Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


A Small Town of Umbria, Nine Leagues from Rome; and, Incidentally, of the Divinity of Augustus.

Those who love the study of history are glad to understand by what title a citizen of Veletri governed an empire, which extended from Mount Taurus to Mount Atlas, and from the Euphrates to the Western Ocean. It was not as perpetual dictator; this title had been too fatal to Julius Cæsar, and Augustus bore it only eleven days. The fear of perishing like his predecessor, and the counsels of Agrippa, induced him to take other measures; he insensibly concentrated in his own person all the dignities of the republic. Thirteen consulates, the tribunate renewed in his favor every ten years, the name of prince of the senate, that of imperator, which at first signified only the general of an army, but to which it was known how to bestow a more extensive signification — such were the titles which appeared to legitimate his power.

The senate lost nothing by his honors, but preserved even its most extensive rights. Augustus divided with it all the provinces of the empire, but retained the principal for himself; finally, he was master of the public treasury and the soldiery, and in fact sovereign.

What is more strange, Julius Cæsar having been enrolled among the gods after his death, Augustus was ordained god while living. It is true he was not altogether a god in Rome, but he was so in the provinces, where he had temples and priests. The abbey of Ainai at Lyons was a fine temple of Augustus. Horace says to him: “Jurandasque tuum per nomen ponimus aras.” That is to say, among the Romans existed courtiers so finished as to have small altars in their houses dedicated to Augustus. He was therefore canonized during his life, and the name of god — divus — became the title or nickname of all the succeeding emperors. Caligula constituted himself a god without difficulty, and was worshipped in the temple of Castor and Pollux; his statue was placed between those of the twins, and they sacrificed to him peacocks, pheasants, and Numidian fowls, until he ended by immolating himself. Nero bore the name of god, before he was condemned by the senate to suffer the punishment of a slave.

We are not to imagine that the name of “god” signified, in regard to these monsters, that which we understand by it; the blasphemy could not be carried quite so far. “Divus” precisely answers to “sanctus.” The Augustan list of proscriptions and the filthy epigram against Fulvia, are not the productions of a divinity.

There were twelve conspiracies against this god, if we include the pretended plot of Cinna; but none of them succeeded; and of all the wretches who have usurped divine honors, Augustus was doubtless the most unfortunate. It was he, indeed, who actually terminated the Roman Republic; for Cæsar was dictator only six months, and Augustus reigned forty years. It was during his reign that manners changed with the government. The armies, formerly composed of the Roman legions and people of Italy, were in the end made up from all the barbarians, who naturally enough placed emperors of their own country on the throne.

In the third century they raised up thirty tyrants at one time, of whom some were natives of Transylvania, others of Gaul, Britain, and Germany. Diocletian was the son of a Dalmatian slave; Maximian Hercules, a peasant of Sirmik; and Theodosius, a native of Spain — not then civilized.

We know how the Roman Empire was finally destroyed; how the Turks have subjugated one half, and how the name of the other still subsists among the Marcomans on the shores of the Danube. The most singular of all its revolutions, however, and the most astonishing of all spectacles, is the manner in which its capital is governed and inhabited at this moment.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25