Augustus: His Life and Work - Rene Francis

Augustus, the Man and the Prince

Let us glance at Rome in, say, the second or third year of the Christian era, the seven hundred and fifty-fifth year or so since the foundation of the city.

We see Augustus firmly established in his position; and a very curious position it is. In actual fact he is master. He commands all the armies, makes all the treaties, decides when and whither the eagles are to be borne, where they shall be planted fast to mark the frontiers of Rome. He is the chief of the Senate, and he can make and unmake it as he pleases: he has made it indeed! For he has given grants here and there, or conferred the broad stripe, without grants, upon the men whom he has seen fit to promote to his new nobility. And into the Senate House itself he has nominated or quietly recommended his quaestors, praetors, consuls, as he chose. He calls the Senate together, speaks, asks questions; but when he speaks a law is made. If he chooses, the Senate, dissolves, to meet again only when he wishes.

Consuls, praetors, and quaestors still have work to do; but it is greatly curtailed. At any moment a 'procurator' may descend upon a province, investigate, quite independently of the real governor, and make his report direct to headquarters. At any moment the master may descend upon the province and set its affairs in order himself, as he did in Sicily and Bithynia. At any moment he may call up the governor and give him hints, even special directions, that entirely override the governor's own intentions or policy.

Moreover, there is little enough scope in the provinces. All the best have gone. The wealth-laden Egypt, Gaul, Pannonia, where there was always the chance of distinction in war; Noricum, the Armenia!' border-land—all these are the master's own. Only a few tame districts are left. It may be an honour to be a proconsul, but it certainly is not a career. Far better to aim straight for a legateship directly under Augustus himself.

Even in Rome the work is shorn of all its importance. What of those sharp words twenty-three years ago, when Rome was given a master, a governor under the supreme Governor! The corn, the aqueducts, the police, the roads, nearly everything is under the master's own charge, and he puts in his own men just as he pleases—and not even nobles! Mere knights, wealthy or fairly well-to-do business men, those very fellows who used to quarrel with the Senate and blackmail the governors of provinces, and squeeze the last drop at forty or fifty percent out of the luckless provincials. But so did certain senators, after all! The provinces were certainly rather a scandal in the old days. Sicily still remembers Verres, who didn't even dare come into court once he knew that Cicero had prepared his brief!

And Rome! It really was abominable. Even in daylight one might be killed in a street riot. And there was never any water, or corn. And the floods! And the fires! It is certainly an improvement, and the old rulers have only themselves to blame if a cleverer, longer-sighted man than themselves has taken all these things out of their hands.

Rome and all that belongs to Rome—a large slice of the world now—would have indeed been hopeless without the Prince, as Maecenas calls him. Imagine Antony, half satrap, half Pharaoh, with his foreign 'Queen of Kings'! or the weak Lepidus! or the old Republicans, Cassius or Brutus. Decimus Brutus was a man, true. But could he or his friends have restored order? Would they have given Rome her splendour at, honk and abroad? Would Cicero, with all his philosophy?

And after all every one is so tired of all those wars and proscriptions and sudden changes that drained all Italy both of money and of blood. Life, the restful life of to-day, is worth living. If one can do nothing else, why not be resigned to what Rome offers? A splendid palace like that of Maecenas, a few poets and artists at dinner, plenty of poor clients; or a country estate, nicely tended and well farmed, cultured leisure beneath the shadow of the hills, a copy of Virgil's new work on farming and country life, or the latest ode by Horace on contentment. One can read and reconstruct the greatness of ancient days in the fine new history of Livy; one can revive the old gods in Ovid's smooth poetry. Poor Ovid! now he writes sorrowful poems from bleak ice-fields at the Back of Beyond. But he really deserved it; he had no business to write scandalous chronicles or to mix himself up with disreputable intrigues in high circles. The court is respectable, and it should be respectable.

Besides, one has always those 'new' men to laugh at: they do strive so desperately hard not to appear 'new,' and they are so easily seen through, and Horace hits them off so neatly!

Of course in a way it is annoying to see the 'new' men and those knights taking all those fine positions—Noricum, Raetia, the Ravenna base, the Prince's Guard. Yet they are well chosen: no 'jobs'—all good men, and they work hard. It is a pleasure to see some one else working hard to keep the State in order after all those years of terror and unrest. It is an incitement, even, to philosophy and the cultivation of the great Epicurus.

Yes, and the master is Pontiff as well, reviving all the old divine glories and stories. Very excellent for the people. Legends, of course, most unphilosophical, but interesting and ingenious in their glorification of Rome. And the Julian family—they are not forgotten: they have their special part therein; and it is really rather as if no one else had any part! Though it isn't easy to see who else has done much for Rome except the Divine Julius and the Prince.

But, after all, he is only the Prince. No more of your Dictators or Domini, no Kingship: that suggestion of Romulus, wasn't at all well received! He is genial, too; very polite at the meetings of the Senate: any one can speak, and quite freely too; and it is always at least interesting discussing and hearing views on the new Bills. There are no Tyrants now, thank the gods; and no Tyrant-slayers, thank the gods yet more!

Rome is fine to look at, too, with the new Forum, the Campus Martius building, all those new statues, Apollo's new temple, the Divine Julius's new temple, all the little shrines restored. And, talking of Julius the Divine, it will be the Divine Augustus one fine day. He lives long, but there were all those illnesses! He can't be strong. He will be the Divine in any case; So-and-so has even now got the genius among the Lares; the provincials seem to be putting up altars. Not that that German altar brought much luck to Rome! All that fine country once more overrun by the forest savages. Varus dead, three full legions cut up, the frontier back to the Rhine again and likely to remain there! Even Rome can't have everything, and certainly not Arabia and Ethiopia the Blameless! That was a big mistake, and Aelius Gallus made it worse!



Still, the Divine Augustus is simple enough in his ways: no crown but the civic crown over the door; no palace—only a plain house; no big dinners—chiefly some salad, cheese, and the like. One must go to Maecenas for a dinner: one mistake in a dish, and the cook is sold and a new one bought!

But who will come next? It seemed as if Agrippa would have it all one time, just when the Prince was so ill; then Marcellus—that was unfortunate. And the two young Agrippas: that was mysterious! Could Livia Augusta—but one should not, say too much! The Prince wouldn't stand a word against her. But he is lenient enough otherwise; even a conspirator doesn't get very severe measure. It might be worth while conspiring if one fell like a martyr; but to be smiled at by the Prince, and spat on by the mob all through their precious new wards! No, not that they'll ever do much with their wards and ward-masters: they're a poor set, mostly slaves and foreigners that; and the real Romans just beg for corn and flock to the games, and play at voting in their fine big Comitia  building.

To return, however, Tiberius seems to be destined: again the August Livia! The Prince would never tolerate him, surely, but for her. Still, he has done good work, and he knows his business. It will be rather slow, but quite businesslike; rather disagreeable, but quite efficient, and quite safe. He won't throw away men over useless frontiers; and he knows his work as a soldier. He will give the legions plenty to do, and we shan't see many of them near Rome.

Augustus did well too with those legions—all over the frontiers, and the time-expired men placed just where they can be most useful. Italy wants new blood: it had been a pity for Veil to remain in ruins and Perusia in ashes. They are useful, too, in that rather awkward bit of old Cisalpine Gaul, just in the right places to scare the mountaineers into good behaviour and warn them to leave the farmers alone.

Rome is well enough, after all.

We can imagine a reasonably-minded senatorial noble thinking and talking somewhat after this fashion. There may well have been a few disappointed men, but the Roman world was content. Everything was regularized—so well regularized abroad, more over, that even the mad caprices of Gaius and the bestial cruelties of Nero were only felt seriously in and near Rome. For the provincials an excellent emperor reigned—thanks to the system which Augustus had built up, stone by stone, on the ruins of the ancient, worn-out, and obsolete fabric. As he found Rome, so did he find Roman power, in brick, and he left it in marble. Or perhaps we may allow ourselves a mow homely simile—the Irishman's stocking. He found but a few fragments of the old homespun; he darned and added, sole and heel and leg, with good wool—elastic wool, moreover. It was the same stocking, yet entirely different.

We know how the later emperors made, as it were, a silken stocking, extravagant and unseemly; and we know how, later still, when the hordes of savages were nearing the borders of Rome, the Empire became parti-coloured like the hose of a jester, at, the last a laughing-stock for the world.

We have twice quoted from George Warrington Steevens' Monologues of the Dead. Let us again do so, more fully this time. He gives, more vividly than we can, a picture of the real Augustus.

'I am late this morning. I can feel in the air the vibration of the third hour. Attius! Attius! I suppose he thinks that having lain so long I may as well wait until to-morrow. Well, Attius, have you too overslept yourself? No more dinners with Maecenas; we are getting too old for them. It is the third hour. I will rise. But first ask Livia Augusta to favour me with her presence. Dear old Attius! that little trick of telling him the hour never fails. Now for my daily bargain with the August. Madam, good morning; leave us, Attius. And how is the Emperor? Judging from her roses, better than her lazy deputy. I spare you the encomium on Maecenas' wine. . . .

'. . . You must see by now, Livia, that it's impossible for me to let Tiberius go on any longer as he's doing. You must let me send him away. Yes, yes; I know all you've done for me, but it doesn't justify your son in studied insolence. After all. I'm supposed to be Proconsul and Pontiff and Augustus and all that, and I can't let him do it. Claudian pride? Well, I can only say there's no vacancy for Claudian pride, in Rome just at present. . . . First, you must talk to him seriously about, his demeanour—not as coming from me, you understand. Secondly, I put, him on the list for foreign service. Oh, yes, you can make your mind easy. He shall have a big war and a triumph, and all the fandangles. Also I'll throw in Agrippa: he shall go abroad and have no triumph—I'll try to keep Julia quiet. I'm a generous Jove, eh, Junicila? Give me a kiss, old wench. We've had some battering times together, eh? Eh? Eh? Adieu, my Empress. Send in Cleobulus, will you? . . .

'H'm. My excellent spouse was pleased with my little attentions. Also she was pleased with the idea of her Tiberius in high command; she doesn't yet, understand the value of interior lines in politics, my Augusta. I suppose she foresees her Tiberius crossing the Rubicon while we all sit tremulous at Rome. And yet she's seen the Praetorians at drill every day these many years. Naturalists have greatly neglected women. Now, Cleobulus, my wig and the eye-brightening stuff. I always assume you don't give away these secrets of the toilet, Cleobulus. If you do, the next wig will be the scalp of one Cleobulus, mysteriously disappeared. Now the gown. Not that, you nincompoop of genius. How often must I tell you I'm only plain Proconsul? That will do; now announce me at the levee. I wonder who's there to-day. I'm glad the Roman senators haven't the political insight of that hairdresser.

'Attius, precede me into the ante-chamber, while I have a look at the company. Gods, what an air the rogue has with him! And how very right he is, considering the way they grovel to him! A poor set of curs, I'm afraid, these nobles at Rome; yet I'm afraid I like them.

'Good-day, gentlemen. I fear I have ill repaid this courteous attention by keeping you so long awaiting. Ah, Isauricus, my dear old friend, this is too kind. Too kind. It is I that should be calling on you; you must, not expose yourself to this morning air; all Rome is waiting for your speech on this new Land Bill of Agrippa's. By the way, Egnatius, I do not think you have yet taken the public into your confidence as to your attitude? You reserve it? Ha, I am not sure you are right, if I may say so. One loses a great part of one's due influence, I always think, unless one gives an opinion time to percolate, as one might say. I have told Agrippa frankly all along that, I shall oppose him on the municipal clauses. What, says Piso? Opposed to the whole scheme; you will speak, of course? Aha, good-day, Iulus. What says Iulus on the question of the hour? An excellent measure all round! So well, it should be an interesting debate, and personally I am still open to be convinced. And here is the author of the trouble himself. How do you do, Agrippa? Eh? a word in private; by all means, old man. Want to go away? No, no, dear fellow, we want you here. Pannonia and Germany? Nonsense, you're losing your nerve. Why, we settled the Pannonians years ago. . . . Well, we'll think it over. Morning, Maecenas; survived your own wine, I see. Amusing fellow, that little Horace of yours. Underbred? No, I didn't notice it. I tell you what, though; if I were that man, I wouldn't stand the way you treat him for five minutes, good as your dinners are. However, that's his affair. Been here long? Overheard anything? I'm beginning to agree with you about Iulus. See me before dinner. Well, gentlemen, I thank you once more for the high honour you have paid me. I am afraid you spoil me with your indulgence, for I am now about to ask to be excused. You have put me in an important public position and I am anxious not to disappoint you. Adieu, my friends.

'H'm. To-day's hypocrisy over. Not that it is, though, for I have to play the hypocrite one way and another every minute of my life. I'm beginning to think it's a mistake to be a tyrant. It's exciting enough when you have to fight for it, but when you've got it, decidedly a bore. And unluckily the posing isn't the worst of it; the worst of it is that you have to suppress so many good fellows. Now I know Egnatius is guilty of the impiety of not seeing why he should do what I please any more than I should do what he pleases. I must get rid of him; I can't help myself. Such a witty, astute fellow, too, and what a boxer! Iulus I must get rid of, too. I fancy Maecenas has got his own reasons for wanting Iulus out of the way; still, he's his father's son, and never quite safe. A man I've known since they first, put me into the long gown. No, I shan't get rid of lulus. He can go to Gyarus if Maecenas likes. No, hang it, why Gyarus? He won't do any harm at Rhodes, and at least he can get a dinner there. Poor old Iulus! And poor old Agrippa! He wants to get back to his soldiers. But I can't do it. Once he gets to Pannonia, he'd forget his obedience—and he is most astonishingly obedient—and go for the chiefs. His loyalty's splendid, but I can't trust even it, when the old war-horse sees the enemy in front of him. And the worst of it is that the chiefs ought to be smashed this summer, and no man in the world could do it so well as Agrippa. It would be all over in a month. But Pannonia's got to be nursed, for Pannonia's to be a big thing, and Tiberius is to get his triumph for it, sulky dog. Yet he's got the stuff in him, too. I suppose I'd better make up some reason to send Agrippa to Gaul again; Livia can't object to him there. After all, the real devil of it isn't being a tyrant, but being a married tyrant. There isn't an easier or a pleasanter thing in the whole world than to go on as I'm doing now, and keep my place to the end, and my friends into the bargain. It's this cursed dynasty business, and that cursed woman—though she's behaved a deuced deal better to me than I deserved. But why in the gods' name must I turn out my oldest friend to die miserably in Gaul? Why, to make the way easy for a moody young prig that I dislike—and who dislikes me. What do I get for it all? I wish to the gods I'd got my uncle's pluck; then I should have been cut to pieces years ago. Still, after all, Agrippa's going to Gaul would be a way out of the Land Bill business, and I begin to think I went, too far in that matter. Yes; he had better go.'

It would be difficult, in many ways, give a better picture of the man and his time. If anything, the picture is, however, a shade cynical. Augustus had malty genuine moments of kindliness, especially with children, and he could show and feel real affection. Moreover, he was not merely as shrewd politician; he had wide vision and foresight. One of his biographers asks the question, Was Augustus imaginative? He points out how Augustus preferred his financial statements and business affairs. But that is hardly proof of a lack of imagination.

We can surely say that, in his way, Augustus was imaginative, and in a high sense of the word. Not that he was ever like Julius, with that tremendous clarity of thought and rapidity of insight that makes Julius Caesar stand out as one of the world's greatest, and most wonderful figures. He was far more worldly, more calculating.

It may be argued that he found a plan ready to his hand, that his uncle had anticipated and even prepared much of what he carried out; but it needed imagination and insight to carry out so much, to see it as a whole, and a connected, graduated whole, a fabric that should last all those centuries; it needed these gifts to see so clearly the spirit of Rome, obscured, maybe, even to the point of extinction, but still existing, and to rescue and strengthen that spirit in such wise that the history of Rome under the Empire became even greater than the history of the Roman Republic. Only an imaginative man can see such things clearly, and only those who have that clear, far sight can really claim to have imagination in the truest and greatest sense of the word—not the mere faculty for diseased fantasies, but the real and high imagination without which no great thing can be seen or done.

Last of all, was Augustus a genius? We seem to use that word in many senses. A man has a genius for this or for that; a genius has only one line of thought or action; genius is 'an infinite capacity for taking pains'; and so forth.

If genius means a capacity for taking pains, Augustus certainly fulfils the definition as far as his policy goes. He calculated everything out to the last figure, he worked everything out to the last detail. His financial policy is a monument in itself, and his building up of the Principate is a work that perhaps no one else in the history of Rome could have achieved. Senate, consulship, proconsulate, imperium, tribunate, censorship, proconsulate, he brought all into his service and that, of Rome, yet without actually annexing any office or declaring any prerogative that could not be justified by the law and the constitution.

Julius Caesar was a genius in the real sense of the word—namely, one who sees and does successfully, as if by an unfailing instinct, and without long labour and trouble, the things that others only do after infinite devotion and deep thought; and Julius Caesar did for Rome, in the way of expanding her greatness and power, what perhaps no one else could ever have done.

Without Julius Caesar Rome would have crumbled to pieces. Without Julius Caesar Augustus would never have had an empire to make.

But without Augustus that empire would never have been made. Nor could a genius, in the sense that Julius was a genius, have succeeded where did Augustus. Rome needed just that other species of genius, that infinite capacity for taking pains. And Augustus had this capacity and used it to the full, from the day when he landed in Italy, a boy, poor, unconsidered, frail, in 44 B.C., to the day when he died at Nola, in A.D. 14, full of years and deserving the plaudits for which he asked on his deathbed, in that he had 'played his part well.'