Roman Republic

Roman Italy (1st Century AD)

Divine Descent of the Gens Julia 

Adapted from Graham Sumner (referenced below, p. 343, Table 1): Red = my modifications

See Ernst Badian (referenced below, at p. 14) for the moneyer of RRC 258/1 as the son of the consul of 157 BC

Use this link for the cursus of the antiquarian Lucius Julius Caesar, the consul of 64 BC

See Michael Crawford (referenced below, at pp. 284, 325 and 471 respectively) for the silver denarii issued by:

Sextus Julius Caesar (praetor of 123 BC) in 129 BC (RRC 258/1):

Lucius Julius Caesar (consul of 90 BC) in 103 BC (RRC 320/1); and

Caius Julius Caesar (consul of 59 BC) in 47-46 BC (RRC 458/1; see below) 

Caesar’s Eulogy for his Aunt Julia

The earliest surviving explicit evidence for the fact that the gens Julia claimed divine descent come in a  passage by Suetonius (ca. 110 AD), according to which, when the later dictator Caesar set out on his public career as quaestor in 67 BC:

  1. “... he pronounced the customary orations from the rostra in praise of his aunt Julia and his wife Cornelia, who had both [recently] died.  In the eulogy of his aunt, he spoke in the following terms of her paternal and maternal ancestry and that of his own father:

  2. ‘The family of my aunt Julia is descended:

  3. on he mother;s side, from the kings [of Rome], for the Marcii Reges (her mother's family name) go back to Ancus Marcius [traditionally 640–616 BC]; and

  4. on her father's side, is akin to the immortal Gods, for the Julii, the family of which ours is a branch, [go back] to Venus. 

  5. Our stock, therefore, has both the sanctity of kings, whose power is supreme among mortal men, and the claim to reverence which attaches to the Gods, who hold sway over kings themselves’", (‘Life of Divus Julius’, 6, my change of word order).

Caesar’s Descent from Venus and Aeneas

Silver denarius (RRC 458/1) issued in 47 - 46 BC:

Obverse: Head of Venus wearing a diadem

Reverse: Aeneas carrying the Palladium in his right hand and Anchises on his left shoulder, with the legend ‘CAESAR’

By the time that the young Caesar delivered the eulogy above, the Julii had associated themselves with Venus for decades, as evidenced by coins that  were issued (respectively) by:

  1. Sextus Julius Caesar (praetor of 123 BC) in 129 BC (RRC 258/1): and

  2. Lucius Julius Caesar (consul of 90 BC) in 103 BC (RRC 320/1).

The reverses of the coins of both of these issues had depicted Venus in biga.  Both issuers had belonged to the second branch of the family: they were, respectively, the grandfather and father of Caesar’s second cousin, Lucius Julius Caesar, the consul of 64 BC (whom we will discuss below).  Shortly after Caesar’s victory at the Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC), which was to be the decisive battle in his civil war with Pompey, he issued a series of coins (RRC 458/1, illustrated above) that depicted Venus on the obverse, wearing a diadem and, more importantly, he identified himself in the legend on the reverse, which depicted Aeneas, the prince of Dardania, carrying his father Anchises and the cult image known as the Palladium as he fled the Achaeans’ sack of Troy: any Roman looking at that coin would have known that, according to Homer, Aeneas:

  1. was the son of Aphrodite (the Roman Venus) who had seduced his father, Anchises, on Mount Ida in the Troad; and

  2. had fought on the Trojan side in the famous battle against the Acheans, and been destined to survive the fall of Troy and to rule over the Trojans thereafter.

Andrew Erskine (referenced below, at p. 15) set out the essential features of the Romans’ foundation myth, as it was subsequently articulated, for example, in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ (ca. 17 BC):

  1. “After the fall of Troy, Aeneas and his band of Trojan survivors fled westwards.  Their wanderings stopped only when they had arrived in [Latium], where they founded two settlements, Lavinium and Alba Longa.  Later, ... the descendants of these Trojan refugees, in the persons of Romulus and Remus, established a third settlement in Latium: the city of Rome.”

In other words, Caesar’s coin of 48 BC made explicit the Julian claim to descent from Venus, via Aeneas.

Altar of Vediovis at Bovillae

Front and back of the inscribed altar from Bovillae (now in the garden of Palazzo Colonna in Rome)

Adapted from S. Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 8) 

Further (albeit indirect) evidence for the Julian claim to be descended from Aeneas comes in the form of the inscription (CIL XIV 2387) on an altar from Bovillae (see below), which reads:

Vediovei Patrei/ genteiles Iuliei/ Ved〚- - -〛 aara (front)

leege Albana dicata (back)

Mary Beard and her colleagues (referenced below, at p. 17) translated this as:

‘Members of the Julian clan to Father Vediovis/ Altar for Vediovis/ Dedicated by Alban Law’;

and observed that, in the inscription:

  1. “... the Julii, acting as a clan, record a dedication or sacrifice to the god Vediovis.” 

The altar was found in 1826 at Frattocchie, a district of the comune di Marino in Lazio (some 20 km southeast Rome) on the estate of Vincenzo Colonna, and is now in the garden of Palazzo Colonna, Rome.  (See Andrea Pancotti, referenced below, for details of the excavations).  This was the site of ancient Bovillae,  below the Alban hills.  According to the EAGLE database, the inscription was found ‘in an external corner of the scena of the theatre, wedged between the floor of large stones' (my translation).  It had clearly been reused, but we might reasonably assume that its original location was nearby.  Stephen Smith (referenced below, at p. 147) observed that:

  1. “This altar was clearly intended to evoke memories of an ancestral Latin past in order to shape contemporary views of the people who dedicated it.  It uses the double-rounded design, but the carving is crude, as if the aim was to make it appear to be already very old.”

The dating of the inscription is not straightforward: as Stephen Smith (referenced below, at p. 147) observed:

  1. “By naming the gens or clan, rather than an individual, [the inscription] suggests timeless continuity, [and this] prevents it from being dated precisely.  Its script pretends to be old by following the pseudo-archaic spelling conventions proposed by the grammarian Lucius Accius, which were popular from around 132 to 74 BC.  [The] lettering [is] of approximately the same period, and so the altar is usually dated to around 100 BC .”

The EAGLE database (see the CIL link) dates it to the period 150-75 BC. 

The altar would have been used for private, family rites of the kind recorded by the Augustan Grammarian M. Verrius Flaccus (as epitomised Festus) in his definition of ‘publica sacra’:

  1. “[While] public rituals are those that are for the populus ..., private rituals are those that are for individual men, families, gentes”, (‘de verborum significatu’, 284L, translated by Christopher Smith, referenced below, at p. 44, note 111).

We know from Macrobius that a number of patrician families, including the Julii, had their own domestic cults:

  1. “There are ...  religious festivals that belong to specific clans, like Claudian or Aemilian or Julian or Cornelian festivals and any others that a given clan keeps as a consequence of its own domestic observances”, (‘Saturnalia’, 1: 16: 7, translated by Robert Kaster, referenced below).

The likelihood is therefore that the private Julian festival recorded by Macrobius was dedicated to Vediovis and celebrated at this altar, which would have been on their property. 

Thus, the gens Julia probably owned an estate at Bovillae in ca. 100 BC and were, at that time, intent on laying claim to a longstanding presence in the area.  Furthermore, the claim in the inscription that it had been dedicated under ‘Alban law’ indicates an intention to underline the link between Bovillae and Alba Longa:

  1. according to the now-unknown author of the ‘Origo Gentis Romanae’ (at 17: 6), while Latinus Silvius, a successor of Ascanius, was ruling Alba Longa, a number of colonies were founded in Latium, including Bovillae; and

  2. there is epigraphic evidence that, from at least the 1st century AD (see, for example, CIL VI 1851), the people of Bovillae referred to themselves as Albani Longani Bovillenses, thereby implying that they had replaced Alba Longa after its destruction (according to tradition, at the time of the kings of Rome).

Stephen Smith (referenced below, at p. 148) characterised the Julian altar at Bovillae as:

  1. “... a clear example of how a Roman gens at the end of the second century BC could use a range of archaising devices to create a connection with an ancestral legend:

  2. dedicating it to an ancient Latin deity [see below];

  3. using what was thought to be an archaic form of script;

  4. siting it in an historically significant location; and

  5. using the traditional double-rounded design [for the mensa].”

Ernst Badian (referenced below, at pp. 14-15) argued that:

  1. “The altar [at Bovillae] has had a disastrous effect in modern scholarship, reinforced by the family propaganda of Augustus and Tiberius.  It has led to the identification of Bovillae as the place of origin of the Julii ... A dose of reality [is needed:

  2. ... there is no [known] conjunction between the Julii and Vediovis outside this text ... ; [and]

  3. there is no [surviving] record of any contact between the Julii and Bovillae before this inscription;  and

  4. ... [there is subsequent evidence for the Jullii at Bovillae until the death of] Augustus [see below].

  5. The gens, of course, had had many centuries in which to show an interest in Bovillae : [however], apart from this text and monument, no such interest appears, not even by Caesar ..., who proudly proclaimed his ancestry on suitable occasions ... We must look for a different explanation, bearing directly on this text.”

Badian suggested that:

  1. “The sudden emphasis [in ca. 100 BC] on the family legend tracing their descent to Alba Longa and ultimately [via Ascanius and Aeneas] to Venus, serves as a political manifesto.  Vediovis presumably had no structure dedicated to him at Bovillae (unlike at Rome, where several had long existed [see below], but there was probably an area sacred to him, which gave the Julii their opportunity.  An altar could be used as the vehicle for a suitable inscription: it was much cheaper than a temple and seems not to have needed public authorisation.  By the time the Julii were firmly established among leading [Roman] families with consulships in 91 and 90, they had no further need of Bovillae.  Interest was resumed only by Augustus, under whom ludi at Bovillae were founded, and by Tiberius, who built a sacrarium to the gens Iulia there ... : Augustus and Tiberius, of course, had a special interest in ‘proving’ their Julian descent, [since the former belonged to the gens only by virtue of his posthumous adoption by Caesar].”

It seems to me that Badian’s basic premise is borne out by the fact that it was apparently Lucius Furius Purpurio who had introduced the cult of Vediovis to Rome at the start of the 2nd century BC.  It is tempting to bracket the dedication of this altar in chronological terms with the issue of the Julian ‘Venus’ coins of 123 and 90 BC.

Vediovis, Ascanius and the Julii

Mary Beard and her colleagues (referenced below, at p. 17) observed that:

  1. “It seems likely that Vediovis represented, at least for the Julii, the divine form of their [alleged] founder, Iulus, for it was a Latin tradition that founders [of clans or cities] took on a new name when they were deified: so [for example]: Romulus became the god Quirinus; Aeneas (at least at Lavinium) became Indiges; and Latinus (the founder of the Latins) became Jupiter Latiaris” (my slight change of word order).

Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, pp, 8-10) presented the evidence for his assertion (at p.10) that Vediovis was a young Jupiter (rather than a form of Apollo, as other scholars suggest - see below). Like Beard et al., he concluded (at p. 10) that:

  1. “Vediovis was a youthful Jupiter [and] Iulus was [also] assumed to be [a diminutive of Jove]: the conclusion seems unavoidable that the Julii created the gentilician cult of Vediovis precisely because they believed him to be identical with [the deified] Iulus.”

Thus, we can reasonably assume that Lucius at least alluded to this family tradition at some point in his putative Libri Pontificalium

Significance of Troy for the Romans

As Luis Ballesteros-Pastor (referenced below, at p. 217) pointed out, because of its place in Greek mythology, Troy (also known as Ilion or Ilium):

“... became an essential point of reference for Greek and non-Greek conquerors who had a desire to re-enact Homeric deeds ... Moreover, ... [from an early date], the sacrifice to Athena Ilias [at the sanctuary there] was a rite considered obligatory for those who wanted to conquer Asia from Europe or vice-versa.”

Andrew Erskine (referenced below, at p. 225) observed that this mythical past was particularly potent for the Romans, since the Trojan hero Aeneas was believed to have fled from Troy when the Achaeans destroyed the city, and to have finally and literally ‘burned his boats’ after landing in Italy: his subsequent foundation of a colony at Lavinium in Latium led to the foundation of nearby Alba Longa and (eventually) to the foundation of Rome.   Thus, when the future Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus and his naval commander Caius Livius Salinator visited Ilium in 190 BC as they prepared for the invasion of Asia Minor, they were careful to make the obligatory sacrifice to Athena Ilias. 

Nevertheless, Ilium was sacked by the Roman commander Caius Flavius Fimbria during the First Mithridatic War (88-85 BC).  It subsequently suffered the predations of both Roman tax gatherers and sea-faring pirates.  Thus, it was experiencing serious financial difficulties in 77 BC, when Lucius Julius Caesar served there as quaestor for Asia. 


Read more:

Crawford M., “Roman Republican Coinage”, (2019) Cambridge

Smith S., “Sacred by Design: Expressing Latin Identity through Architectural Mouldings”, (2016) thesis of Royal Holloway College, London

Pancotti A., “La Scoperta e l’ Interpretazione dei Resti Monumentali di Bovillae”, in:

  1. Valenti M. (editor), “Colli Albani: Protagonisti e Luoghi della Ricerca Archeologica nell’ Ottocento”, (2012) Frascati, at pp. 178-84

Kaster R. A., “Macrobius: Saturnalia: Vol. I, Books 1-2; and Vol. II, Books 3-5”, (2011) Cambridge (MA)

Badian E., “From the Iulii to Caesar”, in

  1. Griffin M. (editor), “A Companion to Julius Caesar”, (2009) Malden, MA, at pp. 11-22

Ballesteros-Pastor L., “Troy between Mithridates and Rome”, in:

  1. Højte, J. M. (editor), “Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom” (2009), at pp. 217-32

Smith C. J., “The Roman Clan: the Gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology”, (2006) Cambridge

Erskine A., “Troy Between Greece and Rome: Local Tradition and Imperial Power”, (2001) Oxford and New York

Beard M.  et al. (editors), “Religions of Rome II: a Sourcebook”, (1998) Cambridge

Sumner, G. V., “A Note on Julius Caesar's Great-Grandfather”, Classical Philology, 71: 4 (1976) 341-4

Weinstock S., “Divus Julius”, (1971) Oxford

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