Ancient History & Civilisation

3

THE EXHAUSTION OF CRUELTY

Back to Basics

Naturally, there were whisperings of scandal.

There always had been. Gossip was part of the air that citizens breathed. Wherever people gathered, they would pause and swap the rumours that passed for news. A story had only to be heard in the Forum for it to spread with remorseless inevitability out through the maze of the city’s back-alleys, into workshops and narrow cul-de-sacs, and tiny, hidden squares where pigs rooted for garbage and fullers hung their washing out to dry. The Roman people had always had a puritanical streak. No vice was so private that it could be kept from them for long. Political life in Rome was not named res publica for nothing. The jeers and hisses of a crowd were sure to pursue even the most eminent of men caught up in any impropriety. Graffiti scrawled and scratched across the city served up to everyone who could read them such a relentless dishing of dirt that people fretted the sheer weight of it all might bring walls crashing down. Even the illiterate would shit on the monuments of those who had offended them. The Romans were a people with a rare genius for throwing mud.

No one, then, could possibly have stood at the head of their affairs for as long as Augustus had done, and not found his white toga marked along its hem with the occasional splash of filth. The sensational circumstances of his marriage to Livia remained vivid in the minds of his fellow citizens. A man capable of jumping someone else’s pregnant wife was clearly capable of jumping anyone. Even though the precise details of his presumed affairs were hazy, Augustus’s womanising was something widely taken for granted. Livia, far from making trouble, was said to have maintained her hold on her husband by turning a blind eye to his many adulteries, and keeping him well supplied with virgins. Friends of the Princeps, looking to extenuate this goatish behaviour, insisted that his affairs were the result of calculation, not of lust, and that he only ever bedded the wives of senators he wished to keep an eye upon. Others were not so sure. A man as promiscuous as Augustus was reputed to be seemed, to many citizens, lacking the self-control that was properly the mark of a Roman. Unchecked sexual appetites, while only to be expected in a woman – or, of course, a Greek – were hardly appropriate to a citizen steeled in the noblest traditions of the city. Energies devoted to sleeping around were better suited to serving the glory of the Roman people. Augustus’s reputation as a serial adulterer, far from boosting the aura of his machismo, cast him instead in an effeminate and sinister light. No man could be reckoned truly a man who was the slave of his own desires. Playboys who chased after married women were well known to be womanish themselves. The Princeps, it was whispered, smoothed his legs by singeing off their hairs with red-hot nut shells.

A shocking detail, to be sure. Nevertheless, as Augustus himself appreciated, it could have been far worse. Compared to Antony, he had got off lightly. None of the allegations laid against him remotely began to compare with the deadly tidal wave of effluent that he himself had unleashed against his great rival. The damage done to his reputation was never critical. Indeed, the stories told of his effeminacy titillated less because they appeared plausible than because, in large part, they did not. Far from scorning the morals of those who slandered him, the Princeps shared them to the depths of his marrow – and the Roman people knew it. When Augustus let it be known that he wore clothes woven for him by his wife, no one thought to accuse the richest man in the world of hypocrisy for wearing homespun. Just as Livia had brought a touch of patrician class to his household, so also did she serve it as a living embodiment of antique virtues. As the partner of Augustus, no hint of adulterous passions ever attached to her. A woman who knew what it was to lose everything, she guarded her status as wife of the Princeps with a chaste and icy self-discipline. She understood full well that ‘her looks, her words, her every action, were a focus of intense attention’.1 Never seen in public without the stola, the long, voluminous and stiflingly cumbersome dress which served the Roman matron as the symbol of her modesty, Livia knew to perfection what her husband required of a woman. In private, she served as his closest confidante; in public, as a living emblem of piety and traditional values.

Admiration for the virtues associated by the Roman people with their stern and heroic past was the reverse face of their addiction to gossip. Wealth and pedigree had never served them as the exclusive determinant of status. ‘The Romans did not think it proper that a man should be free to get married or have children merely as he pleased – nor that he should be permitted to live and indulge himself according to his own personal preferences and appetites.’2 Surveillance in Rome was both relentless and officially sanctioned. Citizens had always been divided with great precision into classes – and behaviour unworthy of the class to which a man had been assigned would invariably see him demoted. The Princeps, as befitted his status at the summit of the pecking order, took this regulation of his fellow citizens very seriously indeed. The return of peace to Rome after the chaos and upheavals of civil war had also meant the restoration of state-determined hierarchies. In 28 BC, and then again twenty years later, Augustus submitted the entire civil population to a census. Not surprisingly, he kept a particularly beady eye on the top end of society. The census of 28 BC resulted in a wholesale slimming down of the Senate, which was then purged again in 19 BC. Mortifying though this naturally was for those expelled, it greatly enhanced the prestige of those who had made the cut. Augustus’s ruthless streamlining boosted the dignity of the entire order. Maiestas, this was termed in Latin: the aura of majesty and greatness that, back in the days when a citizen’s vote still counted for something, had been regarded as the prerogative of the Roman people as a whole. It was the Princeps himself, of course, who most formidably embodied maiestas – but not exclusively so. A Senate worthy to share with him in the heroic project of redeeming the Republic was a vital part of his purpose, after all. Not even Imperator Caesar Augustus could shoulder that particular burden alone.

Yet there remained a snag. The more exclusive an order the Senate became, the fewer senators there were to assist with the demands of a global empire. Clearly, then, it was essential to find an alternative reservoir of talent. The effective administration of the world required nothing less. Fortunately, even before establishing his regime, the Princeps had identified a possible solution. It was Maecenas, ever the trend-setter, who had blazed the trail. Immense though the responsibilities vested in him by Augustus had been, he had never held any official magistracy. Instead, rather than enter the Senate and compete for public office, he had rested content with the highest rank open to a private citizen: that of an eques, or knight. Once, back in the rugged early days of Rome, it was possession of a horse that had qualified a citizen to be registered among the city’s elite; but that, of course, lay long in the past. Many knights, over the course of the previous century, had grown so fabulously rich on the back of empire that they had ended up boasting whole stables of thoroughbreds. With senators legally banned from dirtying their hands in the sordid business of overseas trade, the field had been left clear for equestrian financiers to gorge themselves on the wealth of Rome’s new provinces. Then, amid the implosion of the Republic, the character of the order had begun to change. Plutocrats were joined by ‘men made knights by the maelstrom of conflict’.3 Officers who had fought on the winning side in the civil war; aristocrats from obscure Italian towns keen to better themselves; even, disconcertingly, the occasional son of a slave made good: all had come to sport the golden ring which marked a knight. Men such as these were the Princeps’s kind of people. Tough and high-achieving, they constituted precisely what he needed: a ready officer-corps. Torn as he was between respect for the Senate as an order and a lurking suspicion of its individual members, Augustus could hardly help but warm to the new breed of equestrian. The hand of his friendship, as Maecenas could vouch, might bring many favours. Even as the Senate rejoiced in the brilliant and growing blaze of its maiestas, so, in the shadows, knights were quietly thriving. No longer, under Augustus, were commands and offices the sole preserve of elected magistrates. Gradually, obliquely, they were being privatised.

Such a policy, by its nature, could not possibly be acknowledged. Augustus himself, never appearing so conservative as when engaged in innovation, looked to the past as well as to the future. The more he broke with tradition by entrusting knights with public office, the more he masked the policy behind celebrations of their primordial purpose. Phantasmal cavalrymen in antique armour, charging down adversaries from the epic days of early Rome, haunted his imaginings. Those who betrayed this heritage were made to pay. When a knight was found to have cut off his two sons’ thumbs, thereby invaliding them out of military service, the Princeps imposed on him an exemplary penalty. The wretched man was sold at public auction; then, bought by one of Augustus’s proxies, he was banished in disgrace to the country. Nor was he alone in being expelled. Knights who failed to measure up to the exacting standards expected of them by the Princeps were quite as likely to be drummed out of their order as senators. Reviving a venerable custom, Augustus even subjected them to an annual inspection. Every 15 July, equestrians were obliged to parade through the streets of Rome, riding in serried ranks, as though just arrived from battle. Those with rewards for valour were expected to wear them. Those too old for the saddle were expected to come on foot. It was, most people agreed, ‘a tremendous sight, and worthy of the greatness of Rome’s dominion’.4

Not everyone, though. Some equestrians, even as they joined the parading of homespun, peasant virtues through the capital of the world, struggled to keep a straight face. Times had moved on. The hamlet of wooden huts and cattle byres ruled by Romulus was now a wonderland of gold and marble. ‘We live in a civilised age. Rustic boorishness, of the kind displayed by our forefathers, is a thing of the past.’5 So spoke a poet, youthful and chic, who had emerged in the second decade of Augustus’s supremacy to become the toast of the city’s avant garde: the authentic voice of Roman metrosexuality. His distaste for the life of the countryside so idealised by the Princeps was bred of personal experience. For all his urbanity and sophistication, there was a provincial quality to Publius Ovidius Naso – Ovid. He was not a native of Rome. Sulmo, a fat, lazy town some ninety miles east of the capital, was inhabited by a people who less than a century before had been enthusiastic participants in the Italian Revolt, and were notorious for the aptitude of their witches. Hemmed in all around by precipitous mountains, Sulmo was separated from the metropolis by forests teeming with wolves and bandits. Ovid’s own family, although equestrian for several generations, had remained firmly based in their native town, big fish in a tiny pond. But then, as for so many others in Italy, everything had changed. With the rise to power of Augustus, dazzling new opportunities had opened up for families such as Ovid’s. His father had seized on them with relish. Packing off his two sons to Rome, he had invested heavily in their education. When Ovid’s elder brother died at twenty, Ovid himself was left alone to carry the burden of his father’s ambition. ‘The Senate House was waiting.’6 The young man’s heart, though, was never in it. ‘I lacked both the physical toughness for such a career, and the aptitude. I flinched from the stresses of ambition.’7 The stern demands placed on him by his father, the glorification by the Princeps of Rome’s ancient past, the trumpeting of martial values – all left the young Ovid cold. It was not merely that he rejected them; he found them risible.

In this, he was recognisably of a new generation. Born a year after Julius Caesar’s murder, Ovid had never known what it was to live in a free republic. Nor, though, did he have personal experience of the horrors endured by his elders: fighting amid foreign dust against fellow citizens; losing ancestral fields to strangers; watching cities burn. Rejoicing in the blessings of peace and prosperity brought by Caesar Augustus, Ovid knew what he had been spared, and was duly grateful for it. Yet he saw in them not a restoration of Rome’s ancient and god-given order, but something very different: the essence of what it meant to be modern. ‘The present,’ he rejoiced, ‘suits me down to the ground.’8 In the cityscape fashioned by Augustus to serve as a mirror to the favour of the gods, and as a monument to the glory both of the Roman people and of himself, Ovid discovered a playground. The delight he took in it was exultant – but not of a kind to please the Princeps. His pastimes were altogether too edgy, too counter-cultural for that. When Ovid strolled up to Apollo’s temple on the Palatine, or haunted the shady colonnades raised on the site of Vedius’s palace, or visited the arches of Pompey’s theatre, it was not to admire the architecture. He was scoping out girls.

To boast of this, as Ovid freely did, and to pose as a universal ‘tutor in love’,9 was highly shocking to a moral and iron-willed people such as the Romans. Time was, long before Augustus brought in his own census, that a senator had been demoted for kissing his own wife in public. Only when startled by thunder, one venerable moralist had grimly joked, was it permissible for a woman to fall into the arms of her husband.10 Standards had eased over the years; but the notion that a citizen might freely abandon a career of service to his fellows, devoting himself instead to the arts of the bedroom, retained its power to shock. Ovid, with almost wilful glee, paraded his scorn of what he mocked as priggish convention. ‘Not for me our traditional virtues.’11 Caesar Augustus, celebrating the greatest and most spectacular triumph ever witnessed in Rome, had ridden through the capital parading the trophies of victory won from the Queen of Egypt. Ovid, beating himself up for slapping his girlfriend, imagined her led bruised and pale in a very similar triumph, cheered on by watching crowds. ‘Hooray for the brave, bold man – he’s vanquished a girl!’12

A joke, as Ovid well knew, that could hardly fail to bring a smile to the lips of those sophisticated enough to grasp his meaning. Mockery of the great was as much a tradition in salons as it was in slums. Augustus, who affected to have restored freedom of speech together with all the other liberties lost during the civil wars, was hardly one to bother himself with the occasional fleabite. This did not mean, though, that poets – or anyone else – had licence to write whatever they liked. Appointed as he was by the gods to the great task of saving and regenerating the Roman people, Augustus could not possibly tip the wink at any corrosion of their ancestral values. A citizen was made, not born. A male, after all, was not necessarily a man. Just as Rome had hauled herself up from powerless obscurity to the rule of the world, so was it necessary for each and every Roman to be forged over the course of his life to the requisite standard of masculinity. Softness, both of body and spirit, was a perpetual menace. It had to be guarded against at all costs. Augustus had not blessed the city with monuments of dazzling beauty and polish only to see them become a cruising ground for lounge lizards. The fruits of peace would be worthless if all they bred was an epicene obsession with sex.

‘Everything comes down to this: self-control.’13 Which did not mean, of course, that a citizen was expected to live like a eunuch. Quite the contrary. A Roman penis was potent, masterful, prodigious. In a city where the phallus was everywhere to be seen, protecting doorways as a symbol of good luck, guarding crossroads or scaring off birds in gardens, ramrod size was much admired. A generously endowed man hitting the bath-house might well be greeted with ‘a round of nervous applause’.14 A citizen equipped with such a weapon, particularly a young one, ‘in whom a degree of animal-spirits was natural’,15 could hardly be expected to keep it permanently sheathed. Even the sternest of moralists acknowledged this. Why else, after all, were there whores? A brothel was not so different from a latrine: dirty and disreputable, yes, but serving an essential purpose as a receptacle of human waste. A man could no more be expected to ignore his sexual needs than he could a full bladder. Not for nothing did the same word, meio, mean both ‘urinate’ and ‘ejaculate’. A thrust or two, deep and quick, like the stabbing of a sword into the guts, ‘right the way up to the hair and the hilt of the balls’,16 and the business would be done. Whether into the vagina, the anus or the mouth, it made no real difference – just so long as it was masterful. Nor did it greatly matter who took the penis thrust – man or woman, boy or girl – provided that one crucial qualification, one essential safeguard, was respected. Free-born Romans, male and female both: these were strictly, absolutely off-limits.

The taboo was as potent as it was ancient. Cleaving to it was how the Romans defined themselves as a people. They regarded purity, ‘that chiefest prop of men and women alike’,17 not as a drab or passive virtue, but as something lambent, edged about by flame. Like the hearthfire which it was the sacred duty of every Roman wife to guard, it could not be extinguished without terrible sacrilege. This was why, of all the offences that an unchecked sexual appetite might prompt a citizen to commit, there was none so unsettling to his fellows as adultery. To cuckold a man was not merely to take possession of his wife; it was also to shaft the husband himself. Lurking in the stories whispered about Augustus’s affairs with women from senatorial families was a bitter reflection on his dominance. No one, after all, could hope for recompense from the Princeps. Whatever the truth of the gossip, nothing better rammed home to men their impotence before his greatness than that it rendered him immune from the right of a cuckold to vengeance. This, as prescribed by tradition, was of a ferociously brutal order. The wife caught in flagrante, so one famously stern moralist had ruled, might be murdered on the spot.18 The lover too, according to some – although others, more liberal, recommended simply castrating him, or perhaps shoving a mullet up his anus. The threat of violence, savage and potentially murderous, hung over every adulterous contact.

Or did it? There was, perhaps, for those up to speed with the times, something just a little bit provincial, just a little bit musty, about an antique sexual taboo. ‘How like a rustic, to get upset when your wife cheats on you.’19 So Ovid, a man with his finger on the pulse of high society, observed with practised smoothness. Yet if the cuckold who kicked up a fuss was a boor, then so too was the one who failed to a spoilsport. The various prohibitions and perils erected by custom in the path of the adulterer were liable to strike the seasoned connoisseur of erotic pleasure less as deterrents than as incentives, spicing up the fun. ‘We always want what we’re not allowed.’20 Ovid, in offering this sage observation, was putting his finger on a mocking truth. Forbidden fruit tasted the sweetest. ‘Prohibitions, trust me, only encourage bad behaviour.’21 This, in a city as addicted to gossip as Rome, was a paradox that plenty were prepared to swallow. Speculation as to what might be going on in the city’s most exclusive bedrooms naturally transfixed the public. That adultery was regarded by the upper classes as one tremendous game, in which the rules were there to be broken, and the measure of cool was to smuggle a lover into the marital bed, was widely taken for granted. No smoke without fire, after all. Proofs of the adulterous and effeminate character of Rome’s fast set were everywhere to be seen. In the dandyishly loose way they wore their togas; in their clean nails, sprucely clipped nasal hair and sinister lack of body odour; above all, in the oiled sheen of their limbs. For a man to shave his armpits was, everyone could agree, simply good manners; but to do as Augustus was said to have done, and depilate the legs, was disgusting, plain and simple. Body hair was the mark of a man. Everyone knew, though, that adulterers cared nothing for that. Smooth skin, not a pelt, was what they brought to seduction. It was all most deviant and alarming. Even Ovid might sometimes be provoked to pontificate: ‘Men are all such fashion-victims these days that, really, we can hardly blame women for feeling the pressure.’22

None of which stopped the poet himself from cheerily offering grooming tips to his male as well as his female fans. Ovid, though, did not have the care of Roman morals in his charge. Frivolous metrosexuality, in the opinion of the man who did, was part of the problem, not a solution. Augustus, who had brought order where previously there was chaos, who had lavished on his fellow citizens the riches of conquered kingdoms, who had transformed their city into a capital of unrivalled beauty and splendour, did not care to think that his labours might merely have contributed to a softening of their ancestral virtues. Such a prospect was too appalling to be borne. The Romans were either the heirs of their upright forefathers or they were nothing. The Princeps’s ambition was simple: that his fellow citizens should be true to all that was best about their past. They were the Romans: the lords of the world, the people of the toga. This, in the mirror that he had set up to his fellow citizens, fashioned out of monuments, and festivals, and all the various fruits of peace, was the reflection that he wished them always to catch of themselves.

Yet what if they caught something else? Perhaps there lay a warning in a recent scandalous development in the field of interior decoration. In bedrooms across Rome, walls and ceilings were coming to be lined with mirrors. Even beyond the limits of the city, out in his rural retreat among the Sabine hills, Horace had signed up to the craze. Notoriously, so had a billionaire by the name of Hostius Quadra. The mirrors on his walls boasted a particularly distinctive feature: everything reflected in them appeared larger than it actually was. ‘So it was that the freak made a show of his own deviancy.’23 As one girl gave him a blow-job, and he licked out a second, so his anus, in a hideous desecration of all that a Roman should properly be, was shafted by a man with a giant cock – which, seen in the mirror, appeared possessed of truly gargantuan size, ‘larger than his capacity to take’.24 To groom, depilate and titivate like a woman was one thing; but to be fucked like one was a hideous extreme of degradation. What else was it, after all, but the willing surrender of everything that made a Roman a man? In the grotesquely reflected couplings of Hostius Quadra was to be caught the spectacle of a terrifying abyss, one into which any citizen who surrendered to self-indulgence might end up sinking.

‘Every part of me is given over to filth.’25 The monstrous quality of this boast ensured that Augustus, when Hostius Quadra eventually came to be murdered by his own slaves, refused to have them punished. As a statement of the Princeps’s disapproval, this could hardly have been more ringing. Another entrant had been added to his public hall of shame. Yet there was an irony to the billionaire’s fate that Augustus himself no doubt found deeply troubling. By venerable tradition, the regulation of morals within a household was a matter for the citizen who stood at its head. It was not the business of anyone else to get involved. A Roman unable to control the behaviour of his own dependants barely ranked as a Roman at all. How, then, to judge a city in which it was slaves who punished the master? As one, it seemed, in which ancient certainties had been disconcertingly upended. In which fathers could no longer be trusted to discipline their children, nor husbands their wives. In which the morals of the Roman people required the regulation, not just of custom, not just of ancestral example, but – shamingly – of law.

A challenge that Augustus felt he could not duck. When Horace, looking to explain the implosion of the Republic, had identified the cause as a septic addiction to adultery, he had done so in total seriousness. Fond of a mirrored bedroom he may have been himself – but he had no doubt that the origins of the civil war, that supreme catastrophe, had lain in deviancy and licence. ‘Such was the wellspring of the calamities that flooded our country, our people.’26 What else, indeed, could it possibly have been? Everyone knew where the ultimate roots of crisis in a state lay: not in constitutional or social tensions, let alone in the unfathomable workings of finance, but in the degeneration of its morals. Seen in this light, the depravities of monsters such as Hostius Quadra served as an ominous warning. The pus had not been wholly drained from the body politic. Beneath the brilliant show of the city rebuilt by the Princeps, it was still festering and breeding. How, then, charged as he was by the gods with the salving of Rome back to health, could Augustus not enforce an iron-bitted cure? ‘All very well wringing our hands – but we need measures to fit the crime.’27

So it was, soon after his return in triumph from the East, bringing with him the standards lost by Crassus, that the Princeps had made his move. In 18 BC, a law was passed that aimed to regulate the marital behaviour of the upper classes. The heroic early days of Rome, when men had wed only virtuous matrons, breeding vast numbers of infant citizens on them for the good of the Republic, were to be revived by means of legislation. Bachelorhood, social mésalliances, childlessness: all were severely penalised. Then, a few months later, came a law that poked its nose even more intrusively into the affairs of senators and equestrians. Adultery was made a public offence. Cuckolds were legally obliged to divorce their cheating wives. Those who did not, whether out of embarrassment or perhaps, more sinisterly, because they took a sordid pleasure in the business of their own humiliation, were to be charged with pimping. Adulterers, meanwhile, were to suffer swingeing financial penalties and exile to an island. Adulteresses too – and banned from ever again marrying a free-born citizen. Even their dress was to proclaim their shame. Not for them the stola, that emblem of womanly rectitude. ‘When they step out, it is generally in a dark toga – to distinguish them from matrons.’28 A bitter degradation. The toga was not only the dress of a male citizen; it was also the most distinctive costume worn by a whore. No longer deserving of the honour and respect due a Roman matron, the convicted adulteress was to be ranked legally with the lowest of the low: prostitutes, madams, even actresses. Like them, she was to take her place among the moral underclass, the dregs of society – the infames.

Smouldering resentment among the aristocracy, who viewed the legislation as an assault both on their own privacy and on Roman tradition, did nothing to affect the Princeps’s resolve. He knew his duty. Long before the joyous moment in 2BC, when by universal acclamation the title ‘Father of his Country’ was awarded to Augustus, his status had become self-evident. He was, in effect, ‘a universal parent’.29 Like the model of a father, he had chided, guided and loved the Roman people. Licence had been tamed. Effeminacy and adultery had been reined in. ‘Households had been rendered chaste, cleansed of depravity, and all the stains of misbehaviour checked by custom and law.’30 There certainly seemed no need for the Father of his Country, a few weeks after his tear-choked acceptance of the title, to dread 17 March, the annual festival of Liber. Once, when he had still been merely one of two rival warlords, things had been different. Back then, when the devotees of Antony’s divine and disturbing patron celebrated the god’s festival, bearing in wild procession through the streets a giant phallus, the menace to ancestral virtues would have been palpable. Horrified conservatives had been attempting to geld the worship of Liber ever since its first manifestation in Rome, almost two centuries before. It was all wine, and late nights, and debauch. Appetites, no matter how deviant, were satisfied without heed to propriety. Everybody slept with everybody else. A more scandalous mockery of Roman values it was hard to imagine. Yet now, with Antony long dead, and every citizen a dependant of the Father of his Country, it was mockery that stood defeated, Roman values triumphant. Two months after the festival of Liber, in the new forum that he had peopled with statues of the city’s antique heroes and adorned with battle trophies, Augustus dedicated his great temple to Mars. Companion of legionaries in the line of battle, the rapist of Romulus’s mother, swift and brutal in all that he did, the god offered as stern a model of masculinity as Liber did not. Of one thing, at any rate, the Roman people could be confident. Mars was not the kind to depilate himself.

Beyond the great wall which served the god’s temple as a flood barrier, though, the tides of appetite surged on. In hallways and courtyards, and under the noses of stern fathers, secret assignations were still being made. Amid stifled laughter, those in the know continued to whisper reports of scandalous doings. Meanwhile, in the ancient forum, the statue of Marsyas, that servant of Liber, stood where he had always done: a symbol of licence at its most defiant.

‘Set strictures on a person all you like, but the mind remains adulterous.’ So observed Ovid, pushing as ever at the boundaries of what it was acceptable to say. ‘You cannot regulate desire.’31 Time would soon discover whether he was right or not.

Family Trees

One day, it was said, shortly after Livia’s second betrothal, a remarkable event occurred. An eagle, swooping down over where she was sitting, dropped a white chicken into her lap. Even more astonishingly, the hen – which was perfectly unharmed – had a sprig of fresh laurel in its beak. An awesome portent, self-evidently. Bird and laurel were both duly removed for safekeeping to a Claudian estate just outside Rome, at Prima Porta, on a promontory above the Tiber. Here, the hen produced a brood of chicks, while the sprig of laurel, planted in one of the villa’s borders, sprouted to luxuriant effect. The implication of the episode, as time went by and Livia’s hold on Augustus tightened, appeared evident enough to most people: ‘that she was destined to hold the power of Caesar in a fold of her robe, and keep him under her thumb’.32

To some, though, the mysteriously burgeoning bush hinted at a different meaning. The laurel was no ordinary tree. Lightning was powerless to strike it; its leaves served to fumigate spilt blood; it was sacred to Apollo. All of which made it a perfect emblem of Augustus – and sure enough, when the Senate awarded him the name in 27 BC, they also decreed that his house be publicly adorned with laurel, ‘veiling the doors, wreathing the holy gates with a chaplet of dark leaves’.33Soon, it began to seem sacrilege for anyone else to sport it. As for Augustus himself, only the laurel dropped into Livia’s lap would do. Celebrating his three great triumphs, the Princeps had held one of its branches in his hand, and been wreathed in its leaves.

Compared to the blaze of such greatness, the glimmering of other men’s victories inevitably came to seem as nothing. Crassus, after celebrating his own triumph, had vanished into obscurity. The days were passing when even the most blue-blooded of nobles could expect to ride through Rome crowned with laurel. It was those who stood closest to the Princeps who understood this best. Agrippa, although the greatest general of his generation, had consistently refused a triumph. He knew better than to upstage Augustus. ‘Practised in obedience to that one man as he was, he aimed for the obedience of everybody else in turn.’34 Between the traditional show of power and the reality, the gap was widening fast. Soon enough, even those who lacked Agrippa’s acuity had been brought to recognise this. In 19 BC, a general by the name of Lucius Cornelius Balbus paraded through the streets of Rome in recognition of his victory over a tribe of Africans. It marked the end of an era. Never again would a private citizen celebrate a triumph.

Did this mean, though, that in the future only Augustus himself would have the right to the honour? Perhaps not. Something more than laurel, after all, had been dropped into Livia’s lap. So full of squawking white chickens was the villa to which the original hen had been removed that it came to be known as ‘The Coop’.35 Clearly it was foreordained that Augustus should have many descendants. Nevertheless, a puzzle remained. Even though it was Livia who had welcomed the white hen into her lap, and she already had two sons, she seemed unable to give her second husband an heir. The older she grew, the clearer it became that Augustus was going to be left with just one child: a girl. Julia, his daughter by the cantankerous Scribonia, certainly provided him with a useful pawn in the great game of his dynastic ambitions; but a pawn was not enough. Augustus, like the head of any other household, required a male heir. So it was, taking a leaf out of his own great-uncle’s book, that he had looked to his sister. Octavia, much admired and impeccably virtuous, had played a key role in the crisis that had led up to Actium. Married to Antony as a token of the compact between the two triumvirs, she had then been rejected by him in favour of the Queen of Egypt, sent packing back to Rome and ignominiously divorced. Throughout it all she had maintained perfect dignity; and when, in the wake of her brother’s victory over her erstwhile husband, she had consented to bring up the dashing young Iullus Antonius, Antony’s son by an earlier wife, the Roman people were only confirmed in their admiration for her as a paragon of womanhood. The young Antonius had duly been raised alongside Octavia’s children. Two of these, Antonia the Elder and Antonia the Younger, were his own half-sisters. The others were Octavia’s by her first husband – and one of these children was a boy. Marcus Claudius Marcellus was handsome, charismatic, and touched by the mystique of his distant ancestor, the war hero who had once captured the ‘spoils of honour’: qualities more than fit to tickle his uncle’s fancy. In 29 BC, the boy had ridden alongside the Princeps as he celebrated his triumph. Two years later, he had been given a taste of active service in Spain. Then, in 25 BC, had come the ultimate mark of favour: marriage to the fourteen-year-old Julia. Augustus, it seemed, had anointed his heir.

Time, though, would see him shrink from the implications of this decision. In 23 BC, as he was lying on his sickbed, he had slipped off his signet ring and pressed it into the palm, not of Marcellus, but of Agrippa. Augustus, who knew what it was to be plunged as a young man into the snake-pit of Roman politics, had clearly doubted his nephew’s ability to survive and thrive in it as he had done. That, though, was hardly the limit of his anxieties. More than the future of his own household lay at stake, after all. Any heir of his would have a claim to the rule of the world. Yet here loomed a paradox. The bundle of powers and honours that Augustus had won for himself was nothing that could be passed on readily to a successor. Even to make the attempt would be to confirm what he had spent so long denying: the brute fact of his autocracy. No matter how battered and traumatised by civil war, the Roman people were not prepared to tolerate the rule of a king. Augustus was merely the first citizen of a free republic: such was the universal conceit. Only a man who shared in his prestige could hope, in the final reckoning, to succeed him as Princeps.

Marcellus, popular and glamorous though he was, did not yet rank as such a figure. Nor, as it turned out, would he ever. A few months after Augustus, defying the odds, had been successfully nursed back to health, Marcellus fell sick in his turn. Death, cheated of the uncle, claimed the nephew instead. Devastated, Octavia retired from all public appearances, and was said never to have smiled again. The Roman people shared in her grief. The memory of Marcellus, so promising, so lustrous, so young, would long be cherished. Perhaps, in the sheer scale of the public mourning, the glimpse was to be caught of a new age: one in which the blaze of Augustus’s charisma, aureate and superhuman as it was, would serve to illumine every member of his family. What were the lilies and the bright flowers scattered in memory of Marcellus, if not a tribute paid to the radiant dawning of this light? Even in the blackness of death, the young man’s profile appeared back-lit. The effulgence that haloed it was that of the Domus Augusta – the ‘August Family’ of the god-like Princeps.

All of which ensured that the widowed Julia, still only sixteen, could not possibly be left single for long. There was, in effect, a single candidate to hand. Augustus had already signalled as much back when he had given Agrippa his ring. ‘Kill him or make him your son-in-law’36 – such was the cheerily cynical advice of Maecenas. Augustus, who relied far too much on his old consigliere even to contemplate the first option, duly went for the second. Despite already being married to one of Julia’s cousins, Agrippa obediently divorced her, taking the Princeps’s daughter as his wife. The marriage, in the event, proved a great success. To Agrippa it served as public confirmation of his pre-eminent status, not merely as the deputy but the heir-apparent of Caesar. Augustus, meanwhile, was provided with a perfect opportunity to hedge his bets. Even as the laurel bush planted at Prima Porta flourished and spread, so was Julia doing her filial duty by giving birth to a succession of children. Two were girls: one named Agrippina after her father, and the second, with an even more notable lack of originality, Julia. But there was more – much more. In 20 BC, Julia had given Augustus his first grandson, a healthy young boy called Gaius. Three years later came a second, Lucius. The Princeps was ecstatic. No sooner had Lucius been born than he adopted both brothers. Now at last he had his sons.

Agrippa, whatever his private feelings, did not complain. He grasped perfectly how much brighter the prospects of Gaius and Lucius would blaze for bearing the name of Caesar. He knew too that he remained the heir presumptive. In 18BC, he had even been granted a share of the tribunicia potestas, powers that were among the most formidable of those wielded by the Princeps. The road ahead appeared clear at last. When the Princeps died, Agrippa would step into his shoes; and when Agrippa died, Gaius Caesar. This, in a great family like the Julians, was how arrangements and alliances had always been fashioned. Far from promoting some sinister brand of hereditary monarchy, the Princeps’s plans for his family were of a thoroughly traditional kind. The bonds of loyalty and obligation that Augustus saw as securing the future of Rome were such as any true-born citizen could value and respect. Who was there, ploughing the fields and tending the gardens only lately fertilised by civil bloodshed, to argue with that?

Not many, as it turned out. The Roman people’s devotion to Marcellus turned out to have been no flash in the pan. When Agrippa, exhausted by his many exertions, died in 12 BC, the loss of the man whom Augustus had been banking upon to succeed him immediately won novel and eager attention for the next generation of the August Family. Fascination with the Princeps’s grandchildren was widespread. There was certainly no lack of them. Julia, who had been pregnant when her husband died, had ended up giving birth to a third son: Agrippa Postumus, as he was inevitably known. It was his two older brothers, though, who were the real darlings of the Roman people. Although Gaius was eight and Lucius only five, anticipation of their future greatness served to cloak both boys in potent glamour. This was something new. Children had never before demanded much attention in Rome. Even the most precocious of debutants on the political stage – Scipio, Pompey, Augustus himself – had already come of age when they first made their entrance. It was the measure of the Princeps’s aura that it continued to bathe all the members of his household – even the youngest – in its light. Enthusiasm for the two infant princes exceeded all expectations. Paraded whenever there was a requirement for the August Family to be seen, they embodied for the Roman crowds a winning combination of magnetism and boyishness. Here, in this popularity of theirs, was all that Augustus could possibly have hoped for. Adopted as the people’s favourites, Gaius and Lucius offered to their grandfather a precious reassurance that heredity might after all be viable. The notion of a ruling dynasty, it seemed, was not entirely beyond the pale.

Except that Augustus himself still felt torn. In 6 BC, when the Roman people voted for the fourteen-year-old Gaius to become consul, he was appalled. Summoning an assembly, he berated them for their frivolity. The pleasure that he took in Gaius’s popularity competed in his heart with sterner impulses. Just as he had shrunk from entrusting the rule of the world to Marcellus, so now he flinched from placing it irrevocably in the hands of an untempered boy. Augustus had not laboured for decades to restore the noblest and most exacting traditions of the Republic, only to make a mockery of them himself. The loss of Agrippa was painfully, bitterly felt. Yet how to replace him? His old comrade had possessed rare capabilities. Loyalty to the Princeps himself; flinty virtues of the kind that would have been familiar to Romulus; experience such as could only be forged at the head of legions, steeling mind and body alike in the service of Roman greatness: these had been Agrippa’s qualities. What odds on finding a second such paragon? Impossibly long, it might have seemed.

And yet, as so often in the career of the Princeps, the gods appeared to be smiling on him. A solution to the problem of how best to meet the loss of his trusted deputy was staring him in the face. The obvious replacement could hardly have been more ready to hand: a perfect candidate to play Agrippa’s role. From infancy, he had grown up a member of the August Family itself; and from the age of sixteen, when he had accompanied Augustus on his campaign in the wilds of northern Spain, he had devoted himself to the service of the Roman people. Seasoned in the business of both war and state, he was a man who had already achieved much on behalf of his fellow citizens. Now, it seemed, he was primed to achieve much more, in the service both of the Princeps and of Rome. There was really only a single drawback. Whereas Agrippa had always been Augustus’s creature, from a background so humble that the disdainful nobility had scorned to attend his funeral, Livia’s son Tiberius Claudius Nero was head of the most celebrated and brilliant family in Roman history. The son both of a Nero and of a Pulcher, the blood of the Claudians flowed doubly in his veins. Such a man had expectations that owed nothing to Augustus.

Livia’s second marriage had not diminished one jot the loyalty that she felt to her ancestral line. Moving into her new husband’s home, she had made sure to take her two boys with her. Tiberius and Drusus had grown up doubly privileged, as stepsons of the Princeps and as heirs to the incomparable traditions of their Claudian forebears. Naturally, there had been the odd indignity to swallow. Accompanying Marcellus in his stepfather’s triumph, for instance, the young Tiberius had been obliged to ride on the left-hand, less prestigious side. Yet slights such as this were vastly outweighed by the advantages to be had from their mother’s marriage to Augustus. Unlike most other heirs to the great dynasties of the Republic, Tiberius and Drusus did not have to kick their heels in the gilded cage of Rome. Instead, they were permitted to embark on careers of the kind that only a generation before would have been taken for granted as the birthright of their class. In the Alps, in the Balkans, in the forests and bogs of Germany, the two brothers won a succession of glorious victories. Of these, it was the accomplishments of Drusus that glittered the more brightly, those of Tiberius that were the harder-won. The younger brother, to whom charm came easily, had a talent never possessed by the elder for making himself loved; and yet Augustus, who would often complain behind Tiberius’s back of his ‘austere and uncompromising disposition’,37 understood what it signified, and respected it. To serve as head of the Claudians was no light responsibility. Tiberius, who combined the hardiness of a natural soldier with the aptitudes and interests of a scholar, was uncompromisingly old-fashioned. The codes and standards of behaviour that had first set his people, back in the heroic days of Appius Claudius, on the road to the rule of the world, animated him in everything that he did. To Tiberius, the Republic that Augustus claimed to have nursed back to health was no fiction, no empty word, but rather the living essence of what it meant to be a Roman. The Princeps, who affected to believe the same thing, had no problem with this nostalgia for Rome’s traditional order. Quite the contrary: it only confirmed him in his high regard for Tiberius as a man of principle. So it was, in the wake of Agrippa’s death, that he had issued an order to his stepson. Take the action, Tiberius was instructed, that would signal to the world his new and favoured status. Divorce his wife; marry Julia; become not just the stepson but the son-in-law of the Princeps.

Yet there remained limits to what even Augustus could command. Licensed though he was as head of the August Family to meddle all he pleased in the marital arrangements of its various members, Tiberius hardly made for an easy puppet. While he had been left with no choice but to take Julia as his wife, he did not have to pretend that he liked it. Already married prior to Agrippa’s death to his daughter, Vipsania, Tiberius had found the separation a wretched experience. The couple had been happy: Vipsania had given her husband both a son, named Drusus after his uncle, and her devotion. Tiberius, who normally made sure to keep his emotions on a tight leash, had found it impossible to conceal his agony at the separation. Chancing to meet with Vipsania some time later, he followed her with such a look of hangdog bereavement that orders came from on high to ensure that it never happened again. The causes of Tiberius’s unhappiness, though, ran deeper than divorce from a much-loved wife. The role Augustus expected of him could not help but be profoundly humiliating to a Claudian. To lurk in the wings as a potential caretaker, and to hear in the cheers and applause that greeted a pair of untested boys whenever they appeared how much more popular they were than him, were no easy experiences for so proud a man. Illusions that on a distant frontier might conceivably have some life in them were hard to sustain in the presence of two princelings. Torn between his loyalty to Augustus and his contempt for the monarchy so patently embodied by Gaius and Lucius, Tiberius did not find Rome a happy place to be. Unsurprisingly, he preferred distant, dangerous frontiers. There, at any rate, the values that he prized still had a role to play. Not only that, but he did not have to spend time with his wife.

Which in turn was a great relief for her. Julia, strong-armed by her father into a third marriage, was as different from her dour and dutiful new husband as it was possible for two people brought up in the same household to be. True, she had quite fancied Tiberius once, back when she was still married to Agrippa – or so it was said. Julia was the kind of woman who attracted such gossip. Wilful, sophisticated and high-spirited, she was much loved for her generosity of spirit, and much admired for her intelligence and wit. Far from dismissing the rumours of adultery, she dared to mock the censoriousness of those who spread them. How could the stories that she had cheated on Agrippa possibly be true, she was once asked, when Gaius and Lucius looked so very like him? ‘Why,’ she answered, ‘because I only ever take on passengers after the cargo-hold has been loaded.’38 The joke, in light of everything that her father stood for, could hardly have been more shocking. It certainly helped to confirm all with a taste for boldness and subversion in their affection for her. The first woman to have the sacred blood of Augustus flowing in her veins, she was also the first to make play with what that might mean in practice. Not for Julia the hypocrisies with which Livia so soberly veiled herself. Scolded for not emulating her father’s ostentatious frugality, she only laughed. ‘While he may forget that he is Caesar, I never forget that I am Caesar’s daughter.’39

Caesar himself, unsurprisingly, was not amused. When the Princeps declared that he had ‘two wayward daughters to put up with, Julia and the Roman Republic’,40 his tetchiness was laid revealingly bare. The challenges of fatherhood were many. In his dealings with his fellow citizens, Augustus laid claim to the rights and responsibilities of a parent; conversely, in making arrangements for his daughter, he could never treat her as though she were merely his child. By keeping her in his marriage-bed, Tiberius was serving the needs of the Princeps no less surely than he did when off slaughtering barbarians. Augustus, who had briefly contemplated pairing Julia up with an obscure and inoffensive knight, so anxious was he to keep the mother of his heirs from ambitious paramours, had never knowingly failed to neutralise a problem. Tiberius and Julia both knew this well enough. In the first years of their marriage, the couple duly struggled to put a good face on matters. When Tiberius left for a provincial command in the Balkans, Julia went with him. Shortly afterwards, she gave birth to a son. On her husband’s return to Rome, she joined with Livia in hosting a banquet for the leading women of the city in his honour, while Tiberius himself feasted the people on the Capitol. All might have seemed well enough.

But it was not. The fissure between the couple was widening all the time. Between the witty, quicksilver Julia and her husband, ‘who ever since a child had been far too serious and austere for jokes’, there was a natural lack of empathy.41Then came two bereavements in quick succession. First, they lost their son; then, as Livia and Julia were preparing a second banquet, this time in honour of Drusus’s return from the front, news arrived from Germany. Drusus was dead. His horse had rolled on him, his leg had been crushed and gangrene had set in.*1 Tiberius, alerted to the news, had ridden hundreds of miles through barely pacified territory, accompanied by a single guide, and reached his brother just before he died. As a display of fraternal love, it was worthy of the noblest traditions of their ancestors – and fittingly so, for Drusus too had been a great admirer of republican virtues. No effeminate extremes of mourning, then, for the bereaved Tiberius. Instead, as though walking through the landscape of some ancient annal, he escorted the corpse back to the capital on foot, dry-eyed, grim-set. Such were the obsequies appropriate to a Roman hero. ‘It was not only in war that discipline had to be maintained, but in mourning as well.’42 Yet everywhere, to Tiberius’s disgust, the corpse of Drusus was greeted by wild displays of emotional incontinence. Even the soldiers wept. Arriving back in Rome, Tiberius’s sense of living out of time, in a world neglectful of all that had made the city great, grew ever more oppressive. True to his heritage as a Claudian, he had laboured tirelessly in the cause of the Roman people, on remote frontiers, amid dripping forests, in rough-hewn camps – and yet the glory that this had won him was tarnished. In 7 BC he was granted a triumph, and a year later the grant of tribunicia potestas that Agrippa had once enjoyed: honours that Tiberius found so delusory as to seem mocking. The cheers that followed him as he rode in his triumphal chariot through Rome were faint compared to those that greeted the teenage Gaius; the awesome powers of a tribune did not inhibit his wife from looking down her Julian nose at him. Everything about his situation, to a man of his pride and prickliness, was insupportable.

In 6 BC, five years into his marriage, Tiberius finally snapped. The grant of tribunicia potestas, which to the outside world appeared the mark of his greatness, plunged him into despair. When Augustus, making clear that he had only ever approved it in the first place because he wished his son-in-law to shoulder the more tedious and demanding of his responsibilities, ordered Tiberius east on a diplomatic mission, he was met with a blunt refusal. Unused to taking no for an answer, the Princeps reiterated his instructions. Tiberius promptly went on hunger strike. He wished to lay down all his public offices, he announced. He wished to retire. Furious and baffled, Augustus demanded openly in the Senate that he change his mind. Livia, even more appalled by her son’s wilfulness, entreated him in private. Tiberius remained obdurate. Eventually, after a four-day standoff, it was Augustus who blinked first. As though to rub his victory home, Tiberius then promptly headed east – not as the deputy of Caesar, but as a private citizen. Settling on the Greek island of Rhodes, he there devoted himself to all the traditional pleasures of a dignified retirement: literary studies, chatting to philosophers, snacking on fish. Horace, taking possession of his Sabine farm, had done much the same, fashioning out of the delight that he took in his leisure joyous and immortal poetry: an affirmation that war was over, a celebration of the coming of peace. The statement being made by Tiberius, though, was a very different one. Claudians were hardly given to retiring from public life – and especially not to an island full of Greeks. That Rome’s foremost general, ‘the most eminent after Augustus of all her citizens’, had now despaired of it offered sobering food for thought. A damning health-check had been delivered on the state of the Republic. Tiberius, by so ostentatiously doing nothing, had known full well what he was doing.

Yet in the event, he was barely missed. So furious had Augustus been in the immediate wake of the standoff with his son-in-law that it had literally made him ill. Nevertheless, for all his rage and perplexity, it turned out that he could cope perfectly manageably without Tiberius. Perhaps, had some pressing military emergency erupted, it would have been different; but all seemed well in Rome. The frontiers remained stable, the provinces at peace. Not only that, but Gaius and Lucius, schooled closely in the arts of governance by its greatest living practitioner, would soon be men. One year after Tiberius’s departure for Rhodes, Gaius was honoured by the equestrians with an unprecedented rank: ‘Princeps of Youth’. Simultaneously, he was inducted into the Senate, designated consul five years ahead, and given a major priesthood. In 2 BC, Lucius too was introduced by Augustus to the Senate, and proclaimed a ‘Princeps of Youth’. ‘Virtus,’ as Ovid put it, with a perfectly straight face, ‘flourishes young in a Caesar.’43

The course of the future seemed set fair. Though Livia, mourning the death of her younger son and the disgrace of her elder, might despair of the prospects of the Claudians, those of the Julians seemed secure. In the villa at Prima Porta, the white chickens continued to lay their eggs, and the miraculous laurel tree still spread its branches. Father of his Country, Augustus was father as well of two brilliant princes. It seemed that his troublesome daughter and mulish son-in-law could both be put safely to the back of his mind.

The Arts of Love

August, 2 BC. The dog days of summer. In the hills beyond Rome, sheep and bullocks sought shelter from the scorching heat wherever they could find it, while men offered sacrifice to cooling springs. In the great city itself, narrow streets sweltered beneath the stench of brown smog. Caesar Augustus, concerned as ever for the well-being of his fellow citizens, had recently taken steps to complement the flow of water along the capital’s aqueducts, and from the beautiful marble fountains erected decades earlier by Agrippa, by building a massive lake. Stretching some 1800 feet by 1200, it stood on the far bank of the Tiber, and was crossed by a spectacularly engineered bridge. Here, sparing no expense, the Princeps chose to celebrate the great events of the previous few months: his becoming the Father of his Country, and the dedication of his splendid temple to Mars. Out on the lake, entire squadrons of warships re-enacted the battle of Salamis, the heroic victory of 480 BC in which the Greeks had defeated a fleet of invading barbarians.

Echoes of a more recent victory were hard to miss. It was thanks to the rout of Cleopatra and her jabbering, animal-worshipping hordes at Actium that Augustus, for almost thirty years now, had been able to nurse the shattered Republic back to its present golden state of health. Nostalgia, though, was only a part of the Princeps’s message. He was looking to the future as well. The barbarians defeated at Salamis had come from the same lands now ruled by the Parthians – and the time had come, so Augustus felt, for the eastern front to receive renewed attention. Tiberius, the man originally entrusted with the mission, had flunked the challenge; but Gaius Caesar, recently turned eighteen, was ready at last to take up the reins. The following year he would leave for the East. As spectators on the banks of the artificial lake cheered the splintering of timbers and the sinking of battleships, a stirring vision was being offered them of the future – one in which ‘the final gaps in Caesar’s rule of the world are plugged’.44

Not that all the audience were necessarily much interested in the Princeps’s ambitions. Ovid, visiting the naval extravaganza, barely had eyes for the battle itself. He was there to ogle women. ‘The crowds being what they are, there is someone for everybody’s tastes.’45 More than a decade and a half had passed since the criminalisation of adultery, but Ovid, the most fashionable poet in Rome, still dared to make titillating play with his taste for married women. No better time to satisfy it than the long, hot, lazy afternoons of summer. The half-closed shutters of a bedroom, the play of shadow and sunbeams, the soft-footed tread of some other man’s wife, her long hair loose, her white throat bare, her dress thin and skimpy: Ovid was not afraid to pray publicly for ‘the enjoyment of many such a siesta’.46 Deliciously, seditiously, beyond the gleam of the war god’s new temple and the forest of masts out on the Princeps’s artificial lake, Rome still sheltered shrines to forbidden pleasure.

As Augustus would soon find out for himself. Shortly after his re-enactment of the battle of Salamis, near the same Rostra in the Forum from which he had originally proposed his laws against adultery, a crown of flowers appeared on Marsyas’s head. Who had put it there? Gossip fingered a truly scandalous culprit: none other than the Princeps’s own daughter. Rumour had been swirling around Julia for a long while – and now, in the hour of her father’s apotheosis, it reached critical gale force. It was whispered that she had taken not one, but a whole multitude of lovers. That she had partied by night in the Forum, and stained the Rostra with her adulterous affairs. That she had sold herself to strangers beneath the statue of Marsyas. Not a law of her divine father, not a value, but she had disgraced it. That in itself was scandal enough – but there was worse. The rumours, fetid and unsourced though they were, hinted darkly at treason. Among Julia’s lovers was the son of her father’s greatest enemy. Sharing torchlit revels with Iullus Antonius, she had been paying honour to Liber, the patron of Antony. The insult to all that her father stood for, to all that he had achieved, could hardly have been more pointed. No wonder, when at last the news of Julia’s escapades was broken to the Princeps, that the informers dared to hint at ‘plots against his life’.47

As a young man, a terrorist barely out of his teens, the future Augustus had spared no one, shown no compunction, in securing his goal of absolute predominance. Decades had since passed, softening the memory of his youthful cruelty: ‘He well deserves the name of father.’48 Julia herself, as wilful as she was bold, had dared to imagine as Tiberius had done, that the Princeps might safely be crossed. A fatal mistake. Those with clearer insight into Augustus’s nature knew better than to imagine that a leopard could ever entirely change its spots: ‘I would certainly not describe as mercy what was actually the exhaustion of cruelty.’49 Augustus’s powers, as a father, were those of death as well as life. In the humiliation inflicted upon him by his daughter he found, as he had so often done before when confronted by setbacks, only an opportunity to entrench his greatness yet further. No one, after he had dealt with Julia and her lovers, was to be left in any doubt that the Father of his Country reserved the right to destroy as well as cherish those in his power. Rather than draw a veil over the scandal, he opted to expose the whole sordid business to the Senate. His voice raw with shock and horror, Augustus braved the hidden smirks of the listening nobility. A mortifying indignity, certainly – but all for long-term advantage. Senators were being exposed to a fact of political life long veiled behind the Princeps’s show of patience and forbearance: that he could, if he so wished, annihilate anyone he pleased.

It was Iullus Antonius who paid the ultimate price. Whether his affair with Julia had been as scandalous as the gossip had it, let alone as sinister in its implications as Augustus seems to have suspected, no one could know for sure. The truth of his ambitions was as veiled in shadow as his midnight revels had been. The baseness of his ingratitude, though, was beyond doubt. His suicide echoed the end of his father. Julia’s fate was, if anything, even more cruel. Branded an adulteress, she paid the price laid down by her own father’s law: exile to an island. Pandateria, the remote and windswept destination chosen to serve as her prison, was furnished with an agreeable enough villa, yet this hardly served to make up for its downside: that it was dull beyond words. Only Scribonia, her aged mother, was permitted to accompany her there. Otherwise, all company was banned, and even slaves had to be thoroughly vetted before they were permitted to make the crossing to the island. Wine too was forbidden, and all but the plainest food. Julia, whose scorn for the bogus economies of her father’s household had always so amused her admirers, found herself condemned to a living nightmare of austerity and tedium.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, the fast set of whom she had been the undoubted queen reeled in stunned horror. A wave of copycat prosecutions threatened a witch-hunt. Even though the Princeps dismissed many of the accusations, a mood of dread settled over the city’s salons. ‘Who can deceive the sun?’50 Ovid, casting its golden blaze as an all-seeing spy, imagined its gaze as capable of penetrating even the darkest bedroom, of fathoming the secrets of even the most careful adulterers. Yet even as he confessed to his nervousness, he refused to surrender to it. ‘My sexual tastes are deviant,’ he cheerily admitted, ‘nor is it the first time they have got me into trouble.’51 Nor, perhaps, the last. Julia might have been banished to a grim existence redolent of antiquity at its most brutally primitive, all weaving at the loom and turnips, but Ovid was not intimidated. He refused to abandon those values of urbanity and sophistication that he saw as embodying the true spirit of the age. In the months after Julia’s exile, when the mood in elite circles was all paranoia, Ovid busied himself with a project that could hardly have been more provocative: a guide to the arts of love. Naturally, he made sure to hedge it about with the odd caveat. ‘I reiterate – there’s nothing illegal about my fun and games. No woman is caught up in them who shouldn’t be.’52 He protested too much, of course. In the wake of Rome’s most notorious sex scandal, it took a peculiar degree of courage – or insouciance – to enthuse as Ovid did about the thrills and pleasures of seduction. Even more to give tips to a woman on how best to slip a guard, write messages in secret ink, and conduct an affair behind the back of an over-protective father. Advice such as this, in the wake of Julia’s downfall, was as close as anyone among her circle dared come to open dissidence.

Out in the streets, it was different. Julia, witty and blessed with the popular touch, was the people’s princess. The great events staged that year by Augustus, and which the entire city had been invited to celebrate, had only fed the public fascination with her. She was loved not just as Caesar’s daughter but as the mother of two dashing boys. Both had played a key role in the dedication of the temple of Mars, and preparations for Gaius’s departure on his mission to the East could hardly help but stir thoughts in people’s minds of the wretched Julia, bereft now of her young princes. Beyond the splendour of Augustus’s new forum, in the shadow of its massive screening wall, narrow streets slippery with filth teemed with people who saw in Caesar’s daughter, in her sufferings and her sorrows, a glamorous proxy for their own misery. In squalid, crowded courtyards, in teetering tenement blocks, in slums far and wide across the city, the poor mourned the downfall of their favourite. Only months after the people had joined as one with the Senate to hail Augustus as Father of his Country, the unity that he had laboured so hard to foster was fraying. Demonstrations and demands for Julia’s return, chanted publicly in the streets, contributed to the sense of a darkening mood. The newly dedicated temple of Mars, seen from the warren of alleys that stretched beyond it, began to seem less a monument to the greatness of a united people, more an embattled island amid a hostile sea.

Augustus himself, having just bared his teeth at the aristocracy, was hardly likely to yield to the mob. Nevertheless, as befitted a man endowed with the tribunicia potestas, he was sensitive to its hissing. He had long since learned to keep a beady eye on what happened in the slums. No regime could prosper that was content to leave them unregulated. This was not the least among the many insights that Augustus had brought to the art of government. ‘The poor are like the paltry, obscure places into which shit and other refuse are dumped.’53 While sufficiently a man of his class to take this commonplace for granted, Augustus had nevertheless come to appreciate how vital it was to plumb their depths. His agents, over the course of the decades, had duly fathomed the city’s bowels. Registers of everything from prostitutes to snack bars had been assiduously compiled. Loose roof-tiles, dangerous paving-stones, leaking water-pipes: all had attracted the attention of ever more officious aediles. Plans of properties and lists of householders were drawn up in exacting detail. The image that haunted Ovid, of Augustus as the sun, his eye forever probing shadows, was one that the agents appointed to map the city, his many surveyors and officials, would doubtless have recognised. No matter that Rome’s snarl, away from the gold and marble of the Princeps’s grands projets, remained as much a warren as ever, the gaze of Caesar had come to penetrate even its darkest, most insalubrious corners. The great labyrinth of the vastest city on the planet, one that no one previously had ever before thought to trace, held few secrets from Augustus.

And knowledge, as so often, was power. It was a father’s right, of course, to track what those under his authority were up to – not just to punish them when they did wrong, but to keep them secure from peril. In Rome, potential calamity was only ever a spark away. In 7 BC, arsonists had started a fire that at one point had threatened the Forum itself with immolation. Augustus, responding to this near-calamity in predictable fashion, had sponsored yet more lists. Officials were instructed to ensure that even the meanest attic in a high-rise be armed with a bucket. Health and safety regulations like these, by ensuring that neighbourhoods were less likely to go up in flames, reaped the Princeps massive reward. In a tinder-box such as Rome, there existed no surer path to popularity than the provision to nervous citizens of a reliable fire service. Augustus was not the first to have realised this. Back in 19 BC, with the Princeps absent in the East, a bold and ambitious nobleman named Egnatius Rufus had funded his own supply of firefighters, ending up so popular in consequence that it had completely turned his head. Seduced into aiming at the consulship against the explicit wishes of Augustus, he had sent the proxies appointed by the Princeps to administer Rome scrabbling to contain the damage. In the event, the coup had fizzled out ingloriously. Egnatius’s attempt on the consulship had been suppressed, and Egnatius himself, flung into prison, had ‘there met with the end that his life so richly merited’.54 Augustus, though, had learnt his lesson. Only one man could be permitted to serve the city and its teeming masses as their guardian – and it was not Egnatius. Nothing to the benefit of the people but it was to proceed from the Princeps himself.

Which was why, despite their indignation at Julia’s fate, Augustus could feel confident that their demands for her return were unlikely to degenerate into rioting, or worse. Seen from the summit of the Palatine, the city’s smog-wreathed workshops and tower blocks might have appeared perfervid with menace: Rome’s heart of darkness, from which Clodius, in the dying days of the Republic, had recruited his paramilitaries, and from which mobs, reduced to skin and bone by the various wars of the Triumvirate, had periodically erupted. Those days, though, seemed over. Augustus himself, armed with maps and detailed breakdowns of the city’s population, had successfully brought order where before there had been only chaos. In 7 BC, prompted by his reform of the fire service, he had made a tour of Rome’s various neighbourhoods. Rather than venture into the shapeless tangle of side-alleys, he had focused his attention on the crossroads, thecompita, which stood at the heart of every district. These, like the knots of a giant net, spanned the city. Control the city and control the urban fabric. Augustus, like a master huntsman, knew what it took to make a catch.

The origins of the compita, so the Roman people believed, reached way back to the time when kings had ruled the city, and were the focus of intense local devotion and pride. Mysterious twin spirits, known as Lares, stood guard over them, and were celebrated every year in a wild festival named the Compitalia. Sacrifices were made before each crossroads shrine. Everyone, no matter how lowly, no matter how wretched, would be invited to join in the fun; even slaves would dress up for the occasion. All of which, not surprisingly, had long been regarded with deep suspicion by conservatives in the Senate. Their concern, though, was rooted in something more than simple snobbery. The Compitalia had often literally been a riot. This was why, in 64 BC, the Senate had voted to suppress it. Yet the ban had not lasted for long. Clodius, whose genius for street fighting had seen him refine it into a veritable political art, had made sure of that. Patronage of the festival had been a key factor in his ground-breaking brand of gangsterism. It had enabled him not only to recruit supporters, but to fashion them into a city-wide organisation. Compita, after all, were everywhere in Rome. ‘The city has a thousand Lares.’55

What Clodius had achieved, by transforming their shrines into hubs for his own personal ambitions, was not forgotten. The poor, it seemed, could provide even the most blue-blooded nobleman with a political base. This, as Egnatius’s abortive coup had demonstrated, was bound to serve power-hungry senators as a standing temptation. Clearly, then, the Princeps had been left with no choice but to put a stop to it for good. Rather than ban the Compitalia, though, as the Senate had always sought to do, he had made himself its patron. Augustus was never the man to suppress a venerable custom – not when he could twist it to his own ends. By touring the city’s crossroads, by centring the provision of firefighting and other services on them, and by gracing them with marks of his favour, he had won hearts and minds across the entire immensity of Rome. Potential trouble spots had been transformed by his initiative into nerve centres of the regime.

Even in the darkest slums, then, even in the very roughest quarters, the authority of the Princeps blazed radiantly. Early in 1 BC, when Gaius set out, via the frontier on the Danube, on his mission to the East, he did so from the great temple of Mars, surrounded by the marmoreal splendour of its colonnades, in the presence of the standards won back from Parthia, before the awful gaze of the war-god. No dirtying of sandals in the filth of the side-alleys for Caesar’s son. Yet there too, in the neighbourhoods beyond the new forum, his departure was much on people’s minds. Head from the temple of Mars into the steaming agglomeration of workshops, fast-food stalls and brothels known as the Suburra, then skirt southwards, and a citizen would come to an ancient street, named after the cobblers who had once lined it the Vicus Sandalarius.*2 At the end of the street was a compitum; and here, newly chiselled, stood an altar. It had been placed beside the crossroads just a few months earlier by the officers responsible for the adjoining quarters: men of thoroughly humble origin, but no less conscious of their dignity for that. There had certainly been no protests at Julia’s fate from these officials. Entrusted by Augustus with the key responsibilities of local government, permitted an escort of lictors on public holidays, men literally at the centre of all that went on in their neighbourhood, they could hardly have been more in the Princeps’s debt. The new altar set up beside the crossroads was an expression of their gratitude. One side was carved with laurel, another with trophies of victory. Its front featured Augustus and Livia, who were portrayed standing on either side of Gaius, gazing at him approvingly. Julia was notable by her absence. The officials who had commissioned the relief, raising their gaze from the swirl and clamour of their own little patch of Rome, could feel themselves, however tangentially, embroiled in global affairs. Mars was not the only god summoned to keep watch over Gaius on his travels. So too were the Lares; and so too a novel and awesome power now increasingly honoured alongside them. Instituted by the Princeps on his tour of the compita in 7 BC, its cult had already taken root across the whole of Rome, wherever there was a crossroads to be found and a new altar raised: the animating spirit, the Genius, of Caesar Augustus himself.

With divine backing of this order, it seemed out of the question that anything could go wrong for Gaius. ‘Grant him the popularity of Pompey, the boldness of Alexander, and my own good fortune.’56 So Augustus prayed. Nor were gods the only guardians he made sure to provide his adoptive son. Marcus Lollius, a veteran of numerous provincial commands who also, perhaps tellingly, had long enjoyed a bitter feud with Tiberius, was assigned to the young prince as his mentor, and to serve Augustus as his eyes and ears. Watched over by the heavens and guided by a seasoned counsellor, Gaius was soon winning golden opinions. Cutting a dash wherever he went, he processed through the cities of the East to the furthermost limits of Roman power. Here, on an island in the Euphrates, he enjoyed a flamboyant and successful summit with the king of Parthia; shortly afterwards, and he was busying himself with the slaughter of various barbarians, ‘for the better security of all mankind’.57 Unsurprisingly, news of Gaius’s progress was greeted with rapturous excitement back in Italy. The hopes invested by the Roman people in their favourite could hardly have been more promisingly fulfilled. ‘Not only had he governed well, but he had defeated or received into alliance the fiercest and most powerful of peoples.’58 The gods, it seemed, had been listening to his grandfather’s prayers.

Abruptly, though, they withdrew their favour. First, in a spectacular bust-up, Lollius was accused of taking bribes from various local potentates, and pressured into drinking poison. Then, late in AD 2, the devastating news reached Gaius that his brother Lucius had fallen sick and died in Gaul. The following year, meeting the commander of an Armenian fortress for a parley, Gaius himself only just survived a treacherous attempt on his life. Even though he went on to secure anotable victory over the Armenians, the wound his would-be assassin had given him failed to heal, and Gaius, his health and self-confidence shot, fast became a shadow of his former self. When he wrote to Augustus with a request to lay down his command, the Princeps ordered him home, and Gaius duly embarked on the long journey back from the eastern front. It was too late. Gangrene had set in. By mid-February AD 4, after an agonising journey across icy mountains and then by merchant vessel along the southern coast of Asia Minor, Gaius was finally ready to take ship for Italy. He never boarded it. On the 21st, the adopted son and appointed heir of Imperator Caesar Augustus breathed his last.

Back in Rome, the news broke like a thunderclap. Ovid, who had woven into his guide to seduction the stirring announcement that Gaius was destined to conquer Parthia, opted not to remove it from his published poem, but instead to let it stand, a memorial to high hopes raised and dashed. ‘Your twin fathers, Mars and Caesar – both have endowed you with their awesome power.’59 Sentiments such as this, transmuted from flattery into mockery by Gaius’s pathetic end, could hardly help but raise a sardonic smile in the circles where Ovid mixed. Out on the streets, it was different. There, grief at the fate of Julia’s two sons was raw. Once again, agitators took to demanding the return of their princess from over the water. Once again, Augustus refused. ‘Fire will sooner mix with water,’ he vowed, ‘than she will come back.’60 When they heard this, protestors lined the Tiber and hurled flaming torches into its currents. Even Augustus was unsettled. The continuing violence of the agitation, despite the fact that years had passed since the exile of his daughter, perturbed him. After a decent interval, so that he did not seem to be buckling under pressure, he gave orders for Julia to be transferred from her bleak and treeless prison to confinement in Rhegium, a naval base in the toe of Italy. It was hardly Rome; but even the dreariness of a provincial port was an improvement on Pandateria.

Nor was Julia alone in being sprung from an island confinement. For her erstwhile husband too, the past years had been difficult ones. Tiberius’s retirement to Rhodes had inexorably become an exile. Divorce from his wife, the necessary consequence of her adultery, had been a divorce from Augustus as well. Then, the following year, his grant of tribunicia potestas had expired, an ominous development for a man who had so wilfully alienated the Princeps. His legal immunity from insult and prosecution was no more. Tiberius, it appeared, had grievously miscalculated. Although, as a Claudian, he could still command influence across the Roman world, his prestige was in eclipse. Cities began to throw down his statues; puppet kings to snub him. Then, with Gaius’s arrival in the East, his plight had taken a further turn for the worse. One night, at a drunken dinner party, a companion of Tiberius’s stepson had offered to take ship to Rhodes and bring back the head of the ‘exile’, as he was derisively known. Gaius had refused – but when Tiberius, alarmed by news of the episode, asked for permission to head back for Rome, that too had been refused. A year had passed. Tiberius had continued to beg for an end to his exile. Finally, in AD 2, permission had been granted – but on humiliating terms. Though head of the Claudians, and his people’s greatest general, Tiberius was forbidden to take part in public life. When the news reached Rome of Gaius’s death, he was living in a location that could not have spoken more loudly of his retirement from both the Senate and military service: the gardens of Maecenas.

But now, abruptly, everything was transformed. Augustus faced a shattering moment of crisis. The loss of Gaius, the golden youth who had been both his son and his grandson, his ‘sweetest little donkey’,61 was more than a devastating personal blow. It had also ruined his dearest hopes for the succession. Of his five grandchildren, only three were now left him – and of these, two were girls. It was true that Agrippina, ambitious and self-assertive, ‘had a masculine cast of mind, with no concern for feminine foibles’62 – but the notion of a woman, no matter how able, ruling the world was clearly a nonsense. Julia, meanwhile, was quite another matter. Chic and flamboyant, she showed alarming signs of taking after her mother in more than name. To boast both the largest house in Rome and the smallest dwarf, as she did, was hardly the surest way to her grandfather’s heart. That left Agrippa, the posthumous son and namesake of Augustus’s great brother-in-arms; and sure enough, on 26 June AD 4, the Princeps duly adopted him as his son. The boy, though, was only fifteen – and Augustus, by now two decades nearer to the grave than he had been when adopting Gaius and Lucius, dreaded that time was running out. For all that he still looked youthful and serene in his statues, he was now sixty-six years old, by any reckoning an old man. Death might claim him at any moment. It was out of the question, after all his long labours, that he should put his achievements at risk by leaving the world in the hands of a child. That being so, there was really only one course open to him. Shortly after the news of Gaius’s death had reached Rome, Augustus arranged for Tiberius to be awarded a fresh grant of the tribunicia potestas. Then, along with Agrippa Postumus, he adopted at the same time a second son. Tiberius Claudius Nero became a Caesar.

It was, for Augustus, a painful compromise. True, there could be found in his adoption of two heirs an echo of the consulship, that venerable institution which had ensured for so long that no one man should wield supreme power in Rome – but that echo was deceptive. Augustus understood, none better, the true nature of the regime that he had forged; and he knew Tiberius. Agrippa Postumus was likely to prove no match for the flinty head of the Claudians. The Princeps had made his decision – and it was one that had, to all intents and purposes, sidelined his own flesh and blood. Not, of course, that he was prepared to acknowledge this. His regime remained publicly as Julian as ever. Tiberius, by virtue of his adoption, had ceased to rank legally as a Claudian at all. Not only that, but Augustus went to great lengths to ensure that the twin lines of his household, his own and that of Livia, would end up so tightly intertwined as to be indistinguishable. The robustly competent Agrippina was duly given in marriage to Tiberius’s nephew, the son of Drusus, that much mourned hero of the German front. Simultaneously, despite already having a son of his own, Tiberius was obliged by the Princeps to adopt Germanicus, as he was known in honour of his dead father. Julians and Claudians, their distinctiveness blurred by adoptions, their identities blended by marriage, were to share a common destiny. Proud and ancient though their two respective lines were, it was the glory of Augustus to offer both a resplendent new status. Neither Julian nor Claudian, the future was to belong instead to a single house: the August Family.

Such was the spin, at any rate. Plenty had their doubts. Agrippa himself, as the Julian most obviously blocking a Claudian monopoly on power, certainly had few illusions as to how exposed he was. Young and inexperienced, he made no attempt to hide his resentment from his grandfather. By the time that he came officially of age, a year after his adoption by Augustus, he had already developed a reputation for surliness and aggression. Out on the streets, though, the mood of violence was altogether more threatening to the Princeps’s plans. Enduring affection for Julia and her children combined with distaste for Claudian ambitions to render Tiberius a profoundly unpopular choice of heir. The stiffness which Tiberius himself prized as an ancestral Roman value was widely viewed by the urban poor as an expression of coldness and hauteur. The grant of tribunicia potestas to a man so unapologetically blue-blooded could not help but seem to the plebs a provocation. It was to protect the rights of the people that the office of tribune had first been instituted; and the Princeps, for as long as he had been at the centre of Roman affairs, had shown himself their protector and friend. But now, as Augustus aged and the power of Tiberius waxed, the plebs were gripped by a new mood of unease. Troubles came not as single spies, but in battalions. News of revolts and barbarian raids arrived from distant frontiers. Sardinia was briefly lost to pirates. Money to fund the military budget began to run out, and Augustus, in a desperate attempt to plug the gap, was reduced to introducing the first direct tax on Rome’s citizens for over a century and a half. Meanwhile, the great programme of urban regeneration, which had provided work for so many, was grinding to a halt. A plague broke out. Misery filled the crowded slums, and the pits of the carnarium, dumping grounds for carcasses and every kind of refuse, were kept open day and night. Then fires swept through the city, so devastating that they completely overwhelmed the ability of the local authorities to combat them, and the Princeps was left with no choice but to fund a new and centralised service. The Vigiles, crack squads of firefighters, were paramilitary in purpose as well as organisation, for they were mandated to police the streets as well as to put out conflagrations. That Rome was in an ominously combustible mood was all too clear to Augustus. Worse than plague, worse than fire, was the return to the city of a menace that had last gripped it back in the darkest days of the Triumvirate: famine. As a young man, Augustus had been cornered by a starving mob and almost torn to pieces. He knew what it was to look into the eyes of the hunger-stricken. Now, informed that the granaries were almost empty, he made sure to let everyone know that he was contemplating suicide.

There were plenty, it seemed, who wished he would act on his threat. Even though the grain shortage was ultimately mastered, the mood of crisis was not. Some were daring to think the unthinkable. The great fire, it was reported, had originated in different places across the city, ‘but all on the same day’,63 a clear sign of arson. Then, at the height of the famine, fly-posters had appeared on buildings across Rome, openly calling for the Princeps to be toppled. Attempts by his agents to trace their source had failed. No single man, they concluded, ‘could possibly have planned or initiated such a manifestation’.64 To the Princeps himself, though, the protests appeared anything but spontaneous. He sniffed conspiracy. Already, in the same year that he adopted Tiberius, he had uncovered a plot against his life by Pompey’s grandson. On that occasion, revealing through an imperious display of mercy the full force of his contempt, he had taken the conspirator to one side, given him a tongue-lashing, and then graciously permitted him to serve as consul. Such mercy could easily be afforded. A nobleman, even one with the blood of Pompey the Great flowing in his veins, presented no plausible threat. His peers, although brought to tolerate the supremacy of the August Family, would never permit one of their own to emerge as Princeps.

But what of conspiracy from within the August Family itself? That, Augustus knew, was where the surest menace lurked. Battered by fiscal crisis, struggling to combat the miseries that repeatedly swept Rome, grown neurotic and sour with age, he had no patience with family sentiment. When evidence was uncovered implicating Agrippa Postumus in sedition, the Princeps spared the nobleman involved in the plot but crushed his own grandson. Agrippa was formally disinherited, exiled from Rome, and then banished to a remote island off Corsica named Planasia. Here he was placed under a close military guard. His property was transferred to the military treasury. All mentions of him as a member of the August Family promptly ceased: he became a non-person.*3 Augustus himself never spoke of his youngest grandson again, except to refer to him and his mother Julia as two ulcers, two boils.

And soon a third would erupt. In AD 8, a decade after Julia’s ruin, news broke of an eerily similar scandal. Her daughter and namesake, already notorious for the raciness of her lifestyle and her taste in dwarves, was found guilty of adultery. A third member of the August Family was exiled to a barren island. Yet as with the elder Julia, so with the younger. Amid the swirl of innuendo, the gossip of sexual misdemeanours, there were whispers of vastly more serious offences. Rumours, garbled and contradictory though they often were, hinted at an attempted coup. There had been a plot, it was said, to spring the elder Julia and Agrippa Postumus from exile. Whole armies had been primed to expect them. Augustus, meanwhile, was to have been assassinated in the Senate House. Quite how accurate the various details of this conspiracy were, let alone how they might have fitted together, was impossible to clarify. Nevertheless, as workmen moved in to demolish the palatial complex of the younger Julia’s house, and guards waited to put to death the baby with which she was pregnant, it was clear that the charge of adultery veiled as much as it revealed. It was telling, for instance, that Julia’s husband, supposedly the injured party, should have been put to death as a criminal.65 Nor, perhaps, was it entirely a coincidence that another man too, someone long celebrated for his tweaking of the Princeps’s tail, should have been dealt a blow almost as devastating. Julia was not alone, that fateful year of AD 8, in being delivered a sentence of exile.66

Calamity caught up with Ovid on the island of Elba. Planasia, where the wretched Agrippa Postumus languished under armed guard, could be seen from where the poet was staying as a blue smudge on the horizon; a grim reminder of Augustus’s vengeful anger. Not that Ovid needed much reminding. He was already up to his neck in trouble. When a ship arrived from the mainland, the news it brought was so grim that it reduced him to tears. Havering initially between confession and denial, he finally broke down, and revealed all to the friend with whom he was staying. The wrath of the Princeps, which Ovid had long been courting, had finally caught up with him. His guide to seduction, in which he had advised women how to cheat behind the backs of their men, and paid ironic tribute to the dead Gaius as a favourite of the gods, was still being read by the trendsetters, still provoking smiles of amusement among the fast set: a feat of lèse-majesté for which the author, it appeared, was now at last to be made to answer. But there was worse. What exactly it was that Ovid had done, what the ‘mistake’67 that now threatened him with ruin, he would never publicly state; but he would go on to offer certain clues. His fault had been one that it was perilous to mention in public. He had seen something that he should not have done, ‘a deadly outrage’.68 Whatever it was that he had witnessed, it had served to bring down on his head ‘the richly merited wrath of Caesar’.69 In the tense and scandal-racked context of that fateful year, there was only one episode sufficient to explain such terrible fury. Whether by accident or as the result of his own imprudence, Ovid had clearly found himself sucked into the slipstream of Rome’s most lethal rivalry: the struggle between Julians and Claudians for the rule of the world.70

When Ovid boarded ship from Elba and bade his host farewell, it was the last time the two friends would ever see each other. That December, ‘shivering with the bitter cold’, the poet took another ship, ‘out into the waters of the Adriatic’.71Not for him, though, the short voyage to some island off the coast of Italy. Augustus, who had interviewed the desperate and repentant poet personally before settling his fate, had chosen for him a very different destination. For Ovid, that most urbane, most fashionable of men, the place nominated to serve as his prison could not have been more terrible.

He was bound for the ends of the earth.

Heart of Darkness

‘Nothing lies beyond it except for cold, and hostile peoples, and the frozen waves of an ice-bound sea.’72

Ovid was appalled to find himself in Tomis. It was very much not his kind of town. Planted centuries earlier by Greek colonists on the bleak and gale-lashed coast of the Black Sea, it stood on the outermost limits of Roman power. Even though Ovid was exaggerating grotesquely when he complained that Tomis was one perpetual winter, the reality of its balmy summers did little to ease his mood of depression.*4 It was hard to imagine a town less like Rome. The water was brackish. The food was appalling. No one spoke Latin, and even the Greek spoken by the Tomitans struck Ovid as halfway to gibberish. Surrounded as he was by treeless desolation, the pleasures of the world’s capital shimmered in his memory like hallucinations. ‘Here,’ he reflected mournfully, ‘it is I who am the barbarian.’73

To Ovid, a man as fashionable as anyone in Rome, it came as a shock to live among provincials who did not even realise that they were provincial. Within the low, crumbling fortifications of Tomis, there was no one to share with him his anguished homesickness for metropolitan chic. Beyond its walls, things were even more savage. The Danube, which lay some seventy miles to the north, featured on the maps of Caesar and his strategists as an immense natural frontier, a wide-flowing impediment to the brutes who lurked beyond it; but on the ground things were alarmingly different. During winter, when even the sea beyond the delta might turn to ice, the river would freeze solid; and then, mounted on swift ponies, their beards white with frost, barbarians from the savage wastes beyond the Danube would appear, predacious and unsparing. Plumes of smoke wisping above the sunless horizon would mark villages put to the torch, bodies left twisted by poisoned arrows, the survivors tethered and driven off with their belongings. In his nightmares, Ovid would imagine himself dodging missiles or else shackled in a coffle, and wake to find the rooftops bristling with a stubble of arrows. Looking out at the warbands as they circled the walls of Tomis, he would feel himself penned inside a sheepfold. Rome seemed not merely distant, but impotent. ‘For all her beauties, the vast majority of mankind barely registers her existence.’ It was, for a man as devoted to the metropolis as Ovid, a devastating discovery to make. ‘They do not fear the armed might of the Romans.’74

But there was even greater cause for anxiety. When Ovid looked at the Tomitans, he saw a people barely distinguishable from the barbarians at their gates. The men wore sheepskin trousers and were unspeakably hairy; the women carried water-pots on their heads. No one in Rome had lived like this for centuries. Back amid the gilded sophistication of his former life, Ovid had laughed at the nostalgia of the Princeps for the days of Romulus, and dismissed the first Romans as murderers, rapists, brutes. Now, transplanted to the ends of the earth, it was as though he had been exiled to the distant past as well. On the frontier between civilisation and barbarism, Ovid found himself in a realm where men seemed halfway to beasts – or worse. They were, he complained, ‘more savage than wolves’.75 Stranded on the margins of Roman power, he could gaze into the darkness that stretched far beyond it and feel its immensity, its potency, its colossal disdain for everything that he was. No wonder, marking the degenerate Greek spoken by his fellow townsmen, he began to fret that he might be losing his Latin. A potential for barbarism lurked within Romans too. The founder of their city, after all, had sucked on the teat of a wolf. Once, where now fountains burbled and porticoes offered shade to men of fashion, people had ‘lived like beasts’.76 Rome too, Ovid knew, had been one of the dark places of the world.

Perhaps, though, it was only out on the margins of civilisation, far from the fleshpots of the capital, that a man could properly appreciate just how far the Roman people had come since those distant days – and what the qualities were that had made possible their rise to greatness. Ovid, exiled to ‘a frontier zone just recently and precariously brought under the rule of law’,77 was having his metrosexual nose rubbed by the Princeps in a brutal fact. There could be no arts of peace without a mastery of war. It was not, in the final reckoning, good drains or gleaming temples, let alone a taste for poetry, that distinguished a civilised man from a savage, but steel: the steel it took to stand shield to shield in a line of battle, and then advance. Wolf-bred though a Roman was, his proficiency at inflicting slaughter was not that of a wild beast. Training, rigid and relentless, had forged him into a single link in a mighty chain. A soldier was not permitted to marry: his comrades were all he had. A legion was less a pack of animals than it was a killing machine. Soldiers worshipped Mars as Gradivus – the god who gave them the courage to advance, step by measured step, obedient to the blasts of the war-trumpet, no matter what the danger. Against their relentless, heavy tread, there was little prospect of victory. Even the wildest, most bloodthirsty warband, when it charged a legion, was liable to break in the end. Unlike the savages from across the Danube, ‘always descending like birds when least expected’,78 a Roman army was schooled in endurance. Its soldiers had been trained, no matter what, to eviscerate a foe, advance, and then, covered in blood, to eviscerate again. Had they not been, then their aptitude for inflicting slaughter on those who dared to oppose them would never have become so potent. ‘It is discipline, strict military discipline, that is the surest guardian of Roman power.’79

Everything followed from this: the refusal to buckle in the face of setbacks; the dogged pursuit of victory, no matter how seemingly insuperable the odds; the patience to persevere in the face of repeated reversals and revolts. The Balkans, rather than the desolation of untamed menace that Ovid imagined them to be, were in fact, by the time of his arrival in Tomis, almost tamed for good. The process had been long and gruelling. Many years had passed since the future Augustus, eager for martial glory, had proclaimed the pacification of Illyria, and Crassus, a decade later, routed the Bastarnians. The greatest feats of all had been achieved by Tiberius, who in the years before his retirement to Rhodes had subdued what is now Hungary, a savage region infested by wild boars and even wilder tribesmen. The Pannonians, as they were called, were to prove themselves inveterately rebellious. Sporadic bushfires of revolt had combined, in AD 6, into a single terrifying conflagration. Merchants had been slaughtered, isolated detachments wiped out, Macedonia invaded. In the face of this devastating insurgency, even the Princeps had panicked. Unless urgent steps were taken, he had warned the Senate in hysterical tones, the Pannonians would be at the gates of the city in ten days. Fortunately, back from Rhodes, Rome’s best general had once again been his to command. Tiberius, patient and relentless, was ideally suited to the crushing of guerillas. As attentive to the welfare of his own men as he was to the risks of ambush, he had blocked his ears to the shrill demands from the capital for immediate results. Slow and steady did it. ‘The safest course, in the opinion of Tiberius, was the best.’80 Week by week, month by month, he had broken the Pannonians. Their surrender had finally come in AD 8, a mass prostration before the victorious general on a river bank. The following year, even as Ovid was gawping in alarm at his first sight of barbarians, fire and slaughter were being visited upon the final, mountainous strongholds of rebellion in the Balkans. After the young Germanicus, entrusted with his first command, had proved himself as ineffectual as he was dashing, Tiberius moved in to deliver the coup de grâce. The pacification was complete at last. A vast block of territory, stretching from the Black Sea to the Adriatic and from Macedonia to the Danube, had been secured for good. Tiberius richly merited the gratitude of the Princeps and the approbation of his fellow citizens. ‘Victory, her wings beating as ever above Rome’s great general, had wreathed his bright hair with laurel.’81

But there remained work to be done. Ovid was not alone in marking how barbarians beyond the Danube were perfectly capable of negotiating the immense flow of its waters. Even the most formidable of natural boundaries could be crossed. The implications, for those tasked with securing the frontier, were tantalising as well as troubling. It remained the proud boast of the Roman people that their conquests were never made for conquest’s sake. Their wars were fought, not out of avarice or blood lust, but rather to safeguard their city’s honour and the interests of their allies. They had subdued the world, in effect, in self-defence. This was why, in the opinion of Roman statesmen, ‘our global dominion may more properly be termed a protectorate’.82 Would the heavens otherwise have permitted it to come about? Merely to ask the question was to answer it, of course. Clearly, then, it was for the world’s own good that it be placed, to its outermost limits, under the tutelage of Rome. The long and glorious age of peace presided over by Augustus rested, in his own proud words, on ‘the subjection of the entire globe to the rule of the Roman people’.83 In practice, of course, as all those peering across the Danube were well aware, the subjection of the globe still had a way to run. Yet that it would come, and to the benefit of those conquered as well as of the conquerors themselves, was a conviction the Roman elite increasingly took for granted. The promptings of ambition and responsibility alike, not to mention obedience to the self-evident will of the gods, urged continued expansion. At stake was the ultimate in prizes: ‘empire without limit’.84

What this meant in practical terms could best be seen beyond the currents of a river almost as broad and formidable as the Danube itself: the Rhine. When Augustus, looking to win the favour of the war god, had planted a temple of Mars on its western bank, he had dedicated to the shrine, in a formidable statement of intent, the sword of Julius Caesar. The conquest of Gaul, which had successfully drained for good a great sump of pestiferous barbarism, was the obvious model to follow. Caesar himself, in pacifying the western reaches of the Rhine, had recognised that he could not afford to leave the eastern bank to its own devices. Twice he had bridged the river; twice he had delivered to the Germans who lurked beyond it a punitive demonstration of Roman might.*5 Decades on, it remained as pressing a task as ever to whip the various tribes beyond the border into line. Gaul could not be policed adequately, still less fattened up into the cash-cow it otherwise promised to become, with savages forever breaking in from across the Rhine. This had been embarrassingly brought home in 17 BC, when Marcus Lollius, the future guardian of Gaius, had accidentally run into a German warband, suffering the loss of an eagle. Depending on who reported it, this defeat had ranked as either a fleeting discomfiture, speedily rectified by Lollius himself, or else a crippling blow to Roman prestige, almost on a par with the defeat of Crassus. Whatever the truth of the incident, it had decided the Princeps, ever cautious, ever decisive, to adopt an altogether more proactive response to the problem of the Germans. Travelling north of the Alps, he had personally set in train a momentous series of policies. The better to tax it, Gaul had been subjected to an intrusive census. A mint, guarded by an elite squad of a thousand paramilitaries, had been set up in the recently founded colony of Lugdunum – the future Lyon. Gold and silver, coined in prodigious quantities, loaded into wagons and transported northwards along an ever-expanding network of roads, had given a prodigiously muscular heft to the Roman presence in the West. Spasms of resentment in Gaul had been brutally stilled; a chain of six legionary fortresses built along the line of the Rhine; licence given by Augustus to cross the river and embark on the pacification of Germany itself. A feat as great and terrible as any in the history of Roman arms now beckoned: the winning for civilisation of the outermost limits of the world.

‘It takes courage to advance into a forbidden realm of shadow.’85 When Drusus, on his final campaign, had found himself hundreds of miles east of the Rhine, on the banks of a second mighty natural barrier, a river named the Elbe, a spectre in the form of a colossal woman had materialised before him and forbidden him to cross it. That the lands of the north were the haunt of phantoms and hideous monsters came as no surprise. In the gloomy forests which covered vast reaches of Germany, giant bull-like creatures roamed, and mysterious entities named elks, without ankles or knees; in the icy waters of the Ocean, which would retreat and then advance twice a day, tearing loose oak trees and engulfing entire plains beneath their flood-tides, there shimmered ‘the outline of enigmatic beings – half-men, half-beast’.86 Just as Ovid, peering askance at the Tomitans, had fingered them as lycanthropes, so in the savage reaches of Germany were the borders between animal and human even more unsettlingly blurred. Chieftains who wished for a policy briefing, it was reported by Roman scholars who had made a close study of German customs, were likeliest to consult a horse. Conversely, ‘the towering stature of the Germans, their fierce blue eyes and reddish hair’,87 spoke of a nature barely less bestial than that of some steel-clawed bear, padding over mountain slopes. Geography could not be bucked. Their bogs and trees shrouded in a perpetual drizzle, Germans were the spawn of their environment. The gods, who had considerately endowed Rome with a climate ideally suited to the growth of a mighty city, had doomed the inhabitants of the chilly North to a backwardness that was at once torpid and ferocious, dull and intemperate. Landscape, weather, people: Germany was unredeemably savage.

Or was it? Much the same, after all, could once have been said of the Gauls. Bad memories of them in Rome ran very deep. Back in 390 BC, a Gallic horde had erupted into Italy, annihilated six whole legions and sacked the city itself. Only with the conquests won by Augustus’s deified father had Gaul finally ceased to be a place of dread. Now, fifty years on, great changes were afoot beyond the Alps. Roman rule had brought to a people once notorious for their trousers and their gravy-soaked moustaches, their drunken brawling and their taste for collecting heads, a very different way of life. The grandsons of chieftains who had hurled themselves half-naked against the invading legions now draped themselves in the toga and rejoiced in the name of ‘Julius’. Rather than guzzle wines indiscriminately, they were coming to develop a nose for the classiest Italian and Eastern grands crus – and even, remarkably, to plant the odd vineyard themselves. Most promisingly of all, dotted across a landscape that had previously boasted only villages and rough stockades perched on hills, cities were starting to appear: islands of civilisation complete with flashy monuments and street-grids. Augustus, who had brought the fruits of peace to his fellow citizens, had brought them to the Gauls as well. Foundation after foundation duly proclaimed its gratitude: Augustodurum and Augustomagus, Augustobona and – just to vary things – Caesarobona. The most spectacular of all the Gallic monuments to the Princeps had been raised by Drusus in Lugdunum, where an altar to Rome and Augustus, complete with a double ramp and two giant winged statues of Victory, had been inaugurated in 12 BC.88 It provided, on neutral ground, and in a city that served as the hub of the provincial road system, a focus of loyalty for the whole of Gaul. Noblemen from more than sixty different tribes had flocked to its opening. As its first high priest, a man had been elected whose name, Gaius Julius Vercondaridubnus, perfectly expressed in its fusion of the native with the Roman the emerging mestizo order. Something startling had begun to glimmer: a future in which the Gauls, perhaps, would no longer rank as barbarians at all. ‘Enslaved as they have been, and living as their captors instruct them to live, they are all of them now at peace.’89

And if the Gauls, why not the Germans? Admittedly, it was taken for granted by the Roman high command that the further from civilisation they advanced, the wilder and more obdurate their opponents were bound to become; but the two and a half decades of their campaigning beyond the Rhine gave them good grounds for hope. The priority, of course, had been the same as it ever was with barbarians: to demonstrate that resistance was futile. Season after season, columns of legionaries had duly tramped eastwards out of their winter quarters. Most of the German tribes, confronted by the steel-lined scale and sophistication of Roman military operations, had ended up offering churlish submission. One of them, the most ferocious of all, had even donated to Augustus as a token of their friendship the most precious object in their possession, a great bronze cauldron consecrated by the blood spilled into it from the slit throats of their prisoners. Any opposition, it went without saying, had been dealt with in brisk and imperious fashion. Tiberius, confronted by one of the tribes who had presumed to steal Lollius’s eagle, had coolly rounded up all 40,000 of its members and dumped them on the far side of the Rhine. Deportations, though, had been the least of it. Massacres and mass enslavement had repeatedly served to rub German noses in the brute fact of Roman power. The very landscape had come to bear the invaders’ stamp. Canals had been scored across the watery flatlands; roads cleared through the forests; pontoons laid out over bogs. Even the mighty Elbe, for all that it had stood proof against the ambitions of Drusus, had been vanquished in the end. No phantom women had appeared when, almost a decade on, another Roman army had arrived on its banks. At its head there had ridden a nobleman by the name of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, or ‘Bronze Beard’: a legate who more than compensated for the notorious quality of his cruelty and arrogance by being married to Antonia, the elder of the Princeps’s two nieces. He had crossed over the Elbe – a momentous achievement. The river, according to the most up-to-date calculations of the best cartographers, was believed to be almost as close to China as it was to the Atlantic. By compelling the tribes on its far bank to acknowledge Roman authority, Ahenobarbus had brought the giddy dream of global rule that much closer to fulfilment. With the Germans pacified for good, who would there be to stop Rome’s onward march to the eastern Ocean?

It had taken the Princeps’s deified father ten years to bring Gaul to heel; and his own armies, by AD 9, had been operating in Germany for more than double that time. Ahenobarbus, before departing the Elbe for the security of his winter quarters, had erected on its far bank an altar to Augustus. It was the second such monument he had established during his term of office. The first, planted at the opposite end of Germany, stood on the western bank of the Rhine, in the lands of a tribe, the Ubians, who had been firm allies of Rome since the time of Julius Caesar. The twin altars, framing as they did the vast expanses in between, served as potent symbols of Augustus’s gathering confidence that what had for so long been a war zone was ready at last to be settled as a province. The prize was a rich one – potentially much richer than had first been thought. Germany, it turned out, offered more than merely swamps and forests. There were rich agricultural lands as well, and supplies of iron, and fine-quality goose-down, and a curious concoction fashioned out of goat lard and ashes named ‘soap’. Already, since its introduction to Rome, high society had come to swear by it. In a city that had always valued blondes, this was perhaps only to be expected. Used in the right proportions, the miraculous product could give a hint of gold to even the dullest locks. Fashion victims, it was true, had to be careful not to go overboard: excessive application had been known, on a few calamitous occasions, to result in women going bald. Here too, though, it was a German export that provided the remedy. Ovid, in the happy days before his exile, had exulted in the boost given by the conquest of Germany to the potential sex appeal of his girlfriends. ‘Send for the tresses of German prisoners,’ the poet had advised one lover after an unfortunate accident with hair dye. ‘You’ll look splendid, adorned in the tribute shorn off all those victims of our triumphs.’90

Nevertheless, prized though auburn wigs were, the real wealth of Germany was to be found, not in the hair of its women, but in the sword-arms of its men. Like a wild beast tamed to human purposes, a barbarian brought to acknowledge Roman superiority could, with careful handling, be trained in the requirements of military discipline. Combine these with his own native muscle and ferocity, and the result could hardly fail to be impressive. Just how impressive, indeed, was evident from the patronage of Augustus himself. The Princeps, who could have recruited warriors from any corner of the world to serve him as his bodyguards, had opted for Germans. Nostalgia for the simple days of Romulus had doubtless predisposed him to recognise in these hairy primitives certain welcome virtues. Savages they might be – but they were noble savages. Lacking the benefits of civilisation, they also lacked its degeneracies. ‘No one in Germany finds vice a laughing matter.’91 There, it was reliably reported, adultery in a woman was punished by shaving her bald, stripping her naked and whipping her the length of her village. Instincts as robust as these, if they could only be put to the service of Rome, promised much benefit.

The Ubians, with their long track-record of loyalty, had been serving alongside the legions since the time of Julius Caesar; but the widening of operations eastwards had required the enrolment of auxiliaries from tribes across Germany. One of these, a people named the Batavians, warriors of exceptional prowess who inhabited the watery flatlands where the Rhine met with the Ocean, had been signed up wholesale. Other tribes, less amenable to Roman blandishments, were subject to more targeted recruitment. When Tiberius, shortly before his posting to Pannonia, had followed in his brother’s footsteps by leading an amphibious expedition to the Elbe, he had made sure to woo the elites in his path with honours, grants of citizenship and glamorous commands. The results, amid the traumatic convulsions of the revolt in Pannonia, had stood Rome in good stead. In the Balkans, German contingents had served Tiberius loyally and well. Meanwhile, in Germany itself, the tribes had remained at peace. No attempt had been made to capitalise upon Rome’s distraction. The Princeps’s instincts appeared proven correct. Germany had been won for civilisation. It was ready to be given laws, a census, taxes: to become a province.

In AD 9, even as Tiberius was visiting fire and death upon the Balkans, travellers to the northern frontier would have found a very different scene. The Rhine was less a frontier than a highway. The markers of Rome’s military presence were, of course, everywhere to be seen: sprawling legionary bases, supply depots, ships loaded with battle-engines churning up the river. Not all the traffic, though, was military. Boats carried grain as well as troops, barrels of wine as well as horses. Though most of this produce was destined for the messhalls of the some 60,000 soldiers who constituted the occupation force, by no means all of it was. As in Gaul, so in Germany: the provincial authorities were eager to give the natives a taste of Roman living. In the territory of the Ubians, the altar to Augustus erected by Ahenobarbus was already coming to provide an equivalent to Lugdunum, a cult centre and capital rolled into one. Patches of concrete were starting to dot the river bank. Even beyond the Rhine, in the dreary expanses where men thought nothing of sporting topknots and tight trousers, and women draped themselves in low-cut animal skins, it was no longer all wattle-and-daub. The odd refuge from barbarism was being painstakingly developed. Fifty miles and more east of the Rhine, it was now possible for travellers to enjoy a taste of the urban: raw, half-built settlements, it was true, but endowed with water pipes, and apartment blocks, and statues of Augustus.*6 Clearly, if a stone forum could be built amid the wilds of Germany, then it could be built anywhere. The future looked bright indeed. ‘With cities being founded, and the barbarians adapting to a whole new way of living, they were on their way to becoming Roman.’92

Naturally, some regions remained more secure than others. For twenty years now, ever since the time of Drusus, the surest road taken by the legions into the heart of Germany had been along the course of a river named the Lippe. Flowing westwards as it did into the Rhine, its waters provided Roman shipping with ready access to the vitals of barbarian territory. The same bristling array of camps and supply depots that marked the frontier with Gaul now lined the Lippe. No longer, though, for the occupying forces, was the advance along its banks necessarily a march into a heart of darkness. The provincial authorities could now rely on sympathisers within the tribes themselves to assist in the ongoing project of pacification. North of the Lippe, for instance, strategically placed midway between the Rhine and the Elbe, were the lands of a people named the Cherusci. Fractious though they had proven in the early years of Roman engagement in Germany, Tiberius had since brought them decisively to heel. Their chiefs, like many others, had been wooed and recruited as auxiliaries. Service alongside the legions had provided them with an immersive crash-course in Roman military culture. Typical was a young chieftain named Arminius, who had returned home to his tribal homeland fluent in Latin and garlanded with honours. Not merely a Roman citizen, he now ranked as an equestrian. ‘Battle-hardened, quick-witted, and with an intelligence well in advance of the normal barbarian’,93 he was ideally qualified to serve the provincial authorities as their eyes and ears in the tribal heartlands. Arminius had been schooled in the modus operandi of the legions. He knew how their commanders thought. He understood their ambition to tighten Rome’s grip on those zones where her writ as yet ran only feebly. Accordingly, when he brought news to the provincial authorities that a revolt was brewing in the northern reaches of Germany, where the legions had only sporadically penetrated, he received a ready hearing. Rebellions were best nipped in the bud. Though summer was already fading, it did not take long for three of the five legions stationed in Germany to be commissioned with crushing the insurgency. Off the legionaries duly set. Heading out along trackways long since cleared by military engineers, there was nothing at first to obstruct the task force, no one to block its passage. Viewed from a distance, it would have seemed less a column of men, horses and wagons than some monstrous and predatory beast. Like a serpent it snaked and glittered, but the very earth shook with its passage.

In command rode the man who had issued the legions with their marching orders. Publius Quinctilius Varus, Augustus’s legate in the region, was a man experienced in stamping out bushfires. A decade earlier, when faced, as governor of Syria, with a series of Jewish uprisings, he had proved more than equal to the challenge. It was not his capabilities as a general, though, that had principally recommended him to the Princeps. Augustus, ever careful to whom he gave the command of five legions, trusted Varus as his own creature: a man who had been married to one of Agrippa’s daughters, and then to his own great-niece. Such a consideration would have counted for nothing, though, had Varus not also demonstrated throughout his career impressive competence in the various duties expected of a provincial governor: the provision of internal security; the administration of justice; the screwing of the natives for taxes. These, in Augustus’s opinion, were precisely the talents that the semi-formed province beyond the Rhine now urgently demanded. After decades in which Roman leaders had only ever shown themselves to the Germans at the head of an army, Varus had begun to offer them a glimpse of something else. Peace, after all, had its own awesome aspects. The toga, the lictors, the fasces: these too, when it came to persuading barbarians to pay Roman taxes and to obey Roman laws, had their roles to play. Yes, Varus would not hesitate to apply devastating military force when necessary; but it was his intention, now that Germany was conquered, to win the peace as well as the war.

Passing through the lands of the Cherusci, the governor could feel reassured that his strategy was the correct one. As a general at the head of some 18,000 troops, he presented his hosts with the same show of martial invincibility that Germans everywhere had learned to dread; but as the legate of Augustus, he was simultaneously the face of Roman peace and order. Ties of mutual advantage had come to bind both provincial administrators and German warlords; if Varus had any cause to doubt this, he had only to look at his own retinue. There, riding with his auxiliaries, ever ready with advice, giving it in fluent Latin, was Arminius, prince of the Cherusci and Roman equestrian. As Varus and his legions headed further north, into regions where Rome’s military engineers had rarely ventured, the guidance of a man familiar with such uncertain paths as did exist through the forests and marshes was invaluable. When Arminius offered to scout ahead of the column’s vanguard, to check for ambushes and to clear the way, Varus naturally accepted. Who better than one of their compatriots, after all, to catch the insurgents napping?

Arminius, though, did not come back. Nor did any of the other detachments that Varus had sent out. The seeming explanation was not long in coming. Labouring through thick forest, preoccupied with felling trees and bridging ravines, the long and straggling Roman column was surprised by a sudden rattling of spears. From the deepest shadows they came; and as rain began to fall, turning the mountainside to mud and thickening the gloom, so the pattering of iron javelin-heads turned to a hail. The legionaries, prevented by the terrain from taking up their customary battle formations, had no choice but to toil on through the darkness of the forest, stumbling over the grasping roots and the corpses of their fallen comrades, until at last they reached a spot sufficiently open to serve them as a camp. Here, as the soldiers hurried to raise earthen palisades, and rain steamed and hissed into their watchfires, Varus was able to take stock. His situation was less than perfect, but hardly critical. Ambushes had always been an occupational hazard of campaigning beyond the Rhine. Even Drusus had suffered a few. The key, when pinned down in a hostile landscape, was to travel light and play things safe. Accordingly, Varus gave orders for the wagons in his train to be burned, the better to expedite an about-turn to the security of Rome’s militarised zone. With awkward terrain both to the north and south of him, the route that he settled on was the obvious, indeed the only one. Skirting dense forest and mountains, it would take him and his legions through what was marked on Roman charts as ‘Teutoburgiensis Saltus’ – the Teutoburg Pass.*7

Accordingly, the next day, the long column of soldiers wound like a waking serpent out of its night camp, and headed into open country. To the left of the Romans rose oak-covered hills; to their right, a lush expanse of meadows and marshland, dotted with abandoned farmsteads and bright with the wildflowers of late summer. Nervous muleteers, ripping up handfuls of grass, began stuffing them into the bells slung around the necks of pack-animals, anxious to muffle the clappers. A wise precaution. Attacks were still coming whenever the woods along the path thickened. Varus, though, scorned to pursue his assailants. The barbarians, spectral troops emerging from out of the trees to hurl their weapons before receding and vanishing again, could hinder but not halt the column’s advance. After three days of running battles, the legionaries had only been confirmed in their deep contempt for the German way of war. Weary and grimed with blood though they were, and despite the trail of corpses in their wake, they knew that in all the qualities required of a soldier, whether training, equipment or discipline, they still ranked as infinitely the superior. No wonder that the insurgents, lacking as they did even rudimentary armour, and armed only with weapons of crudely forged iron, refused to stand and fight. Instead, like insects bred of some undrained bog, they swarmed, and buzzed, and bit.

The third day of marching, and the marshes to the right of the legions, as though in mockery of the pestilential quality of their adversaries, were starting to darken and spread. Meanwhile, to their left, the forests on the hills were getting thicker. The wilds of Germany had never seemed so savage – nor the security of the militarised zone, with its camps, its hot baths, and its paved roads leading to the outside world, more enticing. On the legions tramped.

It began to rain. Ahead, grey and dim through the drizzle, loomed a forested spur jutting out from the line of the hills. Rather than attempt to clamber directly across it, the legionaries swung northwards, following its curve. As they did so, they found the bogs closing in on them. Streams scored the pathway, and the mud began to deepen into mire. Splashing and slipping, the legionaries stumbled on. Only at the very edge of the marshes was there anything like firm footing to be found – but it was impossible even for the most professional of soldiers to keep to the trackway, narrow and irregular as it was, and retain their coherence as a column. As a result, the further the legions advanced along the base of the hill, the more they began to lose order. Still worse, though, was to come. The column, even as it began to disintegrate, was being funnelled along its left flank, not by the natural contours of the hill, but by walls built of strips of turf, and topped with a palisade. Had any of the legionaries paused amid the driving rain and the chaos of the advance to study these impediments, then they would have recognised something startling about their design: that it bore the unmistakable stamp of their own construction methods. What were the walls doing there – and why would anyone trained in Roman warcraft have wanted to build them along the margins of a barbarian swamp? Perhaps, the obvious, the only answer had begun to dawn on some even before the harsh, reverberating war-cry for which the Germans were notorious abruptly sounded above the drumming of the rain; before spears in a deadly hail began to shred the length of Varus’s line; before the slaughter became general. But by then, of course, it was too late.

The ambush was total. To the legionaries, it was as though monsters bred of the forest’s own stock and stone were emerging from behind their ramparts to attack them, howling in barbarous tongues, thousands upon thousands, a horde vast beyond anything that a single tribe could possibly have mustered. No time, though, to take stock. The chaos in the Roman column was complete. Already, bodies punctured with spears lay awash in the shallows of the bog; now came an even deadlier harvesting. Swords slashing and hacking at the legionaries fashioned bloody havoc. Disoriented, rain-blinded, panicking, the soldiers had no prospect of taking up battle stations. Within minutes their column was irrevocably broken. Piles of the dead lay strewn along the reddening foreshore. The wounded, their entrails spilling into the mud or their bones broken, screamed for mercy, but there was none to be had, and their assailants moved among them, spearing or bludgeoning the dying wherever they lay. Soon, all along the reeking strand, the barbarians were fanning out, hunting what survivors remained. Some had sought to flee into the marshes, but there was no escape to be had there, only the sucking of mud among the reeds as their assailants waded after them. One of the standard-bearers, wrenching his eagle from its post, had wrapped it in his cloak and plunged with it beneath the bloody swamp-waters – but to no avail. Both he and his eagle, along with the two other standards, were taken. Meanwhile, those in the rear of the column had been frantically turning tail; but they too were hunted down. Only a very few, by hiding among the trees like beasts, managed to evade the pursuit. Otherwise, of the army led by Varus into the Teutoburg Pass, three whole divisions of the most formidable fighting force on the planet, there was no one left. The massacre was absolute.

Varus himself, desperate not to be taken prisoner, had fallen on his sword. Other officers were not so lucky. Rather than dispatch them along with the other Roman wounded, the victors had rounded them up alive. The captives had a dark foreboding of the horrors now in store. Everyone who served in Germany had heard tales of the deadly rituals practised by the natives in their swamps and groves. Their gods were greedy for human blood. Variety was the spice of death. And so it proved. Some prisoners found themselves being herded stumbling through the shallows of the marsh, then bound securely, and drowned where the mud was deepest; others were led into the forest. Here, where huge numbers of the barbarians had assembled, those officers with a particular grasp of German affairs had their best and last opportunity to work out just what might have happened to their army. No one tribe could possibly have summoned the numbers that had erupted from the woods above the pass. Someone, somehow, had forged a confederation out of the notoriously disputatious barbarians. No chance, though, to enquire directly. ‘At last, you viper, you have ceased to hiss.’94 So cried one German in triumph to a prisoner whose mouth he had sewn up after first hacking out the tongue. It was possible, though, for those whose eyes had not been gouged out, to look around them as they were being dragged to their deaths, and to mark one barbarian in particular who was presiding supreme over the rituals. His identity, to the officers who had long thought of him as a comrade, would have come, on a day of horrors, as one final, deadly shock. As their throats were slashed open, or they choked at the end of ropes slung over a tree, or waited kneeling for their heads to be severed with the blow of a sword, they would have known that the man who had destroyed both them and the dearest ambitions of Imperator Caesar Augustus was that princely equestrian of the Roman people, Arminius.

Cherchez la Femme

Tiberius was badly prone to spots. Tall, muscular and well proportioned, with piercing eyes that could supposedly see in the dark, and sporting the mullet that had long marked the Claudians as tonsorial trendsetters, he was by any reckoning handsome – except for the pimples. They would suddenly erupt all over his cheeks in a violent rash. Good-looking though he was, he never could stop the acne.

The blaze of a great feat too might end up spotted. Tiberius’s record of service to Rome was on a par with that of the greatest generals in the city’s history, and yet repeatedly he had found his victories tarnished by sudden disasters. In 9 BC, his victories in the Balkans had been overshadowed by the death of his brother in Germany; in AD 6, his string of successes in Germany by rebellion in the Balkans. Now, in the hour of his supreme achievement, the news arrived in Rome of a calamity beyond the city’s worst nightmares. The numerous celebrations scheduled to mark the final defeat of the Pannonian insurgents were abruptly cancelled. A triumph was out of the question while the slaughtered remains of three legions lay as food for German wolves and ravens. The Roman people gave themselves over to mourning – but also to panic. A primordial dread, which the vastness and sweep of their conquests had served only to pacify, not eliminate, flared back into life: of barbarians descending on them from the depths of the gloomy north, erupting into Italy, crashing over their defences, making their city flow with blood. Reports that three great columns of fire had been seen rising above the Alps did nothing to calm nerves; nor a sudden plague of locusts in the capital itself. The presumption of Roman invincibility, which the Roman people themselves had come almost to believe, gave way among many citizens to its opposite: a despairing conviction that their empire was doomed.

Alarm was hardly eased by the evident twitchiness of the Princeps himself. To a man who had entrusted his own security to German troops, the revelation of Arminius’s treachery came as a bitter personal blow. His guards were hurriedly reassigned to a variety of inaccessible islands. Other Germans in the capital, no matter their business, were expelled, while a state of emergency was declared on the city’s streets. Meanwhile, in a house now safely denuded of barbarians, Augustus roamed around refusing to have his hair cut, and banging his head against doors. All his life, he had known with a supreme genius how to make play with the shadow-zone that lurked between appearance and reality: not just to veil his own power before his fellow citizens, but also, beyond the limits of Rome, to intimidate all who presumed to doubt Roman might. The agitation that he had betrayed in the Senate when brought news of the Pannonian revolt had shown how alert he was to the element of bluff in this; but now, in the wake of the disaster in Germany, he found himself staring it full in the face. How was his great innovation of a standing army to cope with such a shock? The military foundations on which Roman supremacy depended, tested already to their limits in Pannonia, now stood revealed as alarmingly slight. Twenty-eight legions had been serving as the empire’s garrison – a total reduced, after a single day’s slaughter, by a ninth. The shock to Augustus’s confidence was hardly surprising. Never at his best in a military crisis, the howl with which he repeatedly rent the Palatine mingled impotence with fury. ‘Quinctilius Varus, give back my legions!’95

A vain prayer, of course. Instead, some other way had to be found to plug the gap. Already, the insurgency in the Balkans had stretched Rome’s reserves of manpower almost to breaking point. Now, with the whole northern frontier in flames, the Princeps was left with no alternative but to impose measures that his lengthy stewardship of the Republic was supposed to have done away with: the summoning of veterans out of retirement, forced conscription, the execution of malingerers. At the head of this makeshift army of the north, barely rested though he was from the rigours of the Balkans, rode the only conceivable candidate for the job, Rome’s man for a crisis, as tireless as he was able. Five years earlier, arriving in Germany, Tiberius had been greeted by those who had previously served under him with effusive displays of emotion. Veterans familiar with his painstaking style of generalship had mobbed him with tears in their eyes, yelling out their battle honours and hailing his return. Now, with the screams of Varus’s legions echoing in every soldier’s imagination, the arrival on the Rhine of a general famed for refusing to risk the lives of his men with pointless displays of machismo was all the more welcome. Showboating was absolutely not what the crisis required.

Instead, the desperate need was for retrenchment. So grievous had been the blow dealt by Arminius to Rome’s prestige and manpower that everywhere north of the Alps now seemed at risk. Steadily, remorselessly, as was ever his way, Tiberius set about the task of shoring up Roman authority. First Gaul, then the defences along the Rhine were stabilised. Girt around as they were by formidable palisades, and protected by the natural moat of the river, the huge camps on the western bank that for decades had provided the legions in Germany with their winter bases remained secure. East of the Rhine, it was a different story. There, a devastating firestorm kindled in the wake of Arminius’s victory had overwhelmed the forward bases of Rome’s push towards the Elbe. Half-finished towns stood abandoned. Statues of Augustus lay smashed amid rubble and weeds. Skeletons littered charred fortresses. Only a single base had been successfully evacuated – but that too, the moment the hurried withdrawal from it had been completed, had gone up in flames. It was as though the entire infrastructure of occupation had never been.

Familiar as he was with the perils of guerilla warfare, Tiberius knew better than to plunge into an untamed wilderness before first making sure of his rear. Lacking in drama though this task might be, it was no less critical for that. For a year and more, Tiberius duly confined himself to firming up the Rhine defences. Military bases were upgraded; units transferred from other provinces; the conscripts from Italy integrated into the overall command. By AD 11, eight legions stood camped out along the Rhine where before there had been only five, while in Gaul barely a horse was left. Only now did Tiberius finally venture to the far side of the river. The sorties were predictably punitive. Crops and villages were burned. Military roads were cleared of nettles. A zone along the entire eastern bank of the Rhine was secured. From here, were it to prove the wish of the Princeps, the reconquest of Germany could certainly be attempted – but Tiberius was under no illusions as to what a challenge it would represent. Beyond the Rhine, peril now lurked everywhere. A single error, a single failure to catch the flitting of a shadow on the slope of a hill or in the depths of a forest, and disaster might be total. No one, from the lowest to the highest, could afford to drop his guard. When a senior officer sent a band of soldiers over the Rhine to escort one of his former slaves on a hunting expedition, Tiberius was so irate that he immediately stripped the man of his command. The situation was far too tense for any hint of frivolity. Tiberius himself, practising what he preached, kept his baggage train to a minimum, made himself available day or night to his officers, and invariably slept without a tent.

This close, almost neurotic attention to detail, although reaping him no decisive victories, was sufficient to secure him a more limited aim. The Germans had been left in no doubt as to the capacity of the Roman war machine to regenerate itself. Three years on from the ambush at the Teutoburg Pass, legions were once again marching through Germany. Tiberius, who had avoided every ambush set for him and even survived an assassination attempt, could be well pleased with his efforts. Gaul and the Rhine stood secure. Barbarian hordes would not be descending on Italy after all.

The ‘sole defence of the Roman people’96 had achieved all that he possibly could have done. ‘The vigilance of one man, and one alone,’ as Augustus put it, ‘has redeemed our affairs from ruin.’97 In AD 12, with the end of the campaigning season and the return of his legions to their bases on the Rhine, Tiberius laid down his command at last, and headed back to Rome. There, the weather had been terrible all autumn, with black skies and endless rain. Abruptly, though, on the morning of 23 October, the clouds lifted, and bright sunshine began to dry the streets where crowds had massed to cheer Tiberius’s triumph. The only showers that day would be of rose petals. Bright blazed the parade of captured weapons and armour, the collars hammered around the necks of fettered prisoners, the standards borne in stately-moving procession. Golden trophies, lit by the sun, gilded the marble of the Forum’s buildings with their reflections, while finely decorated effigies, fashioned out of silver and carried aloft in front of Tiberius’s chariot, portrayed for the Roman people the many victories won by him on their behalf. ‘Barbarian towns, walls breached, inhabitants vanquished. Rivers, and mountains, and battles in deep forests.’98

Yet for all the clamour and spectacle, there was something lacking. A faint pall of dissatisfaction, of the kind that Tiberius had so often laboured under, loured over his great moment. The crowds were celebrating, not his stabilisation of the region beyond the Rhine, but his pacification of the Balkans. His mighty achievement in securing the Roman people from barbarian incursions, unglamorous as it was, went unsaluted. His fellow citizens, most of whom had never in their lives smelt the raw timber of a newly built palisade, still less the stench of a German bog, found little to interest them in the wearisome details of frontier duty. What they wanted was evidence of dash and daring – qualities which Tiberius had never had much interest in flaunting. The virtues he prized were altogether more antique ones, the attributes of the Roman people at their most heroic and upstanding: duty, determination, self-discipline. Riding in his chariot through the streets of Rome, stern-faced and stiff-necked, he scorned to play up to the cheering. Spectators who wanted a crowd-pleaser had to look elsewhere – and the perfect idol, as it happened, was ready to hand.

Among the battle honours paraded in Tiberius’s triumph, some were listed as belonging to a second and altogether more swashbuckling commander: Germanicus. That the young man’s escapades had often flirted with disaster, and on more than one occasion required his uncle to bail him out, was of no concern to most. What mattered were his affability, his style, his fresh-faced, dynamic good looks. Indeed, so keen was Germanicus to appear to best effect that he had gone to inordinate efforts to bulk up his naturally weedy calves. Vanity of such an order was a part of his inheritance. His father’s son, Germanicus bore the stamp as well of a grandfather even more illustrious and charismatic than Drusus: for his mother was Antonia the Younger, the daughter of Marc Antony by Octavia. ‘Whether in war or peace, you are the flower of our younger generation.’99 Tiberius, flinty man of tradition that he was, had no time for such shameless gushing – but the Roman people, in the wake of their brief but intense infatuation with Gaius, remained in thrall to the cult of youth. Now, in the debonair Germanicus, they had a fresh heartthrob. Tiberius, by comparison, could hardly help but seem a man out of fashion.

Yet he was doubly caught in a bind. Despite his age and his many years of service to Rome, he remained legally a dependant, subject to the patria potestas of Augustus. The authority of a father, to a man so wedded to the values of his class as Tiberius, was not readily bucked. The same ideals that had inspired in him his lifelong republican contempt for monarchy also made him painfully aware of the duty that he owed the Princeps as a son. In another age, Tiberius’s lineage and his many battle honours would have combined to win for him what the Claudians had always most craved: primacy among their peers. Not now. Primacy would come to him only by right of succession. Tiberius could not change this. His loyalty to Augustus was not just to a father, but to the saviour of Rome. Mortifying though it was that his own record of service should carry less weight in the affairs of the city than the favour of an ageing autocrat, too much was owed the Princeps to permit him to surrender to resentment. The same gratitude that fostered in Tiberius emotions of deep humiliation served to trump them as well. Trapped in a role that he despised, his very principles served only to confirm him as its captive.

The debt of duty, though, was not only to Augustus. ‘I obeyed my parents. I gave way to their authority. Just or unjust and harsh, they always found me obedient and compliant.’100 A mother was no less the guardian of the stern traditions of the Roman elite than a father; and Livia, for half a century her husband’s constant and trusted companion, was nothing if not a model of matriarchal severity. In all the years of her marriage, she had never once let Augustus down. Obliged to serve him simultaneously as a paragon of domestic virtue and as Romana princeps,101 the ‘first lady of Rome’, she had displayed a talent for squaring circles that ‘was a match for the subtlety of her husband’.102 When Livia attended a sacrifice, it was with her homespun stola pulled modestly over her head; when she kept to her loom, it was with her hair worn in a style of such ostentatious simplicity that ladies’ maids across the empire breathed thanks to her for making it à la mode. No one, now that Livia was seventy years old, would have cause to doubt her forbidding chastity, nor upbraid her for behaving in a manner inappropriate to her station. Augustus was not the only one to be blessed in his relationship to such a paragon. A war hero of the venerable kind that Tiberius aspired to be was almost required to have a virtuous mother. Livia’s brand of rectitude was no less true to the ideals of her family than was that of her son. ‘Her behaviour’ – as even those suspicious of her were obliged to acknowledge – ‘was decidedly old school.’103

Which only made those who mistrusted her more suspicious still. It was, of course, taken for granted by all right-thinking citizens that women should keep their noses out of affairs of state: ‘What an appalling business it would be were they to seize what are properly exclusive to men: the Senate, the army, magistracies!’104 Augustus, conservative in everything except his own appetite for supremacy, naturally concurred – and Livia knew it. Yet the exercise of authority, in a state where the supremacy of its first citizen had long since ceased to depend upon formal position, was shadowed by ambivalence. Power, as it evaded its ancient limits, had begun to evolve and mutate. Although Livia held no formal rank, her privileges were of an order to put many a senator in the shade. Legal immunity from insult, that traditional prerogative of a tribune, had been hers since the distant days of the Triumvirate. She also enjoyed, by virtue of a series of decrees enacted by her husband, a quite exceptional degree of financial independence. Most conveniently of all, in a city from which carriages had traditionally been forbidden, she had the right to zip about in a carpentum, a lavishly decorated two-wheeler that traditionally only the most senior of priests had been permitted to use. The Roman people, alert as they were to the subtle markers of status that signalled a patron worth having, did not need anyone to join up the dots. They knew what they had in Livia. A woman graced by miraculous white chickens and laurel sprigs, whose name appeared above the entrance to many a renovated shrine, ‘who alone had been found worthy to share Caesar’s celestial bed’105 – here was potency of a rare and awesome order. The authority that clung to her was like a perfume: rich, expensive, rare. Across the Roman world, her name had begun to be paired with that supernatural manifestation of her husband’s greatness, his Genius – joined together as names on altars, as silver statues, as carvings of snakes. To keep a woman in her place was one thing – but a goddess quite another. Nevertheless, those who approached Livia for a favour tended to do so in hope as well as fear. ‘Only when she helps people out of danger, or else endows them with some honour, does she manifest her power.’106

A reassurance which – as Livia herself, close and canny, perfectly understood – was as liable to raise hackles as to dampen gossip. She knew her city, and how the currents of rumour and slander eddied ceaselessly through its streets. Even praise might be a source of trouble. When Ovid, out of touch and despairing, publicly urged his wife to beg ‘the First Lady’107 for his release, the silence from the Palatine was deafening. To allude openly to Livia’s influence over her husband, to imply that decisions might be taken on the say-so of a woman, to cast corridors or bedrooms as cockpits of power, were insults to the Princeps as well as his wife. The Senate House, as it had ever been, was the only proper stage for the discussion of affairs of state. So sensitive was Augustus to the charge that a woman’s whisperings might sway him more effectively than the oration of a consul that he had ordered a daily record to be kept of all his household’s activities. ‘Say nothing and do nothing that you would not wish to see recorded in it openly’108 – so Augustus had advised Julia and her daughters. Two of them had ignored the warning and paid a terrible price. To Livia, though, the Princeps had issued no such warning. There had been no need. Augustus had enough experience of his wife’s discretion to know that it could be relied upon. Nevertheless, for everyone in Rome obsessed by the doings of the August Family, this begged an intriguing question. Had the taint of open scandal failed to attach itself to Livia because she was genuinely above suspicion – or was it rather because she was so deep in all her schemings?

Mother to Tiberius, she had become a stepmother as well. Not for her, certainly, the public thunderbolts unleashed by her outraged husband at Julia. It was Livia, when her disgraced stepdaughter was transferred from the prison island of Pandateria to Rhegium, who had obligingly seconded her some slaves;109 Livia too, when Julia’s own daughter was exiled in turn, who had stepped in with financial support. Not everyone, though, was convinced by these displays of philanthropy. ‘For all the pity that Livia made sure to show her steprelatives in their ruin, she had worked hard, while everything was going well for them, to stab them in the back.’110 Such, at any rate, was the allegation. The evidence for it, although circumstantial, struck many as convincing. Stepmothers in Rome were widely presumed to be malignant. In a city that had long viewed marriage as a manoeuvre in the battle for dynastic advantage, this was perhaps only to be expected. That Livia, with the world’s most powerful man in her bed, should have sought to boost her son’s expectations hardly came as a revelation. Doubly a Claudian, she had never forgotten the debt that she owed her peerless ancestry. Although reserved and careful in most things, the pride that she took in her line of descent was one emotion that she scorned to veil. Just outside Rome, overlooking one of the city’s arterial roads, an ancient temple restored by Livia proclaimed it to the world. There, chiselled onto an immense frieze, her name appeared, resplendent above the traffic.111 ‘Wife of Caesar Augustus’ – so she described herself. Strikingly, though, the epithet came second to another: ‘Daughter of Drusus’. Pushy parenting, to a woman such as Livia, was not a crime but a solemn duty.

Yet just how far was she willing to go? Many, when they reflected upon how ravaged the August Family had been by disaster, suspected her of having played most foully. The downfall of Julia and her daughter were not the only calamities to have afflicted Augustus’s plans for the future, after all. Since 29 BC, when Tiberius, riding in his stepfather’s triumphal chariot, had stood on the left side of Metellus, the Princeps had suffered repeated bereavements. Again and again, his heirs had died in mysterious circumstances. Almost every Julian blocking Livia’s son from the succession had fallen by the wayside. Marcellus, Lucius, Gaius: all were gone. No evidence existed sufficient to pin the blame for their deaths upon Livia – but that, to those who suspected her of responsibility, was precisely her fiendish cunning. A murder that left no traces was, notoriously, muliebris fraus,112 ‘a woman’s machination’. The killers of Julius Caesar had struck their victim down in the open, stabbing and slashing at his body with their blades, leaving his corpse fretted all over with gashes; but when a man was given poison, he might not even realise that he was being murdered. No brute strength was required to slip a tincture into a goblet of wine. Subtly and silently, the venom would work its lethal magic. Little risk, given a practised hypocrisy on the part of the perpetrator, of her ever being fingered. Only by sucking on a citron, an exotic fruit from the forests of the distant East, might the victim hope to save himself – for no surer antidote existed than its bitter juice. ‘It will help, when drinks have been poisoned by a pitiless stepmother, to drive the dark venom from the limbs.’113 Perhaps, then, had Gaius and Lucius only been kept better supplied with Median citrus, the prospects for Tiberius’s succession would have been very different.

Or perhaps not. Paranoia itself was a kind of poisoning, after all. Gossip and slander were the venoms of the mind. If Livia were truly what she seemed to be when she appeared arrayed in her stola before the Roman people – pious, loyal to her husband, the embodiment of Justice and Peace – then the blackening of her name was a crime as monstrous as those of which her critics accused her. If the sober virtues of Livia herself were to be cast as hypocrisy, then so too were those of the August Family as a whole. Far from serving as a model of traditional Roman values, the outward gleam of its sanctity would stand revealed as a sham, rotted from within by murderous and despotic passions. Clearly, with Augustus an increasingly enfeebled septuagenarian, and global peace dependent upon a secure and peaceful succession, such a prospect was beyond the pale.

‘Do not be unduly indignant, should anyone speak ill of me’:114 so the Princeps had once counselled Tiberius. Now, in his old age, he was growing impatient with his own advice. No matter how venerable the city’s traditions of invective, no matter how devastatingly he had himself exploited them back in his youth, how could he responsibly permit them to endanger the stability of the state? The security of the Roman people, so Augustus had come to feel in his old age, was more important than any right to freedom of speech. Already, Ovid had been dispatched into exile. Then, ‘imposing an unprecedented punishment on literature’,115 the Princeps had condemned to the bonfire copies of a subversive history of the civil wars by a lawyer named Titus Labienus – a sentence so devastating to the author that he had committed suicide in protest. Finally, in a salutary demonstration of the new limits that were coming to be set upon the licence of libel, a second lawyer, a witty and waspish orator by the name of Cassius Severus, was banished to Crete for the crime of diminishing the maiestas, the ‘majesty’, of the Roman people. Here, for those concerned to uphold their city’s traditional liberties, was a chilling and ominous precedent. The charge of maiestas, as it was familiarly known, had long been applied to treasonable actions – but never before to words. That, though, in effect, was the offence for which Severus had been condemned: ‘defaming with vituperative writings eminent men and women’.116 What punishment might be imposed for defaming the most eminent of them all – the men and women of the August Family – was left hanging in the air.

Ever since the gods, taking pity on the Roman people, had graced them with the peace brought by Augustus, the pax Augusta,117 the world had dwelt in the shadow of what might happen when the Princeps died. By AD 13, when Tiberius was formally endowed by the Senate with powers equivalent to those of his adoptive father, it seemed that the answer had been definitively provided. Whatever Tiberius’s private reservations, there could be no shirking now that the weight of responsibilities had been laid upon his shoulders both by Fate and by Augustus. Still, though, the ambivalences of his position continued to flicker and cast their shadows. Even as the Princeps’s officially appointed colleague, Tiberius could not be declared his successor – for Rome, of course, was not a monarchy, nor her First Citizen a king. The regime fashioned by Augustus had been shaped to his own contours, and to his alone. That Tiberius could boast the most blue-blooded lineage in Rome; that he was his city’s greatest general; that he had begun to manoeuvre his friends and associates into key provincial commands: these advantages, on their own, remained insufficient to secure him ultimate primacy. Only by squeezing and cramping himself into the mould of rule forged by the Princeps could he hope to obtain that, and to assure Rome and the world of peace. His own identity was insufficient. He had no choice but to subsume it into that of Augustus. His authority would never cease to derive from his relationship to the Princeps – and to his mother. Just as malign gossip about the August Family would corrode the foundations on which it rested, so would an assurance that no secrets were being kept, no unspoken rivalries festering, serve to buttress them. Caesar’s household had to be above suspicion.

It was not enough, though, in a city such as Rome, merely to lean on a lawyer or two and imagine that gossip could thereby be silenced. No matter how secure Tiberius’s position might appear, the partisans of Augustus’s daughter had not forgotten that the Princeps had a second male heir: his grandson. Although condemned to penal custody, Agrippa Postumus remained very much alive. For all the ruthlessness shown by Augustus in dispatching him to a remote and barren island, his execution had clearly been a step too far. Those loyal to Julia and her children inevitably kept him in their hearts, while suspecting the worst of Livia. Agrippa, it was officially reported, had something not quite right with him: he was violent, savage, obsessed by fishing. Yet peculiarities of this kind, even if accurately reported, need not have resulted in exile. There was a second member of the August Family, of the same generation as Agrippa, whose infirmities were, if anything, even more of an embarrassment. Back in 10 BC, on the same day that Drusus was dedicating the altar of Augustus at Lyon, his wife Antonia had gone into labour and delivered him a second son. Tiberius Claudius Drusus, as the boy was named, had proven a mortifying contrast to the dashing Germanicus: ‘a work of nature only half-completed’,118 as Antonia bitterly put it. He twitched and shook; he dragged his right leg; when he spoke, he barked in a barely intelligible manner, like some sea animal, and when he grew angry, he slobbered and blew spumes of snot. That these disabilities did not prevent Claudius from displaying a notably intellectual turn of mind hardly mattered. Since there was clearly no prospect of his ever attaining the magistracies and commands appropriate to his birth, Augustus and Livia had settled that he should be excluded from public life for good. What they had not done was to send him away from Rome under armed guard. Even when, following in the footsteps of Titus Labienus, Claudius embarked on a history of Augustus’s rise to power, Livia’s reaction to this lethally subversive choice of research topic was merely to hush it up. ‘To give a frank and true account,’ she told her grandson bluntly, ‘is not an option’119 – and left it at that. Agrippa would have been so lucky.

A year on from the granting to Tiberius of powers equivalent to Augustus’s own, the rumours continued to swirl. It was reported that Agrippa, during his violent fits, would curse Livia by describing her insultingly as a ‘stepmother’;120 it was reported too that Augustus, waking up at last to the wiles of his wife, had travelled in secret to Planasia, where he had embraced his grandson and burst into tears. ‘Such marks of affection had they shown one another,’ so the gossip ran, ‘that the young man seemed likely to be restored to his grandfather’s house.’121 Yet the viral nature of these claims only emphasised what no one had any real interest in acknowledging: the degree to which, after forty years and more of Augustus’s supremacy, decisions vital to the future of the Roman people were now veiled from their view.

Certainly, when the Princeps did cross with Livia and his retinue from the mainland, in the summer of AD 14, it was not to Planasia, but to Capri. Set like a jewel in the Bay of Naples, conveniently close to the glittering array of amenities that lined the arc of the Italian shore, but removed enough to offer him genuine privacy, it was a favourite residence of the Princeps. Here, despite a bad bout of diarrhoea, he distracted himself by giving banquets and handing out presents to assorted teenagers; and then, after four days, he returned to the mainland. With him went Tiberius, who was travelling onwards to the Balkans, there ‘to consolidate in peace what he had conquered in war’;122 and the pair of them, once they had landed at Naples, rejoined the Appian Way and continued into Samnium. Only at Beneventum, the capital of the region, did they finally part. Augustus, with Livia still beside him, turned and headed back for Rome. His stomach, though, was still giving him trouble, and after leaving Samnium, he felt so ill that he was forced to halt his journey and take to his sickbed. By an eerie coincidence, the old family property where he found himself was the one in which, seventy-two years earlier, his father had died: a sign sufficiently ominous to prompt Tiberius’s urgent summoning to his bedside. Opinion differed as to what happened next. Some said that Tiberius arrived too late; others that he came just in time for the dying Augustus to embrace him ‘and commend to him the continuation of their joint work’.123 But one thing was certain. As Augustus breathed his last, it was his wife to whom he turned. A kiss – and then his final words. ‘Remember our union, Livia, for as long as you live – and so farewell.’124

The fateful moment, long dreaded, long anticipated, had come at last. Livia, at any rate, was well prepared for it. Already, both the villa and the neighbouring streets had been sealed off by her guards. Only when everything was ready for the transport of the corpse to Rome was the news of her husband’s death finally broken to the world. Escorted by his bodyguard of lictors, all of them dressed in sombre black, and travelling by night to avoid the heat of the summer sun, Imperator Caesar Augustus then set out on his final journey. Knights and councillors from towns along the Appian Way accompanied him by torchlight; so did Tiberius, and so did Livia. It took them a fortnight to reach Rome; and at some point during those two weeks, between the departure of the cortège from the villa in which Augustus had died and its final arrival at his house on the Palatine, a centurion came galloping furiously towards the procession. Reining in his horse and swinging down from his saddle, he demanded to be brought before Caesar. Led into the presence of Tiberius, the travel-stained officer saluted him. ‘What you ordered is done,’ declared the centurion briskly. ‘Agrippa Postumus is dead.’ Tiberius, frowning, gave every impression of astonishment. ‘But I gave no such order!’ Then a pause. ‘This will have to be accounted for in the Senate House.’125

He spoke as what he was: an aristocrat wedded to the traditions of his class. Naturally, when confronted by a crime as grievous and unforeseen as the murder of Augustus’s grandson, he took for granted his duty to inform the Senate. That, after all, was what Rome was about. Among his confidants, however, there was consternation. One of them, learning of Tiberius’s intentions, immediately alerted Livia. ‘Domestic secrets,’ he warned her, ‘and friends’ advice, and assistance provided by the security services – all must be kept hushed up.’126 Tips that she hardly needed, of course. She knew better than anyone what was at stake. A command to execute the grandson of Caesar could only have come from the top: from Augustus, from Tiberius – or from herself. Since Augustus had never had any of his relations put to death, and Tiberius’s surprise at the news from Planasia was self-evident, Livia had every reason to keep the crime from investigation by the Senate. A word in her son’s ear, and the whole business was dropped. On the arrival of the funeral cortège in Rome, no mention was made of the execution of Agrippa Postumus. ‘A cover-up ensured silence on the matter.’127

When the will of Augustus was formally opened and read out to the Senate, it confirmed in awful terms the disinheritance of his bloodline. ‘Since cruel fate has snatched from me my sons, Gaius and Lucius, let Tiberius be my heir.’128 Livia had triumphed. The dues of obligation owed to her Claudian forebears had been paid in full. The moment, appropriately for a woman of such infinite ambivalence, was marked by paradox. It was decreed by her husband’s will that she be graced with the title Augusta and adopted posthumously as his daughter. Livia had become a Julian.

On the day of her husband’s funeral, Julia Augusta – as she was now formally known – accompanied his corpse from the Palatine down to the Forum, where Tiberius and her grandson Drusus both delivered eulogies; then, travelling a short distance to where the pyre had been built, she watched in dignified silence as senators lifted the body up onto the brushwood. The fire caught; the flames began to lick; an eagle was released and soared up into the sky. Later, to a senator who claimed to have witnessed the spirit of Augustus similarly rising from the pyre and ascending into the heavens, Livia granted a massive donative. It was money well spent. When the Senate met for the first time a week after the funeral, on 17 September, it was to confirm that the dead Princeps was indeed to be worshipped as a god. His wife was appointed his priest. This, in a city where all the priesthoods except for those of Vesta were monopolised by men, was unprecedented. Astonishingly, Livia was even given a lictor.

After the burning of Augustus’s body, the pall of ashes had soon cleared, and even though the remains of the pyre had continued to glow for four days, the pious and dutiful Augusta had been able on the fifth day of her vigil to gather up his bones and place them in a nearby mausoleum, readied for the purpose more than forty years before. A second pall, though, was not so easily dispelled. That Rome, with the execution of Agrippa Postumus, was now once again a city in which murder might be deployed as a manoeuvre in the great game of dynastic advancement was a fact no less true for being too dangerous to acknowledge. Already, as Tiberius prepared to shoulder the burden of rule bequeathed him by his deified predecessor, his reign had fallen into shadow. ‘The execution of Agrippa Postumus was the first crime committed under the new Princeps.’129 Which naturally begged a menacing question: how many more would there be?


*1 Or possibly he suffered internal injuries. ‘He died on his way to the Rhine of some illness,’ is Dio’s helpful version of what happened (55.1.4).

*2 In due course, after a century or so of gentrification, it would end up as the centre of the city’s book trade.

*3 Take, for instance, an arch built at Ticinum in northern Italy (modern Pavia) in AD 7 or 8, which celebrated the August Family with ten statues – including the dead Gaius and Lucius. Their younger brother was notable only by his absence.

*4 The city of Constanta, as Tomis is now known, is today one of Romania’s most popular beach resorts.

*5 There is no evidence that the ‘Germans’ had any notion of themselves as a distinct group of tribes, or thought of the lands east of the Rhine as a place called ‘Germania’.

*6 The key find which has served to demonstrate the scale and ambition of Roman urbanism east of the Rhine was made in the late 1990s, at Waldgirmes, some sixty miles beyond the river, in the state of Hesse.

*7 Saltus in Latin can mean both ‘pass’ and ‘forest’. Tacitus’s use of the word to describe the site of the battle has traditionally been translated as ‘forest’; but the definitive identification of the battle-site with the foot of the Kalkriese Berg in southern Saxony, first made in the 1990s, now enables the correct translation to be made.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!