Roma si vestrum est opus

Circle of Life from Disney’s The Lion King


This song is adapted from poetry of Vergil, Horace and Ovid about the new world order after the civil war.

Read on for a VERY LONG explanation of the literary trials and tribulations of the Julio-Claudians.

Note (January 2018): this characteristically circuitous piece of juvenilia was written when I was in my fourth and final year as an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, as part of my revision for three of my compatible examination papers, ‘Latin Literature of the 1st Century BC’, ‘Roman History 146-46 BC’ and ‘Roman History 46 BC – AD 54′.

The foundation myths of Rome

This song retells the legend of the foundation of Rome as it is presented by the poets Vergil (70-19 BC), Horace (65-8 BC) and Ovid (43 BC-AD 17/18). The emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14) was hailed as the city’s saviour and founder of a new Rome and a new golden age. He justified his brutal rise to power as revenge for the murder of his (adoptive) father, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). He was required to hold on to power in order to ensure the re-imposition of law and order after nearly 20 years of civil war. In different ways, the poets assert their gratitude for Augustus’ restoration of stability and insist that he – and later his heirs Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37) and Germanicus (13 BC-AD 19) – must continue to provide it.

(NB, if you just want the translation of the song, scroll down until you see the video again.)

There were two legends of the foundation of Rome, one Greek and one Sabine. They were both filled with traditional motifs of folktales, but that did not concern the Romans much. What mattered was the symbolic value. What did bother the Romans, however, was that the two legends did not match up.

The Greeks’ legend of the foundation of Rome, known even when the Iliad was written (around the 600s BC), goes as follows. Aeneas – son of the goddess Aphrodite and the Trojan prince Anchises (cousin of King Priam), and thus the very last hero to be born of a mortal and a deity – was fated to lead the Trojan survivors of the legendary Trojan War (which ancient historians calculated to have taken place around the year we call 1184 BC) to establish a new homeland in Italy where they would mix with the Italians. The mixed descendants of the Trojans and Italians would be the Romans. Greek scholars suggested that the name ‘Rome’ came from the Greek word ρώμη, meaning ‘strength’.

Figure 1: The royal family of Troy

Royal family of Troy

According to the local Sabine version of Rome’s origins, the god Mars fathered twin sons on the daughter of the king of a town named Alba Longa. The king was scared that any offspring of his daughter, named Silvia, would overthrow him, so he made her a Vestal Virgin, but of course, that sort of thing doesn’t stop gods. When she gave birth to twins, the king threw them into the river Tiber, but the god of the river guided them to the bank and they were suckled by a she-wolf until a shepherd found and adopted them. When they grew up, the twins, at some point named Romulus and Remus, went to depose their grandfather and found a new city. Unfortunately they could only name the city after one of them. It came to blows and Remus was killed. Romulus became the eponymous founder and first king of Rome, and was later taken up to heaven and deified with the name Quirinus (whence comes the word ‘Quirites’, the formal name for Romans). The next problem was that they had no way to reproduce, so they proceeded to the territory of the nearby Sabines and carried off their women. Ancient historians calculated that this took place around 753 BC.

The symbolic values of these legends could be combined to brilliant effect. In his Histories (written in the 30s BC) the Sabine historian Sallust presents King Mithridates VI of Pontus, one of Rome’s most formidable enemies, describing the Romans to a fellow eastern king as follows (this is 4.69 in the Oxford Classical Text, 4.47 in P. McGushin’s English edition): ‘Are you unaware that … from the beginning, [the Romans] have never had anything – home, spouses, territory, empire – that they did not take by force? Once refugees with no fatherland or parents, founded to be a plague on the entire world, whom no divine or human institutions hold back from taking over and annihilating their own allies and friends, whether they are situated nearby or far away, helpless or powerful, and that they treat anyone who is not enslaved to them, and kingdoms most of all, as the enemy?’ Ouch.

The Julii and Aeneas

Aeneas’ wife Creusa (daughter of Priam and sister of Hector) died in the destruction of Troy, but their son Ascanius survived and fled with his father. The Trojan refugees nicknamed the boy Ilus after the city of Troy (also called Ilion in Greek/Ilium in Latin). At some point, someone allegedly got confused and turned the name into Iulus. The Julian clan claimed to be descendants of Iulus, so Julius Caesar presented himself (on coins: see here and here) as a descendant of a goddess and of the founder of Rome. He did not go so far as to claim a ‘divine right to rule’ but that sort of thing was clearly implied.

Note: There follows a brief introduction to the history of the early Julio-Claudians (Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius). I initially wrote this from memory and posted it without references because I didn’t want to overload it, but on reflection, my tutor would disown me if I didn’t add references, and besides, I myself have lamented often enough that narrative introductions to the period do not state their sources! So I have gone through and backed up anything that I thought needed a reference and added the triumvirate before I really did get roasted, so classicists can check my facts; for non-classicists, I hope the wide selection of references – i.e. they don’t all come from one narrative source – gives a small glimpse of how ancient historians work.

After victory in the civil war with Pompey and his partisans (49-46 BC) and a hectic dictatorship, Julius Caesar was assassinated on 15 March 44 BC. (Of the many sources I could cite to prove this, my favourite is Cicero, ad Familiares 6.15, where Cicero writes: ‘I congratulate you, I love you, I want to be loved by you’ to one of the assassins.) His right-hand-man, Mark Antony, was forced to oppose the senate and then shocked them all by forming an alliance with their intended pawn, Caesar’s unknown great-nephew, Gaius Octavius. This alliance also included another of Caesar’s generals, Lepidus, but he is not too important for this story (XD). The reluctant senate ratified this arrangement on 27 November 43 BC (Suetonius, Augustus 27, RGDA 7; their secret negotiations, powers and proscriptions – i.e. the legalisation of the murder of anyone they didn’t like, most conspicuously Cicero – are covered in Dio, books 46-7; the law is commemorated on the Fasti Colotiani). Together the three of them (the ‘triumvirate’ – the FIRST triumvirate) had Caesar deified (Dio 47.18.4; ILLRP 409, which reads ‘It is set up to the Divine Julius, by the law of Rufrenus, on the order of the Roman people’), and Octavius took up the name ‘Caesar, son of the god’ to distinguish himself from the older Caesar. (Antony famously complained at the nerve of this upstart: Cicero, Philippics 13.24.) They then fought yet another civil war with Caesar’s murderers, led by Brutus and Cassius who were defeated in 42 BC.

In 38 BC, Caesar Junior changed his name again, to ‘Imperator Caesar’. Imperator was the Roman word for ‘military commander’, but it was not a rank. It was a title, given by the Roman soldiers to generals they felt deserved it; the obscure Gaius Octavius now made it his first name. The best way to understand the significance of this is to note that the word ‘imperator’ gave us the word ‘emperor’, and ‘Caesar’ gave us the word ‘tsar’. In the same year he married Livia, a member by blood and marriage of the Claudian clan, one of the oldest and proudest aristocratic families from the time of the kings. She brought with her two sons, Tiberius Claudius ‘Nero’ and Decimus Claudius ‘Drusus’. (The change of name to Imperator is cited more often than it is properly evidenced. Syme, Roman Revolution, p. 113 says that the clearest evidence comes from coins of Agrippa struck in Gaul: BMC, R. Rep. II, 411ff. This is the type of evidence that is often ignored but it is often some of the most important!)

But the ill-fated alliance between Caesar Junior and Antony did not last. After helping Caesar Junior defeat Sextus Pompey at sea in the west, Antony was furious that Caesar Junior did not reciprocate and send help against the Parthians in the east (see Dio, book 49). By 36 BC Lepidus had outlasted his usefulness and was exiled (Suetonius, Augustus 16); Antony had had enough, and set himself up with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Overjoyed, Caesar Junior portrayed Antony as an oriental despot (see Suetonius, Augustus 69-71 for Antony’s retaliations) and set about gaining sole power. In the propaganda war that followed, he likened himself to Apollo, son of Jupiter, king of the gods. He defeated Antony in 31 BC and in 27 BC he ‘restored’ power to the senate – which promptly gave it back to him, because it could no longer cope (Dio 53.12-16; Suetonius, Augustus 47). The traditional age to hold the highest joint office of state in Rome was 42. Caesar Junior, now asked to rule alone, was 32.

To mark his special position, the senate wanted to give Caesar Junior a special new title because he was the ‘new founder’ of the city. One suggestion was Romulus, but this had negative implications (one version of Romulus’ ‘deification’ was that he was actually murdered because he had become a tyrant) and Caesar Junior preferred to be original, so he chose a different suggestion, Augustus. This was also associated with a new foundation because Rome’s first epic poet, Ennius, had written, ‘when glorious Rome was founded by augury august’. This was a folk etymology; it is more likely that the word ‘august’ means ‘augmented’. (This is recounted by Suetonius, Augustus 7. Augustus himself records the event at RGDA 34, although obviously he does not discuss the debate.)

Augustus was eager for his ‘reign’ to be marked by a boom in literature – which it was. The prominent poets of the time took a new interest in the Julian legend of the foundation of Rome, which gave more opportunity for sentimental reminiscence than any of the many stories about Apollo. However, Augustus never forced anyone to write ‘propaganda’ for him. He knew that most of the population was happy for him to remain in power, because they had seen 20 years of civil war and did not want another struggle for supremacy. Augustus himself would probably have been happy to uphold the traditional Roman principle of ‘collegiality’, i.e. that there should be more than one person with supreme power as long as he was one of the two people involved, and in fact he chose two colleagues to have the same powers as his own: his admiral Marcus Agrippa and, after Agrippa’s death, his stepson and chief field general Nero (Tiberius). This is usually forgotten because most people behaved as if Augustus was a monarch, and his supporters, particularly those of the lower classes, felt monarchy brought stability. (I base this paragraph, which seems simple but in fact contradicts centuries of scholarship, largely on Suetonius, Augustus 27-8, which I am inclined to take more or less at face value, to mean that Augustus was happy for the state to work as before with him and a colleague as observers. Augustus asked for colleagues for posts the senate & people wanted him to hold on his own, and had to put off requests for him to be sole consul or dictator, as he notes at RGDA 5-6 – for once perhaps he should be given credit for doing what he boasts! See also Suetonius, Augustus 37. He objected strenuously when Tiberius surprisingly ‘walked out’ of his job as co-regent: Suetonius, Tiberius 10, on which see below. Enthusiasm for Augustus’ ‘imperial family’ came consistently from the people of Rome: see e.g. Tacitus, Annals 1.3, 2.82, 4.9; Suetonius, Caligula 4; Ehrenberg & Jones, Documents illustrating the Reigns of Augustus & Tiberius, nos. 68, 69, 94a, 95.)

Although he did not commission imperial propaganda, Augustus was keen to be celebrated in verse. This was not a novel idea: the great generals Lucullus and Pompey had had Greek poet friends who wrote about them (Cicero, pro Archia 9.21; Plutarch, Pompey 42.4); and the orator Cicero tried to get someone to write about him too, but when he failed, he did it himself (Cicero, ad Atticum 1.19.10). The results (for he wrote a prose account in Latin, one in Greek, and a Latin poem) were somewhere between dangerously arrogant, because they threatened other people’s prestige, and utterly ridiculous, because Cicero was not a very good poet. Augustus was not a very good poet either (Suetonius, Augustus 85), but he had more awareness of his own limitations, so he turned to his own poet friends, who were much more numerous than any previous commander’s – and who wrote in Latin, Rome’s own language, which was steadily accruing its own classic literature. Directly or indirectly, Augustus supported several talented poets (Suetonius, Augustus 89). The most famous were: Quintus Horatius Flaccus / Horace, who wrote lyric with Alcaeus as his model; Sextus Propertius, who wrote erudite elegies inspired by Callimachus; and Publius Vergilius Maro / Vergil, who wrote pastoral love poetry modelled on Theocritus and a farming manual inspired by Hesiod, both popular poets in the learned tradition of Alexandria (best imitated in Latin by Catullus). All of these had mentioned Augustus in their poetry, but he particularly wanted someone to write an epic about his achievements. None of them was keen on the idea (see e.g. Horace, Satires, book 2, satire 1), so there was a rather awkward situation until the most unlikely candidate, Vergil, agreed to do it. Propertius published a poem (book 2, 34b) expressing his enthusiasm for Vergil’s poem (largely due to his relief that he didn’t have to do it!).

Vergil’s Aeneid

The plot of the Aeneid is best explained by its opening lines:

This is a song about war and a man, who was the first

To come, exiled by fate, from the shores of Troy to Italy

And the shores of Lavinium, tossed about far over land and sea

By the violence of the gods and the unforgiving anger of cruel Juno.

He suffered much in war, too, until he could found a city,

And bring his gods to Latium, whence comes the Latin race,

The Alban fathers, and the walls of lofty Rome.

Muse, tell me the reasons: by what slight to her divinity,

Or what grief, did the queen of the gods [Juno] drive a man

Famed for his piety to undergo so many misfortunes, to face

So many trials? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?


The man of this prologue is the Trojan prince Aeneas (named 90 lines later, which is significant). He escapes from the burning city of Troy with his father Anchises and his son Ascanius. He carries his rescued household gods, and instructions from an oracle to find his ‘first homeland’, because he is destined set up a new city that will one day rule the world. He spends seven years wandering about the Mediterranean trying to work out where this is, until the household gods take pity and tell him that it means Italy, where Dardanus, the first founder of Troy, was born. Just before they set off for Italy, Aeneas is devastated again by the death of his father.

The Trojans are within sight of Italy when Juno, queen of the gods, shipwrecks them in Africa. They take shelter in Carthage, where Queen Dido, who also fled her homeland of Tyre (Lebanon) to found a new city, invites them to stay. Aeneas’ mother, the goddess Venus, visits Juno and they concoct a plan to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas, because Venus wants her son to be happy and Juno wants Carthage to be the greatest city in the world and hopes that this will happen if the Trojans stay there.

Aeneas is happy to stay with Dido because she is the only person who understands his suffering. They live together happily for a year, but then one of the local chieftains, who had wanted to marry her, complains to Jupiter, king of the gods (who happens to be this random chieftain’s father, as so often). Jupiter sends his messenger Mercury to tell Aeneas that he is supposed to be in Italy and he is cheating his son of his destiny and inheritance if he stays in Carthage. Aeneas reluctantly prepares to go. He closes his heart to Dido’s pleas, and Dido does not accept his explanation that he must obey his duty. When Dido tells him he should make his own choice, Aeneas replies, ‘I shall always treasure our time together, but if I could make my own choice, Troy would still be standing.’ When he leaves, Dido, who fears the local chieftains will now try to attack her city, commits suicide and curses Aeneas’ descendants.

When he arrives in Italy, Aeneas is taken to the underworld to meet the shade of his father, who will reassure him about his destiny by telling him about Rome, the empire of his descendants (it’s complicated), and its most important leaders (notably Augustus). During this speech Anchises describes recent events in Roman history, such as the horrific civil war between Caesar and Pompey, and he begs the future race of Romans to ‘spare the conquered, but crush the proud in war’. Aeneas leaves the underworld, but afterwards it seems that he has forgotten about Rome, because when his mother Venus gives him a divine shield featuring the same people, he likes the pictures but does not recognise any of the faces.

Aeneas reaches the site of Rome. He visits Evander, king of local Pallantium on the site of Rome, and receives his support. Then he visits Latinus, the king of nearby Latium, and asks to marry his daughter Lavinia as the oracle instructed. Latinus, who also had an oracle telling him the same thing, accepts, but Juno is furious. She makes Latinus’ wife Amata refuse, and she forces a local prince, Turnus, to fight Aeneas.

War begins between the Trojans and the Latins. The Latins are supported by the Volscians, another local tribe led by the warrior princess Camilla, and by Turnus’ sister Juturna who is a river goddess. Evander sends troops to help Aeneas, led by his son Pallas, whom he asks Aeneas to protect. In the battles that follow, Turnus kills Pallas. Up to this point Aeneas had been unwilling to fight, but when he finds out that Pallas is dead, he has a nervous breakdown and starts killing people indiscriminately.

Jupiter calls a council of the gods and says that he will not allow anyone to obstruct his plans anymore. Juno objects that she is the queen and her wishes must be respected, too. Jupiter asks if Juno will let the Trojans win if they abandon the name Troy and become one race, called ‘Italians’, with the Latins. Juno agrees, and Jupiter creates favourable circumstances for the Trojans.

Eventually Aeneas and Turnus must fight a solo battle, though neither of them is eager to do so. Aeneas defeats Turnus, who begs for his life. Aeneas is about to let him go when he sees that he is wearing a belt stolen from Pallas. He loses control and kills Turnus. The poem ends with Turnus’ soul escaping to the underworld.


Aeneas and Augustus

If the Aeneid is an epic about Augustus, it is a very strange one. It is not remarked often enough that the poem Vergil produced was not what anyone was expecting at all. Augustus had wanted a poem about his own rise to power, in which he was the hero (duh). Vergil chose to write an epic about the entire history of Rome from its foundation until his own time, using the Iliad and Odyssey as his models. This seems trite to some modern readers, but at the time it was far from the most obvious way to do it; it was common for poets or orators to link a living statesman to a legendary hero, but not the other way round. Vergil’s inclusions of more recent Roman history in the Pageant of Heroes (Book VI) and the Shield of Aeneas (Book VIII) were highly innovative modifications of motifs from his models, the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

But the poem was surprising in other ways. It was not uniformly positive: rather than shying away from the subject in favour of his new golden age, Vergil described the civil wars with obvious pain. One of the memories that Aeneas recalls with most grief is the death of Priam, cruelly decapitated: this is a description of the death of Pompey the Great, adversary of Julius Caesar, who appears in person in Book VI where Vergil’s Anchises seems to imply that it was in Caesar’s gift to avoid their conflict. There are many asides in the poem, asking why humans are made to suffer.

The selection of material for Aeneas’ own timeline is also unusual and even quite shocking. As well as giving his own version of how Aeneas and Romulus were both founders of Rome (Aeneas founded a city Lavinium, then his son founded Alba Longa, and several kings later, the mother of Romulus and Remus was born), Vergil inserted a long detour of his own to account for the Romans’ enmity with the rival Mediterranean empire of Carthage: an ill-fated romance between Aeneas and Queen Dido, Carthage’s own mythical founder. This was entirely or at least largely Vergil’s invention (ancient historians had put Carthage’s foundation in the 800s so it didn’t fit with either Aeneas or Romulus) – we might call it the precursor of modern ‘crossover fiction’. In any case, Vergil’s new story was canonised and the romantic subplot immediately became the most popular part of it. And not only that: when Aeneas is forced to leave Dido, he is clearly suffering, but he bottles up his distress and most of his pain is revealed later; at the time, poet’s and reader’s sympathy rests firmly with Dido, who was used as a pawn of the gods, and simply does not understand why Aeneas is deserting her when she knows he loves her. By the time Vergil came to write the poem, the Carthaginians were responsible for thousands of Roman deaths, and yet the sympathy for Dido extends to her death scene, where she curses Rome and invokes an unnamed avenger, clearly meant to be the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal – the figure of Roman children’s (and many adults’) nightmares. When Vergil presents the disgraced Roman general Antony’s liaison with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra as ‘unspeakably shameful’ (the official line) we have been geared up to be more than a little sceptical. A poet who could conceive of the rise of the man who caused Romans decades of suffering as the dying wish of a female monarch presented as wronged by Rome’s founding father cannot be called the author of Augustan propaganda.

Figure 2: The relationship of Aeneas to Romulus

Aeneas to Romulus



That is not to say that Vergil is uniformly negative about Augustus; but most importantly, Aeneas is not Augustus. Even though Vergil draws parallels between them, these parallels do not involve interaction – Aeneas sees Augustus himself, as an unborn shade in the underworld and represented in battle on his shield – or they are mostly visual and hard for the modern reader to capture: Aeneas is presented moving around in spaces which would later become the sites of monuments important to Augustus (so a reverse of the idea of walking in the footsteps of ancient peoples when we visit ruins or, more creepily, the houses of dead famous authors or musicians). Although Aeneas has a divine parent, this does not help him very much, because Venus wants him to succeed on his own; Aeneas is certainly not like Augustus who used his relationship to the ‘divine’ Julius Caesar, his adoptive father, to justify his power. Although Aeneas’ main characteristic is pietas, which Augustus gave as the reason for continuing war against Caesar’s murderers, Aeneas was famed for this quality before he was ever associated with Augustus.

In other ways Aeneas and Augustus are completely different, both in their experiences and their personalities. The poem opens with a description of the unnamed hero, a long-suffering refugee (here note that the early Romans at least were very proud of their origins as refugees) who brought his family gods from Troy to Latium. Even though he does not give the hero’s name, the reader would know it was not Augustus because this description does not fit him at all, not even metaphorically. It would have been very easy for a poet of Vergil’s tradition to write an opening that could apply to both Aeneas and Augustus, but he does not do so.

When Vergil finally does introduce Aeneas by name, it is to present him as a very unlikely hero, so overwhelmed by the battering of disasters he has suffered that he wishes he had died at Troy – his home. Saying something like this was practically blasphemous to the Romans. Aeneas is supposed to be a protagonist to rival Achilles and Odysseus, but he is different from both: Achilles was able to choose his destiny, whereas Aeneas evidently does not want his; Odysseus was made to suffer for his own arrogance, whereas even the Iliad acknowledges that Aeneas was a good man, who offended none of the gods personally (Juno hates the Trojans in general) and was not even particularly prone to fits of noble pride. Both Achilles and Odysseus have moments of despair, but they are also confident of their superiority and their claim to a reward from the gods for their heroic eminence; Aeneas, consistently and conspicuously, is not.

As the Aeneid progresses, we learn that Vergil’s Aeneas is profoundly depressed after the destruction of his homeland and the loss of his wife, but he struggles on, in order to keep up the spirits of his men and his son. (After their umpteenth shipwreck, he gives a speech now famous, including the line, ‘Perhaps one day even this will be something we’ll be glad to remember,’ which like all the best poetry loses something in translation – in mine at any rate.) Aeneas knows it is his destiny and duty to found Rome, but shockingly for Rome’s ‘official epic poem’, he is not even slightly enthusiastic about it. He does not want to go all the way to Italy, and keeps almost wilfully misinterpreting the oracle instructing him that this will be his new home. He does not consider himself worthy to be the leader of the enterprise (in Troy he was more famous for his wise advice) and he spends the first half of the poem procrastinating – the yearlong affair with Dido is only the most famous example. His visit to the underworld in Book VI is supposed to reassure him, but on the way to his father he sees the shade of Dido – who he did not know committed suicide – and he sobs, ‘I swear by the stars that I did not want to leave you,’ while Dido glares at him in silence. This is modelled on the underworld encounter of Odysseus and Ajax in the Odyssey, a narrative choice that reveals much about Vergil’s characters. Odysseus had won Achilles’ arms through a rigged vote because of his closeness to the judges, and Ajax, made into a laughing stock by the goddess Athena (who supported Odysseus), committed suicide. This prompted Odysseus to realise that Ajax had been unfairly treated. On seeing Ajax’ shade in the underworld, Odysseus offers a somewhat flat apology and is happy to use Ajax’ silence as an excuse to get away as quickly as possible. On the one hand, Aeneas comes across much more positively: he shows genuine anguish and remorse, and has to be dragged off by the sibyl before he attempts to pursue Dido. On the other hand, the parallel in itself makes it clear that the poet, not just Dido herself, feels that Dido (i.e. ancestor of Rome’s enemy) was the one who was wronged (by fate and the gods, if not wilfully by Aeneas).

To make matters worse for Aeneas, one of the first things Anchises says to him when they meet is words to the effect of, ‘Ah, so you left the queen? Good boy. Don’t sulk! Look at all these Romans who are going to be born in a thousand years!’ Anchises reassures Aeneas that he is worthy of his destiny, and encourages him to have faith by showing him the souls of future Roman kings (again a strange choice, since ‘king’ was a dirty word for the Romans) and telling him about the ‘aureum saeculum’ (golden age/generation) which will be inaugurated by Augustus Caesar (described between two ancient kings, and not given a different title), who will extend the Roman Empire beyond the ends of the earth (6.791-807):

This is the man, this is the one whom time after time you hear to be promised to you,

Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will found a golden age

once again in Latium, in the fields once ruled by Saturn,

and will extend the empire beyond the Garamantes and Indians;

there lies a land beyond the stars,

beyond the yearly paths of the sun, where sky-bearing Atlas

twists on his shoulders the axle inset with stars.

Even now, anticipating Augustus’ arrival, the Caspian kingdoms

and the land of Maeotia bristle in horror at the gods’ oracles,

and the trembling mouths of the sevenfold Nile are in confusion.

Not even Hercules covered so much of the world,

even though he pierced the bronze-footed deer, or pacified

the woods of Erymanthus and made Lerna tremble with his bow;

nor did Liber, triumphantly turning his chariot with his reins of ivy,

driving his tigers down from the high peak of Mount Nysa.

And do we still hesitate to extend our courage with deeds,

or does fear stop us from settling on Ausonian land [Italy]?

Despite the obvious, and sincere, loyalty and pride that Vergil instils into Anchises’ speech (perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the poem for a non-Roman reader to appreciate), the reader is left with the uneasy impression that for Aeneas, the promise of being associated with an all-powerful conqueror in the distant future is a rather inadequate consolation and that personally he just wanted someone to understand his suffering (which Dido, likewise a refugee, did). He does not remember most of this trip and in the second half of the poem he is more resigned than inspired. When Juno rouses the Italians to war with the Trojans – which was not part of Jupiter’s plan, and probably not in the legend either, but was a way for Vergil to depict the horrors of civil war – Aeneas is at his wits’ end. He tries to settle the issue by diplomacy rather than fighting; in Greek epic this would be a sign of cowardice, but here it is clearly meant to show that Aeneas is simply worn out and does not want anyone to suffer anymore, and we are meant to feel sympathy, not disdain. However, when the young Arcadian prince Pallas, whose father reluctantly allowed him to fight for Aeneas on the condition that Aeneas protect him, is killed by the Italian leader Turnus, Aeneas has a nervous breakdown and goes on a killing frenzy. This is analogous to Achilles’ similar mindless rage after the fated death of his foster brother Patroclus. But at the end of the Iliad, Achilles reconciles himself to his fate and has a poignant conversation with Priam – father of Hector, who killed Patroclus and whom Achilles returned and refused to hand over for burial – in which both forget that they are at war and simply take comfort in each other’s shared grief.

What about Aeneas? As with Achilles, we know what is to happen to Aeneas in the end – in fact, it was prophesied in the Aeneid itself that he would marry the princess Lavinia, father a child with her, and then die after three years and become a god – so Vergil was free to end the poem itself where he wished. We might expect it to end with, for example, Aeneas’ apotheosis, a prediction for Augustus, the sort made by Vergil’s friend Horace. Quite the opposite. Vergil’s choice was stunning. In one of its most moving scenes, before his final battle with the Latin prince Turnus, Aeneas embraces his son Ascanius and says, ‘May you learn valour from your uncle Hector and from me, but happiness from someone else.’ When Aeneas defeats Turnus, Turnus gives in graciously and says that he does not deserve to be spared, but if Aeneas does spare him it will be a sign of his clemency and greatness – exactly what Anchises said the ‘future Romans’ should do. Aeneas, not a naturally violent person (unlike, for example, Achilles or Diomedes, both of whom he fought in the Trojan War), is about to spare Turnus – then he sees the belt Turnus took from Pallas as a trophy when he killed him. He snaps and the poem ends abruptly with him killing Turnus, crying, ‘It is Pallas who kills you.’ His final act is a desperate loss of control. The devastating shock of this ending is illustrated by the fact that for many years scholars have insisted that the poem must have cut off before the real, happy end. They have clearly not read it properly.

The Aeneid is a beautiful and moving poem that can only be experienced fully in Latin. It is not Augustan propaganda – but it is not even what anyone thought it was going to be. Vergil’s unexpected invention is a heart-breaking and convincing portrayal of a man destined to a position of power he did not want and the unspeakable misery that this caused, a picture all the more surprising because it was as far removed from Vergil’s own life experience as possible. The Roman people would have to wait another generation for the advent of such an unpalatably reluctant ruler – and several more for another author with the imaginative power to do it justice.

After the Aeneid

Having faced poor health all his life, in 19 BC Vergil died aged just 50 with the final revisions of the Aeneid uncompleted. He left orders to burn it, but his editor Varius and Augustus disregarded them and published it. It was an instant hit and had profound influence on western literature from the moment it was released. Roman students memorised passages from Book IV (the story of Dido) at the same time as they learned about Rome’s wars with Carthage. Augustus quoted lines from the Aeneid when he wanted to make a point (Suetonius, Augustus 40). Ovid included Aeneas and Dido in his collection of fictional letters addressed from mythological heroines to heroes (letter 7). One hundred years later, parts of it were used as inspiration for many works from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, one of the first Latin novels, and Tacitus’ Annals, his historical analysis of Rome after Augustus. And of course, Vergil himself appeared in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Vergil was the first Roman author to get himself an organised fandom.

When Vergil died, Augustus had recently decided to confirm that his rule was established and there would be no return to the civil wars by celebrating the Generation Games (see Suetonius, Augustus 31; Horace, Carmen Saeculare, especially lines 21-4; inscriptions: CIL VI 32323. 103-7, 119-32, 139-46). These were traditionally held whenever no one was alive who had attended the last games. A few people were, so Augustus brushed that under the carpet by producing an oracle that said the games had to be held every 110 years, and a history book saying the first games had been in 456 BC. (It’s not clear why he held them in 17 BC and not 16 BC, but we must remember that the Romans didn’t use these dates, in fact they didn’t use numbers for years at all, and they had to negotiate Julius Caesar’s calendar reform to bring the lunar calendar year in line with the solar year.)

Now Augustus did need a commissioned poem for the hymn to close the games. If Vergil were alive, he would perhaps have asked him to compose it, since he had written quite extensively and emotively about the new ‘golden age’ in his poetry even before the Aeneid. However, he was not. So Augustus turned to another of his close friends, Horace.

Horace was different from Vergil in almost every way. Vergil had been a farmer forced out of his home in Mantua when Augustus’ veteran soldiers were resettled, but received a farm near Naples by Augustus as compensation. He was even less warlike than Cicero (and that is saying something). Horace, on the other hand, had fought in the civil war fought between Augustus (then still Caesar Junior) and Antony (while they were still cooperating) on one side, and Brutus and Cassius (murderers of Julius Caesar) – and he had fought on the opposing side (Horace, Satires, 1.7; Odes, 2.7). Pardoned by Caesar Junior after the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, he returned home to find that he, too, had lost his family farm (Horace, Epistles, 2.2.49-51), so he took up a position as an official clerk in the city. He became good friends with Vergil, who introduced him to Maecenas (Horace, Satires, 1.6), one of Augustus’ advisors and a great literary patron.

Horace, like Vergil, shows admiration for Augustus in his poetry. But he does it in a very different way. Since he had been a soldier, he was even more aware than Vergil (who was by no means blind to the idea) that there had existed other leaders worth following. Whereas Vergil seems to embrace Augustus most of all for his institution of stability, Horace seems to see the ruler as the custodian of morality. His ‘Roman Odes’ (Odes book 3, poems 1-6), in which he describes the ideal ruler, are very different from the Aeneid, which was published only shortly after the Roman Odes. Most surprisingly, the odes do not include Aeneas at all, and that cannot only be because Vergil was writing his Aeneid and Horace didn’t want to steal his thunder, because he covered other similar themes. Horace’s poetry also praises the life of leisure but we get the idea that it is not only out of preference for girls and wine that he keeps his hands clean of official business.

It is not a surprise that Horace’s Carmen Saeculare is very different from Jupiter’s prophecy or Anchises’ speech in the Aeneid. Horace was not the sort of man to write a bombastic pledge or a tear-filled speech. But it was also different because it was a lyric poem, written in a different style, and because it was a hymn, with a tone different from that of Vergil’s narrative epic. The Carmen Saeculare does introduce the figure of Aeneas: By the path of salvation, honest Aeneas passed through burning Troy without injury, survivor of his fatherland’s destruction, and built a path to freedom, to provide a better life than the one left behind. But the focus is on the new generation of boys and girls who were always the centre of Augustus’ attention. Only a year previously, he had introduced strict new marriage laws designed to improve public morality and increase the birth rate. Horace endorses Augustus’ legislation. But he does not call Aeneas pius and he does not use the word saeculum at all.


After Augustus

When Augustus held the Generation Games, the poet Ovid was just beginning to make a name for himself. Ovid was born in 43 BC, just before Antony and Caesar Junior defeated Brutus and Cassius, so he had lived his childhood through civil war and, unlike Horace and Vergil, the only stability he had known was that promoted and sustained by Augustus. His first poetic work, the Heroides, a series of love letters from mythological heroines, was published shortly after the Aeneid. He then published a series of outrageous love manuals and fun, inventive elegies. Ovid was a member of the ‘palace circle’ but he was never as close to Augustus as Horace or Vergil; but perhaps he got too close to one of the women in Augustus’ family, for he claims to have been exiled to the Black Sea in AD 8 for a ‘poem and a mistake’ (Ovid, Tristia, 2.207-10), and Augustus’ granddaughter Julia and grandson Agrippa Postumus were exiled at the same time.

At this point, Ovid was moving on to more serious works, as was customary for Roman writers. Specifically he was working on the Fasti, a poem explaining the origins of the rituals that took place on each day of the Roman calendar. Either he left it unfinished or (more likely) we have lost the second half of it. Ovid completed the poem under Augustus’ successor Tiberius, but it is dedicated to Germanicus, Augustus’ great-nephew, who was married to Augustus’ granddaughter. The popular belief in Rome was that Augustus had now established what was in effect a monarchy. Now Tiberius had succeeded him, and Germanicus in turn would succeed Tiberius. Germanicus was Tiberius’ nephew, but Tiberius had adopted him; he had a son of his own, but that son was not related to Augustus so he had to adopt Germanicus (Tacitus, Annals 1.3).

Figure 3: The Julio-Claudian family, listed under the names by which they are most commonly known in English. (Watermarked it, because I can. And because I have never seen a family tree of this lot without repetitions XD)

Names in bold are the ruling Caesars, or ‘emperors’ in English (plus Julius Caesar, dictator). Click for larger size.




Ovid’s Fasti is concerned with the role of the ‘emperor’ in maintaining the golden age that had already been celebrated by Vergil. Ovid too prophesies the return of Troy and its relation to Augustus. Unlike Horace, he is happy to call Aeneas pius. He writes (1.527-36):

Now pious Aeneas will bring his sacred artefacts and, sacred again,

His father: accept the gods of Ilium [Troy], Vesta [goddess of the home].

A time will come when the same man [Augustus] will guard both you and the whole world,

And the sacrifices will take place with the god himself celebrating,

And the guardianship of the fatherland will remain with the Augusti:

It is right for this family to hold the reins of power.

So the grandson and son of a god, although he himself rejects it,

Will carry his father’s burden in his divine mind,

And just as I shall one day sacrifice on eternal altars,

So there will be a new deity, Julia Augusta [Livia].


The ‘grandson and son of a god’ refers to Tiberius, son of Livia (Augustus’ wife) and stepson of Augustus. Augustus had adopted Tiberius in AD 4, making him technically the grandson of a god (Julius Caesar) and the son of a god (Augustus, who was also deified after his death in AD 14). Along with his brother Drusus I, Tiberius was Augustus’ chief general from 15 BC to AD 13 and would have continued after that, but Augustus died in AD 14, making Tiberius emperor. The historian Tacitus suggested (in the opening to his Histories) more or less that all the principes (those we call ‘emperors’ and their ‘heirs’) required people to flatter them, except Trajan, the emperor when he was writing (in the 110s AD). So considering that Ovid was writing this poem in the ‘reign’ of Tiberius, it is odd that he does not name Tiberius. It is not only here: Ovid doesn’t name him when he commemorates his rededications of the temple of Concord and of Castor & Pollux, or in the prologue; addressing Germanicus, Ovid mentions ‘your brother Drusus’ (Drusus II, Tiberius’ son), but calls Tiberius simply ‘your father’. Unnamed as he is, Tiberius appears in person only in Book 1, although there were many events on the calendar in which he was involved, which would have allowed Ovid to include him more often.

It is true that the name of the new ruler was difficult. By birth he was Tiberius Claudius Nero, and he was called Nero in poetry; but after his adoption he was called Tiberius Julius Caesar Claudianus (Dio 55.27), usually shortened to Tiberius Caesar. He did not take up the title Augustus. Therefore, Ovid could not use ‘Nero’ or ‘Augustus'; ‘Tiberius’ did not fit into most poetic metres, and it was unusual to address a living important individual by his first name (later historians call him Tiberius to distinguish him from everyone else); but while Tiberius was alive, there was no reason not to address him as Caesar, even though it meant some confusion. So it is quite obvious that Ovid deliberately failed to name Tiberius: why was this?

Tiberius himself disliked being flattered but this did not stop other people. Some even dedicated poetry to him. Ovid’s poem was about mythology and astrology and Tiberius was interested in mythology, astrology and poetry (romantic and scientific, exactly the two genres Ovid wrote) (Suetonius, Tiberius 70). But Ovid chose to dedicate the poem to Germanicus. Why did Ovid pass over Tiberius? It could be because Tiberius was a Claudian, not a Julian by blood and the Julian family was extremely popular in the nascent Roman folklore, while the Claudians had a reputation for being unpredictable and arrogant (Tacitus, Annals 1.4; Suetonius, Tiberius 2). Tiberius was certainly proud of his Claudian lineage, and drew attention to it even after his adoption by Augustus. But this cannot be the only reason either, because Ovid is happy to include Tiberius’ mother Livia and son Drusus. Some scholars associate Ovid’s neglect of Tiberius with the reason for Ovid’s exile. If the exile was connected to the disgrace of Augustus’ granddaughter Julia, Ovid would surely not expect sympathy from Tiberius, who had been Julia’s stepfather and had been gravely insulted by both this Julia and her mother (Augustus’ daughter). But even if this is the case, Ovid, along with Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Rabirius (whose work is lost), and Tibullus – not Horace or Propertius – was one of the Latin poets Tiberius most esteemed (Velleius, 2.36).

Whether it has anything to do with his failure to name him or not, I detect in Ovid’s attitude to Tiberius a warning tone, an indication of what he expected of a ruler. The historian Velleius Paterculus, who had served as a soldier with Tiberius and was extremely loyal to him, portrays his general as quiet, scrupulous and self-effacing, and says that he only took up power because it was his duty and destiny, not because he wanted it. Far from being inconsistent with Ovid’s portrayal, this fits perfectly. Unlike Augustus and Germanicus, Tiberius was uncomfortable with being in the spotlight (to me this is obvious from Tacitus’ account of his almost incredibly awkward behaviour at the ‘accession debate’), he disliked the ‘court’ atmosphere (Tacitus, Annals 3.65), and he found the idea of sole rule and the ‘divine family’ presented in this poem absolutely ridiculous (Tacitus, Annals 1.12, 4.37-8). He did not want to succeed Augustus (Velleius, 2.103, 124). He had been nominated as Augustus’ co-ruler in AD 4, but this was not the first time. Augustus had also elevated Tiberius to this position in 6 BC, but, battered by a series of personal tragedies and feeling unsuitable for the role, Tiberius panicked and retired from public life to study instead, shocking everyone – no one more than Augustus (Suetonius, Tiberius 10). Ovid, who was a ‘court’ poet and lived in the city where nothing was more important than being seen, would not want a quiet, scrupulous, self-effacing man to succeed Augustus, master of public relations. He wanted someone who wanted to be emperor – who would enthusiastically join in with the people in proclaiming the continued golden age, favour his supporters either with individual gifts or lavish celebrations for everyone, and instil confidence by his own self-confidence. Ovid’s words, ‘although he rejects it’ and ‘divine mind’ (Tiberius repeatedly referred to the divine capacities of Augustus – Tacitus, Annals 1.11 – but insisted that he himself was a mere mortal and did not want anyone to think or suggest otherwise), are one of the clearest signs that Tiberius’ initial rejection of the position of emperor after Augustus’ death was not just a show as suggested by Tacitus (or rather by scholars on Tacitus), but that people at the time thought it was genuine and were bewildered. Tiberius had pleaded his age (fifty-six, at least ten years past retirement age for most Romans), the size of the empire, his mental state and his failing sight when he had tried to induce the senate to give him a colleague or let him retire altogether. In his account of the day when Augustus was given the title ‘Augustus’, Ovid writes the following (Fasti 1.613-6), which I believe refers to Tiberius, although it is not clear, again because he has not named him:

May [Juppiter] augment the empire of our general, augment his years,

and cover all of your doors with a crown of oak:

and by the good offices of the gods, may the heir of such a great honorary name

take up the burden of the world under the same omen as his father.


Ovid recognises that the empire is a burden, and he insistently, almost threateningly, prays for Tiberius to undertake it, and to ensure that he will not be the weak link in the chain of golden princes. Ovid clearly did not have the same view of power as Vergil.


Circle of Life


It does not take much explaining why I chose the rise of Augustus as the historical background for this song, partly because the sentiments of the songs fitted so well, partly because Augustus presented himself as a boy avenging his father. The Lion King was based on Hamlet, which was in turn based on Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the classic tale of a boy avenging his father even though his father was an absolute piece of dirt. (If I ever get to a Greek version, it will of course be based on the Oresteia.) When I get to Be Prepared, you can expect an evocation of Julius Caesar’s assassination. I translated I Just Can’t Wait to Be King before I had started using sustained historical parallels, but that fits, too.

The Latin version of this song is intended to function as a poet addressing the new heir (in general), and (in its details) as a prophet addressing Aeneas AND as a subject of the Roman Empire addressing the new emperor, urging him to preserve stability (a request that has particular importance because it implies that the speaker has just endured a period of turmoil). In that respect, I have portrayed Aeneas as a combination of Augustus and Tiberius.


A brief note on the style

Horace’s Carmina (including the Generation Hymn) are lyric poetry (most like a modern song); Vergil’s Aeneid is an epic poem in dactylic hexameter (in tone and effect the equivalent of the iambic pentameter); Ovid’s Fasti are written in elegiac couplets (i.e. one hexameter, then a shorter line – no modern equivalent, but it has something like the effect of ‘now the green blade riseth / from the buried grain’, even though that is actually one verse).

Poetry written in hexameter or elegiac couplets has simple sense units (i.e. almost every line is self-contained, with a comma at the end, and words agreeing with each other are near each other in the line). In lyric poetry the meaning is often spread across several lines, and related words are separated, making full use of Latin’s inflection.

For example, my translation of ‘Touch the Sky’ from ‘Brave’ also retells the legend of the foundation of Rome and the rise of Augustus, but it is in the first person, and based on the style of Vergil. The second verse and first line of the chorus in Latin read:

‘In forest | fateful | where | gales
above | mountains | rage,
black | pools | to me | recount
that there was once | age | of gold.
As | in | tales | received
fate | out of | urn | I shall steal,
to me | there will be | strength | of storm,
eagle’s | pride.
By which | I shall fly | up | to | stars | through | winds.’

It is quite clear that this means: ‘In the fateful forest where gales rage above the mountains, black pools recount to me that there was once an age of gold. As in the tales I have heard, I shall steal my own fate from the urn. I’ll have the strength of the storm and the pride of the eagle; this will help me fly through the winds up to the stars.’

By contrast, the second verse and first line of the chorus of ‘Circle of Life’ – which are expressing the same sentiment, but in the second person and in the style of Horace – read in Latin:

‘by which | with deeds | extending | courage,
true | outcome | you may find,
fortunate | free | hesitating | in fear,
fixed | cycle | which | songs | returns
for you | illuminates/purifies | path.’

In English this means: ‘As you hesitate out of fear, the fixed cycle, restoring the songs that bring good fortune, shows you a pure, bright path to freedom, by which you may find the true outcome by extending your courage with accomplished acts.’ It is impossible to translate it line by line.


Ordo Saeclorum

The title means ‘the cycle of the generations’ and it comes from Vergil’s Eclogue IV, line 5, magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur orzo (‘the great cycle of the generations is being renewed’). Vergil’s Eclogue IV, which I did not mention above, is a poem celebrating the birth of a child who will bring about a new age. It has long been thought to have connections to Hebrew prophecies about the Messiah, although no one really believes very strongly that Vergil thought that was what he was writing about. Much ink has been spilt by scholars arguing over which child is concerned, but the important thing in this song is that Vergil reuses a lot of the language he used in this poem for the pageant of heroes in Book VI of the Aeneid, where Anchises shows Aeneas the future Romans and speaks of Augustus’ golden age.


From the day you arrive on the planet

simul nasceris almo cum sole

As soon as you are born with [the] kindly sun


The sentiment simul nasceris also comes from Eclogue IV, which addresses a newborn child who will bring back the golden age. I chose the phrase almo cum sole in homage to alma Venus, divine ancestress of the Romans (she is called this in Lucretius’ de rerum natura).


and, blinking, step into the sun

et vita cognoscis quae sit

and you learn what life is


This is adapted from Eclogue IV, line 27: iam legere et quae sit poteris cognoscere virtue (‘already you will be able to read and learn what virtue is’), but I was actually inspired to translate the sentiment this way by the Italian version of the song, which begins, ‘Un bel giorno ti accorgi che esisti’ (‘One beautiful day you realise that you exist’).


There is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do

saecula numine conservanda ordine / recipies

You will take on [the] world to keep in order with [your] divine power


This is not based on a particular line, just the general sentiment of all of the poems. It took me a rather long time to find words that would fit and kept the rhyme scheme (‘there is more to see than can ever be seen‘ – saecula numine conservand(a) ordine).

This is a prime example of how Latin uses far fewer words than English (5 Latin to 14 English). Even without poetical ellipsis, Latin is more concise. The English word order would be recipies saecula [quae sunt] conservanda ordine [tuo] numine, literally ‘you will receive the world, which is to-be-kept in-order by your divine power’. ordine and numine are both ablatives, but they are two different types of ablative, and it is clear enough in Latin what it means. conservanda is a gerundive, literally meaning ‘needing to be preserved’, and it is also Latin’s way of expressing what modern languages do with a special use of the infinitive, e.g. ‘there is lots to be done’ / ‘il y a beaucoup à faire’, ‘c’è molto da fare’.


than can ever be done

licet ipse nolis

even if you yourself be unwilling


In the video I sing ‘licet ipse non vis’, but licet takes the subjunctive (it means ‘allow that…’) so it should really be nolis at the end in Classical Latin, although it is acceptable grammar in later Latin. (If you’re learning Latin and you make a mistake, don’t worry about it – you’ll still do it after 10 years!) The verb is nolo, a contraction of non volo. A stellar retort to ‘yolo’, if you ask me.

This comes from licet ipse recuset in Ovid’s Fasti (book 1, line 533, translated above).


There’s far too much to take in here, / more to find than can ever be found. / But the sun rolling high / in the sapphire sky / keeps great and small on the endless round. / It’s the circle of life

quo [peractis extendens virtutem] / [verum terminum reperias], / felices liberum / dubitanti metu / certus orbis qui cantus refert / tibi lustrat iter

As you hesitate in fear, [the] fixed cycle which brings back [the] songs of good fortune shows you [a] pure bright path - on which, extending [your] courage with accomplished acts, you might find [the] true outcome - to freedom,


This is the most lyrical part of the song. The basic structure of the sentence is ‘the cycle shows you the way’.

The first two lines can almost stand alone, and are intended to be heard first (which they are not in the English translation above): ‘So that you may find the true outcome [by] extending your courage with accomplished acts’. But the first word quo points forward to the word iter, five lines later. quo is in the ablative case (‘by which, with which, on which’, etc.) so its inclusion so early on signals to the listener, ‘This is what you have to do; soon I’m going to name something by which you may accomplish it.’ iter is the first word that can agree grammatically with quo, so when the listener hears it, (s)he knows that the subordinate clause has been linked to the main clause. In fact, at the word iter we could put a full stop and it would make sense, so it is a fully rounded construction. But, as often in lyric poetry, it is linked to the following lines by enjambement: tibi lustrat iter is the end of the sense unit, but it is the start of the chorus, so separate from the previous lines in form if not in meaning.

tibi, ‘you’, is qualified by the phrase dubitanti metu; this is translated as ‘as you hesitate in fear’, but the Latin literally says ‘to you, hesitating in fear’. Or rather, it says ‘to hesitating-in-fear … you’, for the phrase dubitanti metu comes first and we do not know to whom it applies until we hear tibi lustrat iter. It comes from these two lines of the Aeneid: et dubitamus adhuc virtutem extendere factis, / aut metus Ausonia prohibet consistere terra? (‘and do we still hesitate to extend our courage with deeds, or does fear prevent us from setting foot on Ausonian land [Italy]?’ 6.806-7).

This line also inspired peractis extendens virtutem; factis is replaced with peractis, which means the same thing but is perhaps a little stronger. That comes from these lines from the Carmen Saeculare: vosque, veraces cecinisse Parcae, / quod semel dictum est stabilisque rerum / terminus servet, bona iam peractis / iungite fata (‘and you, the Fates, who are truthful in prophecy, link happy destinies, as was once ordained, and let the stable outcome of events preserve this’, 25-8).

This line also gives us the word terminus (‘outcome’), and I wrote verum terminum reperias as a nod to the line quo magis Italia mecum laetere reperta (‘so that you might rejoice all the more with me in having found Italy’, Aen. 6.718, Anchises to Aeneas).

The remainder of these lyrics comes from these lines of the Carmen Saeculare:

certus undenos deciens per annos / orbis ut cantus referatque kudos (‘so the fixed cycle of years, ten times eleven, will bring back the singing and the games’, 21-2)

castus Aeneas patriae superstes / liberum munivit iter (‘pure Aeneas, survivor of his homeland’s destruction, built a path to freedom’, 42-3)

The word felix, which appears in the hymn also, means ‘fortunate’ or ‘happy’ but it is stronger than either of those English words. It means ‘fortunate’ in the sense ‘favoured by Fortune’ and has overtones of ‘blessed’.


And it moves us all

melius in aevum

towards a better generation


I chose the words lustrat and aevum as a nod to these lines from Horace’s Carmen Saeculare (66-8), remque Romanam Latiumque felix / alterum in lustrum meliusque semper / prorogat aevum (‘[Apollo] calls forth the Roman state and fortunate Latium into another ritual cycle and an always better generation’).

The lustrum was a ceremony of purification performed by the censors*. In theory, a new lustrum meant a clean slate for the Roman people, a fresh start in their relationship with the gods. So the verb lustrare meant ‘to purify’ in the civic/religious (not separate in Rome) context, but etymologically it meant ‘light up’ (think ‘lustre’). I have translated ‘lustrat iter‘ as ‘shows a pure, bright path’. The reprise of the chorus at the end begins ‘ita lustras iter‘, which stands on its own to mean ‘You show us a pure, bright path’.

*For those interested, the censors were two special officials who were supposed to be elected every 5 years (but squabbling in the senate often meant that the censorships were irregular). Their job was not necessarily to ‘censor’ in the modern sense; their most important tasks were to check that everyone who had a particular status had the required amount of property to qualify for that status, and to oversee the auction for contracts to provide public services.


through despair and hope

ex angore ad spes

from despair to hope


through faith and love 

fida pietate

through faith and love (lit. by faithful devotion)


This is very straightforward, but all of these words have special significance. spes is of course simply the Latin word ‘hope’, but nonetheless I had in mind two lines from the Aeneid, spem vultu simulat (‘he feigned hope on his face’, 1.209), where Aeneas tries to hide his fear and misery to cheer up his men, and hic primum Aeneas sperare salutem / ausus (‘it was here that Aeneas first began to hope for salvation’, 1.451-2), where Aeneas sees images of his family’s suffering on the temple wall in Carthage and realises that there are still compassionate people in the world. I chose the word angor because it is the word that Cicero used to describe what he felt during the civil war (ad Atticum 9.6.4), and I decided to write in Latin ‘from despair to hope’, because that is more or less the aim of the Aeneid, to go from despair to hope. The phrase ‘ex angore ad spes‘ thus implies ‘from the turmoil [of civil war] to hope [for stability]’. (I used to read commentaries and think it was ridiculous that scholars tried to link poem X to poem Y by one word, then I did this.) On the individual level, angor means ‘severe anxiety’ and for me is the external expression of ‘despair’, of which ‘hope’ is of course, etymologically, the direct opposite.

Since I’ve been asked, spes is plural (for singular; I think this is called ‘metonymy’); here is the declension:

Singular Plural
Nominative spes spes / speres
Vocative spes spes / speres
Accusative spem spes / speres
Genitive spei sperum
Dative spei spebus / speribus
Ablative spe spebus / speribus


fida pietate is another expression of continuity. The quality Augustus most vaunted for himself was pietas, usually translated ‘devotion to the gods, one’s family, and one’s country’. This was a dignified and important quality for the Romans, although it gets something of a bad press nowadays, partly because of the near-untranslatable line ‘sum pius Aeneas‘ (Vergil, Aeneid 1.378), and partly because of Augustus’ relationship with it: he excused his unorthodox rise to power (which he himself admits at RGDA 1), the brutal slaughter of his enemies (e.g. Suetonius, Augustus 13), and the unceremonious displacement of innocent civilians, evicted from their homes to make way for his veterans (e.g. Vergil, Eclogues 1.64-72), by attributing it to pietas, which required him to do all that to avenge his ‘father’, Julius Caesar (Tacitus, Annals 1.9). The quality Julius Caesar most vaunted for himself was fides, (Hirtius, Spanish War, 19) by which he meant ‘good faith’, ‘integrity’, ‘sticking to one’s word’. (It is indeed the word used to mean ‘faith’ as in Christian faith, but in the Roman context it had slightly different connotations. The phrase ‘fidem dare’, ‘to give fides‘, was the strongest way to say ‘to make a promise’. Not that the present word ‘faith’ does not imply something like a promise, but we hear it differently. For the Romans, fides was in itself a divine quality by which they could swear in the way we ‘swear to God’. The phrase ‘have faith in’ evokes the word in English, but in both classical and ecclesiastical Latin it is credere, usually translated ‘I believe’, which has a much weaker force in English.) Caesar can, overall, be said confidently to have a reasonably strong claim to fides. In any case, the important thing is that the Romans valued these qualities and wanted their rulers to live up to them. By writing fida pietate (‘through faithful devotion’) instead of fide et pietate (‘through faith and devotion’) I have tried to draw a line from Caesar to Augustus and join them together. To a Roman listener it would sound nearly the same – i.e. the adjective fidus, especially in this register and context, has almost the same resonance as the noun – the only difference being that the two concepts are more closely connected.


Note that the exact nuance of these lines is slightly different from that of the English. The English says, ‘The circle of life … moves us all through despair and hope, through faith and love.’ Although I have translated the above lines as ‘through faith and love’, it is a different use of the word ‘through’. My Latin means the equivalent of: ‘The circle of life shows you a path from despair to hope, by faith and love.’ The lines ‘from despair to hope, by faith and love’ are intended to overlap with what goes before and after. So they could mean what I’ve just said; but also, they can apply to the next line, meaning, ‘As long as you proceed, bringing salvation, on that august course, from despair to hope, by faith and love.’ That is why I haven’t punctuated the subtitles on the video. The overlapping is deliberate and is part of my attempt at lyrical style XD


till we find our place on that path unwinding

dum procedis sospes illo augusto cursu

As long as you proceed, bringing salvation, on that august course


This is adapted from these lines of Horace’s Carmen Saeculare:

iussa pars mutare lares et urbem / sospite cursu (‘[there came] the group ordered to change their home and city, on a course to salvation’, 39-40)

The word sospes means ‘saving, delivering’. As a noun it is applied as an epithet to deities, e.g. Juno Sospita, ‘Juno the Saviour’. I have applied sospes to the addressee, and replaced it with regard to cursu with the adjective augustus (reverend, sacred, august). As the title of the emperor Augustus (for it was a title, not his name) it was more or less the equivalent of ‘Your Majesty’. So the two adjectives sospes and augustus apply to the opposite noun from what you would expect.


in the circle, the circle of life

volvet saeclum cui finis non est

[This] age will turn over without end (lit. [the] age/world to which there is no end will turn)

volvere is the term used consistently by Vergil to imply the passing of time with an implication of fate running its course, e.g. certe hinc Romanos olim, volventibus annis, / hinc fore ductores (‘it was certain that from [the Trojans] would one day come the Romans, when the years rolled by, from [the Trojans] would come [world] leaders’, Aen. 1.234-5), volvens fatorum arcana movebo (‘I shall unroll the scrolls of fate’, Aen. 1.262), triginta magnos volvendis mensibus orbis / imperio explebit (‘he will fill thirty great cycles with his power, as the months turn over’, Aen. 1.269-70).

saeclum means something in between ‘world’ and ‘age’, as in the liturgical ‘world without end’, which translates in saecula saeclorum, literally ‘into the ages of ages’. (If you had noticed that these lyrics sound oddly Christian, well, yes. The Christian liturgy is translated from Latin, written under the Roman Empire. Some Ecclesiastical Latin is more or less imported Greek; some of it is Classical Latin appropriated from paganism to monotheism. The applicability of some classical sentiments – particularly Eclogue IV to the birth of Jesus – has puzzled scholars for years and I tried to bring that out in the lyrics.)

It is also, of course, the word used to describe the golden age that will return under Augustus: hic vir, hic est, tibi quem promitti saepius audis, / Augustus Caesar, divi genus, aurea condet / saecula (‘this is the man, this is he, whom time after time you hear to be promised to you, Augustus Caesar, son of a god, [who] will [re-]found a golden age’, Aen. 6.791-3, quoted above: some of the first lines I ever learned in Latin).

volvet saeclum cui finis non est is hard to translate back into English. It means ‘this age will turn endlessly’, but ‘endlessly’ does not apply to ‘turn’ but to ‘this age’. It says literally ‘the age that has no end will turn’, but because of the word order, ‘that has no end’ is not just a description (so you know which age it is), it is an assertion after the event; it amounts to saying, ‘This age will turn, and it will have no end.’ When I wrote this, apart from saecula saeculorum I was thinking of imperium sine fine dedi (‘I have given them power without end’, Aen. 1.279, where Jupiter speaks of the future of the Romans).


Lyrics with macrons included

I was asked to indicate syllable length for Let it Go, so here are the lyrics to this song in Latin, with elision included. I have divided the syllables somewhat oddly, but that is to show endings and stems. There is a difference between ‘long vowel’ and ‘long syllable'; if the vowel is long (this includes all single vowels with a macron, and all diphthongs i.e. double vowels), the syllable is long, but a syllable with a short vowel is long if the vowel is followed by two consonants (either in the same word, or one in the same word and one in the next, i.e. ‘e’ in ‘ipse nolis’ is short, but ‘u’ in terminus). Obviously, long does not mean dragged-out and there are some places where it is hard to tell in my singing, but I have tried to pronounce the long vowels differently from the short.



Further reading

All of the above are my own words, and anything factual that actually makes sense is a) written from memory, b) to be put down to the expert ministrations of my magistrorum rerum Romanarum, Phil, Stephen and Anna, who over ten years have collectively managed to get me to write something coherent. (If I’ve said anything ridiculous then obviously they tried and I was being particularly obtuse.) But it’s such a long didactic spiel that I feel I should include a bibliography for this one. (I’ve not written a recommendations bibliography before. Ooh, training. Here we go.)

Please note that all of the ancient sources are not suitable for children under 12 and probably not suitable for children under 16 without a parent having read them first. If you would like me to give more details about specific scenes/themes then feel free to ask.

Links are to Amazon UK.

On the Aeneid:

  • The best introduction is An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps or Virgil: the Aeneid by K.W. Gransden. Alternatively, here is a comic summing it up as The Fresh Prince of Latium.
  • My favourite translation is by Paul Veyne in French *ahem* is by Robert Fagles, published by Penguin Classics. If you don’t want to buy one, the online translation by A.S. Kline is also very good.
  • If you read Latin, the best student edition is by Gordon Williams, in two volumes (one, two).
  • Virgil [sic] has a Cambridge Companion (edited by Martindale) and a Blackwell Companion (edited by Farrell & Putnam; make sure to select paperback).
  • Another good introduction to the Aeneid from a very different perspective is the novel Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin, pretty much the Aeneid‘s only foray into modern media, apart from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, if you’re into that sort of thing. Vergil himself of course appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
  • I loved the Aeneid when I first studied it but I was first encouraged to see it as a ‘disturbing’ poem at the lecture series by Llewelyn Morgan that I heard in my first year (and typed up verbatim because I type that fast). My favourite part was: ‘If the word “Aeneas” suggests something safe, predictable, foundational, that’s wrong and you won’t enjoy studying it. This is an exciting, disturbing, terrifying text. It is not a comfortable stroll through Roman or Augustan pieties: it tests the reader’s aesthetic and moral assumptions throughout.’ I obviously can’t reference that but I can direct you to his blog!

On Horace, Ovid and other Latin literature:

  • There are many introductions to Latin literature but I’d recommend Latin Literature: A History by Gian Biagio Conte, the Blackwell Companion to Latin Literature (edited by Harrison) or Latin Literature by Susanna Morton Braund.
  • There is a Cambridge Companion to Horace (edited by Harrison). Ovid has a Blackwell Companion (edited by Knox), Cambridge Companion (edited by Hardie), and Brill’s Companion (edited by Weiden Boyd).
  • Some excellent books on Latin poetry generally include The Latin Love Poets by R.O.A.M. Lyne and Tradition and Originality in Roman Poetry by Gordon Williams (also published in an abridged version, The Nature of Roman Poetry, which might be a good starting point also). William’s book (both versions) is out of print but you can get it second-hand (as indeed I would recommend getting all of these books). If you can’t read Latin then you might enjoy How to Read a Latin Poem (if you can’t read Latin yet) by William Fitzgerald. I have not read it, as I can read Latin, but it has excellent reviews.
  • Horace is far from my speciality but good introductions are Horace by Fraenkel and The Odes of Horace by S. Commager. If you want to read Horace, you cannot do better than the first three books of the Odes by David West (text, translation and compilation of commentaries: BUY THEM SECOND HAND). Unfortunately he did not manage to do the fourth book but there is a Cambridge commentary on that and the Carmen Saeculare by R. F. Thomas (alas, without translation).
  • I have not studied Ovid formally since Year 12 and the only books I have ever even skimmed on the Fasti (to check I wasn’t talking nonsense) are Ovid’s Fasti: Historical Readings at its Bimillennium (edited by Herbert-Brown) and Matthew Robinson’s commentary on Book 2. Both of those are prohibitively expensive but Herbert-Brown has also written an affordable historical study. The Fasti are not Ovid’s most famous work! There are general introductions to him by (e.g.) John Barsby and Sara Mack but he is probably best approached in the context of other authors, or simply by reading his work, which has enjoyed unparalleled influence over western literature and art. He is probably most notorious for the Amores (‘Loves’) or Ars Amatoria (‘The Art of Love’), but I prefer the Metamorphoses and especially the Heroides (‘Heroines’), his first work. You can get all of these in English in the Oxford World’s Classics series, except for the Heroides, which is translated in Penguin Classics. Naturally there are Loeb editions of all of these. But personally I hate Loebs. I almost forgot about them.

On Augustus and his age:

  • There are countless biographies of Augustus, by e.g. Barbara Levick, Patricia Southern and A.H.M. Jones amongst many others, but if you’re new to scholarship then I would recommend starting with the recently released one by Adrian Goldsworthy. (I have not read it, but I’ve skimmed it and it looks legit. He has also written biographies of Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra.) If you’re looking for something short, try the Lancaster Pamphlet by David Shotter.
  • A good introduction to Augustus’ time is Augustan Rome by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill or the Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus (edited by Galinsky), and to the Roman Empire in general, The Roman Empire by Colin Wells. Volume 10 of the Cambridge Ancient History is incomparably useful if you can get access to it. (Most universities have access and a print copy. It should also be in local libraries; when I say ‘should’, here I mean, ‘They really ought to have it,’ not, ‘it probably is’, since you never know these days.) My favourite book on how the Romans saw time (including their foundation myths) and presented it in their poetry is Caesar’s Calendar by D.C. Feeney, which is just generally a wonderful read.
  • There are many books of essays on Augustus; my favourites are Caesar Augustus: Seven Aspects (edited by Millar and Segal) and Between Republic and Empire (edited by Raaflaub and Toher).
  • For classicists with some training, the standout best works on Augustus are of course The Roman Revolution by Ronald Syme, and The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus by Paul Zanker. The former, intended as a prequel to Tacitus’ Annals, is difficult to read even in English and it quotes Latin without translation, but if you can manage it then it is very much worth it. It is still regarded as the seminal work on the subject. (Syme’s style is also regarded unofficially as the model style in which to write scholarship on Roman history, which for me at least is a great boon, although it makes things much worse when I have to pick up a book on e.g. Greek literature. Damn critical theory. It hurts my eyes.) There are some points with which scholars now quibble but always with extreme reverence. The latter is a very refreshing take on the period but I suspect the effect might be lost a little if you haven’t plodded through book after book that ignores visual evidence.
  • The best short introduction to Augustus’ successor Tiberius is the Lancaster Pamphlet by David Shotter; for full biographies you can choose between those by Barbara Levick and Robin Seager (when I accessed the link for the latter, the book had somehow been subtitled ‘Essential Clinical Skills for Nurses’ – honestly, I’m not making this up – but I assure you that’s not what it’s about…). My adaptation of Frozen is mostly inspired by Tiberius. (That’s largely why I aimed at a similar tribute to Augustus in this one XD)
  • Modern media: I, Claudius by Robert Graves is a skilful anthology of translated excerpts of Tacitus and Suetonius. The TV series I, Claudius and Rome also cover this period with stunning performances and varying degrees of flagrant historical inaccuracy. Other historical novels about Augustus include those by John Williams and Allan Massie (both called simply Augustus).

Ancient authors I cited in the accounts above (NB all translations given above are my own):

  • Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti – a massive inscription put up on Augustus’ mausoleum and copied elsewhere in the empire, telling everyone ‘Look What I Did’. It is invaluable testimony because it gives Augustus’ own words.
    Latin & Greek text with translation and commentary by Alison Cooley (this is a truly excellent piece of scholarship)
  • Cicero, Letters to Atticus and to friends – what it says on the tin. In his letters Cicero (statesman, orator and self-styled saviour of the world) is insecure, self-important, whiny, melodramatic and insufferable, but you love him for it. At least, I do. He is also deeply humane, loyal to his friends, rightly indignant at the prejudice he suffered because of his undistinguished birth, passionate, learned and witty.
    Latin text from Greats textbook by W.W. How (also here); translations: Letters to Friends by D.R. Shackleton Bailey; Letters to Atticus (there is no printed version in a single volume);
    Philippics – speeches against Mark Antony that cost Cicero his life. Text and translation in two volumes, Loeb Classical Library *shudders*
  • Cassius Dio, Roman History – written in Greek by a senator in the 3rd century.
    Available in English here; no one is going to want the Greek.
  • Horace and Ovid – see above.
  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives – biographies of famous Greeks and Romans written for moralising purposes. You can get the Lives relevant to the pre-Augustan years in the volume Fall of the Roman Republic. (I have not yet acquired a satisfactory edition of this in Greek…)
  • Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars – biographies of the ‘Caesars’ (Julius Caesar + the emperors from Augustus to Domitian) organised into themes (e.g. early life, personal life, military achievements, civic services). These were anthologies of anecdotes collected for people who already knew all about the events being described. Scholars often get annoyed with Suetonius for being vague or getting confused, but his readers would not have had that problem so we should give him more credit.
    Latin text; edition of Divus Augustus with commentary by J. Carter; translation (by Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius), anachronistic and sometimes misleading in places but still, it’s Robert Graves and I doubt the other option is much better
  • Tacitus, Chronicles of the City of Rome from the Passing of the Divine Augustus (usually known as ‘Annals’) – analytical account of the reigns of Tiberius to Nero. A sheer masterpiece; I have no other words.
    Latin text; translation (by A.J. Woodman – this version is the best, do not buy any other)
  • Velleius Paterculus, Roman History – a history of Rome written by a soldier who had served under Tiberius during the emperor’s time as Rome’s greatest general. Velleius admired and, well, adored Tiberius and is full of praise for him. For that reason, scholars have dismissed his history (at least, the part about Augustus and Tiberius) for years, despite it being an eye-witness account. But recently some have begun to suggest that perhaps Velleius was more honest than people have thought, meaning both that he is not a sycophant (because he does express concerns occasionally) and that he had reason to admire Tiberius. In any case, his history is valuable to see what line he takes, as a supporter of Augustus and Tiberius, on some official decisions e.g. Tiberius’ marriage to Augustus’ daughter (a fiasco, let’s not go there).
    Latin text of book 2; English translation by J.C. Yardley & A.A. Barrett (I can’t comment on the quality of this because my edition of Velleius is a bilingual Latin-Italian edition, but I imagine it is good, as Yardley’s Annals is decent, just nowhere near Woodman’s, and Barrett’s book on Caligula is very good)
  • Vergil – see above.

1 Response to "Roma si vestrum est opus"

  1. Salve!
    Nuntiolum tibi priore anno scripsi in articulo tuo ”Indomitos in corde gerens furores”, sed nondum respondisti. Fortasse id non aspexisti aut tempore carebas ad id respondendum (certe intellego studentes multis rebus occupati/occupatae esse, quia et ipse studens sum). Nuntiolum meum hinc adsero, ut, si tempus habes, fortasse nunc possis rescribere. Ergo:
    Valde mihi quoque placent carmina Latina et Graeca a te translata et cantata! Vere sollerter verba modificasti ita, ut facile cani possint. Ego quoque nonnulla carmina olim in Latinam transtuli et exercitationis et delectationis causa. Non erat opus facile sed gaudium quidem. Graecae antiquae etiam studeo, sed ne conatus quidem iam sum Graece scripta longiora scribere.
    Rogare velim, quibus lexicis utaris carmina transferens? Exempli gratia multa rara nomina piscium te invenisse video, cum carmen ”Sub pelago” scriberes. Habeo nonnulla lexica, sed solum lexicon Anglico-Latinum (sive vere Latino-Anglico-Latinum) meum est Cassell’s Latin Dictionary, in quo illa omnia nomina piscium non inerant. Hoc quaero, quia scio non tam multa bona lexica esse, in quibus verba linguarum hodiernarum in Latinum transferantur, et volo cognoscere, quae lexica homines Latinae periti et peritae adhibent.
    Optime valeas! :)

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