Augustus, Ovid and Morality

Well it’s about 30B.C and Gaius Octavius, nephew of Julius Caesar, having defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra was now Emperor of Rome – actually First Citizen of the State.

He had left the institutions of the Roman Republic in tact. The Senate  and Judiciary still conducted business but Octavian, to to be known as Augustus, reserved for himself autocratic power over the Republic as a military dictator. By law, Augustus held a collection of powers granted to him for life by the Senate, including supreme military command, and those of tribune and censor. It took several years for Augustus to develop the framework within which a formally republican state could be led under his sole rule. He rejected monarchical titles, and instead called himself Princeps Civitatis  (“First Citizen of the State”).  The resulting constitutional framework became known as the Principate, the first phase of the Roman Empire.

And so began, after a century of civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey followed by civil war between Octavian and Marc Antony, two centuries of peace  – the Pax Romana.

The Roman world was largely free from large-scale conflict for more than two centuries, despite continuous wars of imperial expansion on the Empire’s frontiers and one year-long civil war over the imperial succession. Augustus dramatically enlarged the Empire, annexing Egypt, Dalmatia, Pannonia (modern day Hungary); expanding possessions in Africa; expanding into Germania; and completing the conquest of Hispania.

Beyond the frontiers, he secured the Empire with a buffer region of client states and made peace with the Parthian Empire through diplomacy. He reformed the Roman system of taxation, developed networks of roads with an official courier  system, established a standing army, established the Praetorian Guard, created official police and fire-fighting services for Rome, and rebuilt much of the city during his reign.

Augustus had only one issue which seemed to vex him for, you see, the Emperor was something of a prude. Certainly not in his younger years but as he grew older. He lived to be 75.

“Pre Christian Roman religion promoted sexuality as an aspect of prosperity for the state.”  The identity of women was either as a daughter or a wife.   She belonged to someone.  She was expected to work to further her husband’s career and bear him children.  Adultery was therefore an assault on the family and the social order.

Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. “Pornographic” paintings were featured among the art collections in respectable upper class households.  It was considered natural and unremarkable for men to be sexually attracted to teen-aged youths of both sexes, and pederasty was condoned as long as the younger male partner was not a freeborn Roman. “Homosexual” and “heterosexual” did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist.  No censure was directed at the man who enjoyed sex acts with either women or males of inferior status, as long as his behaviors revealed no weaknesses or excesses, nor infringed on the rights and prerogatives of his masculine peers. While perceived effeminacy was denounced, especially in political rhetoric, sex in moderation with male prostitutes or slaves was not regarded as improper or vitiating to masculinity, if the male citizen took the active and not the receptive role.   Hyper-sexuality, however, was condemned morally and medically in both men and women. Women were held to a stricter moral code,  and same-sex relations between women are poorly documented, but the sexuality of women is variously celebrated or reviled throughout Latin literature. In general the Romans had more flexible gender categories than the ancient Greeks.”

Slaves could not refuse their male owners and wealthy Romans paid extra for attractive boys and girls.  Prostitution was everywhere and the locker rooms of the public baths were convenient and available in every Roman town.  One could meet a prostitute under any Roman arch – the Latin word for arch is fornicatio. 

Augustus observed that the number of married patricians was falling dramatically; indeed a great number of the ruling class over age 50 was unmarried.  Even among those married patricians the number of couples without children was substantial indicating to the Emperor that these were marriages in name only – business and social arrangements.

So the Emperor decided to do something about it.  Augustus, who hoped thereby to elevate both the morals and the numbers of the upper classes in Rome, and to increase the population of native Italians in Italy, enacted laws to encourage marriage and having children (lex Julia maritandis  ordinibus), including provisions establishing adultery as a crime against the state. He wanted the Roman elite to lead the lower classes by example.

He increased taxes on unmarried patrician men and women and offered awards to those married and fathering children.  Since there were more patrician males than females he permitted the marriage between patrician males and lower class freedwomen and decreed their children would be legitimate.

Adultery inside marriage was made a crime punishable by banishment.  A father or husband was allowed to kill an adulterer of any rank caught in the act in his own house.  He was technically not allowed to kill his wife but punishment would be more lenient if circumstances dictated.   If he doesn’t kill her he must declare her an adulterer within three days or hold his peace.   She would lose half her dowry and be banished to an island.

Sex by the husband with female slaves and prostitutes was not considered adultery.   🙂

Augustus had a vision of a Roman elite who led by example, living the virtues of the Republic as he saw them.   Men of self control, family men married to chaste life partners, having Roman children and confining extra curricular sexual activities to slaves and prostitutes – and not other high born Roman women.

And by the time he was into old age – he lived to be 75 –  he was being laughed at by the young.  Behind his back of course..

Enter Ovid and The art of love.

Publius Ovidius Naso  was an immensely popular Roman poet during the reign of Augustus.    His voice seems amazingly contemporary because of his “modern” cynicism and frank pleasure in sex for its own sake. Some readers find him offensive, but in a familiar way: there are plenty of men around today who think just like him.

Augustus, trying to bring a new more puritanical morality to Rome was not pleased.  Ovid spoke frankly about how to get girls, where to find girls and how to deceive girls, how to bed girls.  Ovid noted the spots convenient for meeting women include Pompey’s portico built to shelter people at the theater in case of rain, the Portico of Octavia, the sister of Augustus and the Portico of Livia, his wife. The Temple of Palatine Apollo was built during Augustus’ reign and was surrounded by a porch decorated with statues. All were popular shady gathering spots near places of entertainment. The other spots mentioned are places of worship in Rome where Ovid says willing women can be encountered.  Military parades were also good spots to pick up women.

And having sex in public within sight of the Emperor’s statue was always the best!!

Ovid got himself banished to the Black Sea.  Augustus let him die there.

Was he viewed as a threat to what Augustus was trying to accomplish?  Why he was banished is one of history’s great mysteries.

Augustus was forced to banish his own daughter for adultery.   He made an example of her.  And then his grand daughter for the same reason.  Augustus’ grand daughter was charged with conspiracy against the Emperor as well for supporting her husband’s ambitions.  He was executed and she sent off to an island.

Ovid says he was banished “for a poem and a mistake”.

We know the poem.  We’re not sure of the mistake.  It has been speculated that Ovid had sex with Augustus’ daughter.  Or that he knew of the grand daughter’s plot against the Emperor and said nothing.

Who knows.

Augustus’ morality died with him.  Tiberias swam with his “minnows” – his little boys.  Caligula bed his sisters and the wives of Senators.  Claudius’ wife Messalina could out perform any prostitute in Rome.  Nero kicked his wife to death for philandering

Not to worry.  Eventually the Christians came to Rome and made all sex outside of marriage a sin rather than a crime against the state.  And even within marriage sex was  only for pro-creation; never again for fun.





About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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3 Responses to Augustus, Ovid and Morality

  1. beetleypete says:

    Sex has got people into all sorts of trouble, since the dawn of time.
    Different customs, different rules, acceptance and denial.
    Is it any wonder so many of us are so confused?
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jfwknifton says:

    Just look at that nose! No wonder he was called “Naso”!


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