This painting, by the French artist Louis Boullogne the Younger (c. 1654-1733), depicts a scene of great importance from the history of ancient Rome. Near the center of the painting, the red-cloaked figure can be identified as the great-nephew (and later adopted son) of the famous Roman dictator, Julius Caesar. After Ceasar’s death on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, this adopted relative—known then as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (now usually shortened to ‘Octavian’)—seized power in Rome by 43 BCE through a triumvirate pact with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. At first the triumvirs were content to work together to massacre their mutual enemies and threats, but rivalry and hunger for power eventually led the triumvirs into conflict. Lepidus, always the weakest link of the three, was forced out of the partnership at about 36 BCE, but his early exit ultimately spared him from the bloody showdown that was to come. Around 32 BCE, Octavian (from his base of power in Italy) declared war on Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (Mark Antony’s lover and ally). Antony and Cleopatra stood no chance against Octavian’s brilliant admiral, Marcus Agrippa, who had the ill-fated couple defeated and cornered by 30 BCE. Knowing they could not win or escape, Antony and Cleopatra took their own lives, leaving Octavian as the sole authoritarian ruler of the Roman empire. These historical details serve as an epilogue to Louis Boullogne the Younger’s painting.
Back in Rome, there was a temple known as the Janus Geminus, which was dedicated to the Roman deity, Janus—an enigmatic god of doors and doorways. Naturally, doors were important features involved in the god’s worship and ceremonies. Most famously, the Romans were said to have kept the doors of the Janus Geminus open whenever the state was at war, and as the Romans seemed to always be expanding and battling, the doors of the Janus Geminus remained open for the vast majority of Rome’s existence. Nevertheless, there were an anomalous few times when the temple doors were shut, and Octavian (who assumed the name, Augustus, in 27 BCE) was one such man who could achieve this rare feat. This event, which occurred after Octavian’s triumphal return to Rome following his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, was described by the Roman historian, Cassius Dio (c. 163-235), who wrote, “the action which gave him more pleasure than all these honours was the formal closing by the Senate of the gates of the temple of Janus, which signified that the Roman people’s wars were at an end…” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 51.20). It is this rare event that Louis Boullogne the Younger strove to re-create in paint.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.