Poetry and the State in the Last Days of Rome

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia and Livia

Relationships between poetry and politics come in many forms, and are nearly always uneasy.

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Before the days of multi-million pound advertising campaigns, spats on Question Time and queasy pre-election advertisement videos, poets like Milton, Marvell or Dryden could be crucial tools of political propaganda, dressing a regime’s message in wit and arresting imagery to make it palatable, ridiculing the opposition- but always inviting criticism for disingenousness, self-advancement at the price of integrity (often entirely fairly, as anyone who’s ever tried to slog through Dryden’s crushingly dull Astrea Redux or Annus Mirabilis will testify). Ancient Greek tragic drama, meanwhile, was an essential part of the pageantry of a newly-established democratic system, performed at festivals that everywhere flaunted the wealth and power of the city-state, and honoured the citizens who served it- so it is perhaps paradoxical, then, that the drama is nearly always concerned with the behaviour of kings, and its potentially ruinous effects on whole nations. Sometimes, like in Shakespeare’s histories or Roman plays, literature simply imagines politics, recreating the momentous decisions, power struggles and schemes that happen behind closed doors from its visible scraps: pageantry, paraphernalia, rhetoric.

Image shows Richard II being arrested, from a medieval manuscript illustration.
“Let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings…”

But this sort of literature can get its writer into trouble: a well-known story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was enraged by a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II commissioned by the Earl of Essex on the eve of a conspiracy to overthrow her, because a monarch is usurped and killed in the play. The queen’s archivist, William Lambarde records her memorable demand: ‘I am Richard, know ye not that?’ Finally, satire sets itself up in opposition to the establishment; but writers of satirical poetry are always accused of hypocrisy, of holding up an untenable moral standard that is already broken by the genre’s obsession with the contemptible and the revolting.
Against these categories, the political engagements of the poets of Ancient Rome, especially during its bloody transition from Republic to Empire, emerge as doubly vexed. The Civil Wars are everywhere imagined, both in historical writing about the period and contemporary accounts, as the collapse of all political and moral standards. The Republic had been, nominally at least, founded on beloved principles of equality and freedom1 which were entirely desecrated both in the shameless corruption and self-interest of its politicians in the last years before the civil wars, and in the wars’ conclusion, the establishment of an empire with a single head of state. Simultaneously, though, the Civil Wars, and the Empire they installed, were inextricably related to the extension of Rome’s power abroad: the wars arose at least in part as a result of Rome’s dependence upon huge and powerful armies, and generals who rose to godlike fame, to police existing territories, and push its boundaries further and further. A final complicating factor was that Roman poets worked according to a firmly-established system of patronage, always writing for someone richer, more powerful, and often connected to the political establishment. Indeed, after Augustus’s victory over Antony, he was determined to incorporate the arts in service of the state: he built great monuments, famously boasting on his deathbed that he found a Rome of bricks, and left one of marble, and commissioned poems that would glorify his regime: in effect, Augustus became the ultimate patron.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all History & Classics articles."For these reasons, among others Roman poets look at the world with a tortured double-vision.  Through one lens, it might gleam with progress, a new peace, a godly ruler who invites unrestrained praise; but through another, it is corrupt, decaying, stained with the blood of the thousands of poor, rustic Italians who died in the wars, or were chased off their farms by the emperor, who seized land in the countryside and redistributed it to his war veterans in lieu of payment. Here, I’m going to look at three poets’ negotiations of the civil wars: one who wrote in the last days of the Republic, and two who wrote in service of the new emperor.

Image shows a group of actors from a mosaic in Pompeii.
Catullus’s poems describe the social life of the time.

In an essay about war and politics, love lyric might seem a funny starting-point. But Gaius Valerius Catullus’s irreverent, sensuous book of carmina on love, sex and sociability has been read by some scholars as a complicated, interesting response to what the author perceived as the moral depravity of the political world. Catullus’s speaker is always lampooning contemporary politicians, in terms that suggest utter disgust: Julius Caesar is ‘pathicoque Caesarique’- ‘sick Caesar’; Cicero is praised (perhaps ironically) as the most learned of all Romans; poem 56 is addressed to a Cato. The world of dinner parties, art, endless exchanges of verses, and secret nightly visits to unfamiliar houses that the poet constructs throughout the collection is at the same time a turn away from the political and a response to it: sociability, Catullus seems to be implying, has a valid moral improving force of its own (if this seems a bit weak as a political response, think of the fate of poor Cicero- who outspokenly resisted change, and ended up with his head on a spike!). Take the narrator’s secret affair with the wealthier, unpredictable married woman who referred to throughout the book as ‘Lesbia’, for example. The speaker consistently praises his lover in terms that elevate her both physically and morally: in poem 86, her beauty eclipses all other women. In the famous poem 51, Lesbia’s mere presence elevates her husband to a godlike status, and stuns the speaker into silence. In the Lesbia poems, moreover, Catullus frequently refers to the affair in the language of familial bonds: in poem 72, the narrator remembers how he used to adore her ‘not just like an ordinary lover, but like a father loves his sons and sons-in-law’; 109 is a prayer to the gods that ‘this endless bond of sacred friendship’ might last the lovers’ whole lives. Poem 87 perhaps best exemplifies the sense one finds everywhere, that Catullus is imagining an almost moral code in the conduct of secret love affairs:
No woman can say she’s been loved so much,
as my Lesbia has in truth been loved by me.
No faith in any tie was ever so great,

As my loyalty in loving you.
The relationship, then, leaves us with a very real sense that there is good in what is pleasurable- a world of sociable pleasure can make people better. This is echoed in poems like 12, which rebukes a dinner-guest for stealing some napkins at a party, and 13, an invitation to a friend to dinner, which demands the friend bring a gift, and forecasts the ‘wine and wit and all sorts of fun’ that will be had at the party. Catullus’s answer to a rotten political system, then, is to escape into poetry and pleasure- which offers answers of its own.

Image shows the assassination of Julius Caesar, as painted by Carl Theodor von Piloty.
The assassination of Julius Caesar took place between the publication of Catullus’s Carmina and Horace’s Odes.

We don’t know exactly when Catullus wrote his Carmina– all we can be sure of is that it was at some time near to the end of the Roman Republic (in 27 BC)- so although Horace’s Odes, published in 23 BC, might be very close to Catullus’s publication in time, an inappreciable amount had changed. Caesar had been murdered in the Senate-house; Antony and Cleopatra defeated at Actium; Augustus had established himself as Rome’s sole ruler, quietly assuming all important public positions one at a time. Horace’s patron was Maecenas, a wealthy Optimate who in turn was employed by Augustus; however, somewhat problematically, Horace had fought on the side of the Republicans in the Civil Wars (interestingly, many poets who have imitated Horace have been accused of disingenuousness and empty flattery). In Ode 3.14, the poet addresses the problem of his past, as his narrator contrasts his current placid nature with a keenness to fight in his youth:
lenit albescence animos capillus
litium et rixae cupidos protervae:
non ego hoc ferren calidus iuventa
consule Planco (Odes 3.14.25-29)
My greying hair softens a spirit eager
for arguments and passionate fights:
I’d not have endured it in my hot youth, while
Plancus was Consul.
Plancus was consul in the year 42 BC, the year in which Horace had fought on the side of Brutus at Phillippi; the poet therefore aligns his hot-tempered, youthful self with the enemy, and contrasts it with his present calmness- implying that he owes this happy state not just to age, but also to the pacifying influence of the emperor upon him. In doing so, he picks up a central claim of the Augustan regime: that the emperor’s rule meant eternal peace after the trauma of civil war.
Some scholars have perceived discontinuity in Horace’s third book of Odes, in which the opening six Roman Odes- great, vatic tributes to Augustus’s principate, which weave ancient mythology and history in alongside stern morality and the rules and customs of the new state- exist alongside poems in tribute of drunkenness, parties, feasts, beautiful fountains and evenings spent with women. However, like the poems of Catullus, Horace’s Odes everywhere present a world in which pleasure is in some way morally restorative: in fact, the poet implies, the ability to enjoy a world of sensuous gratification actually hinges upon the reign of the emperor Augustus and the morality and peace he has instated. In Ode 3.14, the safe return of Augustus from Spain, having conquered the Gauls, is best celebrated with pious ceremonies, parades through the streets- followed by a party with fine wine and a pretty girl.

Image shows Virgil reading the Aeneid, painted by Jean-Baptiste Wicar.
‘Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia’ by Jean-Baptiste Wicar – Image credit

Perhaps paradoxically, Virgil is simultaneously the most troubled of the poets I’ve considered here, and the one who became most firmly associated with the new regime. Of rustic origins, the young writer moved to Rome from a small village called Mantua at the civil war’s blistering heights. He wrote three major works: a set of ten poems in the pastoral mode, whose subjects are the lives of shepherds in a mysterious golden world laden with hidden meanings philosophical, poetical and political; a collection called the Georgics, on the workaday running of the farm; and his magnum opus, an epic commissioned by Augustus whose purpose was to praise and edify the new regime, unfinished on the poet’s death and seen by many (especially in the Renaissance) as the supreme example of epic poetry: the Aeneid.
Virgil’s writing is riven with contradictions. The Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, one of the sons of the Trojan king Priam, who escaped from old Troy on the night it was sacked and destroyed by the Greeks, and set off by sea to found a new nation for his people. Aeneas’s mother is the goddess Venus, and an ancient ancestor of Julius Caesar and Augustus himself: in forging a divine ancestry for the emperor and his adopted father, Virgil was validating their clan’s claim to rule. In Virgil’s hands, the mythological founding of Rome becomes an analogue for Augustus’s assumption of sole rule, and establishment of the empire: both follow years of vicious battle with a stable, long-lasting rule; both are carried out by members of the same clan; both are presented as divinely ordained, a return to a mythical golden age.
The poem opens, famously, with a storm and shipwreck- as Aeneas soon tells us, in a despairing address to the gods, and his men have been buffeted over land and sea for seven years, harried by the wrath of the persecuting goddess Juno. Jupiter, who (when Juno’s not creating havoc) directs the action of the poem and decides the fate of its characters, predicts an end to Aeneas’s suffering in a vision that spans vast amounts of space and time, and a resolution to the story that is intimately linked to Augustus’s reign: once Rome is established by Aeneas’s descendants, ‘imperium sine fine dedi’, he says- I have given (Rome) power without an end. So far, so good. The tone is of straightforward, unrestrained panegyric, introducing a narrative whose conclusion and climax is the founding of the city that will rise in power to rule over the world ‘without end’, with a divine leader at its head. And this is the tone that dominates much of the Aeneid: any reader of the text will recognise it as strongly teleological- even, perhaps, verging on chauvinistic in places.
But the writer of Rome’s most beloved poem wasn’t just a glib flatterer. To understand what Adam Parry famously called the ‘second voice’ in the epic, that everywhere counterbalances and points the first, questioning its premises and troubling its conclusions, we perhaps need to think a bit more about how the poet’s background might have shaped his perspectives. Though the exact details of his biography are somewhat problematic, we know that like Horace, Virgil was from the countryside- near a little Italian town called Mantua, in Cisalpine Gaul. The poet memorably names his home in a line of Eclogue 9, in a line which takes its particular sadness from the fact that Mantua, along with a number of the other towns that surrounded it in Cisalpine Gaul, found itself victim to Augustus’s land confiscations: a breathtakingly ruthless programme set in place to pay the soldiers who had fought for the emperor in the civil wars, giving them plots of land in the countryside by forcibly evicting the existing farmers. Eclogue 9 is a deeply moving poem in which Virgil imagines two shepherds, Moeris and Lycidas, meeting on a road outside a city. Moeris has been beaten, and chased off his lands by an occupying soldier, who will now take his sheep: he doesn’t know where he will go now, or how he will live. He remembers the plea of another shepherd that his town, Mantua, be spared from the confiscations:
Vare, tuom nomen, superet modo Mantua nobis,
Mantua uae miserae nimium uicina Cremonae,
cantantes sublime ferent ad sidera cycni.
Varus, your name, let but Mantua be spared to us- Mantua, alas! Too near ill-fated Cremona- singing swans shall bear aloft to the stars.

Image shows Aeneas fleeing Troy, painted by Federico Barocci.
‘Aeneas’ Flight from Troy’ by Federico Barocci.

Here, Virgil confronts his reader with the very human consequences of the process of establishing an empire built on a powerful army. And he does this throughout the Aeneid, even as he glorifies Augustus and the nation he is building. For many readers, the emotional centre of the poem is in Book 4, where Aeneas falls in love with Dido, the queen of Carthage, sleeps with her and delays his Trojans in the North African country – only to leave his lover in despair, and her country vulnerable to near-certain invasion by its neighbours when he is reminded by the god Mercury that it is his destiny to found a new city. When Dido uncovers Aeneas’s secret plans to leave her, and confronts him, distraught, the king replies abruptly, but betrays his sorrow: ‘Italiam non sponte sequor’, he says, ‘It’s not as though I seek Italy of my own free will’ (4.360). Virgil focuses our attention for most of the rest of the Book to Dido’s decidedly tragic suicide: the queen raves through the city, terrified at the evil portents she sees everywhere- and when awakens one night to see the image of Trojan ships disappearing on the horizon, climbs to the top of a huge pile of her lover’s objects and falls on her sword. Virgil gives his tragic heroine a spectacular final speech, in which she lists her lifelong achievements, her success in directing the development of Carthage- incomplete, because of Aeneas- and speaks these potent lines: ‘vixi, et quem dederat cursum Fortuna peregi, / et nunc magna mei sub terras ibit imago’; ‘I have lived, and I’ve faced whatever Fortune threw at me; and now my great soul will go beneath the earth’. All Dido’s triumphs, her bravery and resourcefulness in building and guarding a city of her own, are in an instant, brutally, erased by the imperative to found the city of Rome. The poem’s central themes of ‘arms and the man’- progress, action, victory- momentarily fade to the background as Virgil forces his reader to recognise their human consequences.
            Virgil never finished the Aeneid, and when he died, famously asked that it be burned- it was rescued from this fate and published by Augustus- perhaps because the emperor recognised that its compassionate ‘second voice’ does not really threaten its praise of the imperial project. What Virgil shows, more perhaps than either Catullus or Horace- but what is evident to modern readers of all three- is the deep anxiety of writers who were pretty much compelled to write in service of a regime they would not necessarily have supported of their own accord.

[1] Robin Lane Fox


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Image credits: banner; Richard II; theatre; Caesar; Aeneas