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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 3 - Classical Drama

THE AUGUSTAN PEACE: ROME'S GOLDEN AGE

Roman writers began to praise the egalitarian virtues of the Republic precisely at the moment of its demise. The first great Roman historian, Livy (59?B.C.-A.D.17), wrote a 142-book history of Rome, idealizing the simplicity and sobriety of the past and exhorting his contemporaries to return to the ancient virtues. When Livy began to write, sometime around 28 B.C., Roman society entered a new period of calm and equanimity. The Augustan Age, ruled over by the first emperor, Augustus Caesar (63 B.C.-A.D. 14) had just begun. This era is the inheritor and the counterpart of the Periclean Age of Athens, both named for their rulers and devoted to defining a vision of national purpose.

The differences between these Golden Ages, however, are as important as the similarities. The Greek playwrights, historians, and poets of the fifth century created their genres; the Roman writers, as the case of Virgil shows, illustrate the complexity of literary influence, both as they labored under it and as they then--unwittingly--imposed it on the literary world of a Europe they could not have imagined. Indeed, Roman (Latin) writing became the crucial link between the ancient and the modern world.

Prime among the poets of the Augustan Age is Virgil (70-17 B.C.), who, like all well-educated Romans of his era, was steeped in Greek. He modeled his first major poems, the Eclogues, on the pastoral lyrics of the Hellenist Theocritus, and his last, unfinished work, the Aeneid, on Homer's two epics. His debt to these supreme masters notwithstanding, he brought Latin verse to a level of perfection never since equaled and became himself the model for medieval and modern European writers.

The literature of the past, however, is hardly the only external influence exerted upon writers. The name of one man in first century Rome, Maecenas, has become a synonym for a literary patron, whose wealth supports artists, freeing them from the necessity to earn a conventional living.(1) A leading classical scholar, Moses Hadas, characterizes Maecenas as "in effect the emperor's minister of propaganda." Maecenas encouraged Virgil to celebrate the peace and stability that Augustus had brought to Rome following the civil wars revolving around Julius Caesar.(2) Perhaps Virgil could not bring himself to write explicitly in praise of Augustus, a ruthless as well as a brilliant politician, so skilled even in his early years that his granduncle made him his legal heir. The man born Gaius Octavius acquired the extra family names "Julius Caesar" in 44, even as he was to add "Augustus" seventeen years later. Virgil's decision to write a poem about pius Aeneas--"pious" Aeneas--instead of Augustus--"awe-inspiring"--Caesar demonstrates how an artist working on commission can still retain his independence. The Aeneid manages to glorify Rome, a sentiment that Virgil sincerely felt, while subtly delineating the human price that successful politicians and warriors must pay for their eminence.

Satire and Irony

This same indirection surfaces in the richly ambiguous poems of the other Augustan writers, especially those of Horace (65-8 B.C.) and Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17). Horace wrote a series of satires about contemporary Roman society, extolling the achievements of Maecenas, Augustus, and their friends, while subtly criticizing their excesses. Horace is the archetypal Latin classicist, a master of witty and balanced verses, and his name has become a descriptive term for a general, smooth, and humorous mode of satire that avoids direct personal attack while allowing a well-informed reader to understand that an attack is indeed underway. The opposite of Horatian satire is Juvenalian satire, named for the poet Juvenal, who lived in the post-Augustan or "Silver Age of Latin Literature," from 50-A.D.127. Juvenal seems to have been banished from Rome on more than one occasion in retribution for his explicit, bitter satires against the degeneracy of his times.

Although the Roman poets did not exactly invent satire, they correctly regarded it as their special contribution to literature, an area where they could exceed their Greek models. Almost impossible to define, satire is not really a genre, because any genre--narrative, lyric, or dramatic--can be satiric. Satire, a way of seeing experience, tends to focus on human frailty, symptomized by physical decay or stupidity, and human excess, like greed or outright crime. Seeing this underside of mortality, the Horatian satirist, as discussed above, probably will react with amusement, while the Juvenalian satirist will feel disgust. In either case, what motivates the satirist is a desire to at least point out and at most correct the faults described.

At first glance, satirists may seem simply to be pessimists; however, a more appropriate approach is to regard them as disappointed idealists. Only those who believe in the possibility of honesty and beauty will be shocked by fraud and ugliness. Not surprisingly, the classical temperament generally produces satire, since the capacity for outrage assumes an expectation of order, balance, and self-control, the decorous ideals that classicism celebrates.

The most nimble of the Roman poets is Ovid, whose various works show both a satiric bent and a revisionist mentality. His masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, or transformations, takes a unique approach to epic. In fifteen books (rather than the twelve of Virgil, which obviously correspond to the twenty-four book pattern set by Homer), Ovid undertakes no less than the retelling of all human history. Unlike the serious, heroic epics of his predecessors, the Metamorphoses skips from one brief story to another, at first showing the way the world wanes from age to age, then concentrating on a brilliant succession of mythological episodes organized around the motif of change. When Ovid talks about the Olympian gods, he shows them transforming into animal forms, generally in order to seduce some unwilling female. While never criticizing the gods, these descriptions may make us laugh at them. The laughter induced by satire, however, is born of confusion rather than pure amusement and is therefore serious laughter.

Irony and wit, literary devices that function as a kind of double vision, invite multiple interpretations of reality and are the most powerful weapons of Augustan literature. Even in translation, a line by Virgil or Horace or Ovid often revolves around the subversive word "or," seen for example, in the beginning of the Metamorphoses, when Ovid attributes the creation of the world to God or nature. If the principle of existence is change, as the Metamorphoses prove, then there are no stable values. Augustan poetry simultaneously applauds and undermines Augustus's Rome, restored to decorous order but not to moral dignity. In closing the Metamorphoses, Ovid pays tribute to Julius Caesar, the great ancestor of Augustus, by translating him into a star in the final metamorphosis of his poem. Such a twist typifies a Roman tendency to deify its heroes (Romulus, for example, was turned into a god); but Ovid leaves us to wonder more fundamentally about the value of divinity itself. Wanting to believe in the ideals of classicism, the Augustans nonetheless questioned the validity of those ideals.


Footnotes

(1) Today, many business corporations function as patrons of the arts, underwriting artistic projects not likely to return a profit; almost every major museum exhibit or opera production, for example, receives funding from some conglomerate seeking to enhance its public image and to promote a social climate likely to favor its business goals.

(2) "Augustus" who received that cognomen -- the special Roman name that described one's accomplishments -- when he eliminated all his rivals in 27 B.C.