But Augustus was no softy, and when necessary he could be extremely ruthless: his career is peppered with his opponents being outlawed or put to death. It started with the proscriptions of the triumvirate and continued right down to the end.
To understand Augustus‘s ruthlessness and his disregard for the feelings of others, it is interesting to consider the case of his marriages. His first marriage was to Claudia, step-daughter of Mark Antony, but he soon divorced her ‘intact and a virgin’ according to Suetonius. Then in 40 BC when he was 22, he married Scribonia, who was several years his senior, but she was well connected to the Pompeian faction, which may have been reason enough for marriage. The marriage was not altogether happy (Suetonius said that she nagged Augustus) But then Augustus fell in love with Livia, who was beautiful, intellectual, but cold: however she was well-connected, being a member of the Claudian family. Both were already married but Augustus promptly divorced Scribonia, and ordered Livia’s husband, Claudius Nero to divorce her, which he dutifully did. However Scribonia was already pregnant when he decided to divorce her, and on the day of the actual divorce, she gave birth to what proved to be Augustus’s only child, his daughter Julia.
Nevertheless Augustus remained married to Livia until his death, though unfortunately they were childless. However Augustus, rational if unromantic as always, realised that her children by her previous marriage were very bright, so he promptly adopted them. We thus have the strange situation that Augustus’s successors, the Julio-Claudians, were drawn jointly from the grandchildren of his daughter Julia and from his stepsons by his second wife’s previous marriage.
The story gets curiouser and curiouser. Augustus’s daughter Julia proved to be beautiful, intelligent, and promiscuous. At the age of 14 she was married to Marcellus, his cousin, just three years older than she was, who was thus designated as his possible successor. However he died two years later in 23 BC when Julia was 16. But she was a good pawn in the marriage stakes, and in the rather more important business of finding a successor, so two years later, at the age of 18, she was married off again, this time to Augustus’s great friend Agrippa, who at the age of 43 was 25 years her senior – indeed, he was the same age as her father. However they were good breeders and had five children, of whom Gaius and Lucius appeared to be capable, so Augustus adopted them as his own children and designated them as his successors, though unfortunately both disappointed him by dying young. It was their daughter, Agrippina, who was to be the more influential, being the mother of the emperor Caligula, and grandmother to the emperor Nero.
After Agrippa died in 12 BC, Julia was married yet again the following year, this time to Tiberius, who was the son of Livia by her first husband. Augustus had never really liked Tiberius, but he was capable and a good general, so eventually he was designated as a possible successor, and indeed became Augustus’s successor, the second emperor of Rome. But the marriage was unhappy, and Julia’s promiscuity increased and she began sleeping around – five nobles were named, but there were said to be many others. However Augustus by this time was preaching morality and had introduced a law against adultery, so when his daughter began committing adultery left right and centre, he felt she was letting down the side, so he banished her to a small island. Her mother, Scribonia, who was still very much alive, went with and she remained in exile until her death shortly after the death of Augustus himself
There was one other victim of the new morality – the poet Ovid. Ovid was one of the greatest poets of the Augustan age, but he was banished to Tomis, on the Black Sea. The causes of his banishment are uncertain: he said he was banished because of ‘a song and an error’. It is widely assumed that the song was his Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, though this had been published six years before his banishment; scholars have occasionally wondered whether his error was to be among Julia’s many lovers.
And yet in many ways, Ovid has the last laugh. His Ars Amatoria – the Art of Love that apparently led to his exile, today seems merely mildly titillating; two books of advice to the boys on how to catch a girl, and a third book of advice to the girls how to catch the boys. Those are the sort of thing that is the staple of many women’s magazines today and offers an image of marriage that to us is wholly acceptable, where boys set out to catch the girls and girls set out to catch the boys – and it is their choice – is a wholly acceptable and indeed desirable approach to marriage. It is Augustus’s behaviour of seeing marriage in terms of dynastic policy, ordering people to get divorced or to marry in a way that seems to us wholly harsh: a relic of a barbaric age still surviving in the sophistication of Rome.
Indeed his law against adultery went quite against the grain of ancient Rome were adultery was quite accepted in the upper classes – indeed even today, though adultery is disapproved of, it is not a crime. Indeed Augustus himself had a very normal, that is very adulterous youth. Suetonius records a letter written by Antonius to Augustus: “What has changed you? Because I ‘enter’ the Queen (i.e. Cleopatra: the implication of the verb inire, to enter, is quite explicit). She is my wife, and has been so for nine years. But do you only enter Drusilla? When you read this letter are you not entering Tertulla, or Terentilla, or Rufilla or Salvia Titisenia, and all the rest? Does it matter where or with whom you get your erection? “
On to his colleagues, Agrippa and Maecenas