You are here

Imperium Cum Fine: The Saeculum and Post-Roman Anxieties in Augustan Rome

Paul Hay

University of Texas at Austin

This paper examines Roman discourse on the saeculum during the Augustan period and argues that Roman poets use this language, typically associated with Augustan triumphalism (especially its connection to Golden Age mythology), to depict hypothetical futures in which Rome has been destroyed, calling into question the permanence of the Pax Augusta. Earlier scholars of Golden Age mythology (e.g., Baldry 1952; DuQuesnay 1977; Barker 1996) and of the broader use of such rhetoric in relation to the Principate (e.g., Hall 1986; Feeney 2007) have noted the importance of the saeculum concept and its origins in Etruscan divinatory ritual, but have failed to account for the wider applications of the term in the Roman intellectual world. Any Augustus-focused account of the saeculum overlooks the development during the first century BCE of important alternative applications of the term, including the possibility of ideas that complicate the laudatory rhetoric associated with the Principate.

Although saeculum originally referred to a unit of time in Etruscan divinatory language for calculating the lifetime of a city (Cens., de die nat. 17.5-6), I identify a consistent discursive practice at Rome centered around the term saeculum (and synonymous terms in the Latin lexicon of temporality, e.g. aetas, aevum, tempus). Saecular discourse, the form of periodization most distinctively practiced by Romans of the first century BCE, organizes time into discrete units marked by qualitative characteristics. Though most famous in expressions of the saeculum Augustum and its associations with the aurea saecula which Augustus founded anew, saecular discourse had become a dominant mode in Roman discussions of chronology starting with the reign of Sulla (Luke 2014). When the Romans adapted the meaning and function of the saeculum for their own interests (Forsythe 2012), they failed to eliminate one Etruscan component: the finite number of saecula fated for each city.

I argue that Augustan poets exploit this saecular discourse, through which the Principate was celebrated for its new Golden Age and eternal imperium sine fine, to imagine the possibility of a post-Roman future. While Romans had long theorized about the future destruction of Rome (e.g., Scipio Aemilianus among the ruins of Carthage in Polyb. 39.6), saecular discourse makes its demise structurally inevitable (and, potentially, imminent), as the death of the city is a necessary feature of the Etruscan source. Vergil’s future farmer of Philippi (Geo. 1.489-97), digging up the remains of a battle he cannot identify, stokes fears of life after an “overturned age” (everso saeclo, 1.500) that will not remember Rome, and is inspired by contemporary discoveries of mysterious giant bones (Plut., Sert. 9; Pliny, NH 7.16). Horace’s fantasy of an abandoned Rome (Epode 16) challenges Vergil’s Eclogue 4 optimism (Zanker 2010) with its post-human Rome identical to the city ruined by an impia aetas (9). Vergil’s Aeneas (Aen. 8.306ff.), uniquely among Roman accounts of the hero, visits a Roman site already in ruins after the dissolution of the original aurea saecula, and its grim overgrowth is suggested as the fate of any new Golden Age. The ruined Troys of Horace (Odes 3.3) and Ovid (Heroides 1.47-58) and the destroyed Veii of Propertius (4.10.27-30) provide comparanda for obliterated cities returned to a virtually pre-civilization state.

I contend that these post-Roman visions are not simply anti-Augustan subtexts, but express anxieties about the potential for a further collapse into civil war following the death of Augustus as well as the impossibility of achieving fame for one’s deeds in all of posterity. Despite praise for the Principate, Augustan poets retain an intellectual interest in the true temporal boundaries of the imperium sine fine. An analysis of Augustan saecular discourse which includes these post-Roman fantasies can better account for the range of applications of the saeculum in the Roman intellectual world.

Session/Panel Title

Time as an Organizing Principle

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy