Prayer to Caesar Octavian
29 BCE to 25 BCE
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Near to the beginning of the first Georgic, this passage invokes Octavian, placing him in the role of a soteriological figure and anticipating his impending deification. This is the first direct address to Octavian in the poem, and makes some important political statements. First of all, Octavian is required to consider his own role as princeps, and to consider carefully the impact his decisions will have on the Roman people. Octavian is essentially asked to choose the role that he will play, and how he will be venerated and worshipped by the rest of humanity. Christopher Nappa argues that Virgil adopts a “rhetoric of godhead” here in order to emphasise the potential future distance between a deified Octavian and the human world, and to encourage the young Caesar to contemplate the effects of such absolute power on oneself and others (Reading After Actium, p. 30). Virgil himself has already referred to Octavian as a god in his first Eclogue, when the farmer Tityrus praises him as such after being granted his confiscated land back (Eclogue I.6-45), and it is by no means unheard of in other Latin literature of the time. However, for Nappa, this label of deus is not purely about the power that Octavian will come to hold; it intensifies the isolation that he will experience and the various responses to his rule that will emerge. For instance, while he may eventually be worshipped as a patron of sailors, the term servio implies that he could come to require worship, rather than simply being a protective benefactor (I.29-30). Moreover, he may end up in a position whereby he occupies too great a share of heavenly space, Scorpio having had to give up what was fairly assigned to him (I.34-35).
Octavian’s future role in the divine sphere, therefore, is entirely uncertain, and could potentially be one of tyranny if he does not take steps to ensure against this. Gods forbid, Virgil prays, that the worst should happen and Octavian become ruler of the underworld (I.36-37)! The phrase regnandi cupido, which can mean either “desire to rule” or the more controversial “desire for kingship” is significant. While Julius Caesar did not claim the title of king, his killers believed that he thought of himself in this way, and Virgil takes pains to assert that this title remains off limits for Octavian too – indeed, it could only be sustained in the underworld. Finally, as Christine Perkell points out (The Poet’s Truth, p. 46-59), the plea for Octavian as ruler to have pity on “the rustics” who do not know the way (I.41) emphasises the importance of Octavian maintaining a connection with all the inhabitants of Italy, as the way he is viewed by Romans at large will not be insignificant in the legacy he will leave behind.