Virgil and the Christian World by T.S. Eliot (1951)

T.S. Eliot: a potted biography

The great Anglo-American poet, playwright and critic T.S. Eliot (1888 to 1965) came from America to England just before the First World War, published a small number of sensuous, ‘modernist’ poems displaying a sensibility in debt to French Symbolism. Soon after the Great War ended he published the seminal modernist poem, The Waste Land (1922), but also established a reputation as a deeply insightful and intelligent critic of much earlier English literature, particularly the Jacobean playwrights and metaphysical poets of the early 1600s.

His reputation was enhanced and his influence steadily spread, especially among the younger generation of writers and critics, due to his editorship of a literary and philosophical magazine, The Criterion, which he edited from 1922 to 1939. Readers of The Criterion came to realise that, far from being a youthful revolutionary who was set on overturning literary values, and despite the radical format of The Waste Land (collage, fragments, quotes from multiple foreign languages), Eliot was, in fact, a profoundly conservative thinker.

This was made explicit when in 1928, in the foreword to a book of essays titled ‘For Lancelot Andrewes’ (the Jacobean bishop and writer) Eliot ‘came out’, declaring himself ‘a classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion,’ committing himself to hierarchy and order in all three fields.

He had already taken British citizenship. In the later 1930s he attempted to revive the verse drama of the Elizabethans which he had spent so much time analysing, on the modern stage, writing a series of plays in verse, starting with Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

During the Second World War Eliot worked as a reader for the publishers Faber & Faber during the day and a fire warden at night. The masterpiece of his maturity was the set of four longer poems collectively titled the Four Quartets (Burnt Norton, 1936, then East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, published in 1940, 1941 and 1942, respectively).

After the war, Eliot settled into the position of Grand Old Man of Poetry, with a leading role at the leading publisher of poetry, Faber. He continued to write essays and make broadcasts on the radio. With his public conversion to Anglicanism he had achieved an ideological and psychological stability.

Having lived through two ruinous world wars, a lot of Eliot’s effort was now devoted towards helping to define and preserve the best of European civilisation. His early essays had been offshoots of a poet working through his own problems and interests; the later essays are a conscious effort to establish a canon of classic literature, trying to formulate universal categories to define and preserve it.

It is in this spirit that in 1951 he delivered a lecture on BBC radio titled ‘Virgil and the Christian World’, which was then printed in The Listener magazine and collected in the volume On Poetry and Poets.

Virgil and the Christian World

As befits radio this is not an address to a specialist audience of literary scholars but a more broad brush approach for a general audience. Eliot explains that he is not setting out to assert Virgil’s special value as a poet or moralist, but to pay attention to ‘those characteristics of Virgil which render him peculiarly sympathetic to the Christian mind’.

Straight away he addresses the notorious issue of the Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. This, the fourth and final of Virgil’s set of lengthy poems about the countryside or ‘eclogues’, contains extravagant praise of the forthcoming birth of a special child, who, the poet claims, will bring a new golden age, the return of Saturn and the Virgin, the gift of divine life etc.

As early Christianity established itself, early Christian apologists ransacked all available texts, from old Jewish scriptures to the entire literature of the ancient world, looking for proofs and prophecies, any text anywhere which could be made to prefigure and predict the arrival of their messiah.

Thus the Fourth Eclogue was quickly adopted by these apologists and Virgil was made an honorary Christian before the fact because Christians claimed he had been gifted with spiritual prophecy to foresee the coming of the Christ. Throughout the entire Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance scholars and theologians genuinely believed that Virgil had predicted the coming of the Christ child.

Eliot makes clear right at the start that he in now way thinks that Virgil foresaw the birth of Christ (some 19 years after he himself died). Rather, Eliot thinks the Fourth Eclogue was written to a friend of his, Pollio, whose wife was expecting a baby.

[In fact, the notes to the OUP edition of the Eclogues which I recently read, suggest that this passage of the Fourth Eclogue was describing the hoped-for son of the recent marriage of Antony and Octavius’s sister, Octavia (in 40 BC), because contemporaries devoutly hoped that their union would usher in a final end to Rome’s endless civil wars.]

Eliot then ponders the meaning of the words prophet, prophecy and predict. He himself has no doubt that Virgil had no inkling of the coming of Christ. On the other hand, he suggests that if the word ‘inspiration’ means writing something the poet himself does not completely understand, and which he or she may themselves misinterpret once the ‘inspiration’ has passed, the maybe Virgil was ‘inspired’.

This is by way of preparing the way for some autobiography, for Eliot then paints an obvious portrait of himself and how his most famous poem, The Waste Land, which arose out of his purely private concerns, amazed him by going on to become the rallying cry for an entire generation of writers.

A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression both of their own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation.

A poet need not know what his poetry will come to mean for others just as a prophet need not understand the meaning of their prophetic utterance. Thus there may be any number of secular, historical explanations for the Fourth Eclogue; but he repeats his definition of ‘inspiration’ as tapping into a force which defies all historical research.

Anyway the point is that the existence of the Fourth Eclogue which so many Christians mistakenly thought was divinely inspired, gave Virgil and his writing a kind of free pass into the new Christian order, opening ‘the way for his influence in the Christian world’, something mostly denied to other explicitly ‘pagan’ authors. On the face of it this is a lucky accident but Eliot doesn’t believe it was an ‘accident’.

Eliot anticipates Jackson Knight’s view, expressed in his Penguin translation of the Aeneid from a few years later (1956), that Virgil was the poet of the gateway, looking both back to the pagan world and forwards to the Christian dispensation.

So after these preliminaries, Eliot gets to the meat of his essay: In what way did Virgil anticipate the Christian West? Eliot tells us that, to answer his question, he is going to rely on a book by a German scholar, Theodor Haecker, titled Virgil: The Father of the West.

Before he gets started though, Eliot rather surprisingly devotes a page to autobiography, telling us that as a boy learning the Classics he much preferred Greek to Latin (and still does). However he found himself immediately more drawn to Virgil than Homer. The main reason was that the gods in Homer are so capricious, selfish and immoral and all the so-called ‘heroes’ are in fact coarse ruffians. The only decent character in the entire book is Hector.

Nowadays, if forced to explain his preference, he’d say he prefers the world of Virgil to the world of Homer: it was ‘a more civilised world of dignity, reason and order’. Eliot goes on to compare the Greek and Roman worlds, saying the culture of Athens was much superior in the arts, philosophy and pure science. Virgil made of Roman culture something better than it was. Then he quietly makes a very big leap in the argument, claiming that Virgil’s ‘sensibility was more nearly Christian than any other Roman or Greek poet’. How so?

He says he is going to follow Haeckel’s procedure of examining key words in the poem and highlights laborpietas and fatum. However, he immediately drops this plan and veers off into a consideration of the Georgics. What Virgil really intended the Georgics for remains a bit of a mystery: they’re not particularly useful as a handbook to farming, and they contain many digressions completely extraneous to their ostensible subject matter. After pondering Virgil’s motivation, Eliot concludes that Virgil intended to affirm the dignity of agricultural labour and the importance of the cultivation of the soil for the wellbeing of the state, both materially and spiritually.

The Greeks may have perfected the notion that the highest type of life is the contemplative life (Plato et al) but they tended to look down on manual labour. For Eliot the Georgics affirm the importance of manual labour on the land. Then he makes a leap to talk about the monastic movement which grew up within medieval Christendom and how the monastic orders combined both aspects, combining a life of contemplation with quite arduous labour, as both being essential for the life of the complete man.

It may be that the monks who read and copied Virgil’s manuscripts recognised their spirit in the Georgics.

Now onto the Aeneid. Eliot says this epic poem is:

concerned with the imperium romanum, with the extension and justification of imperial rule.

(quite unlike W.A. Camps with his silly claim that the Aeneid is not a work of propaganda.) But Eliot claims that Virgil’s ‘ideal of empire’ was founded on a devotion to the land, to the region, village, and family within the village. This brief explanation is his discussion of labor because Eliot now turns to the more important concept of pietas.

In English someone is called ‘pious’ if they make a great show of their religious faith. Eliot says that pietas for Virgil had much wider associations: it implies a respectful attitude to the individual, the family, the region, and towards ‘the imperial destiny of Rome’. Aeneas is also ‘pious’ in his respect towards the gods and punctilious observance of rites and offerings.

Eliot delves further into the meanings of the word. Piety to a father can, for example, mean not only affection for an individual but acceptance of a bond which one has not chosen. Piety towards the father is also an acceptance of the correct order of things, and so, obliquely, respect of the gods. After some shilly-shallying Eliot gets to the point he wants to make: all these forms of piety involve some form of humility and humility is a professedly Christian virtue. Aeneas is, in this respect, the polar opposite of Achilles or Odysseus, who have not a shred of humility about them.

[Interestingly, given the date of the essay, written soon after the end of the Second World War, Eliot describes Aeneas as the original Displaced Person, a fugitive from a ruined city and an obliterated society.]

Odysseus endures ten years of exile but eventually returns to his home hearth, to a loyal wife, a dutiful son, his slaves and faithful dog. Whereas Aeneas can’t go home: he is a man on a mission and accomplishing that mission, the poem makes repeatedly clear, is only the very beginning of the long history of Roman origins and rise. Odysseus’s story ends when he gets home (and kills the suitors); Aeneas’s entire journey is itself only an episode in the much larger history of Rome.

Therefore, Eliot asserts (with a bit of a stretch, in my view) Aeneas is ‘the prototype of a Chistian hero’. He accepts the duty laid on him by the gods regardless of the price to himself. He subjugates his own will and desires to his god-given task.

This brings Eliot to fatum (so, OK, we are proceeding via the key word process). There is an excess of words to cover this concept. Eliot says maybe the best translation is ‘destiny’ but then makes the polemical point that you cannot have ‘destiny’ in a purely mechanical universe.

Eliot then tries to give a Christian interpretation to Aeneas’s ‘destiny’. It is a burden and a responsibility rather than a reason for self glorification. It happens to some men and not others because some have the gifts and the responsibility but they did not make these; something external made these and the humble man accepts the gifts and the responsibility. Who made them? Not the anthropomorphised pagan gods who behave so selfishly and vulgarly in the poem. Some power much deeper.

He zeroes in on the entire Dido episode (book 4) in particular Aeneas’s shame at abandoning Dido, shame which is revived when he meets her shade in the underworld in book 6 and she refuses to look at him or speak. This, for Eliot, more than personal shame, symbolises how much Aeneas suffered to carry out his god-given destiny. Making his point completely explicit, he says: ‘it is a very heavy cross to bear.’

Eliot can think of no other pagan poet who could have created this situation with its emotional, psychological and philosophical subtlety.

What does this ‘destiny’ mean? For Virgil’s conscious mind, and his contemporary readers, not least the all-powerful Augustus, there’s no doubt it means the imperium romanum. But Eliot then makes some dubious and sweeping generalisations. He claims that Virgil proposed for his contemporaries a noble ideal of empire – personally, I don’t see that in the poem. There are Anchises’ lines reminding Romans they must rule well and there’s praise of Augustus for bringing peace and order, but that’s about it. Eliot stretches it by claiming that Virgil’s work proposed ‘the highest ideal’ for any secular empire. Personally, I just don’t see that. In my view what the Aeneid praises is military conquest, might and power. There might be a strong thread of regret and sadness running through it, but that is the poem’s overt message.

Eliot proceeds to claim that ‘we are all, so far as we inherit the civilisation of Europe, still citizens of the Roman Empire’. Is that true? I can see strong points on either side of the argument.

But he then goes on to claim that the Roman Empire Virgil imagined was ‘greater’ than the actual one of generals and proconsuls and businessmen. Eliot claims that Virgil invented this ideal and ‘passed [it] on to Christianity to develop and to cherish.’ I disagree on a number of levels.

First, I find the actual process of creating empire, as described in the Aeneid, to be hyper-violent and destructive, flagrantly contrary all Christian morality.

Second, part of the ideal which Eliot is describing must include the idealisation of the first Roman emperor Augustus. I can see why Virgil a) pinned his hopes for peace on b) sucked up to, the most powerful man in Rome, but in the end the entire poem amounts to the propagandistic adulation of a mass murderer, a man who achieved supreme power by liquidating all his enemies and then ensuring nobody could threaten his unique rule for the next 40 years. The Aeneid defends a military dictator.

So I just don’t agree when Eliot claims that it passed onto its Christian heirs any kind of noble model for how to run a spiritual empire. The exact opposite.

Eliot reiterates his claim that we are all still citizens the Roman Empire. Well, there are arguments both ways but ultimately I think he is incorrect. The state we inhabit in England in 2022 owes more to the non-Roman traditions of the pagan Danes and Anglo-Saxons and feudal Normans who each conquered this country, than to the Roman civilisation which they eclipsed. Our democracy owes nothing to Rome; it developed out of medieval feudalism, itself an import from Normandy, itself a colony of Vikings.

I think Eliot’s vision of a total European civilisation is erroneous and that his claim that this civilisation was in part inspired by Virgil is wrong.

Moreover, there is a blindingly obvious problem here, which is that Eliot is defending empire as an ideal form of government. Obviously this was considerably easier to do in 1951 than it would be nowadays. Millions of inhabitants of the former British Empire have immigrated to Britain and their children, in politics, in culture and in academia, have enthusiastically set about damning the British Empire, rubbishing any claim that it ever had anything positive about it. So just the sound of Eliot defending empire as a ‘noble ideal’ sounds badly in our time.

As to whether Virgil’s ideal of a suprahuman noble empire actually did inspire church authorities in the Middle Ages, I think you’d need a book examining the impact of the Virgilian ‘ideal’ on theologians, political thinkers, churchmen and statesmen throughout the Middle Ages and that would be a vast undertaking. I bet one exists, though. I’d love to read it.

This was, after all, only a half-hour radio lecture. Eliot’s sensitivity and insight and intellect bring out all kinds of aspects of Virgil’s achievement. And his thesis – that Virgil’s achievement of creating the notion of an ideal empire was to haunt the European imagination – is one of those ideas which is itself so big and vague that you can’t really prove or disprove it. But it’s an interesting perspective to add to the hundreds of other perspectives with which we can view Virgil’s epic poem.

Eliot concludes his essay with a page about a word which is missing from Virgil which is ‘love’. Amor does crop up, especially in the story of Dido and Aeneas. But it has nowhere near the force and central importance that it has for a Christian poet like Dante. It never has:

the same significance as a principle of order in the human soul, in society and in the universe that pietas is given.

Thus Eliot agrees (no surprise) with Dante’s positioning of Virgil in the Divine Comedy as an inspired teacher and guide right up to the barrier of belief, which he is not allowed to cross. In Eliot’s view Virgil mapped out a universe which in many ways anticipated the Christian universe, and handed many of its values onto later generations of Christian thinkers (and poets). But there is a line and Virgil doesn’t cross over into being a Christian. He can’t.

Instead, Virgil was limited by his position in history: the highest value he can conceive of, the value which underpins so much of the character and action of the Aeneid, was pietas, respect for father, family and fatherland.

But the highest value for the Christian poet Dante was love, the love which has created the entire universe and moves the sun and the stars and which we can all aspire to. Next to the gorgeous rose of Dante’s universe of love, Virgil’s pietas is a hard, iron sword, the colour of Roman imperialism.


Other Eliot reviews

Roman reviews

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy (2014) – 1

Augustus was one of the most successful rulers of all time. He rescued Rome from the recurring collapse of its political institutions into civil war which dogged the years 100 to 30 BC, and established an entirely new form of government – what he called the ‘principate’ but which came to be called imperial rule – which went on to last for 250 years. Even after the empire collapsed in the West, its ghostly image lived in for a further thousand years in Byzantium.

Augustus ruled longer than any other Roman ruler, whether king, dictator or emperor. He nearly doubled the size of the empire. His reforms endured for centuries. It beggars belief that he entered the toxic jungle of Roman politics when he was just eighteen years old and proceeded to outwit and defeat all his opponents, defeating some in war, having some murdered, forcing others to commit to suicide, to emerge as the unchallenged ruler of the greatest empire Europe has ever seen.

Augustus’s name

First, the name. He was born Caius Octavius. On being adopted as Julius Caesar’s heir he took his legal father’s name, becoming Caius Julius Caesar. In the decade after Caesar’s assassination he slowly dropped the Caius, sometimes operating under the exact same name as the dead general, sometimes adding the title Imperator at the start of his name. Mark Antony commented that he was ‘a boy who owed everything to his name’ which was certainly true at the start. When Caesar was deified by the senate, Octavianus added ‘son of the divine Julius’ in some contexts. Finally, in 27, he was awarded the made-up title ‘Augustus’ by the senate.

In other words, maybe the most important thing about Augustus is his shape-shifting changes of identity. He played the Name Game as deftly as he played the terrifying power politics of the Republic. And when it ceased to be a republic and he established himself as the sole authority figure, he was again careful not to use the name king (heaven forbid) or even empire and emperor. Instead he used the semi-official term princeps meaning ‘first citizen’ to describe himself and principate to describe the kind of political system he proceeded to build around him.

Goldsworthy says he will use the name Julius Caesar to refer to him, but I think that’s pretty confusing. Although I take the point that only his enemies called him Octavianus, I will use the more usual tradition of calling him Octavian until he is awarded the title Augustus.

Goldsworthy says historians tend to divide history into neat periods, having the Republican era end with the assassination of Julius and starting the Augustan era with the defeat of Antony at Actium. This has the effect of underplaying the key period from 44 to 31 BC which Octavian spent mostly in Rome or Italy, consolidating his grip on power by establishing favourites, contacts and clients who he placed in positions of power at all levels.

Dr Adrian Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy was (born in Wales in 1969, educated at private school and Oxford) is a historian specialising in the Roman army and Roman history (although he has also written half a dozen historical novels set during the Napoleonic wars). According to his introduction to this book, it was while developing his interest in the Roman army into a blockbuster biography of Julius Caesar (2006) that he became aware of the glaring absence of a good, scholarly but accessible biography of the latter’s adoptive son and heir, Caius Octavianus, known to history as the emperor Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD), inventor of the Roman Empire. So he wrote it.

It’s a big book, 607 pages long, including a 100 pages of bibliography, notes, index, a glossary of terms, a list of key personages, and a series of intimidatingly complicated family trees of the key players. But beyond this, it is also an outstanding introduction to the rules and practices surrounding Roman power.

Augustus’s father

In the opening 50 pages in particular, as Goldsworthy describes the promising career of Augustus’s father (Caius Octavius, born 100 BC and steadily rising through the ranks of the cursus honorem and just about to stand for consul when he died of a sudden illness in 59) he interweaves masses of background information about the Roman constitution, customs and conventions, which make the book a useful introduction to all aspects of the Rome of the late Republic.

Background facts

I found his explanation of the precise way in which elections to the different magistracies were held particularly enlightening (the election of the praetors pages 41 to 43), but he also gives to-the-point explanations of:

  • Roman marriage (a Roman husband had only to utter the phrase ‘take your things for yourself’ – tuas res tibi habeto – to separate from his wife, p.163)
  • the meanings of the words optimates (the best men or aristocracy), populares (aristocrats pandering the populist agenda such as free food allowance, forgiveness of debts or land distribution), plebs (the majority of people, defined in contrast to the patricians, or ‘best’ or more noble families) (p.51)
  • the property qualifications needed to be a member of the equites or knightly class
  • the absence of any political parties and so the way Roman society was structured around bonds of obligation between patrons and clients

He explains exactly which officials were involved in Roman trials and how the court was physically laid out (p.43). (Cicero thought so highly of Caius Octavius’s conduct as praetor supervising trials that he wrote to his brother Quintus telling him to copy his example, p.44.) He explains how the role of provincial governor was notoriously regarded as a way to get rich quick by extorting taxes and bribes from Rome’s subjects (p.45).

Training boys He tells us how boys of aristocratic families from the age of five were encouraged to observe their fathers going about their business, receiving clients, attending the senate. Within a year or so they began physical exercise on the Campus Martius and learned to ride a horse, throw a javelin and fight with sword or shield.

Education There were about 20 schools in Rome, for those who could afford them, though the really rich would hire a grammaticus, a teacher of language and literature, to tutor their sons in reading and writing at home (p.55).

Background He gives very clear accounts of the events which formed the background to preceded Gaius’s career, namely the civil war between Marius and Sulla in the 80s, then the rise of the boy wonder general Pompey in the 70s, the rebellions of Lepidus and Sertorius, the disaffection which led up to the conspiracy of Catilina in 63 BC which was the same year Pompey returned from his military command against Mithridates in Asia and ostentatiously disbanded his army at Brundisium, thus demonstrating his democratic bona fides.

Unlike Mary Beard’s rambling history of Rome, which organises itself around a succession of irritating rhetorical questions, Goldsworthy just gets on and tells you interesting stuff, very interesting stuff, in plain no-nonsense prose, which is why I found this an addictive read.

More background facts

Women’s names Roman women kept their name throughout their lives and did not change it at marriage. Generally they only had one name, unlike aristocratic men who had three (the praenomen, nomen and cognomen, sometimes with a nickname added), hence Julia, Fulvia, Terentia, Tullia. They were generally given a female version of the clan name, hence Caius Julius Caesar’s sister was called Julia and Marcus Tullius Cicero’s daughter was named Tullia (p.23), Titus Pomponia’s daughter was called Pomponia (p.356) and so on.

If there were two daughters they were given the same name and the aftername major or minor, meaning in this context, older and junior. If many daughters, they were sometimes numbered: Julia 1, Julia 2, Julia 3 and so on. Thus Augustus’s mother, Atia, was so called because it was the gens or family name of her father, Marcus Atius Balbus. She probably had an older sister, who had the same name, and so was sometimes called Atia Secunda.

Marriage alliances Marriage was a tool of political alignment or social advantage, consolidating links between (generally powerful) families. Hence Pompey’s marriage to Caesar’s daughter, Julia, and Octavius marrying his sister, Octavia, off to Mark Antony (p.35).

Personal abuse was the common coin of political exchanges (p.33) in fact high political discourse and, by extension the courts, were characterised by astonishing levels of ‘violent and imaginative abuse’ (p.131).

Publicans There was a profession of men who undertook state contracts such as collecting taxes in subjugated provinces. These were called publicani, a term which is translated as publicans in the King James version of the New Testament.

Personality Having just read some courtroom speeches by Cicero, it is relevant to read that in the many elections held for official office throughout the Roman year, the electors rarely if ever voted for a clearly articulated political programme or policies, but far more on the basis of character (plus a hefty amount of bribery) – more or less as jurors at trials were subjected to much more argumentation about the defendant’s (and the prosecuting and defence attorney’s) characters, than about any actual facts or evidence (p.37).

Clients The importance to politicians of being accompanied at all times by a crowd of clients, who waited outside your front door from early morning, some of whom you admitted for audience, the rest following you as you emerged and made your way down to the forum and to the senate house. If eminent or notable men were in this attending crowd, all the better (p.39).

These ties of family, clan and class were not incidental but intrinsic to Roman society:

Men rose to high office through the support of new or inherited friendships and bonds of patronage, and by marriage alliances. (p.356)

The praetors Each year eight praetors were elected, seven of them to preside over the seven courts of quaestiones established by the dictator Sulla, the eighth to be praetor urbanus with wide-ranging legal powers.

Prosecuting Goldsworthy confirms D.H. Berry’s account in his introduction to Cicero’s defence speeches, that a) since there was no equivalent of the Crown or State legal cases could only be brought by individuals and b) prosecuting was seen as invidious, unless one was defending family pride or there was a really gross example of wrongdoing – and so accusers tended to be young men out to make a name for themselves with one or two eye-catching prosecutions, before settling into the more congenial and socially accepted role of defence counsel, exactly the career Cicero followed (p.43), a point repeated on page 281:

Prosecution was generally left to the young, and had long provided an opportunity for youthful aristocrats to catch the public eye at an early stage in their careers.

The rabble rouser Publius Clodius Pulcher’s support came largely from the collegia or guilds of tradesemen (p.57).

Aristocratic funerals were public events, designed to impress and remind everyone of a family’s antiquity and noble achievements for the state, commencing with a ceremony in the forum and then a procession to beyond the city walls where the cremation was carried out (p.65).

The toga is, on the face of it, a simple item of clothing: a roughly semicircular cloth, between 12 and 20 feet long, worn draped over the shoulders and around the body. It was usually woven from white wool, and was worn over a tunic. But there were at least half a dozen types or styles, several of which had important social meanings:

  • the toga virilis or ‘toga of manhood’, also known as toga alba or toga pura was a plain white toga, worn on formal occasions by adult male commoners, and by senators not holding a curule magistracy: it represented adult male citizenship and its attendant rights, freedoms and responsibilities
  • the toga praetexta, a white toga with a broad purple stripe on its border, worn over a tunic with two broad, vertical purple stripes, the formal costume for:
    • curule magistrates in their official functions
    • freeborn boys before they came of age
    • the strip indicated the wearer’s protection by law from sexual predation and immoral; a praetexta was thought effective against malignant magic, as were a boy’s bulla, and a girl’s lunula, amulets they wore round their necks
  • the toga candida or ‘bright toga’, from the Latin adjective candida, meaning pure white, a toga rubbed with chalk to a dazzling white and worn by candidates for election
  • the toga picta or ‘painted toga’, dyed solid purple, decorated with imagery in gold thread and worn over a similarly-decorated tunica palmata, this was worn by generals in their triumphs

Courtesans Goldsworthy explains something which had slightly puzzled me in the plays of Plautus and Terence, which is that, above and beyond the many brothels in Rome, there was a class of high-end courtesans ‘who needed to be wooed and cared for in expensive style’ (p.69). In England in 2022, I imagined that a client pays for a courtesan and then can have his way, but the comedies of Plautus and Terence depict courtesans as being every bit as independent and strong-willed as a mistress.

Senate hours The senate was not allowed to sit after dusk. As the sun set senators knew it was time to wind up a debate. This explains how Marcus Porcius Cato was able on numerous occasions to filibuster or talk non-stop, refusing to sit down, until dusk came and the session had to end, in order to prevent decisions being passed which he objected to (p.107).

Centurions Goldsworthy is at pains to bust various myths, for example the one that centurions were experienced old bloods raised from the ranks to become a kind of sergeant major figure. Wrong. They ‘were men of property and often came from the aristocracies of the country towns of Italy’ (p.123).

Piety (pietas in Latin), the honour owed to gods, country and especially parents, was a profound and very Roman duty. [Augustus] proclaimed his own pietas as he avenged his murdered father. (p.158)

Pietas was a virtue central to Rome’s sense of identity and the neglect of proper reverence due to the old gods of the Roman people was symptomatic of the moral decline of recent generations, so evident in the decades of discord and violence. (p.224)

Moral explanations of everything As I explained in reviews of Plutarch and Cicero’s speeches, lacking any of the numerous theories which we nowadays use to explain social change and development, all the Romans had was a very basic recourse to notions of morality:

Moral explanations for upheaval came most readily to the Roman mind, and so restoration must involve changes in behaviour, conduct and a reassertion of a good relationship with the gods who had guided Rome’s rise to greatness. (p.224)

Auguries In a sense, you can see the rich paraphernalia of auguries, soothsayers, oracles and so on as reflecting the same complete absence of rational theory. Completely lacking the modern infrastructure of statistics, data, social trends, as we use them to analyse and manage the economy, trade, population, illness and even military encounters, the ancients were thrown back on two extremely primitive vectors of explanation – the moral character of Great Men, and the moods or wishes of the capricious gods.

Animal sacrifice (p.331)

Decimation was the traditional punishment, though already antiquated by Octavius’s day, of punishing a mutinous or cowardly legion by having one man in ten beaten to death and the rest shamed by receiving barley – food traditionally given to slaves and animals – instead of wheat (p.177)

Spolia opima (‘rich spoils’) were the armour, arms, and other effects that an ancient Roman general stripped from the body of an opposing commander slain in single combat. The spolia opima were regarded as the most honourable of the several kinds of war trophies a commander could obtain, including enemy military standards and the peaks of warships.

Caesar’s scruples By the time Octavius, Antony and Lepidus had raised armies to back them up, with Cassius and Brutus raising armies in the East and Sextus Pompeius in control of Sicily i.e. in the late 40s BC, the issue which triggered the civil war between Caesar and Pompey – whether Caesar was allowed to enter Italy with his army of Gaul – had vanished like dew, become completely irrelevant in a world where first Octavius, then Antony, not only marched legions on Rome, but put it under military occupation. All the pettifogging precision of the debates about Caesar’s rights and privileges were ancient history within less than a decade (p.178)

Antony’s drunkenness Many of the leading politicians were also authors, pre-eminently Caesar. Mark Antony published just the one book, De sua ebrietate (‘On his drunkenness’) a touchy defence admitting that he liked getting drunk buy denying accusations that he was ever under the influence while performing official or military duties. Sadly, like the autobiographies of Sulla and Augustus himself, it has not survived (p.185).

Aged 33 When he was 33, Julius Caesar encountered a statue of Alexander the Great in Spain, and according to Plutarch and Suetonius either burst into tears or heaved a heavy sigh and explained to his colleagues that by his age Alexander had conquered the known world whereas he, Caesar, had achieved nothing. By sharp contrast, Goldsworthy points out how, with the deaths of Brutus and Cassius, Anthony and Cleopatra, by 30 BC Octavius, himself now widely known as Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, had done the same – making himself master of Rome and unrivalled ruler of the Mediterranean world (p.194). He commanded 60 legions, more than any Roman commander in history (p.204).

Special commands The wonderfully intricate and carefully balanced Roman constitution was a marvel of checks and balances, but it also led, increasingly in the late Republic, to blockage and inaction, as rival political leaders preferred to stymy each other’s initiatives regardless of the best interests of the Republic. Which is why the state found itself reverting increasingly to giving Special Commands to (particularly military) commanders, such as Pompey received to sort out the pirates, then sort out King Mithridates. And which, unconsciously, as it were, prepared both the senate and the people to the idea that rule by one man (Augustus) was more likely to get things done than the increasingly fractious rule of consuls, tribunes and the rest of it (p.235).

Augustus was able to make things happen. If he was not involved then the inertia which had characterised senatorial government for so many years seemed to return. (p.276)

Images In the long years of his rule Augustus worked hard to ensure that his image became more widespread around the Mediterranean than the images of any other individual, whether human or divine. It was on every coin, created in mints all round the empire, and depicted in thousands of statues he had erected in towns and cities everywhere. We have far more images of Augustus than any other figure from the ancient world (250 statues survive and countless coins).

He was everywhere, his name, image or symbols on monuments in the heart of Rome, in the towns of Italy and throughout the provinces. (p.305)

And yet he single-handedly overthrew the longstanding Roman tradition of very realistic sculpture which depicts figures such as Marius, Sulla, Caesar or Pompey with distinctive features, jowls and wrinkles, with pomaded quiffs or thin combovers or whatever – Augustus swept this all away and ensured the image of him was standardised around the empire, to depict an idealised image of the nations’ ruler, handsome, authoritative and tall, and above all in the prime of manhood, young and virile and decisive.

Statue of Augustus found in 1863 nine miles from Rome in the suburb of Prima Porta. Note the depiction on his breastplate of the return to Rome of the legionary standards seized by the Parthians in victories over Crassus and Antony, but returned to Augustus in 20 BC

Among the thousands of images of Augustus which survive none deviate from this strict model, there are no images of him as a middle-aged or old man (p.256). And yet we know from Suetonius how far removed from reality this image was: in real life Octavius was shorter than average, with bad teeth, and a skin so sensitive that far from strutting round in military armour he preferred to be carried about in a litter and wore a broad-brimmed floppy hat to protect himself from the sun (Goldsworthy p.300; Suetonius Augustus, 82).

Temper Augustus had a bad temper, something he learned to control in later life. One of his tutors, the Greek teacher of rhetoric Athenodorus, told him that every time he lost his temper, ‘recite the alphabet before you speak’ (p.202).

Goldsworthy’s military expertise

Goldsworthy began his career as a military historian of the Roman army. His first publications were:

  • The Roman Army at War 100 BC (1996)
  • Roman Warfare (2000)
  • The Punic Wars (2000)
  • Fields of Battle: Cannae (2001)
  • Caesar’s Civil War: 49 to 44 BC (2002)
  • The Complete Roman Army (2003)

His summaries of the hectic political events which led up to the assassination of Caesar (15 March 44 BC) and then the confused manouevrings of the various parties in the years that followed are always good and clear, and he also gives, as mentioned above, a continual feed of clear, useful background information about all aspects of the Roman state.

But with the outbreak of the wars which Octavius was directly involved in, from about page 100 onwards, the narrative gives more space and time to explaining the campaigns and battles and the military background than previously – the number of legions, their actual likely strengths, their supply lines and so on. Suddenly a good deal more military history is included.

Several things emerge from this: for a start size mattered:

In the civil wars of these years there was great emphasis on mass, on simply fielding more legions than the opposition. There was also a well-entrenched Roman belief that throwing numbers and resources at a problem ought to being success. (p.165)

A commander’s prestige relied more on the number of his legions than the precise total of soldiers under his command, so there was a tendency to raise lots of units, which in turn had the added advantage of giving plenty of opportunities to promote loyal followers to the senior ranks. (p.125)

Another key and surprising fact which emerges is that the Roman armies weren’t that good. Good enough to defeat chaotic barbarians, maybe, but just because they were Romans didn’t guarantee quality. Goldsworthy goes out of his way to highlight that Mark Antony was very much not the great military leader later historians mistake him for, having had quite limited experience of command. Several examples: none of the four main commanders at the Battle(s) of Philippi (3 and 23 October 42 BC), Mark Antony, Octavius, Cassius or Brutus, had anything like the experience of Pompey or Caesar. Moreover they had, as explained above, all devoted a lot of energy to raising large armies without making sure that they were particularly well trained; in fact new recruits were by definition the opposite; easily spooked and ready to run.

This was a war fought by large and clumsy armies, where none of the senior officers had any experience of warfare on so grand a scale. On each side the armies remained to a great degree separate, loyal only to the leader who paid them. They formed up beside each other, but they were not integrated into a single command. (p.138)

This all explains why Philippi was such a confusing mess:

Cumbersome and essentially amateur armies given poor leadership, or none at all, turned the First Battle of Philippi into a draw. (p.141)

This is very important information but it’s the kind of thing which is often skipped over in political histories which concentrate solely on the political machinations between rivals. And yet Roman history is pre-eminently military; it was a highly militarised society in which the entire aristocracy was trained and motivated to achieve glorious victories in war.

The greatest service to the Republic was to defeat a foreign enemy. (p.173)

That quite a few of these military leaders were actually incompetent is something which is glossed over in other accounts but foregrounded in Goldsworthy’s.

This explains, for example, the wretched destruction of Marcus Licinius Crassus’s badly led and undisciplined army in Parthia in 53 BC; and also sheds light on Antony’s almost-as-disastrous defeat in the same territory in 36 BC (this is a summary from Wikipedia):

As Antony marched his huge army of 80,000 soldiers into Parthian territory the Parthians simply withdrew. In order to move faster, Antony left his logistics train in the care of two legions (approximately 10,000 soldiers), which was attacked and completely destroyed by the Parthian army before Antony could rescue them. Antony pressed his army forward and set siege to the provincial capital but failed to take it and by mid-October had to withdraw. The retreat was mercilessly harried by the Parthians. According to Plutarch, eighteen battles were fought between the retreating Romans and the Parthians during the month-long march back to Armenia, with approximately 20,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry dying during the retreat alone.

And so, from page 100 or thereabouts, Goldsworthy with his military historian hat on gives us descriptions of various campaigns which aren’t disproportionately long but longer than a political historian without his specialist military knowledge would have given:

  • Antony’s siege of the senatorial army in Mutina, pages 115 to 120
  • the build-up to the decisive Battle of Philippi, from page 134
  • the campaign against Sextus Pompeius in Sicily, pages 165 to 168
  • Octavius’s campaign in Illyria, pages 174 to 178
  • Antony’s big military disaster in Parthia, pages 172 to 173
  • Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium, pages 188 to 192

Goldsworthy makes another interesting point which is that, ideally, the Romans didn’t negotiate:

For the Romans, true peace was the product of victory, ideally so complete that the same enemy would never need to be fought again…Conflicts ended with absolute victory, the Romans dictating the terms, and not in compromise or concessions. (p.197)

This helps to explain the way that, in Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, he was continually looking for excuses to crush new enemies: the slightest provocation or incursion was all he needed to justify punitive invasions and crushing conquest (p.226) which his critics in Rome (notable Cato the Younger) thought unwarranted and illegal.

Peace was celebrated but it was a Roman peace, following on from military victory…[a] peace of unchallenged Roman dominance. (p.359)

On the one hand this unremitting drive for total victory explains the sense of an unstoppable military machine which peoples all round the Mediterranean experienced. But on the downside, it explains the bitterness and the brutality of their civil wars, for they brought the same drive for total victory to their wars among themselves (p.197).

They don’t swamp the book at all, but Goldsworthy gives more detail about the state and nature of the armies and combatants in these and many other confrontations than a purely political historian would give, and, as always with Goldsworthy, it is presented in a clear, factual way and is very interesting.

Octavius’s escapades

Goldsworthy sheds a shrewd sidelight on the various narratives of this time which have come down to us. In a lot of the official narratives put out by Octavius’s side during this early, battle-strewn part of his life, mention was made of the future emperor’s lucky escapes, when he was nearly hit by a javelin, or escaped from some fire with only singed hair, or was only slightly hurt when a siege drawbridge he was leading troops across collapsed.

Goldsworthy makes the shrewd point that in his great-uncle and adopted father’s copious accounts of his wars in Gaul, Caesar rarely makes an appearance in the fighting (though once or twice he does seize a standard or shield and charge to the front, rallying his troops). In Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars the events – Caesar’s relentless steamroller sequence of victories –are allowed to speak for themselves and are all the more impressive for it.

By complete contrast, many of the battles and campaigns Octavius was personally involved in were far more mixed or problematic or failures in outcome – and so the narrative genre is completely different, and is concerned with how Fortune Smiled on our gallant hero as he pulled off a series of close shaves and narrow escapes. This focus on Our Lucky Hero also conveniently concealed the fact that, when he did win, Octavius almost always owed his victory to talented subordinates (above all the tremendously competent and reliable Marcus Vipsania Agrippa). No Caesar he, and he early realised it but learned to turn it – like everything else – to his advantage. (p.169)

Cleopatra

Goldsworthy’s half a dozen myth-busters include quite a big one about queen Cleopatra. Contrary to Egyptian nationalists, Cleopatra was Greek, came from a Greek family, had a Greek name and spoke Greek. There is, according to Goldsworthy, no evidence that she was very interested in the traditional Egyptian gods, but instead cleaved to the Hellenistic gods which held sway around most of the Mediterranean.

Second, she was in essence no different from the numerous other kings, rulers and tetrarchs scattered around the Eastern Mediterranean, generally struggling with family feuds and civil wars at home, who tried to curry favour with whichever Roman ruler was uppermost. Cleopatra’s main achievement was to prostitute herself out to not one but two of them, having affairs with and children by Julius Caesar (a son who she named Caesarion but Caesar never showed interest in) and then with Mark Antony (twins who she named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II, in 40 BC, and a third, Ptolemy Philadelphus, in 36 BC).

When Mark Anthony committed suicide on the approach of Octavius’s army to the capital, Alexandria, the 29-year-old survivor prepared herself for another seduction and impregnation:

She had always been a loyal ally of Rome, and would no doubt exploit her subjects just as enthusiastically for his benefit as she had for Julius Caesar and Antony. (p.192)

Goldsworthy argues that Cleopatra’s prominence in history is at least in part due to Octavius’s propaganda. It is factually correct that she had a long affair with Antony which lasted to the end of his life, and the children, and that the departure of her ships from the naval engagement off Actium prompted Antony to withdraw and thus lose the battle – but at the same time it suited Octavius very well indeed to exaggerate what to a patriotic Roman audience were all the negative aspects of the situation: that Antony was in thrall to a woman; that he had deserted his noble, long-suffering Roman wife, Octavia; that he let his administrative and military decisions be swayed by a female – all anathema to Roman values (p.192).

Change in narrative tone

Somewhere after page 200 (maybe with the start of Part Four on page 217) the narrative undergoes another subtle change in feel or vibe. The subject matter becomes more…pedestrian. It took me a while to realise why this was but Goldsworthy himself explains it on page 281:

The historian Dio lamented that it was harder to recount events after Augustus’ victory in the Civil War than it was before, since so many key decisions were taken in private and unrecorded, while much that was in the public domain was merely an empty ceremony.

That’s what it is. In the dozen or so accounts I’ve read of the troubled century from 133 to 27 BC there were always multiple players and combatants, vying for political power, either within the bounds of the constitution or spilling over into conflict, all having to stand for election, make speeches in the senate or addressing the popular assemblies or writing accounts of their doings or speeches – historians are able to give often very detailed accounts of political manoeuvrings and positionings because there are so many players involved and many of them left records or we have good accounts from contemporary or near contemporary historians.

Then Augustus wins total victory and it all goes quiet. By the time he has won he is the last man standing: Pompey, Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Cassius, Brutus, Antony, one by one all the great men of the previous generation were killed or killed themselves, leaving Octavius the sole figure on the stage.

He was very careful not to have himself declared dictator, as the ill-fated Caesar did, but to work through the channels of the Republican constitution, to continue to have elections of consuls and tribunes carried out, it was just that he arranged for himself to be elected ten years in a row and arranged who was to be his partner consul. There continued to be a senate, larger than ever in terms of numbers, all holding debates and speaking in the time-honoured way except that none of their debates carried any weight and many of the recorded speeches are eulogies to the princeps as he had himself called, a steady roll call of titles and awards which a grateful nation kept giving him.

Previously we had Pompey and Caesar and the senate all squabbling like ferrets in a sack and historians can calculate what each player’s motives were, and interpret each one’s moves, declarations and so on. And then… a great smothering blanket settles over Roman political life because only one man made the decisions. We have a record of the decisions but why he made them, what his thinking was, remains a matter of speculation.

Which is why all biographies of Augustus circle round to the same conclusion: that he was a mystery, an enigma, unknowable, in a way that Caesar and Pompey and Crassus and Cicero feel highly knowable. He wrote an autobiography but that has vanished. All we have is the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a monumental inscription composed 35 paragraphs, grouped into four sections – political career, public benefactions, military accomplishments and a political statement – which manage to smother the turbulence and problems of what turned out to be the longest rule by any Roman emperor (45 years) into a series of bland, corporate achievements. It sounds like this:

Wars, both civil and foreign, I undertook throughout the world, on sea and land, and when victorious I spared all citizens who sued for pardon.

And:

I pacified the Alps, from the area closest to the Adriatic Sea all the way to the Tuscan Sea, without waging an unjust war against any tribe. (quoted p.334)

We have this and the biographies of later historians, namely Suetonius (69 to 120 AD), which capture snippets of gossip and factoids, but the rest…is a record of decisions by one of the colossi of history whose ‘true character’, despite hundreds of thousands of analyses, remains a mystery.

Pronunciation

The Latin pronunciation is:

  • praetor – pry-tor
  • quaestor – kwy-stor
  • Julius Kye-zer
  • Kikero

But if, in English, we say Julius Sea-zer, then it follows that all Latin words with ‘ae’ should be pronounced ‘e’ – hence preetor, queestor and so on.


Credit

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy was published in 2014 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 2015 paperback edition.

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