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Literature in the Augustan Age: 42 BC - AD 17

The golden age of Latin literature coincides with the peace and prosperity of Italy in the early decades of the empire. The link is more than coincidence. In the intimate circle of the emperor Augustus is the immensely rich Maecenas, whose name has become synonymous with patronage of the arts; and the writers encouraged by Maecenas share the widespread enthusiasm for the peace brought to Rome by Augustus.

So the Augustan Age, in literary terms, is a circle of mutual benefit and esteem. It can be extended to either side of the reign of Augustus himself (27 BC - AD 14). The span from 42 BC (when Virgil begins writing) to AD 17 (the death of Livy) includes also the careers of Horace and Ovid.

Virgil's Eclogues and Georgics: 42 - 29 BC

Born in 70 BC in a farming community near Mantua, Rome's greatest poet finds his inspiration in the traditions and history of the Italian countryside. As a young adult Virgil lives under the shadow of the civil wars which convulse Italy during the 40s (one of his earliest poems, the first Eclogue, concerns the confiscation of Virgil's family farm to settle veteran soldiers after the battle of Philippi). In his work he celebrates the subsequent peace.

Virgil's reputation is established with the publication of the ten short Eclogues, written between 42 and 37 BC (see Publishing in Rome). Their success brings him to the notice of his future patron, Maecenas.

The Eclogues, also known as Bucolics, are delicately artificial poems, closely based on Greek originals in a pastoral tradition which uses an idealized world of shepherds in Arcadia as a vehicle for a wide range of speculation and fantasy.

Virgil turns next to a more robust treatment of nature in the four longer poems which make up the Georgics, written between 36 and 29 BC and dedicated to Maecenas.

Ostensibly each of the four books of the Georgics sets out to give practical instruction on one aspect of husbandry: the first deals with preparing the land, the second with the cultivation of olives and vines, the third with the care of horses and cattle, the fourth with beekeeping.

This practical basis is treated seriously, but it also provides Virgil with a perfect framework in which to celebrate the strength and traditions of Italian rural culture. Octavian (the future Augustus) controls Italy when the poem is started. He is ruler of the entire Roman world by the time it is complete. Octavian believes profoundly in the traditional moral values, and the Georgics hail him as the man who will restore them.

The Aeneid: 29 - 19 BC

Virgil's greatest work, on which he spends the rest of his life, is written when Octavian has been named Augustus Caesar and is in fact (though not in theory) a Roman emperor. Where the Georgics gently celebrate Italy and its countryside, the Aeneid is an epic in praise of Rome - the power which will liberate the genius of the Italian people. The reign of Augustus, and the recently achieved Pax Romana, is implicit as the natural finale of the story.(see The Aeneid).

By a quirk of fate Augustus himself, praised for saving Rome, also saves the poem. It is in his interest to do so. The Aeneid traces his own descent back to Aeneas himself, the founder of Rome.

In 19 BC, when the Aeneid is complete but awaiting revision, Virgil goes on a journey to the Aegean - to visit the homeland of Aeneas, his fictional hero. On his way home he falls ill and dies.

The instruction left by Virgil with his literary executor has been, in the event of his death, to burn the unpublished poem. Augustus intervenes, ordering the executor to publish. He authorizes cuts, where necessary, but no additions. The resulting text, containing only a few inconsistencies which Virgil might have removed, becomes rapidly and widely accepted as Rome's national epic.

Horace: 39-8 BC

Horace represents a new idea of the poet, similar to one later developed in another culture - China in the T'ang dynasty. In this tradition the poet is someone distanced from the immediate business of public life, free to concentrate on capturing, in the difficult craft of poetry, more lasting perceptions of the human condition.

The subjects of Horace's short but tightly packed Odes (called Carmina or 'songs' in their Latin title) are friendship, love, wry amusement at the passing scene - anything which might occur to a man living a quiet country existence but in touch with a wide circle of sophisticated acquaintances. The setting for this existence is his famous Sabine farm.

The Sabine farm is the best known of the many acts of patronage of Maecenas. Horace, the son of a freed slave, arrives in Rome with little hope of advancement in about 39 BC. By the following year his poems have brought him to the attention of Virgil, who introduces him to Maecenas. The patron and the provincial poet become firm friends; and in about 34 BC Maecenas makes him a present of the Sabine farm, a little to the northeast of Tivoli. Horace lives here for the rest of his life.

More than a farm, it is a small estate run for Horace by a foreman and eight slaves, with five tenanted properties attached. And more than that, it is security.

Horace's early poems are grander in theme and less compressed than his Odes. Known as the Satires, they are poetic essays full of sharp comment on themes of philosophy, literary criticism, morality or contemporary manners. Later he writes similar long pieces, lighter in tone, which he calls his Epistles.

But his central achievement is the Odes, dating mainly from the 20s. Three books of them are published together in 23 BC; a fourth follows in about 13 BC.

Ovid: c.23 BC - AD 18

The fourth great author writing in Latin during the Augustan Age is not so much a celebrant of the emperor's achievements as a victim of his autocracy.

Ovid is a generation younger than Virgil, Horace and Livy. By the time he is an adult, from about 23 BC, the civil wars are over; the stability and prosperity of the new Roman empire are established facts. High life, rather than a quiet life, is what appeals to Ovid and his contemporaries. And his poetic talents are well suited to amuse a society devoted to pleasure.

An early work brings Ovid success while he is young. Entitled Amores, it is a collection of love poems offering a witty account of an affair with an imaginary courtesan, Corinna. The poet goes much further in the same vein in Ars Amatoria ('Art of Love'), a manual on the techniques of seduction published in about 1 BC.

Soon after Ars Amatoria, Ovid begins work on his most successful book - the Metamorphoses, a collection of mainly Greek stories involving a wide range of transformations. The wit and skill of the narrative ensure immense popularity for these tales, which will be regularly quarried by later writers and painters.

The Metamorphoses are not quite complete when disaster strikes. In AD 8 Augustus exiles Ovid to a remote shore of the Black Sea. There could hardly be a more exquisite punishment for a man so involved in cosmopolitan delights, but the reason for it has never been discovered. Ovid hints that the causes were two, a poem and an indiscretion; and these have been taken to be Ars Amatoria (well calculated to offend the puritanical emperor) and perhaps a link of some sort with a sexual scandal involving Augustus' granddaughter Julia, who is banished at the same time.

A stream of petitions and complaints about the Black Sea make their way back to Rome. But the poet dies, ten years later, still in exile.

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