Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Death of Augustus

"He died a natural death," says Tacitus of some great noble in the days of Tiberius, and adds, "a very rare occurrence in so exalted a rank." There is no reason for doubting that this piece of good fortune fell to the lot of Augustus, of him, indeed, alone among the Julian Caesars. Of course rumour was busy with stories of his end. There was talk, for instance, of a basket of poisoned figs which Livia, his wife, had put in his way; but Livia had lived with him for forty years, and having secured all her objects, had no motive for the crime. All the circumstances point the other way. Augustus was in his seventy-eighth year. He was travelling at an unhealthy time of the year (August). He had exposed himself imprudently to the night-air, and had contracted a dysentery. And all the other particulars quite contradict the poison theory. He had been ailing for some time, but did not take to his bed till he came to Nola. Tiberius, who was on his way to the east coast of the Adriatic (Augustus had left Rome to accompany him) was recalled in haste. The dying man had a long conversation with his successor, and then dismissed all the cares of life, though he asked again and again in the course of his last day, whether there were any signs of disturbance (we shall see the significance of this hereafter). Reassured on this point, he prepared for his end. He had his hair arranged, and his "cheeks that were falling in set right" (perplexing words which no one has been able to interpret). Then he turned to his friends, "Have I played my part decently well in this farce of life?" he asked, adding in a low voice two Greek verses which may be thus Englished:—

"All has gone well, you say. Then clap your hands,

Nor grudge the player what his skill demands."

The room was then cleared, only Livia remaining. She raised the dying man in her arms, and with the words, "Remember how we have lived together in love. Farewell!" he passed away. This is a peaceful scene enough, but there was a tragedy behind it.

I have spoken in my first chapter of Augustus as "a child of fortune," and this, the last scene of his life, is apparently keeping up this character to the end. But there was a dark side to the brilliant picture.

In the first place, the Roman arms were not uniformly prosperous during his reign. In B.C. 16 Marcus Lollius, who was in command of a corps d'armée  on the frontier of Gaul encountered a body of Germans, who had crossed the Rhine. Victorious in the first engagement, he met with a severe defeat in the second, losing the eagle of one of his legions. The news of this disaster caused such alarm in Rome that the Emperor hurried to the spot. The invaders did not stop to meet him, but recrossed the river. That there had been more disgrace than damage was the judgment passed on the incident when the first panic had subsided, and subsequent successes of the Imperial armies in the same and neighbouring regions more than compensated for what had been lost. Still there had been a check to the uniformly prosperous course of the great Emperor's government.

Twenty-five years afterwards a much more serious disaster occurred. The policy of Augustus had not been, on the whole, a policy of conquest, nor was he ambitious to advance the border of the Empire. But now he made an exception. Drusus, the younger of the two stepsons of the Emperor, had some time before conquered the region between the Rhine and the Weser, and it seemed expedient to convert this into a regular Roman province. He appointed as its first governor one Quintilius Varus.

The choice was not a happy one. Varus's experience of administration had been gained in Syria, and he committed the mistake of supposing that the methods successful with a people subdued by centuries of slavery would be suitable to a brave and spirited race which had only just lost its independence. A revolt was organised by some of the German chiefs, their leader being a certain Arminius, whose military experience had been acquired by service with the Roman armies. Varus had marched as far as the banks of the Weser, and had there constructed a permanent camp.

All apparently was peaceful. The chiefs were friendly, the people submissive. The Roman Governor was thus put off his guard. He had a powerful army, three legions with their usual complement of auxiliaries, and a strong body of cavalry.

Altogether the force must have amounted to nearly forty thousand. But he had weakened it by sending off detachments in various directions. Tidings reached him that a remote tribe had risen in rebellion, and he set off to reduce them to submission. As he was passing through a wooded valley, probably between Osnabruck and Paderborn, he was attacked by the Germans in overwhelming numbers. The army, encumbered with baggage and non-combatants, had great difficulty in advancing. Still it contrived to make its way to an open spot without much loss. For two more days it marched and fought incessantly. By the evening of the second day it had ceased to exist. A few scattered fugitives escaped, but the mass of the army was either slaughtered or captured. Varus killed himself.

The effect of this blow on the aged Augustus—he was now seventy-five—was crushing. For six months he let his hair and beard grow, a sign in a Roman of the very prostration of grief. In his agony he dashed his head against the wall, crying in piteous accents, "Varus, give me back my legions." He could not bear any longer to have about him the German body-guards who had hitherto surrounded his person. It is not too much to say that his last years were continually clouded by the recollection of this disaster.

But he had long had in his own family a yet more painful trouble.

For years a fierce struggle had been going on for the succession to the throne. Livia had brought two sons by her first husband into the Imperial house; to Augustus she had borne no child. She set her heart on securing the crown for Tiberius, the elder of the two. He was not unworthy, an able statesman and soldier, and as yet unstained by the vices of his later years. For a time all went well. Then came a crisis, and it seemed as if his hopes were crushed. He retired from Court into something like exile. Then his fortunes rose again. Julia, the daughter of Augustus, was disgraced. Her first and second sons (children by her first husband, Agrippa) died in rapid succession. Her daughter, another Julia, brought a new shame upon her family, wringing from her unhappy grandfather, the bitter cry, "Would I had perished childless and unwed!" One son still remained, Agrippa Postumus by name. But he was uncouth and savage, with nothing princely about him,—no trace even of gentle blood in person or bearing. He could learn nothing, not even martial exercises. Fishing, a sport which he pursued in sullen solitude, was his only taste. Furious at the sight of so degenerate a scion of his race, the Emperor procured from the Senate a decree of perpetual exile against the unhappy youth, and he was removed to Planasia, a barren islet near Elba. The succession of Tiberius seemed secure.

Then, in the last year of his life, the old man seems to have turned again to his own flesh and blood. He would see whether this grandson was quite hopeless. Livia and Tiberius had their enemies, and these built their hopes on the succession of the banished Agrippa. One of them was the representative of perhaps the noblest house in Rome, the Fabii. Augustus visited Planasia in his company. This part of the story may seem doubtful. Could the aged and infirm Augustus have taken such a journey, for Planasia is forty miles from the mainland? Could he have come without the privity of Livia? But he may have sent Fabius and charged him to bring back a report.

Nothing is known of what passed, but the result was bitterly disappointing. And then, by the indiscretion of Fabius's wife, the story came to the ears of Livia. She turned the wrath of the Emperor, furious at having his newly-awakened affection thus thrown back on himself, against the counsellor who had advised the journey. Fabius went to pay his customary homage to his master, and was met with the salutation, not of greeting but of farewell. It was a hint that the Emperor wished to see him no more. That hint meant death. He left the imperial presence, and killed himself.

Not many weeks after, Augustus died, and Tiberius reigned in his stead. The unhappy Agrippa did not long survive the accession of his rival. A centurion was sent to assassinate him, and he was slain, but, though taken by surprise and unarmed, not till after a desperate resistance. The responsibility for this crime was bandied about in a not unusual fashion. The centurion reported himself to Tiberius. The Emperor denied that he had given any orders. The orders doubtless had been given by Livia, but it is difficult to believe that Tiberius had no knowledge of them. No one believed Livia's pretence that Augustus had left directions that the deed should be done. The old Emperor had never hardened his heart, under the extremest provocation, to execute any of his kindred.

A curious sequel to the story of Agrippa remains to be told. One Clemens, who had been among his attendants, on hearing of the death of Augustus, conceived the idea of carrying the youth off to the German army, and proclaiming him Emperor. He made his way to Planasia, but the merchant-ship on which he had taken his passage sailed slowly, and he came too late. Clemens then resolved to personate the dead man, to whom he bore a remarkable resemblance. He stole the ashes—why it is difficult to see—went into retirement till his hair and beard were grown long, and then proclaimed himself to be the grandson of Augustus.

He was careful never to show himself in broad daylight, or stop in the same place for long. Still he found many to believe in him, and Tiberius was not a little perplexed. Should he take any notice of the pretender or no? Finally he had him kidnapped and brought to Rome. "How did you make yourself Agrippa?" he asked the man. "In just the same way as you made yourself Emperor," was the reply. The pretender was secretly put to death, but Tiberius found it convenient to make no enquiries as to who had supported his claims. Among them were many officers of his own establishment, and not a few members of the Senate and of the great capitalists of Rome. What would have happened if Clemens's merchantman had sailed a little faster? Agrippa had evidently a powerful party behind him.