Bobby Xinyue takes a fresh look at apotheosis

The cult of political leaders has been around for as long as there has been politics. From Communist China to ‘The Land of the Free’ that is the United States, regimes both democratic and autocratic can fall under the thrall of a charismatic politician. Of course, authoritarian figures, such as Stalin and Mao, are far more likely to receive fervent devotion than their benign counterparts. But the cult of personality is a broad church. Anyone who has seen the fresco of the Apotheosis of Washington in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building will know that modern democratic institutions are not immune from this kind of dewy-eyed romanticization of great leaders past.

The Apotheosis of Washington in the US Capitol Rotunda

The practice of treating a political figure like a god is not necessarily a reliable barometer of whether the leader in question is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (though many of them are indubitably bad). But it does tell us an awful lot about how a regime sees itself or would like to be seen by others. It also reveals how a society envisages the relation between those who are in charge and those who are not. Above all, it vividly captures the hopes and fears, convictions and illusions, of those for whom ‘politics’ just means the power of a fellow mortal man. This article explores some of these issues in the context of the Late Roman Republic and the Augustan Principate. 

In Ancient Rome, apotheosis tends to come into focus when the power and achievement of a statesman is under evaluation. On the one hand, deification played a key role in shaping Roman conceptions of meritocratic authority, often forming the basis of discussions on how to reward outstanding public service. In Cicero’s De re publica, for example, apotheosis was an important tenet of an emerging political philosophy on the ideal statesman. Throughout the text, the divine afterlives of Romulus and Scipio Aemilianus (the Younger) were used by Cicero as examples to substantiate the belief that those now worshipped as gods were originally men of great achievement. On the other hand, the contested nature of certain stories of apotheosis underlined the divergence among Roman intellectuals in their appraisal of the relationship between the state and its leader. For example, ancient sources gave two completely different accounts of what happened to Romulus. One tradition, which included the great republican poet Ennius (Annales 1.54–5), tried to explain Romulus’ sudden vanishing from the city as a well-earned apotheosis. But a competing tradition, as recorded in the work of the first-century BC Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 2.56.3), interpreted Romulus’ abrupt disappearance as fatal dismemberment by those who could no longer tolerate his despotism. The ‘apotheosis tradition’ clearly took a generous view of Romulus’ rule, and the story was meant as a seal of approval to his reign. By contrast, the ‘dismemberment tradition’ rationalized Romulus’ disappearance, and imagined a starker – perhaps more plausible – outcome for the man who accumulated excessive power during his lifetime. By the time Livy was writing his monumental history of Rome, the ‘apotheosis tradition’ had become the orthodox version of events; yet aspects of this story were still questioned. Livy himself, for instance, expressed surprise that the testimony of Romulus’ apotheosis provided by a certain Julius Proculus proved so persuasive to its original audience (Ab urbe condita 1.16.5–8).

The Apotheosis of Romulus (Sir James Thornhill c. 1710)

The Apotheosis of Romulus (Sir James Thornhill c. 1710)

In the end, the question of whether Romulus had undergone apotheosis was not as revealing as what the story of apotheosis symbolized. The invention and propagation of Romulus’ apotheosis reflected an attempt to transfigurate historical uncertainty as political myth. The story’s status as a cultural ‘fact’ pointed to a willingness among the Romans to validate autocratic leadership as political achievement. It was this ideological inclination — and its expression through divinizing imagery — that was challenged by the rationalizing tradition of Romulus’ disappearance. Moreover, the fact that this critique of Romulus’ apotheosis took place throughout Roman history and across different literary genres indicates that the divinization of a statesman was far from a run-of-the-mill practice or merely a literary topos. Rather, it is something that constantly stimulated the Roman intellectual elites’ broader interest in the nature of their political constitution and the shifting relation between leaders and members of their society.

In the late Republic, as one military general after another obtained extraordinary political powers, concepts such as divine salvation, divine favour, and immanent divine quality fully entered into Roman political debate. As a result, discussions of a statesman’s ‘divinity’ cut to the core of how the ruling aristocracy negotiated the idea of one-man rule. Take for example Cicero’s Pro lege Manilia (66 bc) and Pro Marcello (46 bc). Produced twenty years apart, Cicero’s discussion of the ‘divinity’ of Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar in these speeches shines a harsh light on the propensity of Roman political institutions to lean on the executive power of an individual in times of crisis and to use the notion of divine leadership to justify it. In the Pro lege Manilia, Cicero speaks in support of Gaius Manilius’ bill granting Pompey sole command in the Third Mithridatic War, which extended to giving Pompey the authority to wage war and conclude treaties at his own discretion. In order to make the case that Pompey is uniquely suited to taking up these ostensibly dictatorial powers with the best intentions, Cicero employs all the rhetorical flourish he possesses to present Pompey as a god-sent saviour upon whom the imperium of Rome depends (Leg. Man. 41–2). In the Pro Marcello, Cicero develops this strategy further in his address to Caesar, presenting the clementia (‘mercifulness’) of the dictator as a near-divine quality that would ensure not only Caesar’s own immortality but also the salus (‘health’) of Rome. This is an extraordinary claim in many ways, especially as the Pro Marcello is full of references to Caesar’s recent victories in the civil war (see e.g. Marcell. 18). It is one thing to encourage the victor of a civil war to show mercy to his former enemies after the dust has settled: it is quite another to suggest that the Roman state could not be ‘healthy’ without the mercy of a dictator. Hiding behind Cicero’s fulsome praise of Caesar is a sobering realization that a dangerously lopsided power dynamic is the only solution to long-term political stability. However, by framing Caesar’s clementia as a quality of divine proportions, Cicero makes the dependence on the unpredictable politics of a dictator more palatable to his Roman audience.

The issue of divinizing a Roman statesman only became more complicated with the assassination of Julius Caesar. The assassins justified their action by claiming that Caesar’s unprecedented concentration of power undermined republicanism and was therefore a cause of grave concern. The best illustration of Caesar’s dangerously unparalleled position was the divine honours he received before the Ides of March, which assimilated him to divine status: in fact, there is good evidence to suggest that Caesar was worshipped as a god in the final months of his life. On the one hand, as Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price explain in their magisterial book Religions of Rome, some aspects of Caesar’s divine status are comprehensible as the development of existing trends in Roman religious ideology and practice. On the other hand, it is a shockingly new phenomenon: the establishment of Caesar’s cult in Rome represented the intrusion of a foreign, monarchical practice into Roman political life, which must have outraged the republican sensibilities of the Roman elite. Thus as a result, Caesar’s successor, Augustus, was particularly attentive to how he came across in the public eye and carefully managed any suggestions of his own divinization. One particular passage from Suetonius’ biography of Augustus nicely illustrates this:

‘Although Augustus knew that temples were usually voted even to proconsuls, he did not accept them in any province unless jointly in his own name and that of Roma. In the city of Rome itself, he refused this honour with utmost determination; and he even melted down the silver statues that had been set up for him earlier, and from the proceeds of this he dedicated gold tripods to Palatine Apollo. When the people forcefully offered him the dictatorship, he went down on his knee, threw off his toga from his shoulders, and with a bare breast begged them not to.’ (Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 52)

According to this picture, Augustus scrupulously made sure that he did not overstep the mark when it came to his personal veneration in the provinces; meanwhile in the political centre, where there was greater scrutiny, he flatly refused to be honoured as a god and repelled any suggestion of harbouring autocratic ambitions. Yet, there is reason to suspect that Augustus’ actions reflected more than his restraint. The emperor took different approaches to accepting divine honours in the provinces and in Rome, suggesting that he made some use of personal worship when it suited him. By melting down his statues and using the proceeds to fund dedications to Apollo, Augustus commodified the veneration shown to him by his subjects, and reinvested it to cultivate further his affiliation with his patron god — a form of divine self-representation that sat better with his domestic audience.

The fact that, after the civil war, Augustus took great effort to suppress his own worship in Rome and scrupulously curated his public image should make us think twice about the recurrent images of the Princeps as a divine figure in poetry. There are numerous instances in Ovid’s poetry, especially in his exilic corpus, where Augustus appears as Jupiter to the poet. Ovid’s ‘divinizing’ portraits of the emperor has a lot to do with the poet’s banishment; for Ovid, Augustus has become at this point something of an angry, retributive god. But in the case of Virgil, Horace, and Propertius, all of whom had a more or less amicable relationship with the Princeps, their poetry is just as interested in depicting the new ruler of Rome as a god or in the process of becoming one. In the Aeneid alone, there are three passages to this effect: we have the apotheosis of a ‘Trojan Caesar’ in Jupiter’s prophecy (1.286-90); we see Augustus being described as ‘son of a god, bringer of a Golden Age’ in the Parade of Heroes in the Underworld (6.791-3); and Augustus is more or less presented as an earthly counterpart of the god Apollo on the Shield of Aeneas (e.g. 8.704-5). Therefore, there appears to be a tension between what Augustus is doing and what the poets are doing – a tension between official language and poetic language.

            But there is more. We know that Augustus exercised various forms of social and cultural control that were aimed at influencing public opinion of him: we get a glimpse of this in the Suetonius passage above, but we get an even fuller picture from the marriage legislation Augustus introduced and the state art produced under his Principate – the latter has been well demonstrated by Paul Zanker in his hugely influential book The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. As a cultural form, poetry was to some extent subject to this control. But poetry is also very slippery: it thrives on evasion, double meaning, and insinuation. Taking this into account, poetry’s representation of Augustus as a divine figure also allows us an important insight into the negotiation, or even friction, between political power and creative power.

Finally, it is also worth bearing in mind that the practice of deifying a living ruler has a non-Roman origin. As alluded to above, the Romans identified the idea of ‘god amongst men’ with foreign cultures, in particular the Ptolemies of Egypt and the monarchies of the East. And for Romans who lived through the civil war and witnessed the rise of Augustus, their Princeps is first and foremost a victor in Rome’s conflicts against Egypt and Parthia, and a restorer of not just domestic peace but also Roman imperium. Therefore, when Roman writers adopt this non-Roman motif in their depiction of the emperor, it says something about Rome’s identity as an imperial power. In a way that is not so dissimilar to Cicero’s praise of Pompey and Caesar as Rome’s ‘divine’ guardians a generation earlier, the Augustan poets’ importation of this foreign cultural symbol into the very heart of Rome raises an important question: to what extent does the process of imperial conquest change Rome’s own national and cultural identity?

            This question underlies the final four verses of Propertius’ elegy 3.11. Published sometime between 23 and 20 BC , Propertius 3.11, in its roundabout way, commemorates Augustus’ victory at the Battle of Actium (31 BC) as a turning-point for Rome. The poem begins by discussing the power women have over men, and evolves into a celebration of Augustus’ triumph over Cleopatra. The last four lines of Propertius’ poem read:

Leucadian Apollo will record the turning of the battle lines: a single day of war took away so much labour. But you, sailor, whether making for port or leaving it, be mindful of Caesar through all the Ionian Sea. (Prop. 3.11.69–72)

Scholars have noted that the poet’s parting address to an anonymous sailor (lines 71–2) brings to mind an epigram of Posidippus, who worked in the Alexandrian court of Ptolemy I and II:

Both when you are about to cross the sea by ship and fasten the cable from the land, give a greeting to Arsinoe Euploia, invoking the revered goddess from her temple, which the son of Boescus, the Samian admiral Callicrates, built especially for you, o sailor. Another man, wishing good passage, also invokes this goddess, because whether heading for dry land or the divine sea, you will find her attentive to your prayers. (Posid. 39 Austin–Bastianini)

The displacement of a deified Hellenistic monarch by Augustus in Propertius’ poem suggests on the one hand that the Princeps now presides over the Roman world like a living god-king, a notion that is both flattering and problematic. On the other hand, by subsuming this panegyrical Greek epigram into a Latin poem about Roman conquest, Propertius plays up the idea that the Greek world and their symbolic discourses, which the Roman aristocracy appreciated and inherited over long expanses of time, are now defined by their contribution to the translatio imperii et studiorum (‘transfer of power and learning’) taking place under Augustus. By adopting the formula of a Hellenistic encomiastic epigram, Propertius’ cross-cultural allusion brings out the idea that, as Augustus subjugates and annexes what was once a centre of Greek-Hellenistic culture, one has to find new ways — non-Roman ways — of conceptualizing Augustan power.

Set within this framework, the poem’s implicit comparison of Augustus to a deified Hellenistic monarch is more than just a comment on the nature of his rule, but draws the reader’s attention to the extent to which non-Roman concepts, discourses, and power structures have been cultivated to sustain and reproduce Roman imperium. The repurposing of Posidippus’ eulogy of Arsinoe for a Latin panegyric about Augustus underscores the difficulty of maintaining any strict cultural distinction between Augustan Rome and Ptolemaic Alexandria, Roman and Other, ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is through this kind of learned reflection on Roman identity that Propertius disrupts the Augustan regime’s characterization of the civil war as a conflict between Rome and Egypt, and Augustus’ image as a salvific defender of Roman values and authority.

In the literature of the Late Republican and early Augustan periods, images and discussions of a statesman’s divinity are not merely reflections of an author’s attitude towards a political figure. Rather, they often function as a means for Roman intellectuals to articulate and interrogate Rome’s transition from Republic to Principate. In the case of the Augustan poets, their immense interest in this subject shows that writing about Augustus’ divinization serves as a sort of language of ‘political science’ for them. For Virgil, Horace, Propertius, and their contemporaries, to write about the divinization of Augustus is to make an attempt at understanding and coming to terms with Rome’s political shift. This is not so dissimilar to modern commentators who view the broader political and cultural climate through the prism of the character and identity of its leaders: the Augustan poets try to work out the changing relations between ruler and subject, self and other, through the apparently divine figure of Rome’s first emperor.


Dr Bobby Xinyue is Lecturer in Ancient Greek and Latin Language and Literature at King’s College London. His first monograph, Politics and Divinization in Augustan Poetry, was published in June 2022 by Oxford University Press.