(For a short introduction to Philo, his family and their connections with Rome, as well as to the events of 38 CE and the embassy to Rome, see Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10)
This panegyric of Augustus takes place in a section of the Legatio that attempts to counter the Alexandrians’ claim to have put statues of the emperor Caligula in synagogues in order to honor the emperor. Philo notes (in §§134-137) that the Alexandrians did not offer such honors to the Ptolemaic kings, nor to Gaius’ predecessors, Augustus and Tiberius. He concludes that the Alexandrians did not act out of a desire to show reverence to the emperor, but rather in order to harm the Jews by desecrating their synagogues.
In the Legatio, Philo repeatedly praises Augustus and Tiberius in order to highlight Caligula’s hybris and madness, and to illustrate how bad an emperor he was. Philo’s underlying point consists in an a fortiori argument: if the Alexandrians did not erect statues in synagogues even for Augustus, who was exceedingly virtuous (§143) and deserving of such honors, then there can be no reason justifying that they did so for Gaius. It is important to be aware of this rhetorical dimension of Philo’s text, before we turn to a more detailed analysis.
Philo first refers to the civil war that unsettled the Roman world in the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s murder in 44 BCE. Augustus, originally born as a member of the gens Octavia (and Caesar’s grand-nephew) under the name Gaius Octavius Thurinus, became Caesar’s heir and son by testamentary adoption, when Caesar’s will was made public after his murder. Octavian first allied himself with Mark Anthony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (the so-called Second Triumvirate) to defeat the assassins of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius, a goal that was achieved at the battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. The three men divided the government of the empire between themselves —the term “empire” is used to designate the dominion of the Republic, for “Rome had an empire long before it had an emperor” (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, 1). Yet they soon became rivals and fought against each other: Lepidus ended in exile, while Anthony was defeated by Octavian at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Anthony, who had received the eastern provinces, and had become Cleopatra’s lover, was able to rally support from various kingdoms and cities in the East. Hence Philo’ emphatic affirmation that Asia and Europe were at war with each other, the world being divided between Octavian’s and Anthony’s supporters (see further Smallwood, Philonis Alexandrini Legatio, p. 228). After his victory, Octavian came back to Rome, and on January 11, 29 BCE, he had the doors of the temple of Janus closed, a powerful symbol that peace had been achieved, after nearly 20 years of civil wars (since Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE; see Hurlet, Auguste, 71). Later on (in 13-9 BCE) the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, was built in Rome, which further presented peace as a crucial aspect of Augustus’ achievements. Indeed, Augustus succeeded to restore political stability in Rome and in the empire as a whole. A period of relative peace and prosperity ensued, also designated as the Pax Romana, which was to endure until the end of the second century CE. In our passage, Philo describes the period of the civil wars before 31 BCE in highly dramatic terms: the conflict is depicted as a cosmic one, “so that almost the whole human race would have been destroyed in internecine conflicts and disappeared completely,” had Octavian not put an end to it (§144). This kind of rhetorical overstatements is to be expected in a panegyric. The use of medical metaphors to describe civil wars (as in §145) is also common in Greek literature (Smallwood, Philonis Alexandrini Legatio, p. 228, referring for example to Herodotus, 5.28).
Beyond civil war, the Mediterranean world was also plagued by piracy during the first century BCE (De Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World). Pompey had succeeded to put an end to the phenomenon in 67 BCE, but in the 30s, the problem had returned, and it took Anthony and Octavian several years to solve the issue. Later on, Octavian (now Augustus) wrote in the Res Gestae: “I brought peace to a sea that was being subjected to piracy by runaway slaves” (§25.1, translation by Cooley, Res Gestae, p. 89). As John Scheid points out, this operation was in fact an episode of the civil war, as Octavian was initially fighting against Sextus Pompeius (Pompey’s youngest son), who was an opponent of the Second Triumvirate, until he was killed in 35 BCE; yet the ancient sources, probably influenced by the imperial version of the events, all describe the war as aimed against pirates only, not political opponents (see Scheid, Res Gestae, p. 67). Philo is no exception. In §146, he merely mentions “robbers” (lēstai) and “ships of pirates” (peiratikoi skaphoi).
In 27 BCE, the Senate awarded Octavian the title of Augustus (“venerable”; Sebastos or “revered” in Greek), honoring him as “more than human” (Cassius Dio, 53.16.8; cf. Res Gestae 34.2, which does not emphasize this superhuman dimension; see further Hurlet, Auguste, p. 76). They also offered him the clipeus virtutis, a golden shield celebrating the princeps’ virtues. Philo alludes to these events when he states that the princeps’ virtues “outshone human nature” (§143). However, in no way does Philo suggest that Augustus was divine. As a matter of fact, Augustus’ own reluctance to be worshipped as a god (referred to in Legat. 154) is, in Philo’s eyes, an important point that distinguishes him from Caligula (even though Augustus did not oppose the development of the imperial cult in the East, nor the joint celebration of the goddess Roma and the Princeps in some places in the West—an altar was dedicated to Roma and Augustus in Lugdunum in 12 BCE, for example; see CIL XIII, 1664).
In §144, Philo describes Augustus as ἀλεξίκακος/alexikakos, “averter of evil,” because he had put an end to the civil wars. This term is rare in Philo’s work, but it is found a second time in the Legatio, in a passage (§112) where it characterizes Ares, to whom Caligula identified himself. As Mary E. Smallwood notes: “Philo’s point is that Augustus deserved it [the title “averter of evil”] more than did Gaius, who by equating himself with those divinities had by implication appropriated their epithets also” (Philonis Alexandrini Legatio, p. 228). Maren Niehoff notes that Philo’s presentation of Ares, the god of war, as an “averter of evil” who avenges those who have been wronged, is surprising. She suggests that it is to be explained by Philo’s exposure to the Roman conception of Mars as protector, which had received more prominence with Augustus’ dedication of a temple to Mars Ultor (“Mars the Avenger”) after his victory against Caesar’s murderers (Niehoff, “The power of Ares,” p. 135-136; ). In §144, Augustus himself becomes an “averter of evil” who protects Rome and all the inhabitants of the oikoumenē against the evil of war.
Finally, Philo also presents Augustus as one who “set every city again at liberty” (§147), and brought civilization and Hellenization to barbarian peoples. Here Philo plays with well-known Greek stereotypes again (for other examples, see Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10). The motif of the freedom (eleutheria) granted by Rome to (Greek) cities emerged with the figure of Titus Quinctius Flamininus, who, after his victory against Philip V of Macedonia at Cynoscephalae, proclaimed “the freedom of the Greek cities” in the name of the Senate, in 196 BCE. The relations between Greek cities and the Romans had obviously changed a lot at the end of the first century BCE, but at least some cities enjoyed a great deal of political and legal autonomy under the Principate, especially in Greece and Asia Minor. It is more difficult to find a historical basis to the claim that Augustus brought Greek civilization to barbarian peoples. The Romans never had such a civilizing project, as Hervé Inglebert aptly recalls (Inglebert, Histoire de la civilisation romaine, p. 438-440). Here Philo interprets Augustus’ rule from a Greek perspective, and this detail in fact reveals Philo’s deep appreciation of Greek culture and paideia.
To conclude, I must stress again that the rhetorical dimension of Philo’s text should prevent us from reading this passage as a direct expression of Philo’s thoughts about Augustus’ rule. Yet, it is probable that Philo did appreciate the new stability brought by the Principate, and above all the fact that Augustus, in line with his adoptive father’s policy, guaranteed the right of the Jews to live according to their ancestral laws (see further Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 153-158).
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