By guest contributor Dora Gao
Celestial objects and events have appeared in the historical record for a myriad of reasons, serving as portents of either fortune or doom or asserting the divine authority of a ruler. The comet of 44 BCE is one example of the way in which astronomy played a role in political narratives, given its use to legitimate the young Octavian (later known as Augustus) as a significant and serious figure in the politics of the late Roman Republic. We can look at the fact of this comet’s occurrence and its interpretation as a case study to examine the use of celestial phenomena as a sociopolitical tool.
The comet of 44 allegedly appeared in the sky over the funeral games that Octavian had put on for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, in July of that year. As Octavian himself would later write in his Memoirs, “On the very days of my games, a comet (sidus crinitum) was visible over the course of seven days, in the northern region of the heavens (= near Ursa Major). It rose at about the eleventh hour of the day (= ~5 – 6:15 PM) and was bright and plainly seen from all lands” (Memoirs, fr. 6 [Malcovtai], translation and interpretation by Ramsey and Licht). According to Octavian’s testimony, “the common people believed the comet to signify that the soul of Caesar had been received among the spirits of the immortal gods” (Memoirs, fr. 6 (Malcovtai)).
The comet and its interpretation had significant ramifications given the political climate of the late Roman Republic. With a growing schism between the conservative senatorial faction and popular politicians that culminated in the assassination of Caesar and threatened open civil war, the Roman Senate was facing a leadership vacuum. Though Caesar had named Octavian as his son in his will, Octavian was only eighteen years old with no political or military experience at the time, and had been adopted by Caesar only months before. There was no reason for the Roman Senate to view him as a legitimate contender for leadership. The fortuitous appearance of the comet in July, then, presented an opportunity for Octavian to distinguish himself.
In order to examine the role that the comet of 44 played in Roman politics, it is first necessary to evaluate whether there was any comet at all. Though some may argue that the existence of the comet is secondary to its impact on Roman history, it is important, for our purposes, to question whether the comet’s existence in Augustan imagery may have been prompted by an actual celestial event. Such an inquiry is necessary to distinguish whether political messages were created in response to astronomical phenomena, or whether existing methods of discourse regarding heavenly bodies alone shaped the form of propaganda. The case for the comet certainly appears suspect, given that the first attestation of its existence is from Octavian’s own Memoirs. Astronomers, furthermore, would ideally verify any comet with six unique parameters and then use the information to cross reference with a catalogued comet, but the paucity of rigorous astronomical data on this comet from our ancient sources makes it impossible to verify its existence under these standards.
Despite these problems, we cannot say conclusively that the comet did not exist. First, the Romans were not particularly disciplined about their stargazing at this time; thus, the lack of any astronomical records is not indicative of the lack of astronomical events. Second, the fact that the comet cannot be identified in our existing catalogue does not necessarily mean that it did not appear over Rome. The best orbital reconstruction scholars have managed given available data indicates that the comet likely would have had an unstable orbit that takes several hundred years to complete. As such, it likely would have been thrown off course before it returned to Earth to be catalogued during a second viewing (Ramsey and Licht, The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar’s Funeral Games, 124-5).
So scholars cannot rule out the existence of the comet from incomplete evidence. Furthermore, historical context and Roman attitudes towards celestial phenomena provide a compelling case for its occurrence . The Romans, up to Octavian’s time, had viewed comets as bearers of misfortune and did not often receive them with optimism (e.g. Cicero, De Divinatione 1.11.18; 2.28.60). If there had in fact been a comet, one can imagine that Octavian might have felt the need for an interpretation advantageous to himself—or, at the very least, as something less ominous than usual readings of a comet, especially in light of the political situation at Rome. If there had been no comet, however, Octavian would have picked a surprisingly inconvenient object to construct in his favor. In addition to the traditional stigma attached to comets, a bright object that allegedly could have been seen from all lands and that remained in the sky for seven days would have by no means been an easy event to fake. More likely than not, then, the appearance of a comet in Octavian’s earliest messaging was due to a real, unexpected celestial phenomenon.
If the evidence suggests that the comet of 44 did indeed exist, the next question we must ask is how did Octavian deal with this phenomenon? Interestingly, the appearance of the comet in Octavian’s early political imagery was not the result of existing Roman discourse regarding the positive significance of comets. Instead, it was a response to a natural event of ominous nature which was then reinterpreted and redefined within a new and specific political context. By claiming the comet to be a sign of Julius Caesar’s deification, Octavian was also asserting himself as a divi filius, the son of a god. Such a statement had two immediately advantageous effects for the eighteen year-old: first, it established a clear legitimizing link between himself and his adoptive father; and second, it allowed him to showcase his commitment to filial and religious piety.
Octavian’s bond with his adoptive father was tenuous compared to Caesar’s long-time relationships with his trusted generals and advisors. The teenage Octavian’s only legitimizing quality lay in his adoption by Caesar, and he thus would have benefited greatly from creating additional connections. Octavian had already begun to strengthen the relationship through the funeral games, themselves a public display of Octavian’s filial piety towards his late father. His declaration of Caesar’s apotheosis during those games would have further validated the association, since Caesar’s soul was rising to heaven during the time at which his son chose to honor him.
Given the love for Caesar that the people of Rome held at this time, this ostentatious display of the link between Octavian and his adoptive father led both the general public and Caesar’s troops to view the former in favorable light and as a worthy successor to their beloved Caesar. This one claim would have been key in helping Octavian win the support he needed from the people and the legions, both vital constituencies for gaining political footing in Rome (Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 34).
The comet, as a symbol of Julius Caesar’s divinity, furthermore, granted Octavian the occasion to display both filial and religious piety and portray himself as a responsible youth dedicated to the moral traditions of the Republic. This in turn helped Octavian win the trust of the Senate and his first military command, aiding Decimus Brutus, upon whom Antony was laying siege at Mutina in 43. Indeed, the orator Cicero, who had been unwaveringly suspicious of Octavian only months before, wrote a letter to one of his confidants announcing his support of the protective force (praesidium) that the outstanding youth (puer egregious) had raised for the res publica (Cicero, Fam. XII 25.4). In a political landscape where Octavian needed to build his moral credibility over more seasoned politicians and generals, the comet provided him a way to capitalize upon an astronomical event and demonstrate his commitment to the Republic.
While we certainly cannot go so far as to say that the comet alone catalyzed Octavian’s rise within Roman politics, we can draw a clear narrative line between the fortuitous appearance of a celestial event and its appearance within the early self-fashioning of Rome’s first emperor. Though Roman political discourse had previously incorporated other celestial events, the use of comets as a symbol of divinity was a precedent set by Octavian through the comet of 44. For example, Suetonius writes that Vespasian famously joked, upon seeing a comet on his deathbed, “Woe’s me. Methinks I’m turning into a god” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 23.4). His interpretation of this phenomenon and the ways in which he used its appearance for his own political gain demonstrate both the role that astronomy played in the political life of Rome as well as its potential to shape the way in which Romans conceived of imperial legitimacy.
Dora Gao is an MA student in the Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies department at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in the mythology and cult worship of Diana/Artemis and the ways in which they inform the construction of identity for various groups under the Roman Empire.