In the aftermath of the defeat of Sextus Pompeius and the fall of Lepidus, Octavian extended his influence and power in Rome. Of the three original triumvirs, Octavian was the one whose position at the forefront of Roman politics was the most anomalous. His prominence relied on his ability to mobilise the Caesarian veterans and anti-senatorial sentiments. He appears to have taken very little notice of political convention and to have suppressed his enemies with a notable brutality.
After 36, the world of Roman politics was simplified. There were two dominant figures: Antony and Octavian. With Antony engaged with Parthia, Octavian used the opportunities to extend his power in Rome.
He seems not have attempted a reconciliation with his enemies in the senate. If he did rise in popularity with the senators, it was likely because the ambitious needed his support. The powerful always have friends. Power attracts.
Instead, Octavian looked to elevate his status. He did so be associating himself with the divine. Such acts feel to us to be deeply unrepublican and perhaps borderline insane. But we are shaped in our views by our understanding of emperors such as Gaius, and his relationship with the divine. Octavian was not mad. His self-representation was meant to be taken seriously as a way of elevating him above the other leading men of Rome. Our sources do not depict these associations as ridiculous.
One cannot imagine that such moves were popular with those other leading men.
Octavian also took pains to court the crowd of Rome, the plebs. In this, he looked primarily to his close friend Marcus Agrippa to support him.
Both moves were non-traditional and reflect Octavian’s unusual status and his need to build political support in unconventional ways.
Octavian and Apollo
Octavian appears to have made increasing reference to Apollo in the construction of his public image. At some undated point during the Triumvirate, perhaps 38 BC, Octavian held a banquet of sufficient extravagance that it caused a scandal, in part because of a dearth of grain in Rome at the time. But in part because the guests came dressed as gods, with Octavian as Apollo (Suetonius, Augustus 70).
In itself, this seems trivial, but it seems to mark a more thorough association with Apollo.
The most extraordinary story relates to Atia, his mother (Suetonius, Augustus 94)
When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. Atia too, before she gave him birth, dreamed that her vitals were borne up to the stars and spread over the whole extent of land and sea, while Octavius dreamed that the sun rose from Atia’s womb.
There was an emerging tradition in which Roman leaders associated themselves with divine protectors: Sulla called himself Felix (the Fortunate). Antony associated himself with Dionysus. Caesar linked himself to Venus. Sextus Pompeius depicted himself as Neptune. There was, of course, a world of difference between claiming a special relationship with a divinity and dressing up as one were that divinity. The latter proved a disaster for Gaius.
The story of Atia’s intercourse with a snake, of dreams of the foetus as some form of global power, or as the sun (who was Apollo) may have later been invented to demonstrate the truth of dreams and omens, but they may also have been invented in Octavian’s circle. For our Roman authors, this ‘dream’ is an omen, a sign of the intervention of the gods. It is part of a historical and biographical account and not a silly piece of myth-making.
A third link with Apollo comes from Octavian’s house on the Palatine. The house was struck by lightning in 36 BC. Octavian saw this as a blessing. He decided to build a large temple to Palatine Apollo on the spot. Although this was a public monument, it was closely associated with Octavian’s own house, once more blurring distinctions between divine and human.
A fourth connection was perhaps more fortunate.
At battle of Actium, Octavian pitched camp on a headland overlooking the bay. There was a temple on the hill which was dedicated to Apollo. Octavian would later claim that Apollo had fought at his side, making the victory not just one of Roman leader against Roman leader, but a fight on the divine plane: an epic. To show his gratitude, Octavian dedicated a huge victory monument to Apollo on the hillside at Actium.
Octavian’s style of government in the period after 36 remained autocratic. He collected honours unprecedented in Roman history. He associated himself with Apollo and the divine. He wife and sister were associated with his power, a move which looked very much like the foundation of a royal family. He and Agrippa set themselves out to court popular favour as a counter to the more republican senators. It seems that Octavian, just like Antony in his Donations of Alexandria, was preparing for monarchy.