Until the advent of photography and then of TV, which effectively replaced them, propaganda statues were indispensable when it came to perpetuating the iconography of leadership. They were produced in mass numbers all over the world to celebrate the virtues and achievements of military heroes, political figures, wielders of every sort of power over all kinds of people. Most of them are wretched kitsch, but not all, and one of history’s more successful icons of power is a marble statue exhumed in a villa that once belonged to the Empress Livia, wife of Octavian and mother of the future Emperor Tiberius, near the site of the Prima Porta, one of the main entrances to ancient Rome. It is a portrait of her husband, by that time known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius, but known to the world and to history as the first of the Roman emperors, Augustus (63 B.C.–14 C.E.).
The statue is perhaps not, in itself, a great work of art; but it is competent, effective, and memorable, a marble copy of what was probably a Greek portrait in bronze, showing the hero in military dress, in the act of giving a speech either to the state as a whole or, more probably, to his army, on the eve of battle. As an image of calm, self-sufficient power projecting itself upon the world, it has few equals in the domain of sculpture. It does not ask of the viewer any particular knowledge of Roman history. But little is wholly self-explanatory. Take the design on the cuirass he is wearing, which shows—as most literate Romans would have known, though we can hardly be expected to—the recovery by Augustus of one of the army’s military standards, captured and taken away by the Parthians on the Eastern frontier in 53 B.C.E.: the cancellation, therefore, of an unbearable disgrace. It also helps to know that the little figure of the love god Eros next to Augustus’ right leg is there to remind us that his family, the Julians, claimed to have descended from the goddess Venus, so its presence reinforces the belief that Augustus was a living god. The dolphin it is riding refers to Augustus’ destruction of Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet in the sea battle of Actium.
We may be inclined to suppose that the Augustus of Prima Porta is a unique piece, but it almost certainly is not. The Romans reveled in the cloning, copying, and dissemination of successful images—successful, that is to say, especially from the viewpoint of ideology. If we think of this Augustus as an “original,” we are probably wrong. All over the Empire, sculptors were busy churning out standardized effigies of Augustus, mostly in marble but some in bronze. The artists were more often Greek than Roman, and their production was organized, as far as one can tell, in efficiently factorylike ways. There was more in common between classical Roman art and the techniques of Andy Warhol than one might at first suppose. A huge empire had to be saturated with images of its deified emperor. As a 2001 study put it, “A recent count of [Augustus’] surviving heads, busts and full-length statues reached more than 200, and recent estimates of ancient production guess at 25,000–50,000 portraits in stone all told.”
Augustus (the name is a title bestowed by the Senate, meaning “worthy of veneration,” and it carried the implication of numinousness, of semi-divinity) was the son of Julius Caesar’s niece, adopted as his own son by Caesar himself. It is unclear what kind of relations young Octavian had with his granduncle, but there is no question that Caesar’s influence on him was definitive. In particular, the young man admired Caesar’s political and military daring.
He made short work of avenging Caesar’s death. The Triumvirate’s armies destroyed those of the rebels at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C.E. Brutus and Cassius committed suicide.
The triumvirs, now in complete control of Rome, instituted a violent purge against the senatorial and equestrian classes of the state. In the course of this, deep rifts between Octavian and Mark Antony appeared. Their upshot was the brief Perusine War (41–40B.C.E.), in which Antony mounted an open revolt against Octavian. Archaeologists have unearthed not a few of its relics—stone and lead slingshot balls with rude messages scratched on them: “I’m after Octavian’s ass.” “Octavian has a limp dick.” It was a brutal little war, won by Octavian, who had some three hundred prisoners of senatorial or equestrian rank sacrificed on the Ides of March at the altar of the god Julius. Antony and Octavian’s rivalry was patched up, after a fashion. In the new order of things, Octavian took control of Rome’s Western Provinces, while Antony kept power over the Eastern, including, fatally and famously, Egypt.
Now came the diplomatic and military fiasco of Antony’s love affair with the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.E.). The queen of the Nile had already had a liaison with Caesar (48–44 B.C.E.) and borne him a son. Now she and Antony launched into their famous affair, beginning in 41 B.C.E. It produced twins. The extant coins and other effigies of Cleopatra do not seem to do justice to what those who knew her (especially Antony) considered her irresistible beauty. It may be that Blaise Pascal, many centuries later, was right in observing that if her nose had been shorter the entire history of the world would have been different. But there are some things we will never know.
What is quite certain, however, is that Antony and Cleopatra’s obsession with each other had huge political repercussions. It was a godsend to Octavian, who by now wanted to destroy Antony altogether, but held back from doing so because an attack on Antony was likely to be interpreted as an attack on the sacred memory of Julius Caesar. He saw an opportunity when Antony took up with the Egyptian queen, and began promoting the idea that Cleopatra had perverted Antony’s Romanness. Cleopatra was the power-crazed Greek strumpet of Egypt, a woman who would stop at nothing in her drive to undermine Roman interests in the Middle East, with Antony as her sex-fuddled dupe. She meant to make it all the way to the Capitol: she intended to run Rome.
Actually, the image of Cleopatra we have inherited was completely misleading, a creation of propaganda and nothing more. She was, if anything, a woman worthy of respect, not least for her intelligence, which went far beyond mere sexual cunning. She had only two recorded affairs with powerful and charismatic men, Caesar and Antony, and children by each, to whom she was devoted. The picture of her as a scheming nymphomaniac is false in every way.
But it certainly served Octavian’s purposes. He used it to whip up Roman plebeians and patricians alike to a war frenzy. In the first place, they feared that Cleopatra, through her influence on Antony, would subvert the proper course of Roman politics—and do even more damage if she moved to Rome with him. In the second, they loathed the idea of a woman, any woman, having such political influence.
Thus Octavian was sure of popular support for an attack on Antony which would destroy both him and Cleopatra. The eventual result was the sea battle between the Triumvirate’s ships and Antony’s, fought in 31 B.C.E., off Actium, south of Epirus in Greece. The sixty ships of Cleopatra and Antony were put to flight by the Roman navy; most surrendered. Cleopatra fled back to Alexandria; Antony, likewise. Both committed suicide, he by running onto his sword, and she—unable to bear the loss of her lover and the prospect of public humiliation in Rome, where Octavian was going to drag her through the streets for punishment—by the bite of an asp, the most famous snake in history.
Octavian went on to Egypt. He entered Alexandria on the first day of August, 31 B.C.E. There, he beheld the embalmed body of Alexander, his hero and model. It must have resolved him even further.
His enemies dead or scattered, his army and navy victorious, Caesar avenged, and the Roman people, weary of war, hoping only for order and an honorable, lasting peace, Octavian now had absolute power over Rome. “He was the first and the greatest and the common benefactor,” wrote Philo of Alexandria, “in that he displaced the rule of many and committed the ship of the commonwealth to be steered by a single pilot, himself.… The whole habitable world voted him no less than celestial honors. These are well attested by temples, gateways, vestibules, porticoes.… That he was never elated or puffed up by the vast honours given to him is clearly shown by the fact that he never wished anyone to address him as a god.” Instead, the Romans came up with a new name for him: no longer Octavian, but Augustus.
No such imperium as his had ever existed before. Rome now ruled the entire Mediterranean world.
The image we have of ancient Rome comes down to us in a very edited form. Much of the editing has been done by art and artists of later years: think of Nicolas Poussin. This city of the imagination, masquerading as a city of collective memory, is mostly white—the color of classical marble, the stuff we imagine the city made of. (So at the outset we are misled, since the marble most valued by Roman builders to sheathe the brick and concrete cores of their buildings was very often colored.) White cylinders of stone gleaming in the sun, surmounted by capitals, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan, Composite, linked by cornices, architraves, and arches. White ramps, white colonnades, flights of white steps, and white foam from the plashing fountains. White people inhabit this townscape, of course, and they are wearing white togas. There is lots of air around these dignified Romans. As befits the owners and rulers of the known world, which extended from England to Africa, from the Thames to the Nile, from the Seine to the Euphrates, they are not crowded or hurried. Their gestures are dignified; they have become the statues of themselves. They are full of that very Roman attribute gravitas.
If we were to pluck a real Roman from the real Rome of this time, the second century C.E., or from the earlier city of Augustus, and set him down in this handsome and meaningful place, this site of classical order, he might feel out of place.
The real Rome was Calcutta-on-the-Mediterranean—crowded, chaotic, and filthy. A few of its inhabitants might dwell in the palaces we imagine, but most lived in warrens—tall jerry-built tottering blocks of flats known as insulae or “islands,” which rose as high as six stories and were given to sudden collapse or outbreaks of fire. Building codes did not exist. The poet Juvenal complained, without exaggeration:
Here we have a city propped up for the most part by slats; for that is how the landlord patches up the crack in the old wall, bidding the tenants to sleep at ease under the ruin that hangs above their heads.
Because the insulae were usually built without chimneys, the tenants had to rely on charcoal braziers for warmth in winter, exposing them to death by carbon-monoxide poisoning or accidental fires. Rome had about 1,800 domus or single-family dwellings and 46,000 insulae, but there was no regulation of the size or human capacity of an “island”—it would hold as many people as a landlord could cram into it. If one thinks of a total population of 1.4 million people in Trajan’s Rome, one will probably not be far wrong.
This made Rome a vast and consequential city, but it also condemned most Romans to live in conditions worse than the overcrowding and lack of basic amenities—water, fresh air, sewage services—that typified the worst slums of New York at the height of immigration in the 1870s. “Terrarum dea gentiumque, Roma,” wrote the poet Martial, “Cui par est nihil et nihil secundum”—“Rome, goddess of lands and peoples, Whom nothing can equal and nothing even approach.”
But the goddess stank. These being long before the days of mechanical transport, Rome’s streets were laden with the excrement of horses, pigs, cows, dogs, donkeys, and people, ton on ton of it, not to mention the dead babies and the corpses from periodic murders and muggings, and all the kitchen waste. Few facilities existed for collecting and getting rid of this stuff, not even for dumping it in the Tiber. And the Tiber, one should remember, still served as a principal supply of drinking water for many Roman households. Not until the reign of the Emperor Trajan, in June 109 C.E., did the eight aqueducts which formed the distribution end of the Aqua Traiana, bringing more than 220 million gallons a day of good springwater to the right bank of the Tiber, open for use—and most of that was monopolized by the ground floors of the rich. Only very rarely did an insula have rising pipes to bring good water to its upper floors.
Nevertheless, ancient Rome did have one hygienic advantage over modern New York. Like most Roman cities, and unlike modern American ones, it was generously equipped with public toilets. These were not of the sort familiar to modern users. Because the ancient Romans did not have the same taboos about elimination as we do, they did not insist on separate cubicles. The typical arrangement was a long stone bench, pierced with suitable holes. Everyone sat companiably, side by side. Underneath ran a channel of flowing water; and a channel in the floor outside the seat enabled the users to wash their hands when they were finished.
Since municipal trash disposal was as far from Roman expectations as automobiles or video, householders simply threw their rubbish into the street, where it lay and festered and was sometimes partly washed away by rain. At least there were sewers and storm-water channels to carry it off into the Tiber. In fact, the Roman sewer system, which had been under construction since the sixth century B.C.E., was (for all its imperfections) one of the marvels of the world’s civic engineering.
Nobody wants shit around. “Cacator sic valeas ut tu hoc locum transeas,” reads one of the many graffiti preserved under the ash of Pompeii—“Do yourself a favor by shitting somewhere else.” And a city of a million or so people is obviously going to have its problems of sewage disposal. Rome had its system, and it was famous. Its main collector, the Cloaca Maxima (Principal Sewer), began its underground journey through Rome below the Temple of Minerva in the Forum of Augustus, passed between the Basilica Julia and the Temple of Vesta, went under the Arch of Constantine and the Piazza della Bocca della Verita, and discharged its noisome freight into the Tiber just below the Ponte Rotto through an arched opening five meters in diameter. None of the insulae seem to have any direct connection through downpipes to the sewers. Now and then, plostra stercoraria or shit carts might make an appearance, but not reliably. The ejection of garbage and waste into the public street usually happened at dusk. It was one of the drawbacks of ancient Roman life, especially since (as coarse terra-cotta cost nothing) it was a common habit to throw out the pot with its contents. Juvenal warned the visitor, “You are truly negligent and careless if, before leaving the house to go out to dinner, you don’t first make a will,” because passersby were so often brained by falling night-urns. “Very often you might die, for all the windows open along the streets you travel. Therefore … cultivate within yourself the forlorn hope that the windows will be content to pour out only the contents of their chamber pots on your head.” Roman law did provide some redress for those injured by chamber pots falling from on high: the victim should be compensated for his medical fees and lost work time. But he could not sue the owners or tenants of the insula for disfigurement caused by his wounds, since “the body of a free man is without price.”
The wise night-rambler should wear a padded leather cap to protect his head, not only against such hazards, but from the assaults of other and more delinquent Romans. One of these, according to Suetonius, was the young Emperor Nero, whose sport was to prowl the alleys of his imperial capital with a gang of friends and bash strangers insensible—“He was in the habit of clubbing people on their way home from banquets, and if anyone fought back he would beat him badly and throw him in a sewer.” To be mugged and then half drowned in excrement by a prowling emperor was the kind of fate which not even Georgian London, for all its bad sanitation and royal absolutism, inflicted on its visitors. But it would have been hard to tell if your assailant was a Nero or a mere commoner, since the streets of Rome were unlit and unpoliced. Either you found a lanternarius or lantern-bearing slave to precede you with a flambeau, or you groped your way in fear and darkness. And, naturally, the streets had no numbers or posted names.
The traffic made city life harder still. In 45 B.C.E., Julius Caesar issued an edict which banned carts, wagons, and chariots (with certain exceptions, such as chariots belonging to the vestal virgins or to the winner of a major race) from driving in the city between sunrise and midafternoon. This was a masterpiece of bad urbanism, since, although it did something to make daytime walking and riding in Rome possible, it immediately diverted all Rome’s commercial traffic into the night hours, depriving most Romans of their sleep. Roman carts had wooden wheels with iron tires, and the grinding and clanking of their progress over the ruts and stone pavements raised a din that mingled with the braying and lowing of beasts, the shouts of the carters, the merchants’ bellowing quarrels, and the crash and scrape of goods being loaded and unloaded. This went on all night long, and a stone could hardly sleep through it. It would keep a sea calf awake on the bottom of the sea, Juvenal thought. It would give the Emperor Claudius insomnia. Rome, the enemy of repose! And during the day it was little better: the traffic noise was not as bad, but the sound of voices and pedestrian confusion were still unbearable. The only solution, and a partial one at that, was to be rich and ride at ease in a “spacious litter” that one’s slaves could hoist above the heads of the madding crowd. In it, one could close the windows and perhaps doze. But on foot, wrote Juvenal,
the tide of the crowd before me is an obstacle, while the one following behind me like a compact phalanx is pressing at my back; one man elbows you in the side, another strikes you roughly with a cudgel; the next one bashes your head with a board, the next with a barrel. Meanwhile, your legs grow heavy with mud, your feet are stepped on from all sides by enormous shoes, a soldier punctures your big toe with his hobnailed boots.…
Before it could flow out of Rome, of course, the water had to flow in. It did so mainly through aqueducts. Eleven of these supplied the city with its drinking and washing water, eight entering by the region of the Esquiline Hill. Four more were added after the popes replaced the emperors, two of them in the twentieth century. No other ancient city had such a copious supply of water, and it earned Rome the name of regina aquarum, “the queen of waters.” Almost all of them brought in drinkable water, except for the Alsietina, which carried water from the small Lake Martignano; some thirty-three kilometers long, this aqueduct supplied an arena for naval battles which the Emperor Augustus created on the present site of Trastevere. Probably the best water was that of the Claudian Aqueduct, begun by Caligula in 38 C.E. and finished by Claudius in 52 C.E.; certainly the aqueduct whose construction created the most difficulty was the Aqua Marcia, begun in 144 B.C.E. under the praetorship of Quintus Marcius, with a total run of ninety-one kilometers of which eighty ran underground.
Aqueduct maintenance was a never-ending occupation, done in the main by slaves. The channel or specus of each aqueduct was constantly being narrowed by the buildup of “sinter,” the common German term for deposits of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), carried in the water and deposited on the channel walls. How fast it built up depended on several variables: the “hardness” or lime content of the water, the texture of the channel (rough surfaces encouraged buildup, which roughened the surface more, increased friction, and so trapped more sinter), and the speed of water flow. Research done on the channel of the great aqueduct at Nîmes, in southern France, indicates that sinter deposits (on both sides) narrowed its channel by forty-six centimeters, or a third of its original width, in two hundred years. This yields a rate of about nine inches per century, which may not sound like much, but over the hundreds of linear miles of the eleven aqueducts that supplied Rome with its water, the tasks of grinding and chipping the sinter away added up, as did the maintenance of the terra-cotta or lead conduits themselves. Besides, four miles out of every five lay underground.
The distribution of water to its end users was done mainly through lead pipes. Lead gave its Latin name, plumbum, to those who worked with it, the plumbarii—who bequeathed it to their modern successors in England, the plumbers, and to those in France, theplombiers. It had large advantages for such work. It was soft, very ductile, and had a low melting point—about 375 degrees Celsius. Best of all, it was common and cheap, being itself a waste product. It had one disadvantage: it was highly poisonous, as the grieving parents of many a Victorian child who chewed too often on his lead soldiers discovered.
Rome used a great deal of silver, which was present in tiny quantities in lead’s principal ore, galena (lead sulfide). The galena, when melted, separated into about one portion of silver to three hundred of waste lead. A simple process afforded slaves (who were likely to die of lead poisoning in the end) the means of making lead pipe. Molten lead was flowed over an inclined heatproof surface. When it reached the desired thickness and cooled, the resulting sheet was trimmed and then rolled around a suitable wooden mandrel. Its edges would be soldered together, and the result was water pipe, which usually came in ten-foot or shorter sections.
The fact that Rome’s water was delivered through lead conduits gave rise to a persistent myth: that the water was contaminated, and so lead poisoning killed or weakened those who drank it. This cannot have been so, because the water passed through the pipes too quickly (at its fastest, probably at 1.5 meters per second) to acquire any significant toxicity on the way. However, wine was often kept for long periods in jars, or amphorae, whose interiors had been treated with lead-based glazes, so it may well be that bibulous Romans were affected by it. Probably it was gonorrhea, rather than lead poisoning, that made Romans ill.
How did water move into the city and get distributed? No pressure pumps existed. The entire distribution system for Rome’s water, throughout a total 500 kilometers of eleven aqueducts, was gravity-fed, and the feed had to be maintained across great distances: the original source point of Rome’s Aqua Marcia was 91 kilometers from the city, and that of the Anio Novus hardly any closer (87 kilometers). Since water will not run uphill against gravity, each aqueduct had to have a very gradual downward slope, continuous throughout its length. That of the Aqua Marcia, for instance, was 2.7 meters per every kilometer. But the natural form of the earth is never a steady, almost imperceptible decline. Consequently, the aqueducts, on meeting a rise, had to go through a tunnel; and when the ground level fell too suddenly away, the channel of water had to be carried above it on arches. Hence the magnificent sight of the tall aqueducts converging on Rome, across the flat wastes of the Campagna—mile upon mile of arches not yet fallen into ruin, imposing their proud rhythm on an otherwise undistinguished landscape, silently beautiful in the golden morning or rosy evening light.
But how to give them the necessary shape, the exact fall needed to convey the precious water into the heart of the city? This was accomplished by surveyors. They did not have modern equipment—the laser levels and theodolites of today’s surveyors did not exist. Yet they managed well with what would seem, by modern standards, to be very primitive instruments. The first of these was the chorobates, or water level, a long narrow trough (a straight, hollowed-out section of tree trunk would do) which could be propped up on stones and filled with water. Since a still water surface is always horizontal, this gave an excellent reference for sighting along, and when an assistant placed himself some distance away with a vertical, graduated measuring rod which had a movable target, a surveyor with good eyes—Rome had no lenses or optical glass—could readily establish the rise or fall of the land between the two points. It was a clumsy instrument, needing a twenty-foot-long table to carry the trough, but in skilled hands it could plot variations in height with astonishing accuracy. Though no ancient remains of such a device have ever been found, descriptions leave no doubt about its use. Similar surveying principles governed the boring of underground tunnels.
Next in usefulness was the dioptra, a flat disc mounted on a tripod, which could be both turned horizontally and tilted in the vertical plane. Through a sighting tube fixed diametrically across the disc, it could measure both the height and the bearing of a distant target and was thus the ancestor of the modern theodolite.
Finally, there was the basic tool that every surveyor had to have, more for field surveying than for the layout of aqueducts: the groma, consisting of two horizontal crosspieces fixed at right angles on the tip of a pole, with a plumb bob hanging from each end of the pieces. It was indispensable for the other kind of big Roman engineering project as well: the laying out of roads.
Along the length of the aqueduct, and especially just before it entered Rome, settling tanks were built: a simple filtration system whereby the flow was allowed to pause so that particles and debris could sink to the bottom, there to be cleaned out periodically by the slave maintenance crews.
The oldest of the aqueducts dated well back into republican days: the Aqua Appia, sixteen kilometers long, mostly underground, built in 312 B.C.E. and successively restored by Quintus Marcius Rex (144 B.C.E.), Agrippa (33 B.C.E.), and Augustus (11–4 B.C.E.). It delivered seventy-five thousand cubic meters of water per day.
The next oldest was the Anio Vetus (272–69 B.C.E.), another mostly subterranean aqueduct, which took its water directly from the Tiber above Tivoli, bringing it eighty-one kilometers to Rome and supplying some 180,000 cubic meters a day.
Rome’s need for water increased rapidly in the second century B.C.E., as a result of its colonial victories, which increased the population of the city. This produced the longest of all its aqueducts, the Aqua Marcia, which ran for 91 kilometers (81 kilometers below ground) and delivered 190,000 cubic meters daily.
Agrippa, builder of the Pantheon, also constructed two aqueducts, the Aqua Julia (33 B.C.E.) and the Aqua Virgo (so called because its source outside the city was pointed out to his surveyors by a young girl). Between them they brought some 150,000 cubic meters a day into Rome. Two aqueducts started by the Emperor Caligula (the Aqua Claudia in 38 C.E., the Aqua Anio Novus in the same year) had to be finished by the Emperor Claudius; between them, they gave Rome a further 380,000 cubic meters a day. All in all, the eleven aqueducts provided some 1.13 million cubic meters of water to meet the daily requirements of about a million people, which averaged out at about 1.13 cubic meters of water per person per day.
Not all this water was used for drinking, cooking, and washing. Water also had a strong—indeed, essential—decorative and metaphorical aspect in ancient Rome, as it does today. Not every house had a garden, but many did, and those fortunate enough to have one needed a good supply of water for plants, pools, and, of course, fountains. The fountains of Rome, celebrated in numberless paintings and poems as well as in music—one thinks of the charming trills and tinklings of Respighi’s Le fontane di Roma—have always been a feature of the city and the culture it embodied. Because of the low water-pressure in the days before mechanical pumps, the “abounding glittering jet” that spells “fountain” to us today and was so magnificently choreographed by the likes of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the seventeenth century was not available in ancient Rome, but a lot of refreshment and relaxation could be had from trickling basins, ornamental pools, shallow waterfalls, and chasses d’eau—the most grandiose project of this kind being the celebrated Canopus in the garden of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli.
All this civic splendor, and much more, depended on a colonial empire which had grown from a small seed in Italy, at the mouth of the Tiber—Ostia, that vital port where the wealth of the growing empire came in and the administrative manpower went out, taken from its original inhabitants in Etruscan times. Now, at the turn of the millennium, its spread was prodigious. In Africa, Rome commanded the provinces of Numidia, Mauretania, Cyrenaica, and Africa Proconsularis. Its African possessions did not supply mineral wealth (that came largely from Spain), but they gave Rome huge supplies of grain and other foodstuffs and, as a bonus, supplied the wild animals for the shows in the arenas. Rome had all of Egypt. Its command of the Iberian Peninsula, modern Spain and Portugal, was divided between the provinces of Tarraconensis, Lusitania, and Baetica. It ruled Gaul (Lugdunensis, Narbonensis, Belgica) and Britain. It had—insecurely, at times—the frontier provinces of Germany and the lands along the natural frontier of the Danube, such as Dacia. It had annexed Greece (Macedonia, Achaea, and Thrace) and much of Asia Minor. Its farthest Eastern Provinces included Judaea, Syria, and Mesopotamia.
At its height, the Roman Empire included fifty to sixty million people—all under the absolute rule of one single man, all members of subject populations: citizens of Rome, but also other Italians; Europeans and Middle Easterners of all sorts, Gauls, Dacians, Armenians, Mesopotamians, Syrians, Africans, Egyptians; Britons, Spaniards, Germans, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. These formed a vast and bewilderingly complex mosaic of languages, histories, creeds, and customs, some willingly passive to Roman authority, most of them manageable by dint of colonial firmness, and a few—such as the ever-fractious Jews—continually at odds with the system that had taken them over. Some of these peoples had very little effect on the core culture of Rome. Others, notably Greece, not only influenced but transformed it. “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit,” wrote Horace, “et artes intulit agresti Latio”: “When Greece was taken she enslaved her rough conqueror, and introduced the arts to cloddish Latium.”
Almost as soon as he had emerged victoriously from the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., Augustus launched into an ambitious program to restore his city’s damaged prosperity. He took advantage of the long-term security of funds and work which his principate—the word given to his rule as Princeps or “First citizen,” a title Augustus had chosen to avoid the taint of absolutism or kingship—allowed. “Professing himself satisfied with the tribunician power for the protection of the plebs,” wrote Tacitus,
Augustus enticed the soldiers with gifts, the people with grain, and all men with the allurements of peace, and gradually grew in power, concentrating in his own hands the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws. No one opposed him, for the most courageous had fallen in battle.… As for the remaining nobles, the readier they were for slavery, the higher they were raised in wealth and offices.
It was an essential part of Augustus’ political genius that, now and over the coming decades of his reign, he successfully maintained the illusion that he was not a dictator, just a savior, the man who had restored the Republic and its primal virtues by handing it back to the Senate, and thus to the people, of Rome.
But it was a fiction—a necessary one. Although Augustus created a charade of restoring the Republic, few Romans now remembered what it had once been. He had no intention of allowing republican chaos to seize the state again. He made a point of consulting the Senate, but the Senate reciprocally made a habit of never defying his will. He kept total command of the Roman army, and of the imperial provinces. He was also pontifex maximus, the supreme religious authority of the state.
Augustus was not a consistently great general, but he had his successes. The chief one was the annexation of Egypt as a Roman province in 30 B.C.E., which gave Rome an unfailing and inexhaustible supply of grain. His armies completed the conquest of Spain. He also had military failures, the worst of which was undoubtedly the destruction of three whole legions in an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest, on the north side of the Rhine. The leader of the German attack, Hermann or Arminius, was one of the geniuses of German military history, his name invoked by every German leader from Frederick the Great through Bismarck to (of course) Adolf Hitler. For a long time after, it is reported, Augustus would beat his head on the wall at night and beseech the gods, “Give me back my legions!”
But, win or lose, the loyalty of the Roman army was always sworn by oath, by each individual, to Augustus personally. He was their paymaster. Their commanding officers were chosen by him, and the head commanders of their campaigns were usually members of his family—Tiberius, Germanicus, or Agrippa. If the soldier lived long enough to complete his term of service (sixteen years, and later twenty), he would expect to be settled on a patch of arable land to complete his life as a farmer, and the matter of what land he received, and where, was decided by Augustus. He was, in short, the soldiers’ patron, and they were his clients: an arrangement wholly familiar from civilian life, but transferred with even more stringent bonds of obligation and discipline to the military.
For a few years after Actium, Octavian/Augustus shrewdly passed up the most obvious possibility raised by his victory—to declare himself dictator of Rome and its empire. In 28 or 27 B.C.E., he made a move that seemed to confirm that he was no dictator, but, rather, was acting as the savior of the Republic and its primal virtue, when he formally restored the supreme power to the Senate and people.
In a document titled the Res gestae (Things Done), whose most complete text is not in Rome but, strange to say, bilingually inscribed in stone on the wall of the Temple of Rome and Augustus in Ancyra (modern Ankara), in Galatia—the original was placed outside his mausoleum in Rome, but written on bronze pillars, so it was “recycled” by later thieves—Augustus set forth this as the first of what he considered the main achievements of his reign. “In my sixth and seventh consulships, after I had stamped out the civil wars, and at a time when by universal consent I was in absolute control of everything, I transferred the management of politics [res publica] to the discretion of the Senate and people of Rome. For this service I was given the name ‘Augustus’ by a decree of the Senate.”
This was merely a façade, though; his actual power was near absolute. There was no “permanent revolution,” no automatic retention of supreme power—but he was placed in charge of Gaul, Spain, Syria, and Egypt, where most of the legions were stationed, and he remained one of Rome’s two consuls, exercising consular imperium (either as consul or as proconsul) until his death. To make quite sure that he did not suffer Julius Caesar’s fate, he re-created a special elite unit, another Praetorian Guard, for his personal protection.
The bonds of deference and clientship did the rest. Moreover, they did so for a very long time. Just as England in 1900 had many citizens who had turned sixty without ever knowing any ruler but Queen Victoria, crowned in 1837, so at the time of Augustus’ death (14 C.E.) countless Roman citizens had never known any form of government other than the stable principate. The management of an empire without Augustus must have seemed to many people hard to imagine, almost a contradiction in terms.
Yet there are some things that not even the most inspired and determined leader can do, and one of the things he failed at—a vital part of his intentions—was his effort to restore ancient Roman virtues by means of legislation. “By new laws passed at my instigation, I brought back those practices of our ancestors that were passing away in our age.” He had the Senate pass sumptuary laws limiting extravagance and the gratuitous display of wealth, and he tried to restore what he saw as the diminished dignitas of the upper classes by cracking down on the frequency of divorce and adultery among them. He was no puritan, and his own family was certainly no model of virtue—for reasons lost to history, he felt obliged to banish his adopted son Agrippa Postumus (12 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) to the dull Mediterranean island of Planasia, where he was shortly murdered; in 2 B.C.E., he had banished his only daughter, Julia; in 8 C.E., his granddaughter, also named Julia, both for sexual immorality. Apparently, what irked Augustus particularly in his granddaughter’s conduct was that, in the course of a wild party, she placed a chaplet on the head of a statue of the satyr Marsyas,1 a gesture with pronounced sexual overtones. But Augustus’ attempt to legislate his subjects into virtue was, like most such efforts before or since, a failure.
It was also a small matter compared with his achievements. He re-created the Roman state and its power, refreshed it, and set a pattern of Roman rule that would last some five hundred years. No other statesman of antiquity could have made such a claim. And to the extent that he could set a compelling example through his own way of life, he did that, too. Augustus had none of the obtrusive vices of his successors. He believed in dignity but not pomposity; in ceremony, where necessary and within the limits proper to a chief priest, but not in Oriental showiness, even though he was regarded as a divine being, Divus Augustus. Nor was he given to luxurious display, despite his overwhelming wealth. Few later emperors—Claudius and Hadrian being among the exceptions—would show such an understanding of the difference between auctoritas (authoritative influence) and imperium (command from above).
Augustus was no glutton. He lived, and ate, with moderation. “He … preferred the food of the common people,” recalled Suetonius, “especially the coarser sort of bread, whitebait, fresh hand-pressed cheese … and would not wait for dinner, but ate anywhere.” In oratory, he loathed what he called “the stink of far-fetched phrases.” But he “gave all possible encouragement to intellectuals; he would politely and patiently attend readings not only of their poems and historical works, but of their speeches and dialogues; yet objected to being made the theme of any work unless the author were known as a serious and reputable writer.” He also possessed a dry sense of humor, if one is to believe some of the stories about him. He went to a courtier’s house for dinner and was served a poor, unelaborated meal. As he was taking his leave, he murmured, “I’d no idea I was such a close friend of yours.” Learning of the death of a Roman eques who (without anyone’s knowledge) had contracted debts of 20 million sesterces, Augustus sent an agent to the auction of the man’s property. There, he bought the man’s pillow for his personal use. Eyebrows were raised. But, the emperor explained, “The pillow on which he could rest with all those debts must be especially conducive to sleep.” And he could take a joke, or so it was said. Back in Rome after his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, he was approached by a man who offered him, for twenty thousand sesterces, a tame raven that had learned to croak, “Hail, Caesar, victor, commander!” Augustus gave him the money, but then a friend of the bird’s owner told him that he had a second raven, which he had trained to say, just in case, “Hail, Antony, commander, victor!” The bird was produced. It did indeed hail Antony. Instead of taking offense, the emperor merely told him to split the money with the friend. He was whimsical with his presents, which might be gold plate or, just as easily, “lengths of goat-hair cloth, or sponges, or pokers, or tongs.”
At the top of the social tree, in this newly stabilized Rome, below the emperor himself, were the senators and their families. It was not in Augustus’ interest to lord it over them, since that would have diminished his pretense to be primus inter pares, first among equals, and increased the risk that disaffected citizens might see him as a king. The senators were traditionally very much an elite, and Augustus was careful to preserve that status for them—even though, under his rule, they had less and less to do. Particularly important for senatorial self-esteem were the magistracies, which they (and they alone) could hold. They were expected to set standards of dignity, and at times compelled by law to do so—no senator could marry an ex-slave, appear onstage as an actor, or (unthinkable liberty!) enter the arena as a gladiator. Property qualifications also existed: in practice, by Augustus’ time, there was no senatorship for men who owned less than a million sesterces.
Below the senators were the equites, or knights and squires. In earlier days of the Republic, they had been a cavalry force, hence relatively wealthy. This no longer applied, since under the later Republic and the Principate cavalry was supplied by Rome’s allied states. But one still needed to be quite rich—400,000 sesterces or more—to qualify as an eques.
Then came the plebs, or ordinary people—the majority of Roman citizens. Some were born free, but others were liberti or freedmen, former slaves who had been manumitted by their owners. No stigma attached to being a libertus, and none to the free children of slaves. On the contrary: it was a matter for congratulation. When the novelist Petronius depicted the freedman Trimalchio in the Satyricon flaunting his status, it was not with contempt, still less with hate: Trimalchio might indeed be vulgar, gross, and a bit of a thug, like a goodly portion of the citizens of the Upper East Side today, but he had made it into respectability, and who was going to rebuke a former slave for waving his cash around?
At the bottom of the Roman social order, one comes to the slaves, without whom the society as a whole could not possibly have functioned. Their legal status was simple. They were chattels, things, owned absolutely by their masters, who could buy and sell them as they pleased, and assign them to do any work they wanted.
The fact that slave labor was less efficient than free was well known to the Romans, because it was the first big thing a slave owner learned. Pliny, for instance, attributed the high food productivity of pre-imperial Rome to its reliance on free workers on farms, and its fall in his own time to the general use of slave labor. “In those days,” he wrote, more as a moralist than an economist,
…the lands were tilled by the hands of the very generals, the soil exulting beneath the plowshare crowned with wreaths of laurel and guided by a husbandman graced with triumphs.… But today these same lands are tilled by slaves whose legs are in chains, by the hands of malefactors and men with branded faces.… And we are surprised that the yields from the labor of workhouse slaves are not the same as from the honest toil of warriors!
Nevertheless, given the choice, what Roman was going to do without his or her slaves? Most slave owners had few, perhaps no more than one or two—just like most landowners in the slave South of America before the Civil War—but the slave populations of some upper capitalist families in Rome were truly impressive. The freedman Gaius Caecilius Isidorus, toward the end of the first century C.E., left 4,116 slaves when he died. More than a few Roman bigwigs owned 1,000 slaves, and the emperor might be served by as many as 20,000. But the statistics are unreliable, especially for the top end of slaveholding. It is conventionally supposed that about one person in three in imperial Rome was a slave.
What did they do? Just about everything. They served, performing an incredible number and variety of tasks and services, which rose almost to a madness of detail in the division of labor. Slaves worked as water carriers, valets, bricklayers, and litter bearers. Their rural equivalents pruned the vines, fed the pigs, sowed and harvested the wheat. They were secretaries, draftsmen, accountants, stone carvers, and teachers. The great man’s toilette would be taken care of by the bathing attendants (balneatores), the masseurs (aliptae), the hairdressers (ornatores), and the barbers (tonsores). His food would be prepared by pastry cooks (libarii), bakers (pistores), and other kinds of coquus or cook, and served up by the structores (majordomos), the dining-room attendants (triclinarii), the waiters who carried the dishes in (ministratores), and those who took them out again (analectae). Before any food was eaten by the owner, it would be tasted, just in case an enemy had reached the kitchen, by the praegustatores. At intervals in the parade of dishes, the emperor or aristocrat would be entertained by dancing girls (saltatrices), dwarfs (nani), and buffoons (moriones). If a slave was the body servant or the secretary of a master, that implied a certain trust, even closeness. It also meant, however, that the slave would be treated as one who had privileged information, which could lead to torture under interrogation.
The living conditions of domestic slaves in prominent households tended to be better than those of farm-labor slaves out in the country, though not always. But they were also unstable and came without guarantees. The law did not recognize that a slave could be punished by loss of status, for he or she had no status to lose. The master owned the slave’s body and could do as he pleased with it: flog it, fuck it, work it three-quarters to death. The law of deference and obedience (obsequium) was made of iron. On the other hand, a slave might sometimes receive a sum of money, known as the peculium, from his or her master; this might be saved, and eventually go toward buying manumission. But it was entirely gratuitous, and no slave had a right under law to such peculia.
The peculium was understood by all involved, slave as well as master, to be a tool for strengthening the bonds of deference and obedience. Sometimes slaves would help one another out, in the face of (sometimes hideously) unjust punishments. The Emperor Commodus, for instance, displeased with a slave bath-attendant who had drawn him too cool a bath, ordered another slave to burn him alive in the palace’s furnace. The attendant burned a sheepskin instead, and its smell deceived the emperor.
Almost all slaves were worth something; a slave needed to be very old, incompetent, or mentally dangerous to be entirely worthless. Some of them, of the right kind and properly handled, could make their owners rich. An example was the instructive career of that singular politician, speculator, and slaveholder, Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115–53 B.C.E.), who had been, with Pompey and Julius Caesar, a member of the First Triumvirate. Crassus’ fortune had largely been made by his pack of loyal and well-trained slaves. Crassus had many silver mines and huge agricultural holdings, but, wrote Plutarch, all that was nothing compared with the value of his slaves, “such a great number and variety did he possess—readers, secretaries, silversmiths, stewards, and table servants. He himself directed their training and took part in teaching them, accounting it, in a word, the chief duty of a master to care for his slaves as the living tools of household management.” But the big profits Crassus’ slaves earned him were in property. He purchased slaves who were builders and architects. Then, after one or another of the catastrophic fires that were always breaking out in Rome, Crassus would move in and purchase the devastated sites and burned-out buildings for a pittance, using his enslaved professionals to renovate and build them up again:
Then, when he had more than five hundred of these, he would buy houses that were on fire and those adjoining the ones on fire. The owners would let them go for small sums, because of their fear and uncertainty, so that the greatest part of Rome came into his hands.
Crassus was also the man who stamped out the great slave rising led by the Thracian gladiator Spartacus in 73 B.C.E., which burst out in Capua and spread like wildfire across Italy. Competent, supremely brave, strong, and humane, Spartacus was a brilliant and charismatic leader who eventually attracted an army of ninety thousand rebel slaves, many of whom were being trained as gladiators by their Roman masters. He and his army had fought and marched their way to Roman Gaul; they conquered several full Roman armies but were eventually destroyed in Lucania, in southern Italy, after their hope of crossing to Sicily failed. Crassus savagely crucified six thousand of the rebels (the unclaimed ones, of course; the rest went back to their owners, for Crassus had great respect for the laws of property) along the Appian Way. Somehow it is difficult to mourn the fact that this supremely brutal real-estate king was captured and killed by the Parthians when they defeated his legions at Carrhae in Mesopotamia, during a failed punitive expedition in 53 B.C.E.
It is conventionally assumed that the coming of Christianity made the lives of slaves easier, but this is untrue. Early Christian emperors did not press for manumission, and fourth-century sermons were not filled with exhortations to Christian slave-owners to set their human property free. Rather, they tended to follow the advice of Saint Paul—slaves should stay put and obediently serve their masters as the good served Christ. Most Church leaders and ordinary pious Christians were slave owners themselves—a fact which was not going to be ignored in centuries to come, in the American South.
Slavery’s impact on Rome was too vast to be only economic. It also changed, by steady and irreversible degrees, the nature of Roman education of the young. In the early days of the Republic, this had tended to be amateurish and tradition-obsessed. A child’s teacher was his father, the paterfamilias, with some input (of an entirely conservative kind) from the mother. The curriculum consisted largely of learning about the national heroes of the Roman past, and the corpus of law known as the Twelve Tables. The chief skill taught by this conventional education was rote memory, coupled with a strong emphasis on physical culture and basic military knowledge. Plutarch in his Life of Cato the Elder, recounts how the father of Cato the Elder, who owned a slave named Chilo, an accomplished teacher of other boys, would not allow his own son to be taught by anyone but himself. “He thought it improper to have his son reprimanded by a slave, or to have his ears tweaked when he was slow in learning; nor would he have him under obligation to a slave for so priceless a thing as education.… In his son’s presence he refrained from obscene language no less than if he were in the presence of the vestal virgins. Nor would he ever bathe with him.” This was just the kind of cold-bath upbringing that the importation of large numbers of Greek slaves was sure to dispel. As education passed into the hands of Greek instructors, its nature changed: it was Hellenized and liberalized. Instead of the rote learning of conservative tribal wisdom, it favored debate and speculation, philosophical argument, sophistry, and the study of literature, both Greek and Latin.
Most of all, it made oratory the chief skill to acquire, the true test of intellectual capability. Cicero describes how his boyhood and early manhood were devoted to learning it in different places and under different masters. First, he “gave myself up wholly” to instruction by Philo, an expatriate Greek philosopher who, with his intellectual friends, had fled from Athens because of the Mithridatic Wars, and settled in Rome. Cicero studied pleading with Molo of Rhodes, another Greek; dialectic, with Diodotus the Stoic, who actually moved into Cicero’s house. “The foremost teachers, knowing only Greek, could not, unless I used Greek, correct my faults or convey their instruction.” Now it was time to go to Athens, where he studied with the philosopher Antiochus and went “zealously” into rhetorical exercises under the direction of Demetrius the Syrian. Next he traveled through Asia Minor, attaching himself to one teacher after another, starting with “the most eloquent man of all Asia,” Menippus of Stratonicea. Such a varied, intense curriculum was, of course, unusual. But under the old Roman dispensation, it would have been unthinkable, because no one would have thought it necessary.
The words “Augustan Age” evoke the name of the poet Virgil as inevitably as the word “modernity” does that of the painter Pablo Picasso. Publius Vergilius Maro, native of Mantua: he was not born in Rome, but few of the writers who created the canon of Latin verse and prose were. Livy came from Padua, Catullus from Verona, Martial from a backwater in Spain. On his deathbed, Virgil supposedly dictated the epitaph for his tomb: “Mantua me genuit; Calabri rapuere; tenet nunc Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.”“Mantua bore me; Calabria took me away, now Naples holds me; I sang of flocks, farms, and leaders.” Modest enough, for the greatest poet Rome ever produced.
This was the man whose lifetime (70–19 B.C.E.) and work associate him indelibly with the reign of Rome’s first emperor. Sixteen years of his life as a Roman citizen were disfigured by civil war, by the murderous proscriptions that followed the killing of Julius Caesar and the defeat and suicide of Cassius and Brutus at Philippi. And by the time Italy settled down somewhat, there were still the massive expropriations and evictions to contend with: Roman soldiers were rewarded by their masters with land confiscated from those who had owned it in peacetime, and this dislocated the rural society of Italy. Something like a quarter of the good land of Italy is thought to have changed hands in this disastrous way, a trauma reflected in Virgil’s first published work, the Eclogues orBucolics:
A godless soldier has my cherished fields,
A savage has my land: such profit yields
Our civil war. For them we worked our land!
Aye, plant your pears—to fill another’s hand.
The speaker is the farmer Meliboeus, in Virgil’s First Eclogue: and he is lamenting his loss of home, forced on him by the great, distant world of politics. “Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi/siluestrem tenui Musam meditaris auena: / nos patriae finis et dulcia linquimus arua: nos patriam fugimus.” “Tityrus, here you loll, your slim reed-pipe serenading the Muse beneath a sheltering canopy of beech, while I must leave my home place and the fields I love: we must evacuate our homeland.”
His family was moderately well off—well enough, at least, to send him to Mediolanum (Milan) and Rome to be educated in philosophy and rhetoric. It is possible, though not certain, that Virgil’s family estates were lost in the massive confiscations that followed the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C.E., when free land was issued to Octavian’s veteran soldiers, but other property was given to him, near Naples, thanks to the benevolent intervention of his well-placed friend Maecenas. He is said to have been worth ten million sesterces when he died, a handsome fortune which can only have come to him in gifts from Augustus.
Virgil was tall, dark, and shy; he seldom went to Rome, preferring rural life. He had weak lungs (having coughed blood for much of his life, he died at fifty-one, though that was not an uncommonly short life span) and a fine reading voice; he is known to have read the Georgics aloud to Augustus for four days straight, taking turns with Maecenas when his throat got hoarse. Everyone praised the expression and dramatic power of his reading. It irked him to be accosted by admirers, and when this happened on the street—as it often did, when the word of his poetic powers and his friendship with the emperor got around—he would hide in the nearest house. In Naples, his modesty of speech and behavior got him the nickname of “Parthenias,” “the Virgin.” Of course he was no virgin, and his preference was for boys.
How did a poet make a living in ancient Rome? The short answer was: not at all, or else through patronage. This was only the literary extension of one of the most durable commonplaces of Roman life, the relation between the client and the patron in everyday dealings. There was little question—if possible, even less then than now—of a poet’s living off his royalties, since no publishing industry existed. Books were made in small numbers, but few people bought them. When Pompeii and Herculaneum were overwhelmed with lava from Vesuvius in 79 C.E., thousands of statues and scores of wall paintings were buried; they have since been found, but all the digging on these sites over the last couple of centuries has exhumed only one private library.
Some poets, at least, already had a degree of financial independence: Horace had enough cash to pay for a kind of university education in Athens, and both Ovid and Propertius were hereditary squires (equites), the latter with senatorial relations and friends who were, or had been, consuls. Catullus came from a senatorial family and was not short of money, especially since his family was friendly with Julius Caesar. But for those who were not so luckily placed (and even for those who were, since having well-off relatives does not make a poet rich, even if it gets him dinner invitations), the benign interest of a patron was all.
Patronage was one of the most characteristic institutions, or social habits, of ancient Rome. In early republican times, a free man would seek the protection of a rich and powerful one, to whom he offered his services. In doing so, he became that person’s “client.” A freed slave was automatically the client of the former owner. The relationship was not exactly contractual, though early Roman law did treat it as legally binding in some circumstances. The client’s task was to dance attendance on his patron, come to greet him each morning, be a “gofer,” and offer him political support. He would be formally rewarded with a sportula, a dole of food and sometimes cash. Sometimes, but by no means always, the relationship between patron and client would develop into real friendship, but that was hardly predictable, since friendship presupposes feelings of equality, and differences of class were very strong in ancient Rome. Patronage was an arrangement in which power flowed only one way. It survived long into modern times, of course, and particularly in Sicily. A perfect example of its workings was given by one memoirist who in the 1950s observed, in the dining room of a major Palermo hotel, a pezzo di novanta (literally, a ninety-pound cannon; or “big shot”) walk in, doff his overcoat, and, without looking, drop it behind him, certain that someone would catch it before it touched the floor. Rome’s satirists—chiefly Juvenal and Martial—had some bitter things to say about patronage. “A man should possess ‘patrons’ and ‘masters’ who does not possess himself, and who eagerly covets what patrons and masters eagerly covet. If you can endure not having a slave, Olus, you can also endure not having a patron.” And in fact they had good reasons to be bitter, because the relationship between patron and client had degenerated appreciably under the Empire. The client was now little better than a parasite, a hanger-on. Originally, in Greek, a parasitos was merely a “dinner guest,” but it went downhill from there, acquiring strong overtones of contempt.
The transaction between patron and poet was not a simple one—not a matter of any poet’s offering to sell mediocre panegyrics to any would-be celebrity. Poetasters do not confer everlasting fame; their work dies with them, or (more likely) before. But there was always the possibility that a major poet might confer on his patron memoria sempiterna, “undying memory,” by praising him in verse. Thus Rome’s first major epic poet before Virgil, the Calabrian Ennius (239–169 B.C.E.), wrote in praise of the military achievements of M. Fulvius Nobilior, and is (unreliably) said to have been awarded Roman citizenship for doing so. However, the negotiation over patronage was a delicate matter, and tended to be done through a tastemaker, a middleman, who had the ear of the potential patron and enjoyed his trust. One such person, the most influential one in the so-called Golden Age of Latin writing, was the eques Gaius Maecenas, a friend and confidant of Augustus who claimed descent from Etruscan royalty and was also the patron of Horace. It is not difficult to glimpse the fine hand of Maecenas behind Horace’s endorsement and celebration of Octavian/Augustus’ victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, the famous “Cleopatra Ode,” which begins, “Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero/Pulsanda tellus”:
It’s drinking-time, comrades, time to stomp the ground with an unfettered foot, to honor with Salian feasts the couch of the gods. Before now it was forbidden to bring out the Caecuban wine [i.e., wine of the best quality and vintage] from ancestral cellars, so long as a Queen, together with her band of men stained with vile perversion, was preparing insane destruction for the Capitol and ruin for our rule, being so abandoned as to hope for anything imaginable, drunk as she was upon sweet fortune. But when scarcely a single ship escaped from the flames it lessened her madness, and Caesar reduced her thoughts to the stern reality of fear.…
This was a great poem, but it is also unrestrained propaganda, libel run wild, without a syllable of truth in it.
Maecenas was associated with, and helped promote, the poetry of Propertius and Varius Rufus as well as Horace. But his chief linkage, the one which fixed him permanently in literary history, was to Virgil. He did well by some of his poets; Virgil died rich, Horace received the free gift of a Sabine farm. But Virgil certainly did the most to earn the gifts he received, and became essentially the emperor’s mouthpiece. His Eclogues are the main source of the pastoral tradition in Latin, and thus in English and French. HisGeorgics set the mode and pattern for didactic poetry, a form abandoned in the twentieth century but of great importance before then. The Aeneid was Rome’s archetype of the heroic narrative epic. Augustus was extraordinarily lucky to have Maecenas directing his patronage toward Virgil.
In the Georgics, Virgil evokes and idealizes the life which, he believes, Augustus is giving back to Italy—simple, direct, close to the earth and to the workings of Nature: pastoral heaven, in short. (The title derives from the Greek word georgos, “one who works the soil.”) It is a life without ceremony, flattery, formality—and, we see, without intrusive clients:
O happy beyond measure the tillers of the soil.… Even if no high mansion with proud portals pours forth from every room a mighty wave of men coming to pay their respects in the morning; even if men do not gape at pillars inlaid with lovely tortoise-shell … or at Corinthian bronzes;…even if the pure olive oil they use is not spoiled with perfume, yet they enjoy sleep without worry, and a life that cannot bring disillusionment.…
Nothing is going to disturb such men; they have found their centers, they enjoy “sleep without worry … gentle slumber beneath a tree,” unmoved by military honors, the threat of “Dacians swooping down from the Danube,” the death throes of kingdoms, the haves and have-nots.
His furrows are ever piled high with harvest and his granaries are filled to overflowing.… The pigs return well fed on acorns, the woods produce wild strawberries … Meanwhile, sweet children hang about his lips, his chaste household preserves its purity, the cows’ udders hang full of milk.…
This is the life the ancient Sabines once cherished; so, too, Remus and his brother; thus, surely, brave Etruria waxed strong, and Rome became the fairest thing on earth.…
All of this would be echoed by Horace: “Beatus ille qui procul negotiis,/Ut prisca gens mortalium,/paterna rura bubus exercet suis/solutus omni faenore.…” “Blessed the man who, far from wheeling and dealing, like the first of mortal men, plows his ancestral acres with his own oxen, free from all usury.”
The Aeneid was the most important long poem to be written in any European language since Homer’s Iliad. Through it, Virgil achieved an influence over human thought, and the conception of poetry as an art form, that no other writer could claim. Not until Dante, who made Virgil his fictional guide through the Inferno, would any poet rival the imaginative achievement of the Aeneid. And of course Dante paid grateful tribute to his guide for showing him what writing could be and do: “Since you my author and my master are/And it was from you only that I took/That lovely style that I am honored for.”
Essentially, Virgil wrote the founding myth of the Roman people, setting forth what was expected of their nature and destiny under the guidance of Augustus. Its importance, both as art and as political utterance, was recognized long before it approached completion. “Stand aside, Roman writers; give way, Greeks!” wrote that entrancing love-poet Sextus Propertius, who had been broken financially by the proscriptions of Octavian and Antony. “Something greater than the Iliad is being born!”
Virgil freely admits that other peoples, such as the Greeks, are better at certain things than his Romans. “Let others make more lifelike, breathing images from bronze, which they will,” he writes. “Others can excel as orators, as astronomers. But, Romans, keep in mind that your art form is government. You must keep men practiced in the habit of peace, be generous to the conquered, and stand firm against the arrogant.” For the real Roman, the art of power was what counted.
To show what this means, Virgil will tell the story of Rome’s foundation by that man of destiny, the Trojan hero Aeneas, who, with his venerated father, Anchises, and little son Ascanius, escapes from the burning ruins of Troy and, pursued by the hostility of the goddess Juno, after many perilous wanderings by sea, founds the city of Rome, the second Troy, a city destined for an equally mythic greatness. “I sing of warfare and a man at war,” the epic begins, or in John Dryden’s translation:
Arms and the man I sing, who, forced by fate
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both on land and sea, he bore.…
In part, the Aeneid is an imitation of Homer’s Odyssey. Aeneas was already a character in the Iliad. In some respects, the Aeneid is almost impenetrably complicated, but its story may be summarized, in a very simplified form. Setting sail from burning Troy (book 1), Aeneas reaches Carthage, which is not written about as an enemy to Rome, but as a luxurious refuge from the terrors of the sea; it is ruled by the beautiful Queen Dido, to whom he relates, in the manner of Odysseus, the fall of Troy and his voyaging (books 2 and 3). Dido and Aeneas fall in love (book 4), but the gods oblige him to take to the sea again, deserting her, breaking her heart, driving her to suicide, and, not incidentally, providing the substance of later operas. His venerated father dies; Aeneas holds funeral games for him (book 5), sails on, and makes landfall in Italy, where he finds the entrance to the Underworld near Cumae (book 6). There he meets the shade of Dido, who bitterly reproaches him with many curses. Aeneas can think of no justification for his conduct—there is none—and is forced to the lame excuse that he didn’t mean it: he left her because Jupiter told him to. There he also meets the shade of his father, who tells him about the destiny of the city he is about to found, Rome.
In book 7, Aeneas reaches Latium and seeks marriage to the Princess Lavinia, whose previous suitor, Turnus, grows furious and, incited by the ever-vengeful goddess Juno, makes war on Aeneas and the Trojans. In book 8, Aeneas acquires celestial armor, including a stupendously elaborate shield made by Vulcan. It is a prophetic object, showing a number of future events involving Rome, including Augustus’ victory over Antony at Actium.
After prolonged warfare (books 9–12), Turnus is killed and Aeneas’ hegemony over the new Rome is complete.
It is, on one level, a majestically patriotic poem, suffused with an epic sense of scale and destiny. It recounts as its basic theme the establishment of those moral obsessions of ancient Augustan Rome, peace (pax), civilization (mos), and law (ius). “Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem,” Virgil wrote: “So hard and massive a task it was to found the Roman race.” Much the same might be said about the composition of Virgil’s poem. Like Shakespeare, Virgil created an extraordinary number of phrases and images that so embedded themselves in the uses of his language that they seem always to have been there: clichés that continually refresh themselves. “Equo ne credite, Teucri. Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” A real shudder of mystery in the presence of the Trojan horse: “Don’t feel safe with the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, especially when they bring gifts.” Or the warning about Hell:
The road down to that place of damnation is easy, but
Night and day the gates of Death’s dark kingdom lie open:
But to retrace your steps, to find your way back to daylight–
That is the task, the hard thing.
The Aeneid reverberates throughout with hints and prophecies of Rome’s destiny. Aeneas comforts and encourages his exhausted men (book 1, lines 205–10): “We hold our course for Latium, where the Fates/Hold out a settlement and rest for us. Troy’s kingdom there shall rise again. Be patient:/Save yourselves for more auspicious days.” Aeneas will found the city, and presently
Happy in the tawny pelt
His nurse, the she-wolf, wears, young Romulus
Will take the leadership, build walls of Mars,
And call by his own name, his people Romans.
For these I set no limits, world or time,
But make the gift of empire without end.
In the kingdom of the dead in book 6, Anchises prophesies that “Illustrious Rome will bound her power with earth,/Her spirit with Olympus. She’ll enclose/Her seven hills with one great city wall,/Fortunate in the men she breeds.” And he instructs his son Aeneas to
Turn your two eyes
This way and see this people, your own Romans.
Here is Caesar, and all the line of Iulus,
All who shall one day pass under the dome
Of the great sky; this is the man, this one,
Of whom so often you have heard the promise,
Caesar Augustus, son of the deified,
Who shall bring once again an Age of Gold,
To Latium, to the land where Saturn reigned
In early times. He will extend his power
Beyond the Garamants and Indians,
Over far territories north and south.…
Thus the growth of empire is foreordained.
After Virgil, the best-known of all Augustan poets, then as now, was Quintus Horatius Flaccus—Horace. (Lucretius was certainly influential, both in Rome and, later, through his influence on Milton; but he was not loved and enjoyed as Horace was.) Horace was five years younger than Virgil, the son of a freedman, his father an auctioneer who had been a slave. His career, up to the time he was noticed by Maecenas and brought into the Augustan circle, had been an uneven one. In fact, he had served in the army, fighting on the side of Brutus and Cassius and with the high rank of military tribune, against the future Augustus at Philippi.
Horace was certainly indebted to Maecenas, but he did not feel a bit inferior to him—rather, he addressed him as an equal, a friend—“Maecenas, son of royal stock/My friend, my honour, my firm rock.” A relaxed intimacy seems to prevail between the two men. At one point, in “Epode 14,” Horace even refers to an erotic liaison between Augustus and an actor, Bathyllus—a liberty which he could not possibly have taken if a trusting confidentiality did not exist between him and Augustus’ friend Maecenas.
He makes a few mistakes at first, overflattering Augustus, attributing a politically unwelcome divinity to him. He follows the Augustan line on sexual immorality and public weakness a little too sedulously for some tastes: “Teeming with sin, our times have sullied first the marriage bed, our offspring, and our homes; sprung from this source, disaster’s stream has overflowed the people and the fatherland … The young maiden even now trains herself in coquetry and, impassioned to her finger tips, plans unholy amours.” But soon the right proportion of praise is found, and in the meantime Horace has developed into a wonderful singer of the light of pleasure and, sometimes, of the remorse which can be the shadow of that sun.
He was short and stout, gray-haired, and a connoisseur of wine, gardens, and conversation. He was urbane, humorous, and without rancor in the face of human folly. If you can judge a man’s qualities from his poetry, he was an ideal companion. He loved the country farm that Augustus, through Maecenas, had given him: its orchard, its bubbling spring of water “shinier than glass.” He was presumably homosexual. He never married, and some of his most beautiful verses are addressed to a Roman youth called Ligurinus. But he certainly had no animus against the opposite sex, celebrating it in some of the finest lines ever addressed by a man to a woman, however imaginary:
Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
perfusus liquidis urget odoribus,
grato, Pyrrha, sub antro?
cui flavam religas comam,
“What slender lad drenched in liquid scents presses against you, Pyrrha, under some pleasing grotto? For whom are you binding back your blond hair in simple elegance?”
Other remarkable poets enjoyed the favor of Maecenas and, through him, the largesse of Augustus: Sextus Propertius, Tibullus. The characters from their poetry would recur in English verse up to the nineteenth century, thanks to the classical basis of upper-class English education: Propertius’ Cynthia, and the girl whose slave Tibullus declares he is, Delia.
But the most irresistible of these poets, and the “bad boy” of Augustan writing, was Ovid: Publius Ovidius Naso, born in a valley of the Apennines east of Rome in 43 B.C.E., died in exile on the western Black Sea coast in the village of Tomi (now Costanza, in Romania), in 17 C.E., his books having been removed from Rome’s public libraries on Augustus’ orders. It might actually have been a lot worse, for he was allowed to keep his property in Rome. Exactly what Ovid had done to deserve this punishment—Augustus never banished another writer of quality—is not really certain, and Ovid himself never did more than hint at it in his writing, beyond saying that it was caused by a carmen (a song) and an error (a mistake). The mistake was probably sexual, and it may have involved Augustus’ wild and sexy granddaughter Julia, who was some twenty-five years younger than the poet and would herself be banished to a Mediterranean island for immorality at about the same time that Ovid was sent to Tomi. As for the disapproved song, any number of Ovid’s would have fit the bill. “Posterity, recognize who it is you’re reading, / the poet of fun, kindness, love,” declares his Tristia (Lamentations), written in exile, to assert his innocence. Witty, fluent, thrice-married, with a worldly charm that shines through every line of his Ars amatoria (The Art of Love) and his magnum opus, the Metamorphoses, Ovid was the first of the great literary boulevardiers, and to kick him out to a provincial hole like Tomi, whatever the rustic charms of its landscape and its women, was a terrible waste of life-enhancing talent:
As I can,
I solace myself with song.
There is no-one to listen.
In pretence I spend the day.
The fact that I am alive, that I put a firm front on hardship,
That I look sorrow in the face,
I owe to poetry. It offers me comfort,
Rest and remedy,
It is my guide and companion.…
Our age has produced great poets,
But my reputation stands,
There are many I rank above myself,
But others rank me with them,
And I am the best-seller.
No wonder that he was; no Roman writer, and few later ones, wrote as stylishly about sexual intrigue as Ovid. Here he is giving his advice to a girlfriend:
And once you get to the bedroom
Fill it with every delight; let’s have no modesty there.
Once you are out of there, though, abandon abandonment, darling—
Bed is the only place where you can act as you please.
There it is no disgrace to fling your dress in a corner,
There it is no disgrace lying with thigh under thigh,
There it is proper for tongues, as well as for lips, to be kissing,
There let passion employ all the inventions of love.
There use all of the words, the helpful cries, and the whispers,
There let the squeak of the bed appear to be keeping in time.
And husbands, particularly older ones, are there to be cuckolded by their lovelorn, randy wives:
Tacticians recommend the night attack,
Use of the spearhead, catching the foe asleep,
Lovers use them too—to exploit a sleeping husband,
Thrusting hard while the enemy snores.
Such cheerful promiscuity did not conform to the standards of “family values” that Augustus was determined to reinforce in Rome. Augustus believed in restraint; Ovid did not. Anyone who has ever had hot sex on a hot afternoon is his co-conspirator. In comes his Corinna:
Sheer though it was, I pulled the dress away;
Pro forma, she resisted, more or less.
It offered little cover, I must say,
And why put up a fight to save a dress?
So soon she stood there naked, and I saw,
Not only saw, but felt, perfection there,
Hands moving over beauty without flaw,
The breasts, the thighs, the triangle of hair.
Ovid’s free sexuality certainly contributed to his popularity, and is one of the reasons he is still read today, but the main reason for his influence in Roman times—which rivaled that of Virgil—was that his verse became Rome’s main source for Greek mythology. The divinities of Roman religion tended to be nature spirits—Fortuna, Mens Bona—without personalities. It was Ovid who gave the Roman gods faces—and genitals to go with them. He did most to invent the idea of mythology as entertainment, a comedy of manners, full of dramatic or scandalous stories about the gods’ doings on Olympus: as Richard Jenkyns observed, “Ovid is nearer to Offenbach than to Homer.” He became the favorite and most imitated Latin poet of the Italian Renaissance and was often rendered into English, especially by Chaucer and Spenser. Echoes of him appear in Shakespeare, and one of the greatest lines in Christopher Marlowe’s plays, uttered by Dr. Faustus as he awaits damnation, is quoted directly from Ovid: “O lente, lente currite, noctis equi,”“Run slowly, slowly, horses of the night.”
We know little about Augustus’ own sexual predilections. But we do know about some of his tastes in other areas, particularly architecture and city planning. Literature would ensure some part of his cultural survival, but marble would do so even more solidly.
Augustus had a great enthusiasm for building. He wanted to make Rome unsurpassably beautiful. For that reason, it had to become Greek; but bigger. His famous declaration that he had found a city of mud brick and left it marble was, to a surprising extent, true. The marble was more often a thick facing veneer over common brick than solid masonry blocks, but not always. Much of it was of an intimidating, or inspiring, solidity, of which the extreme example was the enormous Forum of Augustus itself. He fulfilled Julius Caesar’s plans for a monumental rebuilding—a creation, really—of the architecturally diffuse heart of Rome, which had been left undone by his murder.
To say Augustus mobilized the Roman building industry is to understate it. He declared he had built (or restored) eighty-two Roman temples alone in one year—many gods, many temples—apart from other structures, and this was no mere boast.
The show material was marble, the best available, from the Luna quarries in Carrara, in the north. Luna marble was the finest available if you wanted perfect whiteness, which Augustus and his builders did. Its whiteness rivaled that of the moon, from which it took its name. Luna marble tended to be very homogeneous and, to the extent that any sedimentary and metamorphic rock can be, free of internal veins and cracks. This reduced the risk that unexpected disfigurements would appear in the whiteness of an architrave or, worse, in the cheek of a Venus or a general. On buildings it was combined with other marbles, whose variety of origins symbolized the vast spread of the Roman Empire, which could bring any kind of stone from anywhere in the conquered world, from Asia, the Near East, and all over the Mediterranean. Pink marble came from the Greek island of Chios; a greeny-blue marble known as cipollino from Euboea; yellow from North Africa. There were many others, though not as many as would be exploited by late-imperial designers or, at the extreme, by those of Baroque Rome. The discreet use of bands and veneers of these stones enlivened what might otherwise have been a certain monotony of surface in Augustan buildings.
The best thing about Luna marble, apart from consistency of color, was its firm crystalline structure. This made for an even “grain” in the stone, which in turn favored crispness and depth of detail. And some details of Augustan buildings were very elaborate. The principal architect and theorist of the Augustan Age was Vitruvius Pollio, who wrote the fundamental text on classical Roman building, the ten-volume De Architectura (25–23 B.C.E.)—the only treatise on fine building to survive from ancient Rome. He discussed not only architecture but also town planning, water supply, engineering, and war engines, but his views on architecture, set forth in great detail, lay at the core of European practice for the best part of a thousand years. No actual buildings by him have survived, and practically nothing is known about his life, except that he served Augustus’ army as an artillery engineer, designing ballistae and siege engines.
Vitruvius was intensely alert not only to the practical aspects of building, but also to its metaphorical content. Thus his disquisitions on the “orders” of architecture and their meanings. Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan—each one had its human and divine significance:
The temples of Minerva, Mars, and Hercules will be Doric, since the virile strength of these gods makes daintiness entirely unsuitable to their houses. In temples to Venus, Flora, Proserpine, Spring Water and the Nymphs, the Corinthian order will be found to have special significance, because these are delicate divinities, and so its rather slender outlines, its flowers, leaves, and ornamental volutes will lend propriety where it is due. The construction of temples of the Ionic order to Juno, Diana and Bacchus … will be in keeping with the middle position which they occupy: for such buildings will be an appropriate combination of the severity of the Doric and the delicacy of the Corinthian.
The most prominent of the Augustan “orders” was a new type of capital, known as “Composite,” which combined the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian order with the volutes of the Ionic. This hybrid became one of the typical forms of Augustan architecture, but it required rather more skill to carve successfully than most Roman stonemasons had. Greek marble-cutters had to be imported, because Greece trained better stonemasons than Rome in the first century B.C.E.
These Greek workmen did more than carve architectural details. They did statues, too; someone had to churn out all those effigies of the Princeps and his family. This helps account for the fact that the portraiture of the imperial period tends to lack the realistic, sometimes sharply frank likenesses of earlier Roman portraiture. The carvers had never set eyes on Augustus and so had no firsthand idea of what he “really” looked like, and of course no conception of his personality other than the one diffused by imperial propaganda. But Augustus was a god, and Greek sculptors were well used to depicting gods. This also helps account for a certain sameness in the representations of Augustus throughout his reign and across the Empire.
But more than flood the culture with numberless coins, busts, and statues, the Greeks had a profound and lasting influence on the physical city. Two monuments in Rome itself which clearly showed the continuing Greek influence on Roman art and architecture were the Forum of Augustus, finished around 2 B.C.E., and the Ara Pacis Augustae, dedicated in 9 B.C.E.
In layout, the Forum is entirely Roman, as it should be: a rectangular open space lined with porticoes, in which people met and business was done. One end was closed by a large temple on a high podium, that inheritance from more ancient Etruscan conventions; and there were statues of heroes of the state, including, of course, Augustus himself. But Greek details understandably insinuate themselves. The capitals of its columns are Corinthian; the presence of a line of Caryatids (load-bearing, columnar figures of women) in the upper story of the colonnades is a direct reminiscence of those on the porch of the Erechtheum in Athens.2 The scale of the whole complex was immense. The columns of the temple were some eighteen meters high, made of the gleaming white Luna marble from the quarries of Carrara that was Augustus’ architectural signature. The flooring of the colonnades, by contrast, which survives only as fragments, was done with the most highly colored marbles in the Empire: Phrygian purple (pavonazzetto) from Turkey, Numidian yellow (giallo antico) from Tunisia, red-and-black africano.
The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, is an even more direct quotation from Greek norms and forms. Its purpose is to celebrate the end of conflict and dissension—the settling of the Roman state by its great uniter, Augustus, who is seen as presiding over a Rome that has been reborn from the dissent that finished off the Republic. The altar rises on steps, themselves contained within high screen walls of Luna marble with open entrances on the east and the west sides. On either side of each entrance are mythological panels of carved stone. They depict the spiritual and material benefits of Augustus’ reign, and are clearly by Greek artists. One of them, for instance, promises the return of the Golden Age. Here, enthroned at the center of the panel, is Natura naturans,Nature being Nature—Mother Earth in her sweetest and most fertile guise, with two infants sporting in her arms. Fruit and flowers surround her, a cow and a sheep lie contentedly at her feet, and she is flanked by two benign nature spirits, representing Ocean and Water. The mood and content are those of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, in which the poet tells of the coming age of Apollo:
Ours is the crowning era foretold in prophecy:
Born of Time, a great new cycle of centuries
Begins. Justice returns to earth, the Golden Age
Returns, and its first-born comes down from heaven above.
Look kindly, chaste Lucina, upon this infant’s birth,
For with him shall hearts of iron cease, and hearts of gold
Inherit the whole earth—yes, Apollo reigns now.
And it’s while you are consul—you, Pollio—that this glorious
Age shall dawn.…
Who is this firstborn child “from heaven above”? It is still a mystery. Christian interpreters after Virgil’s death had no doubt that it was the infant Jesus, but the wish was certainly father to the thought: Virgil was not writing Christian prophecy, although many people have wished he was.
Elsewhere on the carved walls of the Ara Pacis, we see Augustus as Aeneas making sacrifice, in his fundamental guise as the peace bringer, establishing the city of Rome, having at last transcended the dreadful conflict and loss of Troy. The lesson is not to be avoided: there is a savior before us, a savior who repeats the primal act of foundation by establishing the Roman state for the future in accordance with its ancient laws and pieties. What is more, the savior’s family is and always will be the metaphor of the good state. Such is the “Augustan Peace.”
The other Augustan building in Rome that survives, after a fashion, is a parallel to the Ara Pacis—Augustus’ own family mausoleum, whose original form has been so broken down over the ages that, apart from its circular form, it is hardly legible. TheAugusteum (in which there remains, of course, not a speck of the dead emperor’s dust) is really more an earthwork than a building—a big shallow cone, eighty-nine meters in diameter and forty-four high, reminiscent of much earlier Etruscan monuments. The first member of Augustus’ family to be interred in it was probably his favorite nephew, Marcellus, poisoned in 23 B.C.E. by Augustus’ third wife, Livia, who wanted her own son Tiberius to inherit the throne. In less ancient times, once the remains of Augustus himself were lost, it acquired many uses, none of them particularly glorious; it was fortified and used as a military base by the Colonnas in the twelfth century, then it was quarried for travertine, and in 1354 the corpse of Cola di Rienzo, mutilated by the daggers of the Roman mob, was cremated in it. Later, it became a huge kitchen garden; later still, when the fashion for things Spanish reached Rome in the nineteenth century, it was turned into a bullring. Not until the 1930s, when Benito Mussolini is said to have contemplated being buried in it, did it regain some of its archaeological dignity—a dignity now hopelessly compromised by the clutter of wastepaper, candy wrappers, empty cigarette packets, and other rubbish left on it by passing Romans.
Augustus’ commitment to building was felt with particular zeal at the edges of empire, where such major architecture was less dense. Some of the greatest structures of the Augustan Age are “provincial” in location—far from Rome, but governed by it—and yet as sophisticated as anything in Rome itself. One of the most beautiful of these Augustan monuments is the Pont du Gard, an aqueduct near Nemausus (modern Nîmes) in Provence, with its rhythm of arches spanning a valley; for those who have seen it, and perhaps even for those who only know it from photographs, this huge and exquisitely proportioned three-level structure is the aqueduct, the archetype of its genre.
Being a major provincial center, the capital of Gallia Narbonensis, Nîmes also has an amphitheater, seating some twenty-five thousand spectators and built around the end of the first century C.E. The Augustan jewel of Nîmes, however, is the temple honoring Augustus’ grandsons, Caius and Lucius Caesar, known as the Maison Carrée or Square House (c. 19 B.C.E.). It is extremely well preserved, probably because it was converted into a Christian basilica in the early Middle Ages. Some of its details, in particular the design of the Corinthian capitals, resemble those of the great Temple of Mars Ultor, dedicated a few years earlier in Rome, and they reflect Augustus’ partiality to the Corinthian order. Likewise, the frieze decoration—continuous acanthus scrolls—mimics that of the Ara Pacis. The Maison Carrée had been enormously admired for centuries when it was first seen by an American, Thomas Jefferson, in 1784. He seized on its design as the ideal prototype of dignified official architecture for the new conception of democratic politics which he had the honor to represent in France: noble and Augustan, yet fine-boned and somehow intimate. Thus the influence of the Maison Carrée crossed the Atlantic, supplying the prototype of the new State House, the capitol of Virginia. It was not a passive copy: Jefferson had to make changes, substituting Ionic capitals for the Corinthian ones, since he feared (no doubt correctly) that local Virginian masons would not be able to carve all those complicated acanthus leaves. But the Virginian capitol, in Richmond, showed, in Jefferson’s own words, that “we wish to exhibit a grandeur of conception, a Republican simplicity, and that true elegance of Proportion, which correspond to a tempered freedom excluding Frivolity, the food of little minds.” How Augustus himself would have approved!
The first century C.E. also saw the decorative arts flourish in the private sphere. Probably the best paintings were imported from Greece, or done in Rome by Greek artists. There was a strong tradition of easel painting throughout the Greek and Roman world, but we know this only from literary sources—the works themselves, victims of time, have not survived except as fleeting glimpses. There is no sign that Roman walls in Augustus’ time had anything comparable in quality or in charged, intricate grandeur to the red-background mural paintings of initiatory scenes in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, built c. 60 B.C.E.
Little is known of Roman garden design, but it existed, though whatever Augustan gardens there may have been were obliterated long ago by later building. One can infer the character of gardens from what survived in Pompeii—the fishponds and shell grottoes, the paved walks, vine arbors, pergolas, and painted shrubberies. Floor mosaics were popular, whether made of pebbles or of glass tesserae. Middle-class Romans seem to have been excessively fond of kitsch ornamental sculpture, too: the garden of the Pompeiian house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto, if one can judge from photographs, looks like the terrace of Luigi’s Pasta Palace in coastal New Jersey, crammed with sculptures that are more like garden gnomes—a Silenus standing in a nymphaeum and pouring water from a wineskin, birds, satyrs, a generic bearded herm, a Cupid riding a dolphin. Some of this stuff may have been inherited, but most of it was undoubtedly turned out in local factories to the householder’s order.
Yet, in the midst of all this building, what was the single most important monument built by the Romans, still visible in some part today? We think of “monuments” as vertical, rearing up in stately fashion and visible from a distance. “Exegi monumentum aere perennius,” wrote the poet Horace—“I have earned a monument more durable than bronze,”—meaning the fame of his own poetry. But the greatest of the physical monuments, which occupied the best energies of Roman surveyors, planners, engineers, laborers, masons, and slaves for centuries and made possible the growth and administration of the largest empire the world had hitherto known, was neither a mighty building nor a statue but a thing both ponderously physical and entirely horizontal, and thus, at least from a distance, rather hard to see: certainly invisible, and very hard to imagine, as a whole. This was the enormous road system, without which the Roman Empire could not have existed.
Estimates of its size vary a good deal, depending on how many secondary and tertiary roads are figured in. But it was certainly not less than 80,000 kilometers long, and possibly as much as 100,000 or even 120,000 kilometers, including its many bridges thrown over foaming rivers, culverts above swamps, and tunnels hewn through mountainous rock. It was a stupendous feat of surveying, planning, and labor, and all done without earthmoving machines, graders, or explosives—just hand tools and muscle.
You can no more imagine Roman power without its sustaining road network than you can imagine that of America’s empire without radio, TV, telephones, the Internet, and every other sort of electronic communication. It enabled information to pass between distant points faster than ever before in history. To ride across Italy from Rome to Brindisi along the Via Appia took only eight days. The road had its own support system, the ancestor of the garages and rest stops along today’s autostrada—workshops and inns, well-equipped stables, vets for the horses. If your vehicle, whose most common type was known as a carpentum (whence “car”), threw a wheel or broke an axle along the way, you could call for a mechanic or carpentarius (whence “carpenter”) to repair it. If carless, the ordinary pedestrian could walk perhaps twenty kilometers in a day. A marching soldier might do thirty to thirty-five.
In the past, other great imperial powers (the Egyptians, and in Persia the Achaemenids) had road systems, sometimes large and well-maintained ones. But either their use was restricted (in Egypt, all roads were royal and off limits to commoners), or they were poorly integrated with existing ports, making the relations of land and sea transport decidedly iffy. The Roman system worked with a smoothness never achieved before in history, and every civis romanus (Roman citizen) who had anything to move—an army, a wagon train, a roll of papyrus with an important or trivial message, a basket of melons—had access, either personally or through his representatives and clients, to it. From the point of view of trade and strategy, nothing like the roads of Rome had ever before been imagined, let alone built. Without the roads, the strategy could not have existed. The administration of so many subgroups within an empire was extremely time-consuming. Speed of communication and accuracy of placement of force were essential. Imperial cohesion, then as now, depended on communication.
The size of the road network, given the labor required to create it, is astonishing now and was almost inconceivable two millennia ago. It encircled the entire Mediterranean Basin; given enough time, a traveler on horseback or in a wheeled vehicle who started out from Rome and headed east through Ariminum (modern Rimini) and Thessalonica toward Byzantium (not yet named after the Emperor Constantine) and crossed into Asia could follow the same road south through Antioch, Damascus, and Gaza and then have before him, still fully paved and serviced, the long westward coastal run through Alexandria, Cyrene, and Leptis Magna that would eventually finish at Banasa, in what is now Morocco. There, he might find himself staring across the narrow strait that divided Spain from North Africa at another traveler who had taken another Roman road west along the bottom of Europe, through Arelate (modern Arles) and Narbo (modern Narbonne), across the maritime foot of the Pyrenees to Tarraco (modern Tarragona), west from there to Caesaraugusta (modern Saragossa), and thence southward to Hispalis (modern Seville) and Gades (modern Cádiz), which gazed on the North African coast. The Roman geographer Strabo believed that more than thirty-five hundred miles of roads had been completed by the Romans on the Iberian peninsula by 14 C.E., and this total would presently rise to some ten thousand.
To the north, the pattern was much the same. The conquered territories carried the mark of their subjugation in the form of Roman roads. One such road linked Mediolanum (modern Milan) to Augusta Vindelicorum (modern Augsburg), and so along the valley of the Rhine to Mogantiacum (modern Mainz) and Colonia Agrippina (modern Cologne). France was webbed with paved routes, from Lugdunum (modern Lyons) to Rotomagus (modern Rouen). And of course the network spread across the Channel to Britannia, thrusting north to link up with Hadrian’s Wall, which had been built to frustrate the hostile Scots in 122–125 C.E.
Their construction hardly varied, and it depended entirely on exactingly supervised slave and military labor. First a large trench was dug, six or seven meters wide and perhaps eighty centimeters deep. Both sides of it were lined with gomphi or curbstones, and then the roadbed was filled with layers of sand, gravel, and small rocks, well pounded in. The final surface was provided by flat slabs of stone, keyed together. The road builders took care to give the surface a camber, so that water would run off to the sides.
Not all Roman roads were like this. Many were cambered, edged, but unpaved. Some, like the great military road that linked Carthage to Theveste in North Africa, were paved and assiduously maintained. These included the Via Appia between Rome and Capua, and the Via Egnatia across the Balkan Peninsula from the Adriatic to the Aegean—which would be extended to Constantinople. But many roads disintegrated over time, from the stress of wheeled traffic, and would hardly be traceable today but for their surviving milestones, squat cylindrical columns which indicated the traveler’s distance from the nearest major city. (The “Roman mile” was about 10 percent shorter than modern ones at 1,620 yards.) Nevertheless, the Roman road system was by far the most elaborate and far-reaching that human ingenuity would produce until the nineteenth century in Europe. Naturally, it long outlasted Augustus’ own lifetime and was one of the most valuable parts of the enormous legacy that he left to his successors.
Augustus ruled Rome for almost forty-four years, dying a month before his seventy-seventh birthday. He had what he had asked the gods to send him: a quick and painless death. Though there were rumors that he had died of eating some poison-smeared figs brought to him by his wife, Livia, this was only gossip. The transition of power went smoothly: Livia’s elder son by him, Tiberius, was Augustus’ main heir and received the imperium. No one expected that anyone could measure up to the immense achievements of the Princeps; and, of course, neither Tiberius nor anyone else did so. Dying, according to Suetonius, “finally he kissed his wife with ‘Goodbye, Livia; never forget whose wife you have been.’ ” It cannot have been a much-needed injunction.
1 Whose story is as follows. The goddess Athena had invented the flute, but threw it away because playing it distorted her face. Marsyas found it where it lay, and taught himself to play it. He became so good at it that he had to challenge Apollo to a contest: his flute versus the god’s lyre. Inevitably, the impertinent and libidinous satyr lost. Apollo’s dreadful revenge was to string Marsyas up and skin him alive. This was always taken as an allegory of the opposition, in art as in life, between sexy spontaneity (Marsyas) and disciplined invention (merciless Apollo).
2 The Caryatids, bearing the architrave on their heads, were emblems of slavery. The city of Caria, in Asia Minor, had resisted the Athenians, and thenceforth its women were depicted as defeated load-bearers.