The Golden Age of Rome: Augustus' program to better the Roman Empire

  • Matthew Bowser

Undergraduate B. Phil. Thesis

University of Pittsburgh, March 2013

In the "Aeneid," Vergil dramatically announces through the character of Anchises that Caesar Augustus is destined to bring the Golden Age to Rome, an era of great peace, security and prosperity. The concept of this “Golden Age” pervades the Augustan period of Roman history, heralded especially by the great poets Vergil and Horace. However, did Augustus truly have a program to bring about this “Age of Gold” for Rome, or was he just a power-hungry dictator, using persuasive propaganda to gain approval? In his Annals, Tacitus explains how Augustus appeased the people while distracting them from his accumulation of power, and characterizes his peace as earned with bloodshed. Argument continues among historians to this day whether Augustus should be considered the benefactor that Vergil portrays, who restored virtue and order, or as the tyrant Tacitus describes. This dispute has become known as the “Debate about Augustus.”

Using evidence from a variety of contemporary sources, I intend to show that Augustus did in fact work to bring about the Age of Gold that Vergil promises. Whether through warfare, legislation, political maneuvering, or propaganda, I believe that his actions from the start reflect a clear program to make the Roman Empire the most powerful and most secure state that it could be, and that he was not just working for personal ambition. I have narrowed down the concept of the Golden Age, as portrayed by the poets, to three primary qualities: peace and security, the flourishing of the old Republican virtues, and prosperity under a glorious, divine leader. I will address each of these aspects in turn, consulting evidence from the period to show how Augustus’ regime worked to satisfy them. This evidence will include contemporary literature, historical facts and records, art, architecture, religion, and symbolism. I will also address the major criticisms of each facet by eyewitnesses such as Ovid and Propertius, by Roman historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius, and by various modern scholars of Roman history. Studying the success of Augustus’ methods can reap numerous benefits, including a deeper understanding of later dictators and their programs.