Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV.745-759; 803-851

Julius Caesar is transformed into a star

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3 CE to 8 CE
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XV.745-759; 803-851


This passage, found near the end of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, describes the deification of Julius Caesar. At this point in the poem, we arrive in Ovid’s own time, the Age of Augustus. In a similar fashion to his approach in the Fasti (written at the same time as the Metamorphoses), Ovid chooses here not to indulge in any great details about Caesar’s military and civic achievements, glossing over them rather quickly (748-759). Julius Caesar’s military conquests are essentially viewed as secondary in importance to the fact that he fathered (through adoption) the future Augustus (Octavian), whose achievements will be even greater (751, 820-839). Caesar’s military exploits (in Britain, Numidia, Egypt, Libya and Pontus) do not gain him anywhere near as much renown as the fact that he played a significant part in enabling Augustus to come to power – the adoption of the young Octavian trumps everything else in Julius Caesar’s career.

Even Caesar himself is described as proudly contemplating this from his new abode in the heavens, looking down on his adopted offspring with awe and wonder, and humbly recognising that he has been surpassed (850-851). In a curious piece of logic from Ovid, the greatness of Augustus is described as such that it requires Julius Caesar be made a god, as an emperor of such high renown cannot merely be descended from human parents. The fact that Augustus was not Julius Caesar’s biological son is testament here to the irrefutable sincerity of such adoptive practices in Roman society at this time. Alongside his fathering of Augustus (whose military and civic successes are elaborated on), it is Julius Caesar’s own metamorphosis, his transformation into a star, that takes centre stage here. Elsewhere in the Metamorphoses, Aeneas (XIV.581-608), Hercules (IX.134-272), and Romulus (XIV.772-851) have all been deified as a result of their divine parents and endeavours (on the narrative model of apotheosis in the Metamorphoses, see Stephen Wheeler, Narrative Dynamics, p. 139-144). Julius Caesar, on the other hand joins Hersilia (XIV.772-851) in being granted apotheosis because of a connection to a divine family member.

Julius Caesar’s eventual deification has ever been a part of the gods’ plans, and Jupiter comforts Venus, the divine mother of the Julio-Claudian line, in her grief for his death by assuring her of this very fact. This immediately brings to mind Jupiter’s similar tactic in the first book of the Aeneid. Here, the king of the gods pacifies Venus, angry at the continued suffering of her son Aeneas and his storm-battered Trojan fleet, by relaying to her his unchangeable plan for Aeneas to found the city of Lavinium (the future site of Rome) and subsequently be given divine status himself (Virgil, Aeneid I.257-296). The mythological divine lineage of Julius Caesar is also laid out in the Aeneid, with Aeneas’s son, Iulus (also called Ascanius) being named as the ancestor of the Julian line, therefore providing the link between Venus (Aeneas’s mother) and Julius Caesar (Virgil, Aeneid VI.788-792). Genevieve Liveley suggests that a comparison can be made between Venus’s motherly concern for Aeneas and her motherly grief for Julius Caesar (Genevieve Liveley, Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,p. 152). However, Jupiter’s speech at the start of the Aeneid seems to be less about motherly worry and more about Venus’s anxiety and anticipation for the foundation of the Roman state. The tone here is slightly different, as Venus’s concern for Julius Caesar is evident from the mention of her attempting to save him from death on the battlefield by enveloping him in a cloud (804). In this sense, then, the subsequent achievements of his adoptive heir Augustus serve as consolation – Julius Caesar’s death paved the way for an even more glorious Roman future.

The encomium that Ovid presents here for Augustus has been the subject of much discussion among scholars. One possibility is that the Metamorphoses have come full circle – the poem begins with Augustus being compared to Jupiter when Ovid likens the Roman senate to the council of the gods (I.173-176). This first book also laments the treacherous circumstances of Julius Caesar’s death, comparing it to Lycaon’s foolish impiety (I.199-205). This passage in the final book can be seen to offer a sense of completion by rectifying the death of Caesar through his deification and the continuation of Augustus’s celebrated age (on this framing of the poem, see, for example, Peter Knox, Traditions of Augustan Poetry, p. 75). For Stephen Wheeler, the high praise of Augustus, far from being misplaced and subversive, however, is logical given that Julius Caesar’s campaigns had ended fifty years previously, and the enduring legacy he left in Augustus was ongoing in Ovid’s day (Stephen Wheeler, Narrative Dynamics, p. 137). Wheeler notes that the contrast at the beginning of the passage between native and foreign gods is highly significant for interpreting the religio-political context of the poem. He subscribes to the position that sees Aesculapius (a foreign god), whose addition to the Roman pantheon is narrated immediately prior to this passage, compared here with Augustus, via his association with Julius Caesar (the native god). Both Aesculapius and Augustus are saviours who have succeeded their fathers; however, they are distinct in that Julius Caesar had to be transformed into a god (Wheeler, Narrative Dynamics, p. 138). Moreover, Aesclepius, the son of Apollo, was the personal god of Augustus, and so the allusion to him here is more striking. Ovid has earlier in book 15 of the Metamorphoses presented Aesclepius as sent to provide healing (XV.622-744), and in this passage effectively presents Augustus as a different type of healer – a healer of the Roman state, who will better it with laws and peace. Both Aesclepius and Augustus, as sons of gods, can be seen as holding restorative powers for Rome.

Karl Galinsky is among those scholars who see this episode as standing outside the overall thematic development of the Metamorphoses (Karl Galinsky, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, p. 253). Aside of fitting in with the numerous other accounts of deification, however, as argued by Wheeler, Julius Caesar’s transformation into a god signals the creation of a new style of myth for Ovid’s time, one wherein sons legitimately outdo their fathers. This concludes the poem by recalling the first book, in which the Saturnian Golden Age is supplanted by that of Jupiter (I.89-124) (Wheeler, Narrative Dynamics, p. 138-144). There is an implicit association, therefore, between Augustus and Jupiter, which some scholars understand to signify a subversive critique of Augusts, understanding his era not as the new Golden Age that Virgil’s Aeneid suggested he would usher in (VI.792-797), but rather as the less-than-utopian age of silver (see, for instance, Hélène Vial, La métamorphose, p. 65-67). 

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