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Julio-Claudians: Caesar’s Divine Honours

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Early Empire: Augustus and the Julio-Claudian Emperors

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Denarius (early 44 BC): CAESAR DICT QVART: M METTIVS

This bust of Caesar is probably the earliest image of a living person on a Roman coin

Even during his lifetime, Caesar began to receive honours that had previously been reserved for the gods.  Thus Appian:

  1. “... Caesar, having ended the civil wars [at the Battle of Pharsalus, against Pompey the Great, in 48 BC], hastened to Rome, honoured and feared as no one had ever been before.  All kinds of honours were devised for his gratification without restraint, even such as were divine, by every tribe, by all the provinces, and by the kings in alliance with Rome: sacrifices, games, statues in all the temples and public places” (‘Civil Wars’, 2:106). 

Suetonius  believed that Caesar’s accumulation of excessive honours, including divine honours, ultimately led to his death:

  1. “... [Caesar] abused his power and was justly slain.  For, not only did he accept excessive honours:

  2. -an uninterrupted consulship;

  3. -the dictatorship for life;

  4. -the censorship of public morals;

  5. -... the title Imperator ;

  6. -the epithet ‘Patris patriae’;

  7. -a statue among those of the kings;

  8. -a raised couch in the orchestra;

  9. but he also allowed honours to be bestowed on him that were too great for a mortal man:

  10. -a golden throne in the Curia and on the judgement seat;

  11. -a chariot and litter in the procession at the Circus;

  12. -templa, aras, simulacra [temples, altars and statues] beside those of the gods;

  13. -a pulvinar [a cushioned couch for the gods];

  14. -flamen [priest];

  15. -an additional college of the Lupercal;  and

  16. -the calling of one of the months by his name.

  17. In fact, there were no honours that he did not receive or confer at pleasure” (‘Life of Julius Caesar’, 76).

Divine Honours and Religious Festivals

Among the most conspicuous of Caesar’s honours were those related to the annual religious festivals of Rome.  Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 286) stressed that: 

  1. “[Two of the honours decreed for Caesar]:

  2. -the golden throne in the theatre with the golden crown on it; and

  3. -the pulvinar with the ivory statue in the Circus [and the chariot that subsequently conveyed it];

  4. differ in appearance but agree in their significance: they were divine honours: no triumphator and no king could have received them.”

Golden Throne and Crown 

Cassius Dio recorded that:

  1. “[The Senate] voted that [Caesar’s] golden chair and his crown set with precious gems and overlaid with gold should be carried into the theatres [during religious festivals] in the same manner as those of the gods” (‘Roman History’, 44: 4).

According to Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 283):

  1. “The chair was never exhibited while Caesar was alive.  After his death, Octavian tried twice to exhibit it in 44 BC, but was prevented from doing so by [Mark] Antony.”

These two occasions are in the page on Octavian: Divus Julius.

Image at the Ludi Circenses

Cassius Dio also recorded an honour related to the ludi Circenses (chariot races at the circus, held during religious festivals):

  1. “.. the Senate ... decreed ... [first] that an ivory statue of [Caesar] and later that a whole chariot should appear in the procession at the  games in the Circus, together with the statues of the gods.  Another likeness they set up in the Temple of Quirinus with the inscription, ‘To the Invincible God’, and [yet] another on the Capitol beside the former kings of Rome” (‘Roman History’, 43:45:2-3 ).

Cicero made his opinion of this latest honour clear in his letter to Atticus of 26th May 45 BC, in which he responded to what must have been a suggestion by Atticus that he should write a conciliatory letter to Caesar:

  1. “... don't you see that even that famous pupil of Aristotle [Alexander the Great], distinguished for the very best ability and the most perfect conduct, no sooner got the title of king than he became haughty, cruel, and ungovernable?  Well now, do you think that this god of the procession [i.e. Caesar], this messmate of Quirinus, is likely to be gratified by temperate letters such as I should write?” Letter to Atticus, 13:28).

There is room for discussion about the precise significance of this quotation:

  1. Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 185) suggested that Cicero was alluding here to events that had occurred during the the Parilia: when news of Caesar’s victory at Munda reached Rome in April 45 BC at about the time of the games, they were extended by a day to allow circus games to be held in celebration. (an ancient festival that had come to be associated by Romulus’ foundation of Rome).  Weinstock suggested that Cicero referred to Caesar as “this god of the procession, this messmate of Quirinus” because:

  2. “The games were introduced, as usual, by a procession of the gods from the Capitol to the Circus, among these an ivory statue of Caesar in the company of Romulus-Quirinus.”

  3. Jaclyn Neel (referenced below, at p. 112) argued that Cicero’s phrase (which is the only surviving evidence for this procession:

  4. “... indicates that Caesar was in the procession, but not necessarily as [Weinstock’s] ‘ivory statue of Caesar in the company of Romulus-Quirinus’. ... Caesar’s statue seems to have a accompanied all processions, and Cicero’s remark is more pointed if it is more general.  His use of ‘contubernalis‘ [messmate]  may also imply that Cicero was purposefully conflating the statue in the procession with Caesar’s statue in Quirinus’ temple [see the quote from Cassius Dio above]:”.

  5. Perhaps with this in mind, John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht (referenced below, at p. 34, note 26) suggested:

  6. “Might not a better occasion ... be found in the month [May] in which the letter was written, on the final day of the Floriales, the 3rd May ...?”

Cicero, in another letter to Atticus of July 45 BC, alluded to a similar 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 [Caesar]” (Letter to Atticus, 13:44).

Again, there is room for discussion about the precise significance of this quotation:

  1. Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 185 and note 11), who dated Atticus’ letter to 20th or 21st July, suggested that this procession had been held during games in honour of a Caesarian victory at this time (discussed further below).  He assumed that Caesar’s image had accompanied an image of Victory in this procession, to the evident displeasure of the crowd.

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

  3. “Cicero’s comment does not necessitate the the conclusion that the games were ‘victory games’. 

  4. They suggested (at Appendix IV, pp. 185-8) that Cicero might have described the figure of Victory as Caesar’s neighbour simply because it came from a temple near his official residence. Since they 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 (as set out at p. 35):

  5. “... 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.

In short, it seems clear that, after the victory at Munda,  Caesar’s ivory statue accompanied those of the gods in the processions that preceded games in the circus, the surviving evidence cannot be unequivocally related to specific occasions.

Chariot for Caesar’s Image

Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 285) suggested that the chariot mentioned in the references above from Cassius Dio and Suetonius was first used to transport Caesar’s image in the ludi Romani (games dedicated to Jupiter) in September 44 BC (i.e. after Caesar’s death), when an extra day had been added on 19th September in honour of Caesar.   The circumstances are discussed in the page on divus Julius.

Venus Genetrix

If one hopes to be recognised as a god, it is a good idea to demonstrate divine ancestry.  In the case of Caesar, his family already claimed descent from Venus Genetrix (Venus the Ancestress), and Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 83 and notes 2 and 3) summarised the evidence for Caesar’ attachment to her cult:

  1. “When the Civil War [against Pompey the Great] broke out, [Caesar] propagated anew the tradition of his family.  He spoke about his divine ancestry to his soldiers; and his adversaries called him ‘the descendant of Venus’ among themselves without [needing to mention] his name, which shows how strongly he stressed his claim.”

His adherence to the cult took physical shape in the temple that he built for her in Rome:

  1. Appian recorded that Caesar had vowed this temple before the Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC), which was to be the decisive battle in his civil war:

  2. “[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).

  3. 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:

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

An entry in the in the Augustan ‘Fasti’ 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.  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 [Julia], he exhibited combats of wild beasts and gladiators” (‘Roman History’, 43: 22).

Thus, it seems that these inaugural ludi Veneris Genitricis 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.”  

John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht (referenced below, at p. 184) suggested that a passage by Nicholaus of Damascus, which relates to the summer of 46 BC, before Octavian left Rome to join Caesar in Spain (see below), probably refers to this first exhibition of the ludi Veneris Genitricis:

  1. “Caesar wished [Octavian] to have the experience of directing the exhibition of theatrical productions (for there were two theatres [in Rome]: the one Roman, over which he himself had charge: and the other Greek).  [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). 

Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 91) asserted that:

“... 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”.

This was based principally on two pieces of evidence:

  1. the ludi Victoriae Caesaris was celebrated in the imperial period during 20-30 July, while the ludi Veneris Genitricis no longer appeared in the Fasti; and

  2. the first celebration of the renamed games was probably his proposed victory games of July 45 BC, when, as discussed above, Caesar’s image had accompanied an image of Victory.

However, John Ramsey and Arthur Lewis Licht (referenced below, at p. 33) doubted that the games of July 45 BC were victory games.  They further argued (at p. 43) that Caesar had almost certainly celebrated the ludi Veneris Genitricis for the second time shortly after the triumph that he celebrated shortly before 13th October 45 BC for his victory at Munda:

  1. “Caesar’s [Spanish] triumph [of 45 BC] will 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 also   observed (at p. 42) that:

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

Julius Caesar seems to have been indelibly associated with Temple 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).

Caesar’s Own Temple and Flamines

Cassius Dio completed his list of Caesar’s honours as follows:

  1. “And finally [the Senate] addressed him outright as Jupiter Julius and ordered a temple to be consecrated to him and to his Clementia (clemency), electing [Mark] Antony as their priest like some flamen Dialis” (‘Roman History’, 44: 4).

Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 287) plausibly suggested that Cassius Dio:

  1. “... had conflated two pieces of evidence into one:

  2. -one was concerned with the temple of Clementia Caesaris [which was decreed but apparently never built]; [while]

  3. -the other [was concerned with Caesar] alone as Jupiter Julius, and with his own priest, comparable to the flamen Dialis [and thus putting ‘Jupiter Julius’ on a par with Quirinus, Jupiter, and Mars].”

  4. This second set of honours had probably been decreed very shortly before Caesar’s murder: the temple had not been started and, although Mark Antony had been chosen as the first priest of the imperial cult, he remained to be inaugurated”.

Note that some scholars doubt that these honours, which explicitly acknowledged Caesar’s divinity were decreed during Caesar’s lifetime.  For example,  Michael Koortbojian (referenced below, at p. 34) suggested that Mark Antony must have decreed the flaminate at some time later than the appearance of the comet during the funerary games that Octavian held for Caesar in July 44 BC (described in the page on Octavian: divus Julius).  I have to say that it seems highly unlikely (at least to me) that Mark Antony would have sponsored such a decree and agreed to be the first flamen once he had discovered that Octavian was the potential divi filius.

Read more:

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

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

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

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


CaesarMain page    Caesar’s Divine Honours   

OctavianMain page     Divus Julius      Perusine War    

Early Empire: Augustus and the Julio-Claudian Emperors

Literary Sources

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