Temple in honour of Caesar and Rome’s military triumphs
Earlier in the Georgics, Virgil drew upon the Athenian festival and games culture, emphasising that Rome was effectively overshadowing its Greek forebears (II.385-396). This passage builds on this notion, stating that Virgil will bring to Italy the Greek culture of cultic games. Perhaps predictably, the hero at the centre of these festivities will be Caesar Octavian. Greece, realising that Italy’s games have surpassed their own, will long to compete. Two of the famous host locations of the games in honour of Hercules, Alpheus and Molorchus, will be cast aside in favour of the new Roman hero (III.19-20). The reference to Idumaea (Judea) in verse 12 is likely decorative, as these Palestinian palms were renowned (see, Pliny, Natural History XIII.4.6). The palms, of course, are representative of the splendour and triumph that will be brought to Mantua with the establishment of Caesar’s temple (see Richard Thomas, Virgil, Georgics, Vol. 2: Books III-IV, p. 40-41).
Virgil represents himself as Octavian’s representative priest and the driver of a four-horse chariot in the imagined games, but as Christopher Nappa argues (Reading After Actium, p. 119), the praise showered here on Octavian must be read with the poet’s comments at the end of the first Georgic in mind, where the allusion of an out-of-control chariot is used to warn against the dangers of becoming hubristic in triumph and allowing Rome to slip into peril. In this third book of the Georgics, the image is turned around so that the chariot race honours the triumph (and the triumphator, Caesar), rather than representing the dangers such success can bring. The superiority of Rome over Greece is also implied with this allusion, as while Greek chariot races showed off the wealth of aristocratic sponsors, Roman racing chariots were usually driven by slaves or entertainers, and their owners’ status was secondary to public entertainment.
The sanctuary that Virgil claims he will build for Octavian of course implies that the poet is elevating him to the position of a deity. However, the passage is more complex than this, as Virgil is very clear on the issue that the temple is something which has yet to be built – neither the sanctuary, or Octavian’s deified status are confirmed. Virgil warns elsewhere in the Georgics (see I.498-514), that indulging in power is potentially disastrous, and as such is careful only to present Octavian’s deification as something potential. As Richard Thomas highlights (Virgil, Georgics, p. 44), the reference to the Britons who raise the purple curtain implies the ever-growing empire that Octavian presides over. Octavian’s military victories are presented on the doors of the temple that will be built in his honour, with Actium seemingly alluded to (III.26-33). There have been various suggestions as to why Virgil envisages the temple to be built near his home of Mantua, rather than in Rome. Egil Kraggerud argues that it is because Virgil wishes to associate the Roman hero with local, utopian quaintness, in much the same way as Tityrus in Eclogue I.19-25 (“Vergil Announcing the Aeneid,” p. 1-20). Christopher Nappa, however, (Reading After Actium, p. 121) suggests that this tactic might also serve to remind that Octavian’s success relies and impacts upon the whole of Italy, not just the city of Rome.