Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a good example of the stalwart people of Italian stock
who filled the gaps in the Roman imperial aristocracy left by the dying off of the republican nobility.
What we know of his life illustrates the typical successful career pattern under the first
Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BC - AD 14), but today he is most famous for the evangelist Luke's problematic use of him to date Jesus' birth.
The most important historical source for the life of Sulpicius is Tacitus'
Annales 3.48, recording his death in AD 21:
A little later, Tiberius asked the senate to award a public funeral to
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. He came from Lanuvium, and had no connection
with the ancient patrician Sulpician family. But he was a fine soldier,
whose zealous services had earned him a consulship and honorary Triumph
from the divine Augustus for capturing the fortresses of the Homonadenses
on the Cilician borders. Later, appointed advisor to Gaius Caesar during the
latter's Armenian commission, Quirinius had treated Tiberius, then
living at Rhodes, with respect--as the emperor now told the senate; and
he coupled this praise of Quirinius' attentiveness with an attack on Marcus
Lollius, whom he blamed for Gaius Caesar's perverse quarrelsomeness on that
occasion. But others had less agreeable memories of Quirinius, who was a mean,
over-influential old man, and (as I have mentioned) had persecuted Aemilia
Lepida. (Translated in Grant 142.)
Other sources fill out the picture. Tacitus says elsewhere (Annales
3.22.1) that his wife Aemilia Lepida was a granddaughter of both Sulla and
Pompey the Great, two of the pre-eminent political figures of the dying age
of the republic--she was a great catch for the plebeian Sulpicius,
even if Tacitus goes on to say that she was very corrupt. (She claimed a child
she bore after their divorce was Sulpicius' doubtless with a view to claiming
a share of the otherwise childless Sulpicius' estate.)
We know that Quirinius' consulship was in 12 BC, and that he had no
consular ancestors. Put another way, he was a self-made man, and by virtue
of his success and reliability was rewarded with the extremely important honor
of being the nominal head-of-state, one of the consuls. This amounted to ennoblement.
On his way up the career ladder, he had successfully fought the Marmaridae (a
North African piratic people), and after his consulship he was evidently governor
of some province which put him in a position to defeat the Homonadenses on the
Cilician border. This would probably be the province of Galatia,
in present-day N. Turkey.
At some point while overseas in Asia Minor, he evidently visited the future
emperor Tiberius during the latter's self-imposed exile on Rhodes, a cagey
move which paid off when events led to Tiberius' being made heir apparent to
Augustus. It is a mark of Augustus' respect for Quirinius that he made him rector
(advisor) to his grandson Gaius Caesar in the latter's mission to Armenia in
As a long-standing and highly trusted servant of the regime, Quirinius was
sent to Syria as imperial legate (governor) in AD 6, and was entrusted with
the thorny business of liquidating the estate of the deposed Judaean
ruler Archelaus (son of Herod the Great) and putting the newly acquired province
on a paying basis by organizing it for taxation. Josephus tells us this (in
his Jewish Antiquities 17.1 ff.), adding that it was a time of discontent
for the people, inasmuch as they had lost their independence. A census was carried
out under Sulpicius' auspices of (at least) Roman citizens there, as a Latin
inscription found in Venice in the 17th century attests (ILS 2683).
The unhappiness of Sulpicius' later years can be deduced from Tacitus' account;
his undue influence stemmed from the power any childless Roman of means had
through using the prospect of a sizeable legacy as a club to beat people with.
Sulpicius and Luke 2.
But if you have heard of Sulpicius, it is surely thanks to the evangelist Luke
At that time an edict went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should
be taken of the whole world. (This was the first census under Quirinius as
governor of Syria.) (Translated in Brown 393.)
This passage raises a famous problem in the New Testament,
because Quirinius' dates as governor (AD 6-7) conflict with Luke's general setting
of the birth narrative's time "In the days of Herod, King of Judaea"
(1:1), i.e., no later than Herod's death in 4 BC. Much ink has been spilled
trying to reconcile this glaring error, and solutions have included taking Herod
to stand for the son of Herod the Great, Sulpicius as having held an unattested
earlier governorship of Syria, and similar flailings against the obvious solution:
Luke was simply wrong here.
Except possibly for people with fundamentalist leanings, no one worries much
about Luke's anachronism anymore, as I infer from the treatments of three
Catholic priests (and eminent NT scholars) who have written about the
scholarly problem: J.P. Meier (A Marginal Jew I, 212-213: "Attempts
to reconcile Luke 2:1 with the facts of ancient history are hopelessly contrived"),
R.E. Brown (The Birth of the Messiah, 393-396, 547-556: "When
all is evaluated, the weight of evidence is strongly against the possibility
of reconciling the information in Luke 1 and Luke 2"), and J.P. Fitzmyer
(The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 393: "it is clear that the
census is a purely literary device used by him (i.e., Luke) to associate Mary
and Joseph, residents of Nazareth, with Bethlehem, the town of David,
because he knows of a tradition, also attested in Matthew 2, that Jesus
was born in Bethlehem").
The striking historical fact associated with the name of P. Sulpicius Quirinius,
therefore, is that we do not know the year of Jesus' birth. (Nor the day. December 25 was taken from Mithraism.)
Philological notelet: King James's Cyrenius
follows literally the Greek Kyreniou. Quirinius would naturally turn into
Kyrinios, or Kyrenios owing to the lack of Qu- in Greek. More careful authors
sometimes wrote kou- for qu-, e.g., Kouintos for Quintus.
Furneaux, Henry. 1896. The Annals of Tacitus.Volume I: Books I-VI.
Grant, Michael. 1996. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Revised reprint.
On the New Testament problem:
Brown, Raymond E. 1993. The Birth of the Messiah. A Commentary
on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. 1981. The Gospel According to Luke I-IX. The Anchor
Meier, John P.1991. A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume
One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person.