Augustus Deified or Denigrated? 
The Political Subtext of Anchises' Speech
in Aeneid Book VI

Scott D. Davis

Utah State University

Augustus Caesar's Res Gestae, completed in 14 AD, depicts his wide range of military, political, and cultural achievements and ends with the principles on which he claims to have acted:  virtus, clementia, iustitia, and pietas.  This final clause underpinned the public relations campaign of Augustus as he sought to avoid the mistake of his predecessor Julius Caesar, who projected a god-like image of himself.

            The poetry of the Augustan period, however, was less humble in its characterization of Augustus.  Vergil, the most illustrious poet of the Augustan era, presents an Augustus that is nothing short of deified.  His "Parade of Heroes," in which the future history of Rome is set forth, at the end of Aeneid 6, is a spectacular example of Augustus apotheosized.  The entire course of Roman history, as it is presented to Aeneas, seems to culminate in the reign of the glorious Augustus.[1]  Scholars have frequently discussed the Augustus' relationship with Romulus, the legendary and deified founder of Rome, in the poem, suggesting that Augustus is to be seen as a second founder, another, greater divine champion of Rome.[2]  Others have suggested that this portrayal of Augustus is very similar to the cult worship of Alexander.[3]

            The purpose of this paper is to explore the ways in which the Parade of Heroes demonstrates the qualities ostensibly championed by Augustus:  virtus, clementia, iustitia, and pietas, and to look at the ways in which Vergil physically shapes the poem to praise Augustus.  I shall look at the way Vergil alters chronology to connect certain times and figures from Roman history with each other.  Augustus, for example, is primarily discussed in period of the kings rather than the principate.  I will also examine the ways in which the poet makes references to Augustus through mythological allusions, suggesting a divine kinship between the emperor and the gods.  Further, I will analyze the metrical position of certain historical figures in the poem in order to detect connections between figures.  For example, Lavinia, the symbolic mother of the Roman race, Ilia, the mother of Romulus and thus the city of Rome, and Berecyntia, the mother of the gods, all occupy the same position, suggesting a connection in the divine family that would eventually bear Augustus.

            Finally, I shall suggest that all of these elements, seen in a different light may constitute a subtle condemnation of the Augustan reign cloaked in sycophantic praise.  Augustus' relationship with the kings of old could suggest a return to the hated tyrants, an end of iustitia.  Brutus, the tyrannicide who ended the reign of the kings and ushered in the Republican period could be symbolically related to Brutus, the tyrannicide who murdered Julius Caesar in an attempt to save the Republic.  The parallel between the ill-fated and tragic Marcellus with Augustus could be a metaphor for the tragedy of the slain Republic, and end of virtus.  The constant warfare, which even Anchises laments can be seen as excessive and overbear, an end of clementia.  But most importantly, the obsession with the eastern tradition and the association Augustus with the eastern deities and ruler-worship, seem to contravene Roman values, and throw the princeps in a very un-Roman light, an end of pietas.  And to top off the deluge of ambiguities, Vergil has Aeneas and the Sibyl exit through the gate of false dreams, throwing the entire legitimacy of the vision into question.  Thus Augustus is defied and because of this is denigrated. 

[1] Vergil, Aeneid, VI.756-901

[2] Robert J. Getty, “Romulus, Roma, and Augustus in the Sixth Book of the Aeneid,” Classical Philology, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jan., 1950), 1-12; James Morwood, “Aeneas, Augustus, and the Theme of the City, Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol. 38, No. 2 (Oct., 1991), 212-223; Kenneth Scott, “The Identification of Augustus with Romulus-Quirinus,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 56 (1925), 82-105.

[3] Brian Bosworth, “Augustus, the Res Gestae and Hellenistic Theories of Apotheosis,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 89 (1999), 1-18.

Back to the Meeting Program

[Home] [ About] [Awards and Scholarships] [Classical Journal] [Committees & Officers]
[Contacts & Email Directory
] [Links] [Meetings] [Membership] [News]