Sunday, May 29, 2022

The First Moral Majority


Denarius from 44 B.C.E., the year of Julius Caesar's death, showing Julius on the obverse and his claimed ancestor (and Aeneas's mother), the goddess Venus. Image by Classical Numismatic Group via Wikipedia.

Religion played a curious role in the beginning of the Pax Romana starting around 30 B.C.E. with the final victory of the person we think of as Octavian—though that's just an adjective, apparently, meaning "guy from the Octavius family"; he'd been going through a lot of names since the assassination of the great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar in 44 left him heir to two thirds of Julius's vast fortune and most of his political following, starting with Gaius Caesar and then, after the deification of Julius in 42, Divi Filius, "Son of the God"), and then Imperator Caesar, "General Caesar" without any forename, like a Star Wars character, and for a while Romulus, after the city's mythical founder and first king, another deified character. And finally in 27 got the Senate to grant him, alongside the political title Princeps ("First" in the Senate), a religious name, Augustus ("consecrated, sacred, reverend" according to Lewis and Short, reverendus being of course a Latin gerundive or future passive participle, "to be revered in the future"), which I take to be an announcement that he, like his great-uncle, would be a god when he died. As subsequently happened. 

Augustus was a political genius, without any doubt, and his aim to secure internal peace after a good 60 years of constant civil war in Rome and all across its enormous territories in Europe, Asia, and Africa, seems like a worthy one—especially since it really worked for 200 years, through unimaginably bad emperors and reasonably good ones, the institutions he created as a legacy being more durable than his frail human heirs. But there's something spookily familiar about the way he did it, putting a permanent end to the tradition of representative government in the Republic to take absolute power for himself, but selling that to the public as a conservative policy, a return to the good old, virile Republican virtues, the representation of a Moral Majority to replace a political one.

A central part of the way he did this was by taking direct personal control of the state religion, through the mechanism of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called an "invented tradition". Which doesn't mean he simply made stuff up and ordered the public to believe him but rather reframed the Republican traditions into imperial ones. (The classic example of an invented tradition is the Victorian Christmas immortalized by Dickens and Clement Clarke Moore as a celebration of nostalgia for the good old pre-industrial days that hadn't in fact been particularly good and the worship of children.) 

Roman religious practice was polytheistic to the max, with every kind of god you could imagine from private family gods to imported mystery cults and more sacred days than non-sacred ones in the calendar, but at its core were the many and varied state-funded public cults of which the oldest were the 18 flamines said to have been instituted by the good king Numa Pompilius, supervising the most important festivals and temples and their sacrifices and associated auspices and haruspices, whose leaders were among the members of the College of Pontiffs. Augustus was able to achieve financial control over these fairly early and eventually political control, getting himself named to several pontiff positions (a pontifex is a "builder of bridges" between our world and the world of the spirits) and in 12 B.C.E. (the year of a visitation from Halley's comet, which Augustus's publicists declared was the spirit of Julius entering eternity) assuming the title of Pontifex Maximus, the top pontiff, not traditionally a power center, and to renovate and refresh them, together with the College of Vestals, six women sworn to virginity and representing the goddess Vesta, protector of the family hearth.

This had the effect of further institutionalizing the official cults without particularly discouraging any of the other, newer or foreign ones (except whatever monotheists, such as Jews and Samaritans and ultimately Christians, refused to participate in sacrifice to gods other than their own), while the official propaganda machine commissioned the city's greatest writers to flesh out and develop the mythology of Rome itself in Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Fasti and paint the picture of a plain-living, sexually restrained and heroic past in Livy's histories, and touting the simplicity and virtue of his own life

Now regarded as part-god, Augustus encouraged stories of his frugal habits. He let people know that he lived in a modest house, slept on a low bed and, when he wasn’t fasting, ate only very plain food, like coarse bread and cheese. In a letter, he boasted to his stepson, Tiberius, of how he had not eaten all day.
Promoting himself as the man who would return Rome’s past glory, Augustus claimed that only by restoring the traditional values that had first made Rome great could he hope to make it great again. One writer commented: ‘He renewed many traditions which were fading in our age and restored 82 temples of the gods neglecting none that required repair at the time.’ (PBS)

He was also hot against no-fault divorce, adultery, and illegitimate children, but an advocate of raising the birthrate who punished what he regarded as excessive celibacy:

Under Augustus, the leges Juliae of 18–17 BC attempted to elevate both the morals and the numbers of the upper classes in Rome and to increase the population by encouraging marriage and having children (lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus). They also established adultery as a private and public crime (lex Julia de adulteriis).

To encourage population expansion, the leges Juliae offered inducements to marriage and imposed disabilities upon the celibate. Augustus instituted the "Law of the three sons" which held those in high regard who produced three male[28] offspring. Marrying-age celibates and young widows who would not marry were prohibited from receiving inheritances and from attending public games.

I should point out that none of this moral regeneration and instigation of traditional family values was especially successful. Divorce and adultery and lavish displays of incredible wealth did not stop, and exotic foreign religions grew more and more popular. Augustus sent his own daughter into exile over her outrageous sexual behavior, while her husband Tiberius, his chosen successor, spent more and more time as his reign went by in the luxury of Capri, leaving the government almost entirely to others, and his successor Caligula flamed out in a life of unparalleled depravity.

But the conservative "invention of tradition" rhetoric with which he put it together, convincing his public that his revolutionary destruction of the Republic was really a return to the cozy old days in which every man was a secure paterfamilias and all were equal (some of his oddest-looking legislation was to segregate the seating in the theater and games  and chariot races by class, so that people of different classes would have fewer chances to interact on easy terms), certainly helped to confer legitimacy on the shocking concentration of all the traditional power of the Senate and People, Senatus Populusque, in his singular person, and still more on the institutions he proceeded to create—a legitimacy that not only survived the depredations of Caligula and Nero and Elagabalus and the other lunatics but would actually continue to persist in one form or another down to 1806 and the re-throning of Franz II, Holy Roman Emperor, as Franz II, Emperor of Austria, which is a truly remarkable conservative feat. 

But what should we say was the role of religion in these events? Would the Republic have had a chance to survive, say, if skeptical Stoics like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius had held the power? Was Augustus a true believer himself? No doubt he didn't mind living in a small house and feeding on bread and cheese, but did he really think his great-uncle Julius had become a god on par with Jupiter and Apollo? Or was there something else going on in his mind?

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