Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The Morals of Augustus.

Manners can be known only from facts, which facts must be incontestable. It is beyond doubt that this man, so immoderately praised as the restorer of morals and of laws, was long one of the most infamous debauchees in the Roman commonwealth. His epigram on Fulvia, written after the horrors of the proscriptions, proves that he was no less a despiser of decency in his language than he was a barbarian in his conduct. This abominable epigram is one of the strongest testimonies to Augustus’ infamous immorality. Sextus Pompeius also reproached him with shameful weaknesses: “Effeminatum infectatus est.” Antony, before the triumvirate, declared that Cæsar, great-uncle to Augustus, had adopted him as his son only because he had been subservient to his pleasures: “Adoptionem avunculi stupro meritum.”

Lucius Cæsar charged him with the same crime, and even asserted that he had been base enough to sell himself to Hirtius for a very considerable sum. He was so shameless as to take the wife of a consul from her husband in the midst of a supper; he took her to a neighboring closet, staid with her there for some time, and brought her back to table without himself, the woman, or her husband blushing at all at the proceeding.

We have also a letter from Antony to Augustus, couched in these terms: “Ita valeas ut hanc epistolam cum leges, non inieris Testullam, aut Terentillam, aut Russillam, aut Salviam, aut omnes. Anne refert ubi et in quam arrigas?” We are afraid to translate this licentious letter.

Nothing is better known than the scandalous feast of five of the companions of his pleasures with five of the principal women of Rome. They were dressed up as gods and goddesses, and imitated all the immodesties invented in fable —“Dum nova Divorum cœnat adulteria.” And on the stage he was publicly designated by this famous line:

Videsne ut cinaedus orbem digito temperet?

Almost every Latin author that speaks of Ovid asserts that Augustus had the insolence to banish that Roman knight, who was a much better man than himself, merely because the other had surprised him in an incest with his own daughter Julia; and that he sent his daughter into exile only through jealousy. This is the more likely, as Caligula published aloud that his mother was born from the incest of Augustus with Julia. So says Suetonius, in his life of Caligula.

We know that Augustus repudiated the mother of Julia the very day she was brought to bed of her, and on the same day took Livia from her husband when she was pregnant of Tiberius — another monster, who succeeded him. Such was the man to whom Horace said: “Res Italas armis tuteris, moribus ornes, Legibus emendes. . . . ”

It is hard to repress our indignation at reading at the commencement of the Georgics that Augustus is one of the greatest of divinities; and that it is not known what place he will one day deign to occupy in heaven; whether he will reign in the air, or become the protector of cities, or vouchsafe to accept the empire of the seas:

An Deus immensi venias maris, ac tua nauta

Numina sola celant tibi serviat ultima Thule.

Ariosto speaks with much more sense as well as grace, when he says in his fine thirty-fifth canto:

Non fu si santo ne benigno Augusto

Come la tromba di Virgilio sonna;

L’aver avuto in poesia buon gusto

La proscriptione iniqua gli perdona.

Augustus was not quite so mild and chaste

 As he’s by honest Virgil represented;

But then, the tyrant had poetic taste;

 With this the poet fully was contented.

The Cruelties of Augustus.

If Augustus was long abandoned to the most shameful and frantic dissipation, his cruelty was no less uniform and deliberate. His proscriptions were published in the midst of feasting and revelry; he proscribed more than three hundred senators, two thousand knights, and one hundred obscure but wealthy heads of families, whose only crime was their being rich. Antony and Octavius had them killed, solely that they might get possession of their money; in which they differed not the least from highway robbers, who are condemned to the wheel.

Octavius, immediately after the Persian war, gave his veterans all the lands belonging to the citizens of Mantua and Cremona, thus recompensing murder by depredation.

It is but too certain that the world was ravaged, from the Euphrates to the extremities of Spain, by this man without shame, without faith, honor, or probity, knavish, ungrateful, avaricious, bloodthirsty, cool in the commission of crime, who, in any well-regulated republic, would have been condemned to the greatest of punishments for the first of his offences.

Nevertheless, the government of Augustus is still admired, because under him Rome tasted peace, pleasure and abundance. Seneca says of him: “Clementiam non voco lassam crudelitatem” —“I do not call exhausted cruelty clemency.”

It is thought that Augustus became milder when crime was no longer necessary to him; and that, being absolute master, he saw that he had no other interest than to appear just. But it appears to me that he still was pitiless rather than clement; for, after the battle of Actium, he had Antony’s son murdered at the feet of Cæsar’s statue; and he was so barbarous as to have young Cæsarion, the son of Cæsar and Cleopatra, beheaded, though he had recognized him as king of Egypt.

Suspecting one day that the prætor Quintus Gallius had come to an audience with a poinard under his robe, he had him put to the torture in his presence; and, in his indignation at hearing that senator call him a tyrant, he tore out his eyes with his own hands; at least, so says Suetonius.

We know that Cæsar, his adopted father, was great enough to pardon almost all his enemies; but I do not find that Augustus pardoned one of his. I have great doubts of his pretended clemency to Cinna. This affair is mentioned neither by Suetonius nor by Tacitus. Suetonius, who speaks of all the conspiracies against Augustus, would not have failed to mention the most memorable. The singularity of giving a consulship to Cinna in return for the blackest perfidy would not have escaped every contemporary historian. Dion Cassius speaks of it only after Seneca; and this passage in Seneca has the appearance rather of declamation than of historical truth. Besides, Seneca lays the scene in Gaul, and Dion at Rome; this contradiction deprives the occurrence of all remaining verisimilitude. Not one of our Roman histories, compiled in haste and without selection, has discussed this interesting fact. Lawrence Echard’s History has appeared to enlightened men to be as faulty as it is mutilated; writers have rarely been guided by the spirit of examination.

Cinna might be suspected, or convicted, by Augustus of some infidelity; and, when the affair had been cleared up, he might honor him with the vain title of consul; but it is not at all probable that Cinna sought by a conspiracy to seize the supreme authority — he, who had never commanded an army, was supported by no party, and was a man of no consideration in the empire. It is not very likely that a mere subordinate courtier would think of succeeding a sovereign who had been twenty years firmly established on his throne, and had heirs; nor is it more likely that Augustus would make him consul immediately after the conspiracy.

If Cinna’s adventure be true, Augustus pardoned him only because he could not do otherwise, being overcome by the reasoning or the importunities of Livia, who had acquired great influence over him, and persuaded him, says Seneca, that pardon would do him more service than chastisement. It was then only through policy that he, for once, was merciful; it certainly was not through generosity.

Shall we give a robber credit for clemency, because, being enriched and secure, enjoying in peace the fruits of his rapine, he is not every day assassinating the sons and grandsons of the proscribed, while they are kneeling to and worshipping him? After being a barbarian he was a prudent politician. It is worthy of remark that posterity never gave him the title of virtuous, which was bestowed on Titus, on Trajan, and the Antonines. It even became customary in the compliments paid to emperors on their accession, to wish that they might be more fortunate than Augustus, and more virtuous than Trajan. It is now, therefore, allowable to consider Augustus as a clever and fortunate monster.

Louis Racine, son of the great Racine, and heir to a part of his talents, seems to forget himself when he says, in his “Reflections on Poetry,” that “Horace and Virgil spoiled Augustus; they exhausted their art in poisoning the mind of Augustus by their praises.” These expressions would lead one to believe that the eulogies so meanly lavished by these two great poets, corrupted this emperor’s fine disposition. But Louis Racine very well knew that Augustus was an exceedingly bad man, regarding crime and virtue with indifference, availing himself alike of the horrors of the one and the appearances of the other, attentive solely to his own interest, employing bloodshed and peace, arms and laws, religion and pleasure, only to make himself master of the earth, and sacrificing everything to himself. Louis Racine only shows us that Virgil and Horace had servile souls.

He is, unfortunately, too much in the right when he reproaches Corneille with having dedicated “Cinna” to the financier Montoron, and said to that receiver, “What you most especially have in common with Augustus is the generosity with which,” etc., for, though Augustus was the most wicked of Roman citizens, it must be confessed that the first of the emperors, the master, the pacificator, the legislator of the then known world, should not be placed absolutely on a level with a clerk to a comptroller-general in Gaul.

The same Louis Racine, in justly condemning the mean adulation of Corneille, and the baseness of the aged Horace and Virgil, marvellously lays hold of this passage in Massillon’s “Petit Carême.” “It is no less culpable to fail in truth towards monarchs than to be wanting in fidelity; the same penalty should be imposed on adulation as on revolt.”

I ask your pardon, Father Massillon; but this stroke of yours is very oratorical, very preacher-like, very exaggerated. The League and the Fronde have, if I am not deceived, done more harm than Quinault’s prologues. There is no way of condemning Quinault as a rebel. “Est modus in rebus,” Father Massillon, which is wanting in all manufacturers of sermons.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01