The Golden Age of Latin Literature under Augustus

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The Golden Age of Latin Literature Under Augustus

New Climate of Opinion.

The civil war—which started when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in 49 b.c.e. and ended when Caesar's heir, Octavian, defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c.e.—ended the era of literature of the late republic and started the Augustan Age. The poet Horace fought as a staff officer (tribune) in the army of Brutus and Cassius, but he was no diehard defender of the Roman republic. He returned to Italy after the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 b.c.e., and made his peace with the new regime. The poet Tibullus personally had no taste for war, as he tells us in two poems which celebrate the victories of his patron Messala, and Propertius preferred to write about the love of his life whom he called Cynthia—her real name was Hostia and she was a beautiful courtesan—but since he belonged to the circle of writers who were supported by Augustus' unofficial minister of propaganda, Maecenas, he was called upon to eulogize Augustus' exploits and excused himself as gracefully as he could. Vergil, the greatest of the Augustan writers, had no hankering for the old Roman republic, having seen first-hand how it misruled the provinces, for he was born in one. Ovid was born the year after Julius Caesar was murdered and never knew the free-wheeling days of the republic when writers could write what they pleased, but he learned that an author under the principate—as Augustus' regime was called—failed at his peril to respect certain limits to his freedom. When Ovid was about fifty years old, Augustus exiled him to Tomis on the Black Sea in modern Rumania. Augustus' successor, Tiberius, did not recall him and he died there. The reasons for his exile are obscure, but one of them may have been a playful poem he wrote titled The Art of Love which is a witty poetic instruction manual on how to seduce women.

Vergil's Eclogues.

A group of minor poems have survived which have been considered Vergil's early works, and one of them, the Culex (The Gnat) is an epyllion worthy of Vergil. The poem describes how a shepherd is wakened from a nap by a mosquito, which he kills only to discover that a venomous snake is about to strike him; the mosquito had sacrificed its life to warn him in time. Some scholars accept the Culex as Vergilian, but the earliest works that are certainly written by him are his Bucolics (Poems of the Countryside), otherwise known as his Eclogues (Select Poems). There are ten of them, and two—the first and the ninth—have been thought to be autobiographic, for they deal with the land confiscations after the Battle of Philippi, when Octavian expropriated land in the region of Cremona and Mantua to settle demobilized soldiers. Vergil's family estate was expropriated and the first Eclogue tells how a freedman, Tityrus, had his little farm restored to him. There are problems with this interpretation, and it is more probable that Vergil's intent in both his first and ninth Eclogues was to make known the disruption and injustice caused by the land expropriations. The fourth poem, the so-called "Messianic" Eclogue hails the expected birth of a child who will usher in a new age. The identity of this child has been much disputed, and later Christian commentators interpreted the poem as a prophecy of Christ's birth. It could be a child expected by Octavian; when Eclogue Four was written in 40 b.c.e. he was still married to his second wife Scribonia by whom he had his only child, a daughter Julia. But if so, the child whose birth Vergil foretold was never born. In the Eclogues, the influence of Theocritus is clear, but it was Vergil who invented Arcadia—not the Arcadia in central Greece but an imaginary Arcadia where shepherds and cowherds sang and loved and lived a life far removed from the turmoil of the city. In the literary tradition of Europe, it was Vergil, not Theocritus, who invented pastoral poetry.

The Georgics.

The Georgics (On Land Cultivation) is a didactic poem written at the behest of Maecenas who gathered about him a cluster of writers and tried to harness their talents for the benefit of Octavian. Restoring agriculture in Italy after civil war was a vital concern, and though the Georgics is the most polished verse that Vergil ever produced, it is propaganda. It also brought didactic poetry to a new height. The subject of the first book is the crops and the signs for good and bad weather. The second discusses vineyards and olive orchards, the third stockbreeding, the last beekeeping. Vergil worked on the poem for seven years and somehow manages to make plain passages about plowing, planting, and beekeeping interesting.

Rome's National Epic.

Augustus wanted a heroic poem, an epic that could be compared without apology to the Greek poet Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey overshadowed the works of Roman poets. Of the prominent Roman poets of the day, only Vergil answered the call, producing the Aeneid. It has been justly admired from its own time to the present day. Even while it was being written, the poet Propertius wrote that "something greater than the Iliad is being created"—a favorable review even before the publication date. It soon became the national epic of Rome, the Latin answer to Homer. It tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who escaped from the sack of Troy and arrived in Italy, bringing with him his household gods and winning a space in Latium for himself and his descendants. The Romans were familiar with the myth. Aeneas' son Ascanius founded Alba Longa, the royal houses of which spawned Romulus, founder of Rome. Old Roman families called themselves "Trojan-born," which was the equivalent of claiming ancestors that came over on the Mayflower. Julius Caesar's family, the Iulii, made the claim, and the emperor Augustus was Caesar's great-nephew and his adoptive son. Julian tradition told that Aeneas had a son, Iulus, who was the first ascendant of the family. Vergil identifies Iulus with Ascanius by claiming that Iulus was Ascanius' other name. Thus Augustus was a descendant of Aeneas, and the story of Aeneas shed a glow of legitimacy over the emperor and his dynasty. Aeneas' struggle to establish his Trojans in Latium paralleled Augustus' struggle to bring peace and prosperity to the empire after the generation of civil war that destroyed the old Roman republic.

The Aeneid.

For the first half of the Aeneid, Vergil took Homer's Odyssey as his model and the Iliad for the second half, purposely inviting comparisons. For instance, the character of Aeneas is a warrior from the Trojan War who must endure a long and troubled journey following the end of the war, much like the character of Odysseus from the Odyssey. Unlike Odysseus, however, Aeneas is actually fleeing his home, having fought on the side of the Trojans. With a ship full of survivors, including his son and his father, he flees Troy for Italy, where it is his destiny to found Rome. The reality of his destiny does not procure for him an easy passage, however; a tempest tosses Aeneas' little fleet up on the shores of Carthage, which has just been founded by queen Dido. Dido welcomes Aeneas and his Trojans and gives them a royal banquet, which parallels Odysseus' landing on the shore of Phaeacia and his welcome by the Phaeacian king and queen. As with the banquet scene in the Odyssey, Vergil related what had happened previous to the Trojans' landing at Carthage as a "flashback" sequence in which Aeneas relates to the Carthaginians the fall of Troy, including the famous story of how the Greeks finally penetrated the city walls. The Greeks had built a large wooden horse, left it outside the city gates, and then pretended to depart for home. The Trojans were told by a Greek pretending to be an escaped slave that the horse was a gift from the gods and if they took it within the city walls, their city would never be taken. Tricked by his story, the Trojans did indeed take the horse into their city, not knowing that contained in its hollow belly was a group of Greek soldiers waiting for nightfall to open the gates for the Greek forces outside. That night the Greek forces came out of hiding and sacked the city. So famous is this tale that the "Trojan Horse" has become an enduring symbol for trickery and duplicity. The Trojans fought with the courage of despair, but when resistance proved futile, Aeneas followed the orders of the gods to leave. The story of how he hoisted his crippled father Anchises on to his shoulder and escaped from Troy was already famous in Rome. Aeneas got away safely with his father, his little son Ascanius, and his household gods, but his wife Creusa was lost. Aeneas returned to Troy to seek her, but her ghost told him to be on his way—a new home awaited him in Italy. Like Odysseus, Aeneas endured hardship and loss during his journey by sea; he lost his father in Sicily, and a storm blew them onto the shore of Carthage in Africa. As with Odysseus and the Phaeacians, Dido and her people are moved by the sad tale of Aeneas and the Trojans, and the two peoples appear prepared to settle down together. Dido and Aeneas begin an affair, but the gods perceive the romance as a threat to Aeneas' destiny and order him to leave Carthage for Italy; the plot development closely resembles the gods' ordering of the nymph Calypso to release her lover, Odysseus, so he can return home. Neither of these powerful female characters wanted to let go of their lovers, and Dido stages a dramatic suicide at Aeneas' departure by building a funeral pyre for herself out of Aeneas' discarded possessions and killing herself in its fires. Dido's death is evidence of a Roman belief that romantic love was a poison which disrupted betrothals and family alliances; in Rome, marriage was a business deal worked out by the parents of the bride and groom, and among well-born Romans it involved property. Love induced irrational behavior and led to unsuitable marriages. Aeneas' rejection of his lover is also evidence of the Roman emphasis on duty over emotional ties; Aeneas is devoted to duty—the usual epithet that Vergil applies to him is pius which means more than its English derivative "pious." It means god-fearing, dutiful, and even compassionate.

Destiny in Italy.

While Aeneas did not lose nearly as many fellow travelers as Odysseus, he is forced to leave behind the women of his party in Sicily after the travel-weary women set fire to the ships in an attempt to prevent their leaving the island. Thus the Trojan settlers in Italy will be men only, which means that they will have to find Italian women for their mates. Aeneas is aware that their settlement in Italy will necessitate another war similar to the Trojan War, but he sees it as his destiny to be on the winning side this time when he visits the Underworld and sees the ghosts of the future builders of Rome. The last six books describe the fight in Italy between the native Rutulians and the immigrant Trojans, and Vergil switches his narrative model to the Iliad. Aeneas arrives at the future site of Rome, and there meets King Latinus who has been told by an oracle to marry his daughter Lavinia to someone who is not a native of the country. Although the king is amenable to Lavinia's marriage to Aeneas, the queen, Amata, is not; she favors the prince of the Rutulians, Turnus, and the rivalry between Turnus and Aeneas sparks a war between the two peoples. After much bloodshed, the war is decided by hand-to-hand combat between the two suitors in which Aeneas kills Turnus.


introduction: Literature in ancient Rome often served the purpose of the state as propaganda. In 30 b.c.e, the Roman poet Vergil began his epic work The Aeneid in response to the emperor Augustus' call for a poem to glorify his regime that could be compared without embarrassment with the works of the Greek poet Homer: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Using those texts as models, Vergil related the story of the founding of Rome, using the Trojan hero Aeneas as its legendary founder. Although still unfinished at the time of Vergil's death in 19 b.c.e., the work became Rome's national epic, glorifying the Roman Empire's establishment by the "blood, sweat and tears" of Rome's ancestors. In Book 6 of The Aeneid, Vergil relates the story of the descent of Aeneas into the Underworld where he meets the ghost of his father Anchises who shows him the souls of Romans yet to be born. As Anchises concludes this pageant of Rome's history, he proclaims the unique mission of the Roman Empire in the following lines.

Others, I do not doubt it, will beat bronze into figures that breathe more softly. Others will draw living likenesses out of marble. Others will plead cases better or describe with their rod the courses of the stars across the sky and predict their risings. Your task, Roman, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world with your empire. These will be your arts—and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud.

source: Vergil, The Aeneid. Book 6. Trans. David West (London: Penguin Classics, 1990): 159.

Assessment of a Great Poem.

Vergil's Aeneid became the national epic of the Roman Empire. The poet drew from various literary influences for his creation, particularly Homer. Vergil also drew upon the Argonautica of the Hellenistic poet Apollonius of Rhodes. Vergil's Dido owes something to Apollonius' Medea. Vergil was conversant with Alexandrian poetry; his Eclogues draw their inspiration from Theocritus and the Aeneid also draws inspiration from Alexandria even though its model was Homer. Finally there was Ennius, Rome's first epic poet to use the dactylic hexameter from whom Vergil borrowed heavily for his knowledge of primitive Italy. The Aeneid no doubt celebrates the Roman Empire, Augustus' contribution to it, and the courage and self-sacrificing toil of Rome's founders. Yet he also pities the people trampled underfoot by Rome's growth to power. Turnus and Dido both engage our sympathies, whereas Aeneas can be remarkably brutal, and his epithet pius (dutiful) is a trifle chilling. In the end, it is clear that the Trojans will be assimilated. Aeneas has brought his gods from Troy and plans them to be the gods of Rome, but the god Jupiter makes it clear that he will decide what gods the Romans will worship. Aeneas, who is an Asian immigrant, will start the historical process that results in the Roman Empire, but he will lose his native culture, and his descendants will be purely Italian.


Quintus Horatius Flaccus was the son of an ex-slave who saw to it that his son received a good education in Rome and then managed to send him to Athens. These were the heady days after Julius Caesar's assassination, and Horace was caught up in the enthusiasm among the Romans studying in Athens for the republican cause and joined the army raised by Marcus Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar. The defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi understandably quenched his enthusiasm, so he returned to Italy, got a low-paying clerical post in the government, and began writing. Some of his Epodes, belong to this period. They got their name from their meter which the Greek lyric poet Archilochus had invented, for almost all of them have a long line followed by a shorter one, for which the technical name was an epoide (after-song). Sometime before the Battle of Actium he was introduced to Octavian's minister in charge of molding public opinion, Maecenas, and his poverty-stricken days came to an end. It was Maecenas who suggested that he put together a collection of his Epodes. About 35 b.c.e. he brought out a collection of satires, or as he titled them, sermones which can be translated not inaccurately as "chitchat." He was also experimenting with something new: an attempt to use the meters of the Lesbian poets Alcaeus and Sappho. Although the poet Catullus had tried his hand at the Sapphic stanza, Horace could claim to be original because his subject matter was his own. The first three books of his Odes—or as he called them, his carmina (songs)—took seven years to compose, and they were published about 23 b.c.e. He followed them up with his Epistles, so called because they purport to be versified letters to various recipients. He addressed one to his farm manager,' for Maecenas had given him a farm in Sabine country not far from Rome. Horace advised his manager to be content with what he had. The emperor Augustus, who liked Horace and wrote him frequently, urged him to write more in praise of the imperial house, and in response he added a fourth book to his Odes and also produced a long hymn for the Secular Games of 17 b.c.e. The Games were not "secular" in the modern sense, for the word comes from the Latin saeculum, meaning "century," so "Centennial Celebrations" might be a better way of describing the festivities of that year. The hymn is called the Carmen Saeculare and it is not Horace at his best. Horace wrote another long poem which is famous: the third book of his Epistles which is taken up entirely with his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). It is a nice example of didactic poetry but its content is not original, for Horace followed a treatise written by a Hellenistic author, Neoptolemus of Parion.

Propertius, Tibullus, and Sulpicia.

Propertius, Tibullus, and Sulpicia all wrote love poems addressed to specific individuals whom they claim as objects of their devotion. Propertius addressed his poems to Cynthia and Tibullus to Delia. Sulpicia was a woman and the lover whom she addressed is a man, but otherwise she follows the conventions of this genre of poetry. Propertius belonged to Maecenas' circle, but Tibullus had another patron, Messalla. Both wrote in elegiac couplets that had been used for centuries in Greek literature and brought into Latin in the Augustan age. The pioneer of the genre was a friend of Vergil, Gaius Cornelius Gallus, who wrote four books of elegies to a mime actress whom he calls Lycoris; in real life, her name was Cytheris and she had a number of lovers, including Mark Antony. Gallus became prefect of Egypt, where he proved too independent for Augustus' regime; the Roman senate tried and condemned him, and he committed suicide. His political disgrace eclipsed his poetry. Tibullus left two books of elegies. In the first he addresses Delia, and in the second, a woman he called Nemesis. In Messalla's circle there was also a poetess, Sulpicia, probably Messalla's niece, who wrote six short poems addressed to a man whom she calls Cerinthus. They are little gems of frank passion. A more productive poet than either of these was Sextus Propertius, whose love was a woman he calls Cynthia. Maecenas noticed his little book of 22 elegies titled Cynthia and took him into his circle. Like the other poets in Maecenas' stable, Propertius was urged to help popularize the principate (the constitutional settlement of Augustus), but his heart was really with love poetry. Propertius is the most interesting of these writers of love elegies if we take the vicissitudes of his love-affair at face value. But we must not be too quick to infer autobiographical details from their poetry, for they were writing within well-defined conventions. Sincerity was not considered a virtue in Latin poetry, and when a poet claims to be dying of love, he may be expressing only a conventional emotion that was demanded by his art form. Sulpicia's poetry differs only in one way: usually women were the object of male desire in elegiac love poetry, but Sulpicia presents herself as a woman who desires a partner as much as any man does.



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Ovid was truly a man of letters. Sophisticated and technically brilliant, he wrote poetry effortlessly. Although not wealthy, he was sufficiently well-to-do to dispense with a patron and he remained outside the circles of Maecenas and Messalla. He began as an elegiac poet of love. His collection known as the Amores (Love Affairs) follows the examples of Tibullus and Propertius, for they tell of romantic encounters, but whereas the loves of those two writers probably existed, Ovid's lover, Corinna, probably did not exist outside literature. While he was writing the Amores he was working on a more ambitious work, the Heroides (Heroines), letters in verse by women of mythology addressed to their husbands or lovers. Among others, he imagines Dido writing to Aeneas, Ariadne writing Theseus from Naxos where he had abandoned her, and Medea writing Jason after she has learned of his plans to jilt her and marry the king of Corinth's daughter. Ovid then turned to didactic poetry, but his subject was not a respectable one like agriculture. Ovid wrote the Art of Love in three books, the first two instructing men in the art of seduction and the third showing women who planned to be courtesans how to make the most profit from their husbands. He followed this up with a fourth book, the Remedium Amoris, on how to fall out of love. Ovid's greatest work is undoubtedly his Metamorphoses (Changes of Shape). No one believed in the ancient legends anymore, but they were still subject matter for literature, and Ovid decided to string them together on the common theme of changes of shape. He retells myths that told how heroes and heroines changed their shapes, like Actaeon who was changed into a stag, or Alkyone who was changed into the halcyon bird. The resulting epic is a tapestry of myth, told with wit and all the tricks that an author versed in rhetoric could muster. Then came his exile. Augustus relegated him to Tomis, modern Costanza in Rumania, for reasons unknown. He burned his Metamorphoses, but fortunately copies were already in circulation and so it survived, though unfinished. Exile did not break Ovid, though he never saw his beloved Rome again. He wrote five books of Tristia (Poems of Sorrow)—the first book was complete before he reached Tomis. He continued these with his Letters from Pontus; "Pontus" was the name for the Black Sea. He wrote Ibis, an attack on an imaginary figure which was probably written as a psychological release, and a poem on the fish in the Black Sea. The major work of his exile was the Fasti, a versified Roman calendar of religious festivals. Ovid finished the first six months of the year and may have hoped that his interest in Roman religion would soften Augustus' heart. If that was his intent, he must have been disappointed in the result. Ovid died in exile.


The Augustan age had one prose writer of distinction, Titus Livius, known in English by the name Livy, who wrote a history of Rome from its foundation to his own day in 142 books. He was the type of historian who wrote to edify his readers, and the characters of his history were either heroes or villains. The most wholesome outcome of knowing history, he told his readers, was to have examples of every type of conduct so that a person could choose models to imitate with foreknowledge of what the results of their choices would be. He was not a careful researcher, but he had historians to consult who have been lost long ago, and that gives his work real value for the historian of the Roman republic. His history extends to the Roman triumph over the last king of Macedon, Perseus, in 167 b.c.e. His style is smooth and his characterization vivid, but his panorama of the Roman past is not an example of historical accuracy.


William S. Anderson, The Art of the Aeneid (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969).

David Armstrong, Horace (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).

D. Thomas Benediktson, Propertius: A Modernist Poet of Antiquity (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989).

Harold Bloom, ed., Vergil (New York: Chelsea House, 1986).

Francis Cairns, Tibullus: A Hellenistic Poet at Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

T. A. Dorey, ed., Livy (London, England: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971).

Jasper Griffin, Vergil (Bristol, England: Bristol Classical Press, 2001).

W. R. Johnson, Darkness Visible: A Study of Vergil's Aeneid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).

W. R. Johnson, "The Figure of Laertes," in Vergil at 2000; Commemorative Essays on the Poet and His Influence. Ed. John D. Bernard (New York: AMS Press, 1986), 85–105.

Sara Mack, Ovid (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988).

Alexander G. McKay, Vergil's Italy (New York: Graphic Society, 1970).

Niall Rudd, ed., Horace 2000: Essays for the Millenium (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1993).

David R. Slavitt, Vergil (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991).

—, trans., Propertius in Love: The Eclogues (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

J. P. Sullivan, Propertius: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).