In §83 Cicero is winding down the discussion of Antony’s augural objections to the consulship of Dolabella. The next topic on the agenda is the festival of the Lupercalia on 15 February 44 BCE. At Phil. 13.41 Cicero suggests that Antony as good as murdered Caesar on that day by trying to crown him with a diadem. What exactly happened — and why — is difficult to establish with certainty — not least since it is tied up with the significance of a rather strange religious rite, the Lupercalia, which has been the subject of much scholarly controversy. Here is North’s summary of what this festival entailed (2008: 147–48):

before February 44 B.C.E., there were two teams (sodalitates) of Luperci — one the team of Romulus, the other the team of Remus. Each was apparently called after an ancient Roman gens — the Fabii and the Quinctii or Quintilii, though the exact names of the sodalitates are variously reported. Romulus’ team was the Quinctii, Remus’ the Fabii. How these groups, named after particular ancient gentes, came to be associated with one each of the twin founders is not recorded. The traditional ritual programme had two stages. In the first stage, at the Lupercal itself (i.e. the scene of the discovery of the twins suckled by the wolf), the Luperci sacrificed a goat and a dog. They then smeared the forehead of the young Luperci (perhaps the initiates) with blood and milk. The new bloods then gave a laugh. The hide of the sacrificed goat (or goats?) was cut up to provide loin-cloths for the runners and strips of hide to be used as whips, also by the runners. There was then feasting, with much wine. The second stage consisted of running around in the Palatine / forum / sacra viaarea of Rome, striking all the people they met with their strips of hide and joking, laughing, larking about and exchanging obscenities with those who attended the ritual. It was believed that women who had been struck with the goatskin whip would become pregnant. Gerhard Binder has pointed out, rightly in my view, how these practices imply that the ritual was of the Carnival type. In my view this is a fundamental point, which needs to be borne in mind later on in this argument. At least our sources, not least Valerius Maximus, are emphatic about the joking, jeering, obscenity and play that accompanied the progress of the run.

North encourages us to distinguish between at least three layers of meaning during the celebration of the festival in 44 BCE:

(i) The traditional ritual and its functions: purification, fertility, protection: he locates the themes of ‘purification’, ‘fertility’, and ‘protection’ at the centre of the ‘ritual programme’ (2008: 154–55), all carried out in a spirit of Carnival and the celebration of the annual renewal of the life-cycle at the beginning of spring. The legend associates the origins of the ritual with the founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, recalling also in its name their suckling by a she-wolf. North’s analysis of the basic elements of this programme is as follows (2008: 148):

    • the invocation of the first creation of the community (the respective sodales of Remus and of Romulus, the founders);
    • the confrontation of primitive to civilized (i.e. the naked Luperci in contrast with the onlookers from the contemporary city);
    • the annual ritual purification of the community (the sacrifice and the running and the actions of the runners);
    • the ritual fertilization of the human community (the ritual of whipping).

(ii) The inscription of Caesar in the ritual programme: becoming a founder: in some accounts, the twins headed the initial two group of naked runners (called sodalitates): Remus the Fabii, Romulus the Quintilii. In 44 BCE, in honour of Caesar, a third group of runners representing the gens Iulia was added. The head of this sodalitas was Antony: ‘We know again from Dio [45.30], though also from Plutarch [Ant. 12.2] and, if a bit confusedly, from Nicolaus of Damascus [Life of Augustus 71], that Antony was running specifically for the new group of Luperci, the Iuliani, and that he was in fact their leader’ (North 2008: 147). Put differently, even without the incident with the diadem, Caesar had coopted the ritual for purposes of self-promotion, elevating himself to the status of a founding figure. That Antony was chosen to run as representative of the gens Iulia must have been a great honour for him – and signals his proximity to the dictator at the time.

(iii) The incident of the diadem: one honour too far?: despite the royal associations of the golden chair and the magnificent rope, Caesar’s status at the time of the festival was not yet that of a king — it seems to have been the crowning with the diadem that put the nail in this particular coffin. As North (2008: 146) points out: ‘Note that Cicero is not implying here that Caesar was already enthroned as King: it is clear that the robe (even if it was kingly, as Stefan Weinstock argued) and the golden throne (clearly not a consul’s proper seat) are both honours he can use, but evidently are not to be seen as making him the rex of Rome’.

This raises the question of why the crowning incident happened. Pelling (1988: 144) outlines the different options:

(1) Perhaps A. acted on his own initiative. If so, he may (a) genuinely have wished C. to take the title of king, or to force his hand; or (b) have hoped to gratify C. with a welcome gesture; or (c) have wished to discredit or embarrass him. (2) But it is more reasonable to assume that A. would not have risked this gesture without C.’s prior encouragement. If so, C. may (a) have aimed for kingship, and intended to accept the diadem if the people reacted favourably; or (b) have wished to make a public gesture of his refusal to become king; or (c) have intended this as a test of public opinion, if he was himself unsure.

To fully appreciate the historical dynamics that shaped this event (as well as later interpretations of it, both ancient and modern), we need to look into the economy of honours that defined the relationship between Caesar as de-facto ruler of Rome and the disempowered, but by no means powerless members of the traditional ruling elite. In his Life of Julius Caesar, Suetonius offers an interesting take on the social and psychological ‘dynamics of honouring’ (76):

Praegravant tamen cetera facta dictaque eius, ut et abusus dominatione et iure caesus existimetur. non enim honores modo nimios recepit: continuum consulatum, perpetuam dictaturam praefecturamque morum, insuper praenomen Imperatoris, cognomen Patris patriae, statuam inter reges, suggestum in orchestra; sed et ampliora etiam humano fastigio decerni sibi passus est: sedem auream in curia et pro tribunali, tensam et ferculum circensi pompa, templa, aras, simulacra iuxta deos, pulvinar, flaminem, lupercos, appellationem mensis e suo nomine; ac nullos non honores ad libidinem cepit et dedit.

[At the same time, certain other actions and words so turn the scale, that it is thought that he abused his power and was justly slain. For not only did he accept excessive honours, such as an uninterrupted consulship, the dictatorship for life, and the censorship of public morals, as well as the forename Imperator, the surname of Father of his Country, a statue among those of the kings, and a raised couch in the orchestra; he also allowed honours to be bestowed on him which exceeded mortal measure: a golden throne in the senate house and in court; a chariot and litter in the procession at the circus; temples, altars, and statues beside those of the gods; a special priest, an additional college of the Luperci, and the calling of one of the months by his name. In fact, there were no honours which he did not receive or confer at will.]

John Henderson encourages us to read this as Suetonius’ final verdict on Julius Caesar, that, yes, on balance, he was a tyrant, so fair game. The historiographer Cassius Dio (c. 155–235 CE, so writing centuries after the events) also embeds the incident at the Lupercalia within a double-edged dynamics of honouring Caesar (44.3):

It happened as follows, and his death was due to the cause now to be given. He had aroused dislike that was not altogether unjustified, except in so far as it was the senators themselves who had by their novel and excessive honours encouraged him and puffed him up, only to find fault with him on this very account and to spread slanderous reports how glad he was to accept them and how he behaved more haughtily as a result of them. It is true that Caesar did now and then err by accepting some of the honours voted him and believing that he really deserved them; yet those were most blameworthy who, after beginning to honour him as he deserved, led him on and brought blame upon him for the measures they had passed. He neither dared, of course, to thrust them all aside, for fear of being thought contemptuous, nor, again, could he be safe in accepting them; for excessive honour and praise render even the most modest men conceited, especially if they seem to be bestowed with sincerity.

Dio goes on to enumerate the ‘number and nature’ of the privileges that were granted to Caesar, including (for our purposes) the use of a gilded chair and attire once worn by the kings, and the creation of a third priestly college (called ‘Julian’) in his role as overseer of the Lupercalia. This festival later on comes in for a closer look (44.11):

Another thing that happened not long after these events proved still more clearly that, although he pretended to shun the title [sc. of king], in reality he desired to assume it. For when he had entered the Forum at the festival of the Lupercalia and was sitting on the rostra in his gilded chair, adorned with the royal apparel and resplendent in his crown overlaid with gold, Antony with his fellow-priests saluted him as king and binding a diadem upon his head, said: ‘The people offer this to you through me’. And Caesar answered: ‘Jupiter alone is king of the Romans’, and sent the diadem to Jupiter on the Capitol; yet he was not angry, but caused it to be inscribed in the records that he had refused to accept the kingship when offered to him by the people through the consul. It was accordingly suspected that this thing had been deliberately arranged and that he was anxious for the name, but wished to be somehow compelled to take it; consequently the hatred against him was intense.