Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Reign of Augustus

Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus was an exceedingly wise young man. He had seen his uncle lose his life, not because he did not govern well, but because the Romans suspected that he meant to take the title of king. This new ruler believed that it was far more desirable to have power than to have any special title. Moreover, he had learned that a large number of citizens were startled at any suggestion of new laws or abrupt changes, but were contented if the old names and forms of government were kept up. Therefore he called himself simply imperator, a military title meaning hardly more than commander. He never spoke of his victory over Antonius as the triumph of any party, but merely as the successful ending of an Eastern war. He was made consul; and he voted in the senate just as any consul might do. He wore no royal robes, but the ordinary dress of a Roman. His house was like the dwellings of other men of good position, but not pretentious in any way. The people believed that the government was moving on in the old fashion, the senators held their regular meetings and felt that they were deciding all important matters; and yet, little by little, the control of every division of the government was coming into the hands of Octavianus.

Apparently, he held his power with a loose grasp. Sometimes he would offer to give up some of it. Surely, there was no reason to be jealous of a ruler who seemed to have no ambition but to do his best to govern well; and so he came to be at the head of one branch of the government after another. He became censor; princeps, or first senator; and pontifex maximus, or chief priest. Finally, he was given the title of Augustus, or the Majestic, the Revered, and it is by this title that he is usually spoken of in history. Sextilis, the name, of the month in which his first consulate began, was changed to August in his honor.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


By this quiet way of controlling the state, the clear-headed imperator, or emperor, was able to bring about what he wanted. One thing that both he and his people wanted was peace. He was obliged to carry on warfare to some extent during his reign, but he did not attempt to make the empire larger. He believed rather that Rome had as wide a dominion as she could well govern, but that it ought to be bounded by mountains, rivers, deserts, or seas, that is, by natural boundaries. As far as possible, he carried out this scheme. He would have liked to take the Elbe for part of the northern boundary; but the German tribes south of that river rebelled, and the Roman army under Varus was utterly destroyed. This almost broke the emperor's heart. It is said that he used to cry out in agony even in his dreams, "0 Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" The Rhine and the Danube became the northern limits of the empire; and if a line be drawn from the mouth of the Rhine to Cape St. Vincent in Portugal, and that line be moved on to the southeast until it has gone beyond Syria and Egypt, the boundaries so marked will include little that was not under Roman rule.

To make the most of what Rome already held was Augustus's aim. A glance at the story of the dishonest governor, Verres, shows how badly the provinces needed attention and help. Augustus gave these generously. The newer and less peaceful provinces he kept in his own hands. He appointed a governor for each, paid him a salary, and forbade the oppression of the natives. If a governor disobeyed, he was punished. The other provinces were left in the hands of the senate, but they were not forgotten, for Augustus kept close watch of their governors and saw that the provincials were fairly treated. He was always ready to listen to any complaint from them. After the Social War, a man in Italy or in the provinces who had been made a Roman citizen, had a right to vote, but in reality he was ruled by the people who lived in Rome, as has been said before, because they alone could conveniently be present at the assemblies. Now that Augustus had become the one power in Rome, it was gradually coming about that the citizens in Rome had no more power than those hundreds of miles away, for the emperor ruled them all.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The Romans thought it an important part of a ruler's duty to amuse them, and this duty Augustus never neglected. Unfortunately, their favorite amusement was the gladiatorial contest. The emperor made most liberal arrangements for this. He provided wild beasts by the hundred and gladiators by the thousand. "Bread and the games of the circus!" was the cry of the people of Rome, and the state supplied both. The laws of Caius Gracchus, passed more than a century earlier, allowed every Roman citizen to buy grain of the state at half price or less. The privilege had been continued, and the number who depended upon this charity had increased until in the time of Augustus it is probable that fully half of Rome received their food or part of it from the government. Of course some of these people were not able to earn their support; but the others deliberately preferred to ask bread of the state rather than earn it. There was the same old desire of the poor to avoid work; and with it went the eagerness of the rich to find new luxuries.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Augustus was interested in architecture, and he put up many temples, for men were forgetting their old reverence for the gods, and he wished to do all that he could to restore it. Anyone walking through the city would see handsome buildings, such as the Capitol, the Pantheon, or temple of all the gods, the senate house, and basilica, or hall of justice. There were now several handsome forums in the city; and these public squares, as well as the temples, were adorned with statues. There were beautiful parks and public gardens, and along the Campus Martius were porticoes, whose roofs were upheld by columns, and here people might walk in the shade. On the Palatine Hill were the luxurious homes of the wealthy; but the city as a whole must have been a vast collection of little houses and shops, with lanes, rather than streets, winding in and out among them.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The homes of the wealthy were most splendid. Even those that were in town were so surrounded by gardens and trees and vineyards that one within them might fancy himself many miles away from a city. The houses were full of luxury and gorgeousness, even though they were not always in the best of taste. The vestibule was often adorned with busts and statues, perhaps brought from some conquered city. The walls were painted with some bright color and frescoed. There were tables veneered with plates of gold, silver, or ivory, chairs of cedar, floors of marble or of mosaic work, couches on which to recline at meals, sometimes of bronze, and sometimes of wood inlaid with ivory or gold. The beds had silver legs, mattresses stuffed with down, silken pillows, and richly embroidered purple coverlets. There were beautiful ornaments, vases, and exquisite work in glass. There were most graceful lamps of terra cotta, bronze, or gold.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


At their meals the Romans loaded the table as nations do that have more money than good taste, and a slave who could cook perfectly was worth one thousand times as much as an ordinary slave. Vegetables, eggs, fish, fowls of many sorts, peacocks, and wild boars roasted whole, pastries and fruits were used; but the Roman idea of a luxurious meal was one at which many strange dishes appeared. The farther these were brought and the rarer they were, the more delicious they were supposed to be. A dinner of six or seven elaborate courses followed by much drinking of wine was not thought to be a sufficient entertainment for guests, and they were amused by rope-dancers, conjurers, and singers.

To learn Greek was so much the fashion that a Greek slave was usually chosen to attend boys to school that he might talk with them in his own language. They learned chiefly reading, writing, and arithmetic. In the reading class, the boys repeated together after the teacher, first the letters, then the syllables of a word, and finally the whole word. The books were of parchment folded into leaves or scrolls of papyrus. The text had been copied on them by slaves. When it was time for the writing lesson, the boys took their tablets covered with wax and followed with a sharp point, or stilus, the letters that the teacher had traced. When they could do this well, they were allowed to make letters on the wax for themselves; and when they could write fairly well, they were promoted to use pens made of reeds, ink, and paper made from papyrus. Arithmetic they learned from an abacus, on whose wires little balls were strung. When the boys grew older, they attended more advanced schools, and in these the masterpieces of Greek literature were taught. Then many of them went on further and studied oratory. They must have Greek teachers, and those who could afford the expense went to Greece to complete their education.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The emperor was interested in literature, and the greatest of all the Latin writers lived during his reign. They were Virgil, Horace, Livy, and Ovid. Virgil, or Publius Virgilius Maro, wrote a long poem, the Aeneid, or story of Aeneas and his coming to Italy after the fall of Troy. The Romans had been so well pleased with his shorter poems that when they heard of his plan to write the Aeneid, they were delighted. They had a long time to wait before seeing the book, for Virgil was not at all strong, and it was seven years before it was half done. Then the emperor asked him to read what he had written. He read first about the night when the Greeks slid softly down from the wooden horse and Troy was taken and burned; then he read about Aeneas's stay in Carthage; and last, about his visit to the land of the dead. Here, the poem says, was the young Marcellus, whom the fates would "only show to the earth" and then snatch away.

"Fling lilies with o'erflowing hands, and let

Me strew his grave with violets,"

Virgil repeated. Marcellus was the name of a favorite nephew whom the emperor had adopted to be his successor. The young man had died only a little while before this, and the emperor was grateful that his name had been made immortal by the poet. In his will, Virgil directed the Aeneid to be burned because he had not yet made it as perfect as he wished, but Augustus forbade that such a thing should be done. He gave the manuscript to three friends of Virgil, all of them poets, telling them to strike out any phrase that they thought Virgil would have omitted on revision, but to add nothing. So it was that the Aeneid was saved.

Horace, or Quintus Horatius Flaccus, had studied in Greece, according to the fashion, and when a young man, had fought in the army of Brutus. Virgil introduced him to Maecenas, a wealthy statesman who knew how to be a warm friend. Through Maecenas he met the emperor, and here he was sure to find appreciation. He wrote no lengthy poem, but many short ones, graceful odes to Maecenas, to Virgil, to the emperor, to the state, to a beautiful fountain. He understands so well how people feel that one might almost fancy his poems were written yesterday. He thoroughly likes a jest or an unexpected turn. In one poem, a usurer, or money-lender, tells how he longs to live in the country. "Happy is the man," he says, "who dwells on his own farm, far away from the troubles of the city. He can train his vines, or graft his trees, or shear his sheep, or lie on the soft grass and hear the birds sing and the little streams murmur." Then Horace ends, "So, said the money-lender. He called in all his money on the fifteenth of the month to buy a home in the country—but he forgot the country and loaned it again on the first of the following month." When Maecenas was dying, he said to Augustus, "Take care of Horace as if he were myself"; but Horace lived only a few months longer than his good friend.

Livy, or Titus Livius, liked to think and talk of the days before the aristocratic notions of the Romans were overthrown by Caesar, and Augustus playfully called him a follower of Pompey. Livy's great work was a history of the Roman people; and in his preface he says that it will be reward enough for his labor in writing it if he can only forget for a while the troubles of his own times. This sounds rather mournful, but the history is charming. In reading it we almost feel that we are listening to Livy himself, for he writes his stories of the olden times as if he were telling them to a group of friends. He describes something that pleases him as if he were sure that his readers would enjoy it with him; and he is as grieved over a lost battle of a century earlier as if the defeated general were his own dear friend.

Even when Ovid, or Publius Ovidius Naso, was a small boy, he was eager to write poetry. His father wished him to become an orator and win some high position in the government, and the boy tried his best to learn to argue. His teacher said that he spoke in a poetical sort of prose and did not arrange his arguments well. After a while a fortune was left him, and then he was free to write as much poetry as he chose. He was liked by the emperor, and life moved on most pleasantly. He wrote the Metamorphoses, or stories of the gods. One is the tale of the visit of Jupiter and Mercury to Baucis and Philemon. It is so simply and naturally told that we can almost see old Baucis building a fire on the hearth, putting a piece of a broken dish under one leg of the table so it will stand even, then rubbing the board with mint to make it smell sweet. Ovid was revising his manuscript one evening when an order for his banishment to the mouth of the Danube suddenly arrived from the emperor. No one ever knew why this was done. Ovid was torn from his family and sent to spend the rest of his life among the barbarians. In his despair he burned the Metamorphoses, but fortunately his friends had made copies of it long before. He died in exile.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


It is because these great writers lived in the times of Augustus that his reign is called the Golden, or Augustan, Age of Latin literature. The reign is also marked by the closing of the gates of the temple of Janus. In war times these were always open; and the Romans had carried on wars so constantly that the gates had been closed only twice in seven hundred years. While Augustus ruled, they were closed three times. It was during one of these times when the world was at peace that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.


Octavianus, or Augustus, ruled apparently by the old laws, but gradually got possession of all power. He made little attempt to enlarge the empire, but aimed at making the most of what it included. He governed the provinces wisely; he entertained the people, and the state provided grain for the poor at half price or less. Augustus reared many temples. The homes of the wealthy were most luxurious. Boys studied Greek, reading, writing, arithmetic, literature, and often oratory.

The greatest of Roman authors, Virgil, Horace, Livy, and Ovid, lived in the reign of Augustus; therefore this period is known as the Golden Age of Latin literature. While Augustus ruled, the gates of Janus were closed three times. In one of these periods of peace, Christ was born.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • Augustus tells what he plans to do for Rome.
  • Was it wise to sell grain to the poor at half price?
  • A visit to a Roman home.
  • A school-day in Rome.