www.bijanomrani.com / -> Other writing ->Classical Resources -> The historical contextof Virgil’s Aeneid

Augustus and the Aeneid:
Some notes on the political background

- BDM Omrani, Jan 2011

Augustus’ rise to power was against the background of, and indeed a salvationfrom a long term collapse in the civil order and institutions of Rome. The RomanEmpire, since the 2nd century BC, had been suffering a number of structuralproblems whose roots can ultimately be traced to the expansion of empire, andwhose results could be seen in civil war.

The first grand problem was the pressure on land, and the effect this had onarmy manpower. Rome originally had no standing army. Initially, it was dependenton raising forces from a self-dependent citizen yeomanry, who were secure in theownership of agricultural land to look after their long-term future afterdemobilisation. Having their own property and income, they were not dependenton others for support, and were relatively immune from political pressure orinterference. However, over the course of the second century BC, many factors – adecline in the productivity of land, indebted farmers mortgaging and eventuallylosing their properties – led to a breakdown of this system. Roman agriculturalland fell increasingly into the hands of a small number of absentee aristocraticlandlords, who used imported slave gangs to harvest not cheap staples (wheat oroats) but cash crops such as olives and grapes. The dispossessed citizensgenerally had little option but to flood to Rome. They had limited means ofmaking income, but having votes which they could sell to ambitious politiciansthey were liable to being influenced by demagogues. Similarly, when suchdispossessed citizens enlisted for military service, they became dependent onthe commanders for support after demobilisation, again making them vulnerableto being manipulated by ambitious leaders who could corral them, with promisesof cash or land, into working as virtual private armies for the sake of seizingpower. Their loyalties moved from the Roman state to the individual leaders. Thefirst visible impact of this problem was the attack on the tribune TiberiusGracchus, who attempts at land reforms in 133BC in favour of the dispossessedcitizens and to the disadvantage of the elite landowners led to riots andbloodshed in Rome. The difficulty persisted as the cause of much volatility downto the time of Augustus.

The pressure to provide more troops for the defence of an enlarged empire led toserious tensions between Rome and its allied cities and territories in theItalian peninsular. It should be remembered only a certain number of cities andterritories in Italy had full Roman citizenship rights. A great number did notpossess this privilege, many only having an intermediate status. From the middleof the second century BC, after the conquest of various territories in the East,Rome remitted taxes which paid for military levies on those who held citizenshiprights, but not the allied Italian states; these were compelled to pay for theraising of troops which served for the benefit of Rome as well as providing anincreasing part of the manpower, but they did not see many of the benefits inreturn for this effort. These circumstances led to the Social War (91-88 BC)between Rome and its allies. The fashion in which Rome should deal with thisproblem – the level to which Rome’s allies in Italy should be enfranchised, wasanother of the major sources of political turbulence in Rome (e.g. the conflictbetween Marius and Sulla), with bitterly opposing factions seizing power byviolence, and causing many of their rivals to be murdered. Many of the membersof the senate, who provided stability and a long-term outlook, particularly onmatters of foreign policy and administration, were purged, and many men withoutrecent experience of government began to find themselves in positions ofauthority. Checks and balances which the Roman constitution provided werefrequently circumvented for the sake of personal or party advancement, and forcebecame a frequent instrument of domestic political policy.

The depopulation of the land and the Social War had a number of further effects.The population of Italy became increasingly deracinated, with bands of soldierscompelled to move away from their native territories, detached both from theirlocalities which gave them part of their sense of identity, but also from thehard agricultural life which many believed endued them with many of thecharacteristics of Roman virtue (piety, hardiness, frugality, contempt ofluxury, love of family and fatherland). The supply of food became more difficultto manage, with consequent problems for social stability. The rich were able toaccumulate greater wealth and properties throughout Italy, and prominentfamilies in Italian provincial towns found themselves becoming more a part of aPan-Italian upper class interested in Roman affairs, rather than their ownnative municipalities and traditions. Again, though in a different fashion,there was a similar sense of deracination amongst the wealthy, and a search fora new and settled identity. The increasing influence of Greek culture, socialcustoms, philosophical and theological ideas after the final conquest of Greecein the middle of the second century BC added to the ideological turmoil. Manyold Roman notions about state religion (from which, according to the traditionalview, Roman prosperity depended), government, the duties of citizens and socialorder were thrown into question. A coherent shared culture, as much as materialprosperity, was becoming as much of a requirement of stability in the chaos ofthe late republic.

The insistence on competition in the Roman scheme of government was anotherproblem which the tensions of the late second and first centuries BC brought toa head. After the expulsion of the Tarquinian kings from Rome in the 6th centuryBC, it was decided to vest power in a number of elected magistracies (e.g.consul, tribune, praetor, quaestor). In order to prevent the concentration ofpower in the hands of a single person, the term of office of these positions wasgenerally limited to a year, the entry into a higher-ranking magistracy wasdependent on being a certain age and having served a period in a lower rank, andoffices could not be held more than one within a certain time period (e.g. theconsulship could not be held by the same person more than once every ten years).The system was fully endued with powers to stop things happening. Each consulwas of equal authority, and could veto the actions of the other. Similarly, atribunus plebis could prevent the enactment of any law as he so pleased. On topof this, all offices of state were elective. The advancement of any candidate toa magistracy was dependent on them campaigning amongst the citizens of Rome, anddoing what they could to win their votes. Such campaigns were not often dependenton a manifesto of policy, but on the general reputation of the candidate, woneither by military triumphs, or else by garnering popularity through stagingplays, gladiatorial combats, or financing public projects, the construction ofroads, temples and the like. Whilst this competitive system could have manybenefits for Rome – the expansion of the empire under the aegis of militarycommanders eager for advancement; the development, through rivalry, of military,philosophical or rhetorical skills; the sense (typically thought of as Roman)that life should be lived in the public sphere with a devotion to the publicgood – it ultimately brought many problems. The turnover of magistrates led toa short-termism in their approach to government; there was no coherent responseto the problems which the expanding empire faced. Similarly, it was difficult tohold them to account for their actions in office. Whilst there was an imperativeto work for the public good, the competitive instinct of politicians led to theirown advancement being placed above not only the public good, but even thestability of the state. The lack of long-term policy and a sense of a powervacuum, particularly when there were crises over food shortages, relations withallied states or the settlement of veterans, contributed to manipulation, briberyand violence in the electoral process, and ultimately the rise of a successionof populist figures attempting to seize absolute power.

The long term trend over the time between the Gracchan reforms to the end of therepublic was for Rome to be split into two factions, albeit often confused andmixed-up by shifting loyalties and personal ties of obligation. The optimates(best men) were in essence the party of the senate. They attempted to preserveold republican forms of government (from which they drew their authority) andthe power of the senate, whilst preventing the redistribution of land to demobilisedsoldiers, the extension of Roman citizenship to allied states, and to curtailthe activities of powerful generals or the concentration of power in their hands.By contrast, the populares (popular party) stood in opposition to these policies,favouring the concentration of power in the hands of single figures supported bythe grand mass of the people. Caesar was of the latter faction; his assassinationled to the final phase of the Roman civil wars and the rise of Augustus.

The Background and Rise of Augustus

The man who would gain for himself the title of Augustus was born as GaiusOctavius on the 23rd September 63 BC. His original circumstances were relativelymodest. His family was from the town of Velitrae, around 20 miles southeast ofRome, rather than the city itself. Similarly, in origin they were only ofequestrian rather than senatorial rank. However, his father, also named GaiusOctavius, did much to advance his family. He married above his station. His wife,Atia, was the niece of Julius Caesar. Hence, he formed a connection with an oldand powerful family of patrician rank. As for himself, he gained the office ofPraetor and hence a place in the senate. Later, having become governor ofMacedonia in 61 BC he led a successful military campaign against the Bessi, aThracian tribe. Thanks to his victory, he was hailed as imperator by his men,and given the right to a triumph in Rome, and the freedom to run for the consulship.However, he was precluded from taking up either of these opportunities by reasonof his sudden death in 59 BC, before he was able to return to Rome from hiscolonial posting. Atia was married again shortly afterwards to Lucius MarciusPhilippus, who became consul in 56 BC, but it was the young Gaius Octavius’connections with his great-uncle Julius Caesar that were to be of greater importancethan the influence of his step-father.

Julius Caesar himself had no legitimate heirs. A son born to him by his lover,Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, had not been recognised as legitimate. His closest malerelatives and legitimate heirs were three great nephews: Lucius Pinarius, QuintusPedius and Gaius Octavius. Although the republican constitution would not permitthe inheritance of offices or powers of state, it appears likely that Juliusultimately intended Gaius Octavius to inherit his mantle. In 45 BC, after Juliushad seized absolute power with the office of dictator, he drew up a secret willnominating Gaius Octavius to receive three quarters of his vast estate, with therest being shared between the two other great-nephews. As part of his educationand training for a future in the political sphere, Julius had sent him with thelegions to Macedonia to prepare for an expedition against the Parthians, whichhe himself was intending to join in 44 BC. Similarly, Gaius Octavius was raisedto patrician rank and enjoyed a number of other honours thanks to Julius. Asmuch as had been possible was done as quickly as possible to advance the claimsof Gaius Octavius, but there were still many obstacles which stood in his pathto gaining the authority which Julius himself possessed.

When Julius Caesar was assassinated in on 15th March 44 BC, it is uncertain,despite the mission and honours he had already been given, whether Gaius Octaviusfully understood that Julius was preparing him to be his successor. Nevertheless,he was able to advance himself quickly by his boldness. On hearing the news, hereturned as soon as he could to Brundisium (a major port in the southwest ofItaly used for travel to Greece); it was only here that he discovered he hadbeen declared the main heir in Caesar’s will. Strengthened by this, and with thesupport of Caesar’s veterans, without any constitutional authority he began toaccumulate a power base. To harness the popular feeling in favour of Caesar, hechanged his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian is the name by whichhistorians refer to him until the “deposition” of his powers before the senatein 27 BC). He seized the annual payment of tribute sent from the Asiatic provincesto Rome, and using this as capital, started to buy up support amongst the legionsand build up alliances. The senate was fearful of Caesar’s former consular andmilitary colleague, Mark Antony, who at Caesar’s funeral had stirred up the peopleagainst the conspirators in a bid to destabilise the government and seize power.At the instigation of Cicero, who delivered a number of vituperative speechesagainst Antony (the Philippics) the senate employed the 19-year old Octavian tofight against Antony. When, later in mid-43 BC Octavian was victorious and Antonywas on the run, the senate foolishly tried to disregard the power which he hadaccrued. Insulted by their offer of a praetorship, he advanced on Rome with hislegions, and secured the consulship along with his relative Quintus Pedius. Thesenate were compelled to condemn Caesar’s murderers, Octavian holding that itwas a matter of piety that the murderers of his adoptive father Caesar should berevenged. He then established an alliance with Antony and another commander,Lepidus. This alliance, the Second Triumvirate, arrogated for itself the rightto make laws and appoint magistrates for a period of five years; the commandersalso divided the western provinces between them. Thus, after a short time,Octavian had been able to seize a paramount position of authority.

It was at this period that Octavian was to commit some of the acts which not onlymodern historians, but also his contemporaries found brutal and unpalatable. TheTriumvirate needed not only to eliminate opposition, but also to accumulate money.The leading method by which they did this was to draw up lists of senators andequestrians to be outlawed, punished with summary execution and confiscation oftheir estates. Around 300 of the former and 2,000 of the latter lost their lives,denuding Rome not only of much accumulated experience of government, but alsocompelling the remaining senators to cover in frightened submission. A greatnumber, however, left Rome in flight. Some leagued themselves with Sextus Pompey,the son of Pompey the Great (one of Caesar’s rivals for power). Others alliedthemselves with the anti-Caesarian conspirators, who had been building up powerbases for themselves in the eastern parts of the empire. These latter, underBrutus and Cassius, were defeated at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC, and thedivision of the Roman Empire was now revised so that Antony became responsiblefor the east, Octavian for the west, and Lepidus for Africa. Many of the legionswere at this point disbanded, and Octavian became responsible for the welfare ofthe demobilised soldiers. His method of dealing with the problem was to appropriatethe smallholdings of Roman citizens around 18 cities, particularly in the north,expelling the rightful owners and distributing it to his veterans. The greatdiscontent which this caused amongst the dispossessed was compounded when Antony’sbrother, Lucius Antonius, stirred the people to revolt. Octavian dealt with therevolt brutally. The rebels were besieged in the town of Perusia (modern-dayPerugia), starved out over the winter of 41/40 BC, and, aside from Lucius Antoniushimself, massacred to a man.

It is not clear whether Antony, who was at that time in the eastern provinces,was aware of the actions of his brother Lucius, but it put considerable strainon the relationship between Octavian and Antony. Although their split was patchedup and the triumvirate extended for a further five years at a meeting betweenthe three triumvirs – the pact of Brundisium in 40 BC – and sealed by a marriagebetween Octavius’ sister Octavia and Antony, the following decade was to see thecollapse of the triumvirate and Octavian seizing complete control of the Romanrepublic. The first part of the 30s BC, from 39 to 36, was occupied with eliminatingthe presence of Sextus Pompeius, who menaced shipping in the Mediterranean andcorn supplies to Rome, hoping to make himself a contender for power. In the midstof this struggle, Lepidus discredited himself by trying to steer an ambiguouscourse between Octavian and Sextus, ultimately forfeiting his power base andwithdrawing from public life; only Octavian and Antony were left in ultimatecontention for control of the empire. Antony went on a number of campaigns againstArmenia and the Parthians after 36 BC, becoming increasingly dependent on theQueen of Egypt, Cleopatra, for financial support. Despite his marriage to Octavia,he also became the lover of Cleopatra, who bore him twin sons. As tensions rosebetween Antony and Octavian, in 34 BC Antony proclaimed Julius Caesar’s son byCleopatra, Caesarion, as legitimate, thereby implying him to have a greater claimto legitimacy than Octavian as merely an adopted heir of Caesar. In a grandceremony in the Egyptian capital Alexandria, the boy was named as “king of kings”,his mother Cleopatra (who appeared in public dressed as the goddess Isis) as“queen of kings”, and the children of Antony and Cleopatra designated as futuregovernors of various eastern states as vassals of Caesarion. When the news ofthis ceremony was announced in Rome in 33 BC (the year that the triumviratelegally expired), the quarrel between Octavius and Antony became insuperable.In Rome, a campaign of propaganda was started against Antony. He was portrayedas dissolute, un-Roman, open to the corrupting influences of the East and anEastern queen. His wife Octavia, who it appears remained loyal to him despitehis adultery with Cleopatra, was depicted as a long suffering and dutiful Romanmatrona, so as to highlight by contrast the depravity and disloyalty of herhusband. It was also rumoured that Antony intended to seize control of the westernpart of the empire, and transfer the capital from Rome to Alexandria. Moved bythese threats, many of the Italian communities and the western provinces beganto swear oaths of allegiance personally to Octavian, so that he might protectthem against the eastern menace; even the pretence of loyalty to the republicand constitutional forms had collapsed, and the sense had developed that thesafety of the state was dependent on its personal loyalty to a single man. Theissue was finally decided at the battle of Actium in 31 BC where Antony andCleopatra’s forces were defeated, and confirmed by further fighting in Alexandriain 30 BC where the last resistance to Octavian was broken. He returned to Romein 29 BC as the sole ruler of the Roman Republic, and celebrated a triple triumphfor his victories in Illyricum (the Dalmatian coast) in the early 30s BC, Actiumand Alexandria.

Augustus – the need for spin

Octavian’s position at this point was unprecedented. Without any constitutionalauthority but solely through military strength, he found himself the virtualruler of the Roman Empire. No viable competitors were present to contest hisrule. Besides, now that one man had seized power, there seemed to be littleappetite, after nearly a century of civil strife and mass bloodshed, for anyfurther disorder. Nevertheless, Octavian still stood in a difficult position.He lacked official legitimacy. The Roman Republic and Roman tradition did notaccept that one man should control the Empire. Although it was clear that theEmpire at this point in time needed a single authority, there needed to be someway to make Octavian’s absolute authority concordant with the mos maiorum(ancestral custom) which, for Romans, defined their laws, manner of life andidentity. Without some such accommodation, Octavian’s position could becomeincreasingly untenable. Besides this, Octavian’s reputation was still damaged byhis behaviour in the early years after the death of Julius Caesar. He had seizedfunds belonging to the Roman state, raised private armies without the blessingof the state, been a party to the murder of hundreds of noble Romans and theextinction of their families in the prescriptions of the triumvirate and thesiege of Perusia, and was still resented by many for the turmoil caused by theresettlement of troops after Philippi. If he was to remain in power and neutralisethe dissent that might be fed by the memories of these actions, there would needto be an effort of presentation to distance Octavian from his turbulent past.

At the beginning of 27 BC, Octavian presented himself in the Senate and announcedthat he wished to resign all of his official positions and duties, and return toprivate life. His only desire, he claimed, was to end the civil wars which hadblighted the Roman world, and restore constitutional republican government inits pristine form. At this proposal, although almost certainly insincere andchoreographed, the Senate recoiled in horror. Having reached this point, theycould not countenance a return to the old way of doing things. Accordingly, acompromise was reached. Octavian was given a number of official posts within therepublican system. He held tribunician power, which gave him the power to summonthe Senate and the popular assemblies, to veto legislation, and to speak firstat any official meeting. The provinces of the Empire were divided into thosewhich were more stable, and those which were more open to instability or externalattack; the former, which were less militarised, remained in the hands ofofficials appointed by the Senate, and the latter, where the majority of thearmy were based, were put under the direct authority of Octavian. This “proconsularimperium” allowed him to retain complete control over the military capabilitiesof the empire. He was also confirmed as princeps senatus (“first man of thesenate” – an honorific position not dissimilar to the Father of the House in theCommons). Later, he was also given the position of Pontifex Maximus (chief priest)which gave him the authority to reorganise Roman state religion, positions invarious priestly colleges, and also given the title of Pater Patriae. From 27 BCto 23 BC, he also held the office of consul. There were also other honours which,whilst not adding to his official power, enhanced his prestige. The Senategranted him the right to display a crown of oak leaves above the front door ofhis house on the Palatine – an honour granted to those who saved the lives offellow citizens, in his case for ending the civil war. He was also given theright to hang laurel wreaths by his door as a sign of his triple triumph. All ofthese honours and offices, taken together with his colossal personal fortune,and the complex web of personal ties and obligations which he had managed tobuild up (the turba clientium, as Horace might have put it) ensured that althoughhe held no office which gave him absolute power in constitutional terms – therewas no official post of “Emperor” – the official powers and personal influencehe held ensured that he controlled all the levers of power. Thus, avoiding anytitles such as rex – an anathema to Romans since the expulsion of the TarquinianKings in 510 BC – or dictator, which Julius Caesar had assumed and which Antonyhad abolished after his assassination – Octavian managed to cloak absolute powerunder old republican forms. The old republic, proclaimed Octavian, was restored,the senate’s powers renewed, and he was nothing more, so it was said, than afirst among equals.

This vigorous attempt to associate these innovations in government with Romantradition was one method of regularising Octavian’s position. Another approachcan be discerned in the new name which Octavian assumed at this point – Augustus.It did not only have the benefit of dissociating him from his earlier life andthe discreditable actions of Octavian. Its importance was in the field of religiousinsinuation. It is an adjective derived from the word “augeo” (to grow/increase)and was used normally in connection with the God Jupiter. It use bore thesuggestion that Augustus, as he now was, did not change or disturb the regularorder of the Roman world or republic, because he was a divine phenomenon whichstood besides or outside the temporal order. It was as if there was a divinequality in his spirit which allowed chaos to be quelled and order restored. Hisrole was not exactly to rule, but to possess a wider care for the Roman state,and by standing outside it, maintain it in safety. It was the role of gods andheroes to provide salvation to humanity – for example Hercules destroying monstersto lift the repression under which various peoples dwelled, or Bacchus bringingthe blessing of wine and civilisation to different states in the mythical period– and it was with such a religious tradition that Augustus wanted to associatehimself. Augustus held a position as an intermediary between mankind and thegods, in that he attempted to renew the pristine piety, considered lost, whichRomans customarily held towards the gods, but also himself as the possessor of adivine force and mandate, a power on loan from heaven for the sake of restoringorder to the earth.

The cloaking of absolute power with the mantle of republican political officesis certainly something that was part of Augustus’ conscious intention, so as toregularise the essentially unconstitutional position he had attained. However,the question of whether his portrayal as a near-divine figure somehow beyond thehuman sphere was a creation of the regime or a response that popularly evolvedto comprehend his power and position with respect to Roman tradition is notsomething that cannot be determined for certain. It was certainly the case ineastern provinces and Egypt that there were native traditions of leaders beingrevered as divine or even gods incarnate; it is possible that such ideas hadbegan to percolate westwards particularly with the expansion of empire. One mustalso remember the official stress laid on Octavian’s status as divi filius (theson of a god) once Julius Caesar was acclaimed as a god by the senate. At anyrate, the notion of Augustus possessing a divine spirit appears even before thebattle of Actium. A character in Virgil (Eclogue I, written around 40 BC duringthe time of the land confiscations) refers to an unnamed benefactor, presumablyOctavian as being a “god to him” and worthy to receive sacrifice for saving hisland from being taken away. In the Georgics, written towards the end of the 30sBC, when Octavian is beginning to attain an unassailable position in Italy, heis portrayed as being an actual god amongst the rustic agricultural deities(Georgic I) in a fashion that many have found somewhat overblown, as if Virgilwas seeking for the right way to treat Octavian, but overdoing his adulation. TheAeneid, written in the 20s BC perhaps best reflects a more settled and consideredportrayal: Augustus as a type of Aeneas, being both a pious man putting relationsbetween the Romans and the gods in order (bear in mind his special relationshipwith Apollo at the Battle of Actium), as well as divine in spirit, someonepromised by Jupiter as the culmination of fate, a saviour destined to bring peaceand the return of the golden age. In this, he was both a priestly ruler as wellas a divine personage in his own right, destined for a return to the rank of theOlympians after his death and withdrawal from the temporal realms.

Augustus’ close circle of friends and confidants, in particular Gaius AsiniusPollio (consul in 40 BC) and Maecenas (an equestrian who was Augustus’ personaladvisor and deputy in charge of the city of Rome when Augustus was absent), werestrong believers in the power of the arts and literature to revivify Roman civiclife after the civil wars, and also to enhance the standing of the new regime.Pollio was the first to found a public library in Rome in the 30s BC to whichwas attached a collection of sculpture. He also established a tradition of publicpoetry recitals, and is thought to be responsible for the initial patronage ofVirgil. Maecenas similarly was the patron of Virgil, as well as Horace andPropertius. Not only the poetry of the time, but also the other artistic andarchitectural creations of the time should be read in this political context –work which attempts to create a narrative to justify the new order in Romansociety and government. The Aeneid, and in particular Book 8, should be seen inthe context of some of the other architectural patronage in Rome at the time: itwas part of the display which glorified Rome and by its extension its governmentand ruler, but which also could be manipulated to present a version of Romanhistory which justified the new settlement of power. For example Augustus’ houseon the Palatine was modest in scale; although it bore the oak and laurel wreathsover its door, it was not adorned with fine marble, carvings or paintings(consider Evander’s dwelling in Book 8). However, next door to it and linked byporticoes Augustus built a magnificent temple to Apollo as an offering for hisvictory at Actium. Around 80 temples around Rome were refurbished or rebuilt byAugustus at the beginning of his reign – all of these projects went to reinforcethe notion of Augustus as a humble and pious ruler with a special relationshipwith the gods, restoring the tradition of Roman piety. Parts of the city andmonuments which portrayed a certain awe-inspiring religious antiquity, such theumbilicus urbis (the “navel of the city”, a pit said to have been dug by Romulusat which offerings annually were made) and which accorded with an account ofRome’s evolution favourable to the Augustan narrative, were preserved. Other moreproblematic monuments, such as the speakers’ platform and the sundial used in therepublican assembly space, were removed. Hence, by manipulation of the publicspace Augustus was creating a vision of Roman antiquity and even religion whichwas favourable to him. Virgil’s portrayal of antique Roman religious customs andsites in book 8 should be considered in the light of this programme of patronage.