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Eva March Tappan

Augustus and the Augustan Age

The young Octavianus, who became emperor of Rome, was only nineteen at the time of Julius Cæsar's death. Antony treated him at first as if he were a pettish child crying for a toy; but he soon found that this boy was as shrewd and wary as if he had had fifty years of experience. Not long after the Second Triumvirate had been formed, an excuse was found for dropping Lepidus. The Roman world was now in the hands of Antony and Octavianus. They agreed that Antony should rule the East and Octavianus the West. Antony set out for the East to put his realm in order; but there he met Cle-o-pa'tra, the beautiful queen of Egypt. He divorced his wife, Octavianus's sister, and this ruler of half the world spent his time feasting and hunting and amusing himself with Cleopatra. The Romans were amazed. Next they heard that Antony was putting on the airs of an eastern king. There were rumors that he meant to establish a kingdom, take Al-ex-an'dri-a for his capital, and from there go forth to conquer Rome. Then the Romans were angry, and they very willingly followed Octavianus to make war against him. He was soon overpowered in the naval battle of Ac'ti-um, off the coast of Greece, and both he and Cleopatra took their own lives.


Fete at the Court of Cleopatra.

Octavianus was master of the world, but he behaved as if he never dreamed of holding such a position. He called himself simply "Im-pe-ra'tor," from which our word emperor is derived. This was a military title which meant about the same as commander. He never spoke of his success in the East as a victory over Antony, but always as an eastern war. He was consul, and he voted in the senate, as other consuls had done. When he laid down his consulship, the senate gave him the title of Au-gus'tus, meaning little more than "Your Majesty."

For fifty years there had been no firm, settled government. The Romans were tired of confusion, and they wanted peace and quiet. Octavianus, or Augustus, was able to give them peace and quiet, and there was no one else in Rome who could do this, and there was no one else who had any better right to rule than he. Best of all, he did not seem to have any ambition for himself. So far as they could see, he aimed at nothing more than doing his best for the state. He was kind and friendly to every one. He lived in a house which was no handsomer than the dwellings of other men of wealth. At public feasts he wore a purple robe; but at other times his dress was not different from that of the other citizens. Indeed, it was said that his toga was woven by his wife.

But Augustus was a keen observer. He had noticed that people were not easily disturbed by changes in the government, provided the old forms were kept up. He knew perfectly well that if he should attempt to call himself "king," Rome would be in a fury, and he would probably lose his life before many days had passed. He knew, too, that it would not be a difficult matter to take, one by one, the different powers of a king without any one's feeling disturbed. He became princes, or first senator, and pontifex maximus, or chief priest. "Imperator" came to mean commander-in-chief of all the Roman forces on land and sea. Probably some people noticed that Augustus was continually taking new powers; but he seemed to do it merely as a convenience, and often suggested that part of them should be left to others. He was apparently so willing to give them up that there was little chance for any one to feel alarmed. In this way it came about that he was head of the army, the navy, the senate, the people, and the religion. He had all the powers of a king.

How did he use his power? He repaired temples and other public buildings, and he built many more. He made just laws. He taught the people to attend strictly to the neglected worship of the gods. The people in Rome almost worshiped him; and as for the provincials, they dedicated temples to him as if he were a god. One can hardly wonder at the devotion of these provincials. They had had many governors almost as bad as Verres, who cared for nothing but to get as much money from them as possible; but this Augustus took an interest in them. All the governors were carefully watched, and every provincial could tell any grievance to the emperor, and find him ever ready to listen. It did not take the various governors long to learn that if they were unjust, they would be punished, and that, no matter how large their fortunes might be, there was no hope of bribing this judge. It is said that one day when Augustus was out sailing, a Greek ship came close to his vessel, and the sailors began to offer up a sacrifice to him. "You have given us happiness," they said; "you have made our lives and our property safe."


Gladiators Going to Circus.

Augustus thought that the dominions of Rome were large enough; but he wanted to have natural boundaries, mountains, rivers, and deserts, as far as possible. He hoped to keep the Elbe River for part of his northern boundary, but the tribes rebelled against Va'rus, their governor. They destroyed his army and tortured their prisoners. This was such a grief to Augustus that he is said to have called out even in his dreams, "O Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" His wars were generally to suppress tribes already partly conquered or to put down rebellions, rather than to make new conquests.


The Ruins of the Colosseum.

A Roman ruler was expected not only to govern his subjects and to protect the country, but also to amuse the people. Nothing was so entertaining to the Romans as the shows in which gladiators fought with one another or with wild beasts. Augustus provided this amusement most lavishly. He obtained wild beasts by the hundred and gladiators by the thousand. The Romans watched the contests with the greatest delight. After one gladiator had vanquished another, the victor stood beside his victim, knife in hand, and looked up to the spectators to see what should be done with him. If the man had fought bravely, they stretched out their hands with the thumbs up; but if he had seemed to them cowardly or unskillful, the thumbs were pointed down. This meant "Kill him!" and in a moment the bloody knife was thrust into the conquered man. Of course the Romans, both men and women, became more and more brutal. The loss of a human life was nothing to them if they were only entertained.


(Enlarged from a Gem.)

So it was that the state provided amusement for the people. It also provided bread. For more than a hundred years, the laws had allowed every citizen to buy grain at half price or even less. It is thought that at this time half the dwellers in the city received their bread this way. Some, of course, really needed the help; but others seemed to have no self-respect in the matter, and preferred to receive their food as a charity rather than work for it.


King Midas's Daughter Turned into Gold.

Augustus cared a great deal about good literature. Authors cannot write very well when they are afraid of losing their heads any day; but with a strong, kind ruler who kept the land peaceful and was deeply interested in their work, they did their best. It was in this reign that Virgil lived, who wrote about the adventures of Æneas. The name of Æneas's son Ascanius was said to have been changed to I-u'lus, or Julius, after he reached Italy; and Augustus liked to think that Julius Cæsar and he himself were among his descendants. Hor'ace lived at that time, and wrote charming and graceful poems. He did not attempt to tell stories, like Virgil, but he understood so well how people think and feel that his poems seem as if they might have been written yesterday. Another poet was Ov'id, who wrote the old tales of the gods, such as the story of King Mi'das, who received the "golden touch," the stealing of Pro-ser'pi-na by Plu'to, the attempt of Dæd'a-lus and his son to make wings and fly, and many others. Liv'y was another of the famous authors of the day. He wrote a history of Rome, much of which is as interesting as any story book.

These were the best of the Latin writers, and therefore the times of Augustus are called the Golden Age, and also the Augustan Age, of Latin literature. This reign might be called "Golden" for another and a greater reason. The Romans had carried on warfare with hardly a break for seven hundred years; but during the times of Augustus, there were three periods of peace, and it was during one of these that Jesus was born in the far-away province of Ju-dæ'a, in the little town of Beth'le-hem.


Antony and Octavianus rule the world. — Antony in Egypt. — Octavianus becomes imperator, princeps, and pontifex maximus. — His kindness to the provincials. — The rebellion against Varus. — The gladiatorial shows. — Bread given to the people. —Virgil. — Horace. — Ovid. — Livy. — The birth of Jesus.