One of Jesus’ more impressive tricks was to command a raging storm at sea to be quiet and go away so his disciples could continue their sea crossing without fear. Many readers of this tale are reminded of another about Jonah who, like Jesus, was caught sleeping in the boat while the crew were desperately bailing out water. The captain wakes Jonah up, words are exchanged, and the storm immediately ceases — the moment Jonah was tossed overboard.
But there was another very popular story about Julius Caesar attempting something similar, but not quite succeeding.
It was long the literary fashion for authors to show the superiority of their particular hero to other well-known heroes from older stories. The Roman poet Virgil composed an epic about Aeneas, father of the Roman race, basing many of his adventures on those of the earlier Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Where Odysseus fell foul of monsters and lost his crew, Aeneas more prudently (or with more favourable divine blessings) avoided such dangers and brought his crew to their destination, thus demonstrating his more masterful leadership qualities to those of the well known Odysseus.
But while the Jesus story of stilling the storm borrows a few details from Jonah’s adventure, it is nonetheless a wild leap from one hero commanding the storm to cease and another begging to be sacrificed.
But then I read Wendy Cotter’s citation (Miracles in the Greco-Roman World) setting the Jesus story alongside another that was evidently very popular throughout the Roman world around the era the Gospels were composed. Julius Caesar was famously reported to have disguised his identity, clambered into a boat and demanded its pilot to take him to the opposite shore. When storm and winds threatened their safety, Caesar declared his real identity and commanded the crew to have no fear, but to know that with Caesar on board the storm could do them no harm and that they would make it safely to their destination. Unfortunately for Caesar’s ego, the storm refused to cooperate and the boat was forced to return to safety.
Now if this story of Julius Caesar’s attempts to defy the storm while in a small boat was as well-known as the numbers of surviving accounts of it would suggest, we might reasonably expect the earliest Gospel audiences to have compared the actions, attitudes and powers of the Son of God JC with the imperial JC.
This is the point made by Wendy Cotter:
The entry [of Julius Caesar expecting the storm to submit to his will] is important because it illustrates how very much a hero wanted to claim that Nature recognized his destiny and had to bow to his empowerment from heaven. . . . The political propaganda to be spread with this tale sheds light on its importance for any hero, and shows the deliberation with which Caesar’s followers would have promulgated the event. Stefan Weinstock observes that it was crucial for Caesar to outdo Pompey’s reputation as a man of extraordinary good fortune. (p. 147)
Firstly, here is the first Gospel’s account of Jesus stilling the storm from Mark 4:
35That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.”
36Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.
37A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.
38Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
39He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
41They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
No doubt some of the details are borrowed from the story of Jonah, and some scholars see even richer imitation of an account by Homer of Odysseus suffering an unexpected gale at sea. But we may also ask of the likelihood that the original idea for the story itself came from contemporary knowledge of what was said of Roman rulers themselves. Here are the various accounts of Julius Caesar’s adventure.
Other points of comparison
One particular point of comparison that strikes me, rationally or fancifully, is the sailors’ ignorance of who Caesar was, just as the apostles had to ask who Jesus was. Caesar’s audience are allowed to identify him at the critical moment, however. Jesus’ disciples are compelled to merely wonder who their leader is.
Another is that the two voyages were made at night. And yet another is that the two voyages were intended as crossings of a short expanse of water, “to the other side”.
Wishing, therefore, to sail to Italy in person and unattended, he embarked on a small boat in disguise, saying that he had been sent by Caesar; and forced the captain to set sail, although there was a wind.
When, however, they had got away from land, and the gale swept violently down upon them and the waves buffeted them terribly, so that the captain did not longer dare even under compulsion to sail farther, but undertook to return even without his passenger’s consent, than Caesar revealed himself, as if by this act he could stop the storm, and said, “Be of good cheer: you carry Caesar.”
Such spirit and such hope had he, either naturally or as the result of some oracle, that he felt firm confidence in his safety even contrary to the appearance of things. Nevertheless, he did not get across, but after struggling for a long time in vain sailed back.
Cotter only cites the one passage, but I will cite the others here to emphasize the evident popularity of the anecdote. The author links are to their Wikipedia entries where one can compare their dates and other details.
At Apollonia, since the force which he had with him was not a match for the enemy and the delay of his troops on the other side caused him perplexity and distress, Caesar conceived the dangerous plan of embarking in a twelve-oared boat, without any one’s knowledge, and going over to Brundisium, though the sea was encompassed by such large armaments of the enemy.
At night, accordingly, after disguising himself in the dress of a slave, he went on board, threw himself down as one of no account, and kept quiet.
While the river Aoüs was carrying the boat down towards the sea, the early morning breeze, which at that time usually made the mouth of the river calm by driving back the waves, was quelled by a strong wind which blew from the sea during the night;
the river therefore chafed against the inflow of the sea and the opposition of its billows, and was rough, being beaten back with a great din and violent eddies, so that it was impossible for the master of the boat to force his way along. He therefore ordered the sailors to come about in order to retrace his course.
But Caesar, perceiving this, disclosed himself, took the master of the boat by the hand, who was terrified at sight of him, and said: “Come, good man, be bold and fear naught; thou carryest Caesar and Caesar’s fortune in thy boat.”
The sailors forgot the storm, and laying to their oars, tried with all alacrity to force their way down the river. But since it was impossible, after taking much water and running great hazard at the mouth of the river, Caesar very reluctantly suffered the captain to put about.
When he came back, his soldiers met him in throngs, finding much fault and sore displeased with him because he did not believe that even with them alone he was able to conquer, but was troubled, and risked his life for the sake of the absent as though distrusting those who were present.
There is an ironical twist if one chooses to compare Plutarch’s account with that in the Gospel of Mark. Plutarch concludes with Caesar’s followers chiding their master for his lack of faith!
Plutarch recalls Caesar’s saying again in Moralia, The Sayings of the Romans:
9 As the transportation of his soldiers from Brundusium to Dyrrachium proceeded slowly, he, without being seen by anybody, embarked in a small boat, and attempted the passage through the open sea. But as the boat was being swamped by the waves, he disclosed his identity to the pilot, crying out, “Trust to Fortune, knowing it is Caesar you carry.”
Rising from supper he pretended to be fatigued and told his friends to remain at the table. He put on the clothing of a private person, stepped into a carriage, and drove away to the ship, pretending to be the messenger sent by Caesar. He gave the rest of his orders through his servants and remained concealed by the darkness of the night and unrecognized. As there was a severe wind blowing the servants told the pilot to be of good courage and seize this opportunity to avoid the enemy who were in the neighbourhood. The pilot made his way down the river by rowing, but when they came toward the mouth they found it broken into surf by the wind and the sea. The pilot, urged by the servants, put forth all his efforts, but as he could make no progress fatigue and despair came upon him. Then Caesar threw off his disguise and called out to him, “Brave the tempest with a stout heart, you carry Caesar and Caesar’s fortunes.” Both the rowers and pilot were astounded and all took fresh courage and gained the mouth of the river, but the wind and waves violently tossed the ship high on towards the bank. As the dawn was near and they feared lest the enemy should discover them in the daylight, Caesar, blaming the ill-will of his evil genius, allowed the ship to return. So the ship sailed up the river with a strong wind.
Some of Caesar’s friends were astonished at this act of bravery; while others blamed him . . .
But on the other hand, when news came that his camp in Germany was beleaguered, he made his way to his men through the enemies’ pickets, disguised as a Gaul.
He crossed from Brundisium to Dyrrachium in winter time, running the blockade of the enemy’s fleets; and when the troops which he had ordered to follow him delayed to do so, and he had sent to fetch them many times in vain, at last in secret and alone he boarded a small boat at night with his head muffled up; and he did not reveal who he was, or suffer the helmsman to give way to the gale blowing in their teeth, until he was all but overwhelmed by the waves.
Florus, Roman History, Book 2
Having set all things in order in his rear, although mid-winter impeded his passage with a storm, he sailed to war, and having pitched his camp at Oricum and finding that the absence of part of his army, which had been left behind at Brundisium with Antonius owing to lack of ships, was delaying operations, he was so impatient that, though a gale was raging at sea, he attempted to cross in the depth of the night alone in a light reconnoitring boat to keep them off. His remark to the master of the vessel, who was alarmed at the greatness of the risk, has come down to us: “Why are you afraid? You have Caesar on board.”
I save the most poetic touch to last.
But Caesar’s soul burned at the moments lost
For speedy battle, nor could brook delay
Within the port, indignant that the sea
Should give safe passage to his routed foe:
And thus he stirred his troops, in seas unskilled,
480 With words of courage: “When the winter wind
Has seized on sky and ocean, firm its hold;
But the inconstancy of cloudy spring
Permits no certain breezes to prevail
Upon the billows. Straight shall be our course.
No winding nooks of coast, but open seas
Struck by the northern wind alone we plough,
And may he bend the spars, and bear us swift
To Grecian cities; else Pompeius’ oars,
Smiting the billows from Phaeacian coasts,
May catch our flagging sails. Cast loose the ropes
From our victorious prows. Too long we waste
Tempests that blow to bear us to our goal.”
. . . . . . . .
But Caesar’s mind though frenzied for the fight
Was forced to pause until Antonius brought
The rearward troops; Antonius even now
Rehearsing Leucas’ fight. With prayers and threats
Caesar exhorts him. “Why delay the fates,
Thou cause of evil to the suffering world?
My speed hath won the major part: from thee
Fortune demands the final stroke alone.
Do Libyan whirlpools with deceitful tides
Uncertain separate us? Is the deep
Untried to which I call? To unknown risks
Art thou commanded? Caesar bids thee come,
Thou sluggard, not to leave him. Long ago
I ran my ships midway through sands and shoals
To harbours held by foes; and dost thou fear
My friendly camp? I mourn the waste of days
Which fate allotted us. Upon the waves
And winds I call unceasing: hold not back
Thy willing troops, but let them dare the sea;
Here gladly shall they come to join my camp,
Though risking shipwreck. Not in equal shares
The world has fallen between us: thou alone
Dost hold Italia, but Epirus I
And all the lords of Rome.” Twice called and thrice
Antonius lingered still: but Caesar thought
To reap in full the favour of the gods,
Not sit supine; and knowing danger yields
To whom heaven favours, he upon the waves
Feared by Antonius’ fleets, in shallow boat
Embarked, and daring sought the further shore.
Now gentle night had brought repose from arms;
And sleep, blest guardian of the poor man’s couch,
Restored the weary; and the camp was still.
The hour was come that called the second watch
When mighty Caesar, in the silence vast
With cautious tread advanced to such a deed
As slaves should dare not. Fortune for his guide,
Alone he passes on, and o’er the guard
Stretched in repose he leaps, in secret wrath
At such a sleep. Pacing the winding beach,
Fast to a sea-worn rock he finds a boat
On ocean’s marge afloat. Hard by on shore
Its master dwelt within his humble home.
No solid front it reared, for sterile rush
And marshy reed enwoven formed the walls,
Propped by a shallop with its bending sides
Turned upwards. Caesar’s hand upon the door
Knocks twice and thrice until the fabric shook.
Amyclas from his couch of soft seaweed
Arising, calls: “What shipwrecked sailor seeks
My humble home? Who hopes for aid from me,
By fates adverse compelled?” He stirs the heap
Upon the hearth, until a tiny spark
Glows in the darkness, and throws wide the door.
Careless of war, he knew that civil strife
Stoops not to cottages. Oh! happy life
That poverty affords! great gift of heaven
Too little understood! what mansion wall,
What temple of the gods, would feel no fear
When Caesar called for entrance? Then the chief:
“Enlarge thine hopes and look for better things.
Do but my bidding, and on yonder shore
Place me, and thou shalt cease from one poor boat
To earn thy living; and in years to come
Look for a rich old age: and trust thy fates
To those high gods whose wont it is to bless
The poor with sudden plenty.” So he spake
E’en at such time in accents of command,
For how could Caesar else? Amyclas said,
“‘Twere dangerous to brave the deep to-night.
The sun descended not in ruddy clouds
Or peaceful rays to rest; part of his beams
Presaged a southern gale, the rest proclaimed
A northern tempest; and his middle orb,
Shorn of its strength, permitted human eyes
To gaze upon his grandeur; and the moon
Rose not with silver horns upon the night
Nor pure in middle space; her slender points
Not drawn aright, but blushing with the track
Of raging tempests, till her lurid light
Was sadly veiled within the clouds. Again
The forest sounds; the surf upon the shore;
The dolphin’s mood, uncertain where to play;
The sea-mew on the land; the heron used
To wade among the shallows, borne aloft
And soaring on his wings — all these alarm;
The raven, too, who plunged his head in spray,
As if to anticipate the coming rain,
And trod the margin with unsteady gait.
But if the cause demands, behold me thine.
Either we reach the bidden shore, or else
Storm and the deep forbid — we can no more.”
Thus said he loosed the boat and raised the sail.
No sooner done than stars were seen to fall
In flaming furrows from the sky: nay, more;
The pole star trembled in its place on high:
Black horror marked the surging of the sea;
The main was boiling in long tracts of foam,
Uncertain of the wind, yet seized with storm.
Then spake the captain of the trembling bark:
“See what remorseless ocean has in store!
Whether from east or west the storm may come
Is still uncertain, for as yet confused
The billows tumble. Judged by clouds and sky
A western tempest: by the murmuring deep
A wild south-eastern gale shall sweep the sea.
Nor bark nor man shall reach Hesperia’s shore
In this wild rage of waters. To return
Back on our course forbidden by the gods,
Is our one refuge, and with labouring boat
To reach the shore ere yet the nearest land
Way be too distant.”
But great Caesar’s trust
Was in himself, to make all dangers yield.
And thus he answered: “Scorn the threatening sea,
Spread out thy canvas to the raging wind;
If for thy pilot thou refusest heaven,
Me in its stead receive. Alone in thee
One cause of terror just — thou dost not know
Thy comrade, ne’er deserted by the gods,
Whom fortune blesses e’en without a prayer.
Break through the middle storm and trust in me.
The burden of this fight fails not on us
But on the sky and ocean; and our bark
Shall swim the billows safe in him it bears.
Nor shall the wind rage long: the boat itself
Shall calm the waters. Flee the nearest shore,
Steer for the ocean with unswerving hand:
Then in the deep, when to our ship and us
No other port is given, believe thou hast
Calabria’s harbours. And dost thou not know
The purpose of such havoc? Fortune seeks
In all this tumult of the sea and sky
A boon for Caesar.” Then a hurricane
Swooped on the boat and tore away the sheet:
The fluttering sail fell on the fragile mast:
And groaned the joints. From all the universe
Commingled perils rush. In Atlas’ seas
First Corus lifts his head, and stirs the depths
To fury, and had forced upon the rocks
Whole seas and oceans; but the chilly north
Drove back the deep that doubted which was lord.
But Scythian Aquilo prevailed, whose blast
Tossed up the main and showed as shallow pools
Each deep abyss; and yet was not the sea
Heaped on the crags, for Corus’ billows met
The waves of Boreas: such seas had clashed
Even were the winds withdrawn; Eurus enraged
Burst from the cave, and Notus black with rain,
And all the winds from every part of heaven
Strove for their own; and thus the ocean stayed
Within his boundaries.
One must wonder if such a popular tale prompted the one of Jesus taking on the storm at night with fearful disciples. Then add a few details from Jonah, maybe even from the Odyssey, and we have a nice fresh story that has comforted millions of faithful ever since.
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