Daylight was fading on June 3, 17 BC, when there suddenly ascended into the soft air above the Palatine Hill in Rome the pure and reedy sound of fifty-four young voices, belonging to adolescent girls and boys, singing a most unusual hymn. Anyone in the audience that evening who knew his Greek literature—and we may suppose that many did—would have recognized the syncopated, slightly nervous meter of the song being sung as the one invented and made famous six centuries earlier by the Lesbian poet Sappho, who used it to convey some of her most famous lyrics of erotic yearning. (“That man seems to me to be like a god/who, sitting just across from you,/when you’ve spoken sweetly/ hears you.”)
On this particular summer night, however, burning desire was not on the poetic menu. That much became clear as soon as the two choirs of twenty-seven youths—one of boys, one of girls, each corresponding to one of the deities invoked in the hymn—called upon Apollo and Diana, “world’s brightness and darkness, worshipped forever,” to
…make our young men tractable
and virtuous; to our old, grant peaceful health,
give to the whole race of Romulus glory,
descendants and wealth.
The singing of this hymn was, in fact, the high point of a magnificent and solemn civic occasion: the ludi saeculares, Centennial Games, which the First Citizen, Augustus Caesar (né Octavian), had ordered to be held that year—a celebration of Rome as the capital of the world, meant to commemorate the beginning of a new era, a new saeculum, in the affairs of humankind. And why not? Fourteen years earlier, Augustus had defeated Cleopatra and Antony at Actium, thereby establishing, for once and for all, Rome as the single great Mediterranean power and putting a hundred years of civil conflict to an end. Since then, he had been consolidating his power abroad and at home, traveling in the East, legislating ethical and moral reforms. Only now, in the year 17, could Rome and the world—and his own position as de facto emperor—be considered secure enough to announce the beginning of what was clearly a New World Order.
We happen to know an unusual amount about the commissioning and performance of the hymn that was meant to celebrate Augustus’ achievement because of the survival of a book and a stone. The book, by Suetonius, the historian and biographer of the emperors, was written about a century and a quarter after the evening in question, and in it the author describes how Augustus “approved so highly” of the works of a certain poet “and was convinced that they would remain immortal that he bade him to compose …the Carmen saeculare.” The stone, discovered in 1890 and visible today in the Musée des Thermes, is a chunk of the official catalog of the ludi saeculares, and with respect to the hymn it notes that on the third day, after a sacrifice offered on the …