Vergil's uses of libertas: some contexts

Karl Galinsky

University of Texas at Austin

Vergil's four references to libertas are programmatic not because of any ideological stance but because they are typically rich in contemporary resonances.   Libertas at the time included a variety of aspects.  It was a central concept under Augustus: his reign saw an unprecedented expansion of opportunities and participation for far wider segments of the populace of the imperium Romanum (cf. the recent work by A. Wallace-Hadrill, N. Purcell, and G. Woolf) than the senatorial oligarchy.  Quite in character, the latter would, of course, equate their loss of control with losing libertas, a line dutifully followed by Tacitus, Syme, et al.  It's important, however, to go beyond purely textual discussions and look at the increasingly available evidence from social history and religion, among others.

Eclogue 1 is as much of a paradigm in this respect as it is for Vergil's pastoral poetics.  Tityrus is a freedman.  His libertas will be to no avail if he can't exercise it.  He needs the securitas of being able to go about his business, and that is what Octavian grants him.  It is that kind of libertas that secured Augustus wide-spread support.  Freedmen became increasingly visible in his reign, including as Augustales and vicomagistri, and their many monuments and inscriptions advertised their libertas––no need to put it on coins (where there are no references to pietas and the Augustan marriage legislation either).  More: besides casting himself as the true liberator in the very first sentence of the Res Gestae, Augustus specifically mentions his rebuilding of the Temple of Iuppiter Libertas (RG 19).  Being located on the Aventine, it was probably connected with the libertas of the manumitted, analogous to the earliest images of Libertas on coins (LIMC).  That the temple and cult mattered to Augustus is clear from Ovid's polemical treatment of it in the Fasti (4.621-4): not only does he ignore the new Augustan anniversary date of September 1, but, uniquely, he substitutes for it a secular building, the Atrium Libertatis.

As for the passages in the Aeneid: (1) 6.817-23 is not a simple paean to the libera res publica and its founder, but Vergil, as so often, uses a multivalent notion (libertas in this case) for giving it a human dimension and exploring conflict and dilemma.  (2) At 8.646-8 Vergil strikes a more straightforwardly patriotic note because the tradition, in fact, knew of Porsenna's conquest of Rome.  The passage is both "Republican" and "Augustan"; the threat to libertas prefigures that posed by Antony and Cleopatra.  Libertas was not only the watchword of Brutus, but of Caesar (the senate vowed a Temple to Libertas for him) and, as we have seen, Augustus. (3)  An obvious context for the characterization of Drances and his asking for libertas (fandi) at 11. 356 is the senatorial misgivings, ever so clearly and frequently expressed by Cicero, about granting the commoners too much libertasLibertas for the populus (cf.  Vergil's mention of  fortuna populi at 345) is fine so long as it is subordinated to the auctoritas of the ruling nobility.  And again Vergil blurs the lines: Drances is not a simple plebeian but rather a homo novus.

In sum, and not surprisingly, Vergil select references to libertas do not follow a simple scheme, but, appropriate for the many meanings of libertas at the time, they evoke multiple and varying associations that are left for the reader to explore further.


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