Augustus' Propagandists: Virgil, Horace and Ovid

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  • 0:05 From Upstart to Emperor
  • 1:50 Imperial Propaganda
  • 3:39 Virgil: The True Believer
  • 5:46 Horace: The Convert
  • 8:52 Ovid: The Rebel
  • 11:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

This lesson explores the role of poetry in Augustus' rise to power. We look at the contributions of Virgil and Horace, two poets brought to Augustus' aid by his friend Maecenas. We also look at the legacy of Ovid, a poet who seems to have raised the emperor's ire.

From Upstart to Emperor

In 43 BCE, Gaius Octavius was a young upstart, riding on the coattails of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar. By the dawn of the current era, Octavius was known as Caesar Augustus, and he was the sole leader of Rome. In the course of a single generation, Augustus went from being the adopted heir of the murdered tyrant Julius Caesar to the divine son of the god Julius Caesar and Pater Patriae, father of the nation. This transformation was not instantaneous, but it was remarkably quick from a historical perspective. How do we explain this swift change in public opinion?

Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus
Caesear Augustus

Well, first of all, Augustus had defeated all his competitors and had absolute control over the Roman army. It's remarkably easy to sway people's opinion with an army at your back. Second, Augustus had wiped out all voices of dissent in a series of political purges. In the process, he'd made himself very wealthy by seizing the property of his murdered rivals. Third, Augustus had used his recently acquired wealth and power to buy off the plebs with gifts of land, food, and even cold, hard cash.

In these respects, Augustus appears much like the other powerful men who'd attempted to rule Rome as a king: Marius, Sulla, and Caesar had all used similar tactics in their rise to power. Yet Augustus succeeded where they did not. Augustus brought an end to over a century of civil war. That, in and of itself, would have been enough to earn him praise and honor.

Imperial Propaganda

But Augustus knew he could not maintain his position with brute strength alone. The last two centuries had shown that armies were not enough to prop up a dictator. Victorious on the field of battle, Augustus attempted a still greater victory - winning over the hearts and minds of the Roman people.

Coin depicting the victory of Augustus over Egypt
Augustus Coin

Coin hailing Augustus as the son of the divine Julius Caesar
augustus coin

He started by issuing coins, like this one, symbolizing his victory over Egypt and Marc Antony, or this one, hailing Augustus as the son of the divine Julius Caesar. He also undertook some massive building projects to proclaim his greatness, including the temple to Mars Ultor, Mars the Avenger (to commemorate his vengeance over Caesar's assassins) and the Ara Pacis (the altar of peace, commemorating the end of civil war), plus countless monuments and statues to the emperor's greatness.

At his death, Augustus could honestly say, 'I found Rome a city of mud bricks, and left her clothed in marble.' Yet Augustus' biggest propaganda campaign was not conducted by smiths, architects, or sculptors but by poets.

Augustus' friend and advisor, Gaius Maecenas, was a great patron of the arts. He had collected a fine selection of poets, all eager for imperial sponsorship. Among his top talent were the poets Horace and Virgil. Though they probably did not know it, these poets would usher in a whole new age. Through their work, they would proclaim the glory of the Empire through the ages and establish their patron, Augustus, as the father of a new era, an Augustan era of peace and prosperity.

Virgil: The True Believer

Virgil wrote the propagandistic epic called the Aeneid

The foremost of Augustus' propagandists was the poet Publius Vergilius Maro, known today as Virgil. Virgil seems to have believed in Augustus from the start, and he dedicated his life to singing the praises of his patron.

Without a doubt, Virgil's greatest piece of Augustan propaganda is the Aeneid. In this epic poem, Virgil rewrites the history of the Roman people, weaving Augustus and his leadership into the ancient mythology of Greece and Rome. Throughout the Aeneid, Virgil suggests that the entirety of Roman history, from Aeneas' flight from Troy through Romulus' founding of Rome, was all leading up to Augustus. He does not do this subtly but quite blatantly.

In book VI he writes:

Behold, at last, that man, who was foretold...
Augustus Caesar, kindred unto Jove.
who brings with him a golden age...
His sway shall extend into India and Africa,
and he shall stretch the dominion of the Romans
beyond the sun and stars

(Virgil, 1995, Bk. VI- ll. 788-796)

This is but one of the scores of references to Augustus that dot the Aeneid. You can learn more about this epic in our lesson on Virgil's Aeneid.

Virgil's propagandistic efforts were not limited to the Aeneid, however. The man could not get enough of praising Augustus. In his 4th Eclogue, Virgil calls Augustus King Apollo:
under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! He shall have the gift of divine life, shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen by them, and shall rule the world to which his father's prowess brought peace.

In his enthusiasm, Virgil foresees an age in which nature provides its bounty unaided: cows bring milk uncalled, soil puts up grain without sowing, and even sheep grow their wool in purples and yellows to spare man the effort of dying them. Now that's a sheep of a different color!

Horace: The Convert

This optimistic vision of a new age can also be seen in another of Maecenas' pet poets, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known today as Horace.

If Virgil was a true believer in the cult of Augustus, Horace was something of a convert. During the civil wars, Horace had opposed Caesar and served as a high-ranking officer in Pompey's army. He was a great proponent of Brutus and a fan of the Republic. After Caesar's victory, Horace found himself on the wrong side of history, and eventually found his way into Augustus' camp, where he was welcomed with open arms. Having such a vocal enemy of Caesar become an ardent supporter could only help Augustus' cause.

Perhaps because of his questionable background, Horace goes a little over the top in trying to prove his loyalty to Augustus. He calls Augustus:

The best guardian of Rome's people, dearest boon
A household power, adored with prayers and wine,
Thou reign'st auspicious o'er his hour of ease:

Yet he does not stop there. He compliments Augustus' military prowess:

Who fears the Parthian or the Scythian horde,
Or the rank growth that German forests yield,
While Caesar lives?

He notes the loyalty Augustus inspires in his people:

smit by loyal passion's restless stings,
Rome for her Caesar yearns.

And, just in case Augustus did not get the point, Horace proclaims:

when, like spring, thy gracious visage
Dawns on thy Rome, more gently glides the day,
And suns serener shine.

Horace continued on Virgil's theme of the new age in his poem Carmen Saeculare (Song of the New Age):

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