The Morals of Augustus

Got a very insightful comment from a reader in Arlington, Massachusetts, who asks how I can deplore rape and murder by American soldiers in Iraq and still say that Augustus Caesar was “quite a guy” for bringing centuries of peace and prosperity to the Mediterranean World.

I’m always delighted by comments, but in this case I’m especially delighted because it makes a perfect introduction to the morals of the ancient world, a very fun topic. The Romans and the Greeks and everyone else in the ancient world did lots of despicable things, and lots of despicable practices were institutionalized.

I would hate to have to defend the morals of Augustus or Julius Caesar, or the Romans, or the Greeks, or even Socrates, or the morals of the societies in which they lived.

But I think people have always had a sense of what is despicable and sickening, and this crime in Iraq is despicable and sickening and our whole country is to blame.

I think people should be judged by what they deemed right in the context of their times. Washington owned slaves. Lincoln could not envision black people and white people living together. Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t propose a federal law against lynching. But each one brought us a little further along the path.

Also, Iraq is, we hear, our ally, so, in the Roman army, the soldier in question would have been tied to a stake and beaten to death by his fellow legionaries.

Thirdly, it would have been bad form, even for a Roman soldier, to murder the victim, the parents, and the seven-year-old sister. Not for moral reasons, but because of the resale value.

Fourthly, Do you see any peace? Do you see any prosperity?

During his early career, Augustus had to form an alliance with Marc Anthony and some other guy whose name I can’t remember, Lepidus, maybe. It was called the second triumverate, the first tirumverate being the one made by Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.

The deal was that each of the triumvirs had to allow the others to kill anyone they wanted. Marc Anthony hated Cicero, the famous orator, and had him killed and had his head and hands nailed to the podium in the forum. Antony’s wife pulled the tongue out and stabbed it with a knitting needle.

Many years later, after Anthony, Lepidus, Crassus, Pompey, and, of course, Julius Caesar were all dead, that is, five out of six of the triumvirs, the emperor Augustus found one of his grandsons reading a work by Cicero, a crime that could have been punished by death. The boy tried to hide the scroll, but Augustus saw it and took it from him and began reading it.

He then handed the scroll back to his grandson and said, “He was a learned man, dear child, a learned man who loved his country.”

As the Tralfamadoreans would say, “So it goes.”