ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes for Wednesday, February 21

The Return of (the Return of) the Golden Age


On Monday we heard about the peculiar relationship that the Romans had with the Greeks. In the earliest period of Roman culture, a number of Greek institutions were in fact borrowed and informed many aspects of Roman life (politics, religion, communications, etc.); but despite this influence, the Romans maintained a strong sense of separate identlity and resisted wholesale adoption of Greek culture. But by the middle of the first century BC, Rome had become the dominant power in the entire Mediterranean world, controlling the international relations and a good part of the internal govenrment even of the great Hellenistic kingdoms that grew out of Alexander's conquests. At this point something truly remarkable happens. The Romans did exercise control over the political life of the Greek world; but instead of imposing its language and culture along with this contol, the Romans actually began to import Greek culture and as it were to transplant it to their own soil. Roman education was modeled along Greek lines, even to the extent that educated Romans all studies Greek for many years. They used Greek poetry, either in the original Greek or in Latin translation, as their textbooks. They wrote their own Roman history in Greek, translated Greek literature into Latin, wrote Latin literature in imitation of Greek models. It is sometimes said that the Romans, despite their enormous political power, had a cultural inferiority complex vis a vis the Greeks. This idea is easy to exaggerate, but it certainly is true that the Romans had tremendous respect for Greek culture-even though they often expressed contempt for the contemporary Greeks whose political affairs they managed and who in many cases lived in Roman households as slaves.

The Age of Augustus

Most scholars consider the reign of Caesar Augustus, which spanned the turn of the last century BC into the first century AD, as a period of central importance in European history. It was Augustus who managed Rome's transition from a Republican form of government into in which many powerful members of the nobility struggled for control of the state as a whole as well as its various parts, into an empire with a strong central authority and a hierarchical system of responsibility and control. Both the administrative system itself and the very idea of a unified imperial authority exercised a strong influence on subsequent European politics and culture.

The "Age of Augustus" was also important for its literary and artistic achievements. Many of the poets who wrote during Augustus' regime-most of them under his direct or indirect sponsorship-have traditionally been regarded as the best that Rome even produced, and among the few who can stand comparison with the canonical authors of classical Greece. These poets seem to have been conscious that they were competing with the greatest poets of Greek antiquity, and they spoke of themselves as faring well in this competition. Their self-confidence is not unlike Augustus' own characterization of his regime as a rebirth or restoration of traditional Roman greatness. One difference is, however, that the poets tended to stress the idea that they were not restoring Latin literature to its original grandeur-in fact, they often spoke disparagingly of earlier Latin literature as rough and formless in comparison with theirs-but rather, they represented themselves as the true successors of the classical Greek poets who had flourished centuries before. This is in fact one of the most important ideas embodies in classical Latin literature, an idea that we have seen anticipated in especially in the plastic arts of the Hellenistic period: the idea that cultural superiority actually migrates over time from one state to another-that the artistic and cultural supremacy of Greece in general and of Athens in particular had moved first to Pergamum and Alexandria, but then to Rome. As we shall see, this potent idea did not die with the ancient Romans, but was adopted by culturally ambitious states in later times.

Vergil's Fourth Eclogue The idea that Augustan culture had in some sense succeeded that of classical Greece is clearly expressed by Vergil in his Fourth Eclogue. In this poem Vergil predicts the birth of a miraculous child whose life will coincide with the return of a Golden Age. In speaking of the Golden Age, Vergil alludes clearly to Hesiod's Works and Days, where the myth of the Golden Age first appears; but he alters the structure of Hesiod's myth, asserting that after the Iron Age a new Golden Age will appear. In this age, the great, heroic events of Greek mythology will occur again: there will be a new voyage of Argo, a new Achilles, a new Trojan War. Significantly, this brave new era is connected with the consulate of a specific individual, Gaius Asinius Pollio. One influential interpretation of the poem, then, is that under Roman political leadership events comparable to those of mythical Greek antiquity will be realized. On this reading, the Fourth Eclogue is a potent illustration of the idea current among Vergil's contemporaries that they were living in one of the great periods of human history, and of the Roman habit of expressing such ideas in terms of the mythology that they had borrowed from the Greeks.

Ovid's Metamorphoses

Vergil's Fourth Eclogue was written in about 40 BC, the year in which Pollio was consul and several years before Augustus actually came to sole power in Rome. Upon Vergil's death in 19 BC his masterpiece, the Aeneid, was published in unfinished condition. This epic poem is considered the most important artistic meditation on the cultural aspirations of Augustan Rome. At the time of its publication, Ovid was in the artistic and cultura his early twenties and had not yet established himself as a poet; but within about ten years' time he would become the leading poet of the day, and by the year 1 BC he would have composed his own masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, which is together with the Aeneid one of the most influential products of Latin literature and Roman culture.

A Mythological Handbook?

The Metamorphoses can be and often has been read as a mythological handbook, and with good reason: there are relatively few important Greek myths with which Ovid does not deal and, becasue he is such an entertaining racconteur, his poem is much more enjoyable to read than any other mythological handbook produced in antiquity. Its influence in Europe was nearly unchallenged when, in later antiquity and the middle ages, knowledge of Greek became rare and other classical mythological texts and handbooks were consequently unavailable. But now we have access to ancient Greek mythological handbooks as well as to modern compilations, and it is a useful exercise to compare Ovid's telling of a particular myth or mythic cycle with what we find in works intended mainly for reference purposes. In the first place, as I have already said, Ovid is much more entertaining. But beyond this, Ovid, despite the seeming simplicity of his narrative style, hardly ever tells a story in a straightforward way. Almost always some detail reveals an interesting bias, interpretation, or other aspect of his thought that will be found lacking in a real handbook of mythology.

Ovid's Interpretation of Greek Mythology

How does Ovid develop his own interpretation of the Greek myths? This is not an easy question to answer, but there are a number of poetic devices that he employs in order to comment on the material he presents: