Augustus and his celestial message

“I found Rome a city of brick and I left it a city of marble.”  So proclaimed Augustus in his Res Gestae (“Achievements” – a rather selective overview of the first Emperor’s feats penned by the man himself).  The fabric of Rome became a placard on which he could emblazon his message of personal and imperial grandeur; the building schemes he proudly boasted of were designed to reinforce the place of the princeps at the forefront of the Roman people.

As well as this, the literary world was heavily patronised.  It’s easy to over-emphasise the importance of literature in the ‘propaganda’ onslaught – as artefacts and monuments have decayed, events and actions been forgotten, and other cultural interests slipped in or fallen out of popularity, it’s not out of the question that somebody today might only have learnt about Augustus because of an interest in the poetry of the first century BC.  A typical Roman would have seen the building works etc on a daily basis without giving so much as a thought to their favourite of Horace’s Epodes.  Still though, with big hitters such as Virgil making epic poetry from the deeds of Augustus, as much political prestige as possible was being squeezed out of the literary world.

The final of the big three tools with which Augustus could spread his message was money.  This worked in the obvious sense of donatives to the public and the soldiers, and by the more subtle means of imprinting coins with a message to glorify Empire and Emperor.  The idea of putting an individual on a Roman coin was relatively new – it first occurred under Julius Caesar – but it was an innovation that the Romans ran with.  Brutus is supposed to have reacted to Julius’ coins with disgust at the kingly implications, yet during the civil war against Octavian and Antony, coins were created and embossed with an image of the great liberator himself.  Augustus would have had no second thoughts about using his own picture.

I found out the other day about a more surprising piece of propaganda, and one which people live with the legacy of today every time they turn to the last few pages of their paper.  The star sign Libra was apparently introduced into astrology* under Augustus (Virgil writes in the Georgics that it happened on the 23rd September of 63BC).  Before that, the constellation was simply seen as a part of Cancer and in fact the two main stars in the constellation are still known as Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, Arabic for pincer of the south and north respectively.  Scales as a symbol of justice are used today; this is yet one more legacy from the Greco-Roman World.  This constellation was no more than a way to proclaim the just nature of everybody’s favourite leader.

So anyway, the question I’m putting to you is this: has anybody heard of any other examples of creative propaganda from Augustus or any of the other Emperors?

*Actually reintroduced.  The Babylonians and Egyptians had used it but for some reason it fell out of favour.


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