Roman Republic

Roman Italy (1st century BC)

Divus Julius II: After Caesar’s Death

Octavian, Divi Filius

At the time of Caesar’s murder, his great nephew, the eighteen-year-old Caius Octavius, was with Caesar’s army in Apollonia (in modern Albania).  When news reached him, he quickly returned to Italy, where he learned that Caesar had adopted him in his will.  He soon signalled his intention to accept his inheritance by changing his name to Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, or Caesar for short (although hereafter I call him ‘Octavian’, for the sake of clarity). 

When Octavian arrived in Rome in May 44 BC,  it soon became apparent to him that he would not easily secure his inheritance: Mark Antony’s power was in the ascendant, and the fact that Octavian was now Caesar’s son by adoption made little difference to his position: in a letter that Mark Antony sent to Octavian in March 43 BC (from which Cicero quoted in the senate soon after), he still addressed Octavian as:

  1. “You, boy, ... [owe] everything to [Caesar’s] name”, (‘Philippics’, 13: 24). 

Cicero made use of this and other extracts from the letter in his denunciation of Mark Antony, but he almost certainly shared this view of Octavian’s position.  However, both Mark Antony and Cicero apparently failed to appreciate the fact that, by this time, Octavian had much more in his armoury the Caesar’s name tout court: he had established himself with many Caesarians as divi filius, the son of the deified Julius.  He had not invented the cult of divus Julius:

  1. the Senate had recognised Caesar as Jupiter Julius shortly before his murder, and Mark Antony had been designated as his flamen (although,  he had not been inaugurated by the time of Caesar’s murder); and

  2. some Romans had offered sacrifices to Caesar at the altar that had been established in the Forum during Caesar’s funeral, at least until Dolabella (Mark Antony’s consular colleague) had destroyed it about a month later.

Octavian was able to survive in this dangerous political climate because, despite the best efforts of both Mark Antony and Cicero, he was able to revive it.  In this section, I attempt a chronological account of how he achieved this, and how it furthered his fundamental objective: to secure his Caesarian inheritance.

Caesar’s Cult in Late 44 BC

Octavian’s Oath (November)

When Mark Antony erected a statue of Caesar in the Forum in October 44 BC, Cicero’s indignation reached new heights.  In a letter to Cassius, one of the assassins, he complained:

  1. “Your friend [Mark Antony] gets crazier every day.  To begin with, he has inscribed the statue that  he set up on the Rostra ‘Parenti optime merito’, so that you are now set down, not only as assassins, but as parricides to boot!”, (‘Letters to Friends’, 345: 1, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, 2002a, at p. 145).   

This statue had presumably been Mark Antony’s response to the similarly inscribed statue on the pillar that now marked the place at the other end of the Forum where Caesar had been cremated.  Note, however, that Cicero did not express his objection to the statue itself, but rather to the inscription and its implication that Caesar’s murder had been parricide. 

As described in the main page on Octavian, while Mark Antony was away from Rome in November 44 BC, Octavian made clear his exasperation with Mark Antony at a public in the Forum.  Appian described it thus::

  1. “When Octavian arrived, he proceeded to the temple of Castor and Pollux, which his soldiers surrounded carrying concealed daggers.  Cannutius, [the tribune who had convened the meeting], addressed the people first, speaking against Mark Antony.  Afterwards Octavian also reminded them of his father [Caesar] and of what he [Octavian himself] had also suffered at the hands of Mark Antony ... He declared himself the obedient servant of his country in all things, and said that he was ready to confront Mark Antony in the present emergency” (‘Civil Wars’, 3:41).

Cicero provides us with further details of contents of Octavian’s speech:

  1. “Why, what a speech!  It has been sent to me.  He qualifies his oath by the words:

  2. ‘So may I [be permitted to] achieve the honours of my father’,

  3. and, at the same time, he held out his right hand in the direction of his [father’s] statue.  Heaven forfend that we should be saved by such a man!” (Letter to Atticus, 16:15; the phrase in italics is from the translation of Geoffrey Sumi, referenced below, 2005, p. 164).

Octavian’s immediate purpose in having raised his private army was now clear: he was determined to secure in full his legacy from Caesar and the enactment of Caesar’s divine honours, which had been his (i.e. Caesar’s) by decree and which did not fall away now that he was dead.  If Mark Antony would not co-operate, then Octavian would achieve his objectives by force.

What is less clear is what was meant by Octavian’s qualification of his oath:

  1. So may I [be permitted to] achieve the honours of my father.”

Michael Koortbojian (referenced below, at pp. 37-8) considered three possibilities:

  1. that Octavian swore by his hopes of emulating all of Caesar’s honours, including his divine honours;

  2. that he swore by his hopes that all the honours decreed for Caesar would be achieved (i.e. acted upon); or

  3. that he simply swore to emulate Caesar’s cursus honorum.

There is considerable room for discussion between their respective merits,  For example:

  1. Geoffrey Sumi (referenced below, 2005, at p. 161) put forward the first possibility,  adding (at p. 164) that:

  2. “The cautious language of his oath might have been intended to demonstrate that he was acting at the behest of the army: they would ‘permit’ him to achieve his father’s honours ...”.

  3. Michael Koortbojian himself:

  4. -rejected the first possibility on the grounds that Octavian’s audience would not have found it credible, for example, that Octavian would ever achieve Caesar’s divine honours; and

  5. -rejected the second, since:

  6. “Mark Antony had already succeeded in enacting many of these honours.”

  7. He thus favoured the third.  However, Geoffrey Sumi (referenced below, 2005, at p. 164) observed that this implied that:

  8. “... Octavian, by his oath, could express his hopes of becoming quaestor, aedile and consul, as Caesar had before him - perhaps not an overly ambitions statement.”

  9. It is indeed arguable thatCicero would not have chosen to quote this passage, had this been all that  it implied.

For what it is worth, I think that the second of these possibilities is the most likely, given that Octavian probably swore the oath while pointing to a statue of Caesar that stood near the altar that had been rebuilt on the site of Caesar’s cremation (which would have been behind him as he spoke).  In other words, I think that Octavian swore to defeat Mark Antony in order to achieve the enactment in full of the decrees that prescribed Caesar’s cult, which Mark Antony was signally failing to do (as Cicero had pointed out in his second Philippic, quoted above).  If so, as we shall see below, once he became consul in 43 BC, Octavian redeemed his oath.

Consecration of Divus Julius (42 BC ?)

                                                     Divus Julius (RRC 526/2)           Divi Filius (Octavian, RRC 526/3)

       Obverses of two coins issued by Q. Voconius Vitulus in 40 BC

According to Cassius Dio:

  1. “While [the triumvirs] were behaving in this manner [i.e. engaged in proscriptions], they were also magnifying the former Caesar to the utmost degree, ... [and] did everything that tended to his honour, in expectation of some day being themselves deemed worthy of like honours.  For this reason, they exalted him, not only by the honours that had already been voted him, but also by others which they now added. Thus, on the first day of [42 BC], they:

  2. -took an oath and made all the rest swear that they would consider all his acts binding ...;

  3. -... laid the foundation of a shrine to him, as hero, [i.e of the Temple of Divus Julius] in the Forum, on the spot where his body had been burned;

  4. -caused an image of him, together with an image, that of Venus, to be carried in the procession at the Circensian games; 

  5. -[decreed that], whenever news came of a victory anywhere, ... the honour of supplicationes [should be due] to both the victor by himself and to Caesar, though dead ...;

  6. -... compelled everybody to celebrate his birthday ...;

  7. -... made the day on which he had been murdered ... an unlucky day, closed the room in which he had been murdered and later transformed it into a privy;

  8. -built the Curia Julia, named after him ...;

  9. -... forbade any likeness of him to be carried at the funerals of his relatives, just as if he were in very truth a god ...; and

  10. -enacted that no one who took refuge in his shrine to secure immunity should be driven or dragged away from there, a distinction that had never been granted even to any of the gods since the days of Romulus”, (‘Roman History’, 47: 18-19).

Appian gave a shorter account of these events, in which he seemed to equate the decree that allowed the triumvirs to lay the foundation stone of the shrine mentioned by Cassius Dio above with the later practice of formal consecration and deification of ‘good’ emperors:

  1. “[On the place in the Forum where Caesar’s bier had been burned and where the mob had erected an altar] now stands the temple of Caesar himself, as he was deemed worthy of divine honours; for Octavian, his son by adoption, who took the name of Caesar, ... decreed divine honours to his father.  From this example the Romans now pay like honours to each emperor at his death if he has not reigned in a tyrannical manner or made himself odious, although at first they could not bear to call them kings even while alive.” (‘Civil Wars’, 2:148).

The formal consecration of Caesar by the Senate is evidenced by the fortunate survival of an inscription (CIL IX 2628) from Aesernia (modern Isernia, some 180 km east of Rome):

Genio deivi Iuli / parentis patriae

quem senatus / populusque / Romanus

in / deorum numerum / rettulit

To the Genius of divus Julius, parent of his country

whom the Senate and the People of Rome

have restored to the number of the gods

The date of this inscription is unknown, but the decree to which it relates was almost certainly passed at some time after Cicero’s death 7th December on 7th December 43 BC, since he would surely have referred to it in his correspondence.  Most scholars assume that it was passed on 1st January 42 BC, paving the way for the laying of the foundation stone of the Aedes Divi Julii.  Suetonius seems to have drawn on a similar inscription when he reported that:

  1. “[Caesar] died in the 56th year of his age and was numbered among the gods, not only by a formal decree, but also in the conviction of the common people.  For at the first of the games which his heir [Octavian] gave in honour of his apotheosis, a comet shone for 7 successive days, rising about the 11th hour, and was believed to be the soul of Caesar, who had been taken to heaven; and this is why a star is set upon the crown of his head in his statue” (‘Life of Julius Caesar’, 88).

The ‘formal decree’ presumably ratified the desire of the common people after the omen at Caesar’s funerary games.

Development of the Cult (42 - 40 BC)

Inauguration of Mark Antony as Flamen Divi Julius (40 BC)

  1. Caesar’s birthday:

  2. 12th July (fasti Amiternini, fasti Antiates Ministrorum);

  3. three religious festivals associated with Caesar:

  4. 26th September, dies natalis of the Temple of Venus Genetrix, dedicated in 46 BC:

  5. 20th-30th July, ludi Victoriae Caesaris (fasti Maffeiani, fasti Amiternini);

  6. 18th August, dies natalis of the Temple of Divus Julius, dedicated in 29 BC (fasti Allifani: fasti Amiterni, fasti Antiates Ministrorum);

  7. two of his victories over Pompey and his armies:

  8. 2nd August, for his victory over Pompey’s army at Ilerda in 49 BC (fasti Maffeiani);

  9. 9th August, for his victory over Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 BC (fasti Fratrum Arvalium, where ‘Pharsalus, is misspelt as ‘Pharnaces’), fasti Maffeiani, fasti Allifani, fasti Amiternini, fasti Antiates Ministrorum);

  10. three of the four victories for which he triumphed in 46 BC:

  11. 27th March, for his victory over Ptolemy XIII at Alexandria in 47 BC (fasti Maffeiani);

  12. 2nd August, for his victory over Pharnaces at Zela in Pontus in 47 BC (fasti Fratrum Arvalium, fasti Vallenses, fasti Amiternini, fasti Antiates Ministrorum);

  13. 6th April, for his victory over Juba and the Pompeians  at Thapsus in 46 BC (fasti Praenestini); and

  14. the victory for which he triumphed in 45 BC:

  15. 17th March, for his victory over victory Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey’s son) at Munda in 45 BC (fasti Caeretani, fasti Farnesiani).

Read more:

Wardle D., “Baby Steps for Octavian: 44 BC ?”, Classical Quarterly 68.1 (2018) 178–91

Strauss B., “The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination”, (2015) New York

Goldsworthy A., “Augustus: First Emperor of Rome”, (2014) New Haven and London

Neel J., “Legendary Rivals: Collegiality and Ambition in the Tales of Early Rome”, (2014) Leiden; Boston

Cole S., “Cicero and the Rise of Deification at Rome”, (2013) Cambridge

Cornell T. J., “The Fragments of the Roman Historians” (2013) Oxford

Koortbojian M., “The Divinisation of Caesar and Augustus: Precedents, Consequences, Implications”, (2013) New York

Kaster R. A.(translator), “Macrobius. Saturnalia, Volume I: Books 1-2”, (2011) Cambridge MA

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Sumi G., “Topography and Ideology: Caesar's Monument and the Aedes Divi Iulii in Augustan Rome”, Classical Quarterly, 61.1 (2011) 205–19

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

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  1. Griffin M. (editor), “Companion to Julius Caesar’ (2009) Chichester and Malden, MA, at pp. 100-11

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Sumi G., “Ceremony and Power: Performing Politics in Rome between Republic and Empire”, (2005) Michigan

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Shackleton Bailey D. R. (translator), “Cicero: Letters to Quintus and Brutus; Letter Fragments;  Letter to Octavian.; Invectives; Handbook of Electioneering”, (2002b) Cambridge MA

Ramsey J., “Did Mark Antony Contemplate an Alliance with His Political Enemies in July 44 BC ?”, Classical Philology, 96:3 (2001) 253-68

Shackleton Bailey (D. R. translator), “Cicero: Letters to Atticus, Volume IV”, (1999) Cambridge MA

Ramsey J. and Licht A. L., “The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar's Funeral Games”, (1997) Atlanta, Georgia

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Alföldi A., “La Divinisation de César dans la Politique d'Antoine et d'Octavien entre 44 et 40 avant JC”, Revue Numismatique, 15 (1973) 99-128

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

Butler W., “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology”, (1844) London 

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