“WE BRING PEACE AND FREEDOM TO THE WORLD”: Caesar Augustus’ “Acts of the Divine Augustus”

Part II

B. Sacred Violence and Imperial Wars

The root of all conflicts is acquisitive mimetic desire. Acquisitive mimetic desire is the desire to imitate the very thing desired or possessed by the other. Mimetic and acquisitive desire inexorably leads to mimetic rivalry, which contests for recognition and status. Mimetic rivalry, sooner or later, results in mimetic violence. Mimetic violence poses a threat to the community through contagion. In this “mimetic crisis”, when a society is wobbling on the brink of destroying itself, mimetic contagion suddenly focuses on one person (or a group of people), accusing him (or them) of being responsible for the violence and social chaos. This person (or group) becomes the scapegoat, on whom the mimetic and contagious violence of each one is focused. Thus, the war of “all against all” is replaced by the war of “all against one”. This “responsible” person (or group) is then killed through spontaneous “mob” violence, which results in a mysterious peace in the community. The purpose of “scapegoating” this “responsible” person (or group) is to restore communal harmony and to reinforce the social fabric. Scapegoating channels and expels violence so that communal life and the existing social order may continue. This pattern is the foundation of what Rene Girard calls the “scapegoat mechanism”.[1]

Therefore, mimetic crisis generates scapegoat mechanism. The power of this mechanism lies in its deception and concealment. To stabilize a society through collective violence, it is essential that the “lynching” of the scapegoat victim must not be seen for what it is. There must be a total concealment of what actually happened. Myth recounts the mimetic crisis and its resolution in ways that systematically disguises the violence of the “lynching mob” and portrays the scapegoated victim as the cause of violence and social disorder.

Mimetic and acquisitive desire for power underlies the Roman civil wars. This desire among power contenders led to mimetic rivalry that ultimately resulted in murderous violence. People and subjects were drawn into this mimetic rivalry, which led to a spiral of violence and civil wars. Civil war does not descend immediately into mindless slaughter. It begins, continues and ends as mindless slaughter. That means, it is entirely driven by murderous mimetic desire.

Imperial wars were also driven by a desire for accumulation of power, land and wealth. Their objective was not restoration of freedom and republic. Because the insatiable demand of imperial system did not tolerate freedom of peoples and resistance to the imperial system of peace and freedom. Moreover, imperial violence was sacred violence because it claimed to have divine sanction and legitimacy. By divine sanction and legitimacy the emperor utilized sacred violence to “cleanse” the empire of evil that threatened the imperial system of peace and freedom. Augustus’ war against enemies of peace and freedom was attributed to the two-face Roman god Janus. Thus, the emperor directed the readers’ attention to the divine origins of his onslaught. Whenever there was a challenge to the existing imperial system of peace and freedom, the doors of the temple of Janus were opened. Opening the doors of the temple of Janus indicated the sacrificial crisis, which in turn generated the scapegoat mechanism. There was an unleashing of sacred violence against the enemy of imperial peace and freedom. Thus, imperial military violence against enemies was sacred violence that would restore imperial peace and freedom. The act of war was to be repeated whenever there was a threat to the imperial system of peace and freedom.  

Since military violence was sacrificial violence, enemy of the imperial system of peace and freedom was to be marked as a sacrificial victim in order to unify people for the sacrificial violence. Otherwise, there is a danger that “the act of vengeance will initiate a chain reaction whose consequences will quickly prove fatal to any society….”[2] Since vengeance is “an interminable, infinitely repetitive process…it threatens to involve the whole social body.”[3] One can see its devastating effect in the Roman civil wars. Therefore, proper function of the sacrificial process requires complete separation of the sacrificial victim(s) from the community. As the gulf between the victim and the community increases, the victim will not be able to draw violent reprisal, the repetition of mimetic violence. This is the reason why Augustus did not portray the extermination of the killers of Julius Caesar as an act of vengeance. He, rather, portrayed them as enemies of the republic, thus breaking any social link between these enemies and the society. Their status as enemies of the society would not only unite people against them, but also prevent any future reprisals. Thus, these sacrificial victims were invariably distinguishable from the community by this one essential characteristic. Between these victims and the community “a crucial social link is missing, so they can be exposed to violence without any fear of reprisal. Their death does not entail an act of vengeance.”[4] This would avert the danger of escalation of violence through revenge. The violence that eliminated the enemies of the republic was a “good” violence of “all against one” that glued the society together. Thus, the violence against the enemies of the republic restored peace and freedom in the society. A myth or a dominant story arose on what had happened, obscuring the violence of the “lynching mob” and blaming the sacrificial victims.

Therefore, violence and lies are twin allies. When mimetic contagion takes over, all awareness of truth is lost. The collective violence of “all against one” requires avoidance of truth. Any act or even any thought of making a victim of another casts a veil over the truth. The cries for vengeance against his adopted father’s enemies show that Augustus was caught in the encompassing violence that required victims. However, Augustus concealed his act of violence against his political rivals from any resemblance to vengeance. The fact that the victims of Augustus were portrayed as disturbers of peace, and so against god, was crucial element in their suitability for violent death. Girard says:

The sacrificial process requires a certain degree of misunderstanding. The celebrants do not and must not comprehend the true nature of the sacrificial act. The theological basis of the sacrifice has a crucial role in fostering this misunderstanding. It is the god who supposedly demands the victims; he alone, in principle, who savors the smoke from the altars and requisitions the slaughtered flesh.[5]

In a way Augustus’ violence assumed transcendental character as it was portrayed as “holy, legal, and legitimate” that successfully opposed to a violence that is “unjust, illegal, and illegitimate” and brought peace and freedom into the society.  

 


[1] Rene Girard, The Scapegoat (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986).

 

[2] Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, tr. by Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1972), pp. 14-15.

[3] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p. 15.

 

[4] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p. 13.

[5] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p. 7.

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