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The Book of Firsts
150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet
Written by Peter D'Epiro

The Book of Firsts
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Category: History - Reference; History - Europe - General; History - Historiography
Imprint: Anchor
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: March 2010
Price: $16.00
Can. Price: $19.95
ISBN: 978-0-307-38843-8 (0-307-38843-3)
Pages: 640


1. Who was the first Roman emperor?

Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, aka Augustus
(reigned 27 BC-AD 14)

Long before they had an emperor, the ancient Romans had an empire. Beginning with Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Spain, all wrested from Carthage in the third century BC, the Roman republic had strung together an imperial bastion of overseas possessions. By the time Octavian seized sole control of the Roman world by defeating his former ruling partner Mark Antony at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, the legions sent out from the Eternal City on the Tiber had conquered territories comprising most of Western Europe and great swaths of northern Africa, the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, and Judea. In the following year, Octavian converted the late Cleopatra's massively wealthy Egyptian kingdom into just another province of Rome.

After several generations of butchery in the successive civil wars between Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, the assassins of Julius Caesar (led by Brutus and Cassius) and the avengers of Caesar (led by Octavian and Mark Antony), and, finally, between Octavian and Antony, the Roman world was ready for peace and unity at just about any price. It received them from a cagey young man, handsome and intelligent but sickly and not overly courageous, who had the fortune of being Julius Caesar's great-nephew, adoptive son, and chief heir.

Caesar had been king of Rome in all but name, and that's why, in 44 BC, he was murdered at a meeting of the senate. Having thrown out their last king more than four centuries earlier, the Romans were fiercely proud of their republic presided over by magistrates elected for one-year terms. Not only had Caesar had himself declared dictator for life, he also affected an un-Roman monarchical demeanor with his purple robes, scorn for the senate, and godlike haughtiness. The Roman nobles feared Caesar, but they hated him even more.

The lesson was not lost on young Octavian (63 BC-AD 14). He graciously accepted from the senate the honorific Augustus ("revered, majestic, worthy of awe") on January 13, 27 BC, when, in a staged little drama, he offered to resign the extraordinary powers he had exercised since Caesar's death, and the senate made him a counteroffer he couldn't refuse. But there would be no regal pretensions in the public manner or official status of Augustus. He was content to be princeps civitatis--first citizen--and princeps senatus--leader of the senate (hence the English term Principate for his regime). Meanwhile, he was lavished concurrently with the key offices of the old Roman constitution--consul, proconsul, tribune--which guaranteed his control of the civil government while fostering the illusion that he had restored the republic by acting only as a senior colleague of its traditional political leaders.

But Augustus's main basis of power, as commander in chief of Rome's armies, derived from his being proclaimed imperator, the origin of our word emperor. An imperator was, at first, a Roman military commander--the general of an army. Then the word was applied to a general who had been acclaimed by his soldiers after a victory and to a proconsul who held the military command of a province. But the power of an imperator was always meant to be limited in time and place.

When the senate eventually created Augustus imperator over the entire empire and for life, prefixing the title to his name, it officially sanctioned his control over all the military forces and foreign possessions of Rome, and this is why historians consider him the first Roman emperor. Subsequent emperors were invested with the same title, which required the armies of Rome to swear allegiance to them personally rather than to the state.

Vested with overall command of the Roman army, navy, provinces, and a large personal army guard, the Praetorians, Augustus convened the senate and initiated legislation that it rubber-stamped. He made and unmade senators, he handpicked cronies to govern the most critical territories of the empire in his name, and he deprived the popular assemblies of their legislative or veto powers. The old majestic formula for the twin pillars of the Roman state--senatus populusque Romanus, the Roman senate and people--had become a sham.

Though crafty and manipulative, Augustus, "that subtle tyrant" in Edward Gibbon's phrase, was ruthless during his reign only when he had to be, preferring to overlook petty affronts. He ruled the Roman Empire for more than forty years, during which he ushered in the era of peace known as the pax Romana, promoted family values (though failing signally with his own debauched daughter and granddaughter), and patronized the best writers of Rome's Golden Age. Virgil's Aeneid, Horace's patriotic odes, and Livy's epic history of Rome glorified the ancient Roman military and moral virtues that Augustus was attempting to resurrect. (No paragon of virtue himself, the Revered One and Father of His Country was addicted to women and dice.) His massive building program led him to boast that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. For his own dwelling, he chose a site above the ancient sanctuary where Rome's founders, Romulus and Remus, had supposedly been suckled by a she-wolf on the Palatine Hill. Augustus's residence was thus called the Palatium--the source of our word palace.

The emperor's last years were clouded by a catastrophic Roman defeat under the inept governor Varus in Germany, in which three legions--more than twenty thousand men--were cut down in AD 9. Augustus would bang his head against a door and shout, "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!" After a favorite nephew and two grandsons died young, he reconciled himself to bequeathing his position--and Rome's twenty-five legions--to his stepson and adopted son Tiberius who, though a capable general and administrator, had always struck the emperor as too proudly aloof, morose, and temperamental to continue the Augustan constitutional charade. But Tiberius went on to have a long reign of his own (AD 14-37), and the sometimes admirable, sometimes deranged men known as Roman emperors succeeded to the throne until 476 in the Western Empire and 1453 in the Eastern or Byzantine Empire, besides inspiring Russian czars, German kaisers, and even an Italian ex-socialist known as il Duce.

In the account he himself wrote of his remarkable career, which was engraved on two bronze pillars in Rome and carved in stone throughout the empire, Augustus sometimes blusters like Shelley's Ozymandias: "In my triumphs there were led before my chariot nine kings or children of kings" and "Twenty-six times I provided for the people . . . hunting spectacles of African wild beasts . . . ; in these exhibitions about three thousand and five hundred animals were killed." He also can't resist one final iteration of the big lie at the center of his administration: "After that time I excelled all in authority, but I possessed no more power than the others who were my colleagues in each magistracy."

The first, greatest, and longest-reigning of all the Roman emperors died in his mid-seventies in AD 14, in the month that had been renamed August in his honor, and he was promptly deified by the compliant senate. On his deathbed, he summoned his friends and, in the tradition of comic actors, asked for their applause if they thought he had played his part well in the farce of life.

Did the hypocritical role assumed by this political actor fool anyone? It all depends on your definition of fool. Roman aristocrats realized they could prosper by administering Rome and the empire in Augustus's name if they just threw a little sycophancy into their lives. The chief writers of the time obtained funds and farms from Augustus's cultural minister Maecenas, whose name has become synonymous with enlightened patronage. The soldiers got bonuses, while the common people got cheap food and gladiatorial games. And in those far-off days of children being seen and not heard, not one of them had ever dared shout out, "But the emperor has no clothes!"

2. What was the first poetic handbook of Greek mythology?

Ovid's Metamorphoses, completed c. AD 8, one of the most influential books of all time

Just before his banishment to frigid, semibarbarous Tomis on the Black Sea coast by Caesar Augustus in AD 8 for an offense that may have involved the emperor's slutty granddaughter Julia as well as a sexy earlier work--a tongue-in-cheek seduction manual called The Art of Love--the Roman poet Ovid completed his Metamorphoses, a Latin poem of nearly twelve thousand hexameter lines. This treasure trove of Greek myths is thematically unified by the miraculous transformation of humans into beasts, birds, trees, plants, rocks, bodies of water, and even heavenly bodies.

Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC-AD 17/18) set out to write a different kind of epic from the martial sagas of Homer and Virgil. His aim was to collect the most important Greek myths into a single narrative with the leitmotif that all is constant flux in the universe. The artistic problem was to keep the momentum going over a sprawling and varied terrain, which Ovid solved by weaving myths into other myths and quoting speakers who quote other speakers in a kaleidoscopic orgy of narration that never degenerates into a shaggy-dog story.

Ovid recounts about fifty myths in detail, such as that of Narcissus, who falls in love with his reflection in a pool while ignoring the proffered love of Echo (who pines away until only her voice remains), and the tales of the famous lovers Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis, and Orpheus and Eurydice. The myth of Daphne, changed into a laurel tree to save her from rape by Phoebus Apollo, inspired one of Bernini's marble masterpieces, besides countless literary retellings. In some pruriently macabre lines from the tale, Ovid dramatizes the frustrated erotic desire of Apollo, the original tree hugger:

     But Phoebus loves her even as a tree--placing his hand
     on the trunk, he feels a heartbeat beneath the bark,
     and taking the branches in his arms, as if they were human limbs,
     he kisses the tree, but the tree rejects his kisses.

An immensely popular school text for teaching Latin and the myths at the heart of Western culture, the Metamorphoses became the secular bible of artists like Dante, Chaucer, Titian, Shakespeare, John Milton, and Ezra Pound. The 1567 translation of the poem into heptameter couplets by Arthur Golding, often referred to as "Shakespeare's Ovid," inspired the Bard's narrative poem Venus and Adonis, as well as the farcical playlet enacted by Peter Quince and his "rude mechanicals"--The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby--that provides A Midsummer Night's Dream with some uproarious humor. More recent manifestations of the book's perpetual appeal are the partial translation by Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1997), and the dramatic adaptation, Metamorphoses, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, through which Ovid made a big splash on Broadway in 2002 in a ninety-minute play staged around and in a large pool of water.

As far back as c. 700 BC, the Greek poet Hesiod had assembled myths on the genealogy of the gods in his Theogony. Ovid took his cue, however, from the Alexandrian Greek scholar-poet Callimachus (third century BC) who, in a long poem now almost entirely lost, the Aetia (Causes or Origins), explained certain cultural practices of his day by searching Greek history and legend for their ultimate explanations.

Ovid's more ambitious aim was to collect all the most noteworthy Greek myths and a number of Roman ones into a single narrative proceeding from the creation of the world to the transformation of the deified Julius Caesar into a star. In this poetic world, humans were often mere playthings of the gods. Did the hunter Actaeon, for example, do anything wrong when he stumbled on the goddess Diana stark naked in her bath deep in the woods? If not, why did she change him into a stag so that his own hounds would rip him apart?

The worldly-wise poet's main concern wasn't theological, however, since he believed in none of the old divinities, but psychological. He wanted to delineate the myriad ways that passion can lead to self-destructive behavior. Not all passion in Ovid is sexual. There is the fatal passion of the young Phaethon to drive the heavenly chariot of his father, Apollo the sun god. In a similar tale, the boy Icarus forgets his father Daedalus's instructions about how to fly safely with wings of feathers and wax, plummeting into the sea after soaring too close to the sun. The tender tale of the hospitable old married couple, Philemon and Baucis, whose passion was to die at the same moment, ends with their being changed by the gods into an oak and a linden tree growing from a double trunk.

Another major theme of Ovid's book is that of hubris punished when mortals or lesser divinities offend the Olympian gods by daring to compete with them. Consider the sorry case of Marsyas, the satyr who thinks his piping sounds much better than Apollo's, thereby earning the punishment of being flayed alive--the subject of a gruesome canvas by Titian. Then there's Arachne, who boasts that she can weave better than Athena, the goddess of handicrafts. When Athena examines the girl's awesome work, she boxes her ears in a fit of envious rage, driving the desperate young woman to hang herself. In a questionable gesture of pity, Athena changes Arachne into a spider--the first arachnid ever and still a world-class weaver. Queen Niobe can't understand why her people worship the goddess Latona, mother of only Apollo and Diana, whereas she herself is the mother of seven handsome sons and as many lovely daughters. The reward for her presumption is to see her entire brood shot to death by the arrows of the divine siblings and to suffer transformation into a woman-shaped rock that still exudes moisture as if weeping tears of grief.

Though most of the love stories in the Metamorphoses feature heterosexuals, Ovid clearly relished those dealing with alternative lifestyles, such as the strange tale of Tiresias, who starts out a man, is changed into a sexually active woman for seven years, is changed back into a man--and vouches that sex is more enjoyable for women. Iphis, a girl who grows up as a boy, is transformed into a man so that she can marry the woman she loves. Caenis, raped by Neptune, begs to be changed into a man and becomes the warrior Caeneus. We also find in Ovid's poem the original hermaphrodite (Hermaphroditus, who is joined, literally, with the water nymph Salmacis); incest (Byblis falls in love with her brother, Myrrha with her father); pederasty (Jupiter's love for Ganymede, Apollo's for Hyacinthus); fetishism (the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with his beautiful statue); and even bestiality (centaurs attempt to rape women; Queen Pasiphae mates with a bull and gives birth to the monstrous Minotaur). With heady cocktails like these served up via the vivid storytelling that characterizes the poem, is it any wonder the Metamorphoses has been read avidly (and sometimes surreptitiously) for the past two thousand years?