In recent years, Roman political culture has become an increasingly vibrant field. Not least through the work of Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, scholars have become more attentive to the central importance of political performances staged in the city at festal occasions and in everyday life. Religion forms part of that scholarly discourse; the gods, temples and rituals are analysed as an integrated component of Roman political culture at work.
Has cultural studies thinned out scholarly approaches to the specific religious attitudes and practices of Republican Rome? Have we, in our strive to relieve Republican Rome of Christian conceptions centred on faith, watered down ancient religion to a general ‘cultural practice’, to which we can relate and thus more easily understand? It seems to me, reading Trevor Luke’s monograph Ushering in a New Republic: Theologies of Arrival at Rome in the First Century BCE that one of its central aims is to restore the particularity of Roman Republican religion in scholarly debate. Politics and performance both have a place in Luke’s book, but religion is emphasised as the prime player.
Luke analyses departures and arrivals performed and retold by the principal figures of late Republican Rome. According to Luke, each leader constructed his own ‘personal political theology’, according to which he displayed his religious claims and created stories of divine support. By setting departures and arrivals in narrative frames dense with religious overtones, the leading Romans of the time, according to Luke, advertised themselves as divinely appointed saviours, who brought stability, peace and a new era ( saeculum) to Rome.
Luke’s first analytic chapter focuses on Sulla, suggesting that the memoirs started with an omen announcing a new saeculum and probably ended with his triumph. Luke commendably underlines that we should take Sulla’s interest in omens and divine protection seriously. He also convincingly argues that Sulla justified his march on Rome in religious terms. But the sources, or lack thereof, present a problem for the chapter as a whole. When Plutarch writes that Sulla, in his dedication of the memoirs, advised Lucullus to look out for divine signs and thereafter refers to the Lavernan prodigy and Sulla’s profectio, it’s possible but far from certain that these events formed part of Sulla’ own introduction. Also, this chapter would have benefitted from an inquiry into the relationship between performance (departure and triumph) and commemorative literature (memoir).
In Chapter two, Luke argues convincingly for the success of Pompey’s cleverly played out act in front of the censors during the recognitio equitum in 70 BCE. Luke relates the event to the welcoming of Italians as citizens through the census, Pompey’s Italian background, and an investment in Hercules, popular in Italy. It is not quite clear how this ties in with the idea of a divinely protected adventus, but as I understand Luke, he sees the performance as an ovatio or triumphus of sorts, which, linked with the censors naming Pompey Magnus, the strengthened relationship with the Italians and the image of Hercules, forms a coherent political-theological program that aimed at launching Pompey as a new saviour of Rome and Italy. This is a clever idea, and in parts acceptable. However, when Luke calls Pompey’s engagement with Hercules in 70 BCE unique (p. 83), his case rests purely on circumstantial evidence. There was a temple to Hercules Pompeianus, which imperial sources placed near the Circus Maximus, but we do not know when the shrine was built. Luke further claims that Pompey’s victory games in 70 were dedicated to Hercules, whereas in fact, no ancient source confirms this. In order to verify his argument, Luke casts doubts on the enmity of Pompey and Crassus (who also attached himself to Hercules), arguing that they used this religious symbolism cooperatively.
Cicero’s exile and return is discussed in chapter 3. Cicero made a spectacular show of his profectio (dressed in black, accompanied by an escort, offering a statue of Minerva on the Capitol) as well as the reditus, which was staged and retold very much in terms of a triumph. Luke makes several good points about how Cicero’s exit and return proclaimed him saviour of Rome. By linking the statue of Minerva, Cicero’s poem De consulatu suo with its council of gods, the dream of Marius as reported in the De Divinatione and his own return, Luke further claims that Cicero painted his departure and return in strongly theological terms. As so often throughout this book, one wonders if ‘personal theology’ would not be better expressed as ‘self-presentation set in a triumphal tradition, strengthened by ideas of divine assistance’. Also, Luke at times stretches the sources quite far in order to validate his idea of a Ciceronian theological construction. For example, the fact that it was the birthday of the temple of Salus when Cicero landed in Brundisium simply cannot entail that readers of the letter to Atticus saw here a reference to Cicero’s desire to become censor because there was a statue of Cato the Censor in that shrine.
In chapter 4, Luke targets Caesar’s entry into Rome from the Feriae Latinae in 44 BCE. The discussion is partly based on Sumi’s argument that the ovatio provided Caesar with a possibility to stage a vision of reconciliation and concordia after his failed attempts to show off the civil war victories in the triumphs of 46.1 Luke also claims that the procession re-enacted the migration of his ancestors the Julii to Rome and that it formed a response to Cicero’s Pro Marcello. Both arguments are valid, albeit at times somewhat strained. Luke also makes a good case for why the ovatio should be read as an attempt to perform a recusatio regni and argues that Caesar used the arrival to display a vision of the new order, with himself in the leading but not regal role.
Chapter 5 presents an analysis of Octavian’s ovatio in 36 BCE after the defeat of Sextus Pompeius at Naulochus, rightly noting that the event was celebrated as the end of the civil wars. Luke emphasises the extraordinary honours offered by the Senate, such as the banquet promised to Octavian, his wife and children in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus on each anniversary of the victory (Dio Cass. 49.15.1–2). Luke links this event to Suetonius’ report of a scandalous secret banquet of the twelve gods in which Augustus was dressed as Apollo ( Aug. 70), although there is no evidence for when the cena dodekatheos would have taken place. He further insists that the banquet on the Capitol was a private event, which is both unfounded and unlikely, as the day involved public commemorations. Luke tries very hard to tie everything down to the year 36: Octavian’s ovatio, his new divinity, rumours of a new saeculum, the identification with Apollo, a cosmic restoration of the Republic and the two banquets. In the end, he even suggests that Octavian entered Rome ‘to acclamations as the New Apollo, perhaps even dressed as the god’ (159, cf. 160). To me, this seems utterly implausible. Unfortunately, the importance of the attested divine associations of Octavian’s entry in 36 gets lost in this chapter, much being built on speculation.
In the final section, Luke focuses on the Res Gestae, arguing that the inscription presented a theological case for deifying Augustus.2 In Chapter 6, he discusses earlier texts as inspirational forerunners: Pompey’s dedicatory inscription to Minerva, the silver tablets with Caesar’s honours, the bronze tablet of Capys. In general terms, these inscriptions certainly formed part of the cultural frame within which the Res Gestae was produced, but their contexts and forms were very different.
In Chapter 7 and 8, Luke argues that the first 13 chapters of the Res Gestae should be read as a theological adventus narrative of Augustus, the refounder of Rome and bringer of a new saeculum. I agree with Luke’s emphasising Augustus’ deliberate use of his arrivals, and with the interpretation of the Ara Fortunae Reducis and the Ara Pacis as triumphally embedded topographical markers of an age of peace. He also offers several other potentially important arguments. But the main ideas presented in these chapters are unconvincing.
According to Luke, the Res Gestae as a whole is framed by two Augustan arrivals, chapter 1 (Octavian raises an army) and chapter 35 (Augustus is named pater patriae). This is an interpretation rather than facts. He further claims that the reader at the Mausoleum would quickly have acknowledged chapter 1–13 of the text as an imaginary journey into the heart of Rome and Augustus’ Forum. Central to Luke’s argument is his understanding of an underlying evocation of Romulus in chapters 1–4 and of Numa in 9–13, and the appearance of these figures on the panels of the Ara Pacis, set along the route between Mausoleum and Forum. One major problem here is of course that the identification of Numa on the altar is far from clear. Also, in these chapters, Luke plays on a large palette of associations to Romulus, Janus, Mars, Apollo, Valerius Poplicola, Camillus, Caesar and especially Numa, and ties them to monumental and topographical locations evoked by the Res Gestae. How even the cultural elite in Rome would have understood and made sense of this highly intricate web of references remains unclear.
In the conclusion, Luke targets the last two chapters of the Res Gestae, which he interprets as a final adventus, a destined endpoint for Augustus’ personal theology, for the Republican project as such, and for the arguments of his monograph. He argues well that Augustus’ nomination as pater patriae in chapter 35 formed a statement of Roman consensus. The reminder of the chapter is more problematic. Luke finds in the final part of the Res Gestae yet another itinerary, which led the reader to the quadriga inscribed pater patriae on his Forum. Based on Strocka’s suggestion that the marble biga in the Vatican is identical to the statue on the Forum,3 Luke presumes that the chariot stood empty. We are not presented with any arguments in favour of this surmise, and, after all, the Res Gestae mentions a quadriga, not a biga. This leaves Luke’s ingenious concluding hypothesis without any source-based evidence. Luke’s point is that the empty chariot represented the end of a journey, which was played out in the Res Gestae and which symbolised Augustus’ refusal to accept triumphs after 29 BCE and, later on, his apotheosis and deification.
Ushering in a New Republic is a challenging book. It takes the reader on a winding route of wide-ranging associations. The arguments are often strained, and Luke not seldom presses the sources to their limits or even beyond to have them fit into his model of theologically imbedded departures and arrival stories.
At the same time, Luke has clearly spotted a lacuna in the present scholarship, and I applaud the will and courage to explore a new path. I am not convinced that the term ‘personal political theology’ is adequate or helpful, but it is certainly thought-provoking. I also believe Luke is right that we should take the ancient testimony of experiences of the divine and stories of miraculous manifestations seriously. It is clear that the political leaders of the late Republic freighted their departures and arrivals with religious associations, and that the idea of a saviour entering Rome formed part of triumphal rhetoric. Throughout the book, the reader is left with a somewhat frustrating feeling that Luke is on the verge of uncovering something potentially very important. Ushering in a new Republic is provocative and forced, but it is also bold and stimulating.
1. G. S. Sumi, Ceremony and power. Performing politics in Rome between Republic and Empire, Ann Arbor 2005, 65–69.
2. A thesis first presented by von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and more recently argued by B. Bosworth, ‘Augustus, the Res Gestae and Hellenistic theories of apotheosis’, JRS 89, 1999, 1–18.
3. M. V. Strocka, ‘Die Quadriga auf dem Augustusforum in Rom’, MDAI(R) 115, 2009, 21–55.