόω that are after the fact, by reading “crucify” into the text, with no independent earlier source in existence that contains this verb and at the same time clearly denotes a crucifixion, as Christian interpreters understand it.) At any rate, it is precisely what Carotta concludes in his book, and strongly so, if one looks at his investigation of the Passion as a whole. A.P.’s remark merely shows that our redivivus not only cannot read, including the primary sources, but cannot think straight either.

Caesar’s siege of the Pompeians in Corfinium is supposed to be encoded as Jesus’ exorcism of the demon called Legion: the giveaway, besides the obvious mention of a Roman “legion” (!), is the fact that both men crossed over: Caesar crossed the Rubicon; Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee.

This is not true, and yet another one of A.P.’s blunders. The demon called “Legion” does not appear in Corfinium (mutatis mutandis in Cafarnaum), but later, after another crossing: not of the Rubicon, but of the Ionian Sea (mutatis mutandis the Sea of Galilee).

Caesar’s famous saying, Alea iacta est! (“The die is cast”) is paralleled by the Galilee fishermen “casting” their nets. (Yes, Carotta really does employ such facile arguments.)

Not facile, but scientifically valid. As so often in his article A.P. skips all details and only recounts Carotta’s arguments superficially, surely to make them sound like nonsense. Here he chooses not to tell his readers that Caesar’s alea (“dice”) at the Rubicon was misinterpreted as aleeis (“fishers”), and consequently we have the fishermen casting [their nets] into the water. The above-mentioned Greek philologist Kavoukopoulos supported this reading as well.

Carotta is no historian.

This is true… or rather: was true, because meanwhile he publishes in peer-reviewed journals of ancient history and other “respected” forms. What is true is that his main field of expertise is translation and the knowledge of many languages. (In the above documentary we hear him speak in seven different languages, plus reciting in Latin and ancient Greek.) So even before he became a traditional historian in recent years, he already had the ability to call attention to similarities that had not been seen by the philologists until then, for example the correspondences between GALLIA and GALILAEA, CORFINIVM and CAFARNAVM, MÀRIA and MARÌA, LONGINVS and LONGINVS, etc. pp. This will remain his merit, even if people like A.P. fail to see the relevance.

Finally, if you have managed to read this far, you will be amused to learn that the “fact” that Julius Caesar was historical, but that some scholars dispute the historicity of Jesus, proves that they were one and the same man.

A.P. wants this to be a bon-mot, but in fact it is another one of his irrationalities: the historicity of Jesus is disputed by many, because there are no valid historiographical sources, while the existence of Christianity itself (and its quick victory over ancient paganism) speaks for the historical existence of its founder—the fundamental aporia of early Christianity. So it is clear that the only way out of this aporia is to assume with Carotta that a diegetic transposition occurred. And to our knowledge, the best candidates for the historical urtext are the Caesar sources.

And all of this nonsense because Caesar was chrêstos. (Or was he?)

Of course he was: see above. But this “nonsense”—oh, by the way: so was Christianity received at the beginning, as nonsense, as insanity—owes to another simple fact: the people, who considered Caesar a righteous man, did not accept his assassination, and they “believed” he was elevated to heaven, placed among the immortals. And because he was now an immortal, his story—like the legends or myths of other immortals, for example Zeus and Dionysus—could be transferred into any other place, retold and rewritten. That is the reason why we have so many versions of Christ’s (i.e. Caesar’s) story, canonical and apocryphal, originating from so many different (but all formerly Roman) cultures, giving him different names. Carotta has shown how it all happened.

A.P. is of course free not to take it seriously, and consider it nonsense. The deplorable thing is that he does not quote correctly, that he gives his own warped interpretations before presenting the facts, and thereby shows us that he did not work sine ira et studio, but cum ira et sine studio. What a pity. We could continue to dissect and debunk the rest of his feeble arguments as well, but it would only be a waste of time.

Note: In the meantime A.P. has responded to this article with more blunders and slander. Read our reply here. For yet another (and final) follow-up rebuttal see here.


Weirder still, A.P.’s pile of blunders has actually been endorsed by James McGrath (Butler Univ.) on his blog (archive), probably without reading A.P.’s write-up meticulously, and surely without knowing anything about Carotta’s theory beforehand. (Still, he chose to refer to it as “bunk”.) As to what McGrath alleges in his short post, there is a big difference between the mythers and Carotta: mythicism claims that Jesus never existed, that he is merely and purely a figure of legend. But if the historical person behind the Biblical figure Jesus Christ was Julius Caesar, then the god of Christianity has an actual and tangible historical existence. So here is our big question to our Mr. Professor, a butler of the fabulating orthodoxy:

What is more important to you: that Jesus existed, or that he was not Caesar? That he was “of Nazareth”, or that he existed?


Image source: Clker (P.D.; artist: “Kelly”, 2011)