From a politician belonging to a patrician family, to general and finally the dictator of Rome: Julius Caesar was an ambitious man who steadily advanced his career until he was mercilessly murdered in 44 BC. But even a brutal death could not halt his progress. Upon his death he received an honor that rarely any man in Rome had achieved before him: apotheosis.
The official deification of Julius Caesar in Rome took place in 42 BC when the senate had him deified posthumously. But his divine status had been accepted by the people of Rome soon after his death when a comet appeared in the sky during the funeral games held in his honor by Augustus in 44 BC. Known as the Sidus Iulium or Caesar’s Comet, this was hailed as a sign that Caesar had taken his place amongst the gods.
The deification of Caesar is recounted by Suetonius: “He died in the fifty-sixth year of his age, and was numbered among the gods, not only by a formal decree, but also in the conviction of the common people. For at the first of the games which his heir Augustus gave in honour of his apotheosis, a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour, and was believed to be the soul of Caesar, who had been taken to heaven; and this is why a star is set upon the crown of his head in his statue.”
Temple of the deified Caesar
On the deification of Julius Caesar by the senate in 42 BC, the second triumvirate decreed the construction of a temple dedicated to him in the forum. But since there were more pressing matters at hand such as defeating Caesar’s murderers who had escaped to Greece, official construction began only in 34 BC. The temple was finally dedicated in 29 BC by Augustus as part of his triple triumph, commemorating his victories in Egypt, Dalmatia and most famously in Actium against his rivals Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
Soon after the death of Caesar, his body was burnt at the east end of the forum where an altar and a column were dedicated in his honor. Both the column and altar were later removed and a temple was constructed in their place. This became the cultic center dedicated to the deified Julius Caesar and also a site that the Julio-Claudians used for political propaganda.
The site of the temple can still be visited today as part of a visit to the forum. Although all that remains of the temple is the altar, it still acts as a reminder of the fascinating legacy left by one of the most famous characters of Roman history.
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Statue of the deified Caesar in the Pantheon
The Pantheon is also an important building connected with the deification of Julius Caesar. It contained a statue of the deified Caesar in one of the niches, in the midst of the statues of other gods. Cassius Dio recounts that according to Agrippa’s original plan, the Pantheon was to be named after Augustus and the emperor’s statue was to be placed in it. But when Augustus didn’t accept either of these honors, Agrippa placed a statue of the deified Caesar in the main room of the Pantheon while his and Augustus’ statues were placed in the anteroom.
During the period of the republic, it was still uncommon to place a statue of a distinguished citizen in a temple. It was however, common to place such statues in the anteroom. Augustus was able to send a clear message regarding his divine connection, while continuing to act within the norms of society by allowing his own statue to be placed only in the anteroom and Caesar’s to be placed in the main room of the Pantheon.
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Caesar’s Divine Connection
The statue of Caesar in the Pantheon stood amongst those of other gods, such as Mars and Venus, as mentioned by Cassius Dio in his Roman History. This was a deliberate choice made by Augustus and Agrippa. Long before his death, Caesar stressed his family’s divine connections to both Mars and Venus.
The Julian family established a connection to the god Mars through Romulus, whose mother Rhea Silvia according to legend was seduced by Mars. They also connected their genealogical line to Aeneas and thus, to the goddess Venus who was his mother. Venus was worshipped as the founder of the Julian family and in 46 BC Julius Caesar dedicated a temple to Venus Genetrix in the forum area. The site of the temple played an important role in the cultic rituals held by the Julio-Claudian family. It was here that Julius Caesar famously received several honors from the senate without rising, rousing the hatred of all those present.
It was also before this temple that he dedicated a statue of his horse which soothsayers had predicted would rule the world for its master.
The temple of Venus Genetrix underwent several restorations under the empire and its remains can still be seen standing in the forum of Caesar.
The Legacy of Julius Caesar
Caesar’s character and his ambitions continue to intrigue both scholars and history enthusiasts alike. He was a man so ambitious that he convinced his army to march on Rome and bring about the end of the republic. While Caesar’s achievements during his lifetime paved the path for the birth of the empire, it was the deification after his death that set the precedent for the imperial cult in Rome. The deification of Julius Caesar made it commonplace for consequent emperors to be instated as gods by the senate and worshipped after their deaths.
Suetonius tells us that during the early days of his career, Caesar once saw a statue of Alexander the Great and let out a heavy sigh; it was a reminder to him that while Alexander had already brought the world to his feet at a young age, Caesar himself had done nothing noteworthy. But at that time not even Caesar would have imagined that one day he would leave behind a legacy so noteworthy that he would continue to fascinate people more than 2000 years after his death.
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