1902 Encyclopedia > Augustus. The Augustan Age.


Augustus
(Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus)
Roman emperor
(63 BC - 14 AD)
(Original title of this article: Augustus and the Augustan Age)




AUGUSTUS AND THE AUGUSTAN AGE. The name of Augustus was the title of honour given by the Romans to the emperor Caius Julius Octavianus, or, as the was originally designated, Caius Octavius. This totle was intended to be hereditary in his family, but all the succeeding Caesars or emperors of Rome continued to adopt it long after they had ceased to be connected with the first Augustus by blood. The era of Augustus formed an illustrious epoch in Roman history, and was distinguished for its splendid attainments in arts and arms, and more especially in literature. The Romans in later times looked back to the age of Augustus with great complacency, as the most prosperous and the most distinguished in their annals. The name of the "Augustus Age" has been specially applied to it in modern times, and the same title has been given, with more or less justice, to certain epochs in modern history as the highest compliment to their glory. The reign of Louis XIV. is called the Augustus age of France; the reign of Anne, the Augustan age of England.


Augustus (Prima Porta) statue

Augustus
(also known as: Caesar Augustus; Augustus Caesar; Octavian).

Prima Porta statue, Vatican Museum, Rome.



Caius Octavius was the son of a noble Roman of the same name, of the plebeian order. The father had married Atia, the daughter of Julia, sister to the great C. Julius Caesar, who was accordingly great-uncle to the young Octavius. Caesar, the dictator, having no son of his own, took an interest in this youth, caused him to be enrolled among the Patricians, and bred him with a view to the highest honours of the republic. Already, in his eighteenth year, he had chosen him for his "master of the horse," but this was a merely nominal distinction. The young man was sent to carry on his education at the camp at Apollonia in Illyricum, and there, at the age of nineteen, he heard of his great kinsman’s assassination (44 B.C.). He had already become a favourite with the soldiers, who offered to escort him to Rome, and follow his fortunes. But this he declined, and crossed over alone to Italy. On landing he learnt that Caesar had made him his heir and adopted him into the Julian gens, whereby he acquired the designation of C. Julius Caesar Octavianus. The inheritance was a perilous one; his mother and others would have dissuaded him from accepting it, but he, confident in his abilities, declared at once that he would undertake its obligations, and discharge the sums bequeathed by the dictator to the Roman people. M. Antonius had possessed himself of Caesar’s papers and effects, and made light of his young nephew’s pretensions. The liberators paid him little regard, and dispersed to their respective provinces. Cicero, much charmed at the attitude of Antonius, hoped to make use of him, and flattered him to the utmost, with the expectation, however, of getting rid of him as soon as he had served his purpose. Octavianus conducted himself with consummate adroitness, making use of all competitors for power, but assisting none. Considerable forces attached themselves to him. The senate, when it armed the consuls against Antonius, called upon him for assistance; and he took part in the campaign in which Antonius was defeated at Mutina, but both the consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, slain. The soldiers of Octavianus demanded the consulship for him, and the senate, though now much alarmed, could not prevent his election. He now effected a junction with Antonius, who quickly over-threw the power of the republican party in their stronghold, the Cisalpine provinces, with the death of Decimus Brutus, the ablest of the liberators. Thereupon Octavianus and Antonius, taking Lepidus into union with them, met on the river Rhenus near Bononia, and proclaimed themselves a triumvirate for the reconstitution of the commonwealth. They divided the western provinces among them, the east being held for the republic by M. Brutus and Cassius. They drew up a list of proscribed citizens, entered Rome together, and caused the assassination of three hundred senators and two thousand knights. They further confiscated the territories of many cities throughout Italy, and divided them among their soldiers. Cicero was murdered at the demand of Antonius. The remnant of the republican party took refuge either with Brutus and Cassius in the East, or with Sextus Pompeius, who had made himself master of the seas.

Octavianus and Antonius crossed the Adriatic in 42 B.C. to reduce the last defenders of the republic. Brutus and Cassius were defeated, and fell at the battle of Philippi. War soon broke out between the victors, the chief incident of which was the siege and capture by famine of Perusia, and the alleged sacrifice of three hundred of its defenders by the young Caesar at the altar of his uncle. But peace was again made between the. Antonius married Octavis, his raval’s sister, and took for himself the eastern half of the empire, leaving the west to Caesar. Lepidus was reduced to the single provinces of Africa. Meanwhile Sextus Pompeius made himself formidable by cutting off the supplies of grain from Rome. The triumvirs were obliged to concorde to him the islands in the western Mediterranean. But Octavianus could not allow the capital to be kept in alarm for its daily sustenance. He picked a quarrel with Sextus, and when his colleagues failed to support him, undertook to attack him alone. Antonius, indeed, came at last to his aid, in return for military assistance in the campaign he mediated in the East. But Ocatvianus was well served by the commander of his fleet, M. Vipsanius Agrippa. Sextus was completely routed, and driven into Asia, where he perished soon afterwards. Lepidus was an object of contempt to all parties, and Octavianus and Antonius remained to fight for supreme power.

The alliance of Antonius with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, alienated the Romans from him. They now gladly accepted the heir of Caesar as the true successor of the most illustrious of their heroes. It was felt almost universally that the empire required a single head, and that repose could not be assured by the sovereignty of the chief of its armies. The battle of Actium, followed by the death of Antonius, 31 B.C., raised the victor to universal empire. Nevertheless, Octavianus did not hasten to assume his position. He first regulated the affairs of Egypt, which his position. He first regulated the affairs of Egypt, which he annexed to the Roman dominions, then lingered for a time in Greece, and entered upon a fifth consulship the vast sums he had accumulated among the people and the soldiers, while he soothed the pride of the nobles by maintaining unchanged the outwards show of republican government. Of his personal history from this period there remains little to be said. He continued to reside almost constantly at Rome and in the neigbourhood, making one expedition into Spain, 27 B.C., and a journey through Greece in 21, on which occasion he advanced into Syria, and received back the standards taken by the Parthians from Crassus. In 16 B.C. he went to Gaul to regulate the affairs of that province, and expedition which he repeated, 9 B.C. But from thenceforth he intrusted the defence of the position to his lieutenants, and more especially to the young princes of his own family. The empire continued to enjoy profound internal tranquility. More than one plot was formed against the head of the state by some of the discontented nobility, but these were discovered met with no favour from the people generally, he could afford to treat them with a signal clemency, which seems to have secured him from any further attempts. The serenity and placability which he displayed in his latter years forms a marked contrast to his jealousy and ferocity at an earlier period; and the character of the Emperor Augustus Caesar has been a problem to historians in consequence. The life of the emperor was prolonged to the year 14 A.D. He died at Nola in his seventy-fifth year, after holding supreme power in the state for nearly half a century.

During the years which had intervened between his accepting the inheritance of Caesar, and his attaining to Caesar’s undivided sovereignty, the young aspirant had been meditating how to secure the retention of his power. At first, excited by fears for his own personal safety, and urged by the examples of party leaders around him, and of others who had gone before him, he plunged into a career of wholesale bloodshed, and cut off without scruple every public man from whose principles or whose passions he might have cause of apprehension. A large proportion, perhaps, of the senators and nobles had perished in the proscriptions and bloody wars of the triumvirate. Still it could not be expected that the germs or republican sentiment would ever be wholly eradicated. The sense of patriotism and the same of interest would not fail to raise up enemies to the sovereign ruler of the Roman commonwealth. The conqueror’s first object was to protect himself by force of arms his next to soothe the passions of the class from whose resentment he had most cause of fear, and after that to raise up another class in direct sympathy with himself to balance the power which the first must necessarily retain in a well-ordered government. It was to the attainment of these three-objects that Octavianus directed his organisation of the commonwealth.

The powers of the imperator or commander of the Roman army ceased on his return to the city. He then became once more a plain citizen. If war again arose he must seek his reappointment to command with the usual forms. Caesar had not trusted his countrymen so far. He had claimed form them the title of imperator in perpetuity. With this title prefixed to his name, he continued to be still the commander of the legions, whether in the city or in the provinces. With this power his successor dared not dispense. On his arrival at Rome from the East he at once required the senate to accord it to him, as to his uncle before him; but he pretended only to ask for a limited period of five years. At the expiration of that term, however, he assumed it again and again, though each time for yen years only, but never actually relinquished it to the end of his career. He thus received authority to command the whole force of the state in chief, an the officers who acted under him became simply his lieutenants. If they gained victories, the honours of the triumph were received fro the imperator "under whose auspices" they were reputed to have served. It followed that all the provinces on the frontiers, or in which armies were maintained, were placed under the emperor’s direct authority, while it was only the central and peaceful portions of the empire that were handed over to the government of the senate. The imperial provinces were administered by the legati Caesaris, the senatorial by proconsuls.

The person of the emperor was thus secured as far as the power of the sword could secure it. But hw was anxious that the source of this power should not be too apparent. The second Caesar wished to maintain the appearance at least of government by the constitutional powers of the republic. The senate had once been practically the ruling power, as far as it was not actually controlled by the masters of the legions. He would not degrade it in its own estimation, or in the estimation of the people, any further, at least, than might be necessary for his main object. He caused himself to be appointed censor, not for one but for five years, in order to give him full time to revise the list of senators, to supply the fearful gaps in the ranks of the old nobility, and to expel such members, and many they were, who seemed unworthy, from their foreign extraction, their low birth, their scanty means, or their bad character, to have a place in that august assembly. The irregularities of the epoch which he hoped now to close had filled its benches with personages who degraded the order in the eyes of genuine citizens. The nobles and good citizens generally hailed this revision with deep satisfaction. In accorded with the national taste as well as with historical traditions. From the individual resentments it provoked, it was an act of some personal danger to the censor; but the danger was more than repaid by the popularity attending upon it, which was enhanced to the utmost by the liberality, with which provision was made for raising some of the poor but honourable members of the order to the standard of property now to be required of them.

The emperor placed himself at the head of this reconstituted body, by assuming the office and title of Princeps Senatus. The office was indeed little more than nominal; it gave the right of proposing measures and of speaking first in the highest legislative assembly of the state, and having been borne in earlier times by some of the most distinguished of Roman patriots, it carried with it the respect and affection of the people. The titular precedence it gave was all the more valuable, inasmuch as it might be conceded without a blush by the sturdiest republican in the senate. But it was the consul who possessed practically the chief authority in the assembly. Octavianus had been already five times consul, and he shrank from seizing in perpetuity an office which, according to Roman ideas, differed in nothing from royalty, except that it was elective, and that it was limited to the tenure of a single year. Yet he could hardly afford to yield it to the citizen whom the people might at any time elect to thwart or to rival him. What should he do? he took what was certainly a bold step. It was a manifest innovation upon the forms of the free state when he required from the citizens the perpetual "potestas," or power of the consulship, at the same moment that he resigned the office itself, and suffered consuls to be annually elected to sit, one on each side of him, in the senate. The potestas which was thus conceded to him rendered him the head of the state, both in its legislative and executive departments. When he quitted the city he carried with him into the provinces a proconsular authority, and became to all intents and purposes king for life of the Romans and of their subjects. Even in the senatorial provinces he was now recognised as supreme; and thus it was thus it was that in him were centred all the great political assembly of the Roman magnates.





But the emperor did not limit his views to becoming the chief of the nobles. It was the part of a wary statesman to associate himself not less intimately with the opposite faction, which, under the name of the plebeians, had aimed at securing co-ordinate power with the patricians. The original meaning of these designations had indeed long been lost. The plebeians could boast many families as eminent both for honours and possessions as their haughty rivals. Step by step they had won an equal share with them in political privileges. But the class which still bore the title of plebeians was much more widely extended, and embraced the great mass of the knights and men of business in the city, and also of the citizens settled throughout the provinces. This large class had for more than a century contended with the nobles for the perquisites of office, and their mutual rivalry had armed Sulla against Marius and Caesar against Pompeius. The heir of Caesar inherited the favour o the plebeians, and was bound to requite it by distinguished patronage. The plebeians were still the electros to the tribunate, and still regarded the tribunes as their protectors against the encroachments of the patricians represented by the senate. The tribunes had proved themselves most useful allies to Caesar, and might yet again array themselves in support of the faithful inheritor of his principles. The emperor proposed to balance the consular potestas by assuming at the same time a tribunician potestas also. He thus endowed himself with the authority of the tribune for life, and assured the commons of the city and empire that he could at any exercise the formidable veto upon the proceedings of the consuls which had served so well, even down to recent times. Thus did he become emperor in the city, as well as the commander of the army in the field and in the provinces.

There remained yet another sovereign authority in the state, namely, that which the chief pontiff exercised over the affairs of religion. However much the religious sentiment had been weakened throughout the Roman world, there was yet enough superstition left among the citizens to confer great and sometimes overwhelming influence upon the legitimate interpreter of divine things to the nation. The senate had exercised this power with great effect, as long as the appointment to the chief pontificate rested with the patrician curiae. Of late years, however, this important dignity had been thrown open to the commons also. Octavianus was well pleased to accept it on the nomination of the whole people combined. He allowed, indeed, his former colleague Lepidus to retain it unmolested during his lifetime, but upon his death he assumed himself the exalted position which he might hesitate to intrust to any other. With this last addition to his prerogatives the emperor might well be content. The name of king he had from the first utterly repudiated. The office of dictator approached too near to that of a king to be acceptable to a ruler, who studied to confine himself within the limits of the republican constitution. Yet there still lacked some general appellative which might reflect in a single word the full dignity and power resulting from the combination of so many honours and prerogatives. The emperor proposed at first, it is said, to assume the name of Romulus; but Romulus had been a king; and further, Romulus had been destroyed, according to the tradition, by the senate, just as Caesar had been in later times. Such associations were ominous. At last he fixed upon the epithet Augustus, a name which no man had borne before, and which, on the contrary, had been applied to things the most noble, most venerable, and most sacred. The rites of the gods were called august; their temples were august. The word itself was derived from the holy auguries; it was connected in meaning with the abstract term authority, and with all that increases and flourishes upon earth. The use of this glorious title could not fail to smooth the way to the general acceptance of the divine character of the mortal who was deemed worthy to bear it. The senate had just decreed the divinity of the defunct Caesar; the courtiers were beginning now to insinuate that his successor, while yet alive, enjoyed an effluence from deity; the poets were even suggesting that altars should be raised to him; and in the provinces, among the subjects of the raised to him; and in the provinces, among the subjects of the state at least, temples to his divinity were actually rising, and the cult of Augustus was beginning to assume a name, a ritual, and a priesthood.

Augustus, as we may now call him, viewed all this with secret satisfaction. It was one of his first objects, indeed, to restore the outward show at least of reverence for divine, and re-establish the old Roman religion on its firm political basis. It was easy to rebuild, or cause to be rebuilt, the fallen or dilapidated temples of the national gods. The nobles paid their court to their master by seconding his efforts in this direction. The Pantheon, the temple of all the gods, if such was its original destination, remains still as a monument of his minister Agrippa’s munificence; but Virgil would assure us that not less than three hundred "grand" temples were erected throughout the city. Perhaps, indeed, these were mostly the sacella or chapels, of the Lares, which are placed at the corners of the streets. Augustus took the sentiment of the poepe at a favourable moment. They were throughout sickened by the miseries of the civil wars; they were ashamed of the crimes for which he whole nation were more or less responsible; they were eager to rush into any scheme of expiation and reparation that should be offered to them, and lend their hands to the material work of restoring at least the outward semblance of penitence for sin, and thankfulness for the mercy vouchsafed them. There can be no doubt that the conscience of the nation was awakened to a sense of the divine retribution under which they had suffered, but which had been at last averted under the blessed influence of the ruler whom they at last chosen. The Romans had not lost their belief in a divine Providence, which oppressed them with anxiety and terror, however little they connected it with a sense of moral duty.

The spirit of materialistic philosophy had, however, been rife among them, and during the past century the antireligious dogmas of Epicurus had sapped the belief of the educated and literary classes. The patrician youth of Rome had been trained in the schools of Greece, and especially at Athens, or had been placed under the teaching of Greek instructions at home; and of the three contending schools, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Academics, the second was that which had carried off far the greater number of disciples. The men of books or of speculative character might be generally Academics, and claim Cicero as their noblest leader; the men of imagination and deep religious fervour might follow, with Cato and Brutus, the teaching of the Stoics; but the practical men, the men of arts and arms and business, if they adhered to any school of thought to all, were almost all, like Caesar himself and his associates generally, addicted to the easy precepts and still laxer morality of Epicurus. This philosophy was noted for its utter denial of Providence and, for all practical objects of divinity altogether. None of these rival systems, whatever degrees of right sense and reason they might embrace respectively, could sanction any real belief in the still current mythology of the national worship, which was assailed and derided on all sides. Nevertheless, such was the pertinacious adherence of the Roman people to their ancient forms, especially where they had any connection with their national polity, that the outward ritual of their religion was still maintained, though a mere shadow of its former substance. Statesmen, indeed, had inverted a formula for reconciling their actual unbelief with their outward profession. Varro had said and the dictum was favourably accepted, that the ancient beliefs were to be upheld as a matter of public policy. Such as doubt, was the principle on which Augustus, who was himself neither a believer nor a philosopher, but a politician only, proceeded, when he assumed the part of a restorer of the national religion. He touched, with great sagacity, a chord which vibrated to the heart of the people, who firmly believed that the destinies of the city were bound up with the due observance of the ancient rites, and statesmen looked on with decorous acquiescence at shows and ceremonies to which they attached no significance whatever.

The world "composes its countenance to the expression assumed by the king." Such was the aphorism of the man of the world, and in this particular Augustus was a king indeed. The Romans rushed forward in the course he marked out for them. His word dictated the fashions of the day, mot in sentiment only, but in many particulars of external conduct. He was anxious to restore the dignity oft eh Roman citizen, as one of the conquering race which ruled its subjects as much by the prestige of its character as by its arms, and he resented all relaxation from the strait-laced discipline of the ancients, even to the petty matters of their dress and deportment. He marked his sovereign displeasure at the degenerate Romans who indulged in the loose habiliments of Greece. "Are these," he exclaimed, in the language of Virgil, "The rulers of the world, the nation of the gown?" And in order to keep up the high distinction of Roman citizenship at a period when provincials from all sides were crowding into it, he reversed, in this single instance, the policy of Caesar, and was very sparing in granting admission to the Roman franchise. He was, indeed, extremely careful in striking a balance between the tendency of the age to a general fusion of castes and privileges and the ancient spirit of exclusion, in which he thought the strength of the republic still really reposed. The policy of Augustus was one, on the whole, of cautions and moderate reaction. He made an effort to stay the process of disintegration, which he found so rite throughout the vital forces of the empire. The lawlessness of his own usurpation did indeed combine with the gross selfishness of his personal character to sap the moral principles of society, and render its ultimate dissolution inevitable; but he made a vigorous effort to stem the tide, and succeeded in giving the Roman world a period of rest in the downward path which it was generally pursuing.





The character of the period, however, as an epoch of rest for reflection and self-control, was chiefly marked in the literature, which more than anything else, has contributed to give it the name of the Augustan Age. The religious sentiment which has been described, resting as it did upon a deep sympathy with historical antiquity, coloured by a bold and vigorous imagination, is reflected in the poetry of Virgil, and more particularly in the spirit of his great epic, the Aeneid. No doubt, both depth and tenderness of feeling may be traced even in the eclogues of the same master, however slight for the most part their subjects, and however imitative their treatment. The Georgics present us with more serious and dignified characteristics, and though these pieces are directed mainly to the practical treatment of practical operations, thy admit of high moral as well as religious colouring. They recall the Roman reader to the moral foundations of the national character, its honest simplicity, its love of nature, its devotion to labour, its conviction that industry is the appointed path to virtue and to honour. But this moral felling is elevated by a sense of the divine within man and around him. The Roman husbandman, the breed of heroes, is never suffered to forget that there is a God and a Providence, or that the favour of the divine power has always fallen upon the industrious, and the virtuous. "Thus it is that Etruria of cold, and Rome in later times, waxes illustrious and mighty; thus that the city on the seven hills became the fairest object of creation." The Georgics are undoubtedly animated throughout with a religious sentiment, and bespeak the high religious purpose of their author. But in the Aeneid this religious sentiment and purpose are both still more distinctly proclaimed to us. The great epic of Virgil, the national epic of the Roman people, glorifies the divine Providence which founded Rome in the beginning, and carried her through all her triumphs to the communication of her greatness in the era of Augustus.It begins with the divine Aeneas, and it leads us on to the divine Caesar. The greatness and the weakness of the hero of the poem equally tend to this one end, the illustration of the Providence which has educated strength out of weakness, and overruled everything to the glory of the Roman people. The moral to be deduced from the story of Aeneas is too plain for any Roman to mistake. The divinity which protects Rome is the Lord of heaven and earth and all that is therein. There is no God or Lord like unto Him. Blessed are the Romans who have this Lord for their God. The majesty of the Roman empire, now at the crowing summit of its progress, is the immediate efflux of this sovereign power, and the one is for ever bound up with the other. If such was the doctrine sung by Virgil, surely none could be more grateful to Augustus, the sovereign ruler of an empire so guided and protected.

The names of Virgil and Horace are familiarly united in every review of the age of Augustus; yet no two men can stand more in contrast one with the other in their personal character, in the scope of their writings, and in the influences they respectively exercised upon their contemporaries. Horance, as is well known, had been a republican in his youth; he had espoused the cause of Brutus and Cassius, and while yet a student in the schools at Athens, had obtained a commission in their army. He fought in person in the battle of Philippi, and, as he tells us himself, threw away his shield in his rapid flight form the swords of the Caesarians, From that time he abjured the losing cause, and obtained, perhaps without seeking it, the advice of the minister Maecenas, by whom he was taken into favour and introduced to Augustus himself. However agreeable might be his temper and manners, it is not likely that the politic usurper would distinguish a mere upstart with admission to his society without at least tacitly exacting some return. The character of this poet’s compositions, both in his lyrics and his satires and epistles, seems pretty clearly to betray the inspiration of the emperor and his astute associates. The most animated and imaginative of his pieces are almost invariably employed in sounding the praises of the Caesar and his family. When he descends from his highest flights of poetry, he finds congenial matter for his muse in delicate flattery of Maecenas and other magnates of the court. But it will be observed that he seldom, if ever, addresses the haughty nobles of Rome except, in a strain of prudential advice, soothing their pride, but lowering their ambition and directing them to seek contentment and happiness not in objects of public interest, but in the tranquil enjoyment of ease, which he dignifies with the name of philosophy. The poetry of Horace is full of pleasing sentiments, but it contains perhaps no single strain of generous and ennobling enthusiasm. Such feelings it was the policy of Augustus to discourage, and the policy of Augustus is faithfully represented in the utterances of his courtly flatterer. But there was another task imposed upon him, and it is to this that this satires and epistles are more commonly directed, namely, to put out of countenance the offensive self-assertion of the "new men" of the empire, the men whom the fortunes of the civil war had suddenly raised from their native obscurity, and enriched or ennobled, notwithstanding the barrenness of their origin and the vulgarity of their breeding. Augustus wanted, no doubt, to tame the aspiring spirits of his genuine nobles, but he shrank from driving them to desperation by swamping them with an inundation of baseborn inferiors, perhaps their own former clients and freedmen. It was part of Horace’s office, as a gentleman usher at court, to discountenance all such undue pretensions, and shut the door with consummate urbanity upon the most disagreeable or the most importunate of the courtiers. He possessed in perfection both the delicate irony and the graceful amenity which are essential to the performance of a task so critical. Doubtless Horace, in his own peculiar line, exercised as great an influence in Roman society as Virgil. The laughing philosopher was no less a power among his contemporaries than the religious devotee. Each of them, in his several way, performed an immense service to the government under which he enjoyed favour and reward; nor can we deny that, considering how necessary the government of Augustus was to the bleeding commonwealth, each in his several way did an invaluable service to his country.

Nor, though we may admit that irony and persiflage were Horace’s forte, should we do him justice if we supposed that he had no feelings of genuine tenderness and earnestness. Even Horace had his instinctive sense of religious duty, which peeps out occasionally from under the robe of his pretended philosophy, and shows that he recognised a principles of duty, and felt ill at ease in t eh consciousness of his own deficiencies. We may recognize in many of his later compositions his growing dissatisfaction with the worldly views of life which he had been wont to recommend, and some efforts at the attainment of higher sources of satisfaction. Both Virgil and Horace were cut off in middle life, but both we imagine, had already entered into the cloud, and were painfully conscious that the commonwealth they lowed had fallen into its decline, and that their own attempts to invigorate or to soothe it were little likely to prove availing. If Virgil deserves our admiration, Horace too is not unworthy of out sympathy; and it is well that we can part in such good temper from the two most perfect artists of the Roman, or perhaps of the ancient, world altogether.

Of Ovid, the third poet of the Augustan Age, we can hardly think or speak so favourably. Ovid, too, was a genuine representative of his epoch, which occupied, however, the latter part of the career of Augustus, when the character of the age had begun to show manifest signs of deterioration. In the character of this poet, which may be abundantly gathered from his numerous works, there appears no religious feeling and no moral purpose. Nevertheless, his writings reflect, in some important particulars, the social tendencies of the epoch, and afford valuable illustrations of the genius of the Augustan Age. To the historian and archaeologist the Fasti presents a store of interesting information; but in this poetical account of the Roman calendar the writer undoubtedly proposed to meet a social want of the time. The work is in fact a rationale of the divine offices, and expounds to the nation the "seasons and the reasons (tempora cum causis)" of the religious services which the emperor recommended to their pious attention. Minute and manifold as were the memorials of their past history, or of their accredited mythology, which the cult of the Roman temples enshrined, we can imagine how much they must have faded away from the recollection of the people generally during the century of confusion from which they had just emerged, and how even the priests and flamens of the national divinities must have stood in need of a learned interpreter of the rites which they mechanically performed. The Fasti is remarkable as a speaking witness to the fact of the ceremonial revival of the Augustan Age.

The generally immoral tendency of a great part of Ovid’s poetry is well known; and it speaks all the worse for the character of the age that the writer could declare, and probably not without justice, that his personal conduct was purer than the sentiments with which he sought to please the public. The deterioration of sentiment between Virgil and Ovid is marked in the tone with which they speak in the higher flights of their respective poetry. The writer of the Aenied fully maintains the pure standard of thought and expression which he received as tradition from Homer, and which had been respected by the epic poets generally; but Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, an heroic, if not an epic, composition, allows himself to descend far below this exalted level, and is not only licentious in his language, but seems to choose, and of set purpose, the most licentious of the stories which varied subject offers. Again, though Horace adopts the lighter tone and looser phraseology of the lyric poets of Greece, there is at least nothing meretricious in his style; he was not a corrupter of youth himself, nor were the models such which he proposed for adaptation. But Ovid descends to the imitation of a more wanton kind of poetry. He, too, seeks his models for the most part from among the Greeks, but they are the Greeks of a more degenerate age—the Greeks of the court of Alexandria, who pandered to the vicious tastes of a corrupt and degraded society. But, imitator as he doubtless was, Ovid has a strong personal individuality, and all his poetry is marked with the genuine sentiment of his age and country. Perhaps we trace more of the real man in his Tristia and Ex Ponto, in which he thrown entirely on his own resources, though in the depth of his affliction and the decline of his powers, than in the abler and more interesting works in which he owned we know not how much to the Greeks before him.

We have, besides these, the remains of other poets, such as Tibullus and Propertius, who also hold up the mirror to their times, and assist us in scanning its character on all sides. But it will be well to pass them over in his brief sketch, and bring our review of the literature of Augustan Age to a close with a notice of the great historian Livy. The consummate excellence in form and style of the work to which we refer bears witness to the intellectual accomplishments of the epoch. No doubt the Romans did much at a later period to improve their method of teaching, and to extend their acquaintance with the highest models of literary excellence. An age succeeded in which Rome was formed into an academy, like that of Athens or Alexandria, when all the arts and sciences of the time were taught or practised under the direct instruction of approved professors. Great were the merits of the historical literature of Rome at a later age, and illustrious are some of the men who distinguished themselves in its exercise. But, on the whole, a reasonable criticism will award to Livy the palm of merit at least in the two particulars just specified,—a palm which he may well contest even with the masters of the art in Greece. The form of Livy’s history partakes in exquisite proportion of the descriptive, the narrative, and the dramatic; it is replete with personal characteristics, which bring us into direct acquaintance with the individuals of whom it treats; it abounds, moreover, in matter of antiquarian interest, which we who read it at a distance of nineteen centuries feel to be specially valuable, an which did not fail to attract the sympathy even of the writer’s own contemporaries. The Romans in the time of Augustus were just beginning to be keenly self-conscious. They felt that they had attained to such a position in the world’s history as no people before them had acquired. They were led by all the traditions of their youth to attribute their splendid success to the examples of national virtue paraded before them. They were sensible of the deep they owed to their ancestors, and they wanted to know who their ancestors were; they wanted to trace the features of their own character in the lineaments of the great men who had gone before them. Of these ancient heroes of the commonwealth they had hitherto imbibed a faint and vague conception from songs and poems and family or national traditions. The legends connected with their ritual and their laws and institutions assumed the existence of those heroes, and the reality of the deeds imputed to them; but the men and their deeds were for the most part wrapped in obscurity, or presented under dubious colours. The voice of Livy’s contemporaries muttered around him that of all their compatriots he should be held most in honour among them, who should bring these traditions of the past into the light of day, and make them pass among a generation, willing so to accept them, as genuine and accredited history. The history of Livy was the true product of the age, inasmuch as it answered to the all of the age. It presented Roman history to the Romans much as Shakespeare’s dramas presented English history to the English; the history in both cases was just what the people wished to believe, and from thenceforth they so accepted and believed it.

As regards the style of Livy’s composition, it is enough to say that it is generally regarded as the most perfect specimen of the Latin prose writing that we possess, and we may be pretty confident that if anything better had been written, posterity would not have suffered it to perish. In holds the middle place between the oratorical exuberance of Cicero and the philosophic sententiousness of Tacitus. While sentence follows sentence throughout in logical sequence, so that the thread of meaning and argument is never lost under a mass of verbiage, yet we are beguiled in our lengthened study by the repeated recurrence of passages of highly-imaginative colouring; we feel that if the historian sometimes deviates into poetry, he never misleads us with a show of empty rhetoric. The Roman people, as represented by Livy, retained the genuine strength and bluntness of their character. The teaching of their Greek instructors had had as yet little effect in seducing them into the conceits and affectations of the more frivolous people they had conquered. The history of Livy remains the noblest monument of the Romanus homos, the national dignity, which his countrymen so proudly contrasted with the Graia licentia, which was gradually enervating and degrading them. The spirit of the Augustan Age is set forth perhaps at its best and brightest, in the illustrious history of Livy.

It is probably that Livy, who had been a republican in his heart, lived for the most part the retired life of a student, though he is said to have been employed in the education of some of the princes of the imperial family. He reflects the character of the earlier generations, among whom he was born, rather than of the later, in which he died, at an advanced age, in the fourth year of Tiberius. All the great poets above mentioned met an early death about the middle of the principate of Augustus, except Ovid, who survived to the eighth year of his successor. Accordingly, it is in Ovid, as might be expected, that we trace the first marks of degeneracy from the high standard of the Augustan literature—the Golden Age of Latin composition. The decline of Rome, both in intellect and morals, was becoming rapidly apparent. The splendid promise of the Augustine Age was quickly exhausted. The spirit of freedom evaporated under the influence of the time and the apurious appearances which the emperor kept up had no power to impart real vigour to the national constitution. Just in the same manner, it is abundantly clear that the fame of the age of Louis XIV. in France is founded on the excellence of the men who were actually born and bred in an earlier epoch and under a healthier regime. Neither the age of Augustus nor that of Louis produced the men who have rendered it illustrious. But the decline of Rome was becoming marked before the death of Augustus in other respects also. Although internal dissensions had been appeased, and private ambition quelled, the external relations of the empire were insecure, and caused vivid apprehensions. The frontiers of the Rhine and Danube were constantly harassed by the indomitable spirit of the barbarians beyond them. On the Danube the Roman arms seem to have been crowned with a sufficient measure of success, but on the Rhine the great disaster of Varus, and the loss of three legions, left a deep impression of gloom upon the feeling of the age. Augustus him self suffered a succession of disappointments in the premature death of his nearest kindred, and in the loss of his trustiest advisers. Though he maintained to the last an out ward serenity almost touching, he appears to have been painfully conscious of the substantial failure of the great pacification he had accomplished, and to have augured nothing but evil from the character of the stepson, to whom, at the last moment, he was content to leave his inheritance. A general foreboding of evil was creeping over the minds of his people. The age of Augustus, which lasted nearly fifty years, was indeed a long day even in the life of a nation, but its sun was manifestly hastening to its setting, and the night was coming, slowly, gradually, but surely. (C.M.)



The above article was written by
the Very Rev. Charles Merivale, D.D., D.C.L.; late Dean of Ely; formerly Tutor and Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge; author of History of the Romans under the Empire, Conversion of the Northern Nations, and General History of Rome.




Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-14 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries