Christianity and the Empire
"And there went out in those days a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed..."
Some 30 years ago, at right about this time of year, My wife and I went with a friend to a German Reform church in Maryland. The pastor was a very nice man, but his sermon elicited at least one guffaw. After expatiating, quite properly, on the superiority of Christianity over ancient paganism, he drove the nail home. "Da crule, crule Caesar Augustus. Imagine, da crulety and arrogance of da man: He wanted to tax da whole world, but today, when everybody in da world knows da name of Jesus Christ, who has ever heard of Augustus?" Well, actually, there were at least three of us in church that day, all having done graduate work in classics, who remembered Augustus' name with respect and understood that the taxation referred to by St. Luke was nothing more sinister than a census.
The good pastor's sermon was only one of many such anti-Roman outbursts I have listened to over the years, not only from leftists but also from Christians and political conservatives. Some years back, I learned of a bone-head conservative group whose motto was "Carthage must be preserved." Since the Carthaginians excelled in torture and murder, I assume that some of the members of this group have joined the Defense Department. I wonder, though, how they feel about the massive sacrifices of children? Perhaps abortion is the modern equivalent--G.K. Chesterton would certainly have thought so.
My wife and I had more than one Latin student who objected to any material referring to a Roman deity, and I have had countless letters, emails, and personal conversations in which I was informed that the Roman Empire was evil to the core, an anticipation of Nazi Germany. Not content with asking Tertullian's question, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" they wanted to draw a line in the sand between Christianity and the Empire whose only contribution to the Church was the blood of martyrs.
This is an odd time of year for mounting a defense of the Romans, but the discussion will certainly be more worthwhile than any attention paid to the upcoming primaries. This must seem to be so to Luigi Amicone, editor of I Tempi, a conservative Catholic weekly in Milan, which recently (29 November) interviewed the well-known Roman historian, Marta Sordi. The entire interview is worth reading, but I shall translate just the bits that have to do with her view of Rome and Christianity.
After explaining that her study of ancient historians taught her how to find insights (e.g. about the neurotic but successful Emperor Tiberius), which the historians themselves would have disclaimed, she then explained that "the discovery of the historical method" served to reinforce her Christian faith. Studying in Bucharest during WW II, she learned, in dialog with a professor of Crocean orientation, to respect those whom Christianity calls, the preambles of faith, namely, the rational certainty of God's existence and in the divinity of Christ. Asked to clarify what she meant, Sordi tells of a a conversation she had with a non-believing schoolmate who asked her, "How in the world can you who are an historian believe in these things?" She answered:
"Precisely because i am an historian, I have been brought to beleive in the reality of Christ's claim to be God. Certainly, faith cannot be reduced to an historiographic operation; it is a qualitative leap. But historical study, to be precise study of the Gospels, show that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed and was a man of definite characteristics. To acknowledge his claim to divinity, I repeat, is another matter, but the historical study of hte Gospels favors, I should say prepares the way for the leap of adherence to the Faith. Either that concrete man, who really existed, whom the Gospels show us, was a charlatan, a madman, or he was what he said he was, God. It is extremely illogical to affirm, as so many do, that Christ was a great prophet, a reformer, or whatever, and to deny that he is God....Christianity is a religion, which has an historical foundation, not simply believing in God, but that God has been incarnated in an historical person."
Asked about her other historical studies, not limited to Christian history, Sordi replies that it is "a mistake, something artificial to separate Christianity and the civilization of the classical world. There is an evident continuity between ancient civilization and Christianity. The ancient world opens up and receives Christianity. Rome is the place in which Christianity is diffused, not only because the Empire, as has often been observed, offered the roads and security that enabled the Christian message to travel, but above all because the Roman mentality was ready to receive that message."
She goes on to discuss two poems, Vergil's 4th Eclogue and Catullus 64 that reveal the Roman religious mentality, which both anticipates a new Golden Age of peace and justice, and which sings of the heroic age when gods associated with men. The first point has been made by many Christians, including Chesterton (in The Everlasting Man), who argued that for God to descend to this world, the world had to be cleansed of the evil paganism of the Carthaginians: Rome had to win the Punic Wars in order to prepare the Mediterranean for the Incarnation. The second point is not very common, namely, that the pagan idea, expressed by Pindar, "One is the race of gods and men," is in some way a better preparation for the Son of God than Judaism's relentless distinction between God and man, a distinction that discouraged some of them from accepting the Messiah. (This is not at all meant to slight the precious and indispensable testimony of ancient Jews from whom our Lord was born as a man.)
Like it or not, the Christian Church and the Roman Church were born in the same age, and while the Empire would persecute Christians for nearly 300 years, the two would begin to fuse in the time of Constantine, and by the time the Western Empire collapsed finally in 476, the Christian Church in the West was ready to take over its role in the European world.
This is, perhaps, more than enough for now, though I am happy to post parts of several historical lectures I have made on this theme.
A Postscript on the Punic Wars
In the early third century B.C., as Rome expanded to the south and came into conflict with tribes of Lucanians and Bruttians, and eventually Tarentum whom Pyrrhus failed ultimately to save. Though Pyrrhus fought brilliantly, he eventually abandoned southern Italy and returned to Greece, but not before observing with some surprise, “These Romans don’t fight like barbarians.”
After Pyrrhus’ departure, Rome resolved to put an end to the troubles in southern Italy. She subjugated the Bruttians and Lucanians, and she either won over the Greek cities into an alliance or subjugated them. She was equally effective in the north, stamping out the last sparks of resistance from the Samnites and pushing her system of alliances as far north as Pisa and Rimini. Before the end of the 260’s, Rome was mistress of Italy, ruling much of it directly and the rest through alliances and confederations. Her interventions in southern Italy and Sicily, however, were about to bring her into conflict with an ancient and powerful state that would threaten her very existence: Carthage.
Carthage was an old and wealthy city founded by the Phoenicians, and the Carthaginians had made settlements in Sicily and Spain and sailed even beyond the Pillars of Hercules to trade for tin with the peoples of Britain. Carthage was feared for her brutality against conquered peoples and for her charming religious rites, which included temple prostitution and human sacrifices, but she was also admired for the stability of her government.
Like later Rome (and, later still, Venice), Carthage was a commercial republic governed by an aristocratic senate, though wars and foreign policy were usually controlled by a few powerful clans like the Barca family. Her agriculture was a system of vast estates tended by slaves and serfs. It is hard to find anything very admirable about the Carthaginians. They produced no original art that we know of, no literature, and no philosophy. Even their handicrafts seem shoddy and mass-produced.
As the citizens of Carthage grew rich, they lost their interest in serving in the army, and while native Carthaginians served in a militia home guard, most of her foreign wars would be fought by mercenaries under the command of Carthaginian officers. These officers had a powerful incentive to succeed, since the usual penalty for failure was crucifixion.
First Punic War (264-41)
The Romans were drawn into war by Carthaginian ambitions in Sicily and southern Italy, where the Phoenicians had been expanding their power at the expense of the Greek cities. Carthage was a great naval power, while Rome had few warships and even less experience in naval warfare. But the Romans, in the First Punic War, took a wrecked Punic ship and, using it as the model, built 120 duplicates. Knowing they had no time to study the refinements of naval tactics—ramming, boarding, etc.—they devised a system of gangplanks that could be attached to an enemy ship with a bronze hook—hence the name corvus, crow. This way they could turn a naval battle into infantry combat, which is what the consul of 260, C. Duilius, accomplished off Mylae, winning a stunning first victory.
A Roman army under command of Atilius Regulus landed in Africa and earned a series of victories until the Carthaginians hired a Spartan mercenary to train their citizens in Greek warfare. The retrained militia defeated the Romans and took many of them prisoner, including Regulus himself. Later, when sent to negotiate prisoner exchanges, Regulus advised the Senate against the plan. He revealed the dearth of Carthaginian manpower before voluntarily returning to Carthage to be tortured to death. Rome was still producing Romans of the old school.
After a series of disasters in which Rome lost most of her ships, the Romans finally built another fleet and were able to inflict a total defeat on the Punic fleet. Proud Carthage was finally willing to repudiate the leaders of her war party and to sue for peace. Apart from imposing an indemnity, Rome demanded only Sicily and the adjacent islands, but Sicily was a major prize. Rome treated half of Sicily as a conquered province, which became the model for future provinces, and the rest of the island, Syracuse in particular, remained in the hands of independent Greek states.
Second Punic War ( 218-201)
The uneasy and suspicious peace would last 21 years, during which the Romans appropriated Sardinia, though it was not covered by the treaty, and pushed their advantage to the point of inciting the war party in Carthage. Smarting from the insult over Sardinia and from the indignity of paying indemnity to Rome, Carthage granted permission in 237 to Hamilcar Barca to rebuild her empire in Spain—far removed from Roman concern, she thought. The Barcid clan were strong men who hated Rome, none more than Hamilcar, who had made his young son Hannibal swear an oath of eternal hatred against Rome.
After the deaths of his father and uncle, young Hannibal took over operations in Spain and demanded the surrender of the important city of Saguntum, which lay south of the Ebro and therefore was not technically covered by the treaty with Rome. But Saguntum had recently become a Roman ally, and Rome ordered Carthage to surrender Hannibal. Hannibal had learned from his father the wisdom of fighting the war on Italian soil, and leaving a substantial number of troops behind for the defense of Spain, he set off to southern Gaul with about 35,000 regular soldiers with him, obviously intending to recruit additional troops from the Celtic tribes he would pass through in southern France and northern Italy.
I am not going to narrate Hannibal’s campaigns, how he fought his way into Italy, how in despair the Romans chose the Romans chose Q. Fabius Maximus as temporary dictator, who deliberately spent his time rebuilding the army and limited operations to skirmishing, disrupting supply lines, etc., wearying the Carthaginian army by delaying tactics that would later be emulated by Russians fighting Napoleon and Hitler. The Roman nobles later declared that he had saved Rome by delaying and gave him the title Cunctator, how going back on the offensive in 216, the Romans were wiped out at Cannae by Hannibal’s pincer-movement, how young P. Cornelius Scipio drove the enemy out of Spain and brought the war home to North Africa and defeated Hannibal.
The Roman’s glorious march to victory was marred by the sack of the ancient city of Syracuse, a former Roman ally. When Marcellus’ soldiers broke through, they proceeded to loot the richest city in the world, chopping art treasures out of temples and destroying much in the process.
Third Punic War (149-146)
Before moving on to administer the coup de grâce to Carthage, Rome found herself involved in wars with the Macedonian rulers of Greece and the Middle East. The Roman general Flaminius arrived in 198 as liberator of the threatened Greek states. After defeating the Macedonian king, Philip III, Flaminius was content to keep him as ruler in Macedon and to proclaim the liberation of Greece.
Scipio and Flaminius genuinely admired Greek culture and were willing to permit the Greek states to remain free. The anti-Greek party in the senate was led by M. Porcius Cato, one of the most remarkable Romans of that or any generation. The plebeian farmer Cato had little sympathy for the Scipios and their obvious plan to make themselves a princely power within the Roman state. Since Scipio Africanus had permitted Carthage to surrender, Cato never lost an opportunity to attack both Carthage and Scipio himself.
The real cause of the third and final Punic War was the treaty, which deprived Carthage of power over the Roman-supported Numidians. Attacked by the Numidians, Carthage was put in an impossible position. Cato, convinced that it was time to complete the conquest of Carthage, took to ending every speech with the sentence Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed). The Carthaginians were told that they must satisfy the Romans, though nothing specific was stated, and even their offer of formal surrender was not enough to stop the Roman invading force of some 80,000 troops under the command of the adopted son of Scipio Africanus, Scipio Aemilianus (the son by birth of Scipio Africanus’s cousin Aemilius Paulus). After a bitter siege, Carthage fell in 146. The city was sacked, and the citizens who escaped death were sold into slavery. One brick was not allowed to stand on another, and salt was ceremoniously sown into the spoil.
Watching the devastation, the young Scipio, educated in Greek literature, quoted Hector’s moving lines from the Iliad: “I know that some day Holy Troy will fall.” Troy was already identified as the ultimate founder of Rome, and Scipio’s quotation became a prophecy or even a curse. It is usually interpreted as simply a prediction that all great empires must end, but in following in the path of Alexander and in disdaining the conservatism of Fabius, the Romans had made a fatal decision.
Carthage was not the only great city destroyed in 146. War had broken out in Greece, and Rome intervened on the side of Sparta against the stronger Achaean League. The Roman commander, L. Mummius, entered Corinth, enslaved the population, and looted the city, which he then ordered destroyed. Marcellus in looting Syracuse was overcome by greed on seeing the city’s great wealth; Mummius had planned his plunder in advance, so it is said, taking orders for the loot.
The plunder of Syracuse, Asia Minor, Carthage, and Corinth fundamentally and drastically altered the Roman economy and way of life. Despite all their wars, the Romans, especially in the years before the Punic Wars, were really farmers. Roman farmers were torn away from the land to be soldiers and ended up losing property, appetite for work, and even skills. Booty of gold and silver caused inflation. Aggravating the farmers’ plight was the growing competition of slave labor farms in North Africa and Sicily. The Latin word for these vast estates where commercial farming was practiced is Latifundia; today we call it agribusiness. The Carthaginians had pioneered Latifundia, and their system was adopted by their conquerors.
Rome, in the roughly 100 years between the destruction of Carthage and Corinth and the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44, was torn by a civil strife as intense as the struggle between patricians and plebeians had been. Despite the civil conflict, Rome’s empire spread inexorably to encompass the entire Mediterranean World.
Postscript II: Two Kingdoms
The Procurator was in a difficult spot. As an honest Roman official, he knew better than to get mixed up in the turbulent local politics. The local religious establishment wanted a rebel to be executed. They said the rebel claimed to be ruler of the Roman Empire, a pathetic but direct challenge to the Emperor. Tiberius was a fair man, of course, and did not wish to receive divine honors, but this imposter’s claim was too much for the overworked procurator to endure:
“Are you the king of the Jews?” he asks, repeating the charge made by the Sanhedrin. The answer is surprisingly shrewd:
“Did you come up with that on your own or did other people give you the idea?”
“What do you think I am? A Jew? How would I know,” asks the exasperated Pilate.
This exchange is from the account set down in old age by John, the “beloved disciple” of the rebel leader. John is the one member of the inner circle to have written down his recollections of the master, and he also records Jesus final answer to Pontius Pilate. “My kingdom is not of this world.” If it did, he said, his followers would be up in arms to defend him.
From the Roman point of view, this Jesus whom they called the Christ or the anointed one had done nothing wrong, but since the Jews did not have the authority to put a criminal to death, it was up to the Roman administration. Pilate resisted the mob’s demands, until the Jewish leaders played their trump card: “If you let him go, this man who has challenged the emperor’s universal authority, you are no friend to Caesar.” Why not just say my career is over?
Tiberius, who for all his personal faults, was an excellent ruler and he despised the fawning adulation he received. According to Christian tradition, when he heard of this strange Jewish renegade who alone did not want to kick the Romans out of Judaea, he proposed to the senate that Christ be included in the pantheon of Roman gods. The Senate, so the story goes, objected, declaring the new religion to be illicit, though Judaism was protected by law. Assuming, as many scholars do not, that the story is true, why should the senate make such a declaration? Was it to embarrass Tiberius? Were they bribed? Or were they simply offended by one more mystery cult invading Rome from the East? I don’t know, but the Senate’s decision, never enforced by Tiberius or the next two emperors, was to give Nero the authority he needed to ignite—literally—the first important persecution.
If John’s was the last legitimate gospel to be written, the first—according to tradition—was set down by Mathew, the so-called Hebrew Gospel, which might have been written in Aramaic, the everyday language of the Jews rather than in Hebrew. The gospel we have today is probably a translation of that “Hebrew Gospel” but with some materials used also by Luke. What is distinctive about the first gospel is the beginning: Biblos geneseos Iesou Christou. Abraam egenesen ton Isaak…. 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to Jesus. Thus Jesus is an historical fulfillment of the David kingdom, with the difference that Jesus will rule not just the Israelites but the entire world—though in a spiritual sense.
Neither Mathew nor John were much interested in the details of the birth story, for which we have to turn to Luke. “There went out in those days a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…. Actually enrolled in census. This famous sentence from Luke’s Gospel reminds us of Eusebius’ observation that the story of the Christian Church begins in the reign of the man who created the Roman Empire, and as we shall see, the two institutions—Church and Empire--develop together, often as enemies, but eventually (at least in principle) as friends and allies.
The Roman imperial order was the political order of the West, the civilized world. Judged by its failures—the execution of Christ, the stoning of Stephen, the oppression of the provincials, the very imperfect justice it administered, one cannot blame some Christians— for example, the author of the Apocalypse, writing after the persecution had begun--for condemning it as Babylon. But Paul, writing before the Great Fire at Rome, advised his followers that the sword of justice was given to the ruler by God almighty. Paul was proud enough of his Roman citizenship to invoke it when his Jewish enemies demanded his execution. Indeed, it was only the Roman imperial authority that prevented the Sanhedrin from going house to house killing the heretical followers of the “false” messiah.
By the end of the 1st Century, Christianity had grown beyond a Jewish sect that claimed that the prophecies had been fulfilled. Looking back on their experiences, Christian leaders as different as Paul and John could see that the Incarnation had a universal significance. The preface to John’s Gospel locates Him before time: “In the beginning was the word.” Mathew’s sequence of “Begats,” however, locates Christ in time and space, which is entirely appropriate since He was the God who became Man and entered history at a particular time and place. Christians would begin to see history less as the cycle of ages eternally recurring and more as a projection from the past into the present and beyond toward the future when His return would change the earth. Though Christ himself had told his disciples that they would not know the time or manner of his coming, they were mere human beings who wanted an apocalypse now. “All creation groaneth,” said Paul [Ro 8:22], “and travaileth in pain until now.“ The entire universe was being transformed and the Kingdom of God was emerging. What this might mean would only become clear as millennialist expectations gave way to a longer perspective.
Christians were not alone in expecting a dramatic transformation. Many people, Jews and Pagans, accepted the notion that someone from Syria would conquer the world, though as Tacitus reveals, Romans would later apply these prophecies to Vespasian’s successful conquest of the Empire from his base in Judea. Like Christians, too, Roman citizens were interested in divine genealogies, and they were also anticipating a transformation. By a strange quirk of fate or providence, Augustus, on his mother’s side, was connected to the family of the Julii—the dictator Julius Caesar, his adopted father, was his mother’s uncle. Although this patrician family had not amounted to much for centuries, the dictator’s aunt had married the plebeian soldier Marius, who had led a popular rebellion that cost the lives of thousands of Roman aristocrats.
And yet, poor aristocratic families, even those that have been inconspicuous for centuries, have their stories of a better time to tell. The Julii were said to have been descended from Iulus, an early Latin King who was the son of the Trojan prince Aeneas, who distinguished himself in the Trojan War. Like many Homeric heroes, Aeneas had a divine parent: his mother was Aphrodite/Venus, goddess of sexual desire, but fortunately her Roman counterpart, Venus, was a far more respectable dame who presided over the lovely green and growing things of planted fields and orchards.
Vergil, the greatest of Roman poets, paid tribute to the emperor’s ancestry in his unfinished masterpiece, the Aeneid, which tells the story of the fall of Troy, the troubles of the wandering Trojans, and their arrival in Latium, where Aeneas had to fight a second war before he could establish his people—and their gods—in Italy and marry the local princess. But Vergil had a long apprenticeship before setting out to rival Homer. His first important work was a collection of bucolic poems the Eclogues. Although the Eclogues have a serious theme—the revival of Italy after a century of civil wars, the poems are, on the surface, the usual trifles of bucolic poetry—lovesick shepherds engage in singing contests. He would tackle the agricultural crisis in a more serious work, the Georgics, but there is one odd poem in the volume, the Fourth Eclogue.
The 4th Eclogue has engendered more speculation and wild theories than any other stretch of 60 odd lines in ancient literature, and I have my own. Let us first look at what we know. Written in 40 BC partly to honor the consul of that year Asinius Pollio. Pollio was important to Vergil, as governor of Cisalpine Gaul P. had befriended the young poet whose farm had been taken away and awarded to a veteran. P. arranged for the farm to be restored the farm. Pollio important to Octavian. A distinguished officer who became one of Caesar’s most trusted officers, had drifted onto the side of Antony, who had him appointed governor. When Octavian and Antony quarreled, Pollio was replaced as governor. When war was breaking out between the two masters of the universe, Pollio mediated successfully and was rewarded with the consulship.
Appealing to the Muses of Sicily—presumably because Sicily was home to Theocritus, the master of bucolic verse, Vergil announces that he has a loftier theme in mind: a new order of the ages, peace and plenty will reign, war and commerce will come to an end, all because a wonderful child is being born in Pollio’s consulship. Although another round of violence will take place—another Trojan War is in the offing—the time is at hand when a new Golden Age will arrive and the poet hopes he will live long enough to celebrate the child, grown into manhood, who will accomplish the work.
Who is the child? The most obvious candidate is the son born to Pollio, and in future years Asinius Gallus, an outspoken senator whose republican arrogance offended Tiberius, claimed it was about him. Seems excessive praise for the son of a second-tier magnate. Other candidates: Octavian had recently married Scribonia, who may have been pregnant at the time V. was writing the poem. Unfortunately the child turned out to be a girl—Julia, the daughter whose sexual antics would give Octavian so much grief. I incline to this since this would 1) make the praise of the child’s heroic parent applicable to Octavian and 2) make sense of the reference, at the end, to heroes who mate with goddesses—as Anchises, father of Aeneas had. This would also make the reference to another Trojan War a graceful compliment to Italy’s ruler, whom the poet praised in the 1st Eclogue.
Whoever the child may be—perhaps no on in particular— poem reveals agony of world worn out with war and the hope that peace and prosperity (at least security) would be restored. The farm crisis was very real. Perhaps the reference to Trojan War reveals that Vergil is not fooled by the temporary reconciliation between the two dynasts and expects another major conflagration, but this time the Trojans will win (one assumes) under the divine leadership of Aeneas’ descendant.
In the Aeneid Vergil, even more than Livy, has created an enduring image of the good Roman. Pius Aeneas, faithful Aeneas, a somewhat secondary figure in the Iliad whose legend grew first by association with a ruling family in Troad, the Aeneadae, and secondly because story of his wandering was used in constructing local genealogies—as stories of Greek heroes were also used.
Aeneas is pius not only in leading his son by the hand and carrying his father on his back out of burning Troy, but he is also faithful in bringing his household gods to Italy. In book III (147-71), the “Phrygian penates” appear in a dream to reveal that the homeland he seeks is not in Crete, but in a western land known as Hesperia. This is not only his destination but the original homeland of the Trojans and their Penates. Thus the Cult of Magna Mater, adopted by the Julian gens in the Empire to celebrate their divine and heroic ancestry, could be regarded as native to Italy.
Just as Augustus was loyal to the memory of his adopted father Julius and acted as foster father to his grandsons Gaius and Lucius, and Marcellus the son of his sister Octavia. Like Aeneas, Augustus was pious in restoring the gods, but also like Aeneas, who had to defeat a woman’s dangerous passion (Dido) and a brave man’s homicidal fury (Turnus), Augustus had to defend the Roman order from Cleopatra—a passionate African queen like Dido—and the equally passionate and dissolute Antony.
Augustus came to power at the end of a 13-year struggle with Antony, but open civil war had plagued Italy since the beginning of the First Century, and civil strife had torn apart the Romans and Italians since the Punic Wars. It was a weary world, as Vergil tells us in the 4th Eclogue, a world that expected a miraculous leader to transform it.
The young Octavian was an unlikely candidate. Sickly and immature, he was as dissolute as his rival Antony. Even before Actium, however, he had learned to rely on more mature friends: the Etruscan knight Maecenas, who was patron to both Horace and Vergil, Marcus Agrippa to whom he married his daughter, and his wife Livia.
From the Roman perspective, Augustus was a god-send if not a god. For almost a hundred years, the republic had been in a turmoil: wars between Marius and Sulla, the German invasion, the so-called social war that resulted from Rome’s refusal to treat her Italian allies on an equal footing, and--worst of all--the wars between Julius and Pompey, Antony and Octavian against Brutus and Cassius, and the final duel between Antony and Octavian. Small wonder if they breathed a sigh of relief and allowed Augustus to reconstruct the forms of the old republic, but with Octavian and his family playing the role formerly reserved to several dozen families of competing dynasts. It was as if the ruler had been reading Cicero whose De Officiis, remember, was written in 44, after Caesar’s murder and during the initial power struggle between Antony and the senate.
Omitted is a long discussion of Augustus' principate.
After a wild youth, Octavian was wise enough to realize that a revived political order would only work within a virtuous social order. Deploring the childless hedonism of the roman upper classes, he passed laws to punish the single state and to reward the procreation of children. He purged the senatorial order of its less respectable members and made it clear that his personal favor would only go to those who adhered to the old Roman virtues. Hard to estimate results. Much profligacy as shown by careers of daughter, Ovid, and upper classes under later Julio-Claudians. On other hand, the population in Italy did increase and very clear evidence of moral revival within 100 years. Probably most classes were not so degenerate as the imperial household or the senatorial aristocracy.
More important, perhaps, even than his political reorganization were the steps Augustus took to revive and restore Roman religion, building new temples such as the temple of Mars Ultor in the Forum of Augustus and restoring those fallen into ruin (82!). In the magnificent Ara Pacis (c.13) he paid tribute to the Pax romana he had brought the world. He also revived and refurbished ancient cults that had fallen into decay and made great show out of the Ludi Saeculares in 17.
The Emperor Augustus once said that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. On the literal level, certainly true. New forum with temple of Mars Ultor he had vowed, Ara Pacis, Theatre of Marcellus, the first version of the Pantheon of M. Agrippa (burned and rebuilt under Hadrian), baths libraries, splendid public buildings, to say nothing of the roads and aqueducts.
This statement might be applied also to Roman culture in general and even to its politics. The literature of the Augustan era has also suffered from the ravages of time. We have only a small portion (one fourth) of the enormous History written by Livy, while the works of other major historians (Asinius Pollio, Vergil’s patron, for example) have completely disappeared, but we do have most of the mature writings of Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius. Either Vergil or Horace would have made Augustan Rome one of the greatest ages of literature. Taken in total, what remains can only be compared with Fifth Century Athens and with nothing since.
Much of this literary activity was sponsored by important patrons close to the Princeps: Pollio and Maecenas, but Augustus himself took an active part in supporting both Horace and Vergil, and he seems to have prodded Vergil rather sharply into working on the Aeneid
There is a curious reluctance of Roman poets to write on epic themes. Horace and Propertius both have poems in which they claim they are not up to the task, and Vergil shows a similar reluctance. Why? Part of this is a literary tradition going back to Alexandria: Vergil was 43 when, after serving an apprenticeship writing about shepherds and farmers, he began work on the epic that guaranteed his fame as the greatest Latin poet. When he died 8 years later, the work was still unfinished, and he asked his literary executors to burn the manuscript. Wisely, they did not comply with his wish. In 23 Augustus prevailed upon him to read parts of the work to him, and it was Augustus who insisted on Vergil, not a well man, returning from Greece to Italy. He died in the port of Brindisi.
The story of the Aeneid is well-known to all educated people. The first half is framed by Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage and his arrival in Italy. Books two and three tell the story of the Fall of Troy and of the Trojan’s wanderings, while Book 4, often regarded as Vergil’s masterpiece, narrates the unhappy love affair between Dido and Aeneas. Aeneas is so smitten that he neglects his mission—to resettle his people in Italy—until the gods tell him to leave. Like most passionate women, Dido thinks he simply doesn’t love her and kills herself. Book V describes the funeral games given to honor Aeneas’ father Anchises who has died on the trip.
The second half of the work is devoted to the Trojan’s arrival in Latium and their fight to establish themselves there. Book 6, which concludes the first half, is thus the key point of transition from the wandering Trojans to the Trojans who are the founders of Rome. It is also a transition from the “Odyssean” (the travel adventures) part of the work to the Iliad part (another Trojan War). Not surprisingly for a work filled with Homeric echoes and allusions, Vergil turns to Odysseus’ descent to the underworld as his model.
Like Odysseus, Aeneas descends into Hell to gain information about the future and like Odysseus, he runs into old acquaintances—Greek heroes who fear him, Dido who hates him, and like Odysseus he does find out something of his mission, but not from a prophet or seer but from his own father. There are other differences. Vergil’s account shimmers with mystical and philosophical implications and, as we shall see, is really not at all about Aeneas’ future at all, but about the Roman people.
Everything in Book 6 is significant, even the setting: Cumae, a Greek colony on the Bay of Naples. Vergil knew the area well and studied philosophy there. It played an important in Octavian’s rise to power—site of his naval base in war against Sextus Pompey, son of PM, who was a serious threat. Cumae was home to the Sibyl, whose prophetic books had been acquired by the Roman Republic. The Sibyl not only foretold the future, as did the priestess of the Delphic Orace, but she used necromancy—summoned souls of dead for information. Even before reaching the Sibyl’s cave, there are strange events—his helmsman and trumpeter have both died, one from negligence, the other from arrogance. Is the point that Aeneas has conquered these vices? His concern for their burial is another reflection of his pietas.
It is the Sibyl who tells Aeneas he must descend to Hell, though Anchises had already given the same instructions. First he has to find the mysterious Golden Bough. Dead in life, like mistletoe—a plant worshipped by Celts and Germans. Vergil came from Celtic region of Italy and may have had some Celtic blood, as used to be thought before all talk of ethnic background was made taboo. Name, however, seems to connects him with the Etruscans, who also had obsession with afterlife.
Important to remember that Vergil was always a serious student of philosophy and intended to give up poetry to devote himself to loftier studies. Vergil had begun his studies with an Epicurean teacher, but as he developed hi seems interested in metaphysics and theology, and we know that Platonism and Pythagoreanism were both in vogue (as was Epicurus) in Naples. Only overt philosophy is in VI where Aeneas shown souls waiting to be reborn. The passage is inspired by the Myth of Er in Plato’s Republic and had already been imitated in Cicero’s Republic, where Scipio has a dream of the other world. Of course, the source for Plato’s belief in transmigration of souls was the earlier philosopher Pythagoras, whose school in southern Italy was still influential.
It is impossible to tell if Vergil is serious as a Platonist, but his use of material is clever, even brilliant. Both Plato and Cicero introduced the story of reincarnation as part of a discussion of a just commonwealth, and Cicero’s reflections were pointed directly at how to reestablish the Roman Republic—a job that late in life he hoped to entrust to Octavian, who agreed to his murder. In the Aeneid, the souls waiting to be reborn are, of course, not just any souls but the souls of future Romans.
At this point a reader should remember the beginning. Vergil announces his theme as arma virumque—arms, defensive arms, and the man, who driven by fate came to Italy to found a city and bring his gods. About to land in Carthage, his fleet is wrecked by Juno, who hates the Trojans. And here is finally the point in line 33:
Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem. (So great an effort was required to found the Roman race.)
So the story of Aeneas is really the story of Roman race, and unlike Odysseus, who sees the past in the Underworld and is only told of his own future, Aeneas is treated to the spectacle of the Roman history that is to come. Vergil is clearly influenced by some very Roman traditions. At funerals and celebrations, Romans carried images of their ancestors, and this historical pageantry, so characteristic of the Roman as opposed to the Greek mind, is reflected in relief sculpture of the imperial period and in the endless sequence of historical busts on display in forums and other public places—now suitably displayed at the Capitoline Museum.
Before he can see the future heroes of Rome, Aeneas is allowed to glimpse the torments of Hell reserved for great sinners, not just mythological villains like Ixion but even the hero Theseus who presumed to steal Persephone, queen of Hell. The cult of Persephone still very strong in Sicily and Southern Italy, and even today processions for the Virgin bring Proserpina, the maiden seized by a God, to mind. On a more moral note, Aeneas sees those who hated their brothers, struck a father, tricked a dependent into wrong, spent all their property without leaving it to heirs, committed adultery, or engaged in war against their own country. This is, I would suggest, a complete portrait of the moral life of Rome in the 1st century BC, the sinful Rome that has departed from the ways of the Roman past that Augustus is reviving.
Aeneas finally finds his father who shows him “the coming glory of the Dardanian line.” (756 ff.): Silvius, Aeneas’ future son who will found Alba Longa, and his descendants, Romulus, descendant of Aeneas and son of Mars, founder of Rome. Under him glorious Rome will make her power equal to the whole earth and her proud courage to the heavens. Then, very significantly, Rome is compared with the Great Mother, the Phrygian-Syrian Goddess in her happy progress through the Phrygian cities. Then, significantly, is Caesar:
Hic Caesar et omnis Iuli
Progenies magnum caeli ventura sub axem.
Hic vir, hic est, tibi quem promitti saepius audis
Augustus Caesar, Divi genus, aurea condet
Saecula qui rursus Latio regnata per arva
Whatever Vergil may have intended in the 4th Eclogue—though I think he clearly had Augustus in mind—here he makes it clear that the Golden Age will be restored by Julius’ adopted son.
Now that the connection between Aeneas and Augustus has been made, we return to early history—to the Roman kings and the Tarquins, the heroic families of the Decii, Drusi, Manlii Torquati, the Scipios and Gracchi, the Fabii.
“Oh, Roman, to rule the nations with they sway, these shall be thine arts—to crown peace with law, to spare the humbled and to tame in war the proud” (851 ff). Vergil’s world, however, is not untouched by tragedy. After this lofty proclamation, a noble youth with downcast face is seen: Marcellus, of a noble race but doomed to die. When Vergil read this passage to Augustus, his sister Octavia was present and she broke down in tears, hearing of her son who had died earlier that very year.
The system that Augustus put in place survived even the wickedness of his successors—Caligula and Nero—and was preserved or revived by competent emperors such as his stepson Tiberius, Vespasian, and the so-called five good emperors but even tough guys like Septimius Severus and Aurelian had a selfless sense of public good that goes back to the Augustan principate.
The Augustan principate was not the Kingdom of God nor the Christan Church, but it was about the best empire that anyone had yet managed to establish and in some form it endured down to 476 in the West and down to 1453 in Constantinople. Romanitas remained an enduring ideal: a civilization of disciplined soldiers and statesmen, who did their duty, exercised power through the rule of law and built things to last.
Here, then, are two visions of history, from the point of view of two kingdoms: The Kingdom of Man in this world, set aright by a wise emperor, and the Kingdom of God proclaimed by the Son of God who had rejected this world as one of the temptations offered by Satan. The Church and the Empire were to influence each other profoundly; sometimes through conflict, but more often by imitation. Much of the Church’s structure is a reflection of the Roman order restructured by Diocletian, the worst of the persecutors, but the vision of political order that inspired the heirs of Constantine and Theodosius was an empire in which the Church played the spiritual and moral role once assigned to pagan religion and the emperors themselves retained much of their old religious authority. The contest that resulted would play out in different ways in the Byzantine Empire and in the struggle between Popes and Holy Roman Emperors. It cannot be said that it has ever been resolved. Victory for either side usually has disastrous consequences. It is the tension between the two kingdoms, the two thrones, that may be the nearest to an ideal social order that man is capable of.