BMCR 1997.08.07

1997.8.7, Ramsey/Licht, Comet of 44 BC and Caesar’s Funeral Games

, , The comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar's funeral games. American classical studies ; no. 39. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997. xx, 236 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780788502736.

Octavian arrived in Rome in early May of 44 B.C. to accept Caesar’s inheritance and name. Later in the same month he met with the consul Antony who was somewhat dismissive of his young rival. However, at the end of July, Caesar’s veterans, many of whom had flocked to the city upon hearing of Caesar’s assassination, escorted Octavian to the Capitolium where he met with Antony and the two were reconciled (Nic. Dam. 29-30). What happened in the intervening two months that forced Antony to agree to this public reconciliation and recognize Octavian as a virtual equal? One factor was the games which Octavian sponsored in Caesar’s honor (20-30 July), during which a comet appeared in the sky during daylight hours that was taken to be a sign of Caesar’s apotheosis. Octavian basked in the reflected glow of this miraculous confirmation of Caesar’s divinity, soon after calling himself Divi Filius.

This book, the result of a collaboration between a Classicist (Ramsey) and a Physicist (Licht) [hereafter RL], examines the significance of Octavian’s games and the comet. It is divided into two sections: the first deals with the games themselves, their name, date, and significance, calling into question some old assumptions; the second deals with the comet, its historicity, the sources, including Chinese evidence for its appearance, its probable orbit, and its interpretation as a positive omen. There are also eight appendices and 12 figures. The chapters, which include intricate mathematical equations, calculations and scientific theory, are prefaced with abstracts clearly summarizing each chapter’s thesis, argumentation, and conclusion for those (like the reviewer) whose last math course is but a foggy memory. For this review, I will focus on matters of historical interest and leave the scientific issues to a more qualified reviewer.

The communis opinio holds that Caesar established annual games in honor of Venus Genetrix ( Ludi Veneris Genetricis) in September of 46 to celebrate the dedication of her temple. In the following year (45) the date of these games was moved to 20-30 July so that they would occur in the month of Caesar’s birth and at that time they were renamed the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris (pp. 19-25). The evidence for the name change is the letter of C. Matius to Cicero (Cic. Fam. 11.28.6), Suetonius ( Aug. 10.11) and the imperial fasti (Degrassi 485-86) which without exception call the games occurring in late July the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris. The evidence for the change of date, from September to July in 45, is one letter of Cicero ( Att. 13.44) in which he makes an oblique reference to Caesar and Victory, stating that during a festival (which Cicero fails to name) the people withheld their applause even from a statue of Victory because of her undesirable neighbor ( malum vicinum). The assumption has always been that Cicero is referring to the pompa of the ludi circenses of a festival, and that his statement indicates that a statue of Caesar was being carried next to a statue of Victory; the proximity of statues of Victory and Caesar could only mean that the festival in question is the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris.

There are two issues regarding these games that RL attempt to confront: 1) the change of date on the Roman calendar; 2) the change of their name. The question of date hinges on the evidence of Cicero’s letter to Atticus (13.44), but, as RL point out (p. 26), the chronology of this letter as well as several others in the same part of the collection (Books 12 and 13) is problematical. The date of Att. 13.44 (July 28, 45 B.C.) has been inferred primarily from Cicero’s vague reference to the pompa of what many have believed were part of games in honor of Caesar’s victory. RL demonstrate some of the chronological difficulties that arise if the traditional date of Att. 13.44 is accepted (e.g., the presentation of Cicero’s Academica to Varro and Brutus’ journey to Tusculum to visit Cicero). However, many of these same difficulties disappear if the pompa to which Cicero refers was in fact for the Ludi Apollinares which took place earlier in July (6-13). Cicero’s mention of the statues of Victory and Caesar need not mean that these games were in honor of Caesar’s victory: not only was Victory’s statue present at all pompae before circus games (as RL point out), but it also may have had a special place during the Ludi Apollinares because these games were established victoriae causa (Livy 25.12.15). The presence of Caesar’s statue signified the importance of the Ludi Apollinares for Caesar, occurring as they did in the month of his birth. RL further point out that Caesar was absent from Rome in July of this year and would not have moved such important games to this month only to miss them. Based on this new reading of the evidence, RL conclude that the games remained in September for the year 45, but were moved in 44—by Octavian. One of the alleged reasons for Caesar moving the games to July of 45 was to have them in the month of his birth. But the name of the month of Quinctilis was not changed to July until early 44, as part of a bevy of other divine honors. Therefore, even by this reasoning, it made more sense to move them to July in 44 rather than in 45. Octavian wanted to move these games to July in 44 so that he could “trump” Brutus’ production of the Ludi Apollinares earlier in the month. If the year 44 was the first time that these games occurred in the month of July, then the appearance of the comet must have seemed like a miracle. This would have required reconsideration and reinterpretation soon after the games were completed (more on this below).

This brings us to the change of the name of these games and the nature of the celebration. Various sources call these games the Ludi Veneris Genetricis (in particular the ones that mention the comet), the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris, or ludi funebres for Caesar. These games were referred to as a munus (both by Matius himself [Cic. Fam. 11.28.6] and by Suetonius [ Aug. 10.11]), the usual word for games associated with a funeral involving gladiatorial combat. Furthermore, Matius and his helpers were called procuratores, a title that also recalls a munus. Matius himself argued in his letter to Cicero that by helping Octavian put on these games he was only fulfilling a private obligation, which had nothing to do with the Republic. Octavian likewise claimed that he undertook the production of these games because of his family (Dio 45.6.4). For this reason, RL favor calling these funeral games for Caesar which were attached to an existing festival, the Ludi Veneris Genetricis, in much the same way that funeral games for Caesar’s daughter Julia were attached to the original production of the Ludi Veneris Genetricis in September, 46. In this way, Octavian could legitimate his adoption and make the claim that he was Caesar’s true heir, while at the same time acknowledging Caesar’s divine heritage. It was only under the principate that the annual renewal of these games came to be known as the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris.

An underlying issue in this debate, as evidenced by Matius’ protestations, was the nature of the celebration: did it impinge upon the Republic, or only Caesar’s family? That is, was it “public” or “private”? He and Octavian clearly made a case for the latter. However, the use of the word munus should not necessarily be taken as evidence of a private celebration. Certainly by the time that Suetonius was writing, munera were public celebrations under the control of the emperor. But even in the Late Republic Cicero could use the word to describe the games put on by an aedile who was fulfilling a public duty ( Off. 2.57), albeit funded with a good deal of his own money. My point here is that the line between public and private was blurred by this time—if it ever had been clearly drawn. For this reason, the argument that Matius makes to Cicero, that his involvement in the games had nothing to do with the Republic, always seemed to me somewhat tendentious. How could he think that games in honor of Caesar would not have political overtones? Caesar, by virtue of his preeminent position in the state, had become synonymous with it. Therefore, any celebration of Caesar—even one that Matius and Octavian claimed was a fulfillment of a private obligation—took on a public tenor. What’s more, virtually all the festivals in 44 bore the stamp of Caesar. For instance, after celebrating the Feriae Latinae in January, 44, (which, as consul, it was his obligation to do), Caesar was hailed king by the people upon his return to Rome (Suet. Jul. 79; cf. App. BC 2.108). He chose another important festival, the Lupercalia in February, to renounce the kingship (Cic. Phil. 2.84P87). After his assassination, a demonstration in his honor took place at the Parilia in April, the festival which celebrated the founding of Rome (Cic. Att. 14.14.1; 14.19.3). However, because news of Caesar’s victory at Munda arrived during the celebration of this festival in 45, it had become associated with that victory (cf. Dio 45.6.4). Also in April, Octavian tried to display Caesar’s sella and diadem at the Ludi Ceriales (App. BC 3.28). It is hard to believe that under these circumstances anyone could regard Octavian’s celebration in July as exclusively the fulfillment of a private obligation. This would have been even harder to believe after the appearance of the comet confirmed Caesar’s divinity. It is possible that when Matius called these games the ludi Caesaris victoriae (Cic. Fam. 11.28.6), he was betraying the process of reinterpretation that these games were undergoing. Even in October of 44, a scant few months after the appearance of the comet at the games, Matius argues that the games were a private obligation but calls them by a title that denotes a public celebration.

The other issue of importance is the sighting of the comet itself and its significance for Octavian. RL first demonstrate that it is probable that the comet is historical, and not a later invention of (say) Augustus to lend credence to his rise to power (pp. 64-66). First, two sources show traces of an anti-Augustan interpretation of the comet (Dio 45.6.4-7.1 and Serv. ad Ecl. 9.47). Second, comets were usually baleful omens and it would have been too risky for Augustus to invent one to symbolize Caesar’s divinity. There is also the Chinese evidence for the appearance of the comet which is compelling but not without its own difficulties. The Chinese rigorously recorded the occurrence of many celestial phenomena, comets included. In this particular case, there is a record in Chinese sources for a comet appearing in 44 B.C.—but in May/June, not in July when it was seen in Rome. In a chapter entitled, “The Troubling Silence of our Sources,” RL attempt to answer some difficult questions that arise from the evidence for the appearance of the comet: Why do the Greek and Roman sources mention only the sighting in July and not the one in May/June? Why do the Chinese sources mention only the sighting in May/June and not one in July? Furthermore, why does Cicero not mention the comet at all?

RL argue that the Chinese had more sophisticated instruments for observing the heavens and would have been more likely to see Caesar’s comet even in a fainter stage, as it apparently was in May/June (pp. 97-98). Moreover, the eruption of Mt. Aetna which occurred earlier in 44 would have cast a pall over the sky obscuring the view of the comet in the west in May/June but not in July (pp. 99-107). There are several possible reasons for the failure of the Chinese sources to record the July sighting, but the most probable is that these sources are fragmentary, and the record that does survive is probably based on more extensive imperial archives. RL also suggest that in general sources recording the sightings of comets are selective. The Chinese sighting in May/June was recorded because it may have inspired an imperial edict in which the Chinese emperor apologized for the deficiencies in his rule (pp. 80, 110). By the same token, the sighting of the comet at Octavian’s games in July found its way into the Greco-Roman historical tradition because of its significance for affirming Caesar’s divinity. The recorded sightings of comet Halley follow this pattern (p. 112). RL conclude that the sightings of comets are often recorded only when there is a historical “peg” on which to place them.

The most troubling silence of all is that of our single surviving contemporary source, Cicero, who fails to make the slightest mention of Octavian’s games, much less the sighting of the comet. As for the latter, RL point out that Cicero generally did not believe that comets had a predictive power and so ignored them (pp. 95-96, citing de Div. 2.60). Moreover, in July of 44, when Octavian’s games occurred, Cicero had made an abortive trip to Greece and was out of touch for a few weeks. By the time that he returned in early August, the games were over, the comet vanished and more pressing issues beckoned. There is a large gap in his correspondence with Atticus. After 25 July, there is a single letter in August (dated the 19th) and then the correspondence resumes in late October. The letters to his friends only partially fill this gap. I can accept Cicero’s silence about the comet, but his failure to mention the games is more troubling since he believed that games were an important gauge of popular opinion and in the absence of comitia in this year, the people had fewer opportunities to express their will (Cic. Sest. 106; in this very year Cicero requested that Atticus send him news of applause at the theater in lieu of “real” political events [ Att. 14.3.2; cf. 14.2.1]; cf. Phil. 1. 36 for Cicero’s assessment of Brutus’ production of the Ludi Apollinares in the same month). Of the festivals in this year, Cicero does mention the Lupercalia, Parilia, and alludes to the Ludi Megalenses ( Att. 14.2.1); he was obsessed with Brutus’ production of the Ludi Apollinares ( Att. 15.26.1, 15.28, 16.1); he makes a brief mention of games in September, probably the Ludi Romani ( Fam. 12.2.2). Moreover, from the time of Octavian’s return from Apollonia, Cicero was eager for any hint of his ambitions and his reception in Rome ( Att. 14.5.3). One expects that he would have read the audience’s reaction at Octavian’s games with keen interest.

RL conclude with a point of extraordinary interest. They demonstrated that Octavian was responsible for moving the games to July and that he retained the original name for the festival in part to legitimate his adoption and present himself as Caesar’s true heir. A passage in Pliny ( NH 2.93-94), recording the appearance of the comet, also mentions Octavian’s enigmatic statement in private that “[the comet] had come into being for him and that he was coming into being in it.” (tr. RL, p. 159). Also puzzling is the fact that Octavian identified himself as a Capricorn even though he was born under the sign of Libra (23 September). Some have surmised that in calling himself a Capricorn he was thinking of the time of his conception and not his birth. RL have discovered a more convincing reason based on the appearance of Caesar’s comet. On the days that it appeared, which RL calculated was c. 20-23 July, Capricorn was in the ascendant (pp. 147-53). In other words, Octavian viewed this event as a kind of second birth, when he truly became Caesar’s heir, and he continued to identify himself as a Capricorn in order to commemorate this second birth. It is noteworthy that when Caesar’s veterans met him at his house before they accompanied him to the Capitolium for a reconciliation with Antony at the end of July, one of them shouted that they were his “inheritance” (Nic. Dam. 29); the soldiers at least saw these games and perhaps the comet, too, as proof that Octavian was Caesar’s true heir.

This book cogently demonstrates the importance of these games for Octavian who used them to advance politically in his rivalry with Antony. It should be noted that Antony continued to challenge Octavian’s legitimacy, in particular by erecting a statue of Caesar on the Rostra with the inscription, “parenti optime merito” (Cic. Fam. 12.3.1, dated 2 October, 44), and Octavian continually had to reaffirm his, in particular in his contio in November, 44, when he swore an oath on Caesar’s statue (Cic. Att. 15.28.4). But it was the games and the appearance of the comet that provided Octavian with what could readily be interpreted as divine confirmation of Caesar’s divinity and his own right to succeed his adopted father. RL show how all this was possible while at the same time introducing new evidence to the debate and clearing up some old issues concerning the appearance of the comet at Octavian’s games.