Augustus’ family was one of several that claimed to have divine blood—his own Julii clan believed their lineage traced back to the goddess Venus (or Aphrodite). In addition, Julius Caesar, Augustus’ great-uncle and adoptive father, was posthumously declared a god by the senate in 42 BCE. As if this godly pedigree was not divine enough, Augustus (or his propagandists) also began to spread rumors that he was actually a son of Apollo.
The biographer Suetonius (c. 70-130+ CE) wrote about this divine origin story in the section on Augustus from his work, The Twelve Caesars. According to the tale, Augustus’ mother, Atia, went to a midnight service at a Temple of Apollo. At some point during the service, the entire crowd gathered at the temple suddenly fell asleep. After Atia awoke from her unexplained slumber and returned home, she discovered a peculiar mark on her body. As the mysterious mark was in the shape of a serpent, an unnerving story emerged that the god Apollo (disguised as a snake) had forced everyone in the temple to fall asleep so that he could have his way with Atia. After Apollo left the scene, no sign remained of his presence except for the snake mark he left on Atia’s body, which she discovered later that night. According to Suetonius, Atia gave birth to Augustus nine months after this incident supposedly occurred.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Statue of Apollo (photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen) and a statue of Augustus (via the Vatican Museum) in front of an ancient landscape painted by C. W. Eckersberg (1783-1853), all Public Domain or licensed for use via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.