Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Excellent princes, ridiculous sophists or jealous tyrants? Gibbon's take on some of Rome's good emperors

Caesar Augustus by Boschetti Italian
Bronze 19th century  CE after Prima Porta
 Augustus 2nd century CE.  Photographed
at the University of Utah Museum of Art by
Mary Harrsch.
In my ongoing readings of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I was surprised to learn that Edward Gibbon maintained a rather harsh opinion of three of Rome's most respected emperors.

Gibbon claimed Vespasian's merit was "more useful than shining" and his virtues "disgraced by a strict and even sordid parsimony."  He declared Hadrian to be, in turn, an excellent prince, ridiculous sophist and, eventually, jealous tyrant.  But most surprising was his blistering assessment of Gaius Octavius Thurinus - the emperor Augustus.

Of Augustus, Gibbon declared, "A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him at the age of nineteen to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards laid aside."

Whoa!  That's certainly an extreme assessment of the man ultimately responsible for ushering in the Pax Romana!  I doubt Octavian was particularly likable since he appeared to calculate the political advantage in every move, but despite concessions that he had to make to his ill health, I would hardly call him a coward.  It took a lot of brass for a 19-year-old stripling to go up against a man with the military experience and following of Marc Antony or the Roman world's most renowned orator and formidable politician, Cicero.

Cicero, 1st century BCE.  Photographed at the
Capitoline Museum by Mary Harrsch
Gibbon seems to blame Octavian for authorizing Cicero's proscription but that was really done at the insistence of Antony.  Octavian pragmatically didn't have any particular reason to oppose it.  It's very much like the recent debt ceiling negotiations.  Some programs were ultimately considered expendable in the overall "game of thrones".

Cicero had been so openly hostile to Antony, his appearance on Antony' hit list must have surely been a foregone conclusion.  Cicero had also arrogantly miscalculated Octavian's political astuteness and assumed he could simply dispose of Octavian after he had served the purposes of the power brokers in the Senate - also a fatal error.

As for hipocrisy, Augustus, like many politicians today, maintained power and control by telling people what they wanted to hear while quietly disposing of those deemed a threat to his position through political maneuvering or outright assassination covered by some socially engineered construct.  Scholars point to Augustus' blatant philandering while enacting morality laws to dictate the behavior of the people of Rome.  But as I pointed out in an earlier post on Roman infanticide, perhaps these laws were meant as deterrents to abortion and infant abandonment and to encourage larger Roman families because Roman birthrates were falling noticeably and there was administrative concern that the economic system was in jeopardy.


A decidedly different view of Rome's first emperor was presented by author John Williams in his novel "Augustus".  It is a novel written in the form of a collection of correspondence between the emperor and various members of his family and his imperial courtiers - much like Thornton Wilder's "Ides of March".  Williams, in contrast to Gibbon, was relatively kind to Octavian and seemed to gloss over some of his shortcomings, like his false promises of military support to Marcus Antonius during the latter's Parthian campaigns.  I think Williams did a good job, though, of demonstrating the overwhelming turmoil Octavian faced when he assumed the reins of power upon the death of his uncle, Julius Caesar.
Livia, 1st century BCE.
Photographed at the Palazzo
Massimo by Mary Harrsch.

Unlike Robert Graves, however, Williams also spared  the empress Livia from any insinuations of overt murder in relating the deaths of many of Octavian's would-be successors.  Instead, however, he surprisingly portrayed her as a cold, rather loveless individual who ran Octavian's household but did not command his heart.  In Williams novel, most of Augustus' later years were spent in the company of Terentia, the wife of Octavian's close friend and advisor, Maecenas.  I knew Octavian reputedly engaged in adultery in flagrant violation of his own morality laws, but I guess I didn't realize much of his philandering was targeted at the wife of one of his closest friends.  Williams portrays Maecenas as openly homosexual and willingly supportive of his friend's dalliances but other scholars point out that the relationship between Maecenas and Augustus appears to have become more strained in later life probably due to the emperor's indiscretions.  Marcus Velleius Paterculus said Maecenas was "of sleepless vigilance in critical emergencies, far-seeing and knowing how to act, but in his relaxation from business more luxurious and effeminate than a woman." Perhaps Williams relied on that reference to support his development of Maecenas' character.


At Maecenas' reception room by Stepan Bakalovich (1890)


Williams also had a decidedly different take on Octavian's banishment of his daughter Julia as punishment for her licentiousness.  This has often been a sticking point with scholars who, like Gibbon, decry Octavian's hypocrisy.  Instead of the traditional approach to this incident, Williams portrayed their father-daughter relationship as one that was quite close even to the point that Augustus simply ignored the string of lovers his daughter entertained in her efforts to display her contempt for her husband, the future emperor Tiberius because Augustus despised Tiberius as well. 
Julia Livilla, daughter of Germanicus, like
Julia the Elder, daughter of Augustus, also
suffered exile to the island of Pandataria
after being accused by the emperor Claudius
of adultery with Seneca.  Photographed at
the Palazzo Massimo by Mary Harrsch.


But when Augustus' spies reported that Julia's latest lover, Jullus Antonius, son of Augustus' dead arch rival, Marcus Antonius and his third rebellious wife Fulvia, was plotting a coup and the emperor's assassination, Augustus had no alternative except to condemn her. 


This may have been simply dramatic license on Wiliams' part - after all it is a novel not a text book - but this coup may have been more fact than fancy.  When Julia and her lovers were tried for their breach of Augustus' morality laws, all of the lovers except Jullus were exiled.  Jullus, however, was condemned to death as a traitor.  Williams proposes that Julia, although apparently not aware of the particulars of the plot, would have been found guilty of treason too and also sentenced to death if Augustus' had not engineered her conviction on the violation of his morality laws.  Thus, Julia's subsequent exile actually was an effort by her father to save her life, not severely punish her for moral indiscretions.  The thing I find puzzling, however, is if her exile was meant only to preserve her life, why did Augustus keep up the pretense of punishment for the rest of his life, as he reportedly refused to ever see her or speak of her again.  Had Tiberius already gained so much power that he could have pushed aside the aging Augustus whenever he chose to and exacted his revenge against Julia despite her father's acclaim as father of his country?

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