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Mare pacavi a praedonibus: Divus Augustus and the Pacification of the Sea

Katheryn Whitcomb

Franklin and Marshall College

In his Legatio ad Gaium, Philo claims that the Augusteum in Alexandria served as a “hope and sign of deliverance to those setting sail, and those coming in to land - ἐλπὶς καὶ ἀναγομένοις καὶ καταπλέουσι σωτήριος” (151). A similar sentiment is echoed by Josephus in his Antiquitates Judaicae when he states that Herod constructed a temple to Roma and Augustus in the harbor city of Caesarea that could be seen far out to sea and offered hope to sailors and travelers of a safe end to their journey (15.339). Although not reflecting on a specific land mark, Vergil also gives an indication that Augustus’ divinity may be linked to providing safety for sea travelers (G. I.29-30). This paper explores the connection, suggested by Philo, Josephus, and Vergil, between the worship of Augustus and security on the seas. I argue that the ideology of pacifying the seas by eradicating pirates, such as Sextus Pompey, played a pivotal role in the construction of Augustus’ divine identity. The importance of this ideology can be seen particularly in the erecting of temples to Augustus in harbor areas such as Herod’s port of Caesarea and the harbor city of Eresos on Lesbos, among others.  

Although the divinity of Augustus has been widely discussed by scholars from Lily Ross Taylor (1931) to Simon Price (1984) and Brodd and Reed (eds. 2011), there has been little exploration of the role that the pacification of the seas played in constructing Augustus’ divine identity. Braund (1993) does investigate the significant role that the eradication of piracy played in the construction of imperial ideology under Augustus. He argues that the pacification of the seas is portrayed as an important element, alongside other more familiar achievements of the princeps, in the establishment of a civilized order under the rule of the principate. Indeed, Augustus himself demonstrates that securing peace on the sea was something of which he was extremely proud (RG 25). This accomplishment is echoed and augmented by numerous authors including Horace (Carm. 4.5.19), Philo (Leg. 145-6), and Suetonius (Aug. 98).          

The numerous references in literature to Augustus as a pacifier of the seas demonstrate the importance of this achievement in the construction of his political identity. This may be taken a step further, however, by recognizing that many of the early temples to Augustus (and Roma) were built near harbors. As previously mentioned, there was an Augusteum in Alexandria, constructed in approximately 30BCE. Similar temples located near harbors were also built by Herod at Caesarea (in approximately 10BCE), by the Ephesians near their harbor (in approximately 30BCE), and near the harbor city of Eresos on Lesbos. Not only are these temples located in harbor cities, but they also seem to be deliberately oriented towards the sea. As Lichtenberger (1999) notes, for example, the temple at Caesarea was deliberately constructed at odds with the orthogonal plan of the city in order to face the harbor and thus the sea. The locations of these temples, combined with the literary evidence, suggest a strong association between Augustus’ divine status and his ability to ensure peace on the seas. 

This association is perhaps made explicit by both Philo and Josephus, as mentioned above. Further evidence may be gleaned from Suetonius (Aug. 98), who suggests that divine honors were given to Augustus by some Alexandrian travelers when they arrived safely from their journey. As Braund (1993) has demonstrated, a prominent feature of Augustus’ image as princeps was the pacification of the seas. Beyond helping to craft his political identity, I argue that the pacification of the seas was also an important feature in the construction of Augustus’ divine status. The numerous temples located near harbors as well as the literary testimony of authors such as Philo and Josephus suggest a strong connection between the worship of Augustus and security during sea travel.

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Ritual and Religious Belief

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