The Principate: The Aeneid as Augustan Propaganda
The ascension of Augustus to supreme power in 31 BC signaled a distinctive break in Roman political history, from republic to monarchy, albeit veiled in apparent conservatism. The creation of an official Julii mythology served to legitimize Augustus and his dynasty; on the insistence of Augustus, Virgil wrote the Aeneid to demonstrate the mythological foundations of the Julii line, and how the future of Rome, and consequently the reign of Augustus, were predestined by the gods. This propaganda program, prevalent in the Aeneid, became manifest in Augustan architecture, illustrating the Aeneid’s importance as a medium of propaganda. The character of Aeneas, distinguished by pietas, the description of Aeneas’ shield, his divine origin, and the parade of heroes all serve as examples of Augustan propaganda, and highlight Augustus’ use of Roman tradition in his political program; with the acceptance of his title in 27 BC, Augustus had altered Roman government, but had done so through restoration, rather than revolution, and in order to succeed, he relied on the incorporation of the mos maiorum into his own cult mythology. Aeneas, signum pietate virum, served as an ancient “Augustus”, an exemplar of morality and duty to the state and gods. Augustus had fought the civil wars to avenge the death of his beloved Caesar, his adopted stepfather, which in itself showed further devotion to divus Iulius. In this way, Augustus acted as a new Aeneas who saved his father and consequently, the Roman state.1 In this light, Augustus saves Rome in the same way Aeneas saved Anchises, Iulus, and the penates from the burning citadel of Troy. The appearance of piety and morality was important to Augustus; his program of a restored republic relied upon the religious devotion of Roman conservatism, and further promoted his reign as divinely inspired, descended from holy Venus Genetrix. The values of noble heroism, moral elevation, and Roman nationalism, enshrined in Aeneas, would connect to the image of Augustus.2 Augustus, marked by the same pietas as the poem’s hero, becomes a second Aeneas, handpicked by the heavens as Rome’s chosen leader and Aeneas’ heir.3 Aeneas, upon his encounter with Dido in Book 1, is introduced as a pius rex, written “rex erat Aeneas nobis, quo iustior alter nec pietate fuit; in this way, Virgil is promoted the image of Augustus, linking him through their genealogy, and imparting the virtue of piety onto the emporer.4 The piety of Aeneas also alludes to his military power. An aspect of pietas is duty to the state and family, so during Aeneas’ flight from Troy, he wears a lion’s skin, reminiscent of Hercules, the great warrior.5 In this way, his pietas brings him courage to defend his family and leave Troy. This example of pietas, a common theme in the Aeneid, when linked with Augustus, demonstrates an element of propaganda in the poem; Augustus, the pious Imperator, fights to defend Rome and her traditions and gods, displaying his pietas, which stresses his role as a second Aeneas. The characteristic pietas of Aeneas designates his role as leader and eventual founder of Rome, and this depiction in the Aeneid emerges as another example of propaganda. Aeneas is destined to rule Latium and “re-found” Troy, and within the poem, there is a prophecy of Augustan power; Lines 278-279, in Book 1, “his ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono: imperium sine fine dedi” compounded with lines 286-287, “Nascetur pulchra Troianus origine Caesar, imperium Oceano”, would resonate with a Roman audience, filling their mind’s with images of glorified Augustus, the Roman savior, destined by the heavens.6 In this way, the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, which solidified Augustan rule, it was a struggle for Roman institutions and mos, “to save the Roman world from a frontal assault on its gods, its ideals, its moral fabric”.7 This singular event, so important to the Roman audience, is illustrated by Virgil in Book 8, as a symbolic vision inscribed upon Aeneas’ shield, forged by Vulcan. Augustus is explicitly mentioned in the description, on the bow of his ship leading the senate and people of Rome to battle; “hinc Augustus agens Italos in proelia Caesar cum patribus populoque”.8 Virgil then describes Augustus with the penates, referencing Aeneas and his duty to the gods, while further promoting the traditions of Rome, which were central in the emperor’s “restored” republic. He is also shown with the sidus above his head, connecting Augustus to his divine father, who was thought to have entered heaven as the sidus Iulius. Augustus, through Virgil’s illustration, is seen as the savior of Rome, akin to the role of Aeneas as savior of the last Trojans and founder of their new land, Latium. The shield also describes the battle, with fierce gods joining into the fray; Mars, Bellona, Discord, and the Furies cause destruction and havoc on the battlefield.9 This parallels the prophecy of Jupiter in Book 1, functioning to portray Augustus as bringer of peace, and institute the Pax Romana. Virgil wrote, “Aspera tum positis mitescent saecula bellis”.10 The line distinctively implies the victory at Actium, which was seen as a battle of East versus West, of debauchery and civility; “You, no longer anxious, will receive him one day in heaven, burdened with Eastern spoils”.11 The prophecy goes on to explain the closing of the doors of Janus, which Augustus shut in 29 BC, thereby signaling peace throughout the empire on land and sea. Virgil illustrates “dirae ferro et compagibus artis claudentur Belli portae”.12 These images, upon Aeneas’ shield, serve as propagandistic messages to the Roman audience; Rome’s ancient founder, whose descendents begat Romulus, enters battle with the images of his illustrious family, Rome’s greatest, and invokes his own role as Trojan savior in the metaphor of Augustus. Virgil recorded, “Talia per clipeum Volcani, dona parentis, miratur rerumque ignarus imagine gaudet attollens umero famamque et fata nepotum”.13 The continuous mention of Aeneas’ divine origin in the Aeneid further stresses the divine connections of Augustus, and work as another element of propaganda in the epic. Venus is the mother of Aeneas, as well as the Julii clan, and Rhea Silvia, a descendent of Aeneas, is raped by Mars, and bears the twins Romulus and Remus. This association with Romulus, reinforced by Augustus’ heritage with Venus, further promoted the emperor’s image, and increased his public perception of morality and piety.14 Augustus’ reverence for the divine also functions within the Aeneid as an element of propaganda. Augustus dedicated a new temple to Apollo as an offering after the victory at Actium in 28 BC. In the Aeneid, Book 6, Aeneas performs a similar action when he builds a temple to the Sibyl at Cumae in order to fulfill a vow; “Tum Phoebo et Triviae solido de marmore templum instituam festosque dies de nomine Phoebi. Te quoque magna manent regnis penetralia nostris”.15 This demonstrates how the message in the Aeneid, which was meant to represent Augustus, transferred into the physical, urban environment of Rome itself. This propaganda conveyance occurs in an agate ring stone from the late thirties BC; it depicts Augustus as Neptune, riding the waves over his enemy’s head.16 This image is metaphorically reflected as propaganda in the Aeneid, after Neptune calms the storm thrashing Aeneas and his fleet. In this way, Augustus is the god Neptune, bringing calm to a Roman state shattered by civil war.17 Another important transference from the Aeneid’s propaganda is found in the exedri on the Temple of Mars Ultor. Using the characters and themes found in the Aeneid, Augustus filled the north-western exedra with Aeneas, the Alban Kings, and the Julii, the south-eastern with Romulus and summi viri. The statue of Aeneas illustrated his flight from Troy, with ancient Anchises, gripping the penates, seated on his shoulder, while leading Ascanius from the burning city; juxtaposed with Romulus as triumphator, the figures represented the glory of traditional Rome, and together exemplified Augustus as paragon of both their virtues.18 This image of pius Aeneas, coupled with the son of Mars, is propaganda, in that the epic promoted the values of both figures, while connecting them to Augustus; Virgil’s propaganda then affected the Augustan building program, depicting the ideal figures with their Aeneid characteristics, which reflected the values Augustus purported himself. The Ara Pacis, another propagandistic construction meant to glorify the Julii and Augustan peace, depicts a scene from the Aeneid, further demonstrating this conveyance from text to reality, from Virgil’s message into a tangible sign. The scene, first prophesized in Book 3 but achieved in Book 8, is Aeneas’ arrival to Latium. He finds a sow under an oak tree with her young, and builds a temple in that spot to house the penates and hence the future site of Lavinium; “Ecce autem subitum atque oculis mirabile monstrum, candida per siluam cum fetu concolor albo procubuit uiridique in litore conspicitur sus; quam pius Aeneas tibi enim, tibi, maxima Iuno, mactat sacra ferens et cum grege sistit ad aram”.19 In this way, Augustus immortalized a scene from the Aeneid that demonstrated the pietas of Aeneas, transferring this connotation to his own persona, and further implying that peace was gained through Augustan devotion to the gods, and the god’s fated success of Augustus, and consequently Rome. The oak tree held particular significance: in the Aeneid, as a sign of fate from the gods, implying their direct role in the planning and future of Rome, and for Augustus, whose door, in 27 BC, was crowned with an oak wreath, illustrated his divine favor and virtue.20 Above all, these images held this meaning through their presentation in the epic as characteristics of Aeneas, and subsequently, of Augustus, and in this way, acted as propaganda. The most important scene relative to Augustan propaganda is the parade of heroes in Book 6. This propagandistic element is central to the Augustan program, in that it is the key link between the exemplary past and the restored republic, instituted by Rome’s savior Augustus; Anchises describes Augustus in the procession, saying “This is the man, this is him, whom you so often hear promised you, Augustus Caesar, son of the Deified. He brings the golden age back to Latium, Saturn’s onetime realm”.21 Inserted directly in the epic, Virgil praises the ancestors of Aeneas, the greatest of all Romans. In this way, Augustus garnered more authority through his positive, traditional self-portrayal, which was promoted amongst a learned Roman audience through the Aeneid. This scene serves an ulterior motive in Augustan propaganda: Augustus is not the last person in these procession, but Marcellus, the recently deceased heir to his authority. In this way, the Aeneid not only promotes Augustus, but his dynasty.22 This demonstrates more strongly the text as propaganda; to include honor of Augustus seems natural, considering his successes, but to extend praise to his heirs explicitly places the Julii as a divine household, and elevates them above ordinary Romans, whether plebeians or patricians. Before Marcellus appears in the procession, Virgil includes names of famous Romans, the summi viri, who embody republican virtue and a traditional Roman ethos: “Who would pass over you in silence, great Cato, or you Cossus, or the Gracchus’s race, or the two Scipios, war’s lightning bolts, the scourges of Libya”.23 The propaganda of the Aeneid emerges in the link between ancient and contemporary, in the Augustan program to dramatically change government under the guise of restoration. The entire poem celebrates the pietas of Aeneas, and consequently the morality of all Romans, but propagandistic elements appear in Virgil’s overt connections of Aeneas to Augustus and the Julii; That is to say, at one point, the epic tells the story of Rome’s mythical founding and how it attained to greatness, while doubly exalting the Julii as Rome’s chosen family, descended from Venus, and the bearer of Rome’s second pius Aeneas, Caesar Augustus. Through the construction of his own personal cult and mythology, Augustus separated himself from competitors to his illegal authority, strengthening his position with popular propaganda, like the Aeneid. Aeneas is the father of Italy, which is his divinely sanctioned fatherland, Italiam quaero patriam, and subsequently, Augustan styling’s as pater patriae invoke this Virgilian image; that is to say, Virgil constructed a story that praised the virtues of Augustus, while simultaneously influencing the actions of Augustus in reality, namely in architecture, or in this example, personal titles and honors.24 A master of propaganda, Augustus used the eloquent Aeneid, meant to inspire all Romans through the story of their struggle and growth as an empire, to reflect his family’s own divinity and greatness, while linking himself with Rome’s noblest founder, the signum pietate virum. Notes
1. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Augustan Rome (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1993), 69.
2. Jasper Griffin, Virgil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 60. 3. Ibid., 64.
4. G. Karl Galinsky, Aeneas, Sicily, and Rome (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), 8. 5. Ibid., 21-22.
6. Ibid., 24-25.
7. Wallace-Hadrill, Augustan Rome, 7.
8. Aeneid (8.678-679)
9. Wallace-Hadrill, Augustan Rome, 9.
10. Aeneid (1.291)
11. Ibid., (1.289-290)
12. Ibid., (1.293-294)
13. Ibid., (8.729-731)
14. Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1988), 195. 15. Wallace-Hadrill, Augustan Rome, 27.
16. Ibid., 87.
17. Ibid., 86.
18. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 202. 19. Ibid., 204.
20. Ibid., 206.
21. Ibid., 214.
22. Wallace-Hadrill, Augustan Rome, 34.
23. Aeneid (6.841-843)
24. Francis Cairns, Virgil’s Augustan Epic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 115.