Manilius – Three Caesars in one Text?

    Portrait of Tiberius

MANILIUS – Three Caesars in one Text?(i)

By Darrell Sutton

Imperial titles in the ancient Roman Republic had diverse origins. They appeared on coins and in the prose and poetry of Latin writers. Caesar, at first a surname of the Julian gens, ultimately came to denote several emperors (cf. Mason Hammond, ‘Imperial Elements in the Formula of the Roman Emperors during the First Two and a Half Centuries of the Empire’, Mem. Am. Acad. Rome, 1957). In due course, the use of Imperator or Augustus within the populace was utilized as a derogatory or complimentary term, depending on the party using them. Bards therefore needed to be perspicacious with their poetic illustrations.

Latin poets of the Late Roman Republic and early Roman Imperial period unveiled fine distinctions in their metrical compositions. In arrangements of verse, even though their systems disclosed overt shades of meaning, here and there they betrayed subtexts whose connotations were not easy to grasp, especially in astronomical lyrics. One widespread principle which preoccupied its devotees was the assumption that fixed objects in the heavens determined human destiny and governed events in the sub-lunar sphere. Manilius’ Astronomica confirms the existence somewhere of that general belief (e.g., II.603-607). In its structure, hexameter lines that are original and complex ascribe supremacy to planetary configurations, making clear to the reader the prevailing power of ‘fate’.

In what follows, an attempt is made to clarify one of the many ambiguities in Manilius’ Latin poem. It will be argued that the use of the imperial title, Caesar, in IV.776 does not apply exclusively to Tiberius Caesar Augustus since Manilius alludes to more than one sovereign.


This inquiry requires giving the correct reading before passing on to matters of interpretation. One sentence demands readers’ attention: T. Breiter’s textual notes on 776 are appended.

Man. IV.773-777
          Hesperiam sua Libra tenet, qua condita Roma,
          orbis et imperium retinet discrimina rerum,
          lancibus, et positas gentes tollitques premitque,
          qua genitus Caesar melius nunc condidit urbem
          Et propriis frenat pendentem nutibus orbem.

                                   cu fratre remus hanc  g
776 genitus… meus nunc condidit orbem l:  caesar meus nunc possidet orbem m:qua genitus cum fratre remus hang condidit urbem gc

Italy belongs to the Balance, her rightful sign: beneath it Rome and her sovereignty of the world were founded, Rome, which controls the issue of events, exalting and depressing nations, placed in the scales:  [trans. Goold]

Herewith an alternate rendering for 776-7: “Caesar, born beneath that sign, now had founded a better city, and governs the world that is dependent upon his commands alone.”Rome and Libra’s historical ties are on record; but the words “her rightful sign” are not in the Latin text at IV.773. To improve punctuation, I propose a period [.] be inserted after urbem in 776.

There is a touch of irony, too, in IV.776, qua genitus Caesar… . In an epic poem that lauds power one does not expect puzzling expressions directed at potentates. To Caesar, great might is imputed but in truth, Libra is the real force behind all the monarchy’s creative enterprises. Bentley claimed verse 776 to be versus spurius, et barbarus, et ineptissimus, i.e., a spurious verse derived from an insecure tradition. He detected a problem, one he believed was textual; however, his conclusion is based on a false inference drawn from the passage.

According to Scaliger the Astronomica had been dedicated to Augustus Caesar.[ii] Bearing that belief in mind, he placed 777 under 773 to read,

           Qua condita Roma
           Et propriis frenat pendentem nutibus orbem
           Orbis et imperium retinet … .

Bentley, however, preferring Urbis to Orbis,[iii] wrote,
           Qua Condita Roma
           Urbis in imperia retinet discrimina rerum
           Lancibus et posits gentes tollitve permite;         775
           Qua genitus cum fratre Remus hanc condidit urbem
           Et propriis frenat pendentum nutibus orbem.

Following MSS G and C, Remus, not Caesar, occupies the text above. If one believes that Augustus adapted his persona to be a second Romulus or new founder of Rome, the passage suffices. But Bentley and Scaliger’s readings are irreconcilable. For Bentley, the municipal scenery was important; although the originator of Rome did more than construct brick and mortar: by him the spirit of the people revived, a progenitive idea denoted by genitus. Scaliger definitely supposed an astrological shade of meaning: thus his use of orbem, subordinating 777 to the greater role of Rome’s naissance in 773. Despite Manilius’ preponderant use of orbis[iv] in his poem, and given that neither Bentley, nor Scaliger, envisioned Breiter’s reconstruction, the following points were not evident to them.

Subsequent to IV.744, an extended section on geographical astrology is dealt with, one in which Manilius sheds light on spheres of influence that fall under specific signs of the zodiac: e.g., ‘the Ethiopians’ who burn on account of Cancer, whose exaggerated heat speaks through the color of their complexion’ (758-759). Each influence that is noted by him is dependent upon inter-reliant constellations. There is a central thought undergirding Manilius’ whole argument (770): quod cuncta regit – [Libra] reigns over all.[v] For that reason, the allotment of too much [celestial] power to Caesar seems unrealistic in Manilius’ rationale. For Bentley, the passage asserts what is patently false, so it must be an addition to the text. Hence his emendation. He was on to something. Yet he overlooked the fact that two historical issues must be acknowledged: the one, mythological, and the other, astrological. With the textual issues now decided, the untangling of these threads prompts comment.


No one in the first century BC or AD believed the city of Rome originated with anyone named Caesar. According to the myth, Romulus instituted Rome’s foundation (IV.26).[vi] It is true that Julius Caesar built a better urbs. It could be argued that Augustus did even more. Tiberius did not realize so great a transformation in Roman dominion during his rule. But the three of them were enthusiasts of astrology, holding deep-seated beliefs in its effects. Consequently, Manilius co-opted Libra to be the dominating force in the formation of a balanced Roman reign (769-773).

On the face of it, Manilius’ ascription in 776 may stand for Tiberius or Augustus; but the royal figure to whom he refers slyly is Julius Caesar. Here is why: at IV.203- 216 readers are informed that rulers and leaders are born under Libra. And commentators presume Tiberius is the emperor remarked upon in the text because of his natal horoscope. Housman’s inflexible view on 776 left no room for an alternative because he believed Tiberius to be the only legitimate claimant to whom the verse alludes. The Latin idiom, however, does not explicitly betray that sole denotation. As for the text, Housman knew that orbem could not bear the sense given in Caesar . . . nunc condiditi urbem, and he decried the imposition of cum fratre Remus hanc condidit urbem into the section of verse as contrary to poetic practice. Housman cited plenty of texts to support Romulus’ institution of Rome.[vii]

Regarding the identity of Caesar, Housman believed ‘Tiberius was the primary royal figure’ in book IV, and that he had proved it in his introduction to book 1 (Tiberio enim principe hunc librum scriptum esse ostendi ad 766 et lib. I p.lxxi).[viii]Housman’s solution does not close off other avenues of interpretation. Tiberius was a vengeful tyrant[ix] whose feats never attained to the lofty words used by Manilius in 776-777.  Besides, why would Manilius advertise Tiberius as someone who governs the world? He had no such administration. In fact, the title Caesar, in its generic use, was not attested elsewhere by Manilius to symbolize Tiberius’ global accomplishments. One may argue that a reference to Tiberius is in the poem elsewhere, but this passage does not plainly mention him.

There is more. The island of Rhodes is linked to the biographical histories of the three men: Gaius Julius Caesar, Gaius Octavius [Augustus] and Tiberius.[x] The latter was a reluctant ruler who did not rule well, despite his birth-tie to Libra. He certainly was no genius in juridical matters. He built roads in Spain and Gaul. He might have been a better soldier-diplomat had he not been terrified of conspiracies. The maiestas trials produced troubles for over 60 persons: some were killed, others engaged in self-murder or were exiled; but Julius Caesar[xi], whose attachment to Rhodes continues to be celebrated, empowered the succession of Augustus (the great lawgiver I.385-386), who was born underneath Capricorn’s divine gaze (II.509).

Someone might aver that Caesar Augustus is debarred from further discussion on account of the fact his nativity did not occur during Libra and that he was unsuited for Manilius’ depiction, lacking similar connections to Rhodes.[xii] Actually, Libra was visible, partly, at Augustus’ birth,[xiii] which, by virtue of Libra’s utter power (as conceived by Manilius), maintained a force that could not be annulled, nor was it unfelt or forestalled amid various zodiacal configurations: (viz. II. 291; but, to learn of powerful causal associations amid the stars from one sign to the other, see IV. 385-6). The use of a tripartite reference for Caesarean rulers is not extraordinary considering their links to Libra.

What of IV.763-766?
          Virgine sub casta felix terraque marique
          est Rhodes, hospitum recturi principis orbem,
          Tumque domus vere Solis, cui tota sacrata est,
          cum caperet lumen magni sub Caesare mundi;

Beneath the Chaste maid Rhodes prospers on land and sea,
The erstwhile abode of him who was to rule the world as
Emperor: the whole island is consecrated to the Sun, and Rhodes was in
very truth its house at the time when it received into its
care the light of the mighty universe in the person of Caesar.
[trans. Goold]

Both Augustus and Tiberius were glorified. Augustus’ achievements brought him honor. In 2BC, or thereabouts, he acquired the title pater patriae.[xiv] His political powers were unequalled during his rule as emperor. It is debatable, though, whether the glory attributed to Augustus excelled the glory ascribed to Julius Caesar who was identified as ‘the light of an impressive world’. It is likely Manilius’ imperial label involves three persons. Julius, Augustus and Tiberius styled themselves restorers of a better age.[xv] Julius Caesar founded colonies, bringing into existence new protectorates by his decree. He even introduced a new calendar. His success was world-altering. In addition, Julius Caesar’s nativity sign was cancer. In its constellated form, Capricorn gazes at Libra from the south, but Cancer follows Libra from the left side (II.290-292). The force of Libra’s trigonal constellation, in Manilius’ account (II.535), held sway in those configurations in which its presence was observable. Manilius’ verse opens a closed door to an intelligible reading, and Libra, the seventh sign of the zodiac, holds the key.


The criteria for identifying the Caesar to whom Manilius refers, concern the island of Rhodes, the building of Rome, and a potentate who showed a fondness for orbital schemes. From a historical standpoint, Tiberius is obviously not the only one suitable for the credits. From an astrological perspective, both Julius and Octavian qualify for Manilius’ descriptions: Tiberius too, if you assign a post-Augustan date to book 4. But the verbal tenses in the line would imply the accomplishments already were completed: in which case, the author might have composed the lines not knowing in what later year(s) his poem would be issued. As a grammatical issue, Caesar in 776 signals a singular personage whose exact identity is masked intentionally. It is certain nonetheless, that the title ‘Caesar’ in 766 implies more than one sovereign ruler.

Since there was no public notice that the Astronomica was circulated far and wide, definite proof that it was composed during Tiberius’ reign is not given. The poet well may have written it during Augustus’ rulership, with knowledge of which imperial prince was in the direct line of descent to inherit power,[xvi] and then innovatively composed verses that obliquely refer to the three illustrious potentates. The laudation, being interpreted variously by readers, would have protected Manilius from claims of partisanship. Marcus Manilius therefore achieved his goal subtly, to deftly laud the existing Caesar while simultaneously[xvii] extolling the luminous Julius Caesar, the dictator under Libran influence who founded a better city of Rome.

Camuccini, La morte di Cesare, credit Wikipedia


i The following editions are cited: J.J. Scaliger, M. Manilii Astronomicon (Paris 1579, 2nd. ed. 1600); R. Bentley, M. Manilii Astronomicon (London 1739); T. Breiter, M. Manilii Astronomicon (Leipzig 1909); A.E. Housman, M. Manilii Astronomica (London 1903–1930; 2nd ed. 1937; 5 vols.), G.P. Goold, Manilius Astronomica (Cambridge 1997).
ii J. J. Scaliger, ed., Astronomicon (Paris 1579), 243.
iii R. Bentley, M. Manilii Astronomicon, (London 1739), 235-236.
iv E.g., see book III at lines 206, 213, 218, 221, 225, 282, 288, 322, 330, 334, 342, 370, 375, 378, 417, 479, 484, 502, 524, 545.
v E.g., see book II.251, 424, 486, 535, 548, 554.
vi Cf. Cic. De Div. II.47,98. Such belief remained popular in literary traditions of the 2nd or 3rd century: see Sol. De Mira. Mun. 1.18.
vii Against Julius Caesar’s depiction, Cicero, in De Rep., provides a rational view of Romulus, not as a person of divine birth (II.4) but as a statesman-king (I.58), one whose prudence, rather than military deeds, led to his divination. Cicero avoided romanticizing on Aeneas and Rome or on divine ties between Rome and Troy. See Spencer Cole, Cicero and The Rise of deification at Rome, (Cambridge 2013)
viii Housman’s argument was cogent and logical. To cite his note relating to the use of Solis in IV.765, he reasoned that  “if Tiberius was the second light of heaven, he resembles the Moon, and did not at all resemble the Sun, which is the first”. The words are capable of  quite another sense, and  “lumen magnitude sub Caesare mundi” may mean “the Sun, in the person of him who is now emperor, to wit Tiberius: so II3 ‘uictamque sub Hectore Troiam, 6 16 ‘sub fratr euiri nomen,’ 621 sqq ‘plus….in duplici…roboris…quam te, viii Nemeaee, sub uno’ IV 24 sq. ‘Troia sub uno/non eursa uiro,  V 381 ‘ ‘deum Cucnus condit uocemque sub illo.’ It apppears then that book IV was written after Augustus’ death.” Man. I, Ixx1-lxx2.
ix He might have been a good man who turned to the dark side – so Cassius Dio, Hist. LVII, 13, 6. Views on Tiberius’ behavior have changed little through ensuing decades. See Emnuele Cicaceri, Tiberio, Successore Di Augusto, (2nd ed., Albrighi, Segati & C.,1944)  particularly chapter III, ‘Tiberio e l’antiqua tradizione letteraria’.
x Goold writes, “Tiberius, who withdrew from public life to the island of Rhodes in 6 B.C., returning in A.D. 2. See G.P. Goold, 282 fn.‘e’.
xi He was a survivor, one who bested and outlasted Crassus and Pompey, who also succeeded in his powerful maneuvers: maybe 1 million persons died in his campaigns in Gaul. He consolidated power and received many honors: several appointments as consul, tribune and dictator claimed him. He was nominated to be priest of Jupiter, whose statue soon found Caesar’s testimonial beside it.
xii Indeed Octavian resorted to the island of Rhodes for months after the Battle of Actium. There Herod visited him, pledged allegiance to him and officially received again the diadem or reconfirmation of his rule over Roman Palestine. Manilius admired the island’s naval forces (see IV.763).
xiii Housman accepted Suetonius’ notion at Aug. 5, and he, agreeing with Smyly, stated that “The verses are quite consonant with the verdict of astronomy and chronology that Augustus’ horoscope in truth was Libra. Yet he and all the world believed that he was born under Capricorn. Can one man have two natal stars?”. For Housman the answer was in the affirmative if one assumed that “a man’s natal star… was the sign then occupied by the Moon”, in J. Diggle and F.R.D. Goodyear, A.E. Housman’s Classical Papers, 1972, 868.
xiv F.E. Adcock (1886-1968), ‘The Interpretation of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 34. I’, The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, (1951), 130-135 (134).
xv There was an underlying tradition that supported each Caesar’s assumption that he was the prime source of Rome’s improvement: see A.H. Mcdonald’s review of S. Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford 1971) in CR, Vol. 26, No. 2, (1976), 222-225, in which Mcdonald wrote “the convention of treating Roman recovery as ‘re-founding’ was well established by the time of Sulla” (223). Julius Caesar (parens patriae) conceived of and founded new definitions for his powerful role; Augustus (pater patriae) founded the Roman Principate. Of conditions under Tiberius (salus patriae), it later would be written – to paraphrase – that ‘the Empire was revisited by another Golden Age’, so Philo, Legatio 13. The Golden age was an idea based on astronomical considerations: the realignment of planets to their original positions would produce a certain beneficent year, at the end of which a grand age occurs: see E. M. Smallwood, Philonis Alexandrini Legatio Ad Gaium, (2nd ed., Leiden: Brill, 1970), 163.
xvi Indicators were in the public domain. See F.E. Adcock, ‘A Note on Res Gestae Divi Augusti. 34. 3’, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 42, (1952), 10-12, where he wrote (12) “…it was only Tiberius, and that only in A.D. 13-14, who could be said to enjoy equal potestas with Augustus as holder of the Tribunicia Potestas”; but see the main arguments of E. Kornemann (1868-1946), whom Adcock cites, from ‘Die Amtsgenossen des Augustus’, Philologische Wochenschrift, Leipzig 1932, col. 227ff.
vii In ancient languages, phrases with multiple meanings are not uncommon. Even cuneiform had them: “A cuneiform writing system opens up many possibilities for sign- plays and double entendres”: see Niek Veldhuis, A Cow of Sin, (Groningen 1991), 19. In addition, cf. T. Maguire, ‘Miscellanea’ which treats of the triple entendre of Clytaemnestra, Aesch. Choeph. 691-692 (Dind., 5th ed.), in Hermathena VI (Dublin; London 1888), 161; and D.F.S. Thompson, Catullus (Toronto 1997), 246 where one reads “Certainly, however, Ovid (Tr. 1.1.15-16) plays on the double meaning of pes: vade, liber, verbisque meis, loca grata saluta: / contingam certe, quo licet illa pede.”

Darrell Sutton publishes widely on ancient texts

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