Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Michael Koortbojian, The Divinization of Caesar and Augustus: Precedents, Consequences, Implications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xxiii, 341. ISBN 9780521192156. $99.00.

Reviewed by W. Jeffrey Tatum, Victoria University of Wellington (

Version at BMCR home site


The invention of Divus Iulius entrained important issues of representation. Ought there to be a recognisable distinction between Caesar-The-Great-Man and Divus Iulius? And, if so, what should Divus Iulius look like? And what should be the chief significations of his divine aspect? These
questions, and the further inquiries they provoke, lie at the centre of Michael Koortbojian’s fascinating and enjoyable book.

In his lifetime, Caesar was the recipient of divine honours, a practice (adapted from the protocols of Hellenistic monarchy) that was, by the second half of the first century BC, far from novel in Rome. But, Koortbojian insists, Caesar, however much he was likened to the gods, was not one of
them until after his death. This claim is not uncontroversial. Still, that the distinction between being god-like and being a god was by no means a negligible one, at least for some Romans, is perhaps illustrated by Antonius’ hostility, after the assassination, toward Caesar’s spontaneous and
unofficial worship in the forum and his apparent, if short-lived, resistance to Caesar’s deification. Even before Caesar’s status came into question, during the 70s, a society of hard-headed publicani were insistent that anyone who had once been mortal could not, in any real sense, become
a god (or at least not a god who was immune from taxation), a claim that was prominent enough to be the object of a consular inquiry and a senatorial decree (SIG3 747=RDGE 23; cf. also Cic. Nat. D. 3.49; Paus. 1.34.1;Liv. 45.28; still very much worth consulting is
T. Mommsen, Hermes 20 (1885), 268ff.). This issue, although not discussed by Koortbojian, and too often mentioned only in passing in discussions of republican religion, is pertinent to Koortbojian’s argument here. In any case, for Koortbojian the job of fashioning the image of Divus
Iulius began in 42 BC, after the triumvirs’ establishment of the new god. Between that moment and the dedication of the temple to Divus Iulius in 29, robust experimentation intervened, as the Roman establishment endeavoured to settle on the god’s proper form and function.

No cult statue of Divus Iulius subsists. Consequently, Koortbojian must turn to other evidence. He begins with coins struck sometime between 39 and 34 depicting the (as yet unbuilt) temple of Divus Iulius, within which one can spy the cult statue. Two versions of the statue are represented:
in one, Divus Iulius appears capite velato, in the other, he is semi-nude. In each representation, the god holds a lituus. In neither does he wear a star (a star adorns the temple’s pediment). From the start, then, ‘the meaning of the deified Caesar’s cult, and how that meaning
might be represented, required invention – and…such invention was slow to find fruition’ (p. 48). And throughout his book, Koortbojian is admirably alert to the fluidity characterising the confection of Divus Iulius, an undertaking unprecedented in Rome.

The lituus was soon dropped. Koortbojian agrees with Roberta Stewart and Jerzy Linderski that, by the end of the republic, the lituus did not exclusively signal an augurate (though Caesar was, by the end of his life, an augur) but also emphasised a figure’s legitimate right to
exercise military command. All of this, however, belongs amongst the undertakings of men, and it was soon deemed inappropriate for Divus Iulius to be represented grasping a device that could distract from his divine superiority. Similar reasoning ultimately limited the god’s costume to its
semi-nude, hipmantle, version. In this form, Divus Iulius recalled Quirinus and Genius Populi Romani, which suited the tendency to associate Caesar with Romulus as Rome’s second founder. Like Quirinus and like his mortal incarnation, Divus Iulius was a god whose blessings were martial: having
released the lituus, he instead held out to the Romans a statuette of Victory.

What face did Divus Iulius reveal? Koortbojian argues that sculptures of the so-called Pisa/Chiaramonti type correspond to the image of Divus Iulius. Hence their variety ‘in a search for a stable, unchanging exemplum of continuing values, a search that would reach fruition only with the
portraiture of Augustus’ (and Koortbojian observes in these pieces the partial assimilation of Caesar’s appearance to that of Augustus). Hence, too, the absence of honorific crowns (another mortal token unsuitable to the new god).

The image of Divus Augustus diverges strikingly from that of his predecessor. Coins that reproduce the enthroned Divus Augustus Pater dedicated in the Theatre of Marcellus in AD 22 exhibit a fully clothed god, wearing the toga, who is distinguished by a radiate crown. This is not to say that
hipmantled specimens of Divus Augustus do not exist, but all of them originate outside Rome. Koortbojian is keenly interested in the variety of Augustus’ representations – as well as those of the imperial family throughout the Julio-Claudian period. After Augustus, as Koortbojian observes, it is
the living emperor, not his divine predecessors, who tends to take pride of place in any imperial representation.

But the shape of Divus Iulius was not without a lasting influence. In private statuary, and in municipal civic statuary, individuals continued, in the imperial period, to take on heroic or divine attributes as a means of aggrandisement. Divus Iulius’ distinct image made him a recognisable
reference, and as a result he became imitable as men allowed themselves to look like gods. Eventually, Koortbojian suggests, an awareness of this reference was lost, as the semi-nude hipmantle presentation became simply another element in the heroic repertoire.

One element in the imagery of Divus Iulius remains uncertain. A coin of 19 BC depicts Augustus crowning Divus Iulius with a star. The so-called sidus Iulium appeared in late July 44 BC and, as Augustus reports in his memoirs, ‘the common folk believed that this star signified that the
soul of Caesar had been received among the spirits of the immortal gods. On this account, a representation of this star was added to the head of a statue of him which I later (mox) dedicated in the forum’ (Plin. HN). Koortbojian, because he takes Augustus’ mox to mean ‘not
long afterwards’, concludes that as early as 44 BC there was ‘an impromptu “cult statue”’ on which Octavian had affixed the familiar star. But ‘not long afterwards’ is by no means the inevitable or even natural sense of mox (see H.J. Rose, CQ 21 (1927), 57ff.), and it is perhaps
not an accident that Divus Iulius does not appear crowned by a star until 19 BC. In which case the kind of experimentation with imagery unpacked by Koortbojian continued into the Principate.

But why, we must ask, should Divus Iulius have had an image in the first place? Aniconic worship was not entirely alien to the Roman experience, and by the 40s the idea had achieved a degree of intellectual respectability, not least in the writings of Varro (see, e.g., H. Cancik and H.
Cancik-Lindemaier, ‘The Truth of Images. Cicero and Varro on Image Worship’, in J. Assmann and A.I. Baumgarten (eds.), Representation in Religion: Studies in Honor of Mosche Berasche (Leiden 2001), 43ff.). It is obvious that the crowd in the forum were satisfied in worshipping Caesar
without a cult statue. The answer, of course, is obvious: a statue expressing Caesar’s divinity was the ultimate stage of his elevation to supremacy along the lines of Hellenistic monarchy. However conflicted the Romans were about the kingship, Roman or Hellenistic, the paradigm of Hellenistic
monarchy was essential in the Romans’ construction of Divus Iulius – and any consideration of the development of the god’s image should also take into account its negotiation with Hellenistic antecedents. Neither Divus Iulius nor Divus Augustus came equipped with, say, the horns of a ram, or a
bull, or a goat. But the radiate crown of Divus Augustus was instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Hellenistic kings and their divine pretensions (e.g. R.R.R. Smith, Hellenistic Royal Portraits (Oxford 1988), 42). This background perhaps played its part in fixing the Romans’
attention on thoroughly Romanised attributes like the lituus.

A few quibbles and reservations. ‘For the gods did not have tombs’ (p. 3), but see A.S. Pease, M. Tulli Ciceronis De Natura Deorum (Cambridge, Mass. 1956), 1096-7. Although the passage is adduced more than once (pp. 15-16, 18, 21, 49), Dom. 111-16 will not suffice as evidence
for Roman expectations about distinguishing the representations of gods from mortals: this is invective and not to be taken literally, and in any case the assertion that Clodius’ Libertas ‘can have borne little resemblance to the dignified figure’ of the goddess on later coinage (p. 16) is only
Koortbojian’s surmise (it has no basis in Cicero’s speech). Koortbojian is inclined to reject the view of Simon Price and others that divinisation is best discussed in terms of distinctions of power on the grounds that Roman religion (or at least civic religion) drew an absolute line between
gods and men (pp. 23-4); this, however, is less than entirely obvious in the Romans’ discourse (see now S. Cole, Cicero and the Rise of Deification at Rome (Cambridge 2013), clearly too late for Koortbojian to have consulted) and it is hard to see how divine honours do not blur the line
at least a bit. In any case, Koortbojian himself seems to suggest that Caesar was not deified in his lifetime owing to that action’s identification with (Hellenistic) monarchy (p. 22), which is not straightforwardly a theological point; on such an important matter, a more thorough-going treatment
is called for. The complexities of Octavian’s adoption by Caesar, crucial to any understanding of the events of 44 through 42 BC, go unremarked (pp. 26, 34, 37-9), leaving the impression that Octavian was adopted in Caesar’s will – he wasn’t: see W. Schmitthenner, Oktavian und das Testament
Cäsars: Eine Untersuchung zu den politischen Anfängen des Augustus
, 2nd ed. (Munich 1973), 39-90; C.F. Konrad, ‘Notes on Roman Also-Rans’, in J. Linderski (ed.), Imperium sine Fine: T. Robert S. Broughton and the Roman Republic (Stuttgart 1996), 124-7. In chapter three, the political
power of republican augurs is considerably exaggerated (see, e.g., Cic. Phil. 2.81). Finally, there are frequent typographical errors. Fortunately, none is perplexing.

An attractive feature of this book is its willingness – even eagerness – to take up controversial matters, not only in making its central arguments but even in its examination of the relevant background for these arguments. For instance, Koortbojian arrives at his discussion of Divus
Augustus’ possession of the lituus by way of the highly contested issue of auspicia during the late republic and in the aftermath of the Lex Pompeia of 52 BC. The result is a book that is informative, often insightful and always stimulating.

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