The Augustan Age refers to a time period broadly revolving around the restoration of order (if not necessarily liberty) at the end of the Roman republic and the beginning of the empire—roughly 50BC to 120AD. Many scholars label it the “Silver Age of Roman Literature.” Every one of the authors listed below held numerous qualms about the loss of the republic, but, post-Cicero, each of them also benefitted from an ordered flourishing in the arts and humanities.
Most of the writers held sympathetic views toward the ideals of the old republic, Stoic ethics, and traditional roman virtues—piety, labor, and fate. Importantly, because of Cicero, Greek notions of poetry, philosophy, and liberal education also gained much currency during this age. Prior to Cicero, the culture and ideas of the “Greeklings” had seemed effete and effeminate to the Romans. It would be impossible to exaggerate how important this “softening” of Roman ideals and acceptance of Greek ones would help make Christianity acceptable.
Cicero was the last of the Roman republicans and a martyr to republican liberty. His orations and writings helped defined the summit of Latin style. They have, of course, also provided inspiration since his death at the hands of Marc Antony. The American founders revered no other Roman as much as they did Cicero—even Virgil was a distant second.
Virgil was arguably one of the greatest writers in the history of western civilization. He very intentionally wrote about those who founded (the Aeneid), those who labored (the Georgics), and those who prayed (the Eclogues). Some twentieth-century men of letters, such as Theodor Haecker and T.S. Eliot, considered Virgil the “father” of western civilization because of these three great works. Haecker argued that Virgil and his works were the most important transition from and link between paganism and Christianity. There were many Caesars, Haecker wrote in 1934, but only one Virgil.
Livy (ca. 59BC-17AD)
Titus Livius of Padua, known better as Livy, came into this world sometime between 64 and 59 BC and died in 17AD. Throughout his adult life, he wrote and recorded what he could of the history of Rome. Though he wrote 142 long chapters of his History of Early Rome, only thirty-five of these have survived the cruelty of time. For Livy, a devout republican, the history of all republics is the history of moral decline. Thus, one should seek to attenuate the inevitable corruption of a society.
The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these—the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.
When the prominent anti-Federalist woman of letters, Mercy Otis Warren, published her three-volume history of the American Revolution in 1805, she based it on the inevitable decline of a republic as understood by Livy.
An Iberian Roman, remembered more as an idealization than as an actual historical figure, Seneca, it was believed in the early church, corresponded with and advised St. Paul. However a compelling a story this might make, the facts seem to suggest the two men did not know one another. Most consider Seneca as a thinker, the greatest Stoic of his day. He authored numerous plays, dialogues, and letters. Beginning with Dante’s poetry, Seneca has remained a critical figure in western thought over the past seven centuries, but none more so than to the central and northern European humanists of the early sixteenth century. Even John Calvin began his professional career by writing on the poetry of Seneca.
The last of the Augustan writers, Tacitus, wrote scathingly of the Roman empire while idealizing the Germanic barbarians.
The matrimonial bond is, nevertheless, strict and severe among them; nor is there anything in their manners more commendable than this…. This they consider as the firmest bond of union…. That the woman may not think herself excused from exertions of fortitude, or exempt from the casualties of war, she is admonished…. that she comes to her husband as a partner in toils and dangers; to suffer and to dare equally with him, in peace and in war…. [Further] To limit the increase of children, or put to death any of the later progeny is accounted infamous: and good habits have there more influence than good laws elsewhere.
As Tacitus saw it, the barbarians were too primitive in their republicanism, but they still held the key to saving western (and Roman) civilization because of their radical embrace of virtue and honor. Trained in the law and, from time to time, a member of the Senate, Tacitus devoted much of his imaginative energies to preserving the remains of the Roman republican tradition.
Not to oversell the importance of “The Augustan Age,” it is worth nothing that at least five critically important imaginative conservatives in the twentieth century believed that we modern conservatives should look to the literature of this period as a guide for our own. I’ve already mentioned two: Theodor Haecker and T.S. Eliot. Three others—the Inkling, Hugo Dyson, as well as Christopher Dawson and Russell Kirk—would whole-heartedly agree.
In the words of Kirk: “An augustan age, in short, is an era of successful renewal of ancient constitutions and neglected mores; also it is a time for erecting greater structures upon venerable foundations. The augustan architect finds a city brick, and leaves it marble.”
As we Americans continue to lose the republic to the morass and chaos of empire—exhausting our souls and our purpose in this world—perhaps we will have the courage to support our Virgils and our Tacituses. It not for today, at least for our great, great, great grandchildren.
Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.