Herod the Great sent two emissaries to Rome in 8 BC. Determining what month they each saw the Emperor tells us not only which year Herod killed his sons, it also tells us how long the King remained a “subject” of Augustus instead of a friend.
Peter Swan says the funeral of Drusus in 9 BC was held in November or December. After my recent review of those events, I take early November. Since Augustus learns about Herod during the funeral week (or thereabouts) he might send his letter to Herod by mid-November, and the King can read its bad news as early as January 1st (ish). But then, even if Herod sent Nicolas of Damascus to Rome immediately, the ambassador couldn’t possibly arrive (overland including Asia Minor in Jan/Feb) any sooner than April 1st. The problem is that Augustus most likely left for Germany that April, and possibly as early as March. Further calculations make any overlap of these itineraries extremely unlikely. (If you trust me, skip the small print!)
In his commentary on Dio Cassius’ Year Book for 8 BC, Swan points out that Augustus left early enough to win an acclimation from his Legions “in the first half of the year”. (An inscription puts it in 9/8 BC.) That acclimation probably didn’t happen just because Caesar showed up, but Dio’s chronology and geography of German campaigns is sketchy to say the least, so it’s practically impossible to calculate the progress of the campaign itself. Still, the travel alone took at least a month, so we’d have to figure Augustus left Rome before mid-May at the absolute latest – and almost certainly sooner.
But how much sooner? Of course March was the traditional time for the start of campaigning, and Caesar could have left as soon as the Alps were passable so the German Legions could begin their campaign in March with him present. Then again, Augustus was 54, this particular campaign wasn’t necessarily the most urgent one he ever planned, and the Emperor might have simply preferred to leave in April. We just can’t say for sure.
In all, there’s a chance Nicolas saw Augustus in April. On the other hand, it’s more likely he did not. The odds may be even that Caesar left before or after April 1st, but there are plenty of factors which might have made Nicolas arrive late. It would have been characteristic of Augustus to sit on the news for a short time before writing the letter, and perhaps especially this year considering the funeral. Given the extra assumption (which I make unapologetically) that the demotion of Herod included ordering a census of Israel, the Emperor is even more likely to have weighed that decision for some days or weeks. The later Herod gets Augustus’ letter, the later Nicolas can depart – assuming Nicolas goes over land at all.
Also, once Herod sends Nicolas, many things can happen to delay the advisor’s trip. The mountains and snows of Turkey, crossing the Bosporous and the Adriatic in winter, built up fatigue, and the possibility that Nicolas himself was advancing in age – all these are possible factors which could easily cause the ambassador to reach Rome after April 1st. And none of this is to mention the other possibility that Herod allowed Nicolas to wait until sailing season. In that case, the ambassador absolutely misses the Emperor.
As a quick aside, when Herod sent Olympus to Rome the King was concerned that Nicolas might not have had a chance to see Augustus yet. But Olympus was sailing. That could mean that Nicolas sailed slightly earlier – but it could also mean merely that Herod knew how long it could sometimes take to get an audience with the Emperor. Either case is a point in the favor of time, not expedience.
There is more. Besides arriving before Caesar’s departure, Nicolas had to gain an audience, almost certainly by first securing an appointment. And Josephus’ narrative strongly implies Nicolas had some down time in Rome before seeing the Emperor. The Nabateans who turned against Syllaeus heard Nicolas was in town, found him and gave him not only ammunition for winning his case, but also the very excuse Nicolas needed before Augustus would even admit him. This meeting probably happened between setting and keeping an appointment with Caesar, but there’s a slight chance it means no appointment was granted until the stated purpose became agreeable.
At any rate, there was some downtime, so the window of opportunity had to be more than a few days. Nicolas can’t just catch Augustus on the way out of town! And we haven’t even begun to consider whether the Emperor even took new appointments in the weeks before a departure. (Not that I can think how to even begin researching that particular question!) The more factors we consider, the smaller the springtime window begins to look. And remember, the odds are greater that the Legions would acclaim Augustus after some length of time had gone into the campaign, not in the very first weeks of one.
Therefore, it seems far more likely that Nicolas did not see Augustus until after summer in 8 BC. Either way, we know Olympus definitely did not, because no matter how early his boat left Caesarea, it couldn’t possibly have arrived in Rome before June (especially not with a stop at Cilicia to go visit King Archelaus of Cappadocia).
Those are the basic conclusions. The ramifications for dating related events will come next...