In Our Time: The Augustan Age

The Augustan Age is the period between 27BCE and 14CE when the Emperor Augustus ruled the Roman Empire. It was discussed on In Our Time (in 2009) by Catharine Edwards (Birkbeck College, University of London), Duncan Kennedy (University of Bristol) and Mary Beard (Cambridge University). They were primarily considering the politics and arts of the Emperor Augustus's reign and how these were linked. Politically speaking it's the beginning of the Roman Empire and a period of peace after the instability of the civil war that marked the end of the Roman Republic. And in terms of the arts this period includes some of the names that one thinks of when one thinks of Roman literature: Virgil, Ovid, Horace.

The Emperor Augustus was called Octavian before he became Emperor and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (so is sometimes referred to as Caesar). He was named heir in Julius Caesar's will, but when Julius Caesar was murdered Mark Anthony tried to grab power and civil war broke out. When the dust settled Octavian didn't restore the Republic, instead he became the Emperor Augustus and inaugurated the Roman Empire. He managed to leave the Senate a sense of dignity and respect (thus heading off the likelihood of an end like Julius Caesar's) whilst actually retaining sole control himself. For instance he chose a role from the standard Roman Republic's kit to hold in perpetuity (Tribune) that was actually one of the more junior roles but it was also the one that spoke first in the Senate allowing him to direct the proceedings. He also made a point of knowing all of the Senators, and Beard said that he's supposed to've greeted them all by name at the beginning of each session - which, as she pointed out, must've come across as rather fake & tedious to the Senators who weren't whole-heartedly buying into the cult of Augustus.

His propaganda characterised his reign as a return to the good old fashioned Roman virtues - a bit like the Tory Party narrative of "family values" in modern politics, looking back to an idealised 1950s that never was. Augustus cast the civil war and turmoil as being the result of Rome and the Roman citizens' fall from virtue over the preceding decades. The bedrock of Roman virtue is the mythos of the farmer-general who leaves his plough to lead the armies of Rome to glory. It's rooted in rural and agricultural life, and military values; and this is juxtaposed with the sins of decadent urban life where citizens live in luxury. Which I found quite amusing as the way we remember the Roman Empire includes quite a lot of salacious scandal about "my goodness what those Emperors and their families got up to!". And it seems that Augustus would be horrified by this image of his Empire. He envisaged his family's role as playing the part of "Good Old Fashioned Roman Family" as an example for everyone else to live up to. For instance his wife spun the cloth that made his clothes, just as a good Roman housewife should. He was not entirely successful in achieving the family image he intended (see below), but he did succeed in successfully re-inventing himself. Which was quite an achievement, as during the civil war Octavian had been somewhat of a young thug. There are multiple stories of his ruthlessness and cruelty, including one tale of him ripping out someone's eyes with his bare hands! Not quite the good and virtuous first-amongst-equals farmer-general of his later propaganda.

One of the things Augustus does to return virtue to Rome is to pass new laws enforcing proper moral behaviour. Notably these included laws against adultery. This was the area in which his family fell short of the image he was hoping they'd convey. Augustus's daughter Julia had been married off "advantageously" but clearly not to her tastes - she committed adultery in a particularly noticeable and notorious fashion. Augustus was forced to take action using his own laws, and she was exiled and some of her lovers executed. Then a decade later Julia's daughter (also called Julia) went on to do much the same thing as her mother - with much the same consequences. So much for the Good & Virtuous first family!

Augustus poured money into the city of Rome - he is said to've come to Rome as a city of brick and left it a city of marble. His building projects were wide-ranging and numerous, and many of the buildings we think of as Ancient Rome come from his infrastructure overhaul. This is notably not a return to the "Good Old Days" - we listened to an In Our Time episode about the Roman Republic about three weeks after we listened to this one, and it made the point that the ephemerality of power was a key concept in the Republic. So building infrastructure out of ostentatious and permanent marble was a change of paradigm, reflecting the difference between Republic and Empire as governmental systems.

The flowering of literature and poetry during the Augustan Age is tied into Augustus's propaganda machinery. It's a part of the return to the old virtues and of the idea of making Rome great again. Augustus was definitely a patron of the arts - it's not known how much he paid the writers, but there's evidence that he did pay them, and pay them well. He also writes some of his own poetry, but there's no evidence one way or the other about whether or not he also "collaborated" on the others' poetry. Some of the well known works that survive to the present also have Augustan propaganda as part of their subject matter. For instance Virgil's Aeneid has a section early on where Jupiter prophesies the future of the city Aeneas has founded (which is Rome). This details the future of Rome through to Augustus as the necessary, pivotal and inevitable Emperor, after whom Rome will rule the world forever. It situates everything Augustus did to gain power and how he is now ruling as the things that are necessary for the future glory of Rome (rather than self-serving). Augustus also traces his ancestry to Aeneas (just like medieval English kings will later link themselves to Brutus and/or King Arthur).

Horace's poetry is also a part of the propaganda machinery (on the family values side of it) but Ovid is less obviously a part of this. His work is lighter and more comedic than the other two poets, and much more about sex than the new morality of the Augustan Age is really comfortable with. There's also evidence that Ovid himself didn't sit comfortably in this new morality - he was perhaps a part of the Younger Julia's disgrace, and was exiled from Rome. He missed Rome while in exile, considering it the only place worth living - even if his work was more light-hearted than the tone of the age, he was still very emotionally invested in the new Rome that Augustus had built.

Near the beginning of the programme they mentioned the Elizabethan Age (of Elizabeth I of England) as a way of explaining the term "Augustan Age", and once one's mind has been drawn to it there are some coincidences in more than the terminology we use for the era. Both are periods of calm after a period of chaos and disunity, the leadership of each country is presented as benign yet is actually pretty tyrannical, both have a flowering of literature which is state-controlled propaganda as well as art. And Elizabeth I was crowned on nearly the same day as Augustus took power (only 1585 years and 1 day later...).

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