Patron Augustus—Client Rome

by Sondra Steinbrenner

When Augustus assumed his role as Princeps, or First Citizen, he wanted the Roman world to treat him as a father or patron, and he brought this about through the use of the patron-client system. Augustus wished to cement his claim to power in every possible way, and he did this in part by having Virgil bring the legend of Aeneas back to the hearts of Romans, reminding them that this claim was bolstered by his being a descendant of the Trojan hero as well as the legal heir of Julius Caesar. A major part of his strategy was the manipulation of pietas and the use of auctoritas, two values revered in Roman society. This paper explores the Aeneid as a gauge of the effect that Augustan auctoritas had upon Virgil and his works and examines whether this use of auctoritas was a unique characteristic of the new Roman Principate or a recurring by-product of the patron-client relationship.

The patron-client system was a unique feature of Roman society in which citizens formed relationships that acted as an important link in the political and social systems. Patrons, usually patrician, would take ‘clients’, young patricians or plebeians, under their influence and provide them with advice, money, business opportunities, or representation in court. In turn, clients would help to enhance their patron’s status by providing certain services, such as working on his patron’s political campaigns, appearing with his patron in public as part of a group of faithful retainers, or using their specialized skills or training to enhance their patron’s status. Clients ranged from freedmen and businessmen to artists and writers. It was a common practice in Republican Rome for a patron-politician to either ally himself with prominent writers or patronize them publicly. For the writer, this alliance provided financial support and a market for his work; for the politician it would promote his own personal celebrity. The writer and the public figure would form, in the form of a patron- client relationship, an alliance or a relationship of convenience in which both had much to gain. (Shelton, 1998)

When Augustus became Princeps, he took on the role of the pater pateriae and symbolically became the patron of all Roman citizens. The rise of the empire coincided with the decline of the patron-client relationship of Republican Rome. In the Republic, clients flocked to the houses of their patrons in the hopes of attaining political favor, but with the abolishment of popular elections, patrons no longer had use for clients to help insure their political positions and instead turned their attention to Augustus. Former patrons became clients of the Empire and sought political position not from the masses but from the Emperor’s appointment.(Galinsky, 1996)

In addition to his symbolic patronage of the Roman citizenry, Augustus involved himself in several individual patron-client relationships, assuming the role of patron to many of the budding young writers of Rome in order to enhance his status and popularity. Maecenas, Augustus’ chief advisor, secured some of the most promising poets early in their careers and brought them under the wing of the new ruler. Through the influence of his personal auctoritas, and by helping to support the careers of otherwise suffering poets, he managed to exert great influence over the literature that was being produced during that time. As the victor at Actium and a recognized descendant of Venus, Augustus believed he had the auctoritas to lead the Empire of Rome and, with the help of his client writers, he was determined that Rome believe it as well. He saw the value of having writers on his side and they of course saw the value of being a client of Augustus; in return for his support, these poets wrote verse celebrating the accomplishments of this new Roman state and its heroic past, as seen in the “Secular Hymn” by the court poet Horace. Written in 17 B.C., for Augustus’ celebration of the Secular Games—a festival commemorating the peace and prosperity of Rome, permitted only once in a century. This poem is filled with references to traditional divinities and the triumphs of Augustus. A choir at the temple of Apollo would have performed this poem for the public. (Davis, 1913)

Augustus had discovered in these young poets a powerful vehicle for his propaganda.

They wielded a unique and powerful influence over the beliefs of the populous through their writing. (Syme, 1992)

Augustus’ idea was not an original one; it was common in Republican Rome for members of the aristocracy to influence literature through patronage. However, he did not stop at retaining client poets to write to advance his personal political status, as was the practice of traditional aristocracy, but carried the tactic further to promote the status of the legend of his venerated ancestor Aeneas. By promoting Aeneas and bringing him back into the foreground, he was promoting his own bloodline.

This served the Princeps well, as he worked to connect himself with Aeneas. Augustus commissioned Virgil to write an epic that would feature the heroism of Aeneas as well as an association between the two leaders. Virgil was the ideal client as he had a personal relationship with the Princeps and also had much to gain by remaining in the good graces of Rome’s new leader. He regained his estate, which had been confiscated during the civil strife prior to the reign of Augustus, and was commissioned to write the story of the Roman hero. (Ibid)

Aeneas, a prince of Troy and the son of Venus, became a part of pre-Roman history when he escaped from the destruction of Troy with his son and father. He dutifully followed the destiny set down by the gods, earning the name pius Aeneas, and eventually led the surviving Trojans to settle in the area that would become Rome. Aeneas exhibited all the characteristics necessary of a great hero: selflessness, honor, loyalty and pietas. Yet when Augustus commissioned Virgil to write the story of a great hero of Rome, we can assume that his honorable virtues and ancestral connection to the Julian family did not escape the notice of the autocrat, for it was a fact much publicized by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar. And after Aeneas was selected as the subject of the epic, the full weight of Augustan propaganda was wielded to promote and popularize the legend, and to strengthen the Julian claim of Trojan descent. (Galinsky, 1969)

In the Roman family the pater was the head of the household and had a duty to protect his wife and children, who were seen as lesser than himself: his family would repay him by giving him complete obedience and respect. This duty of the pater and family is referred to in Latin as pietas.

Pietas is a traditional Roman value which can be defined as duty, honor, and responsibility to others, and the taking of these obligations seriously. This ideal extended into the relationship between the Roman state and its citizens and between Rome and its provinces; as the state was viewed as the head of the greater Roman family of citizens. The head of the family and heads of the state were both seen as ‘pater’—on the family level it was paterfamilias, senators were known as patres conscripti, and the emperor was called pater patriae from the time of Augustus. These titles imply the duty of the pater to rule with fatherly care. Pietas was therefore an important Roman virtue for both the pater and his ‘family’, as each had duties important to the other. (Shelton, 1998)

Aeneas is associated throughout antiquity with pietas, and after his re-birth by Augustan propaganda his pietas is even more strongly emphasized. Augustus, recognizing that Roman citizens would consider pietas an important characteristic for their new ruler, would have sought to promote the recognition of that same quality in himself. He had demonstrated several times in recent history his desire to fulfill his pius duties to family and state, avenging the murder of his adopted father at Philippi and assuming the role of patron of Rome. Similarly, the belief in a pius Aeneas was important to imperial propaganda, and the Aeneas of Virgil epitomizes the same virtues and qualities so important to Rome and his patron, Augustus. If the Roman people acknowledged the familial connection between the new ruler and re-discovered hero, they might also transfer his heroic virtues to Augustus as well. Through these associations, the public would be reassured of Augustus’ faithful, pius patronage to his clients—the Roman world. (Galinsky, 1969)

While Pietas could be considered an ingredient in the patron-client system, auctoritas could be seen as a by-product. The duty of the family or clients to obey and defer to their patron, in turn gives power to the patron. Auctoritas can be defined as the effect of authority, but its meaning is more complex and the word ‘auctoritas’ has no equivalent in English. It is a wholly Roman concept. It expresses the ultimate moral power of the princeps and by emphasizing auctoritas in his reign, Augustus showed that he wished to provide both political and moral leadership. He valued auctoritas as the vital attribute of his rule, mentioning its role in the conclusion of his Res Gestae. He states that after 27 BC., he had exceeded all others in the Roman world in auctoritas, by both his careful manipulation of politics and propaganda and by defeating those who rivaled him, as at Actium. Auctoritas affected more than politics, shaping tastes and opinions of classes and can be seen quite conspicuously in the literary works produced during the time of Augustus. He, as the holder of such influence, had the role of putting a ‘stamp of approval’ on the culture of his time. The strong ideas and moral beliefs of the princeps can be witnessed in the works of the Augustan writers. (Galinsky, 1995) The auctoritas of the pater patriae may have set the tone for much of the writing in what we know today as the Golden age.

During his writing of the Aeneid, Virgil must have kept the wishes of his patron in mind as he embellished the details of the old legend. Several scenes in the epic serve unmistakably to bind Augustus and Aeneas together in the reader’s mind. A clear example is the shield of Aeneas, which depicts the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in book VIII. (Hardie, 1986) Caesar Augustus leads the brave Italians into battle, in this scene, with the house and great gods looking on with approval. It demonstrates the significant effect that Augustan auctoritas upon Virgil’s work, as the poet makes a direct reference to the crowning achievement of his patron. The shield, carried by a man who died hundreds of years before Augustus was born, is just one example of the anachronistic political iconography Virgil used to compare the deeds of the legendary hero to those of Augustus. Painting the victory at Actium as the quintessential victory of Rome with Augustus as its hero

Another example of Augustan influence in the Aeneid is revealed when the Homeric version of the Aeneas myth is compared to that of Virgil, examining for example the prophecy that Aeneas receives concerning the future of himself and his descendants. In the Homeric version of the legend of Aeneas, Poseidon, speaks the prophecy of Aeneas and the Trojans:

And now the might of Aineias shall be lord over the Trojans,

And his son’s sons, and those born of their seed hereafter. (Homer, 1951)

The prophecy Virgil describes in his Aeneid also tells how Aeneas’ descendants will first rule Italy and then the known world, taking revenge on the Greeks for the fall of Troy. But it also predicts the events that lead up to Augustus’ own rise to power and the spread of Rome to its greatest heights under his rule. This prophecy not only establishes Augustus as a descendant of Aeneas, but also as the culmination of thousands of years of history. Virgil further varies the legend from the Homeric model so when he has Apollo, the favorite god of Augustus, deliver to Aeneas his destiny to rule over the Trojans. Virgil also alters the wording to include the promise of Aeneas’ descendants to settle Italy and establish the foundations of the Roman Empire. (Galinsky, 1969) Aeneas tells of the Apollo’s prophecy in Book III:

We’ll also extol your future descendants in starlight

and make your city and empire. And you: prepare for that city

greatness for greatness!…

There is a place, the Greeks call Hesperia,

an ancient land with rich soil and powerful armies.

Oenotrians lived there; but now they say a younger

nation named it Italy…That’s our proper home. (Virgil, 1995, Bk.3-ll. 158-167)

Clearly, Virgil’s Aeneid reflects the auctoritas of the Principate in that it tells of the glorious history of Rome culminating in the reign of Augustus. The princeps is even mentioned directly in Book VI as the dead Anchises describes the future to his son, Aeneas.

Look there, focus your eyes now on our people,

your own Romans: Caesar and all of Iulus’

lineage under the great tree of the heavens.

And this man, a man you’ve heard promised so often,

Caesar Augustus: a God’s own son who will settle

a Golden Age once more on Latium’s meadows,

ruled by Saturn before. He’ll open the empire

to India, Africa, lands lying beyond the ecliptic,

beyond the sun’s annual journey… (Virgil, 1995, Bk. VI- ll. 788-796)

This effect of Augustan auctoritas on Virgil’s Aeneid is representative of the trend in the Augustan Age of writing in favor of the Princeps. However, all not writers of the time were as willing supporters of Augustus as Virgil seemingly was. There were some who either openly opposed Augustan auctoritas or simply refused to allow their writing to be influenced by it. At the beginning of Augustus’ reign, he was tolerant of independent or hostile literature; it was a historically common practice for writers and poets to critique or lampoon prominent figures and politicians in their literary works, as a form of comedy or social commentary. (Konstan, 1983) This practice changed, however, as Augustus’ reign matured; those who had been in the habit of speaking and writing freely against the dominant leader or party began to fervently voice their public support of the government. (Syme, 1992) Throughout his rule, Augustus moved to cease any writing that spoke poorly of his regime. He steadily removed the freedom writers had enjoyed for years by imposing strict censorship regulations and punishing those who dared to oppose him.

The theory that the suppression of literary freedom began under Augustus is supported by the almost complete lack of historical publications during Augustus’ time, which included events after 31 BC. Historians were reluctant to publish histories on events after Actium, which resulted in a dramatic decline in historical publishing during this period. (Raaflaub & Toher, 1990)

Augustus’ influence over the legend of Aeneas shows his efforts were not simply political propaganda, but a deliberate re-shaping of Roman literature. The literature of the Augustan age can be seen as a product of an insurmountable Augustan auctoritas, written for its ability to curry favor with the Princeps rather than for pure entertainment, historical record, or legitimate social commentary. Syme, 1992)

A notable example of the effect Augustus had on independent expression can be seen in the literary record of Livy, a prominent historian and a contemporary of the Princeps, who postponed publishing his historical accounts of the period following the Battle of Actium until after the death of Augustus.

Livy likely withheld his histories out of a desire to avoid falling into the poor graces of his Princeps fearful of speaking frankly about a man who thought himself to have “surpassed the deeds of all great men in history”. Roman historians had traditionally taken pride in their lack of personal bias in their writings, and while for some this pride was undeserved, Livy was known for his attempt to report history accurately. Livy insisted on the freedom to report history without partisan influence or flattery, so, it seems, he withheld from publication the books that dealt with the rule of the Princeps until he was free to write an accurate account undaunted by the shadow of the auctoritas of Augustus. Augustus thought of history as a benchmark against which to compare the achievements of his life and the lives of those who were to follow him, but although he believed himself to be the pinnacle of Roman civilization, Livy disagreed, and wisely delayed publishing his histories until the threat of Augustan auctoritas had passed.

The Romans often held lofty ideals for themselves and their history, and reinforced these ideals through the legends of their forefathers.

Romans were obsessed with the greatness of their ancestors, one of whom was pius Aeneas and Augustus used traditional Roman ideals to create an image for himself and strengthen his auctoritas.

By examining the works of the Golden age, such as the Aeneid, poems of Horace, and the omitted works of Livy, the effect of Augustan auctoritas can clearly be seen. Augustus made a deliberate and successful attempt to shift the focus of Roman literature to the unflagging support of his imperial propaganda. Virgil exemplified this trend when he created the figurehead of the Augustan age—the revised Aeneas and Livy demonstrated what must have been a widespread fear of the effect auctoritas might have upon his literature. This evidence highlights the conscious, pervasive influence Augustus asserted, using his power to influence the people of Rome and to create an age of literature in his own image. Auctoritas, while influencing literature throughout Roman history by way of patron-client relationships, achieved its maturity when Augustus used it to compel the literary minds of his time to further his political agenda.


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