Apollo Medicus in the Augustan Age

John F. Miller

University of Virginia

Under Augustus the focal point of Apollo’s cult at Rome shifted from the old Temple of Apollo Medicus in the Campus Martius to the spectacular new temple of Apollo in the imperial compound on the Palatine Hill.  However, more or less simultaneous with the erection of the emperor’s Palatine shrine was the restoration of the temple in the Campus by C. Sosius.  He and Octavian were opponents when their Apolline projects commenced, but after Actium Sosius was pardoned and Apollo Sosianus seems to have come within the Augustan orbit.  It nonetheless remains an open question whether Apollo Palatinus effaced the Roman cult of Apollo Medicus or absorbed it.  The present paper does not aim to answer that question but to draw attention to the passages in Augustan poetry that feature Apollo Medicus, with a view to whether or not they may reflect on the Augustan cult and on Augustus himself.  Apollo’s medical role is a relatively minor one in Augustan literature, but it is not insignificant.

Horace, Odes 1.21 ends with the statement that Apollo will rescue the Roman people and Caesar from war, famine, and disease, and will cast these woes onto Rome’s enemies.  Apollo was traditionally called upon to ward away such ills from cities (particularly in paeans, the genre of this poem) but the mention of Augustus here and the likely evocation of the Palatine cult at the ode’s start through the cluster Apollo, Diana, and Latona give the moment a contemporary relevance.  Horace may reflect the Augustan aura that came to surround the Temple of Apollo Medicus or may himself be more fully teasing out that connection between Augustus and Apollo Paean.  Likewise at the climax of the Carmen saeculare, the list of Apollo’s canonical aretai ends with medicine.  This imitates Callimachus but Apollo’s healing power coheres with the poem’s theme of Augustan peace, and may have special appropriateness to a feast that supposedly originated in order to avert plague.  This evocation of Apollo Medicus is part of a hymn first performed in front of Apollo’s Palatine temple and so must make sense in that context.  In this connection it is interesting to observe that in another ode, on the occasion of the dedication of Apollo’s Palatine temple, Horace prays above all else for his own health (1.31.17–20).

If Horace is not eccentric in treating Apollo’s curative dimension as a facet of his imperial meaning, then Virgil fractures that ideology in Aeneid 12.  When Aeneas is wounded, the doctor Iapyx, who received his credentials from Apollo and is clearly a surrogate for the god here, fails to heal the hero. Nihil auctor Apollo / subvenit. The god himself incomprehensible declines to cure the hero.  In view of Apollo’s manifold support for Aeneas and his allies (and for Augustus) earlier in the poem, this a very troubling moment, in terms of both the narrative and the god’s imperial significance. Venus’ compensating pharmacology would gloss over but does not completely dispel the disquiet.

Finally, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Apollo’s medical side is a conspicuous motif in the god’s lack of success.  The Healer himself admits that he cannot heal himself from the love-wound impelling him towards Daphne.  He laments his rash killing of Coronis and pointedly cannot revive her with his healing powers.  The former story is (among much else) a send-up of an Augustan symbol.  Does the medicinal motif accentuate or moderate the hit at the emperor’s cult?

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