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…).

In Our Time: Josephus

Josephus was a Jewish and Roman historian in the 1st Century AD who wrote (amongst other things) about the Roman-Jewish war that lead to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the 18th Century this book was widely read by Christians as it appears to provide historical evidence for Jesus; and Josephus was held up as one of the great historians. However to Jews he was a much more controversial figure and wasn’t read or referred to until much later in the Enlightenment. Talking about Josephus’s life, times and legacy on In Our Time were Tessa Rajak (University of Reading), Philip Alexander (University of Manchester) and Martin Goodman (University of Oxford and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies).

They started the programme with some context for the Jewish-Roman war. In the 2nd & 1st Century BC under the rulership of the Maccabees Judah had become independent. During this period it had formed a sense of itself as a Jewish nation, and so when it became a province in the Roman Empire Judah didn’t assimilate into the Empire as well as the Romans would’ve liked. To some extent the province had a special status – they had a bit more independence than was generally the case. The Jews & their religion were well treated and the Herods ruled as client kings of the Romans. However there was a strand of thought within Judean society that they should be independent, and this was particularly pronounced in the priestly classes and the elite.

Josephus was born in 37AD to a family in Jerusalem who were members of the priestly elite. He was highly intelligent and well educated. Stories about his education have parallels to the stories told about Jesus’s education – the bright boy who quickly surpasses his teachers in knowledge and understanding of the scriptures. When the Jewish-Roman War broke out in 66AD he, along with many other intelligent educated sons of the priestly elite, became a general. He had no experience in leading troops, nor did his fellow generals. Unsurprisingly the war is a disaster for the Jews, and the Romans quickly put down what they see as a rebellion of one of their provinces. However, it’s important to remember that most of what we know about this war comes from Josephus. And he wrote about it after the fact when he had become Romanised and for a Roman audience. So his bias is against the Jews.

Josephus doesn’t entirely whitewash his own actions in the war when he’s writing about it. One of the stories he tells reflects badly (by the standards of his community) on him – possibly he only tells it because it was widely known and so better to put his own spin on it rather than miss it out completely. During the war he was leading troops who were holding out against a siege, but they were losing. The acceptable thing to do in these circumstances was to commit suicide rather than surrender, and this is what the others want to do. Technically it’s not suicide – each man is to kill another until there is only one left who will commit suicide. Josephus tries to talk his troops out of this, but fails. Eventually there are only two people left, Josephus and one other, and finally Josephus succeeds in talking this other man into surrendering rather than dying. This failure to pursue the honourable path is one of the things that shaped Josephus’s later legacy amongst the Jews.

When he surrenders Josephus is captured by Vespasian and taken to Rome as a slave. He tells Vespasian that he has had a vision that Vespasian will become Emperor – which at the time seems extremely unlikely. However, two years later this comes to pass. This little story needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt as the only sources for the vision and timing of the revelation of said vision are Vespasian and Josephus who both have vested interests in it being true.

Josephus worked for Vespasian as a scholar and interpreter, first as a slave and later as a Roman citizen. He wrote a history of the Jewish-Roman War, which is one of the books that he is remembered for. This was written for a Roman audience, and so it was tailored to please his masters and his potential customers for the book. For instance Josephus justifies his defection to Rome by saying that he believes God has withdrawn his blessing from the Jews and it has passed to the Romans. He does also explain the Jewish side of the war and this theme is taken up again in a later book about Jewish history, laws and customs. This is again written with his Roman audience in mind, and is a thorough explanation of his home culture to the people of his new culture.

Josephus’s legacy is two-fold. Amongst early & medieval Christians he was revered as a historian, in large part because there is a passage in the Jewish history book which refers to Jesus. This would be the earliest historical (i.e. non-Biblical) reference to Jesus and was tremendously important to Christian readers of his books. The experts all agreed that this reference was almost certainly inserted into the text in the 3rd Century AD by a Christian bishop. It’s possible that there was some stub of a reference to Jesus but not the longer description and reference to his Christian followers that is in the version that we now know. The originals of his works did fall into obscurity but in the 18th Century were rediscovered and re-translated. And at that time his history books were widely read by ordinary Christians.

His legacy amongst the Jews was much less positive. He was remembered as a traitor – both for failing to commit suicide when he should’ve and for later becoming a Roman citizen (and for his belief that God had changed his mind about who His chosen people were). As a result his books were not much read by the Jews, and were not translated into Hebrew. However much later, in the Enlightenment, there was a shift in attitude to the story of Judaism in some parts of the Jewish community. Some wanted their history told in the new scientific style of the Enlightenment era, which was quite a change from the Rabbinical tradition (which is fairly ahistorical). Josephus’s works are a good source for what Judaism was like before the Temple was destroyed. They also provide perspective on the immediate impact of the Temple’s destruction – as at the time it was assumed it was a temporary setback, not the permanent disaster hindsight showed it to be.