A curse is a spooky enough topic for Christmas, I reckon. But this blog about curses (exsecrationes in Latin) is really for me to get some thoughts straight in my head. I am still investigating a Roman priest known as the flamen dialis, a priest of Jupiter (as I touched on here, a strange figure who could be considered a kind of animate statue of the god), and one thing I want to understand better is how this priesthood was regarded during Augustus’ reign. (All ultimately with a view to deciding on a possible role for it in Virgil’s Aeneid, but that’s another matter.)
The most important thing to appreciate about this priesthood and Augustan Rome is that for the first half of Augustus’ reign there was actually no flamen dialis in post. This office, a crucial intermediary between Rome and its most powerful patron, the chief god Jupiter, had remained unoccupied since the death by his own hand of the flamen L. Cornelius Merula in 87BC. My assumption is that the absence of the flamen dialis from Rome was a cause of significant anxiety: the Romans were deeply superstitious people, setting great store by the pax deorum, the harmonious relations between them and their gods which could only be maintained by meticulous observation of their religious obligations.
If maintaining this special relationship with the divine realm was a priority, it was because the favour shown their city by the gods was for Romans the best explanation of their rapid rise to power in Italy and the wider Mediterranean. Equally, however, when their fortunes turned sour, and Rome shifted from seemingly unlimited expansion to a traumatic century of internal conflict (only finally brought to an end by Augustus), the Romans could only conclude that they had somehow offended the gods, and this was their punishment. A key element of Augustus’ project to restore Rome after this crisis was mending this all-important relationship, renovating temples, restoring neglected religious practices, in general returning Rome to what he could claim to be the lifestyle that drew the gods’ approval in the first place.
In the event, a new flamen dialis, Ser. Cornelius Lentulus Maluginensis, was at length appointed in (probably) 11BC, shortly after Augustus had finally secured the role of pontifex maximus for himself. The pontifex maximus or chief priest was responsible for selecting the flamen dialis (though he was also subordinate to the flamen in status, interestingly enough), but Augustus had had to wait to assume the role of pontifex until the death of the previous incumbent, the humiliated and sidelined former triumvir M. Aemilius Lepidus. A natural reading of this sequence of events would be that one of Augustus’ very first acts on becoming pontifex maximus in 12BC was to fill the yawning gap in Rome’s religious fabric, the office of flamen dialis. But there is some debate about the date of Maluginensis’ appointment, and the order of events is not so certain.
My hunch, as I’ve suggested, is that Rome could not bear the absence of such an essential religious figure with equanimity; and that when Augustus did select a new priest of Jupiter, a lifetime after the last flamen dialis had died, it would have been a very impressive gesture, a powerful contribution to the climate that Augustus sought, a perception that Rome, after all the trauma of the Civil Wars, was back on its feet; a profound crisis on the divine plane had been resolved.
Merula, the last flamen dialis, had been a particularly prominent victim of those wars, and that’s really all I need to have to argue for the research I’m doing. But an article by Bernadette Liou-Gille (“César, ‘Flamen Dialis destinatus’,” Revue des études anciennes 101 , 433-459, to which I was alerted by Professor Roberta Stewart) opened up a new and weirder dimension to this story.
Liou-Gille is interested in the circumstances and immediate aftermath of Merula’s death in 87BC. The context is the furious rivalry for control of Rome between L. Cornelius Sulla and L. Cornelius Cinna, the latter supported by the great general C. Marius. In simple terms, Cinna, who was consul, had been driven out of Rome, and Merula, the flamen dialis, had been appointed consul in his place (Professor Stewart suggested to me, because no one would dare to harm a hair on the head of the priest of Jupiter). When Cinna and Marius proceeded to recapture the city, Merula resigned the consulship, and then, faced with efforts by Cinna to bring him to trial (Appian, BC 1.74), took his own life.
The most detailed account of his death is by Velleius (2.22.2):
Merula autem, qui se sub aduentum Cinnae consulatu abdicauerat, incisis uenis superfusoque altaribus sanguine, quos saepe pro salute rei publicae flamen dialis precatus erat deos, eos in exsecrationem Cinnae partiumque eius tum precatus optime de re publica meritum spiritum reddidit.
Meanwhile Merula, who had resigned his consulship in anticipation of the arrival of Cinna, slit his veins and drenched the altars with his blood, praying to the gods, to whom he had often as flamen dialis prayed for the wellbeing of Rome, to curse Cinna and his party. In this way he yielded up the life that had served Rome so well.
After that (and this is the main focus of Liou-Gille’s article) a teenage Julius Caesar (who was close to Cinna, married to his daughter, and a nephew of Cinna’s ally Marius) was designated flamen dialis in Merula’s place, but never actually assumed the priesthood, no doubt mainly because both Cinna and Marius were dead within a short time, and when Sulla recaptured Rome at the end of 82BC he promptly rescinded all the measures they had taken.
Liou-Gille takes Velleius’ account of Merula’s death literally, not as a historian’s rhetorical flourish: as Merula died, he drew down a curse upon his enemies, offering his own life to the gods in return for divine punishment of “Cinna and his party”. The way Velleius puts it suggests a polar reversal of the flamen‘s power, from promoting the good fortune of the Roman res publica to becoming an agent of vengeance. The effort to make Caesar flamen dialis in Merula’s place, Liou-Gille argues, was actually an attempt to neutralize the malign influence of this exsecratio, to mend relations with the hostile gods by making a close confederate of Cinna the priest who devoted himself to serving Jupiter.
I think what I like most about Liou-Gille’s reading of these events is her assumption that Romans, including the notoriously cerebral Julius Caesar, were motivated by superstition, by a genuine terror of the gods. It’s easy to misjudge the Romans, by some of the things put on paper by Cicero or Ovid, as rational types whose religion was lightly worn. But in fact it was their scepticism that was only skin-deep.
Caesar never did become flamen dialis, and perhaps Sulla had particular reason to block his appointment: Sulla was undoubtedly a superstitious man, and he had no interest in diverting the wrath of the gods away from his enemies. But my particular interest, as I say, is how all this might have looked from the standpoint of Augustus’ principate, sixty or seventy years after Merula’s death. In other words, what are the implications of a hiatus in the office of the priest of Jupiter that lasted for a human lifetime, and might entail a curse still unpropitiated twenty years into the Pax Augusta? Certainly the lack of a flamen dialis cannot have increased Romans’ sense of security. But if we do suspect that Merula’s curse still exerted an influence, at whom would that divine wrath at “Cinna and his party” be directed in the Augustan age? The least we can say is that, if Julius Caesar had felt himself a target, it was in important respects Caesar’s legacy that was embodied by Augustus. Augustan Rome not only lacked that hotline to its greatest benefactor, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, then; it could also not be confident that Merula’s ancient curse was not still targeted at them.
Well, I’m very sure that Augustus’ appointment of a flamen dialis in 11BC was more than just a piece of political theatre. In the absence of a flamen dialis for over half a century (and what a dreadful half-century it had been), Rome had lacked a fundamental means of maintaining relations with the gods, the bedrock of its success as a nation. Until that rupture was healed, Rome’s recovery under Augustus’ direction could never be complete.
As for the rest of it, I can’t be so sure, but it would seem to me very true to the Roman mindset if something altogether more primitive was in play, the raw dread provoked by a ghastly death and priestly imprecation generations before, a suspicion that the gods’ wrath at their appalling crimes, the bloodletting of the Civil Wars encapsulated by the death of Merula, persisted, unappeased. For as long as the role of Jupiter’s “animate statue” remained unoccupied, Rome was still cursed.
Photo courtesy of Sophie Hay
Two thoughts on Roman city dwelling here, first shared a couple of years ago, retooled for the world of COVID-19. They originate in a weekly graduate seminar I was helping to coordinate on Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto 4, the very last poems composed by Rome’s second- or possibly third-greatest and most influential poet, and some research I was doing on Aeneas and Roman priesthoods, forthcoming later this year in Classical Quarterly (a publication on Ovid is on its way, too, feel free to pre-order). So what follows concerns a passage that particularly struck me from Ex Ponto 4.9 and a piece of priestly equipment I had hitherto not been aware of. The common factor is something like personal space and keeping one’s distance.
The city of Rome was loud, smelly and crowded: Horace talks of the beatae/ fumum et opes strepitumque Romae, “the smoke and riches and hubbub of prosperous Rome” (Odes 3.29.11-12). One’s capacity to enjoy a comfortable existence within it essentially depended on one’s wealth and class. The satirist Juvenal gives a splendidly exaggerated account of what it was like for the little guy (3.243-8):
nobis properantibus obstat
unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos
qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito, ferit assere duro
alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.
pinguia crura luto, planta mox undique magna
calcor, et in digito clauus mihi militis haeret.
“As I hurry along, the wave ahead impedes me/ and the people that follow me in a massed rank crush my kidneys./ One smacks me with his elbow, another with a hard pole./ This guy bashes my head with a beam, that guy with a wine cask./ My legs are caked with mud, and now I’m trampled by huge feet on every side,/ and a soldier’s hobnail boot is planted on my toe.”
The rich man, according to Juvenal, avoids all this hassle by riding in a litter the size of a ship, and reads or writes or even sleeps as he’s effortlessly conveyed over the crowd.
Another way of keeping your distance from other people was the commoetaculum, an item that might be of some considerable use in our current circumstances. You can see a commoetaculum, a kind of wand, in the hand of the figure in the middle of the image at the top: the man holding it is a flamen, a variety of Roman priest, and may well be the most important flamen, the flamen Dialis who was the priest of the chief god Jupiter.
The flamen Dialis and his wife the flaminica (the priesthood really consisted in the family group as a whole) were obliged to live a life that segregated them from the rest of humanity. Their lives were dedicated to the gods they served, to the extent that they came to be regarded as offerings to the god or as their embodiments on earth: the flamen Dialis was “a sacred and animate statue” of their deity, as Plutarch memorably puts it (Roman Questions 111). Other taboos laid on the flamen (we typically hear more about him than the flaminica), a prohibition on oaths, on knots in his clothes, on seeing humans at work, all served to distance the priest from the domain of profani, ordinary people, and to make him sacer, sacred, the possession of the gods.
The commoetaculum was a practical aide to this end: people were kept at a physical remove from the priest with a judicious prod of his wand. There might not seem an obvious class dimension to all this, except that the character of this priesthood was felt to reflect in important ways the behaviour and lifestyle of the ancient elite of Rome, a kind of ideal original family. You could only be flamen or flaminica Dialis if you were a patrician, a member of the ancient Roman aristocratic class, and if you and your parents and your spouse’s parents had all been married by an arcane ritual called confarreatio, a ceremony that was again restricted to the patrician class. So there is in fact a very aristocratic quality to this implement designed to maintain a proper distance between a Roman of high status and the general populace.
Ovid was posh, too, perhaps the most socially elevated of all the Roman poets. But by the time he was writing Ex Ponto 4, he couldn’t afford such scruples. Ovid has been banished, partly for obscure reasons seemingly related to conspiracies against Augustus, and partly for his risqué poem The Art of Love, to the edge of the Empire, Tomi on the Black Sea in modern Romania. A consistent theme of the poems he writes back to men who might help him overturn or mitigate his exile (superbly crafted and moving poems, as I’ve also suggested before) is how desperately he misses his home city. In general Roman authors could always conjure up a bit of ambivalence about Rome, as we’ve seen. Ovid had no such qualms, delighting unapologetically in the vibrant society and culture of Augustan Rome.
To send such a man away from Rome was unusually vindictive, and that’s no doubt partly why Augustus did it. In exile Ovid dwells obsessively on the city from which he is banned, to the extent that, as a colleague put it during the seminar, we get a lot more detailed information about the city of Rome from Ovid far away on the Black Sea than we do from authors actually domiciled there.
In Ex Ponto 4.9 he celebrates the consulship won by Pomponius Graecinus, another old associate he hopes will be able to make his case with the Emperor (Tiberius by now, as Augustus had recently died; but Tiberius proved no more sympathetic). Ovid imagines being on the spot as Graecinus goes through the elaborate ritual of inauguration, and it could not be more different from that fastidious priest with his pointy stick (4.9.21-8):
nec querulus, turba quamuis eliderer, essem,
sed foret a populo tum mihi dulce premi.
prospicerem gaudens quantus foret agminis ordo
densaque quam longum turba teneret iter,
quoque magis noris quam me uulgaria tangant,
spectarem qualis purpura te tegeret.
signa quoque in sella nossem formata curuli
et totum Numidi sculptile dentis opus.
Nor would I complain, though bruised by the crowd;/ at such a time it would be pleasant to feel the crush of the people./ I would behold with joy how long was the line of the procession/ and how dense the throng all along its route./ And that you may know how trivial things appeal to me,/ I would examine the texture of the purple you wear./ I would even inspect the figures carved on your curule chair,/ all the sculpted work of Numidian ivory.”
What “touch” (tangant) Ovid are uulgaria, a wonderfully suggestive word: trivial things, ordinary things, popular things. Ovid the toff rejoices here in exactly what Juvenal would later complain so bitterly about, getting manhandled by crowds, emerging physically battered from a walk through the city. But it is the touch, the sensation of Rome that Ovid yearns for: Graecinus’ consular robes with their purple border, and the ivory carvings on his official consular chair–in his imagination Ovid seems almost to be running his fingers over them. He cannot get enough of the city of Rome, cannot get too close to it.
But the poem to Graecinus may be the very last poem that Ovid ever wrote. This Roman never did emerge from his confinement.