The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

(154) O decus, O famae merito pars maxima nostrae. Vir. Georg. ii.
Light of my life, my glory, and my guide!
O et praesidium et dulce decus meum. Hor. Ode I.
My glory and my patron thou!

One would be inclined to think, that there was a nicety in the sense and
application of the word decus, amongst the Romans, with which we are
unacquainted, and that, in the passages now adduced, it was understood to
refer to the honour of the emperor’s patronage, obtained through the
means of Mecaenas; otherwise, such language to the minister might have
excited the jealousy of Augustus. But whatever foundation there may be
for this conjecture, the compliment was compensated by the superior
adulation which the poets appropriated to the emperor, whose deification
is more than insinuated, in sublime intimations, by Virgil.

Tuque adeo quem mox quae sint habitura deorum
Concilia, incertum est; urbisne invisere, Caesar,
Terrarumque velis curam; et te maximus orbis
Auctorem frugum, tempestatumque potentem
Accipiat, cingens materna tempora myrto:
An Deus immensi venias maris, ac tua nautae
Numina sola colant: tibi serviat ultima Thule;
Teque sibi generum Tethys emat omnibus undis. Geor. i. 1. 25, vi.

Thou Caesar, chief where’er thy voice ordain
To fix midst gods thy yet unchosen reign–
Wilt thou o’er cities fix thy guardian sway,
While earth and all her realms thy nod obey?
The world’s vast orb shall own thy genial power,
Giver of fruits, fair sun, and favouring shower;
Before thy altar grateful nations bow,
And with maternal myrtle wreathe thy brow;
O’er boundless ocean shall thy power prevail,
Thee her sole lord the world of waters hail,
Rule where the sea remotest Thule laves,
While Tethys dowers thy bride with all her waves. Sotheby.

Horace has elegantly adopted the same strain of compliment.

Te multa prece, te prosequitur mero
Defuso pateris; et Laribus tuum
Miscet numen, uti Graecia Castoris
Et magni memor Herculis. Carm. IV. 5.

To thee he chants the sacred song,
To thee the rich libation pours;
Thee placed his household gods among,
With solemn daily prayer adores
So Castor and great Hercules of old,
Were with her gods by grateful Greece enrolled.

(155) The panegyric bestowed upon Augustus by the great poets of that
time, appears to have had a farther object than the mere gratification of
vanity. It was the ambition of this emperor to reign in the hearts as
well as over the persons of his subjects; and with this view he was
desirous of endearing himself to their imagination. Both he and Mecaenas
had a delicate sensibility to the beauties of poetical composition; and
judging from their own feelings, they attached a high degree of influence
to the charms of poetry. Impressed with these sentiments, it became an
object of importance, in their opinion, to engage the Muses in the
service of the imperial authority; on which account, we find Mecaenas
tampering with Propertius, and we may presume, likewise with every other
rising genius in poetry, to undertake an heroic poem, of which Augustus
should be the hero. As the application to Propertius cannot have taken
place until after Augustus had been amply celebrated by the superior
abilities of Virgil and Horace, there seems to be some reason for
ascribing Mecaenas’s request to a political motive. Caius and Lucius,
the emperor’s grandsons by his daughter Julia, were still living, and
both young. As one of them, doubtless, was intended to succeed to the
government of the empire, prudence justified the adoption of every
expedient that might tend to secure a quiet succession to the heir, upon
the demise of Augustus. As a subsidiary resource, therefore, the
expedient above mentioned was judged highly plausible; and the Roman
cabinet indulged the idea of endeavouring to confirm imperial authority
by the support of poetical renown. Lampoons against the government were
not uncommon even in the time of Augustus; and elegant panegyric on the
emperor served to counteract their influence upon the minds of the
people. The idea was, perhaps, novel in the time of Augustus; but the
history of later ages affords examples of its having been adopted, under
different forms of government, with success.

The Roman empire, in the time of Augustus, had attained to a prodigious
magnitude; and, in his testament, he recommended to his successors never
to exceed the limits which he had prescribed to its extent. On the East
it stretched to the Euphrates; on the South to the cataracts of the Nile,
the deserts of Africa, and Mount Atlas; on the West to the Atlantic
Ocean; and on the North to the Danube and the Rhine; including the best
part of the then known world. The Romans, therefore, were not improperly
called rerum domini [266], and Rome, pulcherrima rerum [267], maxima
rerum [268]. Even the historians, Livy and Tacitus, (156) actuated
likewise with admiration, bestow magnificent epithets on the capital of
their country. The succeeding emperors, in conformity to the advice of
Augustus, made few additions to the empire. Trajan, however, subdued
Mesopotamia and Armenia, east of the Euphrates, with Dacia, north of the
Danube; and after this period the Roman dominion was extended over
Britain, as far as the Frith of Forth and the Clyde.

It would be an object of curiosity to ascertain the amount of the Roman
revenue in the reign of Augustus; but such a problem, even with respect
to contemporary nations, cannot be elucidated without access to the
public registers of their governments; and in regard to an ancient
monarchy, the investigation is impracticable. We can only be assured
that the revenue must have been immense, which arose from the accumulated
contribution of such a number of nations, that had supported their own
civil establishments with great splendour, and many of which were
celebrated for their extraordinary riches and commerce. The tribute paid
by the Romans themselves, towards the support of the government, was very
considerable during the latter ages of the republic, and it received an
increase after the consulship of Hirtius and Pansa. The establishments,
both civil and military, in the different provinces, were supported at
their own expense; the emperor required but a small naval force, an arm
which adds much to the public expenditure of maritime nations in modern
times; and the state was burdened with no diplomatic charges. The vast
treasure accruing from the various taxes centered in Rome, and the whole
was at the disposal of the emperor, without any control. We may
therefore justly conclude that, in the amount of taxes, customs, and
every kind of financial resources, Augustus exceeded all sovereigns who
had hitherto ever swayed the sceptre of imperial dominion; a noble
acquisition, had it been judiciously employed by his successors, in
promoting public happiness, with half the profusion in which it was
lavished in disgracing human nature, and violating the rights of mankind.

The reign of Augustus is distinguished by the most extraordinary event
recorded in history, either sacred or profane, the nativity of the
Saviour of mankind; which has since introduced a new epoch into the
chronology of all Christian nations. The commencement of the new aera
being the most flourishing period of the Roman empire, a general view of
the state of knowledge and taste at this period, may here not be

Civilization was at this time extended farther over the world than it had
ever been in any preceding period; but polytheism rather increased than
diminished with the advancement of commercial (157) intercourse between
the nations of Europe, Asia, and Africa; and, though philosophy had been
cultivated during several ages, at Athens, Cyrene, Rome, and other seats
of learning, yet the morals of mankind were little improved by the
diffusion of speculative knowledge. Socrates had laid an admirable
foundation for the improvement of human nature, by the exertion of reason
through the whole economy of life; but succeeding inquirers, forsaking
the true path of ethic investigation, deviated into specious discussions,
rather ingenious than useful; and some of them, by gratuitously adopting
principles, which, so far from being supported by reason, were repugnant
to its dictates, endeavoured to erect upon the basis of their respective
doctrines a system peculiar to themselves. The doctrines of the Stoics
and Epicureans were, in fact, pernicious to society; and those of the
different academies, though more intimately connected with reason than
the two former, were of a nature too abstract to have any immediate or
useful influence on life and manners. General discussions of truth and
probability, with magnificent declamations on the to kalon, and the
summum bonum, constituted the chief objects of attention amongst those
who cultivated moral science in the shades of academical retirement.
Cicero endeavoured to bring back philosophy from speculation to practice,
and clearly evinced the social duties to be founded in the unalterable
dictates of virtue; but it was easier to demonstrate the truth of the
principles which he maintained, than to enforce their observance, while
the morals of mankind were little actuated by the exercise of reason

The science chiefly cultivated at this period was rhetoric, which appears
to have differed considerably from what now passes under the same name.
The object of it was not so much justness of sentiment and propriety of
expression, as the art of declaiming, or speaking copiously upon any
subject. It is mentioned by Varro as the reverse of logic; and they are
distinguished from each other by a simile, that the former resembles the
palm of the hand expanded, and the latter, contracted into the fist. It
is observable that logic, though a part of education in modern times,
seems not to have been cultivated amongst the Romans. Perhaps they were
apprehensive, lest a science which concentered the force of argument,
might obstruct the cultivation of that which was meant to dilate it.
Astronomy was long before known in the eastern nations; but there is
reason to believe, from a passage in Virgil [269], that it was little
cultivated by the Romans; and it is certain, that in the reformation of
the calendar, Julius Caesar was chiefly indebted to the scientific
knowledge of (158) Sosigenes, a mathematician of Alexandria. The laws of
the solar system were still but imperfectly known; the popular belief,
that the sun moved round the earth, was universally maintained, and
continued until the sixteenth century, when the contrary was proved by
Copernicus. There existed many celebrated tracts on mathematics; and
several of the mechanical powers, particularly that of the lever, were
cultivated with success. The more necessary and useful rules of
arithmetic were generally known. The use of the load-stone not being as
yet discovered, navigation was conducted in the day-time by the sun, and
in the night, by the observation of certain stars. Geography was
cultivated during the present period by Strabo and Mela. In natural
philosophy little progress was made; but a strong desire of its
improvement was entertained, particularly by Virgil. Human anatomy being
not yet introduced, physiology was imperfect. Chemistry, as a science,
was utterly unknown. In medicine, the writings of Hippocrates, and other
Greek physicians, were in general the standard of practice; but the
Materia Medica contained few remedies of approved quality, and abounded
with useless substances, as well as with many which stood upon no other
foundation than the whimsical notions of those who first introduced them.
Architecture flourished, through the elegant taste of Vitruvius, and the
patronage of the emperor. Painting, statuary, and music, were
cultivated, but not with that degree of perfection which they had
obtained in the Grecian states. The musical instruments of this period
were the flute and the lyre, to which may be added the sistrum, lately
imported from Egypt. But the chief glory of the period is its
literature, of which we proceed to give some account.

At the head of the writers of this age, stands the emperor himself, with
his minister Mecaenas; but the works of both have almost totally
perished. It appears from the historian now translated, that Augustus
was the author of several productions in prose, besides some in verse.
He wrote Answers to Brutus in relation to Cato, Exhortations to
Philosophy, and the History of his own Life, which he continued, in
thirteen books, down to the war of Cantabria. A book of his, written in
hexameter verse, under the title of Sicily, was extant in the time of
Suetonius, as was likewise a book of Epigrams. He began a tragedy on the
subject of Ajax, but, being dissatisfied with the composition, destroyed
it. Whatever the merits of Augustus may have been as an author, of which
no judgment can be formed, his attachment to learning and eminent writers
affords a strong presumption that he was not destitute of taste.
Mecaenas is said to have written two tragedies, Octavia and Prometheus; a
History of (159) Animals; a Treatise on Precious Stones; a Journal of the
Life of Augustus; and other productions. Curiosity is strongly
interested to discover the literary talents of a man so much
distinguished for the esteem and patronage of them in others; but while
we regret the impossibility of such a development, we scarcely can
suppose the proficiency to have been small, where the love and admiration
were so great.

History was cultivated amongst the Romans during the present period, with
uncommon success. This species of composition is calculated both for
information and entertainment; but the chief design of it is to record
all transactions relative to the public, for the purpose of enabling
mankind to draw from past events a probable conjecture concerning the
future; and, by knowing the steps which have led either to prosperity or
misfortune, to ascertain the best means of promoting the former, and
avoiding the latter of those objects. This useful kind of narrative was
introduced about five hundred years before by Herodotus, who has thence
received the appellation of the Father of History. His style, in
conformity to the habits of thinking, and the simplicity of language, in
an uncultivated age, is plain and unadorned; yet, by the happy modulation
of the Ionic dialect, it gratified the ear, and afforded to the states of
Greece a pleasing mixture of entertainment, enriched not only with
various information, often indeed fabulous or unauthentic, but with the
rudiments, indirectly interspersed, of political wisdom. This writer,
after a long interval, was succeeded by Thucydides and Xenophon, the
former of whom carried historical narrative to the highest degree of
improvement it ever attained among the States of Greece. The plan of
Thucydides seems to have continued to be the model of historical
narrative to the writers of Rome; but the circumstances of the times,
aided perhaps by the splendid exertion of genius in other departments of
literature, suggested a new resource, which promised not only to animate,
but embellish the future productions of the historic Muse. This
innovation consisted in an attempt to penetrate the human heart, and
explore in its innermost recesses the sentiments and secret motives which
actuate the conduct of men. By connecting moral effects with their
probable internal and external causes, it tended to establish a
systematic consistency in the concatenation of transactions apparently
anomalous, accidental, or totally independent of each other.

The author of this improvement in history was SALLUST, who likewise
introduced the method of enlivening narrative with the occasional aid of
rhetorical declamation, particularly in his account of the Catilinian
conspiracy. The notorious (160) characters and motives of the principal
persons concerned in that horrible plot, afforded the most favourable
opportunity for exemplifying the former; while the latter, there is
reason to infer from the facts which must have been at that time publicly
known, were founded upon documents of unquestionable authority. Nay, it
is probable that Sallust was present in the senate during the debate
respecting the punishment of the Catilinian conspirators; his detail of
which is agreeable to the characters of the several speakers: but in
detracting, by invidious silence, or too faint representation, from the
merits of Cicero on that important occasion, he exhibits a glaring
instance of the partiality which too often debases the narratives of
those who record the transactions of their own time. He had married
Terentia, the divorced wife of Cicero; and there subsisted between the
two husbands a kind of rivalship from that cause, to which was probably
added some degree of animosity, on account of their difference in
politics, during the late dictatorship of Julius Caesar, by whom Sallust
was restored to the senate, whence he had been expelled for
licentiousness, and was appointed governor of Numidia. Excepting the
injustice with which Sallust treats Cicero, he is entitled to high
commendation. In both his remaining works, the Conspiracy of Catiline,
and the War of Jugurtha, there is a peculiar air of philosophical
sentiment, which, joined to the elegant conciseness of style, and
animated description of characters, gives to his writings a degree of
interest, superior to that which is excited in any preceding work of the
historical kind. In the occasional use of obsolete words, and in
laboured exordiums to both his histories, he is liable to the charge of
affectation; but it is an affectation of language which supports
solemnity without exciting disgust; and of sentiment which not only
exalts human nature, but animates to virtuous exertions. It seems to be
the desire of Sallust to atone for the dissipation of his youth by a
total change of conduct; and whoever peruses his exordiums with the
attention which they deserve, must feel a strong persuasion of the
justness of his remarks, if not the incentives of a resolution to be
governed by his example. It seems to be certain, that from the first
moment of his reformation, he incessantly practised the industry which he
so warmly recommends. He composed a History of Rome, of which nothing
remains but a few fragments. Sallust, during his administration of
Numidia, is said to have exercised great oppression. On his return to
Rome he built a magnificent house, and bought delightful gardens, the
name of which, with his own, is to this day perpetuated on the spot which
they formerly occupied. Sallust was born at Amiternum, in the country of
the Sabines, and (161) received his education at Rome. He incurred great
scandal by an amour with Fausta, the daughter of Sylla, and wife of Milo;
who detecting the criminal intercourse, is said to have beat him with
stripes, and extorted from him a large sum of money. He died, according
to tradition, in the fifty-first year of his age.

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