The Life of Augustus, 68–78

Suetonius  translated by J. C. Rolfe

« Suet. Aug. 57–67 | Suet. Aug. 68–78 | Suet. Aug. 79–89 | About This Work »

68In early youth he incurred the reproach of sundry shameless acts. Sextus Pompey taunted him with effeminacy; Mark Antony with having earned adoption by his uncle through unnatural relations; and Lucius, brother of Mark Antony, that after sacrificing his honour to Caesar he had given himself to Aulus Hirtius in Spain for three hundred thousand sesterces, and that he used to singe his legs with red-hot nutshells, to make the hair grow softer. What is more, one day when there were plays in the theatre, all the people took as directed against him and loudly applauded the following line, spoken on the stage and referring to a priest of the Mother of the Gods, as he beat his drum:

“See’st how a wanton’s finger sways the world?”

69That he was given to adultery not even his friends deny, although it is true that they excuse it as committed not from passion but from policy, the more readily to get track of his adversaries’ designs through the women of their households. Mark Antony charged him, besides his hasty marriage with Livia, with taking the wife of an ex-consul from her husband’s dining-room before his very eyes into a bed-chamber, and bringing her back to the table with her hair in disorder and her ears glowing; that Scribonia was divorced because she expressed her resentment too freely at the excessive influence of a rival; that his friends acted as his panders, and stripped and inspected matrons and well-grown girls, as if Toranius the slave-dealer were putting them up for sale. 2Antony also writes to Augustus himself in the following familiar terms, when he had not yet wholly broken with him privately or publicly: “What has made such a change in you? Because I lie with the queen? She is my wife. Am I just beginning this, or was it nine years ago? What then of you—do you lie only with Drusilla? Good luck to you if when you read this letter you have not been with Tertulla or Terentilla or Rufilla or Salvia Titisenia, or all of them. Does it matter where or with whom you take your pleasure?”

70There was besides a private dinner of his, commonly called that of the “twelve gods,” which was the subject of gossip. At this the guests appeared in the guise of gods and goddesses, while he himself was made up to represent Apollo, as was charged not merely in letters of Antony, who spitefully gives the names of all the guests, but also in these anonymous lines, which everyone knows:

“As soon as that table of rascals had secured a choragus and Mallia saw six gods and six goddesses, while Caesar impiously plays the false rôle of Apollo and feasts amid novel debaucheries of the gods; then all the deities turned their faces from the earth and Jupiter himself fled from his golden throne.”

2The scandal of this banquet was the greater because of dearth and famine in the land at the time, and on the following day there was an outcry that the gods had eaten all the grain and that Caesar was in truth Apollo, but Apollo the Tormentor, a surname under which the god was worshipped in one part of the city. He was criticized too as over fond of costly furniture and Corinthian bronzes and as given to gaming. Indeed, as early as the time of the proscriptions there was written on his statue—

“In silver once my father dealt, now in Corinthians I,”

since it was believed that he caused some men to be entered in the list of the proscribed because of their Corinthian vases. Later, during the Sicilian war, this epigram was current:

“After he has twice been beaten at sea and lost his ships, he plays at dice all the time, in the hope of winning one victory.”

71Of these charges or slanders (whichever we may call them) he easily refuted that for unnatural vice by the purity of his life at the time and afterwards; so too the odium of extravagance by the fact that when he took Alexandria, he kept none of the furniture of the palace for himself except a single agate cup, and presently melted down all the golden vessels intended for everyday use. He could not dispose of the charge of lustfulness and they say that even in his later years he was fond of deflowering maidens, who were brought together for him from all quarters, even by his own wife. He did not in the least shrink from a reputation for gaming, and played frankly and openly for recreation, even when he was well on in years, not only in the month of December, but on other holidays as well, and on working days too. 2There is no question about this, for in a letter in his own handwriting he says: “I dined, dear Tiberius, with the same company; we had besides as guests Vinicius and the elder Silius. We gambled like old men during the meal both yesterday and to-day; for when the dice were thrown, whoever turned up the ‘dog’ or the six, put a denarius in the pool for each one of the dice, and the whole was taken by anyone who threw the ‘Venus.’” 3Again in another letter: “We spent the Quinquatria very merrily, my dear Tiberius, for we played all day long and kept the gaming-board warm. Your brother made a great outcry about his luck, but after all did not come out far behind in the long run; for after losing heavily, he unexpectedly and little by little got back a good deal. For my part, I lost twenty thousand sesterces, but because I was extravagantly generous in my play, as usual. If I had demanded of everyone the stakes which I let go, or had kept all that I gave away, I should have won fully fifty thousand. But I like that better, for my generosity will exalt me to immortal glory.” 4To his daughter he writes: “I send you two hundred and fifty denarii, the sum which I gave each of my guests, in case they wished to play at dice or at odd and even during the dinner.”

72In the other details of his life it is generally agreed that he was most temperate and without even the suspicion of any fault. He lived at first near the Forum Romanum, above the Stairs of the Ringmakers, in a house which had belonged to the orator Calvus; afterwards, on the Palatine, but in the no less modest dwelling of Hortensius, which was remarkable neither for size nor elegance, having but a short colonnade with columns of Alban stone, and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements. For more than forty years too he used the same bedroom in winter and summer; although he found the city unfavourable to his health in the winter, yet continued to winter there. 2If ever he planned to do anything in private or without interruption, he had a retired place at the top of the house, which he called “Syracuse” and “technyphion.” In this he used to take refuge, or else in the villa of one of his freedmen in the suburbs; but whenever he was not well, he slept at Maecenas’s house. For retirement he went most frequently to places by the sea and the islands of Campania, or to the towns near Rome, such as Lanuvium, Praeneste or Tibur, where he very often held court in the colonnades of the Temple of Hercules. 3He disliked large and sumptuous country palaces, actually razing to the ground one which his granddaughter Julia built on a lavish scale. His own villas, which were modest enough, he decorated not so much with handsome statues and pictures as with terraces, groves, and objects noteworthy for their antiquity and rarity; for example, at Capreae the monstrous bones of huge sea monsters and wild beasts, called the “bones of the giants,” and the weapons of the heroes.

73The simplicity of his furniture and household goods may be seen from couches and tables still in existence, many of which are scarcely fine enough for a private citizen. They say that he always slept on a low and plainly furnished bed. Except on special occasions he wore common clothes for the house, made by his sister, wife, daughter or granddaughters; his togas were neither close nor full, his purple stripe neither narrow nor broad, and his shoes somewhat high-soled, to make him look taller than he really was. But he always kept shoes and clothing to wear in public ready in his room for sudden and unexpected occasions.

74He gave dinner parties constantly and always formally, with great regard to the rank and personality of his guests. Valerius Messala writes that he never invited a freedman to dinner with the exception of Menas, and then only when he had been enrolled among the freeborn after betraying the fleet of Sextus Pompey. Augustus himself writes that he once entertained a man at whose villa he used to stop, who had been one of his body-guard. He would sometimes come to table late on these occasions and leave early, allowing his guests to begin to dine before he took his place and keep their places after he went out. He served a dinner of three courses or of six when he was most lavish, without needless extravagance but with the greatest goodfellowship. For he drew into the general conversation those who were silent or chatted under their breath, and introduced music and actors, or even strolling players from the circus, and especially story-tellers.

75Festivals and holidays he celebrated lavishly as a rule, but sometimes only in a spirit of fun. On the Saturnalia, and at any other time when he took it into his head, he would now give gifts of clothing or gold and silver; again coins of every device, including old pieces of the kings and foreign money; another time nothing but hair cloth, sponges, pokers and tongs, and other such things under misleading names of double meaning. He used also at a dinner party to put up for auction lottery-tickets for articles of most unequal value, and paintings of which only the back was shown, thus by the caprice of fortune disappointing or filling to the full the expectations of the purchasers, requiring however that all the guests should take part in the bidding and share the loss or gain.

76He was a light eater (for I would not omit even this detail) and as a rule of plain food. He particularly liked coarse bread, small fishes, hand-made moist cheese, and green figs of the second crop; and he would eat even before dinner, wherever and whenever he felt hungry. I quote word for word from some of his letters: “I ate a little bread and some dates in my carriage.” 2And again: “As I was going home from the Colonnade of Pompey in my litter, I devoured an ounce of bread and a few berries from a cluster of hard-fleshed grapes.” Once more: “Not even a Jew, my dear Tiberius, fasts so scrupulously on his sabbaths as I have to-day; for it was not until after the first hour of the night that I ate two mouthfuls of bread in the bath before I began to be anointed.” Because of this irregularity he sometimes ate alone either before a dinner party began or after it was over, touching nothing while it was in progress.

77He was by nature most sparing also in his use of wine. Cornelius Nepos writes that in camp before Mutina it was his habit to drink not more than three times at dinner. Afterwards, when he indulged most freely he never exceeded a pint; or if he did, he used to throw it up. He liked Raetian wine best, but rarely drank before dinner. Instead he would take a bit of bread soaked in cold water, a slice of cucumber, a sprig of young lettuce, or an apple with a tart flavour, either fresh or dried.

78After his midday meal he used to rest for a while just as he was, without taking off his clothes or his shoes, with his feet uncovered and his hand to his eyes. After dinner he went to a couch in his study, where he remained to late at night, until he had attended to what was left of the day’s business, either wholly or in great part. Then he went to bed and slept not more than seven hours at most, and not even that length of time without a break, but waking three or four times. 2If he could not resume his sleep when it was interrupted, as would happen, he sent for readers or story-tellers, and when sleep came to him he often prolonged it until after daylight. He would never lie awake in the dark without having someone sit by his side. He detested early rising and when he had to get up earlier than usual because of some official or religious duty, to avoid inconveniencing himself he spent the night in the room of one of his friends near the appointed place. Even so, he often suffered from want of sleep, and he would drop off while he was being carried through the streets and when his litter was set down because of some delay.

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