Caesar’s great-nephew, his sister’s grandson, was in Illyria (modern Albania) when he heard the news of the great event in Rome. He was studying rhetoric and undergoing military training for the proposed war in Parthia. He was eighteen. With his classmate, M. Vipsanius Agrippa, the son of an Italian farmer, who became his number two for life, he crossed to Brindisi, and there learned he was Caesar’s principal heir and adopted son. Adoption was an honoured and frequent practice in Rome where the ladies were not philoprogenitive, disliking the rigours of childbirth; their husbands did not complain because the greater the number of children, the greater the diminishment of the family estate (primogeniture was unknown). Adult sons of good birth, therefore, were a rare enough commodity for it to be easy for a father with more than two of them to find a richer and more powerful parent. Henceforth C. Julius Caesar Octavianus, as he called himself now, always referred to Julius Caesar, deified two years later in 42 BC, as ‘my father’ and to himself as ‘son of the divine Caesar’. He entered quickly and eagerly upon his inheritance.
At first his name appeared to be his only asset, but with Caesar’s legacies he was able to lure Mark Antony’s legions to his side (Crassus always used to say that no one could call himself rich in Rome if he could not afford to keep an army). Cicero was mad about the boy, suggesting to the Senate that he would be a counter to the ambitions of Antony. Two battles followed immediately which Antony lost. He fled to Gaul. Octavian was now in charge of eight legions but the Senate refused to make him consul so he marched on Rome. He was nineteen. Then on a small island near Bologna he met his rivals, Antony and Lepidus; they left their legions behind them, but had with them their kitchen cabinets. Octavian’s now consisted of one Q. Rufus, Maecenas (an elegant Etrurian prince) and Agrippa; they were all the same age. The first was a disappointment, made trouble and was obliged to commit suicide. Agrippa became his commander-in-chief, minister of works, son-in-law and stayed with him all his life, as did Maecenas, who was put in charge of propaganda and the arts. From this encounter emerged the second Triumvirate, official unlike the first, and recognized by the assembly in November. The deal was that Antony kept Gaul, Lepidus Spain, Octavian Africa, Sicily and Sardinia. The Triumvirate needed money for its forty-five legions and land. The speediest resource was through proscription of their enemies and the language of the edict was as savage as the action. Informers were promised rewards and no one was safe. According to Plutarch, Octavian argued for two days to try and save Cicero, top of Antony’s hit-list in revenge for Cicero’s pillorying of him in the Philippics, but he failed and the head and right arm of the great orator were displayed on the rostra in the forum. Cicero died because he had no army, no gens, no fortune to protect him. Faced with force his talents failed him – the fate of intellectuals throughout the ages.
The civil war continued. Brutus rampaged in Greece and Cassius in Asia Minor. The Triumvirate defeated them. The chaos of the times – even contemporary historians did not know exactly what was happening – suited the temperament of Octavian, who was perfectly willing to wade through slaughter to the throne, though he did not himself like the sight of blood. Octavian had Brutus decapitated and sent the head to Rome to be thrown at the foot of Caesar’s statue. At the fall of Perusia in 41 BC he had 300 high-ranking prisoners sacrificed on the Ides of March at the altar of the God Julius, his ‘father’. The bloodthirsty and cowardly Octavian was later unrecognizable in the benign Emperor Augustus, a change of personality which Roman historians, accustomed to categorize their people into good and bad, found difficult to accommodate.
Sextus Pompeius, son of the great Pompey, entered the ring ironically as a sort of pirate king,23 and to the military were added some marital musical chairs, for the day Octavian’s wife, Scribonia, a relative of Sextus, bore him a daughter, Julia, of whom much more anon, he divorced her. Octavian had fallen in love – with Livia, the nineteen-year-old wife of one Tiberius Claudius Nero, who though he bore the names of three emperors was only the father of one, Tiberius. With Livia, quickly divorced though pregnant at the time, Octavian – Augustus – lived happily ever after for fifty years. The connection was socially and politically important to him like the marriage of the Cornet William Pitt to the Grenvilles, for, though Augustus’ father was now a God, his actual father was a provincial banker. Livia’s provenance was of the best and from 38 BC the Patriciate began to move towards Augustus. Over the years the love between them cooled but Augustus always found his wife useful, if only as the provider of virgins for his bed.
In the next five years, Agrippa subdued Pompey junior, whose legions the triumvir Lepidus tried to turn against Octavian. Smarter with his tongue than with his sword, Octavian talked the legions round and preserved Lepidus in a seaside town for the rest of his life, occasionally dragging him up to Rome for public spectacles. Octavian loathed him but dared not have him put down because at some point he had become Pontifex Maximus.
By 33 BC, the contest for the Roman world was between the brothers-in-law Octavian and Antony. Antony had married his rival’s sister, always described as the ‘virtuous’ Octavia, but was now psychologically and financially dependent on the extraordinary Cleopatra, who had totally ensnared him. When the scene shifts to the court of the Queen of Egypt, Roman history becomes grand opera. Cleopatra had enchanted Julius Caesar, scared Herod the Great, and had now become the mistress of Mark Antony, through whom she hoped to be mistress of the world.
In late 34 BC, Antony celebrated a Roman-style Triumph for his victory over the Armenians, which became known as the ‘Donations of Alexandria’. Plutarch describes the occasion:
Antony also aroused great resentment because of the division of his inheritance which he carried out in Alexandria in favour of his children. People regarded this as an arrogant and theatrical gesture which seemed to indicate a hatred for his own country. Nevertheless, he assembled a great multitude in the athletic arena there, and had two thrones of gold, one for himself and one for Cleopatra, placed on a dais of silver, with smaller thrones for his children. First, he proclaimed Cleopatra Queen of Eygpt, Cyprus, Libya and Syria and named Caesarion as her consort. This youth was believed to be a son of Julius Caesar, who had left Cleopatra pregnant. Next he proclaimed his own sons by Cleopatra to be Kings of Kings. To Alexander he gave Armenia, Media and Parthia, as soon as he should have conquered it, and to Ptolemy, Phoenicia, Syria and Cilicia. At the same time he presented his sons to the people, Alexander in a Median costume which was crowned by a tiara, and Ptolemy in boots, a short cloak and a broad-brimmed hat encircled by a diadem. The latter wore Macedonian dress like the kings who succeeded Alexander the Great, and the former the dress of the Medes and Armenians. After the children had embraced their parents, the one was given a guard of honour of Armenians and the other of Macedonians. Cleopatra, not only on this but on other public occasions, wore a robe which is sacred to Isis, and she was addressed as the New Isis.
Octavius Caesar reported these actions to the Senate, and by repeatedly denouncing Antony in public he did his utmost to rouse the Roman people’s anger against him.
(‘Antony’ in Plutarch’s Lives, Penguin, pp. 54–5)
With Maecenas as his Goebbels, Octavian stepped up his hate campaign against Antony, who, in proclaiming Caesarion as Caesar’s son by Cleopatra, implied that Caesarion was a potential usurper. There being no libel laws in Ancient Rome, nor any rules of evidence in courts of law, character assassination was invoked to harness public opinion, to which men in power were so sensitive. They could not avoid the evidence of public opinion by roaring through the streets in bullet-proof cars, or disappear in helicopters. Every citizen could make himself heard in courts of law or at the Games or in the streets. Julius Caesar had disdained protection but none of the five emperors descending from him were successfully protected by their guards from the anger of the Roman people, fomented by professionals.
Octavian defeated Antony with propaganda long before the battle of Actium. The message was simple. Antony, once an upright servant of the state, to whom Octavian had been so well disposed that he gave him his own sister in marriage, who had been twice consul and many times imperator, had become the slave of a queen of a people who worshipped reptiles, a queen with the insolence to look forward to issuing her decrees from the steps of the Capitol in Rome. He could prove it. Octavian took Antony’s will from the temple of the Vestal Virgins, where important people lodged their wills for safekeeping, and read it to the Senate. Antony’s will acknowledged Caesarion, provided for his children by Cleopatra, and stipulated that he was to be buried next to her – i.e., so propaganda ran, the capital was to be transferred to Alexandria. One hundred thousand copies – before the invention of printing – were distributed throughout the Roman world denouncing Cleopatra as a fatale monstrum, Horace’s expression. Throughout Italy communities took oaths of allegiance to Octavian personally, later seen as another nail in the coffin of the Republic. Octavian declared a just war on Cleopatra and advanced to Greece.
The war was not religious, political, ethnic or ideological, as so many were to be in Europe and in the Balkans, where the battles of the Roman civil war were often fought; it was a fight between rival gangs for dominance but the gangsters’ ‘manor’, with Virgil to record the outcome, was the dawn of the Augustan Age. In terms of force, naval and military, they were evenly matched, but Antony was handicapped by what we would call today the ‘Cleopatra factor’, and equally Octavian was boosted by the Caesar connection. Before, during and after the battle, Romans deserted Antony. The naval battle at Actium was lost by Antony more than won by Octavian, who may have passed the time lying on his back on a hill overlooking the bay, gazing into the sky; but Agrippa was there. According to Dio, Cleopatra, impatient, anxious at anchor with her treasure (in ancient times one never left the family silver at home), very much a woman, decided to return to Egypt; or did Antony signal her to retreat? Agrippa’s sailors, with no sails on board to unfurl, had anticipated a naval battle, a hand-to-hand business in those days, grappling, ramming, catapulting and stoning. They won.
Actium was not a glorious finish to the civil war, but it was the end or almost the end of 100 years of conflict between Romans. The entire Senate and equestrian order turned up in Brindisi to acknowledge Octavian, whose forty-year tenure of power had now emphatically begun. Antony and Cleopatra were back in Egypt and Octavian pursued them in August of the next year. As he approached they sent him presents, which he kept, and pleas, which he ignored. Antony pathetically reminded Octavian of their happy times in Rome together, an odd note to strike as there were some twenty years between them and Octavian had never been a gadabout. Cleopatra threatened to destroy herself and her treasure but Octavian would not listen to her. He sent a smooth-tongued freedman to suggest that he was already in love with her at a distance, and that the distance between them would soon vanish. As Octavian approached, Antony’s soldiers left him; told that Cleopatra was dead, he tried to kill himself; told she was not, he had enough strength to drag himself to her chamber and die in her arms.
The set was now clear for Cleopatra’s interview with the new ruler of the world. When Octavian entered her apartment, she rose from the richly ornamented chaise-longue where she had carefully and carelessly arranged herself, her asses’ milk complexion enhanced by her mourning, and cried out, ‘Greetings my lord, for the Gods have given supremacy to you, and taken it from me.’ Her apartment had been filled with busts and memorabilia of Julius Caesar and she had stuffed her bosom with his letters, which she read out in a soft, plaintive, musical voice. Octavian was unmoved. Then she threw herself on her knees and begged to be allowed to die. Octavian was still unmoved. Perhaps he was considering her part in his procession down the Via Sacra; she would add gloss to his Triumph so he wanted her alive. Accordingly, he arranged for her food to be monitored. It was a possibility, though, that her extraordinary presence might backfire. Mobs could be fickle . . . (When the executioner of Charlotte Corday, who murdered Marat in his bath, took her guillotined head by the hair and punched it in the face, he was fined for misconduct.)
Cleopatra fooled him. She did not want a bit part in someone else’s Triumph. She knew, from experiments on live human beings – no problem in the ancient world – that asps work. The asp is a small, poisonous, hooded snake, endemic to Egypt and Libya, and its fatal sting guaranteed, according to Cleopatra’s advisers, deification. In the literature of the world, the asp is only referred to in connection with Cleopatra. She took two. Dio, from whom this account is taken, says that Octavian was shaken by Cleopatra’s death and tried to have her revived. At least he was able to compensate himself with her treasure. He could also do what he liked with Egypt.
From this moment on, Octavian became benign, lenient, forgiving – he was only horrid to his own daughter. He let go the children of Antony and Cleopatra, the pretentiously styled Helios (sun) and Selene (moon), and they were brought up by their ever-virtuous stepmother, Octavia. Antyllus, Antony’s son by his first wife, Fulvia, and Caesarion, being too dangerous to be left alive, were killed.24 Egypt was annexed as the possession of the Emperor and administered by a prefect. The Donations of Alexandria were naturally cancelled but the arrangements made by Antony in Asia remained unchanged. All this, together with amnesties and pardons, was announced to the Egyptians by Octavian in a speech in Greek. He visited the corpse of Alexander the Great and may have knocked off his nose by mistake. There was enough money in Cleopatra’s treasury, carefully collected from her temples, to give every soldier a year’s pay. On 11 January 29 BC, the gates of the temple of Janus (the God of War) in Rome were closed. ‘The Republic and liberty had gone, and men turned gratefully to their new saviour.’25
Octavian was careful to preserve the physical appearance of the Republic. Like a taxidermist, he extracted the vital organs from the dead beast, replacing them with stuffing without damaging the skin. His autocracy came from a series of powers voted to him but never seized, such as the proconsular power and the tribunician power. As Mr Carter explains, ‘The brilliance of this arrangement lies in its dissociation of the powers of an office.’ Augustus, which he became in 27 BC and which we shall now call him, was granted the imperium for ten years (renewable); he had all the powers of officers of state without the bore, uncertainty and expense of elections. He wanted to be called Romulus, but this had echoes of kingship distasteful to Romans, and he was dissuaded. After 19 BC, he had ‘the power of the consul without being a consul, the power of a tribune without being a tribune, and the power of a proconsul without being a proconsul, for it was his legati who occupied that position on his behalf. Through a series of conjuring and confidence tricks (deplored by Gibbon), Augustus, who had the Senate, the people, the army of Rome and the bourgeoisie of Italy in the palm of his hand, seemed set fair to be Princeps, first amongst equals, for the rest of his natural life.
Dio Cassius treats us to imaginary monologues from Octavian’s two lieutenants, Agrippa and Maecenas, on how to handle himself from this – 29 BC – moment on. Agrippa, the man of action, waffles on but after a résumé of his achievements warns his master against becoming a monarch, for if Romans suspected such an intention, he would be doomed like his ‘father’, Julius Caesar. Maecenas, the think-tank, is more subtle: Octavian should become a monarch in all but name, he should not allow images of himself or temples in his honour, but should build images in the hearts of men; he should appoint magistrates and appear to listen to their advice in Rome but the provinces, and therefore the armies, he should control absolutely himself; he should spare no expense in making the capital beautiful, and, for his own safety, should create two prefects to command the Praetorian Guard; finally horse-races should be confined to Rome so as not to deprive the cavalry of good animals.26 Knights, Maecenas went on, should be trained from childhood to run the treasury, state property should be privatized, senators if they misbehave (even towards you, Octavian) should be judged by their peers, but rebellious army commanders should be condemned as public enemies.
Augustus did not heed this advice, though in his own tactful and duplicitous way he seems to have followed it. He was particularly respectful of the Senate, subsidizing senators who had lost out in the civil wars, rather like the Duke of Newcastle’s dole to peers in the reign of George III, and he helped old families to keep up their obligations to the temples. Publicly Augustus was in favour of old-fashioned family virtues and put a telling tax on childless couples. We must also remember that, like all Emperors, he was as rich privately as the Roman state.
On embarking on his seventh consulship he read a speech beginning, ‘I know very well, Conscript Fathers, that I shall appear to you to have made an incredible choice. I lay down my office in its entirety and return to you all authority absolutely, authority over the laws, the army and the provinces, not only those territories which you entrusted to me but those which I later secured for you . . . I restore to you your freedom and the Republic’ It was all completely untrue. But few noticed, fewer cared, and even fewer Romans dared to do anything against the regime. The conspirators against Augustus throughout his reign were rare and inept and were dealt with by him with a leniency which was almost humiliating. In the case of Gnaeus Cornelius Cinna Magnus, the grandson of Pompey the Great, Dio has Livia his wife give Augustus such a convincing (and lengthy) lecture on the quality of mercy that he releases all the conspirators and makes the man a consul. Livia was less concerned with mercy in her husband’s behaviour towards his own immediate family, particularly his only child, Julia. Like Caligula, she could plead (if she could have been bothered) in justification of her madness and badness, a traumatic childhood and broken homes due to her father’s manipulation of her life and children, but Julia, arrogant, stubborn, insolent, defiant, libidinous and deeply tricky, was not inclined to plead. Augustus’ hard treatment of his daughter began on the day she was born when he divorced her mother, as we have seen. He expected his daughter to inherit his own almost inhuman self-control. He exposed her to the high life of Rome but allowed her no freedom. He married her off three times without consulting her and, being without male heirs himself, deprived her legally of her first two sons, by Agrippa, the golden boys Gaius and Lucius, whom he brought up as his own (one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the Maison Carrée, in Nîmes, currently being done up, is dedicated to them). In revenge Julia tried to outrage him, by sleeping around – but usually when pregnant by her husbands. Her young lovers bore the great names of Rome, Antonius, Pulcher, Gracchus, Scipio. With them she plotted parricide at a bacchic orgy in the middle of the night in the middle of the Forum. It was a serious orgy but not much of a conspiracy and Augustus only executed Julius Antonius, Mark Antony’s son, who had been a consul and should have known better, and banished the rest. He exiled his daughter Julia for the rest of her life, making sure she never had another drop of wine.
He was equally callous towards his granddaughter, the younger Julia, banished when pregnant in AD 8, obviously through pressure from Livia, who wanted no obstacle to the inheritance of her son, Tiberius. When the child was born it was declared illegitimate and, on the ancient authority of a Roman paterfamilias, starved to death.
At the same time, for reasons unknown, the poet Ovid (famous for his amorous advice – but not a serious plotter, it was thought) was exiled to a freezing port at the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea. Ovid, in his autobiography, never says why, but blames ‘the treachery of friends and malice of servants’. That Augustus was able, out of pique, to banish from Rome, without explanation or protest, its most popular poet shows the extent of his power.
Augustus over-promoted and spoilt rotten his grandchildren, alienating his stepson Tiberius, the other candidate for the succession, who withdrew sulkily to Rhodes for seven years in 6 BC. Augustus, expecting much from these boys to whom so much had been given, received, as was his wont, nothing in return; in fact they died on him, Lucius in Marseilles of an illness in AD 2, and Gaius of melancholy after being wounded in Armenia in AD 4. So the ageing and increasingly embittered Emperor had to overcome his distaste for Tiberius – he could not bear the way he chewed his food – and wrote him artificially jocular letters.
He had outlived his own friends, his buddies (but never quite his equals) Agrippa, Maecenas, Horace and Virgil, all of whom left him their fortunes; but he needed their presence and not their presents, for he was not a greedy man. He spent his time watching the pretty little boys sent to him from all corners of the Empire playing their games in his modest house. He liked being asked out to dinner and offered and expected little in the way of lavish entertainment, except of course for political purposes. Once when returning from a particularly unpretentious dinner he was heard to mutter, ‘I did not know I knew him that well’; on another occasion, when he was dining with Pollio, who was proud of his collection of crystal, a slave broke a piece and was about to be thrown to his master’s lampreys for their dinner, when Augustus ordered the man to be given his freedom and all the crystal to be smashed. He did not like other people to play the tyrant. However, this did not deter Pollio, a terrible snob, from leaving him a beautiful beach-house.
His own house on the Capitoline Hill was as different from his official palace as his private from his public persona. The first had been bought from the estate of the orator Hortensius in 44 BC, when Octavian was still only Caesar’s presumptive heir. The house consisted of twelve rooms and was turned in on itself, being separated from the street by blank walls. A modest enough establishment, symbolic of the inner Augustus, it was known then as now as Domus Livia, and it was there he lived for forty years, sleeping in the same room. The Emperor’s adjoining palace had been built after a fire in 3 BC from a public subscription which exacted no more than one denarius from each citizen and one gold coin from each municipality. (Augustus was genuinely popular with his subjects.) At home he was a randy little man – five foot five in his stockinged feet – who suffered from the cold, enjoyed practical jokes, wore simple clothes woven by his own household (like the Emperor of Japan), ate peasant food and nibbled a dried apple or fig between meals. He was not in the least pompous, often made fun of himself and allowed others to do so. ‘The ruler of the world looked very sheepish when, on going to meet a curtained litter that he had sent to collect a lady of easy virtue, he saw his old tutor Athenodorus leap out of it. Athenodorus had sent the woman packing and taken her place, and now started to lecture Augustus on his incontinence.’27
He was never very healthy and nearly died twice, the first time in Cantabria (northern Spain), where he endured a crise de foie – and indeed de foi for it was there that he became a Stoic. His doctor28 and oculist were never far away and some of their medicines and artefacts are reproduced in the Museum at Eur. He suffered from gallstones all his life. His body was covered with blotches, which his flatterers declared were in the configuration of the Great Bear but which were in fact the marks of endogynous discoid eczema, not contagious and caused, quite simply, by nerves; underneath the armour of a faultless political machine was the body of a frightened little man. (He was constantly accused of cowardice, notably by Mark Antony, and certainly was terrified of thunder and lightning, putting on a sealskin coat for protection.)
But on parade as Emperor, Augustus was dazzling. No one stood near him so in his imperial toga or imperial armour (and with his lifts) he walked tall, and no one could resist the glare from his grey eyes, which were set in a sea of white, like kernels of a sun. When he moved from his inner home to the sanctuary surrounding it he became the High Priest (Pontifex Maximus), the Father of his People (Pater Patriae, an official title in 2 BC), Commander-in-Chief (Imperator), and on New Year’s Day and at great festivals when he wore the dress and insignia of a triumphant commander (which his adoptive father had been allowed to wear every day) the purple toga, embroidered in gold, a crown of golden laurel and a long ivory sceptre – Augustus must have looked every inch ruler of the world.
When he died, he had been that for forty-two years and had visited every corner of the Empire, except Sardinia – the Romans did not like Sardinia – and if Romans no longer felt free, at least there was no outcry in the streets and the arts bloomed in the peace and prosperity of what even then became known as the Augustan Age. The ara pacis, a four-sided frieze, can be seen in its huge glass case by the river Tiber, next to his mausoleum. The pastoral idyll there in relief is as if the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven werefrozen in white marble and the Imperial family floats serenely through wreaths and garlands.
As princeps in Rome, Augustus believed in extending the hegemony of the Senate and People, but his two humiliating defeats, both in Germany, decided him at the end of his life that enough was enough and that the frontiers should stay as they were. Varus, a stumblebum of a general, had lost three legions, massacred through trickery in a forest in AD 9, and this disaster remained the daymare of Augustus’ life towards its end. When nobody (he thought) was watching he would bang his head on the wall of his little house on the Hill and cry, ‘Varus, Varus, give me back my legions.’29
Augustus’ apotheosis happened in a way designed, by chance, to appeal to his modest, frugal spirit. He was en route to his villa in Sorrento when the crew of a ship from Alexandria, dressed in white, carrying wreaths of flowers and swinging censers, courted him, singing: ‘Through him we live, through him we sail the seas, through him we enjoy freedom and riches’. This sentiment would have been echoed by the whole of the new middle class and the bureaucracy he had created, at the expense, if it mattered, of the old families of the Republic, which he had married into but of which he had never been a part. This memory sweetened the last few months of what had become a lonely and unhappy existence. Almost his last words were: ‘Well, I performed quite well, didn’t I?’