BMCR 2023.09.26

Politics and divinization in Augustan poetry

, Politics and divinization in Augustan poetry. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 256. ISBN 9780192855978



This new book by Bobby Xinyue aims to analyze Augustus’s divine characterization as portrayed by three Augustan poets (Horace, Virgil, and Propertius), and so attempts to cope with a still debated issue in Roman religion studies from a literary perspective. The volume offers a historical and methodological introduction, then four chapters: the first two are thematic (Chapter 1: “Libertas, Peace, and Divine Dependence”; Chapter 2: “Divinization and the Transformation of Rome from Rome to Principate”), while the last two focus on specific texts (Chapter 3: “Conquest and Immortality in Horace’s Odes,” on Horace’s lyric poetry; Chapter 4: “Divinization and the Inevitability of Augustan Rome,” on Virgil’s Aeneid). The book ends with an epilogue (“To Divinity and Beyond”), which offers interesting prompts for future explorations, and it is completed by a bibliography and two useful indexes.

The Introduction provides a guide to the theme and goals of the study and adds some necessary background. Taking his cue from an analysis of the Suetonian definition of Augustus’s ciuilitas (Suet. Aug. 51), the author pinpoints a different attitude toward the appropriation of divine imagery: on the one hand, there is Octavian/Augustus’s formal rejection of a public cult in Rome, but on the other hand, divine attributes are variously attested in poetry and become a sort of topos engrained in the language of power-representation. By recognizing the dynamic relation between “official and poetic language” (p. 6: the word “tension” will become a Leitmotif in the book), the author aims to provide a new way to analyze one of the main themes of early Augustan poetry (pp. 7–8). After tracking the roots of the political employment of divine elements in Late Republican public oratory (especially in Cic. Leg. Man. and Marcell.), the analysis of the tension-strategy just outlined takes its cue from a passage of Propertius (3.11.69–72) and its representation of the momentous day of Actium. The key expression una dies (the very day of the battle, capable of determining Octavian’s victory or defeat under Apollo’s influence) is aptly analyzed in connection with the last distich (inspired by an epigram by Posidippus: 39 Austin-Bastianini): both elements are considered as a way of merging into one single poem the transition from Hellenistic to Roman deified autocracy. The idea of political and social change present in Propertius’ poem leads naturally to the discussion of the thematic chapters of the book.

The first chapter is devoted to the discussion of the manipulation of freedom and divine attributes during the struggle between Octavian and Antony. Including the epigram by Domitius Marsus transmitted alongside the Epigrammata Bobiensia (fr. 8 Blänsdorf) would have enriched the discussion of the evidence for Octavian’s Olympian banquet,[1] since this is one of the earliest poetic texts explicitly mentioning Octavian’s divinity. The author then focuses on the political value of libertas in poetry. Verg. Ecl. 1 is analyzed paying special attention to leisure and freedom granted primarily to Tityrus (pp. 41–42), but at the cost of lack of individual agency: the anonymous and deified iuuenis is extolled through encomiastic language reflecting Late Republican discussions on the theme, but at the same time a willing subjection to a new “economy of permission-and-obligation” (p. 49) is clearly staged in the pastoral world outlined in Ecl. 1. The link between power and anonymity emerges again in Ecl. 4: the encomium of a nameless puer capable of bringing about another Golden Age would legitimize a new system of power, where otium and libertas are bestowed on subjects as a reward for divine recognition (p. 55). The price of such an autocratic depiction is scrutinized by looking at Livy’s Preface, Verg. G. 4 and Prop. 3.4. Livy’s inevitable remedium to civil wars, the rise of Octavian, is considered alongside the depiction of otium in the sphragis of the Georgics (pp. 59–60, developing insightful remarks on the “superclosural” structure established between Ecl. and G.)[2] and the political marginalization which Propertius imagines for himself. To benefit from a superior—godlike—entity implies again a lack of individual agency, a point raised and exploited by poets after the victory at Actium.

The second chapter deals with the historical development from the civil war to Octavian’s final victory, with a particular emphasis on its echoes in the Horatian corpus. The two books of Satires and the Epodes are investigated for meaningful references to the presence and absence of Octavian and highlighting the changes in Horace’s political language (pp. 67–71 and 85–89). The absence of Octavian in Epod. 1 is particularly significant since it establishes a contrasting parallel with the imposing divine presence of the iuuenis in Ecl. 1 (pp. 80–81). This might prompt further reflections on the similarity between Ecl. 4 and Epod. 4 given their shared use of animal-related imageries: while divine intervention establishes peace between predators and prey in Ecl. 4 (4.21–22), the military activity of Octavian and the notorious tribune blamed in Epod. 4 during the civil war reinforces the enmity between wolves and lambs (4.1–2). The problem of reiteration of the past is also central in Epod. 9, which touches on the anxiety over the actual limits of Octavian’s divine nature and another possible civil war. The second part of the chapter is devoted to the Georgics (pp. 89–104). While the section on Horace mainly deals with space-related matters, Virgil’s work is seen through the lens of time markers in the proem: Octavian’s divinization is described as an imminent event (G. 1.24 mox) and his role as a weather god is clearly foretold (1.25–28),[3] but at the same time he is invited to accept prayers for the present time (1.42 iam nunc). The temporal dynamics acquire more urgency at the end of the Georgics (4.559–562), where the poet’s lack of agency (the otium-motif) is considered as a safe strategy displayed by Virgil’s poetic persona, facing Octavian’s inevitable ascent to power (pp. 100–104). The same is true for Propertius: after comparing the legal characterization of Augustan power in Prop. 2.7 and later in 4.11, the author attempts to underline the progressively thinner distance between a power exerted on laws and Augustus’ personal (divine) power.

Chapters 3 and 4 are dedicated to the analysis of passages from Horace’s Odes and Virgil’s Aeneid. The application of the methodology outlined in the introduction and used in the first two chapters allows the author to read the key poetic moments and to identify a coherent response to the narrative of recovery from civil war and ascent to divinity that Augustus himself created (see pp. 119–120). Following this approach, Chapter 3 thus guides readers through Horace’s Odes 1.2, 1.12, and 1.37 and the bulk of “Roman Odes” (3.3, 3.4, and 3.5) and finally 3.14 and 3.30. This interpretative itinerary highlights the effect of Augustus’s political ascent and Horace’s poetic agenda, which links his own immortality to Augustus’s power. In so doing, Xinyue emphasizes the rather ambiguous relationship between Horace’s individual agency and Augustus’s overpowering will. Chapter 4 is devoted to the prophecies of Augustus’s future divinization in Virgil’s epic poem: starting from Jupiter’s prophecy in Aeneid 1 and the promise of a shrine dedicated to Apollo in Aen. 6.69–74 (a reworking of the “proem in the middle” of G. 3) the author analyzes the depiction of the triumph of Augustus on Aeneas’ shield, arguing that Virgil’s epos struggles between divergence and collusion with Augustus’ narrative (p. 179). Overall, the two chapters reach plausible conclusions. As a matter of detail, perhaps, a more cautious attitude would have been welcome when considering the “latent … double-reading of deliberata morte” in Hor. carm. 1.37.29 (p. 131), since the suggested alternative reading de liberata morte (“freed of death,” construing liberata as nominative) is metrically impossible. Furthermore, while analyzing the triumph-scene depicted on the shield of Aeneas, there could have been at least a short discussion of the two concurrent identifications of the temple of Apollo mentioned at Aen. 8.720 (is it the temple devoted to Apollo Palatinus or Apollo in Circo, Apollo Sosianus?).[4]

My remarks do not affect the generally sound conclusions reached in each chapter of the book and confirm the productivity of this investigation, albeit a clearer definition of the idea itself of “divinization” and its aftermath might have been welcome. As the author states at the end of the introduction (p. 34), this monograph seeks to provide a “fresh approach” to the sociocultural dynamics experienced by poets active in the first part of Augustus’ principate, and how they dealt with the new-born structures of power. One of the main accomplishments is perhaps its continuous attempt to merge political stances identified by previous scholars in poetic texts into a more nuanced literary approach, capable of rediscussing the dichotomy “pro- or anti-Augustus” and embedding authors in a broader historical and cultural context: in this respect, the literary analysis may have benefited from a more direct engagement with the results reached by R. Syme, The Augustan Aristocracy, Oxford 1986, and a discussion of Vitruvius’s Preface and his engagement with Augustus’s divinity.[5] To sum up, the volume will be useful to literary critics and historians interested in exploring current trends of research on Roman religion in the Augustan age and will surely foster future debate on the theme. The discourse on Roman attitudes toward the divine is very much open to debate and many other voices may be set into fruitful dialogue with this book.[6]



[1] See on the latest M. Citroni, “Autocrazia e divinità: la rappresentazione di Augusto e degli imperatori del primo secolo nella letteratura contemporanea”, in Il princeps romano: autocrate o magistrato? Fattori giuridici e fattori sociali del potere imperiale da Augusto a Commodo, ed. by J.-L. Ferrary and J. Scheid, Pavia, 2015, especially 260–261.

[2] The metaleptic strategy (in the sense of G. Genette) of impersonating Tityrus’s figura attempted by Virgil at the very end of the Georgics might well be seen as a strategy intended to assure a distant position in the case of Octavian’s ascent to heaven via a previous pastoral figure.

[3] The idea of an Aratean characterization of the weather-controlling Octavian could be supplemented with another observation on the verb inuisere, here applied to one of the future activities of Octavian: this is again an allusive marker to Aratus’s poem, since the Aratean Dike / Iustitia is the divinity usually associated with the theme of theoxeny (see especially Verg. G. 1.474-475).  In the context of G. 1, however, this activity is postponed until the deification.

[4] On this point see at least L. Chioffi s.v. triumphus, EV 5.1, Rome 1990, especially 276–277, but a more thorough reassessment of the matter is a desideratum.

[5] A brief comparison between Vitruvius and Horace (on artistic grounds) is outlined by M. Fitzpatrick Nichols, Author and Audience in Vitruvius’ De Architectura, Cambridge, 2017, 47-49.

[6] The book is overall free of typos and the bibliography has some minor typographical slips and inconsistencies in the referencing system. Given how vast its focus is and the amount of scholarship on the topics it covers, it would be unfair to point out gaps, though a somewhat remarkable omission is the still useful volume by D. Kienast, Augustus. Prinzeps und Monarch, Darmstadt 1982.