This lesson explores the role of poetry in Augustus’ rise to power. We look at the contributions of Virgil and Horace, two poets brought to Augustus’ aid by his friend Maecenas. We also look at the legacy of Ovid, a poet who seems to have raised the emperor’s ire.
From Upstart to Emperor
In 43 BCE, Gaius Octavius was a young upstart, riding on the coattails of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar.
By the dawn of the current era, Octavius was known as Caesar Augustus, and he was the sole leader of Rome. In the course of a single generation, Augustus went from being the adopted heir of the murdered tyrant Julius Caesar to the divine son of the god Julius Caesar and Pater Patriae, father of the nation. This transformation was not instantaneous, but it was remarkably quick from a historical perspective. How do we explain this swift change in public opinion?
Well, first of all, Augustus had defeated all his competitors and had absolute control over the Roman army.
It’s remarkably easy to sway people’s opinion with an army at your back. Second, Augustus had wiped out all voices of dissent in a series of political purges. In the process, he’d made himself very wealthy by seizing the property of his murdered rivals. Third, Augustus had used his recently acquired wealth and power to buy off the plebs with gifts of land, food, and even cold, hard cash.In these respects, Augustus appears much like the other powerful men who’d attempted to rule Rome as a king: Marius, Sulla, and Caesar had all used similar tactics in their rise to power. Yet Augustus succeeded where they did not.
Augustus brought an end to over a century of civil war. That, in and of itself, would have been enough to earn him praise and honor.
But Augustus knew he could not maintain his position with brute strength alone. The last two centuries had shown that armies were not enough to prop up a dictator.
Victorious on the field of battle, Augustus attempted a still greater victory – winning over the hearts and minds of the Roman people.
He started by issuing coins, like this one, symbolizing his victory over Egypt and Marc Antony, or this one, hailing Augustus as the son of the divine Julius Caesar. He also undertook some massive building projects to proclaim his greatness, including the temple to Mars Ultor, Mars the Avenger (to commemorate his vengeance over Caesar’s assassins) and the Ara Pacis (the altar of peace, commemorating the end of civil war), plus countless monuments and statues to the emperor’s greatness.At his death, Augustus could honestly say, ‘I found Rome a city of mud bricks, and left her clothed in marble.
‘ Yet Augustus’ biggest propaganda campaign was not conducted by smiths, architects, or sculptors but by poets.Augustus’ friend and advisor, Gaius Maecenas, was a great patron of the arts. He had collected a fine selection of poets, all eager for imperial sponsorship. Among his top talent were the poets Horace and Virgil. Though they probably did not know it, these poets would usher in a whole new age.
Through their work, they would proclaim the glory of the Empire through the ages and establish their patron, Augustus, as the father of a new era, an Augustan era of peace and prosperity.
Virgil: The True Believer
The foremost of Augustus’ propagandists was the poet Publius Vergilius Maro, known today as Virgil.
Virgil seems to have believed in Augustus from the start, and he dedicated his life to singing the praises of his patron.Without a doubt, Virgil’s greatest piece of Augustan propaganda is the Aeneid. In this epic poem, Virgil rewrites the history of the Roman people, weaving Augustus and his leadership into the ancient mythology of Greece and Rome. Throughout the Aeneid, Virgil suggests that the entirety of Roman history, from Aeneas’ flight from Troy through Romulus’ founding of Rome, was all leading up to Augustus. He does not do this subtly but quite blatantly.
In book VI he writes:Behold, at last, that man, who was foretold…Augustus Caesar, kindred unto Jove.who brings with him a golden age..
.His sway shall extend into India and Africa,and he shall stretch the dominion of the Romansbeyond the sun and stars(Virgil, 1995, Bk. VI- ll. 788-796)This is but one of the scores of references to Augustus that dot the Aeneid. You can learn more about this epic in our lesson on Virgil’s Aeneid.Virgil’s propagandistic efforts were not limited to the Aeneid, however.
The man could not get enough of praising Augustus. In his 4th Eclogue, Virgil calls Augustus King Apollo:under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! He shall have the gift of divine life, shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen by them, and shall rule the world to which his father’s prowess brought peace.In his enthusiasm, Virgil foresees an age in which nature provides its bounty unaided: cows bring milk uncalled, soil puts up grain without sowing, and even sheep grow their wool in purples and yellows to spare man the effort of dying them. Now that’s a sheep of a different color!
Horace: The Convert
This optimistic vision of a new age can also be seen in another of Maecenas’ pet poets, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known today as Horace.
If Virgil was a true believer in the cult of Augustus, Horace was something of a convert. During the civil wars, Horace had opposed Caesar and served as a high-ranking officer in Pompey’s army. He was a great proponent of Brutus and a fan of the Republic. After Caesar’s victory, Horace found himself on the wrong side of history, and eventually found his way into Augustus’ camp, where he was welcomed with open arms. Having such a vocal enemy of Caesar become an ardent supporter could only help Augustus’ cause.Perhaps because of his questionable background, Horace goes a little over the top in trying to prove his loyalty to Augustus. He calls Augustus:The best guardian of Rome’s people, dearest boonA household power, adored with prayers and wine,Thou reign’st auspicious o’er his hour of ease:Yet he does not stop there.
He compliments Augustus’ military prowess:Who fears the Parthian or the Scythian horde,Or the rank growth that German forests yield,While Caesar lives? He notes the loyalty Augustus inspires in his people:smit by loyal passion’s restless stings,Rome for her Caesar yearns.And, just in case Augustus did not get the point, Horace proclaims:when, like spring, thy gracious visageDawns on thy Rome, more gently glides the day,And suns serener shine.Horace continued on Virgil’s theme of the new age in his poem Carmen Saeculare (Song of the New Age):Now the Parthians fear our forces, powerfulOn land, and on sea: they fear the Alban axes,Now the once proud Indians, now the ScythiansBeg for an answer.Now Faith and Peace, Honour, and ancient Modesty,Dare to return once more, with neglected Virtue,And blessed Plenty dares to appear again, now,With her flowing horn.
In this poem we also see another theme. As Augustus became ever more powerful, he sought to restore the morality and honor of Rome. Some of his most important reforms regarded marriage and adultery.
We can see Horace trumpeting these ideals when he says:Goddess, nurture our offspring, bring to fruitionThe Senate’s decrees concerning the laws of marriageand the wedlock of women who will bear us more childrenThis theme also appears in one of Horace’s Odes, in which he writes:No guilty lusts the shrine of home defile:Cleansed is the land without, the heart within:The father’s features in his children smileSwift vengeance follows sin.(Odes Book 4 Ode 5)
Ovid: The Rebel
A generation after Virgil and Horace, a new young poet began making waves in Rome: Publius Ovidius Naso, known today as Ovid.By the time Ovid showed up, Augustus’ propaganda project had long since completed its aim. Augustus’ authority was unquestioned, and Augustus himself was revered in a way normally reserved for gods.
At first glance, Ovid seems to be just another Augustan poet, toeing the line of Augustus’ imperial agenda. One need only look at Ovid’s Fasti, a collection of Roman folk myths and descriptions of festivals, to see Augustus’ project of restoring Rome to the morals of its ancestors.Yet, Ovid also seems to have had a rebellious streak. While Augustus was busy trying to reassert the sanctity of marriage and family values, Ovid wrote a set of naughty poems called the Ars Amatoria, or the Art of Love, which showed little regard for Augustus’ strict moral code.Ovid’s rebelliousness is even more evident in his masterwork, the Metamorphoses. In this huge poem of 15 books, Ovid retells a wide series of myths in which something changes into something else.
These transformations are often accomplished through deceit, cruelty, and violence. Perhaps, in his subtle way, Ovid is drawing attention to the many changes Rome has undergone. By highlighting the violence and treachery of these changes, Ovid may have been trying to suggest that Octavian’s transformation into Augustus and the Republic’s transformation into the Empire was not as glorious and just as Virgil and Horace might have suggested.Whether Ovid was trying to be subversive or not, Augustus clearly thought Ovid was dangerous, or at least annoying, for in 8 CE he exiled the poet to Tomis, a flyspeck of a town on the banks of the Black Sea.
This was essentially banishment to the end of the Earth. Poor Ovid would spend the remainder of his life pining away for the city and culture he loved.
To review, Augustus’ rise to power was accomplished along many routes. Like his predecessors, Augustus had military power and political savvy. Augustus’ success at gaining absolute authority over Rome can be attributed in great part to the aggressive propaganda campaign carried out by Augustus’ friend and advisor, Maecenas. Maecenas brought many great poets to the service of their emperor, most notably Virgil and Horace. Virgil wrote an entire epic, called the Aeneid, glorifying Rome’s history, while weaving Augustus and his agenda into his narrative.
He also described the ascent of Augustus as the dawning of a new and glorious age. Horace continued in this vein, trumpeting the new age and proclaiming the glory of Augustus. He also worked at incorporating Augustus’ moral reforms into his poetry.Unlike Virgil and Horace, the Roman poet Ovid seems to have been less inclined to lick Augustus’ boots. Though he made some early attempts to curry the emperor’s favor, Ovid seems to have had a subversive streak. Much of Ovid’s poetry flies in the face of Augustus’ moral campaign and perhaps even subtly questions the legitimacy of the emperor’s rule.
This rebellious streak landed Ovid in hot water with Augustus, who banished the poet to a distant corner of the Empire, where he died in exile.
At the end of this lesson, you’ll be able to:
- Analyze how Augustus rose to power through defeat of his competitors, controlling the voices of dissent and gathering wealth
- Describe how he used propaganda to win over the people
- Explain how Virgil’s poetry was often dedicated to Augustus
- Analyze the poetry of Horace and how his loyalty was expressed
- Describe how Ovid differed from other Augustan poets