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SCENES FROM A PROVINCIAL CHILDHOOD
Velletri is a compact hill town about twenty-five miles southeast of Rome. It lies at the southern edge of the Alban Hills, overlooking a wide plain and distant mountains. The walk from the railway station to the center is a steep, hot climb.
Little remains of ancient Velitrae, but signs of the Renaissance are to be found everywhere. In the main square stands an old fountain with battered lions spouting water. The streets leading off the piazza are roughly parallel and are gridded, echoing the original pattern of the old Roman vici. At the town’s highest point, where the citadel must have been, a sixteenth-century palazzo communale, which combines the functions of town hall and museum, was built on the foundations of a Roman building.
Here, on a stone platform, the modern life-size statue in bronze of a man in his late teens gazes blankly from empty eye sockets into the far distance, contemplating the life that has yet to unfold. This is Gaius Octavius, Rome’s future ruler Augustus: for Velitrae was his hometown and Velletri is proud to celebrate his memory.
Gaius would recognize the lay of the land, the rise and fall of streets and alleys, perhaps the layout, certainly the views. Now as then, this is a provincial place, which seems farther from the capital city than it really is. Change has always come slowly. The community leaves a powerful impression of being self-contained and a little isolated. Even today, elderly locals squint blackly at strangers.
A certain dour feeling for tradition, a suspicion of newfangled ways, a belief in propriety, have always been typical of provincial life in towns such as Velitrae, and it would be hard to imagine a more conventional family than that into which Gaius Octavius was born in 63 b.c.
Every Roman boy received a praenomen, or forename, such as Marcus, Lucius, Sextus—or Gaius. Then came his clan name, or nomen, such as Octavius. Some but not all Romans also had a cognomen, which signified a family subset of a clan. Successful generals were sometimes awarded a hereditary agnomen; for example, Publius Cornelius Scipio added Africanus to his existing names, in honor of his victory over Hannibal in north Africa. By contrast, girls were only known, inconveniently, by the feminine version of their nomen; so Gaius’ two sisters were both known as Octavia.
An important feature of the infant Gaius’ inheritance was that, although like most Italians the Octavii held Roman citizenship, they were not of “Roman” stock. Velitrae was an outpost on the borders of Latium, home of the Latin tribes that, centuries before, had been among the first conquests of the aggressive little settlement beside a ford on the river Tiber.
Two hundred years before Gaius’ birth, Rome finally united the tribes and communities of central and southern Italy through a network of imposed treaties. The men of these lands provided the backbone of the legions and were eventually, as late as the eighties b.c., incorporated into the Republic as full citizens. The little boy grew up with a clear impression of the contribution that Rome’s onetime opponents were making to its imperial greatness, a contribution not always fully recognized by the chauvinists in the capital. In a real sense, the Roman empire would be better called the Italian empire.
The Octavii were a well-respected local family of considerable means. A Vicus Octavius, or Octavius Street, ran through Velitrae’s center (just as a Via Ottavia does today), past an altar consecrated by a long-ago ancestor.
The family seems to have been in trade, a sure sign that it was not of aristocratic status. Gaius’ paternal great-grandfather fought in Sicily as a military tribune (a senior officer in a legion, or regiment) during the second war against the great merchant state of Carthage in northern Africa (218 to 201 b.c.). Carthage’s comprehensive defeat was the first indication to the Mediterranean world that a new military power had arrived on the scene. Gaius’ grandfather, who lived to an advanced age, was well-off, but had no ambitions for a career in national politics, being apparently content to hold local political office.
Later hostile gossip claimed that the great-grandfather was an ex-slave who, having won his freedom, made a living as a rope maker in the neighborhood of Thurii, a town in Italy’s deep south. It was also rumored that the grandfather was a money changer, with “coin-stained hands.” Friendly propagandists took a different tack and invented a fictitious link with a blue-blooded Roman clan of the same name.
When he came to write his memoirs many years afterward, Gaius merely noted that he “came from a rich old equestrian family.” The equites, or knights, were the affluent middle class, occupying a political level below that of the nobility and members of the ruling Senate, but often overlapping with them socially. To qualify for equestrian status, they needed to own property worth more than 400,000 sesterces, and were not actively engaged in government. They were usually wealthy businessmen or landed gentry who preferred to avoid the expense and dangers of a political career. Many were contracted by the state to collect taxes on its behalf from the provinces. By the time of the boy’s father, also named Gaius Octavius, the family had become seriously rich, and probably far exceeded the equestrian minimum.
The father Octavius, an ambitious man, decided to pursue a career in politics at Rome with a view to making his way, if he could, to the top. This was an extremely difficult project. The Roman constitution was a complicated contraption of checks and balances, and the odds were stacked against an outsider—a novus homo, or “new man”—from winning a position of authority.
Rome became a republic in 509 b.c., after driving out its king and abolishing the monarchy. The next two centuries saw a long struggle for power between a group of noble families, patricians, and ordinary citizens, plebeians, who were excluded from public office.
The outcome was an apparent victory for the people, but the old aristocracy, supplemented by rich plebeian nobles, still controlled the state. What looked in many ways like a democracy was, in fact, an oligarchy modified by elections.
The Roman constitution was the fruit of many compromises and developed into a complicated mix of laws and unwritten understandings. Power was widely distributed and there were multiple sources of decision-making.
Roman citizens (only men, for women did not have the vote) attended public meetings called assemblies, where they passed laws and elected politicians to govern the Republic. These leaders doubled as generals in time of war. Although in theory any citizen could stand for public office, candidates usually came from a small group of very rich, noble families.
If successful, politicians passed through a set sequence of different jobs, a process called the cursus honorum or honors race. The first step on the ladder, taken at the age of thirty or above (in practice, younger men were often elected), was to become one of a number of quaestors; this post entailed supervising the collection of taxes and making payments, either for the consuls in Rome or for provincial governors. Then, if he wished, a man could be elected one of four aediles, who were responsible for the administration of the city of Rome. During festivals they staged public entertainments at their own expense, so deep pockets were needed. The next position, that of praetor, was compulsory. Praetors were senior officers of state, responsible for presiding as judges in the law courts and, when required, to lead an army in the field.
At the top of the pyramid were two consuls, who were heads of government with supreme authority; they were primarily army commanders and conveners of the Senate and assemblies.
Consuls and praetors held imperium, officially sanctioned absolute power, although they were constrained in three important ways. First, they held office only for one year. Second, there were always two or more officeholders at the same level. Those of equal rank were allowed to veto anything that their colleagues or junior officeholders decided. Finally, if they broke the law, officeholders could face criminal charges once they were out of office.
On top of that, ten tribunes of the people were elected, whose task was to make sure that officeholders did nothing to harm ordinary Romans (patricians were not allowed to be tribunes). They could propose laws to the Senate and the people and were empowered to convene citizens’ assemblies. The tribunes held power only within the city limits, where they could veto any officeholder’s decisions, including another tribune’s.
The power of the assemblies was limited. They approved laws—but only those that were laid before them. Speakers supported or opposed a proposed measure, but open debate was forbidden; all that citizens were allowed to do was vote. There were different kinds of assembly, each with its own rules: in the assembly that elected praetors and consuls, for example, the voting system was weighted in favor of property owners in the belief that they would act with care because they had the most to lose if any mistakes were made.
The Roman constitution made it so easy to stop decisions from being made that it is rather surprising that anything at all got done. The Romans realized that sometimes it might be necessary to override the constitution. In a grave emergency, for a maximum of six months, a dictator was appointed who held sole power and could act as he saw fit.
The Roman Senate was mainly recruited from officeholders. By Octavius’ day, a quaestor automatically became a lifelong member, and he and his family joined Rome’s nobility (if he was not already a member of it). Senators were prohibited by law from engaging in business, although many used agents or front men to circumvent the ban.
In theory, the Senate held little official power and its role was merely to advise the consuls. However, because the Senate was a permanent feature of the government, whereas consuls and other officeholders had fixed terms, its authority and influence were very great. It was responsible for managing foreign affairs, and it discussed laws before they were presented to the assemblies. Its decrees, although not legally binding, were usually obeyed.
The Senate appointed former consuls and praetors, called proconsuls and propraetors (Octavius was one), to rule Rome’s provinces, usually for between one and three years.
The equites, who as has been mentioned were not members of the Senate, formed a second social class, mainly comprising businessmen and country gentry. Beneath them came ordinary citizens, listed in different categories according to their wealth. The poorest citizens were capite censi, the “head count.”
Modern governments employ many thousands of administrators who carry out their decisions. This was not the case during the Roman Republic. There were no bureaucrats, apart from a few clerks who looked after the public treasury. There was no police force, no public postal system, and no fire service, and there were no banks. There was no public criminal prosecution or judicial service, and cases were brought by private citizens. Elected politicians acted as judges in the law courts. The consuls brought in servants and slaves from their households, as well as personal friends, to help run the government.
Gaius Octavius won a quaestorship, probably in 70 b.c., and joined the Senate. This was no mean achievement for a country gentleman outside the magic circle of Roman politics. The promise of political success brought with it an important benefit: a wife from one of Rome’s great patrician clans.
Octavius was already married to a woman of whom history has recorded nothing except for her name, Ancharia. The couple had a daughter, and perhaps Ancharia died in childbirth, for families with only one child were rare, especially if the child was a girl. Her family was of obscure origin; she may have come from Velitrae or thereabouts. She would have been no help to an ambitious young man’s career and, if alive, must have been divorced. Her removal from the scene enabled Octavius to achieve a splendid alliance, when he married Atia, a member of the Julian family.
The Julii traced their ancestry to before the city’s foundation, traditionally set at 753 b.c. The legend went that when, after a ten-year siege, the Greeks sacked the city of Troy on what is now the Turkish coast near the Dardanelles, they killed or enslaved most of the leading Trojans. One exception was Aeneas, the son of the love goddess Venus and a handsome young warrior. He escaped the city’s destruction with some followers and after many adventures made landfall in Latium. His son Iulus (sometimes also called Ascanius) founded the Julian dynasty.
By the first century b.c., high birth was not sufficient to guarantee political success. Money was also required, and in large quantities. The Julii were impoverished; for long generations few of them had won important posts in the honors race. Like aristocratic families before and since that fall on hard times, they used marriage as a means of income generation.
The current head of the family, Gaius Julius Caesar, was a rising politician in his late thirties, about the same age as Octavius. Talented, amusing, and fashionable, he had a voracious appetite for cash and had built up enormous debts to feed both his lifestyle and his career. One of his sisters married Marcus Atius Balbus, a local worthy from Aricia, a town not far from Velitrae. Balbus was not prominent in public life and his greatest attraction must have lain in the fact that he was a man of substance.
As a new man, Octavius knew that his dubious ancestry would damage his career. A commodious dowry would be of value in a wife, but what he really needed was entrée into the Roman nobility. As a niece of Julius Caesar, Balbus’ daughter Atia was well placed to make that possible. Because the Balbi lived not far from Octavius’ home base of Velitrae, they may well have traveled in the same social circles. In that case, Atia formed an ambitious man’s bridge from provincial life to Rome.
Sometime before 70 b.c., the couple married and, in due course, Atia became pregnant. Disappointingly, the outcome was a second daughter. Five or six years passed before another child arrived: a son, this time, Gaius. He was born just before sunrise on September 23, 63 b.c., at Ox Heads, a small property on the slopes of the fashionable Palatine Hill, a few minutes’ walk from Rome’s main square, the Forum, and the Senate House.
By tradition, the paterfamilias held the power of life and death over his household, both his relatives and his slaves. When a child was born, the midwife took the infant and placed it on the floor in front of the father. Should the father wish to acknowledge his paternity, he would lift the baby into his arms if it was a boy; if a girl, he would simply instruct that she be fed. Only after this ritual had taken place did the child receive his or her first nourishment.
From the Hardcover edition.