Throughout time, mythology and history have cyclically influenced one another. The meanings behind many historical events have been esoteric, while others were steeped in widely held religious beliefs of the time. The mythological beliefs of Classical Civilizations have changed the course of history and directly impact how the past is perceived. The history of Ancient Rome affected its mythology, which cyclically affected history. History and myth directly influenced each other in the Roman Republic through the actions of Julius Caesar, his predecessors, and successors. Roman and Greek historians were similarly affected by myth, which impacted the way history was recorded and is now perceived. Mythology impacts history, which in turn changes mythology. This cycle is found throughout history, especially in the late Roman Republic. It is impossible to separate the history from the mythology if one hopes to achieve a holistic view of the Ancient World.
The mythological origins of Rome heavily contributed to the citizen’s social identity. The traditional origin of Rome is that Aeneas, a Trojan War hero and son of Venus, escaped the destruction of Troy with his father and son. He searched the Mediterranean for a suitable location for a new settlement, as the gods foretold he would. After many adventures, he settled on the Italic Peninsula. He established the city of Lavinium. Aeneas’s heir founded the city of Alba Longa, the birthplace of Romulus and Remus1.
Generations later, Mars (the god of war) impregnated Rhea Silva (the daughter of the true king) who gave birth to Romulus and Remus. Amulius, the brother and murderer of King Numitor, tossed babies Romulus and Remus into the Tiber River because he feared their claim to the throne. The babies washed ashore and a she-wolf nursed them. A shepherd raised them and told them of their lineage. As young men, they slew the tyrant, restored their kingdom, and set off in hopes of founding their own city. They found the Seven Hills of Rome and began to construct it. Brothers often quarrel, and Romulus and Remus were no exception. Romulus murdered Remus over a dispute involving the approval of the gods, borders, and naming rights. With his brother eliminated, Romulus founded Rome. He founded the first of the Roman Legions, and the patrician class with the first people of Rome. However, Rome needed more citizens. Romulus declared Rome a sanctuary and offered amnesty to criminals. Wanted men and exiles flocked to the city. Unfortunately, the city lacked women. Romulus invited the neighboring Sabine tribes to a festival. At the festival, Romulus gave a signal and the men of Rome took the daughters of the Sabines by sword point. This is remembered as ‘The rape of the Sabine women’2. Rome was populated, Romulus was the first King and revered as great warlord. After he died, Romulus was deified as Quirinus3.
The basic origin myth of Rome depicts the first king as a tyrant slayer, brother-killer, and son of Mars. The first citizens were mainly wanted criminals or the outcasts of other societies, while the first women were taken to Rome against their will. These details heavily affected Rome’s national identity. Rome was descended from strong, tough, and ruthless warrior citizens. This gave the city a positive disposition towards war:
“And some say that Romulus himself, being naturally fond of war, and being persuaded by sundry oracles, too, that it was the destiny of Rome to be nourished and increased by wars till she became the greatest of cities.” – Plutarch, Life of Romulus, 14
Romans were proud, and willful. Their army was the pride and joy of the city, because it enhanced Rome’s power and glory4.
The Roman identity also stemmed from the ideals of the Republic. Freedom was sacred in the eyes of Romans at the time of the Republic. However, freedom went with honor. The point of being free was to enhance the image of oneself and one’s family. This made the Romans highly competitive. Honor had a unique meaning to the Romans:
“The Romans recognized no difference between moral excellence and reputation, having the same word, honestas, for both.” – Tom Holland, Rubicon, p. 5
Roman culture was held together by its religion. The piety of the Romans perplexed the rest of the Ancient World, but also gave them a sense of superiority. Greek historian Polybius agreed:
“But the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions. I believe that it is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach, I mean superstition, which maintains the cohesion of the Roman State. These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many.” – Polybius, The Histories, Book 6 Section 56
The religion, mythology, and society of Rome combined to create its vibrant culture. The focus on military, and personal honor, glory and achievement made it the foremost superpower in the ancient Western world. However, these values are not ideal for supporting a republic. The Roman Republic valued freedom, and the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. This paradox inevitably bred men like Caesar and Marius, who corrupted the system in the name of glory and power. In short, Romans loved war-heroes and threw them triumphs in honor of their great victories. However, they feared power and men who gained too much of it.
Gaius Marius is at the beginning of a saga that would end with the destruction of the Republic. Like those who followed him, Marius owed his political career to his military prowess. Marius was beloved by the Roman people; they voted him into power against the wishes of the dominant political party – the Optimates. The Optimates favored tradition, and believed that the Senate should ultimately hold the balance of power. Marius gained his political power from the love of the people. Like most Romans of his time, Marius believed in the mythology of Rome:
“Marius was sensitive to all the superstitions of his day. He believed in oracles; all strange or mystifying phenomena were interpreted as predictions.” – Kildahl, Caius Marius, p.109
Marius looked for such signs on the battlefield, and trusted in his military reforms to gain him victory regardless of the odds. Marius’s military victories earned him many unprecedented honors. He was granted triumphs, a fifteen-day supplication, and was declared the third founder of Rome (after Romulus and Camilus)5. Marius was overwhelmed with pride, and was given his sixth consulship as a reward for his actions as General. However, he proved completely inadequate as a serious politician, preferring to have his ‘agents’ manage the politics of the position. This led to a shameful consulship and retirement from politics. However, when Mithradites of Pontus began conquering Roman lands in the East, Marius re-entered public life. Playing politics, Marius used the tribunes to steal supreme military command from the current consul, his former protégé, Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
Sulla, like most ambitious Romans, was a politician and a military commander. Romans rarely distinguished between political and military greatness. He gained mass popularity in the Social War, where he first became associated with ‘Fortune’. He earned a consulship following the Social War, and took military command in the East. Marius, whose ambitions had always been for honor through military conquest, persuaded the tribunes to revoke Sulla’s command and make him General in the East. Sulla was enraged, and refused to turn his armies over to Marius. Instead, he caused them to mutiny against their lawful commanders and remain loyal only to him. Sulla marched his army towards Rome6.
Sulla was guided by a vision to make his historic march on Rome:
“…one night he had a dream, in which he thought the Earth-Mother put thunderbolts into his hands and bade him smite his enemies, who all disappeared when he did so. He arose refreshed and convinced. He now knew what he had to do.” – Baker, Sulla the Fortunate, p.182
Sulla believed that his entire life, and rise to power, was attributed to a great goddess, Venus, who blessed him with fortune. He trusted that this goddess would protect him as he violated Rome’s sacred borders, and trespassed on holy land protected by Jupiter, the most revered god in the Roman pantheon. Sulla successfully took Rome, established a new government, and left for Greece to conquest. While he was away his government was dismantled, and he was sentenced to death in absentia. Sulla marched back to Rome with the full intentions of regaining control of the city7.
Prior to his return, a lightning bolt struck the temple of Jupiter and set Rome ablaze. This was perceived as a religious portent, a sign that the gods were angry. Sulla marched on Rome again, and took control before the city could be consumed. Later, he used the fire as propaganda. He claimed that the war goddess Bellona had set fire to the temple of Jupiter for him, and claimed that the gods favored his rule8.
A civil war soon erupted, ending in Sulla’s victory. Sulla proclaimed himself the goddess Fortune’s favorite. He was declared Dictator, and gave himself the title ‘Sulla Felix’ – meaning ‘Fortune’. Sulla’s reign was bloodthirsty, killing many of his political rivals. He reformed the government to fit the Optimates’ agenda, severely repressing any party members of the plebian-supported Populares. Ironically, some of his laws aimed to make it impossible for the Republic to be ruled by a single politician9. However, these reforms did not prevent Julius Caesar from rising to power and prominence.
Sulla was a man completely devoted to superstition. His beliefs gave him the willpower and confidence to subject Rome to his dictatorship. History was affected by mythology through Sulla’s actions. Combined with his own personal willpower and ambition, Julius Caesar would also be affected by religion, an influence which would change the course of Western History.
Gaius Julius Caesar is one of the most influential figures in world history. It is arguable that every event in the late Republic, from Sulla to the end of the Republic, set the stage for Caesar, or happened because of him. It is interesting to note the role mythology has played in the life of a figure now regarded as mythic in his own right. Roman religion played a major role in Caesar’s life, from his childhood, to his role as a priest of Jupiter, to the mystic portents surrounding the crossing of the Rubicon, and his eventual downfall.
Caesar’s childhood was surrounded with strict rules and Roman rituals. Childhood in Ancient Rome was infamously harsh. Two out of three babies died before their first birthday, while the infant survivors had only a 50% chance of reaching puberty10. Strict parents were viewed as good parents: the stricter the better. Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, likely oversaw every facet of her child’s life, instilling discipline and molding Caesar into the model citizen. According to Tacitus, the role of the ideal mother of this period was “to regulate all household affairs, and attend to her infant race, was, at that time, the glory of the female character.11” Aurelia controlled everything from Gaius’s education to his playtime, all with the intention of instilling him with discipline. One of the only existing facts about Caesar’s boyhood is that he enjoyed writing. Although none of these writings have survived it is known that he wrote about heroes and legends such as Oedipus and Hercules12, showing an early interest in mythology.
In addition to honor, Caesar’s childhood was filled with tales and relics of his family’s mythic past. The Caesar clan claimed lineage from Aeneas, who was a descendant of the goddess Venus13. Wax death masks, kept in the family shrine, reminded Gaius of his noble ancestry of patrician magistrates. It was the goal of every Roman son to equal or surpass his predecessors14. The godly history of his family was likely ingrained in his mind as a child; the exact impact of this on Caesar cannot be calculated nor underestimated. Although the Caesar family was highly respected, it was neither historically powerful nor influential. Caesar’s father was well respected but was never able to achieve the rank of consul, although he did become Praetor with the help of Marius. Caesar was determined to bring his family into the forefront of Roman society, and display his godly heritage.
Although Caesar almost certainly looked to his father for inspiration, very little is written about his relationship with Julius Caesar the Elder. However, it is known that Caesar looked up to the famous general Gaius Marius during his adolescence. Marius married Caesar’s aunt, Julia, to bolster his popularity15. Marius took a liking to Caesar, and aimed to help him advance in society. After Lucius Cornelius Merula, priest of Jupiter, committed suicide as a result of the wars between the Populares and the Optimates, Marius arranged to have Julius become the new priest of Jupiter at age 16. It was lucky for Caesar that he was never installed16. As a priest of Jupiter, Caesar would have had to observe many ancient rituals. In addition to wearing sacred attire, Caesar would have never been allowed to leave Rome for more than a night, ride a horse or look upon a marshaled army, and would have had to vow to remain monogamous17. Judging from Caesar’s later career it is safe to assume he would not have enjoyed his life as a priest.
To advance his status and make it possible to take the position as priest of Jupiter, Caesar married the daughter of the consul, Cornelia Cinna. However, her father was murdered by Sulla’s soldiers in a mutiny and Sulla became Dictator of Rome. Caesar suddenly found himself in a very dangerous position because he had relations to both Cinna and Marius, two of Sulla’s most despised former rivals. As a result, Caesar lost his wife’s dowry, his family’s inheritances, and he was forced to go into hiding. He was saved only when a number of his more influential acquaintances, including the Vestal Virgins, intervened and convinced Sulla to spare him18. The Vestal Virgins were a cult in worship of the Goddess of the Hearth. Their chastity was sacred, and those who broke their vow faced harsh punishments such as stoning. The life of a Vestal Virgin was not easy. They were made to follow very strict rules and rituals. However, the trade-off was that the cult was highly influential in all sectors of society19. Even the bloodthirsty Sulla was persuaded to spare young Caesar’s life as a result of religious intervention.
Although Sulla spared young Caesar, he did so reluctantly and cautioned “that they were blind not to see many Mariuses in that boy20.” When Caesar returned from hiding, he set about making a name for himself. He quickly became known as a well-groomed, fabulous dresser, things he continued to pride himself on his entire life21. In addition, he earned a reputation as a wonderful orator, in fact Cicero praised his skill and masterful use of language22. However, knowing that an accomplished Roman was also an accomplished soldier, Caesar departed for campaigns in Asia – where he would remain until after Sulla’s reign23.
When Caesar returned to Rome, he immediately sought advancement in his political career. His ambitions led him to seize any opportunity to advance himself. In 68B.C.E his Aunt Julia and wife Cornelia died. Caesar ignited controversy by prominently displaying Julia’s husband Marius’s image24. This was the first time since Sulla declared Marius an enemy of the state that anyone had publicly honored Marius25. In addition to this, Caesar used the eulogy to bolster himself by emphasizing his divine and royal lineage:
"The family of my aunt Julia is descended…from the kings, and… the immortal Gods; for the Marcii Reges go back to Ancus Marcius, and the Julii…to Venus. Our stock therefore has at once the sanctity of kings, whose power is supreme among mortal men, and the claim to reverence which attaches to the Gods, who hold sway over kings themselves." – Julius Caesar; from Suetonis, The Life of Julius Caesar, section 6
This was neither the first nor last time Caesar would use mythology for his own self-promotion.
In addition to grand orations, Caesar pursued several political positions—the most prominent of these was the Pontifex Maximus. The level of prestige associated with the post was high enough for Caesar to stake his career on it26. The Pontifex Maximus was the highest religious post in the entire Roman Republic. In addition to the obvious religious authority (and moral superiority) associated with the role, it also had a great deal of political power and influence. The Roman Religion was essentially run by the state. The Pontifex Maximus and the College of Pontiffs had the responsibility of ensuring that the gods were happy with the actions of the state. They interpreted omens and advised the Senate on how to better please the gods. Under the Pontifex Maximus were the cults of the major deities, including the Vestal Virgins, and the Cult of Jupiter27. Another advantage of the Pontifex Maximus was that the office was not restricted like other religious posts. Those who held it could still partake in the military, and hold separate political offices. The Pontifex Maximus was appointed for life, which is why it was traditionally equated with older statesmen of highly distinguished families looking towards retirement after having held consulships, or other high offices. The idea of using the post to make a political career was unheard of in Rome.28 However, as his later career would definitively prove, Caesar did not much care for tradition.
In addition to the controversy of his candidacy, Caesar’s run for the office displayed his willingness to do anything to achieve his goals. Caesar was accused of bribery on a massive scale. The other men running for Pontifex Maximus were distinguished Optimate politicians. This left the Populares Caesar with many new political enemies (and with many old enemies newly enraged). In addition, he incurred massive debt by bribing the electors. Caesar feared that if he lost he would face exile or worse. On the morning of the election he told his mother, “You will see me as Pontifex Maximus, or not at all.” Caesar’s first major gambit paid off, and he was elected Pontifex Maximus in 63 BCE29. This allowed Caesar to live in the Pontifex Maximus’s official residence, the Villa Sacra located in the heart of Rome30. The symbolism, and the threat it presented, was not lost on his opponents.
The caliber of the men who ran for Pontifex Maximus, and the lengths Caesar went to win the office highlight the importance of myth and religion in Roman society. The power of the Pontiff stemmed from his role in the church. The fact that the state had a branch of government devoted to interpreting the will of the gods in relation to the state is evidence that mythology affected politics, and therefore affected history. Caesar’s manipulation of the office is in essence manipulation of the entire religion. After Caesar, the rise of the empire completely transformed the post of the Pontifex Maximus. The title and its responsibilities were bestowed upon the emperor – a living god. Eventually, with the rise of Christianity centuries later, the title was given to the Bishop of Rome31. The Bishop of Rome, more commonly known as the Pope, is still referred to as the Pontifex Maximus inside Vatican City. The fact that the position (albeit largely in name only) still exists today shows the massive influence Rome had on world history, and simultaneously expresses the influence myth and religion had on the Romans.
Over the next few years, Caesar continued to gain power and prominence in Rome. He became praetor in 62BCE32, a post he was suspended from and later reinstated. Also in 62BCE, a scandal developed surrounding Caesar’s house, a patrician named Publius Clodius Pulcher, and the ceremony of the Good Goddess33. The religious rite of the Bona Dea was celebrated annually, and was considered vital to Rome’s security. Women were the only ones aloud at the festival. No men, not even priests or slaves, were permitted and even male statues were covered in veils. For a man to invade the rite of the Good Goddess was a major sacrilege. Clodius not only invaded the ceremony at Caesar’s house, but rumors spread that he was seeking out Caesar’s wife. The scandal was well known throughout the city, leaving Caesar with a series of complex decisions to make. Caesar needed the support of Clodius’s allies, but also had to seem outraged as the Pontifex Maximus, and Pompeia’s husband. Ultimately, Caesar decided to divorce his wife stating, "I thought my wife ought not even to be under suspicion." and embarked to Spain for a governorship34.
However, the amount of debt Caesar accumulated nearly grounded him in Rome. If Crassus had not taken some of the financial burden in exchange for a political alliance against Pompey Magnus, Caesar’s creditors would not have let him leave the city35. Eventually, Caesar used his governorship in Spain to help pay back his enormous debt.
Caesar first gained his reputation as a brilliant commander while leading his armies in Spain. His many victories earned him the title ‘Imperator’ among his soldiers. Caesar extended the property of Rome and made alliances with Spanish tribes. Caesar also accumulated vast wealth on his conquests, enabling him to appease his creditors. At the end of his governorship, Caesar was set to run for Consul, and receive a triumph for his actions in Spain36.
The Roman triumph was the closest a citizen of the republic could get to becoming a god. The Senate granted triumphs to generals after they achieved a major victory. In order to qualify, the general’s troops had to kill many enemies, suffer few comparative losses, and acquire new territory for the province. In addition, the general had to have a significant political record. Only those who held the office of praetor or better were eligible. If the general met these requirements, he was entitled to a triumph37.
The triumph was one of the oldest traditions in Rome. The ceremony was adapted from an Etruscan ritual. According to Roman myth, Romulus was the first leader to have a triumph in the city. The triumph was central to Roman culture. In Roman culture religion, politics, and society were all inter-related. The triumph was the zenith of all three, embodied in a grand public spectacle.
The procession transformed the victorious leader into a demi-god for a day. The triumph was dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The general wore a special toga, which was stored in the temple of Jupiter and only used during a triumph. Laurel wreaths, symbols of victory, were hung all over the city and the general wore a gold laurel wreath like a crown. Red, the votive color of Jupiter, was used to decorate the city and the general - who was covered in red paint. The procession gathered on the field of Mars. The field honored the god of war, and was where armies would muster before leaving the city for a campaign. The procession included carts of gold and spoils, musicians, dancers, and soldiers of the victorious army. A triumph was the only time soldiers were legally permitted to bear arms inside the city of Rome. Another attraction of the festival was prestigious prisoners of war – usually defeated kings, war-chiefs or generals. It was not uncommon for the prisoner to be executed after the triumph procession. The general would ride into the city on a chariot pulled by four horses, while a slave stood behind him on the chariot and whispered reminders that the general was a mortal man and not a god38. This is significant in the Roman Republic because it simultaneously illustrates the Romans’ love of a victorious war hero, and their fear of one man’s thirst for power. As much as they adored the victor, they were always weary of his greed and ambition. This plays into one of the overall ironies of the Roman Republic – working for the ideals of democracy and equality among citizens, while competing for one’s own personal glory and honor.
The triumph was one of the rare occasions when the whole of Roman society gathered. The citizens lined the Via Sacra and watched the procession of senators, musicians, prisoners, animals, soldiers, treasure, and the Imperator. The triumph was the culmination of Roman culture. The fact that mythology was such a vital part of the ceremony shows the importance of religion in Roman culture, and how greatly it impacted them. The triumph was the goal every Roman commander dreamed of, which undoubtedly affected history. Generals went to war so they could be worshipped like Jupiter for a day. This is an example of mythology’s influence on history.
Caesar was entitled to seek a triumph, but there was an unforeseen conflict with running for consul:
“Since those who sued for the privilege of a triumph must remain outside the city, while those who were candidates for the consulship must be present in the city, Caesar was in a great dilemma, because he had reached home at the very time for the consular elections.” – Plutarch, the Life of Caesar, Sec. 13
Caesar tried to obtain permission to run in absentia but his political rival Cato blocked the effort by filibustering. Many of Caesar’s political opponents believed he would choose the triumph over the election, and that they had thwarted his attempted power grab for the moment39. The triumph was an unparalleled honor, and he could always run for consul another year. Caesar’s decision to run for consul was shocking for many people. Caesar’s choice illustrated his pragmatism and lust for power over glory, and it also showed his arrogance. The only way a Roman would give up the honor of a triumph, was if they were sure they would achieve another.
Upon entering the city, Caesar united political enemies Crassus and Pompey, forging the First Triumvarite. Contemporary politicians called them, ‘the three-headed monster’40. Their combination of power, influence, and money gave them free reign over the Republic. As Plutarch put it:
“These men Caesar brought together in friendship after their quarrel, and succeeded…in changing the form of government.” – Plutarch, The Life of Caesar, sec. 13
With the power of the triumvarite, Caesar became consul for 59BCE41. Mythology did not play a hugely influential role in Caesar’s first consulship. There was an instance when Caesar’s fellow consul, Bibulus, tried to cancel a public vote (which Caesar had circumvented the Senate to conduct) that was likely to go in Caesar’s favor. Bibulus claimed a flock of geese constituted an ill-omen, and that Jupiter disapproved of the vote. Caesar replied:
“The response of the Pontifex Maximus to this news was to have a bucket of dung emptied over Bibulus’s head. No sooner had the hapless consul begun wiping the excrement from his eyes than he found…Pompey’s veterans beating up his lictors and smashing his fasces.” – Tom Holland, Rubicon, p.220
Ironically, this action is a striking metaphor for Caesar’s regard of the Senate and the Republic’s laws in general. His consulship was infamous for coersion, both verbal and physical, and by its end many senators had refused to attend Senate meetings with Caesar – including Bibulus who remained inside his home, issuing adverse omens42.
After his consulship, Caesar was given command of Illyricum and Gaul, and four legions. Further, Caesar arranged to have his governorship last five years, as opposed to the traditional one or two.43 Gaul was a land of great potential for Caesar. The northern border of the Republic had come under attack on occasion by the ‘barbarians’ of Gaul, and so securing the region would bring him glory and honor. There was land to be claimed and treasure to loot. There was also untapped manpower, and experience for his troops. This was important to Caesar because he knew that military power could equate political power, should the circumstance arise.
The enemies Caesar faced in Gaul were notoriously feared throughout Northern Italy. The Romans considered the Gauls barbaric. According to Caesar, two tribes were especially formidable:
“Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest…they are the nearest to the Germans…with whom they are continually waging war; for which reason the Helvetii also surpass the rest of the Gauls in valor, as they contend with the Germans in almost daily battles.” – Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico, Book 1 Section 1
The culture of these tribes was centered around constant combat. Their religion adapted to this. They believed in an afterlife and did not fear death in battle; on the contrary, the highest honor they could achieve was to fall in combat44. Their devotion to their myths and folklore strengthened them, making them fearsome in combat.
Caesar was considered the finest general the Republic had ever known45. Caesar claimed to be crusading for the honor and glory of the Republic46. However, many historians believe he was crusading only for his own selfish glory and power. Caesar’s motivations are illustrated by his arrogant remarks. According to Plutarch, “Caesar said to [his soldiers] in all seriousness, ‘I would rather be first here (a desolate barbarian village) than second at Rome47.’” Caesar famously wept in front of a statue of Alexander (while in Spain), lamenting that he had not accomplished nearly as much (at that point in time)48. Cicero never doubted Caesar’s aims:
“But [Caesar] himself used to have continually upon his lips the Greek verses from the Phoenissae –
If wrong may e'er be right, for a throne's sake
Were wrong most right: — be God in all else feared!” – Cicero, De Officiis, 21
Caesar’s motivation in Gaul, and in his overall political career, seemed to have been to achieve as much power as possible.
Caesar’s Legions had their own motivations. The Roman Legions’ continual training and battle tactics made them some of the most successful soldiers in history – Caesar’s men especially. Every year they swore an oath to obey their commander49. Prior to battle, the generals blessed their troops in a lustration ceremony50. In addition, sacrifices were made to further gain the blessings of the gods, and seers counseled the generals on the upcoming battle. On the battlefield, soldiers drew inspiration from the standard, or signa, of their cohort, and the aquilia of the legion. The aquilia was the standard of the Roman legion, and at the time of Caesar, it was represented as a golden eagle. The eagle was a symbol of Jupiter, and of Rome itself. This gave it both religious and patriotic significance. The standard served as a rally-point and was of major importance on the battlefield. Military commands were derived from the standard. For example, signa interferre was the command to advance51. In addition, it was a source of pride. The aquilia was so important that a signiferi (standard bearer) under Caesar took the Eagle off the staff and hid it in his girdle when it was in danger52. The standard represented more than Jupiter and Rome to the troops; it bolstered pride and morale, promoted competition, and symbolized the personal honor of the legion.
Caesar’s achievements in Gaul earned him praise in Rome. The Senate granted a lengthy supplicato in his honor for the defeat of the Belgae:
“a thanksgiving of fifteen days was decreed for those achievements… [an honor]
which before that time had been conferred on none.” - Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico Book 2 Section 35
He later surpassed this honor when a supplicato of twenty days was called, for his victory over Vercingetrix53. A supplicato was a massive thanksgiving festival in Rome to supplicate the gods. Supplicato were often the precursors to a triumph. The senate declared a supplicato after receiving information on the victory from the general, declaring a supplicato proportionate to the value of the victory54. Caesar’s accomplishments were monumental if the Senate, filled with his political enemies, granted him such lengthy thanksgivings.
At the end of his governorship, Caesar was a national hero. The Senate, however, did not share the plebians’ love of Caesar. They took two legions away from Caesar under the pretext of the Parthian Wars55, and demanded that he relinquish his military command and enter Rome as a private citizen56. In Caesar’s words, they did this out of corruption:
“Thus most of the senate, intimidated by the expressions of the consul, by the fears of a present army, and the threats of Pompey's friends, unwillingly and reluctantly adopted Scipio's opinion, that Caesar should disband his army by a certain day, and should he not do so, he should he considered as acting against the state” – Julius Caesar, De Bello Civili Book 1, Section 2
The First Triumvarite was shattered by this point. Crassus was dead, leaving Caesar and Pompey to fight for ultimate control of Rome:
“It was not, as most men supposed, the quarrel between Caesar and Pompey that brought on the civil wars, but rather their friendship, since they worked together for the overthrow of the aristocracy in the first place…when this had been accomplished, they quarrelled with one another.” – Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 13
The conflict between Caesar and Pompey was inevitable.
On January 10, 49 BCE, Caesar stood on the bank of the Rubicon, his province’s border. Crossing the river would ignite civil war. Caesar heavily weighed his options: "Even yet we may draw back; but once cross yon little bridge, and the whole issue is with the sword.57" Caesar had offered to disband his army, if Pompey would disband his:
"The honor of the republic had ever been [Caesar’s] first object, and dearer to him than life; that he was chagrined, that the favor of the Roman people was wrested from him by the injurious reports of his enemies…But, nevertheless, he was ready to condescend to any terms, and to endure every thing for the sake of the republic. let them both disband their armies…let Pompey come to Caesar, or allow Caesar to go to him; it might be that all their disputes would be settled by an interview." – Julius Caesar, De Bello Civili Book 1, Section 9
Plutarch verifies Caesar’s claim, “the demands which came from Caesar certainly had a striking resemblance of fairness,58” although he does not verify his alleged motives. If Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he would be committing sacrilege. Caesar “wavered back and forth, and his purpose then suffered change after change.59” The decision before Caesar would prove to be one of the most monumental decisions in Western Civilization, and to make it he looked to the gods. According to Suetonius, Caesar was swayed to cross the Rubicon after seeing an apparition60. Plutarch also claims that Caesar was influenced by an omen: “on the night before he crossed the river he had an unnatural dream; he thought, namely, that he was having incestuous intercourse with his own mother61.” Soothsayers assured Caesar that his mother represented the earth, which he was fated to rule62. Although citing different signs, both historians partially credit Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon to his superstition. Caesar’s belief in mythology was a factor, perhaps even the tipping point, in Rome’s history. If Caesar had interpreted signs differently, it is possible that he would have sought another route to power. Nonetheless, on January 10, 49 BCE, Caesar and the XIII Legion crossed the Rubicon63:
“Caesar cried: "Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast," said he.” – Suetonius, The Life of Julius Caesar, 32
Caesar became the second Roman to march on Rome. The civil war against Pompey was underway. Eventually Caesar’s army met Pompey’s at the Battle of Pharsalus. According to Plutarch, the prelude to the battle was filled with mythic portents. Pompey suffered “unlucky appearances and a vision in his sleep64” prior to the conflict:
“That night Pompey dreamed… that he decorated a temple of Venus Victrix with many spoils… he feared lest the race of Caesar, which went back to Venus, was to receive glory and splendour through him.” – Plutarch, The Life of Pompey, 68
At Caesar’s camp, Caesar was performing a lustration followed by a sacrifice when the seer foresaw “a decisive battle with the enemy” and foretold “…the gods indicate a great change and revolution of the present status to the opposite.” Pompey currently outnumbered Caesar, 52,000 to 23,00065. Finally, an omen was seen by Caesar the night before the battle that caused panic in Pompey’s camp:
“…during the morning watch a great light shone out above the camp of Caesar, which was perfectly quiet, and a flaming torch rose from it and darted down upon the camp of Pompey; Caesar himself says he saw this as he was visiting the watches.” – Plutarch, The Life of Pompey, 68
These portents likely encouraged Caesar, and distressed Pompey. The documentation of such omens before such a historic battle shows the superstitions of the era. Mythology was deeply ingrained in the minds of the Romans, signs from the gods always surrounded important events, and proper interpretation of the signs foretold the future.
Caesar’s victory at Pharsalus won him control of Rome. After the battle, Pompey fled to Egypt where a former Roman soldier serving in Ptolemy’s court murdered him66. His head was presented to Caesar as a gift when he arrived in Alexandria. Caesar was outraged over the action of the young pharaoh and opposed him in the ongoing civil war. Caesar sided with Ptolemy XII’s co-pharaoh, sister, and wife – Cleopatra. His alliance with Cleopatra transcended politics, and the young queen became his lover, eventually giving Caesar his only son, Caesarion67. The levies he imposed on the region, his alliance with Cleopatra, and the loot plundered from temples lead directly to an uprising:
“The Egyptians were discontented at the levies of money and indignant because not even their temples were left untouched. For they are the most religious people on earth in many respects and wage wars even against one another on account of their beliefs …As a result of their vexation at this and… their fear that they might be surrendered to Cleopatra…they began a disturbance” Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 42 Section 34
Caesar’s disregard of the Egyptians’ beliefs in part embroiled him in the Egyptian civil war. Caesar’s forces defeated the Egyptians who rallied behind Ptolemy. Caesar gave Cleopatra supreme control over Egypt68.
When he returned to Rome, Caesar rewarded all those who stayed loyal to him. He promised his soldiers land, gave senators important offices, and expanded the number of priests in the state cults. He then departed for Africa where he fought against political allies, and native uprisings. On his return from Africa, he presided over gladiatorial games and festivals. He celebrated three triumphs for his victories in Egypt, Africa, and his lightning campaign in Asia69. Later, he embarked on his final campaign to Spain against the sons of Pompey. The triumph he celebrated upon his return was met with disgust and distaste among the Romans:
“…it commemorated no victory over foreign commanders or barbarian kings, but the utter annihilation of the sons and the family of the mightiest of the Romans, who had fallen upon misfortune; and it was not [proper] for Caesar to celebrate a triumph for the calamities of his country, priding himself upon actions which had no defense before gods or men…” – Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 56
Caesar’s absolute reign over Rome lasted from his return from Alexandria in 47 BCE, through his various campaigns, until his death in 44 BCE. Religion and myth play significant roles in these years as Caesar increasingly takes on power and titles previously only given to the ancient kings, or the gods:
“ [Caesar] allowed honours to be bestowed on him which were too great for mortal man: a golden throne in the House and on the judgment seat; a chariot and litter in the procession at the circus; temples, altars, and statues beside those of the gods; a special priest, an additional college of the Luperci, and the calling of one of the months by his name. In fact, there were no honours which he did not receive or confer at pleasure.” – Suetonius, The Life of Julius Caesar, 76
He was given perpetual consulship, and in 44 BCE he was declared ‘dictator for life’. While he never accepted the title of ‘king’ or ‘emperor’, Caesar willingly received the titles ‘imperator’ and ‘father of his country70’. Cicero’s outrage over these titles lasted even after Caesar’s death:
“Oh ye immortal gods! Can the most horrible and hideous of all murders — that of fatherland — bring advantage to anybody, even though he who has committed such a crime receives from his enslaved fellow-citizens the title of "Father of his Country…?"” – Cicero, De Officiis, 21
Caesar’s willingness to accept such lavish honors alienated him from the people and enraged his enemies in the Senate who saw him as a tyrant with aspirations of godhood.
The assassination of Julius Caesar is one of the most famous events in history. On the Ides of March 44 BCE, a group of senators, lead by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junus Brutus, attacked Caesar at a meeting of the Senate. Caesar’s adoption of the title ‘perpetual dictator’ in February 44 BCE had proven to be the final insult to the republican senators. According to one legend, Romulus, the original ‘father of his country’, was assassinated when he became a tyrant. The senators decided to treat this new ‘father’ the same way71.
Caesar’s death was surrounded by mythic portents, and was all but foretold to him according to some historians, through prophecy and premonition. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia had mounting anxiety, and ominous premonitions about Caesar’s safety. Her unease was so great that Caesar considered staying away from the Senate but at this point in his life Caesar was above petty superstition. A soothsayer warned Caesar to beware the ides of March. Caesar openly mocked him, and on March 15, 44 BCE Caesar scoffed at the seer because nothing had happened, even though the ides had come. The seer ominously replied, “but not gone72.”
When Caesar arrived at the Senate house, he was assailed by no fewer than sixty of his political enemies. Their attack was so brutal, that they wound up wounding each other as well as their target. In the aftermath, Caesar lay dead with twenty-three stab wounds – only one was fatal. Caesar’s body fell at the feet of a statue of his archrival, Pompey – a sign of poetic justice, and god-ordained destiny to the assassins73.
Initially, Caesar’s death was seen as justified by the people of Rome. However, Caesar left money to every Roman citizen in his will, this greatly changed public opinion. In addition, Brutus and the other senators allowed Caesar’s protégé Marc Antony to plan the fallen dictator’s funeral:
“Antony pronounced the customary eulogy, and when he saw that the multitude were moved by his words, changed his tone to one of compassion, and taking the robe of Caesar, all bloody as it was, unfolded it to view, pointing out the many places in which it had been pierced and Caesar wounded. All further orderly procedure was at an end…[The people] erected a huge pyre; on this they placed Caesar's body, in the midst of many sanctuaries, asylums, and holy places…Moreover, when the fire blazed up, people rushed up from all sides, snatched up half-burnt brands, and ran round to the houses of Caesar's slayers to set them on fire.” – Plutarch, The Life of Brutus, 20
From this point on, the plebians worshipped Caesar like a fallen god74. Adding to the peoples’ adoration of Caesar was a comet that burned in the sky for a week after Caesar’s death. The Romans believed that this was Caesar’s spirit ascending to godhood75. The way the citizens venerated Caesar would set in motion a domino effect that would change the whole of Roman religion.
Caesar had been slain, but his conspirators failed in restoring the ways of the old republic. Instead, Marc Antony, and Caesar’s adopted son - Octavian, lived to challenged those who assassinated Caesar. They rallied the people, and politically forced the head conspirators out of Rome76. As Cicero remarked:
“The act of men, but the policy of children – to kill the leader, yet leave his successor alive. What stupidity!” – Cicero, on the action of the assassins
Marc Antony was one of the most capable generals in Rome. He was not a patrician by birth, but claimed ascendancy from Hercules as way of boosting his social status. However, the mythological figure he was most associated with was the god of wine, Bacchus. Antony’s raunchy lifestyle was perfectly acceptable when he was a soldier, but not as a politician. He quickly developed enemies in the Senate, most notably Cicero77.
With Caesar’s conspirators expelled from the city, the Caesarians were able to take control. Marc Antony as a consul of Rome began consolidating his power. Cleopatra, mother of Caesar’s son, returned to Rome78. Octavian, Caesar’s heir began to make a name for himself in the public arena. Antony and Octavian quickly became opponents in a power struggle over Caesar’s legacy. Cicero and the Senate saw Octavian as the perfect balance to Antony, and hoped that they might use him to restore the fallen republic79.
Marc Antony exerted his political power as consul through what is akin to modern day cronyism. His political opponents called his appointees Charonites, referring to the ferryman of the river Styx in the Roman equivalent of hell80. Octavian’s strategy was to gain the favor of the Roman people, and eventually to work his way into politics.
Octavian inaugurated the Temple of Venus in honor of Caesar. He placed a golden throne inside, an honor the Senate bestowed upon Caesar while he was in power. He followed the chair with a bronze statue of Caesar inside the temple, directly connecting Caesar (and himself by association) with the goddess81. Octavian gained his initial popularity through use of popular mythology.
Caesar and Antony eventually came into direct conflict. Antony had used armed force to bar citizens and magistrates from the forum, and manipulated legislation in the name of Caesar for his own personal benefit and profit82. The senators took action to depose Antony for his drunken debauchery83, and feared that he was trying to replace Caesar as dictator. Another civil war had begun. The army of the consuls combined with Octavian’s private army defeated Marc Antony at the Battle of Mutina. Both consuls died in the latest civil skirmishes, leaving Octavian in control of the Republic’s army84. When the Senate refused to make Octavian a consul for his actions, Octavian became the latest in a line of Roman leaders to substitute military power for political power.
Octavian turned to his former enemy Marc Antony, and another general, Lepidus, to form the Second Triumvirate, making themselves “dictators in all but name85.” Among the first acts of the Second Triumvirate was to purge Rome of their political enemies, including Cicero whose head and hands Marc Antony had nailed to the rostrum in the Forum86. They used the money and land from their dead enemies to finance the coming battles against Brutus and Cassius87.
Mythology had little effect on the events leading to the formation of the Second Triumvirate. However, it was partially responsible for Octavian’s rise to prominence. Also, although myth was not profoundly influencing these events, the events themselves would eventually lead to a total shift in Roman mythological beliefs. This is an example of how history affects mythology.
After the forming of the Second Triumvirate, the Senate deified Julius Caesar. In addition, it was around this time that the month ‘Quintilus’ was changed to ‘July’88. Octavian was officially the son of a god, and began to call himself ‘Caesar’ to utilize this image to the fullest. The first signs of religious change in the face of social and political upheaval had begun to show89.
As consul, Octavian had declared everyone involved in the assassination of Caesar to be enemies of the state. In 42 BCE, Octavian and Antony set out with their army to face the army of Brutus and Cassius, two central conspirators90. Ironically, Cassius had argued to murder Antony along with Caesar, but Brutus’s honor only permitted the death of a tyrant91.
Plutarch mentions a story involving Brutus being haunted by a phantom. On the first meeting:
“"Who art thou," said he, "of gods or men, and what is thine errand with me?" Then the phantom answered "I am thy evil genius, Brutus, and thou shalt see me at Philippi." And Brutus, undisturbed, said: "I shall see thee."” – Plutarch, Life of Brutus, 36
The second time the phantom appeared was at Philippi, but “went away without a word.92” However, Plutarch notes that a close companion of Brutus heard of no such tale. Although, this companion did note several omens before the battle including two eagles fighting:
“…Two eagles fought a pitched battle with one another in the space between the camps … while an incredible silence reigned over the plain, the eagle towards Brutus gave up the fight and fled” – Plutarch, Life of Brutus, 48
Romans believed the gods were always trying to communicate with mortals through omens. The Battle of Philippi was a turning point in Roman history, so it is not surprising that any omens observed before the battle were significantly remembered afterwards.
At the Battle, Antony’s forces attacked Cassius’s, while Octavian met Brutus’s army. Brutus triumphed over Octavian, while Antony defeated Cassius. Cassius, prematurely believing Brutus’s army had lost, committed suicide:
“…the most amazing was that which befell Cassius; for after his defeat at Philippi he slew himself with that very dagger which he had used against Caesar” – Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 69
At the second Battle of Philippi, Brutus lost to Antony:
“…after the rout [Brutus] retired to a crest of ground, put his naked sword to his breast…and so died.” - Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 69
The Triumvirs were triumphant.
After the Battle of Philippi, Octavian returned to Rome while Antony continued campaigning in the East. It was during these campaigns that he became acquainted with Cleopatra:
“[Cleopatra sailed] up the river Cydnus…She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Cupids in paintings stood on either side and fanned her… the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nymphs and Graces…Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.…until at last Antony himself, seated on his tribunal, was left alone. And a rumour spread on every hand that Venus was come to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia.” – Plutarch, The Life of Antony, 26
Cleopatra allegedly ‘bewitched’ Marc Antony. The truth is she changed her personality to better suit his – by partaking in the debauchery Antony had become famous for - and as a result, he became enamored to the point that observers believed she controlled him. Cleopatra was widely feared and hated in Rome93. The Romans were proud of their culture and xenophobic by nature, the Egyptian queen who seduced both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony was a threat to the unity and homogeneity of the republic.
With the defeat of their enemies, and Lepidus’s “demotion” out of the Triumvirate by Octavian, it was inevitable that Antony and Octavian would eventually fight for dominance and the right to create a Roman dynasty. To stem this unavoidable conflict, Marc Antony married Octavian’s sister Octavia. Octavia was a proud Roman woman from an elite house, and was the model wife and mother94. This was not to Antony’s benefit.
While in Egypt, Antony began to dress as an Egyptian. He named his children after Cleopatra and Ptolemy. Antony and Cleopatra posed for paintings and sculptures that depicted them as Isis and Osiris. He divided the Eastern lands among himself, his children, Cleopatra, and Caesarion95. These offenses terrified and disgusted the Romans; however, it was Antony’s will that horrified them the most.
Octavian had illegally obtained Antony’s will from the Vestal Virgins. This was a sacrilege, as anything entrusted to the Vestals was sacred and not to be violated. However, the contents of the will far overshadowed any crime Caesar Octavian committed. “Among other things, [Antony] wanted to be buried with Cleopatra in Egypt, even if he died in Rome.96”
Octavian used Antony’s blasphemies against the Roman religion to turn the people against him, and had them clamoring for the final civil war of the Republic. Antony had openly compared himself to a foreign god, given Roman property to the Egyptians, and refused to be buried among his ancestors. In addition, he treated his wife terribly: snubbing her and then divorcing her, because of his romance with the much reviled Cleopatra97.
The final civil war ended in something of an anti-climax with Antony’s soldiers defecting out of distaste of Cleopatra98. The naval Battle of Actium ended the war, and the Roman Republic. Antony was disgraced and descended into madness. There were omens attached to his fall:
“…while the city was quiet and depressed through fear and expectation of what was coming… sounds from all sorts of instruments were heard, and … accompanied by cries of Bacchic revelry and satyric leapings, as if a troop of revelers… were going forth from the city… and then dashed out. … [Bacchus] to whom Antony always most likened and attached himself was now deserting him.” – Plutarch, The Life of Antony, 75
It was a popular Roman belief that the gods abandoned cities before their fall—similar stories were told about Troy and Athens99. Marc Antony’s death has become romanticized over the course of time. The common account is that he believed Cleopatra was dead, and slew himself out of despair100. Cleopatra soon followed him to spare herself from the indignity of being paraded around Rome as a war trophy101. Not long after, Octavian tracked down Caesarion and had him executed. Rome belonged to Octavian, as did the right to create his own dynasty.
Augustus’s aims in restoring Rome to glory included moral and religious glory, and virtue. He made adultery illegal, and punished celibacy in an attempt to emphasize the importance of family, and raise the low Roman birth rate. He revived religious festivals, and focused on rebuilding temples. According to his count, he restored or built eighty-two temples in one year102.
In 17 BCE, Augustus revived the Ludi Tarenti festival and renamed it the Ludi Saculares – the Centennial (secular) Games. The original festival was devoted to Dis and Proserpina, the gods of the Underworld. However, Augustus took the emphasis away from death and focused on life. The games were dedicated to the Fates, and mother earth. Juno, Jupiter, Apollo, and Diana were also paid homage to at the new Secular Games103. This was a fundamental change in tradition and worship.
The art of Augustus’s period are visual reminders of the changes Rome went through in the last years of the Republic. Augustus purposely commissioned art in the classical Greek style to give the citizens the feeling they were living in a new golden age. A famous example of the art style of the early empire is the Prima Porta Augustus. The statue is an idealized version of a youthful Octavian in ceremonial armor. The breastplate is lavishly decorated with various gods, goddesses, and religious symbols. Baby Cupid rides a dolphin near Augustus’s feet, symbolizing his descent from Venus. Another famous work, the Ara Pacis Augusti (Altar of Augustan Peace) is a tribute to Augustus for ushering in a new golden age of “peace, piety, and prosperity104.” The Altar and the walls surrounding it are rife with religious symbolism surrounding the reign of Augustus.
The Altar of Augustan Peace is the perfect example of how religion had shifted since the days of Marius, and even Julius Caesar. It was a blasphemy to compare mortals to the gods in the Republican Era. In the age of Augustus, mortal comparisons to gods are not only made, Julius Caesar had actually been apotheosized. A cult began around the worship of the emperor, and of Rome herself (in the form of the goddess Roma)105. The social and political landscape had completely changed, as a result religion changed to accommodate the new society.
In the days of the Republic, the ideal citizen was honorable, dutiful, and strong willed. They revered their ancestors and had a deep respect for tradition. Religion was patriotism, and inspired these characteristics106. However, the Roman political system was highly competitive. Aspiring politicians spent years climbing the ranks of Roman political society. Military power gave way to political power; in order to receive the highest level of honor and respect a citizen had to be an accomplished commander and politician. The position of consul, in many ways, embodied the ideal citizen. It encompassed the bravery of military command, and the duty of political office. In addition, it brought great honor to the Consul’s entire family. However, the greater good that could be achieved through the consulship was often overshadowed by the Consul’s own sense of personal achievement. Society’s pressures of attaining vast personal honor and glory conflicted with Republican Virtues. The inherent competition of the system combined with the religious beliefs and ideals of the period, bred dictators who used their armies as shortcuts to power. Civil wars lasted from the time of Marius to the age of Augustus. This shook the foundations of society. The mythology of the Roman republic affected these military dictators, whose actions eventually changed the face of society and religion. Their actions effectively left Rome immoral, and faithless. The system that ruled the Republic was abused and then annihilated; the ideals and beliefs that fueled society were defiled and left meaningless. At the end of the civil wars, Augustus had to repair the beliefs, mythology and morals of Rome. He recreated these in his own image, paving the way for emperor-worship and redefining the roles of citizens in the empire. The Roman identity was irrevocably changed over the course of 100 years, because of the cyclical impact between history and mythology.
History and mythology have always impacted one another. The influence of one element alters the other, which changes the first. This cycle is clearly visible in the events leading to the destruction of the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar acted as a catalyst for social, political, and cultural change. These changes were prompted by, and later altered, mythology. The very perception of Roman history is directly influenced by the piety of the historians. Mythology appears frequently throughout the works of Cassius, Suetonius, and Plutarch. The important historical figures of ancient Rome were all influenced by the mythology of their era, this influence played a role in their actions. According to historians, both Caesar and Sulla received divine visions before deciding to march their armies on Rome. As a result, the whole of Roman society – including religion – was unraveled. This allowed Augustus to reshape mythology to better suit the burgeoning empire. History has always been affected by mythology, just as mythology has always been affected by history, this cycle has existed all throughout time and is evident in the final days of the Roman republic.
Appian. The Histories: the Civil Wars. Trans. Horace White. Loeb Classical Library Edition, 1913. LacusCurtius.
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