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Octavian: Power in wealth

Date of news: 13 March 2022

One person that cannot possibly be omitted when looking at the dying days of the Roman Republic, is Octavian (later known as Augustus). Julius Caesar had appointed Octavian as the legitimate heir to his capital and power. This, after the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE, led to Octavian inheriting both power and wealth at a young age.

After winning the civil war against Mark Antony in 30 BC, Octavian was the single most powerful man in the Roman Republic, which he would now begin to transform to a principate. This was a tricky task, since one man consolidating absolute power was the very thing that Roman people feared and in turn had led to Caesar being assassinated. To not only assert but also legitimate great power such as that of Octavian, propaganda was needed.

Coining an image

One of the most viable media for propaganda, was coinage. Roman coins were a perfect way to convey an image throughout the entire Roman principate. To portray yourself on a coin was a way to assert power, and to have yourself portrayed with a deity on a coin formed a link between you and that deity, strengthening the legitimacy of said power. For an example on how a legend (that is, the words on a coin) can be used as propaganda, the following two coins will be used:

 

Left: Obverse: Head of Octavian
Right: Reverse: Venus bearing a spear, helmet and shield

 

Left: Obverse: Head of Venus wearing a necklace and crown
Right: Reverse: Octavian in military dress bearing a spear

The coins shown above, dated between 32 BCE and 29 BCE, are clearly a set. By showing both Octavian and Venus in the same pose and in the same theme of war, we might argue that Venus and Octavian are meant to be used interchangeably here. This strengthens the idea that Octavian was favoured by, if not equal to, the gods.

Legend

A recurring element on Octavian's coins, especially those bearing images of deities, is the caption CAESAR DIVI F. This stands for Caesar, divi filius, or "Caesar, son of a divinity." These words, though few, bear a clear message. The word "Caesar" refers to Octavian, since he was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and legitimate heir to his capital and power: his name was now C. Iulius Caesar Octavianus. The divi filius, however, definitely refers to his adoptive father directly: Caesar was – though posthumously – deified (by Octavian), so Octavian could claim that he, as the son of Caesar, was the son of a god.

The divi filius could in my view bear a double meaning. It could refer to the House of Julii, the family Octavian was adopted into by Caesar, itself. This ancient Roman family traces its lineage back to Venus through Aeneas, the founding father of Rome. This would explain why Octavian depicts Venus on some of his coins.

The legend on these coins, even though it was a very short one, did change the meaning of the depiction completely. It could have meant that Octavian was tracing his lineage back to Venus. The Caesar on the coin also referred to his link with his recently deified adoptive father.

Whatever the intention of these words, the message stays the same: Octavian is, in more ways than one, linked to the gods, and thus fit to wield the power he holds.

By: Jon Hartjes
(student of the course Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World)

Sources:

Coins:

Literature:

  • C. Rowan, From Caesar to Augustus (c. 49 BC-AD 14): Using coins as sources (Cambridge 2019).

    CJ833 - .R69 2018
    This unique book provides the student of Roman history with an accessible and detailed introduction to Roman and provincial coinage in the Late Republic and Early Empire in the context of current historical themes and debates. Almost two hundred different coins are illustrated at double life size, with each described in detail, and technical Latin and numismatic terms are explained. Chapters are arranged chronologically, allowing students quickly to identify material relevant to Julius Caesar, the second triumvirate, the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, and the Principate of Augustus. Iconography, archaeological contexts, and the economy are clearly presented. A diverse array of material is brought together in a single volume to challenge and enhance our understanding of the transition from Republic to Empire.