First mention of the Genius of the Roman people.
20 BCE to 12 CE
Title of work:
History of Rome
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
This text is an excerpt from the end of book XXI of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, a book dealing essentially with the year 218 BCE (for a general presentation of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, see Livy, History of Rome, Preface 6-9). After the narrative of the main events of this year which ended with the defeat of the Romans against the Carthaginians during the battle of the Trebia in December, Livy enumerates all the prodigies which occurred in Rome, or around the city, during that winter. Then, the decemviri consulted the Sibylline books so as to know how to expiate (procurare) most of these prodigies (§ 6). After having mentioned that the city of Rome was purified, Livy deals with the acts of expiation which were undertaken. He mentions that sacrifices were offered up to “the designated gods” and explains in details the gifts, rites or supplications addressed to Juno, Fortuna, Iuventas, Hercules and the Genius (§ 8-9). Jacqueline Champeaux has rightly noticed that most of the deities involved in these expiations were deities watching over birth, youth or fecundity (see Champeaux, Fortuna, p. 184-185). The aim of these expiations was thus to bring back the pax deorum (“the peace of the gods”) after the dramatic events of the year 218 BCE, but also to preserve the integrity and the regenerative capacity of the Roman people (Février, Supplicare deis, p. 149).
For us, the most interesting element in this enumeration is the last one: et Genio maiores hostiae caesae quinque; “and five major victims were slain in honour of the Genius”. Most scholars have proposed to identify this Genius with the Genius Publicus or Genius populi Romani, making thus of this passage the earliest reference to the Genius of the Roman people, and the first mention that sacrifices were made in its honour (see for instance Fears, “O ΔΗΜΟΣ,” p. 277; Champeaux, Fortuna, p. 185; Palombi, “Genius Publicus,” p. 365; identification well explained in Cenerini, “Sui culti pubblici,” p. 526-528). The Genius of the Roman people was a sort of abstract and supernatural double of the collective entity formed by the Roman people, an entity which was worshiped because it protected the Roman people, and because it represented it in its very core (Béranger, “Le GENIUS,” p. 411-412). It is important to recall that the first figurative representation of the Genius of the Roman people appears on a numismatic issue minted in 100 BCE and which represents on its reverse a personification of the Genius of the Roman people holding a cornucopia, an attribute showing perfectly that the Genius was intrinsically associated with the idea of male fertility. Even if the age of the man representing the Genius on this issue can be debated (is he a mature and bearded man or a young man without any beard), two posterior issues minted between 76 and 74 BCE, clearly represent the Genius of the Roman people as a mature and bearded man.
Livy’s account that the Genius of the Roman people was already worshiped in 218 BCE is the earliest attestation of the existence of this cult and it has been interpreted by many scholars as a proof that the cult must have been instituted at that time (Fears, “O ΔΗΜΟΣ,” p. 282). The fact that victims were sacrificed to this Genius proves that the Genius of the Roman people was then the object of a cult, and this even if the first shrine dedicated to the Genius of the Roman people is not attested before the end of the Republican period. Cassius Dio actually recalls that, in 43 BCE, a group of vultures settled on the temple of Concord and on that of the Genius of the people (τοῦ νεὼ τοῦ Γενίου τοῦ δήμου; Cassius Dio, Roman History XLVII.2); and that, in 32 BCE, an owl flew into the temple of Concord, then to all the other most holy temples, and finally settled upon the temple of the Genius of the people (Cassius Dio, Roman History L.8). This temple may thus have been located on the north-western side of the Roman Forum (Cenerini, “Sui culti pubblici,” p. 525; Palombi, “Genius Publicus,” p. 366).
Rufus Fears actually believes that the cult to the Genius of the Roman people was instituted nearly at the time of Livy’s account, and he has tried to explain the development of this cult at that time by placing it in a broader context. First, he recalls that the accumulation of military defeats for Rome during the year 218 BCE may have led to some kind of scepticism towards the traditional religious rites. This dramatic context led to a renewal of the religious rites or forms which, among other things, went through the incorporation of Greek customs or cults (Fears, “O ΔΗΜΟΣ,” p. 283-284). For him, the cult of the Genius was part of these new cultic forms of Greek origin, which were adapted to Roman customs. Actually, Rufus Fears also recalls that, in the context of various Greek cities, cults to the Dēmos (the people) are clearly attested during the Hellenistic period, more particularly during the second half of the third century BCE. He quotes the example of the city of Athens, where a cult to the Dēmos of the city does not seem to have existed before 229 BCE (Fears, “O ΔΗΜΟΣ,” p. 281). Thus, the Romans may have integrated this – quite recent – Greek custom which consisted in honouring the people of a given city, and may have adapted it, first by extending it to the whole Roman people and by associating it with a traditional Roman concept, that of Genius.
Polybius and various epigraphic inscriptions attest that, during the first half of the second century BCE – that is, a few decades only after the appearance of the Genius populi romani –, Greek kings, cities or communities honoured the Roman people/dēmos, quite often through the dedications of statues which must have represented the Dēmos of the Romans as a masculine figure (see Polybius, Histories XXXI.4; on the question of the codes of representation of the Dēmos of the Romans as a masculine figure, see Fears, “O ΔΗΜΟΣ,” p. 274-280, contra Mellor, ΘEA PΩMH, p. 25-26, 152-153). If the cult of Roma became predominant in most Greek cities, the cult of the Roman Dēmos seems to have been fairly well established in Greek cities and communities which attached particular importance to the cult of the Dēmos in general (Erskine, “Rome in the Greek world,” p. 376-377). Thus, if at the origin, the cult of the Dēmos of the Romans – and, by extension, that of Genius of the Roman people – was considered by Greek communities and authorities as one cult of the Dēmos among other, the expansion of Rome’s imperium gave a particular and exceptional dimension to the notion of Genius of the Roman people and to its worship.