Roman Republic

Julius Caesar and the Cult of Venus Genetrix

Silver denarius issued by Caesar: 46 BC (RRC 458/1)

Obverse: Head of Venus, wearing a diadem (her first appearance in Caesar’s coinage)

Reverse: CAESAR: Aeneas carrying palladium in right hand and Anchises on left shoulder

Probably produced at a military mint travelling with Caesar’s army

Caesar’s Descent from Venus

According to Suetonius, when Caesar was quaestor in ca. 68 BC:

  1. “... he pronounced the customary orations from the Rostra in praise of his aunt Julia and his wife Cornelia, who had both 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 from the kings on her mother’s side and, on her father's side, [from] the immortal gods.  For:

  3. the Marcii Reges go back to [King] Ancus Marcius; and

  4. the Iulii, the family of which ours is a branch, [go back] to Venus.

  5. Our stock, therefore, has both:

  6. the sanctity of kings, whose power is supreme among mortal men; and

  7. the claim to reverence that attaches to the gods, who hold sway even over kings’”, (‘Life of Julius Caesar’, 6:1).

By this time, 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.

Shortly after Caesar’s victory in 48 BC at the Battle of Pharsalus, which was to be the decisive battle in his civil war with Pompey, Caesar himself issued a series of coins (RRC 458/1, illustrated above) that depicted Venus on the obverse, wearing a diadem:  he was identified in the legend on the reverse, which depicted Aeneas, the prince of Troy, carrying his father Anchises and the cult image known as the Palladium as he fled the Achaeans’ sack of his ancestral city. 

Anchises, Aeneas and Ascanius/ Iulus

According to the Homeric ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’, Zeus’ daughter Aphrodite (whom the Romans knew as Venus) seduced the handsome Anchises, King of Troy, before he was aware of her divine status.  When realisation struck, he feared the wrath of Zeus, until she reassured him as follows:

  1. “Anchises, most glorious of mortal men, take courage and be not too fearful in your heart; ... you are dear to the gods: and you shall have a dear son who shall reign among the Trojans, as will his children and his children’s children.  His name shall be Aeneas ...”, (‘Hymn to Aphrodite’, 5: 191-9).

According to Roman tradition, Aeneas, also rescued his son Ascanius from the ruins of Troy and, after many adventures, the exiles finally arrived in Latium.

The unknown author of the ‘Origo Gentis Romanae’ (OGR: Origin of the Roman Race), which probably dates to the late 4th century AD, recorded that:

  1. “... the Latins ... believed that, because of his outstanding courage, Ascanius [must have been] descended from Jupiter ... [Therefore], by slightly changing his name to form a diminutive [of Jove, they], first called him Iolus and afterward Iulus.  From him, the Julian family originated, as write Caesar in Book II and Cato in the ‘Origines’”, (‘OGR’, 15: 5).

Timothy Cornell (in T. J. Cornell, referenced below, II: p. 167) translated this as F11 of the fragments of Cato’s ‘Origines’.  He observed (at III; p. 71) that:

  1. “The difficulty here, as in all cases where two authors are cited, is to decide which elements of the text comes from [which author]”, and which from both.”

However, he cautioned that, in the case, the author of the OGR:

  1. “... implies that Caesar and Cato said the same things.”

The ‘things’ in question are that:

  1. the reason for Ascanius’ new name, Iulus, and the related claim that it was derived from a diminutive of Jove; and

  2. he was the founder of the Julian clan.

I discuss the attribution of each of these elements below, but in the reverse order.

The Julii claimed to belong to the line of Aeneas’ son, whom Virgil designated as:

  1. “The boy Ascanius, surnamed Iulus, who was [previously surnamed] Ilus while the state of Ilium [Troy] existed”, (‘Aeneid’, 1. 267-8).

For Virgil,  this Trojan Ascanius Ilus was Aeneas’ son by Creusa: she had died in the fire that had destroyed Troy, and Aeneas had brought the child with him when he came to Italy (see, for example, ‘Aen’. 2: 597-8 and 2: 789).  As Ross Cowan (referenced below, at pp. 3-4) observed:

  1. “Ascanius, and specifically his [surname], become a sort of weather-vane for the movement of political power: while Troy had power, his [surname] derived from her, but now she is no more, he must move westwards [with his father] and his [surname must] be altered to anticipate his position as [the founder] of the [Roman] gens Iulia.”

Shortly afterwards in Virgil’s narrative, Jupiter comforts Cytherea (Aphrodite/ Venus) by promising that, in time:

  1. “There will be born ... a Trojan Caesar, destined to bound his power with the Ocean [and] his fame with the stars: [he will be surnamed] Iulius, a name handed down from great Iulus”, (‘Aen’, 1. 286-8).

In this passage, I have adapted translation from Ross Cowan, who commented (at p. 5) that, for Virgil, Jupiter (no less) had confirmed the origins of Caesar’s name.  Virgil was writing at the request of the Emperor Augustus (Caesar’s son by adoption) in ca. 26 BC, but, as Rowan observed (at pp. 4-5):

  1. “The unresolved, and perhaps deliberate, ambiguity as to whether [Virgil’s ‘Trojan Caesar’ was] Julius Caesar or Augustus does not directly affect [his claims for the origins and significance] of the name [Iulius] ...”

James Rives (referenced below, at p. 294) observed that:

  1. “When Caesar established a cult in honour of Venus Genetrix  in Rome, he added a new dimension to Roman public religion.  New cults had often been established in the past, but none had the personal associations that this one did.  Although the epithet ‘Genetrix’ had been used of Venus in poetry for over a century, it [had previously been used to designate her as] an ancestral goddess of the Roman people in general.  [However], Caesar's family ... claimed direct descent from Venus through Iulus, the son of Aeneas, and apparently honoured her as their particular ancestral deity.  [Thus], in establishing his cult of Venus Genetrix, Caesar was, for all practical purposes, giving a public form to this family cult, and thereby expressing in religious terms his unique standing in the state.  This aspect of the cult, [which] has long been recognised, ... has rightly been the subject of much discussion, for it was in these personal associations that the cult was an innovation.  In [other respects], on the other hand, [Caesar’s actions were] traditional enough; [he]:

  2. vowed [her] temple as a general during a battle;

  3. dedicated it as a Roman magistrate; and

  4. presumably entered an annual sacrifice [to her] into the civic calendar as pontifex maximus.”

Caesar’s Temple

Appian recorded that Caesar had vowed this temple on the eve of the Battle of Pharsalus:

  1. “[Caesar] erected the temple to Venus [Genetrix], his ancestress, as he had vowed to do when he was about to begin the Battle of Pharsalus, and he laid out ground around the temple ... [as] a forum for the Roman people ... . He placed a beautiful image of Cleopatra by the side of the goddess, which stands there to this day”, (‘Civil Wars’, 2:102).

Cassius Dio recorded that, after the last  of the four triumphs that Caesar celebrated in quick succession in 46 BC,(to commemorate his recent victories in Gaul, Egypt, Pontus and Africa), he had dedicated both:

  1. “... the [new] forum called after him ... and the temple to Venus as the founder of his family [i.e. Venus Genetrix] and, in their honour, he instituted many contests of all kinds” (‘Roman History’, 43: 22).

Entries in (for example) the fasti Fratrum Arvalium (ca. 30 BC) and the fasti Praenestini (6-9 AD) records that the temple was  dedicated on 26th September, from which we might reasonably assume that the ludi Veneris Genitricis were first held on 26th September 46 BC.

Caesar and the Ludi Veneris Genitricis

Inaugural Games (46 BC)

An entry in the in the Augustan fasti record that Caesar’s temple of Venus Genetrix was dedicated on 26th September, from which we might reasonably assume that the ludi Veneris Genitricis were first held on 26th September 46 BC. Plutarch described them as follows:

  1. “After the triumphs [of 46 BC], Caesar gave his soldiers large gifts and entertained the people with banquets and spectacles, feasting them all at one time on 20,000 dining-couches, and furnishing spectacles of gladiatorial and naval combats in honour of his daughter Julia, long since dead”  (‘Life of Caesar’, 55:4).

Cassius Dio described the spectacle as follows:

  1. “[Caesar] built a kind of hunting-theatre of wood, which was called an amphitheatre from the fact that it had seats all around without any stage.  In honour of this and of his daughter [the deceased Julia], he exhibited combats of wild beasts and gladiators”, (‘Roman History’, 43: 22).

Thus, it seems that these inaugural games were combined with funerary games that Caesar held for Julia. 

John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht (referenced below, at p. 184) suggested that;

  1. “To judge from the descriptions [including those above] of their variety and splendour, ... the games must have run well into October.”  

They also suggested that a passage by Nicholaus of Damascus, which relates to the summer of 46 BC, before Octavian (Caesar’s nephew) left Rome to join Caesar in Spain, probably refers to this first exhibition of these games:

  1. “Caesar wished [Octavian] to have the experience of directing the exhibition of theatrical productions (for there were two theatres [in Rome]:

  2. the one Roman, over which he himself had charge: and

  3. the other Greek). 

  4. [Caesar] turned over [the Greek theatre] to the care of [Octavian], who, wishing to exhibit interest and benevolence in the matter, even on the hottest and longest days, never left his post before the end of the play.  The result was that he fell ill, for he was young and unaccustomed to toil” (‘Life of Augustus’, 19).

It seems to me that this “Greek theatre” was probably Cassius Dio’s “hunting-theatre of wood, which was called an amphitheatre” (above). 

Games of 45 BC

The only possible surviving reference to the comparable games of 45 BC is in a letter from Cicero to Atticus of 14th July 45 BC, in which Cicero referred to a procession that Atticus must have described to him:

  1. “What a delightful letter!  Though the procession was odious, it is nevertheless not odious [in every respect] ... . The people were splendid not to clap even the figure of Victory owing to its impious neighbour [by which he meant an image of Caesar]””, (‘Letters to Atticus’, 336: 1, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, 1999, at p. 105).

Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 185 and note 11), who dated Atticus’ letter to 20th or 21st July, suggested that this procession had formed part of games in honour of Caesar’s victory in Spain at this time, and that Caesar’s image had accompanied an image of Victory in this procession (to the evident displeasure of the crowd).  He therefore argued (at p. 91) that:

  1. “... when the ludi Veneris Genitricis were first repeated in 45 BC, they were no longer held on 26th September but from the 20th to the 30th July, and were now called ludi Victoriae Caesaris”.

The circumstantial evidence that supported this hypothesis was as follows:

  1. as discussed below:

  2. the comparable games of 44 BC (which were held by Octavian/ Augustus after Caesar’s murder) were held at some time between May and August; and

  3. while five independent sources (including one that probably quoted Augustus himself) referred to these games as ludi Veneris Genitricis, two referred to them as ludi Victoriae Caesaris; and

  4. the ludi Veneris Genitricis no longer appeared in the fasti from the early in the imperial period, but, according to:

  5. the Fasti Maffeiani (ca. 8AD); and

  6. the Fasti Amiternini, from the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD;

  7. games known as the ludi Victoriae Caesaris were celebrated during 20-30 July.

In other words, if Weinstock was correct in asserting that the comparable games of 45 BC were called ludi Victoriae Caesaris and held in July, then:

  1. the five sources who designated the games of 44 BC as ludi Veneris Genitricis were mistaken; and

  2. the games had been renamed and moved to 20-30 July in 45 BC, a situation that continued into the imperial period.

However, John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht (referenced below, at p. 33 and note 23) pointed put that, since a winged statue of Victory probably headed the processions of all the ludi circenses:

  1. “... Cicero’s comment does not necessitate the conclusion that the games [to which he referred in this letter] were ‘victory games’.” 

Since these authors dated Atticus’ letter to the 14th July, they further suggested that the incident reported to Cicero had actually occurred at the ludi Apollinares of the previous day.  On this hypothesis (which they set out at p. 35):

  1. “... Cicero and Atticus may have identified the crowd’s reaction at the ludi Apollinares as having [demonstrated opposition to Caesar] ... because [he] was being honoured in the procession, which included his ivory statue for only the second time.”

They also pointed out (at pp. 42-3) that Caesar was probably still in Spain in July 45 BC, but that he returned to Rome soon after, and that he celebrated the triumph for his victory in Spain before 13th October.  This fifth Caesarian triumph would thus:

  1. “... have taken place ... precisely in the period during which  the games to Venus [Genetrix] had been celebrated in 46 BC, ... [which] presumably began on 26th September and ran at least through to the end of the month and probably into October.” 

They further pointed out (at p. 42) that the ludi Veneris Genitricis of 46 BC had:

  1. “... capped the celebration of Caesar’s four triumphs [on successive days]”;

and suggested that:

  1. “ ... this double connection with triumphal returns of Caesar (in 46 and again in 45 BC) ... most probably explains why the festival was [subsequently] transformed into [the ludi Victoria Caesaris, which were celebrated on 20-30 July under the empire.”

Clearly, the scant and sketchy nature of the surviving evidence allows for a wide degree of disagreement.  It seems to me that, given the fact that there is no firm evidence Caesar’s new festival in honour of Venus was given a new name and/or celebrated on a different date in 45 BC, the balance of probabilities is that:

  1. the arrangements for 45 BC  followed the precedent set in 46 BC; and

  2. the subsequent changes (which certainly had occurred by the early imperial period) post-dated Caesar’s murder.

Cult of Venus Genetrix after Caesar’s Murder

Caesar seems to have been indelibly associated with cult of Venus Genetrix, even after his death: for example, according to Suetonius:

  1. “When [his] funeral was announced [on 20th March 44 BC], a pyre was erected in the Campus Martius, near the tomb of Julia, and a gilded shrine was placed on the rostra, made after the model of the temple of Venus Genetrix”, (‘Life of Julius Caesar’, 84).

This association was not lost of Caesar’s heir, his young nephew Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus), whom he had adopted as his son shortly before his death.  Octavian’s only ‘weapon’ against the older and more experienced Mark Antony derived from his credentials as Caesar’s heir and his membership of the family that descended from Venus Genetrix.

Ludi Veneris Genitricis of 44 BC

Date of the Games

On 18th May 44 BC,  Cicero wrote to Atticus about what had probably been Octavian’s first public speech in Rome:

  1. “... concerning Octavian’s speech, I feel the same as you do: the preparations for his games and [the fact that he has secured the services of Caius] Matius and [Marcus Curtius] Postumus as his procuratores (agents) are displeasing ... ”, (‘Letters to Atticus’, 379:3: , translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, 1999, at p. 225).

  2. .

As we shall see below, the  games that Octavian had just announced were the ludi Veneris Genitricis, and they were probably combined with (nominally private) funerary games for  Caesar.  Matius and Postumus, who had been prominent among Caesar’s financial advisers, had now apparently transferred their allegiance to Octavian and, since Octavian could not immediately access Caesar’s bequests, were presumably helping him to find other sources of finance for these games.  (Cicero and Atticus belonged to the political faction that disapproved of both the upstart Octavian and his proposed games in honour of Caesar, as discussed below).

The terminus ante quem for Octavian’s games is provided by the date of a letter that Matius subsequent;y wrote to Cicero to justify the fact that he and Postumus had facilitated them: in August 44 BC, he wrote that:

  1. “[My critics complain that] I superintended the ludos quos Caesaris victoriae [games in honour of Caesar's victory] that were given by [Octavian].  That is a matter of private obligation with no constitutional significance.  [It was merely] a service that I was bound to render to the memory of a dear friend even after his death, and I could not refuse the request of a young man [Octavian] of very great promise and in the highest degree worthy of Caesar” (‘Letters to Familiars’, 11: 28).

John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht (referenced below, at p. 41) argued that, from Octavian’s perspective:

  1. “... [political] conditions were ripe for holding in July the games that were to be the forerunner of the imperial ludi Victoria Caesaris”.

Since, as noted above, ludi Victoria Caesaris were celebrated on 20-30 July  from at least the early imperial period, it is probably safe to assume that Octavian effected this change of date in 44 BC as a matter of political expediency.

Title of the Games

Matius’ letter  is one of the two sources mentioned above in which these games were said to have celebrated Caesar’s victories: the second of these sources was Suetonius:

  1. “... since those who had been appointed to celebrate the ludos autem victoriae Cesaris [games in honour of Caesar's victory] did not dare to do so [in the political circumstances after Caesar’s murder, Octavian] gave them himself” (‘Life of Augustus’, 10).

John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht (referenced below, at p. 41) pointed out that :

  1. “The bulk of our sources [which they reproduced in Appendix I,at pp. 158-63 and pp. 168-9] would lead us to believe that the games were still being called ludi Veneris Genitricis [when Octavian held them] in 44 BC.”

The most important of these sources isPliny the Elder, not only because his account is the earliest to describe the events of that day in any detail, but also because (as noted, for example, by Tim Cornell, referenced below, volume II, p. 881) it included what is probably a direct quotation from the lost memoirs of the Emperor Augustus (i.e. of Octavian himself).  I discussPliny’s full account below: for the moment, we should note that he referred to:

  1. “... the games that [Octavian] was celebrating in honour of Venus Genetrix, not long after the death of his father Caesar, as a member of the college that Caesar had founded [for the purpose]”, (‘Natural History’, 2: 23).

Ramsay and Licht also noted (at p. 56) that the original name was still in use as late as 34 BC, when, according to Cassius Dio:

  1. “... the consuls celebrated the festival held in honour of Venus Genetrix” (‘Roman History’, 49:42:1).

Arrangements for the Games

Suetonius and Pliny the elder indicated that Caesar had already had the arrangements of these games in hand before his death: so too did Cassius Dio:

  1. “After [Octavian’s speech of May 44 BC] came the games appointed in honour of the completion of the temple of Venus [Genetrix], which some, while Caesar was still alive, had promised to celebrate, but which they were now holding in slight regard ... ; so, to win the favour of the populace, [Octavian] provided for them at his private expense, on the grounds that they concerned him because of his family,  (‘Roman History’, 45: 6: 4).

However, while Suetonius and Cassius Dio referred vaguely to the dereliction of duty of those who had been appointed (Suetonius) or had promised (Cassius Dio) to celebrate the games, Pliny the Elder recorded that these people were in fact members of a college that Caesar had established for the purpose, and that Octavian (who, as we saw above, had had a hand in arranging the games of 46 BC) had also been appointed to the college of 45 BC.  John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht (referenced below, at p. 50) suggested that the claims made in these three accounts that the other members of the college were reluctant to act:

  1. “... sound like pretexts for Octavian to take matters into his own hands.”

After all, there would have been no particular urgency in May 44 BC if the appointed date for the games had remained the 26th September.

Nature of the Games

As noted above, Caesar’s inaugural ludi Veneris Genitricis in 46 BC had been combined with funerary games for his daughter Julia.  Thus, we should not be surprised if Octavian had incorporated funerary games for Caesar himself into the spectacle that he organised so soon after his murder.  There are some indications that this was the case:

  1. Matius  (in the letter that he wrote to Cicero discussed above) chose to emphasis this aspect of the games in his justification of his own involvement, which had been:

  2. “... a matter of private obligation with no constitutional significance.  [It was merely] a service that I was bound to render to the memory of a dear friend even after his death ...”, (‘Letters to Familiars’, 11: 28).

  3. Cassius Dio (above) that Octavian had:

  4. “... provided for [the games] at his private expense, on the grounds that they concerned him because of his family” (‘Roman History’, 45: 6: 4).

  5. This again suggests a ‘private’ element to the games of 44 BC.

However, Servius is our only explicit source for the information that these were, to some extent, funerary games: for example, in his commentary (4th century AD) on the passage from Virgil in which the poet described Octavian at the Battle of Actium, when:

  1. “... his father’s star adorned the crest [of his helmet]” (‘Aenid’, (8.681);

Servius noted that this star/comet (see below) had appeared:

  1. “... dum sacrificaretur Veneri Genetrici et ludi funebres Caesari exhiberentur”, (‘Vergilii Aeneidos Commentarius’, 8, 681)

  2. “... while [Octavian] was sacrificing to Venus Genetrix and holding funerary games for Caesar” (my translation).

Political Ramifications of the Games

These games of 44 BC were a crucial part of Octavian’s programme of asserting his status as the son (albeit by adoption) of Caesar, in the face of opposition from Mark Antony: by incorporating funeral game for his father, he demonstrated filial piety and drew attention to the fact that Mark Antony was still blocking the formalisation his posthumous adoption by Caesar.  July was an excellent month for his purposes: it was the month of Caesar’s birth and had been renamed in his honour: and 20th July was exactly four months after Caesar’s funeral.  Unfortunately, as Matius had pointed out (above), funerary games were a matter of private obligation with no constitutional significance. 

Furthermore, there was the question of Caesar’s deification.  As set out in my page on divus Julius, he had been granted divine honours in vivo.  After his death, the consuls Mark Antony and Publius Cornelius Dolabella, had been reluctant to observe them and had taken steps to oppose the development of a cult site devoted to him on the Capitol (the site of his inhumation).  Clearly, Octaian had much to gain from the prospective status of divi filius (son of a deified mortal),  but he was initially powerful enough to make much headway.  However, as John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht (referenced below, at p. 52) pointed out:

  1. “If [Octavian] could not openly advertise Caesar’s divinity [by, for example, securing the enactment of the decree relating to the exhibition of his golden throne and crown in the theatre], he could at least indirectly convey his message by using the ludi Veneris Genitricis to lend an aura of divine majesty to Caesar’s funeral games.  The close connection between Venus [Genetrix] and her most famous descendant [Caesar] had recently been demonstrated during [his] funeral, when [as noted above] his body had been laid out in a gilded replica of [her temple] that was placed on the rostra.” 

Furthermore, by advancing the date of these public games to 20th July, just a week after Brutus’ ludi Apollinares (see the main page on Octavian), Octavian was able to secure a major boost to Caesar’s cult. 

There is no suggestion in the surviving sources that Mark Antony tried to block Octavian’s games.  However, this was the second of the two occasions on which he prevented Octavian from exhibiting Caesar’s golden throne and crown: Appian, who recorded that Mark Antony had already prohibited the lawful exhibition of these divine attributes earlier in the year, now recorded that he:

  1. “... prohibited this still more unreasonably in the next games, [which were] given by Octavian himself, and which had been instituted by his father in honour of Venus Genetrix when he dedicated a temple to her in a forum, together with that forum itself” (‘Civil Wars’, 3:28).

Cassius Dio gave a similar account relating of this second occasion:

  1. “At this time, out of fear of [Mark] Antony, [Octavian]e did not bring into the theatre either Caesar's gilded chair or his crown set with precious stones, as had been permitted by decree [during Caesar;s lifetime]”, (‘Roman History, 45: 6:4).

However, as we are about to see, Octavian found another means of using the games of July 44 BC to promote the cult of divus Julius.

Sidus Iulium (Julian Star)

A number of sources (listed in full by John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht, referenced below, at pp. 158-76) reported the portentous appearance of a comet during Octavian’s games.  These included:

  1. Suetonius:

  2. “[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).

  3. Cassius Dio:

  4. “When, however, a certain star, which some called a comet, appeared in the north toward evening during [every day of the games], the majority ... ascribed it to Caesar, interpreting it to mean that he had become immortal and had been received into the number of the stars.  [Octavian] then took courage and set up a bronze statue of Caesar with a star above his head in the temple of Venus”, (‘Roman History, 45: 7:1 ).

However, as noted above, the most important of these surviving sources is Pliny the Elder, who reported that:

  1. “Rome is the only place in the world where a comet is the object of cult in a temple; [Octavian] regarded this comet as auspicious to [himself] because it appeared during the games that he was celebrating in honour of Venus Genetrix, not long after the death of his father Caesar, as a member of the college that Caesar had founded.  He [Octavian] expressed his joy in these terms:

  2. ‘During the very time of these games of mine, a hairy star was seen for 7 days in the part of the heavens that is under the Great Bear.  It rose about the 11th hour of the day, was very bright, and was conspicuous in all parts of the earth.  The common people supposed the star to indicate that the soul of Caesar had been admitted among the immortal Gods; [and thus] the star was placed on the bust [of Caesar] that had been lately consecrated in the forum’.

  3. This is what [Octavian] proclaimed in public but, in secret, he rejoiced at this auspicious omen, believing that it had been for himself and that he was born in it; and, to tell the truth, it really proved a salutary omen for the world at large” (‘Natural History’, 2: 23).

In other words, Octavian used the appearance of the comet to propagate among the people the conviction that Caesar’s soul had ascended to the heavens and that he was thus divi filius.

As John Ramsay (referenced below, at p. 255) pointed out, our main sources on its effect on the public - i.e.,  not only Pliny the Elder but also Suetonius and Cassius Dio - probably all relied on Octavian’s memoirs, which were hardly unbiased.  Nevertheless, Adrian Goldsworthy (referenced below, at p. 99), for example, judged that: 

  1. “The story caught on and ... in many ways it built on the semi-divine honours awarded to [Caesar] during his lifetime and the altar to him [that had been] set up [in the forum after his funeral] but later knocked down on the consuls’ orders.”

Perhaps the best evidence for this is the fact that Mark Antony now began to relax to an extent his earlier opposition to the establishment of Caesar’s cult.

Read more:

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

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

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

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

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

J. Rives, “Venus Genetrix Outside Rome”, Phoenix, 48:4 (1994) 294-306

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