City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

Rome in the Time of Augustus

The enemies of Caesar were able to put him to death, but they could not bring back the Republic, which he had overthrown. After Caesar was gone, the quarrels and struggles which he had brought to an end began once more. Caesar had left no son to succeed him, but when his will was opened it was found that he had adopted his nephew Octavius as his son, and made him his heir.

Octavius was not yet nineteen years old, but he soon showed that he possessed wisdom which was beyond his years. He accepted the inheritance and set himself to work to secure his rights under it. After many difficulties, he succeeded in doing this. Then he set to work to secure the punishment of Caesar's murderers. This required much time and care, on the part of Octavius; but at last they were defeated in battle and slain, and thus he succeeded in this also. Then he began to plan to secure Caesar's power in the empire for himself, as Caesar's successor. This was the hardest thing that he had yet attempted, for there were other men who were trying to get as much power as they could, and Octavius had to struggle against them. In the end, however, he succeeded in getting what he wanted. All of his rivals were got rid of, except one; then, twelve years after the death of Caesar, Octavius won a great battle over this man, and became master of the whole Roman world.

For a hundred years—ever since the time of the Gracchi—the party of the people and the party of the nobles had been struggling together, but neither one could find a cure for the troubles that filled the Roman lands. The world was now worn out with these struggles. The time had come when both the nobles and the people must finally yield to the rule of one man, with an army to carry out his commands. In this way alone could peace and order and happiness be brought to the millions of people who were under the Roman rule. Octavius established the rule of the empire, which Caesar had begun; and he established it so firmly that it lasted undisturbed for five hundred years after him. From the time that Octavius got the power, there was no longer any question as to what form of government there should be; the only question was, who should be the one to carry on the government under the form of rule that he had set up.

When Octavius became emperor he took the name "Augustus," and it is by that name that we must now speak of him. He was a good ruler, and during the many years that he governed the empire, the world about the Mediterranean was happier than it had ever been before. The doors of the temple of Janus, which had been shut only three times since Rome was founded, were now closed again for long periods; for peace "the Roman peace," as it was proudly called—was spread over the world. From Spain to Greece, from Gaul to Egypt, there was no longer any war. Travelers came and went in safety on the great roads with which the Romans had covered the world; the farmers sowed and reaped their fields in peace, and the merchants sent out their goods by land and sea and had no cause to fear that an enemy might arise to rob them of their gains.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


Augustus decided that the empire was now as large as it ought ever to become. He fixed the rivers Rhine and Danube as the boundaries, on the north, beyond which the Romans should not seek to rule; and he caused a chain of forts to be built along these rivers to defend the Roman lands against the attacks of the wild tribes who lived beyond. Nearly all the emperors who came after Augustus respected these limits. Almost the only land that was added to the empire after this time was the island of Britain, and Julius Caesar, you will remember, had already prepared the way for its conquest while he was conquering Gaul.

At Rome, Augustus had many new temples built, and many of the old ones, which were falling into decay, he caused to be repaired and covered over with a facing of marble. Before he died, he could say, in speaking of this work:

"I found Rome built of brick, but I leave it built of marble."

Augustus was also fond of encouraging and rewarding poets and other writers. Partly because of this there were more great literary men at Rome during this time than ever before or after; and for this reason whenever we wish to describe a period when literature flourished and great writers lived and wrote, we still call it an "Augustan age."

Let us now try to look, for a little while, into the life of the city in this happy time while it was under the wise rule of Augustus. Of course, we shall want to see something of these great Roman authors, so we will put ourselves for a day in the company of one of the wisest and wittiest of them all, the poet Horatius, or "Horace." We will carefully avoid, too, the days of the great circus shows and games, for we wish to see the ordinary every-day life of the Romans, and not that of their festivals.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


The Romans are early risers, so we must be up before sunrise, and make our way to the modest little house of the poet, on the hill that lies east of the Forum. There we find Horace already risen, though usually he is apt to rise later than most of the Romans. To-day, however, he is going to pay a morning visit to his friend and neighbor, Maecenas, so we find him up and dressed by the time that we arrive.

After a light breakfast of bread dipped in wine, and ripe olives, we set out together. As we pass along the narrow streets, we are surprised at the number of people that we meet, though the sun is barely up above the horizon. Some are slaves and servants, hurrying here and there on business of their masters. Others are children on their way to school, with slaves accompanying them, who carry their tablets and satchels. Many, however, are freemen, and are clad in the full-dress toga, which none but a free Roman citizen may wear. These latter persons bustle along with little baskets in their hands and anxious looks upon their faces. They are "clients," we are told, or dependents of great men, who are hurrying to pay their visit of state to their patron at his morning reception; and the little baskets are to fetch away the gifts of food which each day are set out for them in their patron's house.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


As we approach the splendid mansion of Maecenas, with its beautiful gardens, we see many of these clients going into the house before us; and as we enter we find the outer hall and vestibule full of them. Maecenas is the friend and adviser of Augustus, and his influence in the state is very great; as he is also a liberal and generous man, the number of clients who are dependent on him is quite large. However, we are not worried by the number of these visitors, though they are pushing and shoving to get ahead of one another; for Horace stands on quite a different footing with Maecenas from them, and is admitted at once to the presence of the master of the house.

We enter with him, and find ourselves in a large and stately hall, richly ornamented with pictures and statues. There we find Maecenas receiving the greetings of the more important of his clients, while he advises this one, perhaps, on some point connected with a suit at law, and that one how best to invest his money. As soon as he sees Horace, however, he comes forward with a smile on his face, for he loves Horace and honors him as Rome's greatest poet.

While the two friends talk, we glance about the hall, and admire the graceful marble columns which support the roof. From time to time we catch bits of the conversation between Maecenas and our guide.

"Nay, Maecenas," Horace is saying, "though no one is of a nobler family than yourself, you are not one of those who toss up their heads at men of humble birth. If you had been such a person, I should have had no chance of ever gaining your friendship and aid; for my father, as you know, was born a slave, though he gained his freedom. I shall never be ashamed of my father, however, for though he was a poor man on a lean little farm, he guarded me from bad habits and gave me an education fit for a Senator's son."

After some further talk, Horace takes his leave, and we return with him to his little home. As we enter the house we glance at a sun-dial which stands nearby, and see that it is now near the close of the second hour, or about eight o'clock.

In the Forum, the next three hours are the busiest of the day. Now the judges are seated on the judgment benches and listening to the pleas of the orators in this and that suit at law; and now the crowd of idlers is greatest there. But Horace is not interested in such matters; he quietly enters his library, and there he remains, reading and writing, until near mid-day. Then, a light luncheon of bread, cold meat, fruit and wine is served by the slaves; and after that comes the mid-day rest and nap, which is still common in all warm climates.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


In the afternoon, we accompany Horace, once more, as he leaves the house and sets out for the heart of the city. As we stroll along, we see groups of children playing in the shadow of the houses. Here girls are playing what looks very much like our game of "jack-stones," except that they use small bones to play it with. Nearby, other girls sit with their dolls, singing lullabies to them; and elsewhere we find groups of active boys, playing with nuts in much the same ways that our boys play with marbles.

As we pass the shops where provisions are sold, Horace stops to ask of the slaves, who have the shops in charge, the prices of herbs and bread; and when he comes to the booth of a fortune teller, he stands listening in the crowd for a while, and smiles at the silly folk who believe all the nonsense that is told them. When we reach the Forum, we find it almost deserted; only a few laggards, like ourselves, are to be seen, and they seem to be on their way toward the open ground by the river.

We follow after them, and soon reach the Field of Mars. Here the armies assemble in time of war, and here, too, we see the voting places where the elections are held each year. But it is nothing of this sort that draws the people now. As we look about us, we see everywhere men of all ages young, old and middle-aged—engaged in games and exercises of some sort; and almost every afternoon, at this time, we could find the same sight. Here men are running, leaping, wrestling, hurling the spear and quoit. Some are practicing feats on horseback; others, armed with heavy shields and stout clubs, are aiming heavy blows at tall posts; and others still are playing games with balls of various kinds and sizes.

For a while Horace takes part in this latter exercise. We join him and throw the ball about until our muscles are tired and our bodies heated with the exercise and the sun. Then, leaving the Field of Mars, we go to refresh ourselves at the baths.

To the Roman, the daily bath was just as important as daily exercise; and many fine and costly buildings, for this purpose, were erected by wealthy men and opened to the people. Some of these came to include within them gardens, columned porches, libraries, and everything that could give one comfort and amusement; and these baths came to be great places of resort for the Roman idlers.

We will go with Horace, however, to one of the smaller and more modest buildings, where baths alone are to be found. There, for a very small sum, we may have a cold, swimming bath, a hot-water bath, or a hot-air bath. We make our choice, and after bathing, and rubbing our bodies with olive oil, we find ourselves much refreshed and the weariness gone from our limbs.

Horace has been invited to dinner, for this evening, to the house of an acquaintance, and we have permission to accompany him there. The water-clocks and sun-dials tell us that it is now nearing the ninth hour, that is, it is about three o'clock so we must hasten, as Roman dinners begin in the middle of the afternoon.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


When we reach the house, we are at once shown into the dining-room. There we find the little company gathered, and among them we recognize Maecenas, whose reception we attended in the early morning. Standing with him, we see a man of fine features and bright eyes, whose face lights up as, now and then, in the course of the conversation, he quotes a verse of poetry. This is the poet Vergil, the friend of Horace, whose great poem, on the fall of Troy, called the Aeneid, is still read and enjoyed by scholars the world over.

In the center of the room we see a small table of maple wood, and about three sides of this are arranged couches or sofas on which the guests are to recline during the dinner. When we have taken our places, three on a couch, slaves advance and take the sandals from off our feet, while others hand around silver basins filled with water, for us to wash our hands. For a moment we wonder at this, then we notice that there are no knives and forks on the table, and learn that we are expected to take our food with our fingers; so we see at once the reason for it.

When our hands have been bathed and dried, slaves enter with a tray containing the first course of the dinner. This is placed on the table in front of us, and then we see it consists of a wild boar roasted whole, with eggs, and lettuce, radishes, olives, and other relishes heaped about it. While we are being helped to these dishes, wine mixed with honey is handed about in golden goblets. After this course many others follow, roast fowls, fresh oysters, fish with strange sauces, blackbirds roasted with their feathers on, pastry made in wonderful shapes, fruits and nuts. And yet this is not a fine banquet, as Roman banquets go; for whole fortunes, at times, are spent by Romans on one entertainment.

Though we took our places at the table at three o'clock, we do not rise from it until near sunset. After the hunger of all is satisfied, basins of water are again passed, and the hands are cleaned after the repast. But the guests still linger about the table, drinking wine weakened with water, playing at games, and engaging in conversation.

As we listen to the talk of the different members of the party, our attention is caught by something that Horace is saying. He is expressing his preference for a life in the country, and saying how much he would rather be at his little farm near Rome, which the generous Maecenas has given him, than in the bustling city.

"Happy is the man," he says, "who tills his little farm with his own oxen, far away from the noise and hurry of the city. He is neither alarmed by the trumpet which calls the soldier to arms, nor frightened by the storms which cause the merchant to fear for his ships at sea. In the spring he trims his vines, stores his honey, and shears his sheep; and when autumn comes, he gathers his pears and the purple grape. He may lie full length on the matted grass under some old tree, and listen to the warbling of the birds in the woods, and the waters gliding by in their deep channels. And when winter comes, with its rains and snows, he may hunt the wild boar with his hounds, or spread nets to take thrushes, and snares to catch hares and cranes."

At last the company breaks up, just as the sun is setting beyond the Tiber. Then all betake themselves to their homes. As the Romans are early risers, they retire early also. Soon after darkness has fallen upon the earth, the greater part of the people in this vast city are buried in slumber, while the darkness of night is broken only here and there by a glimmer of light which shows that in some belated household a lamp still burns; and so our day in Rome comes to an end.