The Emperor Augustus

Ancient Morals and Superpower          
On the Palatine Hill in Rome the cypresses are dark slits in the blue sky and the dust rises from the paths and the stone walls radiate heat and the city of Rome is spread out below, from the Circus Maximus to the Vatican. The lines of history stretch far, far back and there's nothing new under the sun.
When Rome was the superpower that controlled the Western Mediterranean and the Middle East, when Julius Caesar was consolidating his dominance by challenging the Senate and the constitution, pushing through controversial legislation and defying the Senators, when Caesar installed Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne and began his great affair with her, there were still fifty years to go before the birth of Christ.

Cleopatra, that Egyptian bombshell, was highly intelligent, educated, multi-lingual, the dynamic half of two power couples, first Caesar then Mark Antony. Her city, Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, housed a million people, its streets were built on a grid pattern, it was a centre of culture and fashion, there were palaces, temples, parks, zoos, lecture halls, observatories and a library staffed by Greek scholars containing 500,000 books. All this complexity, sophistication, constitutional wrangling, politics, intellectual activity and empire building existed centuries before the birth of Christ.
So where did they end up when they died, Julius Caesar, the Emperor Augustus, Agrippa, Antony and Cleopatra? How would His Holiness the Pope, lurking in the Vatican in his funny hats and robes, answer that question? I want to know: whether Augustus and Livia are in hell, whether Antony and Cleopatra are living it up in Christian heaven, carousing away the eternal night, those ragers with their dinner parties and their club, the Society of Inimitable Livers. I see Alexander the Great who conquered Persia and died young, cooling his heels, bored out of his mind in his celestial suite (wishing Antony and Cleopatra would keep it down) calling reception. "Lord, I peaked too early. Let me check out. Let me finish it."
In the Vatican City 2012, a suited thug tells a tourist, "Take off your hat. That's your second infringement." He veers off to inspect a girl's skirt, "I can see through that." He conducts his policing in the name of Christ, who doesn't like bare arms or legs or shoulders even though His Father fashioned them in His likeness, even though Christ was born in the stable under the magic star so late in the piece, decades after Cleopatra had shed her robes for Julius and bared her breast for Antony, after Rome's first Emperor, Augustus, had established himself as the leader who ruled from the Palatine Hill.
The Palatine Hill is where Augustus built his mansion, next to his wife Livia's, overlooking the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, where he retreated and plotted his dealings with his people and his enemies. Augustus was the political genius who had learned at Julius Caesar's knee, who ruled as a triumvir until he rid himself of competitors and ruled alone, who waged war, practised diplomacy, loved his grandchildren, had his own grandson killed, exiled his daughter and granddaughter, loved his wife, enjoyed deflowering virgins, was capable of great savagery, sought to impose the rule of law on the barbarian world.
Augustus refined his skills over decades, survived an age of political manoeuvring. He knew when to bargain and when to fight. Marriage was a tactic used to bind rival clans, women were pawns. Augustus once forced his stepson to divorce his beloved wife in exchange for his, Augustus's, daughter. (David Shearer, had he operated in Augustan times, could have weighed up some options here: order his daughter to marry David Cunliffe, offer her to Cunliffe's son, or perhaps, with a lordly flourish, invite Cunliffe to help himself to Jacinda...)
Some things change; there's nothing new under the sun. Here and now, we argue over the drinking age. Eighteen or twenty? When Augustus and Agrippa seized power over the Senate and the Roman Empire, they were eighteen years old. Sextus Pompeius was eighteen when he led his campaign in Spain. Young risk-takers, Augustus and Agrippa kept their wits about them, and managed to control a superpower. Granted, they lived in "troubling times." Around 20 B.C. old Romans were complaining: society just wasn't like it used to be. There was rampant sexual licentiousness, it was too easy to get a divorce, the birth rate was dropping and young people didn't want to marry. Too many foreigners, including freed slaves, were diluting the population's Italianness. Placating the old moaners, Augustus passed laws, to foster traditional values, encourage marriage and keep immigrants subordinate. Up in his mansion on the Palatine, he went on seducing women and deflowering virgins. Citizens manoeuvred their way around the morality laws. Social order was restored.

First published in Metro Magazine NZ