Augustus’s two great supporters
But we should not leave Augustus on this negative note, but rather realise that in these tumultuous times, he was remarkably sane. He may have begun as lusty a young man as the rest of them, but he ended up by trying to stamp out adultery. We should instead consider the remarkable way in which he attracted and maintained talent throughout his life: he had charisma and he attracted the best.
He had two followers in particular. The first was Agrippa, a friend from his boyhood days and his supporter and military commander throughout. Indeed Agrippa would have been his successor had he not died at the age of 51. Admittedly there was an episode after 23 BC when on his near death, Augustus handed his signet ring to Agrippa but took it back again when he recovered. Soon after he married off his daughter to his cousin Marcellus, a callow youth of 20, indicating that he intended him and not Agrippa to be his successor, so Agrippa took himself off to the east for a couple of years, whether in dudgeon, or simply because the East needed reorganisation, is still a matter for dispute. However when Marcellus died two years later, Julia was married off again, this time to Agrippa, indicating that this time he really was to be his successor.
Agrippa was not just a soldier, he was also a builder and organiser. Several years after he had been consul – the top post in the government – he was elected to the office of Aedile, which is a junior officer with responsibility for the buildings in Rome. In this position he set about rebuilding Rome, the aqueducts and the roads. It was said that Augustus found Rome of brick but left it as marble – but this was really Agrippa’s doing. Indeed the greatest surviving building in Rome, the Pantheon, has on its front an inscription saying that it was built by Agrippa, though it was rebuilt by Hadrian.
The other great supporter was Maecenas, who acted as his ‘Minister of culture’ or, for the cynical, his chief propagandist. In the early days he was a very wise political advisor constantly urging clemency and reconciliation with his enemies. It was Maecenas who supported and indeed paid the two great poets, Virgil and Horace and persuaded Virgil to write the great epic poem the Aeneid. (I always used to be rather put off by the Aeneid, seeing ‘pius Aeneas’ as being rather ‘wet’ but seeing it in context, with Aeneas being a sort of model for Augustus, it makes more sense, seeing Augustus trying to do his best for Rome but being forced at times to be rather ruthless. And then there was the historian Livy, who wrote a patriotic history of Rome from the origin down to the time of Augustus in 142 books, of which only 35 survive: he wrote wonderfully unobtrusive prose –and was a pretty good historian.
Augustus may have been ruthless at times – he had to be to survive – but what is remarkable is that his enemies were so few and that he succeeded in bringing so many brilliant and talented men to helping build a new and long-lasting Roman Empire.