Looking for the Emperor

The ancient Romans liked an emperor who could take—and make—a joke. Their first emperor, Augustus, was particularly renowned for his sense of humor. In fact, even four centuries after his death, the scholarly Macrobius devoted several pages of his encyclopedia Saturnalia to a collection of Augustus’ bons mots, very much in the modern “Wit and Wisdom” genre.

Sadly many of these quotations expose the frustrating distance between ancient humor and our own, or at least the difficulty of making good oral quips work in writing. “Do you think you are handing a penny to an elephant” might have been a retort of inspired spontaneity to a man who was nervously presenting a petition (“now holding out his hand, now withdrawing it”); but it hardly seems worth the loving preservation that it has enjoyed. One of Macrobius’ anecdotes is, however, much more revealing.

It concerns the period just after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, at which Augustus (then known as Octavian, or just plain Caesar) defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra and effectively gained control of the entire Roman world. He was met on his return to the capital by a man with a tame raven, which he had taught to say “Greetings to Caesar, our victorious commander.” Augustus was so impressed that he gave the man a substantial cash prize. But it turned out that the bird’s trainer had a partner who, when none of the 20,000 sesterces came his way, went to the emperor and explained that the man had another raven which he should be asked to produce. Predictably, the pair had been hedging their bets: this bird squawked “Greetings to Antony, our victorious commander.” The emperor saw the funny side and did not get angry—but simply insisted that the prize money be shared between the two men.

The obvious point this story makes is that Augustus was a ruler with a human touch, not a man to take offense, and generous in his response to relatively innocent tricksters. But there is a rather more subversive political message here too. The pair of identikit ravens, with their nearly identical slogans, cannot help but hint that there was really very little to choose between Antony and Octavian/Augustus. Antony has gone down in history as a dissolute wastrel whose victory would have turned Rome into an Oriental monarchy, and Augustus as the sober founding father of an imperial system that would endure in some guise into the Middle Ages. But if you turn the clock back to 31 and to the end of the civil wars that had followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, the two antagonists look almost interchangeable. For most of the inhabitants of the Roman world, the victory of one or the other would require no more adjustment than the swapping of one talking raven for another.

In fact, this is exactly where the main historical problem in the career of Augustus lies. How can we understand his …

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