Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XX.5.10

The Genius publicus appears to the emperor Julian in a dream
Name of the author: 
Ammianus Marcellinus
388 CE to 390 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Res Gestae

For a presentation of Ammianus’s life and work, the Res Gestae, see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XIV.6.3-6.

It is commonly assumed that Ammianus composed books XX to XXII of his Res Gestae between 388 and 390 CE (on the dating see Fontaine, Frézouls and Berger, Ammien Marcellin, p. vii). The text presented here is an excerpt from book XX, dealing with events that occurred in 360 CE. At the beginning of that year, the Caesar Julian was present in Gaul in order to administrate Western affairs, while the Augustus Constantius II remained in the East. The course of events accelerated when Constantius ordered Julian to send a large section of his Gallic troops in the East in order to fight the Persians. Once the troops had been gathered in Paris, a mutiny broke out and the soldiers proclaimed Julian Augustus (XX.4). After quoting a speech that Julian pronounced in front of the soldiers gathered in Paris, Ammianus narrates that Julian said to his close friends that the night before his proclamation as Augustus, he had had a vision of the Genius publicus which exhorted him to accept the role of Augustus as the soldiers asked him. This passage is particularly interesting precisely because it counts among the latest references to the Genius publicus, which has often been identified with the Genius of the Roman people. We will try to present, through a broader perspective, the various attestations of the Genius publicus, and we will consider whether it is to be identified with the Genius of the Roman people or not.

First, it has to be noted that Ammianus Marcellinus refers various times to a Genius in his Res Gestae. This reference to the Genius publicus that appeared to Julian in a dream at the time of his proclamation as Augustus in Gaul matches another reference to the Genius publicus that appears in the last moments of Julian’s life. Actually, in Res Gestae XXV.2.3, Ammianus narrates that during the military operations against the Persians, Julian saw in a vision the Genius publicus which was moving far from him, with his head and his cornucopia covered by a veil. This was of course an omen that the emperor would die soon and that the Empire would have to face various misfortunes. Between these two references, Ammianus refers another time to a Genius when he narrates that Constantius II used to see a “secret figure” that appeared to him in a confused way. As narrated by Ammianus, this figure was interpreted by some as being the Genius in charge of the protection of his wellbeing (tutelae salutis); the end of these visions signifying thus the imminent death of Constantius II (Res Gestae XXI.14.2). In this case, we cannot be sure whether this Genius is the Genius of the emperor or the Genius publicus. The major point that has to be retained considering the two explicit references to the Genius publicus is that they were added by Ammianus in order to frame Julian’s reign. In the passage presented here, the request of the Genius is organised in three steps: the Genius says to Julian that he has waited for a long time at his door in order to help him to become emperor; he adds that Julian has already refused him entry; finally, he recalls that if Julian still refuses he will totally give up. In the scope of Ammianus’s narrative, the role of the Genius publicus is clearly to emphasise the fact that following the model of the past auguratio through which an elected magistrate had to ask to the gods to confirm the choice made by humans, the advent of Julian was a legitimate one because it was supported by divine will (on this point see Fontaine, Frézouls and Berger, Ammien Marcellin, p. 170, n. 93).

The most important point raised by this passage is related to Ammianus’s choice to refer to the Genius publicus. In Livy’s account of all the expiations that had been performed in 218 BCE, after the battle of the Trebia, he refers to the fact that “five major victims were slain in honour of the Genius” (et Genio maiores hostiae caesae quinque) (Livy, History of Rome XXI.62). Most scholars interpret this Genius as being the earliest reference to the Genius of the Roman people or to the Genius publicus, and the first mention that sacrifices were made in its honour (see for instance Fears, “O ΔΗΜΟΣ,” p. 277; Palombi, “Genius Publicus,” p. 365; the identification is well explained in Cenerini, “Sui culti pubblici,” p. 526-528). However, it has to be noted that these two passages of Ammianus Marcellinus’s Res Gestae correspond to the sole Latin narrative source in which the whole expression Genius publicus is explicitly used (see TLL VI/2, col. 1837, 39-42). Two explicit references to the Genius publicus can be noted in epigraphic sources.
The first one appears in the Fasti from Amiternum (modern San Vittorino) in Sabine territory, dated from the reign of Tiberius. Fasti were calendars of the Roman year, divided into months and days, on which were mentioned the religious and legal status of each day. They also served to record days of religious observances and those during which events should be commemorated. In the Fasti Amiterni, aside from the details related to the status of the days, all the details related to the nature of the feriae (the festive days) are mentioned in small letters. These feriae were dedicated to the imperial house and to ludi, or holidays associated with games. They also recorded when rituals for specific god(s) were performed in specific place(s) in Rome. As stated by Jörg Rüpke, these calendars “recorded the traditional religion of the city of Rome in all its breadth,” even if the calendar of Amiternum is a good example of the growing number of imperial festivals (CIL IX, 4192; Degrassi, Inscriptiones Italiae XIII, 2, no. 25; on this calendar see Rüpke, Kalender und Öffentlichkeit, p. 131-132; Rüpke, From Jupiter to Christ, p. 8-9 (for quotation)). This calendar is highly fragmentary, and as a consequence only parts of the calendar of the months from May to December have been preserved. On the 9th of October, we read: c(omitialis). Genio public(o), Faustae Felicitati, Vener(i) Victr(ici) in Capitolio, Apol(lini) in Pal(atio). Ludi; “Comitial day. To the Genius publicus, to Fausta Felicitas (“Favourable Good Fortune”), to Venus Victrix (Venus Victorious) on Capitol; to Apollo on the Palatine. Games.” The Roman calendar was divided between dies festus, sacred days during which sacrifices, banquets or games were performed in honour of the gods, and dies profestus, days during which humans could carry out public and private business. This second category of day was itself divided between the dies comitiales and the dies fasti. During the first, Romans were allowed to be summoned to an assembly in order to vote. During the second, public assemblies could not be conveyed but Romans could go before the praetor in order to grant parties the right to litigate and to pronounce judgements in other cases (when the dies was nefastus the praetor could not judge). This passage shows that on each 9th of October a sacrifice had to be performed for the Genius publicus, Fausta Felicitas and Venus Victrix. One point, however, has been debated, whether there existed a temple specifically dedicated to the Genius Publicus on the Capitol that was different from the one dedicated to the Roman people mentioned by Cassius Dio (Cassius Dio, Roman History XLVII.2 and L.8; on the debate related to the location of this temple, see Livy, History of Rome XXI.62). For Domenico Palombi, this passage of the Fasti of Amiternum shows that the Genius Publicus was worshipped on the 9th of November with other deities on the Capitol, but not that he had a specific temple or altar there (in favour of a specific temple of the Genius Publicus located on the Capitol, see Degrassi, Inscriptiones Italiae XIII, 2, p. 518 and Cenerini, “Sui culti pubblici,” p. 525; contra Palombi, “Genius Publicus,” p. 366).
The Genius publicus appears also on an inscription carved on an altar found at Salodurum in Germania Superior. The inscribed text starts with a dedication to the Genius publicus, and it is then mentioned that Suecconius Demecenus built this altar with a statue – probably of the Genius publicus – in honour of the imperial family. The inscription ends with a consular dating indicating that the monument was dedicated in 219 CE (CIL XIII, 5171; Walser, Römische Inschriften no. 131, p. 46). This inscription first shows the permanence of the reference to the Genius publicus even in the third century CE. Second, it highlights the connection between the Genius publicus and the imperial family, a connection that may recall the relationship between the Genius publicus and the emperor Julian existing in Ammianus’s text.

Coming back to the equation made between the Genius publicus and the Genius populi romani accepted by many scholars, it has to be recalled that it is based on a process going back to the Roman Republic, according to which the word publicus is a derivative form of the word populus. This is best highlighted in the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus of 186 BCE, in which on line 15 the word poblicus stands for publicus. As stated by Amy Russell: “Ager publicus, the res publica, and all things publicus are defined with reference to the populus Romanus, the Roman people” (Russell, The Politics, p. 26). The starting point of any reflection about the connection between the res publica and the Roman people is of course the Ciceronian adage: respublica est res populi, “the res publica is the thing of the people” (Cicero, De Republica I.26.41). This adage has served as a basis of many political reflections up to Augustine (see Moatti, “Respublica,” p. 812; for a discussion of Augustine’s reflection on the res publica, see the commentary on Augustine, Letter 138.17). During the Republican period, the res publica was not the equivalent of the populus. For instance, unlike the Roman people, the res publica was not the subject of legal decisions related to war, peace or treatises but it was the entity on the name of which decisions were taken. According to Claudia Moatti, the res publica was a“certain point of view on the populus, that is to say on the idea of community” (see Moatti, “Respublica,” p. 813-814). The res publica was thus a common space in which the things (res) of a people – i.e. his patrimony, his business, his army – were unified. The res publica was also connected to the material existence of one community and also to her political identity (see Moatti, “Respublica,” p. 815-817). Cicero went beyond this traditional definition especially in his famous text about the two patriae, in which the res publica is defined as an “abstract space” formed by the bond of citizenship that united the whole civic body (see Cicero, On the Laws II.3-5). For him, the formation and unity of this legal community were the result of a common will. According to Claudia Moatti: “The legal community that is the res publica is not an organic community, as the polis for Aristotle, but it is a community which had a universal vocation, which could gather every man and extend to the whole orbis terrarum” (on this passage see Moatti, “Respublica,” p. 832-833). During the imperial period, the res publica was more and more connected to the imperial figure, up to the point that he was sometimes not only considered as being the most important part of the res publica – its head –, but as embodying it totally (Moatti, “Respublica,” p. 834-835).
Having these general remarks in mind, it is possible to suggest some explanations about Ammianus’s choice to refer to the Genius publicus. Ammianus could have referred to the Genius of the Roman people. Actually, the years 316-317 CE marked the end of the production of coins – essentially of bronze – bearing the legend GENIO POPULI ROMANI; production that had started with Diocletian’s reform and that had been minted in impressive quantity in nearly all the mints of the Empire (on these issues see Bronze depicting Diocletian and the Genius of the Roman people (mint of Antioch, 294 CE)). However, during the rest of the fourth century CE, references to the Genius of the Roman people are pretty rare; one of the few we actually know about appears in a passage of Symmachus’s third Relatio in 384 CE (on these references and the evolution of the cults to the various Genii during the fourth century, see Symmachus, Relatio III.8; Codex Theodosianus XVI.10.12 (8th November 392 CE)). It is important to recall that in 384 CE, Symmachus, who was Prefect of Rome, was then engaged in the so-called affair of the Altar of the Victory. In 384 CE, Symmachus had asked the new western emperor, Valentinian II, to restore this Altar in Rome (the altar had been removed from the Curia under Constantius II, reinstalled by Julian, and finally removed again under Gratian). In Milan, where the imperial court had then been transferred, Valentinian II was under the influence of the bishop Ambrose who was against any proposal of restoration (see, for instance, the commentary on Ambrose, Letter LXI.1, 4-6). This affair crystallised the tensions between pagan and Christian aristocracies in Italy until the very end of the fourth century, and it is in this very context that sometimes the debate also drifted towards the question of the importance of continuing to honour the various Genii, or on the contrary, of abandoning it (for a response to Symmachus’s arguments, see Prudentius, Against Symmachus II.370-487). Even if he was pagan and had been a great admirer of Julian, Ammianus never engages himself in polemical religious statements in his work. Nevertheless, he started to write his Res Gestae precisely during this affair of the Altar of Victory, and the fact that he refers to the Genius publicus visiting Julian, and also associates Constantius II, a Christian emperor, with another unidentified Genius, should be understood in that very polemical context. By then, this book having been composed between 388 and 390 CE, it is important to recall that two years later, on the 8th of November 392 CE, a constitution of the emperors Theodosius, Arcadius, and Honorius was sent to the praetorian prefect of the East, Rufinus, and recalled that all the pagan cults, and among them wine offerings made to the Genius (mero genium), were strictly forbidden (see Codex Theodosianus XVI.10.12 (8th November 392 CE)).

Coming back to the question of the nature and role of this Genius publicus, we argue that it is not exactly the equivalent of the Genius of the Roman people. Firstly, it can be seen from the three times Ammianus associates it with Julian or with Constantius that this Genius is clearly a divine entity that protects the emperor. Actually, the departure of the Genius far from the emperor, described in Res Gestae XXV.2.3, is actually an indication of the imminent death of Julian. In a way, the role of this Genius recalls that of the Genius of the emperor (the latest legend GENIO AUGUSTI/ORUM attested on bronze coins appears on coins produced at Cyzicus at the effigy of Constantine I and Licinius in 313-315 CE, RIC VII, Cyzicus, no. 1-2, p. 643). Concerning the aspects of this Genius publicus, Ammianus says about Julian’s vision that it is “taking the form in which the public Genius is usually portrayed.” In Res Gestae XXV.2.3 he also narrates that the Genius publicus, which was moving far from Julian, had a cornucopia. As we do not have any representation on coins or reliefs of the Genius publicus, it is difficult to discuss what Ammianus is saying. All that we know is that the Genius of the Roman people as the Genius of the emperor was depicted with a cornucopia in one hand and a patera in the other. Is Ammianus alluding to this classical representation? A last remark has to be made in order to challenge this idea that Ammianus wanted to refer here simply to the Genius of the emperor Julian. If he had wanted to do so, he would have simply referred to his Genius. The fact that he added the word publicus implied that this Genius was related to Rome’s political order, and thus to Rome’s res publica. If this reading is correct, this anecdote of the apparition of the Genius publicus to Julian in a dream would fit in with Ammianus’s global conception of the role of emperors who are presented in the Res gestae, according to Clifford Ando’s words, as “servants of the res publica” (see Ando, Imperial Ideology, p. 45). Actually, in his praise of Rome and reflection about the ages of the Roman people, Ammianus says that Rome “like a thrifty parent, wise and wealthy, has entrusted the management of her inheritance to the Caesars, as to her children” (see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XIV.6.5). The common point between this passage and the one we have studied here is that the emperor had to place himself under the authority of a superior entity embodying Rome, which can be the “venerable city” of Rome or the Genius publicus, probably representing the Genius of Rome’s res publica.

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

“Sui culti pubblici del Genius”

Cenerini, Francescaarticle-in-a-bookL’Afrique, la Gaule, la Religion à l’époque romaine. Mélanges à la mémoire de Marcel Le GlayYann Le Bohec523-528“Sui culti pubblici del GeniusLatomus 226BruxellesRevue d’Études Latines1994

Ammien Marcellin, Histoire. Tome III, Livres XX-XXII

Fontaine, Jacques, Frézouls, Edmond, Berger Jean-DenisbookAmmien Marcellin, Histoire. Tome III, Livres XX-XXII edition, notes and translation by Jacques Fontaine, with the collaboration of Edmond Frézouls and Jean-Denis BergerParisLes Belles Lettres1996
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