The Iceman Cometh: The Birth of Gaius Octavius and Roman Myth-Making 

In the interest of continuing to mix things up, I had meant to pivot back away from Rome this week, though those of you who managed get through last week’s nonsense will be incredulous that I was still finding unused Teutoburg memes among my photo files days after posting.

[Teutonic esprit de l’escalier ]

But as I was meditating on what to write about this week Sunday night, as is my wont, I realized we had an important birthday coming up. 

[Please don’t. You know I’m always sick around this time of year. Ask Suetonius.]

Nothing doing, sweet cheeks. I don’t like a lot of brouhaha for mine, either, but you and I share a birthday week, and as Sir Paul would opine, they say it’s your birthday, so happy birthday to you.

[Oh, gods… Now I have that stupid song stuck in my head…]

It truly transcends space and time. Octavius is celebrating his 2,084th birthday today, September 23rd, (mine’s a few days from now— I am turning less than that years old). But in honor of two cool-blooded romantic Libras (though in his time, he’s a Capricorn) who love fronting that they are low-maintenance, but like good wine and better art, I thought we’d talk a little about some of the underpinnings of how the Romans went about making their first emperor into a deity. Specifically, how they used omens and archetypal storytelling to adapt Octavius’ biography to one recognizable to its international audience as a god’s mythos. This sounds like trivial political propaganda, but the birth of the imperial cult proved to be one of the most successful caulks that held the Roman Empire together by giving its diverse population a set of deities in common, and helped Rome assimilate its rule over cultures very dissimilar from their own, many of which, like Egypt, expected their overlords to project themselves as more than merely mortal.

[With the abs to match!]

But before it could worry about what the barbarians thought of their Princeps, Rome had to convince itself that Octavius was a god. One the main ways it accomplished this was to exploit the Roman religion’s strong folk belief in omens and portents to show that Octavius’ especial greatness had been long foretold. Many of these omens and backwards-looking predictions come down to us from a variety of sources channeled through Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars, but what’s interesting about these portents, besides their sheer number, is the wide field of folklore tropes they seem to hit on their way, not all of which strike one as strictly Roman.  It’s almost as if there is a subconscious cultural imperative to create this collective imperial narrative to explain the radical world shift that had occurred for so many people during Octavius’ forty-odd year reign.

However, one of the first Suetonius presents is very Latin and very local. He reports that in the small town of Velitrae, where Octavius was born and raised, there had been a prophecy made in time immemorial that one of its citizens would one day rule the world. The occasion that had prompted this burst of divination was lightning striking the town wall, lightning always a potent symbol of divine intervention, good and bad. The ancient Velitraens proceeded to take this prophecy very seriously and on its promise fought the ancient Romans multiple times in an attempt to gain its glory, to the point of nearly wiping themselves out. But one could argue this forwarded the agenda of the prophecy in that maddening oracular way, as the weakened Velitraens would be culturally absorbed into Rome the way so many other Italian tribes would be, making it so when Octavius was born within its relatively unimportant lightning-struck walls, he would be a Roman in a position to make good on an ancient promise.

The next story Suetonius recounts is downright biblical in its dimensions, as he tells of an unspecified omen observed in Rome during the year of Octavius’ birth that foretold of the birth of a Roman king. Because this was 63 BC, the Senate did not like the sound of this one bit and ordered that all male children that year should “not be reared,” which in Latin culture probably meant they should be exposed as opposed to summarily murdered á la Herod the Great (though I’m not suggesting that’s really any better). However, sons and heirs were so important in Roman culture that the idea that those senators with pregnant wives would willingly expose a legitimate male child was pretty laughable. Not to mention they all automatically assumed it was their wife who was going to give birth to this Super Baby. Those senators instead employed the classic political feint of having a bill die in committee to avoid ratifying it, which in the Roman Senate meant they kept the decree from being filed in the treasury. This kept the decree from being rendered law and eventually it became a fait accompli. Octavius is born safe and sound, and Rome was spared its own Massacre of the Innocents by bureaucratic red tape.

Interestingly enough, several of the leading Roman scholars of the late Republic are also depicted as having, by virtue of their intelligence no doubt, received foreknowledge of Octavius’ rise in one way or another. Cicero’s friend, the astronomer and mathematician Publius Nigidius Figulus had charted the day and hour of Octavius’ as the nativity of the ruler of the world, a prediction he announced on the floor of the Senate during the Catiline conspiracy trials when a late-arriving Gaius Octavius was trying to explain he’d been held up by the birth of his son. Cicero himself supposedly had a dream where a boy descended from the heavens by a golden chain to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolanus, where the god presented the boy with a whip. He was standing around with Caesar and his entourage, describing this dream to them and the appearance of the boy, when he first caught sight of the newly-arrived-on-the-scene Octavius, and declared that he looked exactly like the boy in his dream.

Another tactic was to look to the origin myths of other sons of gods like Heracles (Hercules) and Dionysus for the pattern their myth-making should follow. But those guys had Zeus for a father, which is a big help when one is flexing for godhood. In this vein, Asclepias of Mendes tells a story in his book Theologumena (Discourses About the Gods) that before his birth, Octavius’ mother, Atia, fell asleep while performing sacrifices in the Temple of Apollo and was visited by a serpent while she slept. When she awoke, she found a permanent marking on her skin in the shape of the serpent and ten months (the ancients believed human gestation to be ten months long) later, Octavius was born. This story combines two mythological tropes, the visitation of a god to someone in their temple in a dream, and the visitation to a human woman in animal form— both of which would have been familiar to a cross-cultural audience of the time. Many of Egypt’s pharaohs were held out as the sons of a god like Amun not just in a figurative sense, but in a literal way as several pharaohs’ conceptions were portrayed as the result of the ruling queen being divinely impregnated by a god during a ritualized dream or ceremony as practiced by Egypt’s priesthood. And even the more Western world of the Greeks and Romans was accustomed to Zeus and other deities impregnating mortal women as animals. Asclepias combines these two tropes to give Octavius a divine animal origin, snakes being sacred to Apollo, with the cleanliness of the dream visitation, in that he is careful to say that the snake mere looked upon Atia. This origin also supposedly accounts for Octavius’ lifelong devotion to Apollo by making him not only the son of Apollo in spirit and temperament, but quite literally his progeny.

But Octavius was nothing if not thorough when it came to his public image and for those of his subjects who were in the market for something a little more concrete than a long-winded explanation as to why his mom stopped going to the public bathes after he was born (apparently she was not proud of her sudden snake tattoo— or didn’t want people to see it wasn’t there), he had a divine origin story for the “realists”, too. And this is were the Divus Julius comes in. Critics are quick to saddle Octavius with the idea of making his adopted father a god (and thereby bringing legitimacy to his own rule), but the truth is a little more complicated than that. Julius Caesar’s rise to godhood wasn’t the act of one man, but an interplay of personal politics and popular religion hatched before the fall of the Roman Republic. 

Rome was generally very against the living-god model of worship practiced by many of their neighbors, but there were a few exceptions from its mythic past that prove Roman religion wasn’t completely divorced from the concept of divine rulers. The ancient Roman king Quirinius, along with founder Romulus, were revered in a quasi-divine form complete with temples, priests, and sacrificial games in their honor, as was mythic ancestor Aeneas, who was worshipped by Romans in the divine form of Jupiter/Pater Indiges.

Early in his career Caesar was quick to capitalize on the gens Julii’s long-standing claims to Aeneas’ lineage from Venus, which as a mere byproduct put him in descendent not only from the goddess, but her deified son, Aeneas. During the civil wars, Pompey tried to claim Venus as his patron goddess as well, but after Caesar’s decisive victory at the Battle of Pharsalus, it was clear to the Romans whom the goddess favored. Caesar built the Temple of Venus Genetrix to commemorate this victory, which was a monument both to the goddess’ role as mother of the Roman people as well as his own ancestress, as another way to highlight this important genealogical connection. Meanwhile, his partisans in the Senate voted to erect a statue in his honor with an inscription denoting him as a demi-god, which is the real first instance of this title appearing for him. It should also be noted that Caesar was quick to have this inscription struck out, as being something he did not want to claim (at least in so many words), but this was something that had enough support to get through the Senate and there are no indications that the city was against it, either. As we’ve talked about in the past, the average non-patrician Roman was Caesar’s power base and they were generally more than happy to celebrate his victories and award him honors.

Following his final victories in Hispania that signaled the end of the civil wars (Round 1), more statues and honors were heaped upon him by the Senate, including ones declaring him an “unconquered god” and as pater patriae, father of his country. His birthday was declared a public festival and this is when the month of Quinctilis was renamed July in his honor. There is a proposal sitting in the Senate to officially declare him a living god when he is assassinated in March of 44 BC, but Cicero griped before the Ides that the proposal was as good as passed because Caesar had already been awarded a flamen, a dedicated priest to serve him. Prior to him, only a few gods were permitted flamen, but among them was the mythic king Quirinius.

So, when Caesar was murdered, he already had nearly all of the necessary mechanisms in place to assume divinity. And it turns out that his brutal death was just the sort of spark to set the whole thing ablaze and make it backfire so spectacularly in his assassins’ faces. As we’ve also discussed, the average Roman was not particularly invested in the Liberatores’ impassioned speeches about what was a very abstract liberty for them. What the people of Rome did see in the days after the Ides was that the only guy who’d even pretended to care about their opinion was dead and his duly appointed flamen (Mark Antony) was telling them that a god had been killed. The days of civic rioting that followed the Ides and Caesar’s funeral go further to show a populace comfortable with his honors as opposed to one leery of a new deity or king. Unfortunately for Brutus and co, Antony was helped along in his claims by the extremely fortuitous appearance of a daytime-visible comet during the 44 BC Ludi Victoriae Caesaris, the annual games held to commemorate Caesar’s military victories, following the assassination. As omens go, this was a powerful one, and the Sidus Iulium, the Julian Star, would cement the city behind the bid to make Caesar a full-blown god. By the time Octavius had shown up to claim his inheritance, all the quivering remains of the Senate needed was a small push to have Caesar formally declared the Divus Julius, the Divine Julius.

[The god of club kids and low-rise jeans, by the looks of it…]

While Julius’ divinity was initially leveraged to help Octavius’ rise as Venus’ and Aeneas’ helped his, by the time of Octavius’ death nearly sixty years later, the script had arguably flipped. Julius’ divinity was required by the Roman state not to legitimize Octavius, but to give him a lineage that explained his extreme good fortune in life. Even avowed apolitical Ovid had figured this out, as he cleverly notes in The Metamorphoses:

“And still, he came a stranger to our temples,

Caesar is a Deity in his own city,

Whom, alike distinguished both in war and peace,

Wars his exploits, did not more tend to change

Into a new planet, and a star

With blazing train, than did his own progeny.

For all the acts of Caesar, there is not one

More ennobling than that he was the father of this our Caesar Augustus.

Was it, forsooth, a greater thing to have conquered

The Britons surrounded by the ocean and to have steered his victorious ships

Along the seven-mouthed streams of the Nile that bears the papyrus,

And to have added to the people of Romulus, 

The rebellious Numidians and Cinyphian Juba,

And Pontus, proud of the fame of Mithridates,

And to have deserved many a triumph and enjoyed some,

Than it was to have been the father of a personage so great,

Under whose tutelage over the world, you, ye Gods above,

Have shewn excessive care for the human race?

That he then might not be sprung from mortal seed,

‘Twas it that Julius should be made a Divinity.”

In short, Octavius was such a Big Deal that the only way to explain it was that he had to have a deity for a father. In some ways, Suetonius seems to agree with Ovid. Another story he recounts tells of Caesar cutting down wood (like Julius was doing his own forestry…) to make camp with the army while he was still on campaign in Hispania, when he came across a palm tree, which he saw as a portent of victory and commanded it be left untouched. The next day, this palm had produced an offshoot, and within a few days, the offshoot had become taller than the parent tree and overshadowed it. Not only this, but doves (symbols of peace and sacred to Venus) began to nest in the offshoot, despite rarely choosing to roost in palm trees. Suetonius claims that the (now) childless Caesar recognized that the offshoot could only be his sister’s grandson Octavius and from that day forth never wavered from the idea that the boy would be his successor.

[Yep, not a single other candidate in sight…]

This might be bupkis, but one of the few personality traits that Caesar and Octavius shared was a certain foresightedness and belief in their own destiny. That confidence carried both of them through a lot, and while I’m not suggesting they were operating on some kind of ancient version of The Secret, they were able to convince others that their destiny was reality, often by utilizing a cultural language that conformed to people’s expectations of how a great man, and later, a god, would be presented. The classical equivalent of media image. 

But to wrap up, I want to present you with one more prophecy from Suetonius (seriously, there’s pages more), not because it is especially more compelling than any of the others, but rather because it is the one that telegraphs Octavius’ personality so precisely that I’m willing to bet it actually has some basis in fact. Suetonius tells us that during the years that Octavius and his friend Marcus Agrippa were attending school together in Apollonia, they one day rode to the house of the astrologer Theogenes to have their horoscopes cast. Agrippa goes first and Theogenes predicts an incredible career of almost unparalleled success for him (true). In fact, Agrippa’s horoscope is so good that Octavius tries to back out of getting his read because he is so embarrassed that his almost pleb friend might have a greater destiny than him, which sounds like classic Octavius, to take his ball and go home. He’s so afraid of losing face that Theogenes and Agrippa have to literally beg him to go through with it. Octavius finally gives in and when Theogenes casts his horoscope, the astrologer can only respond to the results by throwing himself at the boy’s feet. This apparently was enough to soothe Octavius’ patrician ego— so much so that he made this horoscope public and while it would later be against Octavius’ laws for others to cast divinations aimed at predicting things like his death, he apparently never again questioned the stars as to what the future held for him.

[Okay, okay. I swear this is the last one I have…]

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