🔼The name Publius in the Bible
There's only one Publius (or in Greek: Poblios) mentioned in the Bible and that's the chief of Malta at the time of Paul's shipwreck (Acts 28:7-8). Perhaps intrigued by reports of Paul's encounter with the snake of Dike, Publius warmly welcomed Paul and company (consisting of 276 persons — Acts 27:37). Publius' father appeared sick with bowel trouble, but Paul healed him and many others, and stayed on the island for three months.
As we explain in our article on the name Malta, there's much more to this story than mere anecdote, and its essence is much rather that of a resistance communiqué (see our article on the name Onesimus for more on this). Paul frequently urged for the followers of Jesus to communicate in literary references (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), which was a craft that also the Stoics excelled in.
🔼Who was Publius?
Publius was an extremely popular Roman praenomen (on a par with Tom, Dick or Harry), and it seems rather odd that the author of this story doesn't submit more personal data of Paul's host of three months. That is of course, unless Publius of Malta and his bowel-troubled father is a literary character designed to covertly refer to a real-time person, or perhaps a real-time movement.
As we will see below, the name Publius means "of the public", and bears the unmistakably allegiance to the Republicans who tried very hard to first stop the rise of totalitarianism in Rome and, when it arrived — in Julius Caesar and the first "divine" emperor Augustus — fought it on all possible fronts. From a human perspective, the gospel of Jesus Christ and the philosophies of Paul fell in neatly with the Republican effort.
Let's list and briefly discuss the handful of men who bore the name Publius and who were most likely relevant to Paul and his movement of peaceful and loving resistance against Roman tyranny:
- Publius Cornelius Scipio, who fought Hannibal of Carthage in 218 BC, and was defeated by him in northern Italy. Had Hannibal pressed on and sacked Rome, the disastrous worldwide empire with a divine emperor would probably not have happened, Christianity would have looked wholly different and both the world of the first century AD and most likely our present one too would have been utterly other.
- Publius Rutilius Rufus, a Roman military officer and statesman and great-uncle of Julius Caesar. He attracted the hate of the Roman economic elite by actively opposing extortion of the working classes. In 92 BC, the elite accused him of being an extortionist himself, and although everybody knew this to be false, they also appointed the jury that condemned him. He was forcibly retired and exiled himself to Smyrna, the very town he had supposedly extorted and remained there basking in the continuing appreciation of the townsfolk who knew the truth.
- Publius Sulpicius Rufus, a tribune of the plebs (plebs were free citizens not part of ruling families; the lowest free status), who attempted to introduce laws that gave more power to certain groups of commoners. So doing Sulpicius ignited a democratic revolt. General Sulla got wind of the revolt, sped home, conquered the city and lobbed off Sulpicius' head (88 BC). Sulla was the first general to take Rome by force. The penultimate one was Pompey, and the last one was Julius Caesar. After him came the empire and the republic was a thing of the past.
- Publius Servilius Casca Longus, one of the Liberators (namely Rome from tyranny — see our article on the name Pilate) who assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BC. The previous evening, this Servilius Casca cowardly revealed the plot to Mark Anthony, but the latter's attempt to intercept the Liberators was foiled. The next day, Servilius Casca delivered the first blow, hitting Julius' neck, from behind. Casca died with the other main Liberators at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.
- Publius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther, a high official who started out on Julius' Caesar's side, but later aligned himself with Julius' main rival Pompey. Pompey was a corrupt dictator type of person, just like Julius, whose many claims to fame included the conquest of Judea in 63 BC and his blasphemous entry of the Holy of Holies. Pompey was defeated and fled to Ptolemaic Egypt, where he was swiftly beheaded by Caesar-siding Ptolemy XIII. Publius Cornelius Lentulus fled to Rhodes, where he received asylum (although he might have been executed later). More significantly, however, is that his son Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther joined the Liberators in their assassination of Julius Caesar. The latter co-issued a denarius depicting Libertas, which obviously reflected the same sentiment as Brutus' more famous Eid Mar or pilaetus denarius (see our article on Pilate for a discussion of this coin).
- Publius Vergilius Maro, to moderns better known as Virgil, the famous and ever influential Roman poet, who began his main body of work in the year of the Battle of Philippi, in 42 BC. To reward his military for their victory over the Liberators at Philippi, Octavian (soon to be emperor Augustus) impounded several estates in northern Italy, including the family estate of Virgil. This obviously left the poet with a literary bone to pick, but since critique on the emperor was ill advised, Virgil became a pioneer in the kind of literary allegory that shaped much of the New Testament. The Lukan author of Acts would not have failed were he to seek reflection of the loss of Virgil's family farm and subsequent literary output in Publius' chiefdom of Malta — meaning "honey", which is an obvious symbol for literature — and his father's cured disease. Virgil's Georgics is a four-part philosophy, played out on the stage of a farm and allegorically dealing with how to run one; part four concerns beekeeping and the quality of bees. Virgil's masterpiece, the Aeneid deals with the mythical history of Rome, and appears to comment positively on the reign of Augustus (whom he met and read to on several occasions). The author's wish to have the Aeneid burned upon his death was overruled by the emperor in 19 BC.
- Publius Ovidius Naso, to moderns better known as Ovid (43 BC - 17 AD), the great Roman poet who gave us much of what we know of general Roman mythology. His father set him on a career as lawyer, but Ovid soon rebelled and turned to poetry. In Rome, his spiritual father became the outspoken republican general Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (whose sister was married to a cousin of Augustus) and highly influential patron of the literary arts (and remember that the evangelists and apostles were literary masters). When Julius was assassinated, this general took refuge in the camp of Brutus and Cassius, but during the Battle of Philippi somehow managed to slip over to Mark Anthony's and later Octavian's (who would become emperor Augustus). Since that time he became decidedly quiet about his republican views, although at some point he bellowed "I am disgusted with power!", or so the story goes. For untold and enticingly mysterious reasons, Ovid was exiled by emperor Augustus. Nobody knows why and everybody guesses, but this can really only mean that Ovid was found to somehow undermine the state. This in turn probably means that he dealt too playful with the divinity of the living emperor, which is precisely what Paul did decades later (the signature Pauline phrases "Savior of the World" and "Son of God" were originally titles of Augustus).
- Publius Quinctilius Varus, the general who in 9 AD confidently marched three legions into Germania and was completely defeated by the troops of Herman the German at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. At that same time, the Illyrian Revolt culminated (in modern Bosnia), which took the Romans three years and ten legions to subdue. Had the Germanians pressed on to Rome whilst the army was in Illyricum, the empire would have come to a halt. The year 9 AD was the most hellish year for the Roman empire, and arguably the most decisive year in human history.
- Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the Roman aristocrat who famously was the governor of Syria when emperor Augustus ordered the census that forced Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem (Luke 2:2). His appointment happened after 6 AD, when Herod Archelaus was deposed.
- Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus, who was a senator under Nero and who died in 66 AD. This Publius openly opposed Nero and had a level of interest in Stoicism that may very well have brought him in contact with Paul (read our article on Nicopolis). He died by ordered suicide, and pledged, as had done Seneca, his blood to Jupiter Liberator (the favorite of Nero's opponents, including Seneca, but after their failed assassination attempt, Nero's own favorite).
- Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the great Roman historian who lived from 56 to 117 AD. He began writing around the same time that the evangelists did, but more significantly: Tacitus appears to have been given the first name Gaius (also the first name of Julius Caesar) but assumed the first name Publius to sign his publications with. It's not known for sure who his father was, but his sympathy for the northern "barbaric" nations and some other indications suggest hat he was originally a Celt. The Celts, of course, had been ransacked and destroyed by Julius Caesar to fund his war against Pompey.
- Publius Papinius Statius, an influential poet who lived in the second half of the first century AD. His epic poem the Thebaid dealt with the story of Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father Laius, married his mother and thus provoked Thebes' plague of infertility. A shepherd told Oedipus the truth, upon which the latter punished himself and thus lifted the plague. Modern scholars recognize in this work Statius' negative critique on the authoritarian reign of the Flavians (emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian).
🔼Etymology of the name Publius
The name Publius comes from the same root as the familiar words public, population and people. All these words derive from the Latin noun populus (which in turn stems from plenus, meaning full or filled, and which is also the root of words like plebs, complete, and supplement).
The word populus would theoretically signify all a nation's people, but in effect it was often used to denote the people as opposed to the Senate. Sometimes it was used to distinguish powerful families from plebs, but at times in was also used specifically for the plebs, or for civilians as opposed to the military. Our word was also used as a non-specific signifier of some inhabited region, or even any large group of people and even things. It was frequently employed to denote the general public, the street-dwellers.
The name Publius means Of The People and when deliberately assumed — assuming a name for publicity reasons was very common in Rome — would serve most aptly to reflect the bearer's Republican beliefs and subsequent abhorrence of Rome's totalitarian regime.