Reading Octavian's Dinner Theater

John F. Miller

University of Virginia

The story of Augustus' affiliation with the god Apollo begins with the curious episode, reported by Suetonius (Aug. 70), in which he appeared at a banquet dressed as Phoebus, with his eleven guests in the guise of the other Olympians (some time between 40 and 36 bc).  One of the sources cited by the biographer is a satirical poem (= vers. pop. 7 Courtney) that has not attracted much attention in its own right.  This paper analyzes the poem as a clever imaginative response to Octavian's association with Apollo rather than simply as testimony to the infamous cena.

Like other verse lampoons, this one is structured around a single pointed antithesis: Octavian and his friends 'impiously' impersonate the Olympians, only to have the real gods turn away in revulsion.  The central motifs of divinity and theatricality are introduced at the outset (a choragus is hired, six gods and six goddesses are seen), but it is only in the second distich that we understand that the feasters, not hired performers, are the ones masquerading as divinities.  Comparison with Trimalchio's dinner puts the histrionic quality in relief.

The satirist reproaches the young Caesar for religious depravity (impia Phoebi mendacia)—evidently taking him to have modeled his party perversely on the lectisternium—and sexual depravity (nova divorum adulteria), a standard charge in Republican invective.  The epigram's spotlight on Octavian as Apollo must ironically mirror Octavian's strategy of self-advertisement at the event.  One can only wonder to whom he would have entrusted the role of Jupiter, who is in effect demoted in this scenario.  But just when the reader wonders about this, the real Jupiter himself appears, fleeing his golden throne in disgust, while all the other gods turn away from earth.  Like Apollo among the banqueters, Jupiter is the only god mentioned by name at the close.

The concluding punch line is rich in associations.  Here the idea of audience reemerges from the start—now an external audience of divine onlookers—a shift that reflects the frequently ambiguous experience of diners at Roman banquets (spectators or part of the show?).  The gods' turn away from earth and Jupiter's departure from his golden throne evoke the satirical topos of disgusted banqueters fleeing an excessive feast, the golden throne voted as an honor to Octavian's recently deceased (and deified) adoptive father, and the gods' abandonment of the earth on the eve of the Iron Age.  The last of these associations obliquely inverts one of the likely ideological underpinnings of Octavian's Apolline ideology, namely as symbol of a New Age (cf. the contemporary Ecl 4.10 tuus iam regnat Apollo).


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