Tag Archives: augustan poets

The Age of Augustus

Writing job applications makes you think not only about what you are good at but about what you’d like to do. I have always wanted a position that would allow me to research ancient Christianity and the Later Roman Empire while teaching Roman history and Latin. This includes crafting a course on the age of Augustus. I like the age of Augustus. Here I am with the Prima Porta Augustus (I really did come close to crying upon seeing it):

Why the age of Augustus?

Augustus was the ‘first emperor of Rome’. He blazed onto the scene at age 19 in 44 BC when his great-uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated and adopted him as his son posthumously. He consolidated power unto himself by 31 BC and acquired the title ‘Augustus’ from the Senate in 27 BC. He then proceeded to rule the Roman Empire until AD 14. Politically, what sets Augustus off from people like Uncle Julius, besides his longevity, was his formal acquisition of powers, authorities, and titles from the Senate. He didn’t simply aim for something like ‘Dictator for Life’. He gathered into himself a variety of constitutional powers that no single man had previously held, and his successors managed to hold onto them, turning Rome into a monarchy. This is a reason for such a course.

As a result of this, and here my late antique expertise adds weight to the importance of teaching the early empire, Augustus becomes sort of a ‘model emperor’. Consider the image above, of the beardless emperor, as opposed to:

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, British Museum

Augustus’ beardlessness thus makes Constantine’s ‘look’ of particular political importance:

Augustus boasted that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Monuments from his era can still be seen in the city of Rome, such as the Ara pacis. Besides such monumental art and the shift in the city’s grandeur, a lot of great surviving Roman art comes from the Augustan era, such as the wondrous frescoes from his wife, Livia’s, villa, now on display in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. Art and architecture from the age of Augustus, then, provide another reason.

The Laocoon Group, now in the Vatican Museums, may date to this period

Furthermore, this same era, from 44ish BC to 14ish AD is a productive time in Latin literature — at least, Latin literature that survives. In prose, we have here the last years of Cicero and the work of Sallust, Livy, and the later works of Cornelius Nepos and Varro. Poetry is a larger domain, however — all of the famous elegists, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid, as well as the lyric achievement of Horace, not to mention the great epic poet Virgil.

A course on more than just politics, then

Take these elements, couple them with studies of ‘daily life’, and a course on the age of Augustus would be a wonderful glimpse of the Roman world as it existed for 58 years. The political narrative could be woven together with art and poetry, and how these interacted with each other could be part of the dialogue between professor and students.

Imagining this as a course with two lecture slots per week, I would divide it between narratives bringing history forward from the Ides of March 44 BC to the fourteenth day before the Kalends of September AD 14 (August 19). Parallel to the narrative lectures would be sessions combining lectures with discussions, moving through the art, architecture, and literature.

The primary learning outcome would be to see the transformation of the Roman world from the self-embattled Republic to the Early Empire, seeing Augustus and the culture that thrived during his reign in context. It would provide a background to understanding the rest of Roman history as well as later imperial aspirers, such as Charlemagne whose biographer Einhard used the biography of Augustus by Suetonius as a model.

Ovid

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, now in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

I recently finished teaching Ovid to both my classes. In fourth-year Latin verse, we finished up my chosen selections from his Epistulae ex Ponto (letters from Pontus), and in Latin epic we finished A. D. Melville’s translation of his Metamorphoses.

In my undergrad, I read only a few Latin poets — Virgil, minor authors associated with Tibullus, and Ovid. The Ovid I read then was his Ars Amatoria — the art of love. Ovid is a great poet, and if you are Latinless, A. D. Melville is a great translator of Ovid. Depending on your personality, you’d best start either with The Love Poems or The Metamorphoses.

Ovid himself started with the love poems — the Amores, themselves full of wit and charm and amusement, executed in brilliant elegiac couplets. This was his favoured metre — the first line of each couplet is a dactylic hexameter (the metre of epic), the second line has had a foot stolen by Cupid (technically called a dactylic pentameter, and that’s all we’re saying about metre today).

He played with all the conventions of Latin love elegy, and went on to his Ars Amatoria in that metre as a way to produce a mock-didactic poem about how to pick up the ladies, with a section for ladies to pick up men. Sometimes he gives opposite advice. Men — make sure you see her in daylight to make sure she’s really pretty; sometimes lamplight covers up blemishes. Ladies — make sure he only sees you in the lamplight, it covers up blemishes.

Apparently chariot races are also a good place to find a date.

Poets who are always testing and stretching their art are not comfortable with staying still, however. Thus Horace ranges through as much lyric as he can before moving to satire, and thence to the invention of Latin verse epistles. Ovid takes his love elegy and transforms it with his own first foray into mythology and the verse epistle with the Heroides. If you know classical mythology, I very strongly encourage you to read the Heroides. These are letters from the women of myth to their men, mostly complaining about their ill-treatment. Cutting and vibrant, they create a voice for the too-often voiceless characters of classical verse.

Ovid’s next two forays into myth were simultaneous — why stick to one thing when you can do two? The famous Metamorphoses, the epic that defies convention, and the Fasti, a work that could be said to be at least inspired by HellIenistic models, a poem in elegiac couplets that goes through the Roman calendar and gives the myths and legends surrounding their foundations. Two different approaches, two different tones, pure Ovid.

If you know a ‘Greek myth’, there is a very good chance that you know it from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For example, we have no pre-Ovid version of Narcissus and Echo. The version of Apollo and Daphne we all love, or of Pygmalion, or of countless others, is the version as recounted by Ovid. Ovid’s main concern in the Metamorphoses is not simply to recount myth after myth about 250 times in almost 10,000 lines of dactylic hexameter. If that were the case — shoot me now. Rather, it is to use myths, and myths of metamorphosis in particular, to plumb the depths of the human soul to bring out the psychology and suffering and pathos of every sad myth, and cry out against the injustices of the gods.

(Aside: You’d think there’d’ve been a Greek Ragnarok; these guys are just as bad.)

Ovid soon had cause to cry out against Jupiter — as the poets called the first emperor, Augustus. He found himself exiled for a poem — the Ars Amatoria — and an error. We don’t know what the error was. Off he went to Tomis in Scythia Minor on the Black Sea (modern Tomi, Romania). Was it as bad as he says in the Tristia and Letters from Pontus?

I think it felt that way to Ovid — what more can we ask of a man?

He died in exile, despite his many letters and poems sent home.

His verse coruscates with device, artifice, wit, and cleverness. He is perhaps too clever for his own good, bringing down the censure of Quintilian and the English Augustans (18th century). Not only that — he’s fun! And we all know serious literature cannot be fun, of all things.

This brief encomiastic run-through of his poetic output scarcely does him justice. If you’re looking for a new poet to test out, if you want to test the waters of classical verse — try Ovid.