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A brief summary of the Augustan Age and its contribution to the Golden Age of Latin
Italics refer to the associated images
The Golden Age of Latin literature had begun in Republican Rome in c.50 BC as Lucretius
wrote his de rerum natura and Julius Caesar his Gallic War self-aggrandizement, but
it continued into Augustus’ rule, until Ovid’s death in AD 14.
With Cicero’s proscribed death in 43 BC, oratory shrank back to being an educational
When Octavian won the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and was given the title Augustus
in 27 BC a new age dawned; now one sole emperor ruled the Roman world and, as civil
war ended, peace enabled writers to pen epic tales and love poetry took centre stage. Augustan
literature includes some of the best literature ever written.
Keeping in favour with the emperor and with his powerful friends and advisors was
the way forward; some of those friends were patrons of poets – Maecenas funded Virgil,
Horace and Propertius while Messalla provided financial security for Tibullus and
Ovid. It was a close community of writers, who acknowledged each other within their
The literary energy of the Golden Age continued, fed by access to new libraries,
wealthy patrons and the rich source of Greek and Hellenistic predecessors that educated
Romans were steeped in during their education. But now writers did something new;
Rome now rivalled the ‘captured Greeks who had taken captive [with her culture] her
wild conqueror’ (as Horace described Rome’s anguish at Greece’s superior cultural
past and influence).
Virgil wrote his pastoral idyllic Eclogues and ‘how to do farming’ Georgics and then
‘something greater than the Iliad is being born’ (Propertius ii.34), ie. the Aeneid. Magnificent
and epic in every sense, this 12-book masterpiece was an upstaging of Homer’s Iliad
and Odyssey combined, glorifying Rome’s rise from Aeneas’ flight and journey from
burning Troy to the embattled beginnings of Rome’s birth, all written in a double-focus
that continually reflected on the great destiny and power of ‘future’ (Augustan)
Rome and of Augustus in particular.
Love poetry was no less original in its treatment of its predecessors. Horace took
the old Greek metres and made them work to truly Roman sentiments in his Epodes,
Odes, satires/sermones and chatty epistles.
Meanwhile, Tibullus wallowed in tender love poetry celebrating a simple life while
Propertius scribed verses on the ecstasy, torment and humiliation of his five-year
infatuation with his ‘Cynthia’. All done in very Roman environments, with Roman
expectations and values.
This literature spread across the known (civilised) world, taking with it the glory
of Roman values of patriotism, pride in her achievements and her destiny of an imperium
sine fine (‘Empire without limit’ Virgil Aeneid 6) that was led by the divine Augustus. Virgil
was taught in school even on the northern frontier at Vindolanda (a schoolboy’s ‘lines’
of Virgil on a tablet there are marked seg ‘sloppy’ by his teacher). But Romans
aspired to being the best and greatest and to be remembered for all time, just as
their ancestors were – and if they couldn’t do it any longer by political success
(Augustus being the greatest), the poets still aimed at an immortality of their own. Non
omnis moriar (‘I shall not wholly die’) wrote Horace.
The previous Republican strivings for success in a military career and for political
glory were replaced in the poems by being soldiers in the battle of love and creating,
as Horace wrote of his poems, a monument ‘more lasting than bronze [inscriptions]’. And
the poets’ ambition and astonishing lack of humility were justified – here we are,
still reading their works, 2000 years later …
But politics did remain a theme, in a new submissive way now; poets gratefully thanked
their benefactors while also nodding to the Emperor and Rome’s power. Political
spin oozes from Virgil’s Aeneid but it also drips steadily from the love poets as
their love affairs are carried on in a world where barbarians are vanquished by Augustus
and Rome and where his glory must be proclaimed.
A wrong word (or whole book of wrong words) could be disastrous. Ovid was perhaps
the most influential of all Roman poets; as well as writing Latin love poetry in
many new successful forms, he shaped the way we still visualise mythology by his
mythological references in his love poetry and especially in his epic Metamorphoses,
a 15-book comprehensive catalogue of stories told in almost cinematic detail and
with stunning skill.
He wrote of Augustus’ glory too, but ‘an error and a book’ got him sent to exile
in AD 8 on the barbaric shores of the Black Sea. Timing is everything in publishing
and writing his ars Amatoria (‘Art of Love’) on how to find and seduce girls – and
how the girls should find and seduce men too – clashed with Augustus’ drive on improving
morals and encouraging marriage. Maybe Ovid’s error was involvement in the promiscuous
activities of Augustus’ grand-daughter, Julia – they were both exiled in the same
year – although the reasons for this most skilled and sensitive of poets’ demise
remain speculated on but unproven.
Prose was rarer in this Augustan Age. Historian Livy eulogised about the old Republican
ways, the heroism, patriotism, self-sacrifice … but these were still seen as the
virtues that made Rome great and echoed Augustus’ (at least lip-service) to the old
Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote his very rhetorical/persuasive history of Rome in
Greek to reconcile the subject Greeks to Rome’s unavoidable supremacy – after all,
he indicated, Rome was so very Greek in so many ways … ahem.
And Strabo wrote his geographia to be a useful tool for those running and living
in the Roman Empire. All writing reflected lives lived under a powerful Emperor.
But as Augustus’ imperial power turned into an inherited dynasty, total power inevitably
caused fearful limitations in literature. The Silver Age of Latin literature that
followed would write of ‘safe’ subjects, prompting a further widening of literary