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Fit for a King: Caesar in 44

Jaclyn Neel

In this paper, I analyze the ritual performance of the Lupercalia in 44 and make two related claims: first, that our sources for this affair draw primarily on Cicero; and second, that the festival had nothing to do with kingship.  At this festival, Antony allegedly crowned Caesar with a diadem. This act has been the subject of intense scrutiny since antiquity.  It has been seen as a coronation rite engineered by Caesar (e.g., Alföldi 1985) or by Antony alone (following Nicolaus of Damascus fr. 130.71-5), and more recently as a purposeful recusatio regni (Luke 2012).  I argue that, on the contrary, this was a ritual act that should be seen in the Varronian context of purification (LL 6.34); it was re-interpreted as a regal ceremony only after the fact. 

Our surviving evidence is heavily influenced by Cicero's Philippics. This is apparent from philological similarities in surviving Latin accounts of the Lupercalia, and as Gowing has shown, Appian and Dio also used the speeches as sources (1992; cf. Manuwald 1979).  This tradition unanimously refers to the scene in 44 as Antony giving Caesar the diadem as an indication of kingship.  Although Caesar refuses, the offering itself is a blow to republican dignity that cannot be borne: the Lupercalia inspires the assassination a month later.  Such an interpretation follows that offered by Cicero six months after the fact (Phil. 2.84-7).  As North has pointed out, however, the Lupercalia is a poor choice for a coronation ceremony (2008): its carnivalesque atmosphere and timing -- during the Parentalia, a festival aimed at placating the dead -- speak against a serious attempt at kingship.  Likewise, political considerations make the idea of an actual coronation incredible; one has to believe that Caesar had gone insane (e.g., Collins 1955).

Re-examination of the ritual performativity of the Lupercalia as a whole (Šterbenc Erker 2009) and the polysemity of the diadem suggests another avenue of interpretation.  The type of diadem that is associated with the Lupercalia is a simple strip of cloth, and may have had a ritual, rather than regal, purpose.  Antony was participating in the Lupercalia of 44 as a new priest of Caesar's luperci, and Caesar was pontifex maximus.  Ritual fillets would not be out of the ordinary on such an occasion, and slippage between the royal diadem and the religious fillet is visible in Suetonius (DJ 79) and Appian (BC 2.108-9) when they discuss the various attempts to crown Caesar.  The elision of this headgear to emphasize the regal nature of the events at the Lupercalia of 44 suits the narrative purposes of both authors as they discuss the increasingly kingly behavior of Caesar before his assassination.  This narrative, I suggest, is primarily retrospective and based on the hostile account of Cicero, who used the Lupercalia affair both as evidence of Antony's unsuitability for leadership and to justify the tyrannicides.

I argue that we should imagine the Lupercalia of 44 as it was seen in February of that year, before Caesar was assassinated.  Freed from the backwards gaze of attempting to explain the assassination, we can explain Antony's and Caesar's actions on their own terms: as a ritual act of purification.  Caesar made regrettable errors in 45: he had killed fellow citizens and had publicly rejoiced in the fact after Munda; he had ejected tribunes of the plebs from office.  He was about to depart on a long campaign.  There was little need to establish him as a king in Rome, but there was a desperate need to polish his image.  The Lupercalia, as a ceremony that linked the living and the dead and aimed to ensure future prosperity, supplied an excellent opportunity to achieve those aims.

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Roman Politics and Culture

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