Art and Literature in Augustan Rome
Art and Literature in Augustan Rome
The beginning of this time period comes with the death of Julius Caesar and the rise to power of his nephew, Octavius. He was in the Second Triumvirate that was formed to maintain order in Rome. Octavian, Marcus Lepidus, and Marc Antony ruled formally unlike the informal triumvirate of Julius Caesar. The triumvirate set out to execute members of the conspiracy against Julius Caesar. In 42 BC, Brutus and Cassius were finally defeated. In the following years the triumvirate diminished. In 36 BC, Lepidus retired. Marc Antony began to have affairs with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. These affairs briefly came to a pause when Antony married Octavian’s sister Octavia.
Marc Antony later returns to Egypt and marries Cleopatra. This causes Octavian and Antony to break out into war. He then takes his great-uncles name of Augustus and claims his leadership over Rome by defeating Mark Antony. Much art and literature was dedicated to the support of Augustus, which helped to bring together his empire. The Aeneid is an example of such propaganda in favor of Augustus, which people often find parallels between Aeneas and Augustus. In order for Augustus to maintain his newly gained power he uses such art and literature to influence his people. This form of media, which propaganda was a key part, plays an important role in his plan to maintain power.
Augustus, known first to history as Gaius Octavius, was born in 63 BC. His relation to Julius Caesar comes from his grandmother Julia, who was Caesar’s sister. His great-uncle encourages him, for he sees talent in him, and even puts him in his will as his successor, along with three quarters of his estate. In 44 BC Caesar is assassinated and Augustus heads to Rome to pay his respects and to take his throne. He has to battle against Mark Antony, who was one of Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants.
After ultimately causing Antony and his second wife Cleopatra to commit suicide, Augustus returns to Rome as the undisputed master of both east and west. Augustus ruled by patronage, military power, and accumulation of the offices. He was a sole ruler of Rome, which in result became known as the Roman Empire. The Senate became docile to Augustus and allowed him to have control. He gained the people’s support by funding various poets and artisans, who in exchange glorified him in their work. This use of the arts, is example to Augustus’ use of political propaganda through art and literature.
The writer of the Aeneid, Virgil, was a part of the circle of artists and poets supported by the wealthy patron Maecenas, who was close to Augustus. This gave him the freedom to spend most of his time writing. Since Virgil was writing under a patron close to the emperor, his stories had an element of political propaganda. He tied the life of Aeneas in the Aeneid, to that of Augustus, legitimizing the position of monarch and pleasing the emperor. This story was extremely popular in Rome and Aeneas was seen as the model citizen, so you can see why the connection to Augustus could work as a sort of propaganda. The Aeneid is interpreted by some, to validate the “golden age” and the restoration of the republic that Augustus had claimed to have done. It is a form of positive propaganda for Augustus, portraying him in a positive light for all of Rome to read.
The most obvious connection between Aeneas and Augustus was their roles as founders. Aeneas founded the Roman Empire in the Aeneid and Augustus re-founded the empire after it had begun to fall apart after Caesar’s assassination and the subsequent battle for total power. In Book Six, Aeneas is shown a prophecy of the coming greatness of Rome, in a clear reference to Augustus’ rule. Another example is that the poem also served in Augustus’s attempts to re-introduce Roman values into Roman society, including reverence for the gods.
Aeneas continually showed reverence to the gods, just as he did when he left Dido because it was the god’s will. The poem continues to reflect these ideals by portraying Aeneas not as a man motivated by personal gain, but a man motivated by his love and loyalty to his country, people and gods. For Romans the Aeneid is seen as something mystical, which it may be, but for Augustus it is just another example of his use of literature and art as propaganda.
Augustus also united the Empire through his use of the arts as a form of self-promotion and to promote the themes of his administration, such as peace, allegiance to Rome, and respect for tradition. He visually improved the city by constructing new buildings that were worthy of the powerful Empire. He made art into the materialization of Roman government which was an idea continued by his descendants and was declared a god. He knew that he had to portray his greatness in all the aspects of his subjects’ lives, including the arts. Three examples of such art are the Ara Pacis, the Temple of Mars, and the Res Gestae Divi Augustus.
The Ara Pacis was made to honor the triumphal return from Spain and Gaul of Augustus and to celebrate the peace established by his victories. The Temple of Mars was constructed in Rome, to give thanks to the god for his victory over the assassins of his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar. The Res Gestae Divi Augustus, is the first-person record of Augustus’ life and accomplishments. It is to show the greatness of Augustus and how he wanted it to be portrayed to his Roman people. These three pieces of art were very important in helping Augustus maintaining his power.
Augustus’ use of art and literature as propaganda to influence his people was his way of keeping hold of his power. He was aware, as example of his great-uncle, that keeping power as a Roman Leader wasn’t easy. Even from the very beginning of his climb to power, when he had to fight for his throne against Mark Antony, he realized that his reign would come with some struggle. Which is why once he obtained complete control he used the works of artisans and poets to pay homage to himself and to influence the people of Rome to see Augustus in a favorable light. Just as Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid was extremely influential, not only to the people of the time of Augustan Rome, but also to many generations afterward.
Augustus’ support created a “golden age” of literature even if much of it was a sort of propaganda. It is easy to understand why many other monarchs would strive to be like Augustus and to immortalize themselves in the arts and literature of their time as he once did. For he was an outstanding military leader, an excellent overseer of many public works, as well as being the leader during the longest period of peace and prosperity that Rome has ever experienced. Not only did he do all of this, but he also was extremely successful in his use of art and literature propaganda to influence the people around him. It not only gained him the support of the people of Rome, but it helped to unite his empire, as well as allowing him to live forever, not in a human body, but in the threads and strokes of all the works dedicated to him.
Subject: Roman Empire,
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 3 October 2016
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