Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Augustus Caesar and the Exile of Ovid: a Mystery Revisited

By Christopher Villeseche

Published Online (2012)


Augustus of Primaporta
Augustus of Primaporta (Photo credit: profzucker)
The history of Western civilization is almost entirely a story about Rome.  An early highlight in this story is the Augustan Age (29 BCE – 14 CE), a span of decades during which the disorderly city-state became a grand seat of empire under the absolute authority and direction of one man.  This first Emperor of Rome wrought profound changes in the world and hence his name resounds throughout millennia; however, the individual who bore that heavy honour has always been remembered as something of an enigma.  Can we, on the basis of ruins and statues and written acclaim, really infer the character of an empire-building autocrat?  Is there some piece of evidence that can describe the heart of this first Prince of our Western world?  In this article we will address these questions by tying together clues found in the works of various authors, both ancient and contemporary.  We will consider a range of subjects such as geography, funerals, poetry, plants and myths, all in the hope that we might uncover in the history some compelling evidence of a real human being.


English: The Roman Empire under Augustus Caesa...
English: The Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar (31 BC - AD 6) Italiano: Impero romano sotto Ottaviano Augusto (31 a.C. - 6 d.C.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At the age of thirty-four, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (63 BCE – 14 CE), grand-nephew of Julius Caesar (100 BCE – 44 BCE), rose to power in Rome and promptly undertook the construction of his own mausoleum.  Shortly thereafter he took on the name Augustus, a superlative title that he held throughout the rest of his life.  Sometime after the death of Augustus, the Greek scholar Strabo (63 BCE – 24 CE) published his Geographika, a work comprising several volumes of geographical observations recorded during his travels throughout the known world.   While in Rome he had toured the Campus Martius, an ancient mustering ground located just outside the old city proper, and he had described the “many beautiful structures” that were built there.

 “The most noteworthy is what is called the Mausoleum, a great mound near the river on a lofty foundation of white marble, thickly covered with ever-green trees to the very summit.  Now on top is a bronze image of Augustus Caesar; beneath the mound are the tombs of himself and his kinsmen and intimates; behind the mound is a large sacred precinct with wonderful promenades…”

Today the Mausoleum of Augustus stands in ruins but measurements taken at the site reveal that Strabo’s description was somewhat understated.  The monument was a round and mound-like affair, almost 100m in diameter and almost 50m in height; in other words, it was nearly as wide as a football field and nearly as tall as a fifteen-storey building… altogether larger than many modern public facilities.  Among the cultures of ancient Italy, funerary architecture and ornamentation generally allowed for a degree of ostentation, but in nearly a thousand years of Roman history nothing on the scale of the Mausoleum had been erected.  Surely this reveals something about the disposition of the fledgling Emperor who built it?
Mausoleum of Augustus
Mausoleum of Augustus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this point we will detour around a mire of historical detail to arrive at the assertion that the design of the Mausoleum was guided as much by cunning as by conceit.  Indeed, it was just one part of a larger socio-political program whereby Augustus insinuated himself into the landscape of Rome and the minds of Romans.  Thus, while the grandiose aspect of this monument tells us much about his mettle, much about his ambitions and ideals, it says little about his personal sense of humanity and nothing at all about him that wasn’t already clear.  It is only in passing that we’ve considered the Mausoleum, as our hope for a glimpse at the heart of Augustus leads us just a short distance away.

“… in the centre of the Campus” Strabo continued, “is the wall (this too of white marble) round his crematorium; the wall is surrounded by a circular iron fence and the space within the wall is planted with black poplars.”

This represents the only extant explicit description of the ustrinum, a separate enclosure where the remains of Augustus were cremated before being transported to the Mausoleum.  What can this singular and passing reference to an innocuous structure possibly reveal about the personality of the great Augustus Caesar?  In order to proceed towards an answer, we must take a moment to consider the importance of trees.

 The Importance of Trees
Pliny the Elder: an imaginative 19th Century p...
Pliny the Elder: an imaginative 19th Century portrait. No contemporary depiction of Pliny has survived. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For the Romans, as for every other culture in the Classical world, all of nature was sacred.  Groves and streams and trees and flowers and caves and boulders, all had some place or association within an extensive hierarchy of deities and supernatural beings.  In his work Naturalis Historia, the historian Pliny the Elder (23 CE – 79 CE) states the point rather succinctly: “Each kind of tree remains immutably consecrated to its own peculiar divinity…”  The association of plants with primeval forces was so profound and prevalent among ancient Western cultures that even today it continues to be recognized (or more often overlooked) in various forms.  For example, a sprig of laurel is ever associated with victory, a rose always with love, a cypress tree in most cases with death.  Before and during the Augustan Age, trees figured prominently in legends of the founding of Rome as well as in the actual cityscape.  In her informative article on the subject, Dr. Barbara Kellum asserts that Augustus “was well aware of the evocative value of plants and trees,” and she details his meticulous efforts to implement them into the “system of meaning that constituted the mythology of Augustan Rome.”  In the light of such observations, it seems reasonable for us to suppose that the arboreal ornamentation within the ustrinum held some particular and perhaps highly personal signification; further, it seems worthwhile for us to ponder over what the meaning might have been.

Generally, associations among trees and transcendental beings are accounted for by tales that run organically throughout a rich body of myth.  Roman myth borrowed almost wholly from that of the Greeks, which in turn derived largely from that of earlier Eastern cultures.  During the Augustan Age, plant-related myths were recapitulated in the works of well-known poets, some of whom might have practiced their art at the behest of the Emperor himself.  The poet Vergil (70 BCE – 19 BCE) was an important figure in the artistic circles of the Imperial court, and his work the Aeneid is seasoned with references to the mythical heritage of trees.  Another, richer source is the renegade poet Ovid (43 BCE – 18 CE) whose work the Metamorphoses comprises a unique iteration of hundreds of myths from ages past.  Thus in our effort to decipher the meaning of the trees that adorn the first Emperor’s crematorium, we are obliged to search through great works of Latin verse for some hint of an answer.

First, we will do well to note an important detail.  As already mentioned, the cypress tree has long been and still is associated with matters pertaining to death and dying and funerals.  Vergil, in particular, “associates the cypress tree with death and funerals” and his approach is neatly summarized in an insightful article on the subject by Dr. Catherine Connors.  Ovid illustrates this same theme through his re-telling of the myth of Cyparissus, the youth who was turned into a tree with “shapely topmost branches” and then compelled by the gods to “‘share grief with others, and… stand wherever mourners are.’”  With this association firmly established in the ancient literature, we can surmise that the “evergreen trees” with which the Mausoleum was “thickly covered” were in fact cypress trees, like those that cover the ruins of the monument today, although a sensible argument against this idea has been put forward by a respectable team of USC researchers.  In any case, the trees inside the ustrinum were black poplars, a stark departure from funerary tradition, and this suggests that some other, more esoteric and more deliberate meaning was perhaps intended by Augustus.

Since poplars are to be our focus, we will benefit by briefly noting a further group of points.   In Latin poetry poplar trees are often ambiguously referenced, but Pliny the Elder later distinguished between “white” and “black” varieties.  The white poplar is called leuke in Greek and populus alba in Latin; it has distinctive “parti-coloured leaves” and was thought to originate along riverbanks in Greece.  The black poplar is called aigeiros in Greek and populus nigra in Latin; it has dark-coloured leaves and was thought to originate along riverbanks in Italy.  In Greek manuscripts of Strabo’s work, the word aigeiros is used to describe the trees inside the ustrinum and as such, there is no question that we are seeking after the mythical heritage of black poplar trees.  This distinction is important inasmuch as it serves to narrow our search considerably; allusions to the black poplar are relatively rare in Vergil or Ovid or any other work of Classical myth.  In fact, only one vague mythical reference to black poplar trees seems even remotely applicable to the circumstances at hand.  Before going on to examine that myth more closely, we will pause to consider the deadly potential of a poetic verse.

The Deadly Potential of a Poetic Verse
During the later years of the Augustan Age, Ovid was perhaps the most talented and famous poet in Rome.  Though he wrote in the shadow of Vergil, his passionate manner of expression and his subversive brand of wit set him apart from predecessors and contemporaries.  At a point well into the reign of Augustus, under the strictures of legislated morality and other austere Augustan measures, Ovid published a series of risqué compositions dealing with sensuality and eroticism and other subjects related to the theme of love.  His works were well-received by the public and apparently overlooked by the Emperor.  For several years after the publication of these works Ovid continued to write and to enjoy the bounty of his well-deserved acclaim.

Português: Poeta latino Ovídio.
Português: Poeta latino Ovídio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the year 8 CE Ovid published his masterwork, the Metamorphoses, and shortly thereafter his privileged life was torn asunder.  Suddenly and for reasons that were not openly disclosed by any party, Augustus Caesar exiled him to the remote port-city of Tomis.  The poet lived out his remaining days in misery, lamenting that “a poem and an error” had brought about his terrible fate; he wrote poems to beg forgiveness from Augustus but was never granted clemency.  For centuries scholars have puzzled over these sad circumstances and on the basis of a few obscure references many have looked to the infamous Books of Love, searching for the one or more verses offensive enough to have possibly garnered banishment for their author.  We, however, will surmise that if any poem was part of Ovid’s crime then it is likely the poem that he’d published immediately prior to his exile.  But what subtle slight might have been written into his masterpiece that could warrant such harsh treatment from the Emperor?  Moving ahead in our search, we cannot help but ponder such questions.  Thus, just as a stream flows into a river, casual consideration of the meaning behind black poplar trees has swept us into contemplation of a wider and deeper mystery.

Riddles and Answers
Early on in the Metamorphoses we come across that single vague reference which might at once resolve our various questions about black poplars and Ovid’s exile.  In Book II we read the myth of Phaethon, a child of the sun-god Apollo.  Phaethon received command of his father’s chariot and then set off across the sky.  Along the way he faltered and the fiery chariot careened out of control, scorching a path of destruction over the earth.  Moved to restore order, the god Jove hurled a lightning bolt that struck and killed the reckless youth.  So it was that Phaethon’s flaw of profligate pride proved harmful to everyone beneath him and fatal to himself.

Here we pause in our reading to weigh the clues uncovered thus far.  Closer consideration of this myth brings into perspective a number of salient points but their analysis and interpretation altogether constitutes an exercise that can be readily appreciated only by scholars and students of Classical myth and history.  In the interest of everyone else, we will once again detour around a tangle of details, this time to arrive at the assertion that Ovid’s Phaethon is an impudently-crafted caricature of Augustus.  Was this the poem that angered the Emperor and incited so much trouble for the poet?  Though we cannot state with assurance that it was, we cannot deny the plausibility of this notion.  Moving on, we will consider the single most important point that ties Ovid’s myth of Phaethon to the ustrinum of Augustus Caesar.

We read that Phaethon fell to earth and landed in the river called “Eridanus” and “the Po” by Ovid.  His smoldering and smoking body was gathered up and entombed by his nymph sisters, the Heliades.  For months afterward the nymphs huddled in mourning on the riverbank; eventually their limbs and torsos were overtaken by roots and bark and branches and leaves, and they transformed into trees standing tall around the burnt remains of their fallen brother, who had “failed greatly, yet… ventured more.”  And of course, the nymphs became the very type of tree with which we’ve been so concerned… the type that has always ranged along the banks of the Po River and that at one time stood inside the first Emperor’s crematorium… black poplars.

Having reached the end of our search, we find cause for confusion.  We’ve established that Ovid’s myth of Phaethon was intended as a satire of Augustus.  However, on one hand it seems likely that Augustus was offended by the myth and that he reacted with hostility against the poet; on the other hand it appears that Augustus assented to the myth and that he incorporated some elements into the scenery of his own cremation ceremony.  Is one or the other of these suppositions incorrect?  Or can we perhaps reconcile this apparent irresoluteness in the Emperor’s behaviour, and if so, how so?  How much further must we look for some measure of the man’s personality?

After some reflection we may realize that there is no need to look further.  In this quandary we see Augustus as a man at odds with himself, a ruler obliged to administer punishment and a human being moved to pay homage.  The comparison to Phaethon at first offended his monarchial sensibilities but before his own end he privately conceded the point… no doubt overcome with humility and regret, he had black poplars planted inside the ustrinum so that when at last his remains lay smoldering and smoking in their midst, his metamorphosis would be complete.  Might this have been the reasoning of Augustus Caesar, first Emperor of Rome and first Prince of our Western world?  Have we had a clear glimpse into his heart?  Perhaps we have.

Is Ovid’s Myth of Phaethon Really a Satirical Representation of Augustus Caesar?

There are in Ovid’s myth what seem to be a few solid points of correspondence between the life of Augustus Caesar and the adventure of Phaethon.

Role of Apollo – Our first point is simply an observation of circumstantial evidence.  The early Greek poet Hesiod named Phaethon himself as the god of the sun but later Greek writers referred to Helios as the sun-god and to Phaethon as his son.  We note that this sun-god was initially regarded as distinct from the god Apollo, patron of prophecy and music and medicine, but that over time the two became conflated.  Ovid’s decision to cast Apollo as the father of Phaethon is therefore not remarkable but in light of Augustus’ well-known association with this very same deity, it likely isn’t a coincidence either.

Contentious claims – An upstart youth concerned with the entitlement afforded by his father’s glory is teased and upbraided for his audacious grasp at power and responsibility… it hardly seems a coincidence that this description can be readily applied to either of Augustus or Phaethon.

Mention of grandmother – According to Suetonius, it was at his grandmother’s funeral that a young Augustus began his public career.  According to Ovid, it was Phaethon’s grandmother who “witless of her grandson’s fate,” enabled the youth to set out on his sojourn across the sky.
Destructive impact - There are a few cryptic verses in the myth that defy our attempts at interpretation and therefore remain a mystery to us.  Almost but not quite as bewildering is the recitation of place-names by which Ovid narrates Phaethon’s journey over the known world.  If this myth is really a satire of Augustus and of his reign, then what meaning might the poet have intended to convey when he described the destruction of far-flung mountains and rivers?  We propose that he was referring to what must have been the highly-visible material impact of two industrial hallmarks of Augustan Rome – the excavation of quarries and the construction of aqueducts. The growth of empire must have involved an endless need for stone and metal, water and wood, and every spectacularly-engineered civil improvement or extravagance must have represented acres of ravaged land.  We get a sense, then, that Ovid is describing the inglorious underside of imperial expansion.  It is left to whoever might be so inclined to properly test this theory.

Altogether these points attest to the likelihood that Ovid’s myth of Phaethon was written as a tongue-in-cheek affront against Augustus.  In his later poem the Tristia, Ovid defends a few ideas and words that he had written into the Ars Amatoria years earlier, implying that these were part of the reason for his exile.  But can we, on this basis alone, really pretend to grasp the full scope of the situation?  How are we to know that the poet wasn’t just guessing at the reason for his exile, or misunderstanding, or perhaps feigning ignorance for the benefit of the Emperor?  The criticisms written into the Phaethon myth would surely have been more offensive and embarrassing for Augustus than would have some bit of lewdness in an old love poem.  As such, it would not be surprising if this affront had gone unmentioned altogether, and if punishment had been handed down on the basis of some other pretext.  In any case there is no way to know and in the absence of any other compelling evidence, we shall believe what we like.  After all, history, like life, is largely what we make of it.

Works Cited
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Connors, Catherine. “Seeing Cypresses in Virgil.” The Classical Journal 88.1 (1992): 1-17. JSTOR. Web.
Coulston, Jon, Hazel Dodge. Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City. Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology, 2000. Print.
Gascoigne, Bamber. “History of Augustus Caesar” HistoryWorld. From 2001, ongoing. Web.
Kellum, Barbara. “The Construction of Landscape in Augustan Rome: The Garden Room at the Villa ad Galinas.” The Art Bulletin 76.2 (1994): 211-224. JSTOR. Web.
Ovid, trans. Gregory, Horace. The Metamorphoses. New York: The Viking Press, 1958. Print.
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Pliny the Elder, trans. Bostock, John. “The Natural History.” Perseus Digital Library. From 1987, ongoing. Web.
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Strabo, trans. Hamilton, H.C. “Geography.” Perseus Digital  Library. From 1987, ongoing. Web.