Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Child of Fortune



In the spring of 44 B.C., Augustus, or, to give him his proper name, Caius Octavius, was half way through his nineteenth year. His uncle Julius Caesar had sent him to Apollonia, the head-quarters of the army of Illyricum, to see something of the routine of military duty, and to make acquaintance with the soldiers, while at the same time he kept up the studies fitted to his age. On March 15th. Caesar was assassinated. The legions at once offered to follow Augustus to Rome, and help him to avenge the great Dictator's death. With that happy mixture of caution and courage which was probably half the secret of his good luck, he declined the offer, but resolved to visit the capital in a private capacity.

Landing in Italy he heard that Caesar by his will had adopted him as his son and made him his heir. The troops at Brundisium, the port of disembarkation, saluted him accordingly by the name of Caesar. Early in May he arrived at Rome.

I shall not follow in detail the events of the next sixteen years. Throughout this period, under circumstances of the greatest delicacy and difficulty, the young statesman conducted himself with unfailing tact, and was rewarded by almost unvarying success. One after another his rivals made fatal mistakes of which he promptly availed himself. Antony, a great soldier, whose very faults somehow endeared him to the people, alienated their hearts by his mad passion for Cleopatra. To ordinary excesses they were indifferent, but it was intolerable that the master of Roman legions should exhibit himself in public as the bond-slave of a foreign queen. And then at Actium when the crisis of his fate had come, and it was yet possible for him to redeem his fortunes, he threw away his last chance with a folly that seems absolutely imbecile. Probably his excesses had utterly shattered his nerves. Sextus, son of the great Pompey, was another adversary who might have been formidable, if he had been true to himself. So strong was he that at one time Augustus was constrained to give him a share of the Empire; he had, too, a great party at his back, for the adherents of the Republic would have rallied to him; but he gave away his chance by his indolent inaction. All this time Augustus went on steadily improving his position. He let nothing stand in his way. He could be merciful to enemies, when mercy suited his policy; he was relentless when it seemed expedient to be severe. His action was never fettered by conscience; but then he was never hurried by passion into crime.

In B.C. 35 Sextus Pompeius was betrayed by his freedman Menodorus; four years afterwards, Antony was defeated at Actium. In August, B.C. 29, Augustus celebrated a triple triumph at Rome. He had closed the temple of Janus, a token that undisturbed peace reigned through the Roman world. Only twice before this been done, and the people, worried with the incessant bloodshed that had exhausted at least three generations hailed the saviour of Society as nothing less than a God. Augustus, on his part, was careful not to offend their prejudices. His uncle the Dictator had not scrupled to aim at kingly power, and had taken no pains to conceal his designs. The nephew, not less resolved to be absolute master of the Empire, was careful to play the part of a first citizen. All the powers which he assumed were constitutional; only these powers were combined and prolonged in a way that made the constitution a nullity. He was Emperor (Imperator). The title was no new one. It had been often given to a victorious general on the field of battle by his own troops. Augustus held it, by decree of the Senate, in perpetuity, and was thus the permanent Commander-in-chief of the Roman army. This, of course, was the back-bone of his power.

But he did not neglect the civil side of his position. He was Princeps Senatus, Chief of the Senate, permanent proconsul, and consul whenever he thought fit (he actually held the office thirteen times). And he also held permanently an office which made him perpetual leader of the Commons. The plebeians from early times had regarded the Tribunes as the champions of their rights, and Augustus, taking skilful advantage of this feeling, held continuously the power of the tribunate.

This constitutional pretence, as it is no injustice to call it, Augustus was very careful to maintain. The Dictatorship was offered him, but he strenuously refused it, absolutely throwing himself on his knees in the earnestness of his entreaties. The Dictatorship could not, by law, be held for more than six months, and he was above all things anxious not to break, or at least not to seem to break, the law. The title of "dominus", not far removed, it would seem from that of king (rex), always so hateful to a Roman ear, he angrily repudiated. On one occasion when a farce was being acted in his presence, the words, "good lord and just" occurred, and the people springing from their seats shouted their applause. Augustus checked the display of feeling, and censured it in the strongest terms in an edict which he published the next day. He would not allow the word to be used even in jest in his private circle. He would not permit the Senators to rise from their seats either when he entered the chamber or when he quitted it. He was accustomed to walk, or to be carried in an open chair through the streets. His salutations were as free and unceremonious as the handshakings of an American President. Petitions from suitors he received with the greatest courtesy. To an applicant who was obviously shy he said, "Why do you give me your paper as if you were giving a coin to an elephant?"

At the annual elections of Magistrates, still kept up with a certain show of freedom, he canvassed in the usual way for the candidates whom he had nominated, and tendered his own vote when the tribe to which he belonged was called. When he nominated his own grandsons for office he was careful to add, "If they shall be found to deserve it."

His own establishment was on a modest scale. For some years a humble dwelling that could not compare with the splendid dwellings of the great nobles and capitalists of Rome sufficed for him. This was near the house of the orator Hortensius. At a later period he found that something more like an imperial palace had become a necessity. Accordingly he bought some of the adjoining mansions, that of Catiline among them, and built a handsome residence, declaring, however, at the same time that he considered it to be the property of the Roman people. One of the most modest chambers he chose for his own, and occupied it for twenty-eight years. In the third year of our era, it was burnt to the ground. A public subscription was immediately set on foot for the purpose of rebuilding it. A large sum was collected; but Augustus refused to receive more than a single denarius from each subscriber. A new edifice was raised on the same foundations, and, apparently, on the same plan as the old, for Augustus occupied the same or a corresponding chamber for the remaining ten years of his life. Some of the furniture of his town and country residences remained down to the time of his biographer Suetonius, and seemed to the costly tastes of that generation scarcely elegant enough for a private gentleman. No masterpieces of sculpture or painting were to be seen in his Roman palaces or his country residences. If he had any expensive taste it was for gardening. And he amused himself by making collections of what we should call fossils and prehistoric remains, but which in his time were described as "the huge limbs of monstrous creatures, bones of the Giants and arms of the Heroes, as they are called." He seldom used any article of dress that had not been woven by the women of his own family.

But he lavished upon the city the wealth that he would not spend upon himself. "I found it of brick and left it of marble," was his well known boast, and, as a whole, it was little more than the truth. At the same time he did his best to protect it from the dangers of fire and flood. Against the first he instituted a regular corps of watchmen; the second he at least diminished by enlarging the bed and cleansing the channel of the Tiber.

To the populace of Rome, already largely dependent upon the public or private bounty, he was most generous in his gifts. Besides a monthly distribution of cheap corn he gave frequent presents of money. These ranged from 4 to 2. 10s. of our money, being probably more than equivalent to these sums in purchasing power. All male children participated in them, though it had never before been the custom to reckon any younger than eleven. Still there was a limit to his good-nature. When on one occasion loud complaints were made in his presence of the high price of wine, he pointed to the great aqueduct which Agrippa had constructed, and reminded the dissatisfied that no one had need be thirsty in Rome.

Cheap bread and plenty of amusement were, as has been often said, the two great wants of Rome. Augustus was as careful to provide for the second as for the first. Never before had the public shows been so numerous, so varied, or so splendid. One of the most memorable of these exhibitions was that of a sea-fight, which took place in an excavation made near the Tiber. So popular was this show that the city was almost emptied of its inhabitants, and had to be guarded by soldiers. Any curiosity that might be brought to Rome, he had exhibited in some convenient place. We hear of a serpent of seventy-five feet in length that was thus shown in the Forum.

While he thus indulged his subjects, he tried to bring them back to what he held to be the better and simpler habits of former times. He was earnest to reform the public morals, but probably found the task beyond his powers; nor is it possible to forget that he might have been more successful, if his own private life had been less open to reproach. He passed laws of great severity, but had to relax them, or to allow them to fall into disuse.

The external observances of religion were more easily enforced. The temples were rebuilt, and the ceremonials of worship regularly performed. Another matter on which the Emperor's heart was set was to bring back the use of the old Roman dress, the toga. "What!" he is said to have exclaimed, seeing a crowd of men wearing cloaks. "Are these 'Romans, the lords of earth, a Nation of the gown'?" He issued an edict that no one should be allowed in the Forum or the Circus except wearing the toga.

If he had won power by crime—and of this he cannot be wholly acquitted—yet he certainly strove to use it well. He was singularly patient of adverse comment, when once he had seated himself firmly on the throne. Nor did he resent the admiration which some still felt for the great men of a regime which he had finally destroyed. We are told that he found one of his grandsons reading a book, which the lad sought to hide in his robe. He took the volume, and found it to be one of the treatises of Cicero. He returned it with the words "He was a good man, and a lover of his country." He must have remembered with regret his own baseness in surrendering the great orator and patriot to the vengeance of Antony.