One of the most hotly contested issues after the Ides of March was Caesar’s ‘ontological status’: was he a dead mortal or had he become divine? Caesar’s religious identity was above all a political matter: whereas the senatorial oligarchy resisted any attempt to elevate Caesar to the level of a god, followers of Caesar had good reasons to push him skywards, not least once it became apparent that such a move was very much in tune with popular feelings. Earlier on in the speech, Cicero touched upon this issue when he discussed the so-called ‘false Marius’ and the altar and column spontaneously erected at the site of Caesar’s funeral, but then torn down by Dolabella and Antony. After these events in March and April of 44 BCE, several developments revitalized Caesar’s claim to divine status. Octavian in particular found resonance among the people and the veterans when insisting that Caesar had become a god — and was helped by a comet that became visible in the second part of July 44 during his celebrations of games in honour of Caesar. The aggressive promotion of a deified Caesar by his adopted son put Antony in a double bind: to maintain his position as the leading Caesarian he could hardly boycott endeavours to honour Caesar; yet turning Caesar into a god would inevitably endow his main rival Octavian with powerful divine ancestry.
The Philippics bear witness to earlier tussles around this matter. In the senate meeting on 1 September 44, which Cicero did not attend, Antony pushed through legislative measures which stipulated honours for Caesar that came close to turning him into a god. Specifically, Cicero offers a scathing commentary on Antony’s motion to add an extra day in honour of Caesar to all festivals of thanksgiving (supplicationes) (Phil. 1.13):
An me censetis, patres conscripti, quod vos inviti secuti estis, decreturum fuisse, ut parentalia cum supplicationibus miscerentur, ut inexpiabiles religiones in rem publicam inducerentur, ut decernerentur supplicationes mortuo? nihil dico cui. fuerit ille L. Brutus qui et ipse dominatu regio rem publicam liberavit et ad similem virtutem et simile factum stirpem iam prope in quingentesimum annum propagavit: adduci tamen non possem ut quemquam mortuum coniungerem cum deorum immortalium religione; ut, cuius sepulcrum usquam exstet ubi parentetur, ei publice supplicetur.
[Or do you think, Members of the Senate, that I would have supported the decree you passed against your will, that a sacrifice in honour of the dead should be mixed up with public thanksgivings, that sacrilege incapable of expiation should be introduced into the commonwealth, that public thanksgivings be decreed to a dead man? I don’t say for whom. Let that man be the Brutus who freed the commonwealth from regal despotism and who after almost five hundred years has left descendants to show similar courage and to achieve a similar deed. Even so, I could not have been induced to associate any dead man with the worship of the immortal gods so that a public thanksgiving should be made for him while somewhere a tomb exists at which offerings can be made.]
Cicero accuses Antony of conflating two religious spheres that ought to be kept strictly apart: thanksgivings to the gods (supplicationes) and the parentalia, i.e. rites performed in honour of dead relatives (parentes). The results of this confusion, he stipulates, are religious pollution and divine wrath — for Cicero an absolute boundary between the divine and the human sphere exists that is not to be crossed by anybody, let alone Caesar. Caesar is D-E-A-D! Throughout Philippic 1 and 2 he never misses an opportunity to emphasize this point, most strikingly at Phil. 1.24, where he mocks Antony’s postmortem publication of Caesar’s acts: de exsilio reducti multi a mortuo, civitas data non solum singulis, sed nationibus et provinciis universis a mortuo, immunitatibus infinitis sublata vectigalia a mortuo (‘Men have been brought back from exile by a dead man; citizenship has been given, not only to individuals, but to whole tribes and provinces by a dead man; by boundless exemptions revenues have been done away with by a dead man’).
Our passage revisits the religious politics revolving around Caesar, with a specific focus on the Catch-22 that Antony found himself in: as a leading Caesarian, he was expected to promote divine honours for the dead dictator; yet to do so could not help but have the — for Antony undesirable — consequence of empowering his main rival among the Caesarians for the leading role he coveted for himself: given Caesar’s adoption of Octavian, his deification would render Octavian the son of a god: ‘[Antony] surely had grasped that the confirmation of Caesar’s divine status would — and indeed, did — deliver to Octavian something far grander than the name of Caesar: the appellation divi filius’ (Koortbojian 2013: 39). It is indeed telling that when in January 42 BCE the senate finally recognized Caesar’s deification and thereby turned Octavian officially into Divi Filius, the son of Divus Iulius (‘the deified Julius’), Antony, who had been flamendesignate of Caesar already in 44 BCE, continued to delay his inauguratio until October 40 BCE.
Paradoxically, just as Antony had a vested interested in down-playing Caesar’s divinity, so Cicero, because of his belief that he could instrumentalize Octavian for his variant of senatorial politics, abandoned his categorical refusal to accept Caesar’s claim to divine status as anything but blasphemy in subsequent orations, so as not to alienate Octavian — which meant that he needed to entertain, at least notionally, Caesar’s divinity. See the discussion by Cole (2014: 174): ‘Cicero’s representation of Antony’s role as flamen in the subsequent, publicly delivered Philippics provides additional evidence for consideration along with 2.110 in an assessment of Cicero’s approach to cult for Caesar. The strategy of shaming Antony for his neglect of Caesar’s cult becomes a way to alienate Antony from Octavian and a public already embracing Caesar’s divinity. Cicero’s handling of Caesar’s honors in the First Philippic could hardly have pleased the young Octavian, who was actively promoting Divus Iulius and his singular tie to him. But Octavian would have been encouraged by the new tack in following Philippics wherein Cicero promotes the legitimacy of Octavian’s yet-unratified adoption and also insistently connects Caesar’s heir with divinity’.