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

Part III

C. Religious Legitimation to the Imperial System of Peace and Freedom

Dumezil says, “(R)eligion is always and everywhere an actual and active thing; its rites are celebrated daily or annually, its concepts and its gods intervene in the routine of peaceful times as well as in the fever of times of crisis.”[1] Religion played an important role in the life of the Roman society. In times of crises Roman gods had always guided her to victory over her enemies. Victory was conceived as an expression of good relations between the republic and its gods. Victory is nothing but a decisive act of violence. Victory embraces superior violence. Through superior violence God bestows victory. In other words, military victory was regarded as a direct manifestation of the divine. So, the actual conduct of warfare was set within a religious context. War was always preceded by consultation of gods and sacrifices. The fetial priests were concerned with rituals that marked the declaration of wars and the making of treaties. The performance of these rituals was intended to ensure that the war had divine sanction. At the beginning and the conclusion of the season for warfare two feasts were celebrated: Quinquatrus on March 19 and Armilustrium on October 19. By their arms and dances the Salii[2] served not only to start but to conclude the summer campaign religiously. Thus, they assure, like the opening and closing of the gates of Janus temple, a transition either from war to peace, or peace to war.

 Janus, the Roman god, was connected to war and peace. Modern scholars do not really understand the cult of Janus. During the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) Romans started to connect things with the cult of Janus. Unfortunately, there are hardly any texts on this cult preceding this period. This makes it impossible to reconstruct the original cult. It is interesting to know that Janus did not have a counterpart in Greek mythology.[3]

Janus was one of the oldest Roman gods. He was the god of doorways, gates, and beginnings and endings. January was named for him. Agonalia festival was celebrated in January when the Rex Sacrorum[4] would sacrifice a ram to Janus. As beginner of all things and all acts he would be offered to first in a ritual. As Cicero wrote, “In all matters, beginnings and ends are the vital features. This is why they cite Janus first in the sacrifices” (Nat Deor. II 67). Janus said to Ovid that He was recited first in all prayers so that “through Me, the Doorkeeper, you may attain access to whatever Gods you please” (Fasti I.173-4). He was often portrayed with two faces, one looking forward and the other backward. Ovid explained Janus’ biform that he was Guardian of every household’s front doorway, with one face directed outward that “views the people”, and one face that looked inward towards the Lar Familiaris of the family’s shrine. There was a festival on August 17 where people offered keys to the fire of Janus to bless their homes.

According to tradition, Numa (c 715-673 BCE) was the founder of the original temple of Janus to serve as an indicator of war and peace. The most important shrine of Janus in Rome was the Temple of Janus Geminus, a double-gated structure (one door facing the rising sun and the other the setting sun) found on the Forum Romanum through which the Roman legionaries marched off to battle. According to Virgil, the consul opened the gates of the Janus temple when the Senate decided for war:

When the senators have irrevocably decided for battle, the consul himself, a figure conspicuous in Quirine toga of State and Gabine cincture, unbolts these gates, and their hinge-posts groan; it is he who calls the fighting forth, then the rest of their manhood follows, and the bronze horns, in hoarse assent, add their breath. (7.613-615).

Janus temple served a symbolic function. When the gates of the temple were closed, it represented peace within the Roman Empire. When the gates were open, it meant that Rome was at war. Plutarch in Life of King Numa 20. 1-2 wrote:  

Janus also has a temple at Rome with double doors, which they call the gates of war; for the temple always stands open in time of war, but are closed when peace has come. The latter was a difficult matter, and it rarely happened, since the realm was always engaged in some war, as its increasing size brought it into collision with the barbarous nations which encompassed it round about. 

Augustus confirmed the symbolic significance of the doors of the Janus temple in AA: “It was the will of our ancestors that the gateway of Janus Quirinus should be shut when victories had secured peace by land and sea throughout the whole empire of the Roman people.”[5] Explaining the meaning of the closing of the doors, Virgil notes that the temple doors were closed to keep war and violence in: “The terrible iron-constricted Gates of War shall shut; and safe within them shall stay the godless and ghastly Lust of Blood, propped on his pitiless piled armory, and still roaring from gory mouth, but held fast by a hundred chains of bronze knotted behind his back” (Aeneid, 1.293-296). Ovid agreed with Virgil’s explanation that Janus was responsible for confining the wars (Fasti, 123-124) and for letting peace into the world (Ovid, Fasti, I.121-122). However, Virgil’s contemporary and colleague Horace stated exactly the opposite. For him, peace was kept inside the temple of Janus (Horace, Epist. 2.1.255). However, the explanations of Virgil and Ovid, and Horace about the significance of the gates of the Janus temple were not contradictory. The imagery was consistent with the significance surrounding the temple of Janus.

Janus was characterized by the blending of maleficent and beneficent. This Roman god was involved in the Roman imperial wars. He turned his face alternately warlike and peaceful. If Janus turned his countenance “to symbolize foreign war, that is because foreign war is merely another form of sacrificial violence.”[6] Violence against the cause of disorder in the empire received divine sanction and legitimation. The imperial peace came about when the cause of disorder was exterminated from the empire. Janus suggested that his doors were open in times of war so that the Roman soldiers, who set out to war, might be able to return (Ovid, Fasti, I.279-282). That means, Janus temple was the sacred precincts from which the Roman army set out to war against the challenge to the imperial system of peace and freedom, and to which the army returned after either subjugating or liquidating the cause of disorder. Thus, imperial violence against the enemy of the system of peace and freedom got divine sanction and legitimacy. Imperial war was sacred violence. Livy 1.19.2 specifically connected the closing of Janus with the pacification of Rome’s neighbors. In AA 2.13 Augustus made the connection between “peace through victory” and the closing of the gates of the temple of Janus. Stefan Weinstock and Erich Gruen have shown that for the Romans, “peace” really meant pacification: the successful outcome of war against enemies.[7] By setting out from the sacred precincts of the temple of Janus, imperial war got divine legitimation. Thus, violence was at the heart of the Roman god Janus. The sacred violence generated unanimity against the enemy, the sacrificial victim. The sacrifice of the enemy accompanied its desired effect, that is, “bad violence” of disorder was expelled from the empire through “good” sacrificial violence. As a result, peace was restored. Successful sacrifice proved victimizer’s innocence and demonstrated his obedience to the divine will. Victimizer was a representative of collective will and fulfilling the divine will in eliminating evil. Therefore, for this sacrificial process to be effective it must be accomplished in the service of a transcendent cause and capable of being repeated. The divine sanction and legitimation for the imperial war provided a shield for the ill effects of the imperial violence against the enemy. 

Collective will in the sacred violence of war was expressed by the ritual of the triumphal ceremony. In this the victorious general was paraded through the streets of the city at the head of his troops presenting his spoils and enemy prisoners to the cheering Roman public. Splendidly dressed and riding in a chariot drawn by four horses, the general entered the city through a special gateway, the Triumphal Gate. He was dressed in red and his face was painted red, like the statue of Jupiter. In a sense the triumphal general was deified for a day. However, at the sacrifice of oxen, with which the procession ended, it was the general who offered sacrifice and Jupiter who received the sacrifice. Prisoners of war were paraded through the streets in the presence of the entire populace and then led to the base of Capitoline to be killed as “sacrificial victims”. This celebration of Triumph was a sacrificial ceremony, a metonymy of war and victory, where the entire populace participated mimetically in the killing of sacrificial victims.


[1]Georges Dumezil, Archaic Roman Religion, Vol. I, tr. by Philip Krapp (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 13.

[2] Salii were a college of twelve priests of Mars.

[3]Ovid, Fasti, tr. by James George Frazer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951), I. 89-90.

[4] The Latin term Rex Sacrorum means “king of sacred things”. He discharged the religious duties on behalf of the Roman king.

[5] Brunt and Moore, Res Gestae Divi Augusti.

[6] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p. 251.

[7] Stefan Weinstock, “Pax and the ‘Ara Pacis’,” in JRS 50 (1960), pp. 44-50; Livy 1.19.2 specifically connects the closing of Janus with the pacification of Rome’s neighbors. Augustus makes the connection between peace and victory explicit in “Acts of Divine Augustus” 2.13 where he talks about the closing of the gates of the Janus temple.


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

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