Obvious Virtues?

Augustus’ Golden Shield and Sallust’s Presentation of Caesar and Cato

Grace Starry West, University of Dallas

This is how Syme ends his chapter on Caesar’s and Cato’s speeches and Sallust’s assessment of each (Bellum Catilinae 51-54):

Caesar and Cato were divergent in conduct, principles, and allegiance.  Their qualities could be regarded as complementary no less than antithetic.  In alliance the two had what was needed to save the Republic.  That may be what the historian is gently suggesting.  Fate or chance determined otherwise.

(Sallust, p. 120, my emphasis)

This paper takes Syme’s suggestion further.  Almost the same qualities whose fragmentation Sallust notes in his two virtuous men (Caesar, virtus and mansuetudo/misericordia; Cato, iustitia and by implication pietas) reappear reunited in the new public persona of Octavian, exemplified by the inscription on the golden shield which the Senate gave him in 27 B.C. virtutis clementiaeque iustitiae et pietatis caussa when he received the name Augustus and restored the Republic (RG 34).

Granted, one can’t claim direct influence, e.g. that Augustus becomes what he is because of studying the BC.  But how to account for the coincidence?  Is the need for the reunification of the virtues in one man so manifest that everyone knows which virtues, and which man?  In the case of Antony and Octavian, each man’s public presentation of himself in the 40s and 30s (e.g. on coins, Zanker, 1988) does not indicate that the need was obvious.  Probably written in the early years of the Second Triumvirate, the BC was surely known to, if not read by the young Octavian and/or his friends, and is just as likely to have affected the views of those in the Senate proposing the honors in 27 B.C.

Although Weinstock (1971) argues for the origin of the virtues chosen for the golden shield in honors attributed to Julius, he acknowledges the tenuousness of Julius’ immediate claims to iustitia and pietas (243, 248). This suggests that Julius’ contribution to Augustus’ virtues is only partial (virtus and clementia) and we must look elsewhere for the other two, that is, at least, for example to Sallust’s presentation of Cato.

The paper has three points of discussion. 1) The date of the writing of the BC (low 40s)   allows the possibility that Sallust is using his Cato and Caesar as a favorable contrast to the destructive, Sulla-like behavior of Caesar’s “heirs.”  2) Even so, Sallust may quietly undercut Caesar to Cato’s advantage: The summing up of Cato at 54.6, esse quam videri bonus malebat, might imply that this is not true of Caesar, that in fact Caesar may look better than he is, with help from Sallust himself; e.g, the outstanding generosity and forgiveness that Sallust attributes to Caesar in 63 is anachronistic, more characteristic of the policies of the dictator in his 50s. 3) Connection of Sallust’s thought with Augustus’ ideology can tentatively be made in Syme’s terms with Cato even pointing out Caesar’s shortcomings (BC 52.13). Augustus’ possession of the 4 virtues named on the shield saves the Republic, but because he is as much (if not more) like Cato as he is like Caesar.

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