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Augustus on Holiday: Sinister Saturnalia in Suetonius’ Divus Augustus 98

Ryan M Pasco

Boston University

In his Life of Augustus, Suetonius precedes his account of Augustus’ death with a bizarre description of the emperor on vacation at Campania (Suet. Aug. 98). In this paper, I closely consider his account of this pleasure-filled retreat to Campania and show that Suetonius gives the permissive conduct of Augustus a distinct Saturnalian coloring, yet at the same time darkens the levity of the occasion with words that allude to violence and compulsion. In so doing, he explores the relationship between imperial rule and personal freedom.

Readers of the Life of Augustus frequently pay close attention to Augustus’ death and the greater significance of his final utterances and actions. Yet for all the attention that the day of his death receives, the account of the secessus immediately prior, during which the princeps contracts his fatal illness, is often overlooked, as is the strikingly permissive atmosphere of the retreat. Hanslik (1954) argues that Augustus’ care-free pleasure is a sign of his transition into godhood, but offers no close reading of the scene (143). Wardle (2007) briefly notes the religious tone of the secessus, focusing in particular on Augustus’ encounter with a ship of Alexandrians (320), though like Hanslik does not detect the Saturnalian resonances nor violent imagery in the passage. Outside these and passing mentions, the retreat as a whole remains largely unexplored.

As I move through the text, I first argue that Suetonius straightaway casts the retreat as Saturnalian through images of gift-giving, role-reversal, and mock kingship: he distributes coins, togas, pallia, and varia munuscula to his retinue and stipulates a lex proposita for his companions that Romans and Greeks swap clothing and language (98.2-3), which both evokes the Saturnalian inversion of society’s hierarchies and the Saturnalian ‘king’, who imposes commands on fellow celebrants. I then suggest that, although these Saturnalian resonances notionally bring the emperor closer to his subjects, the passage in fact reaffirms the emperor’s power. By casting the everyday emperor as the temporary Saturnalian king, Suetonius emphasizes that Augustus’ power is immune to the role reversal of the festival; likewise, Suetonius underscores the gravity of imperial power through the language of compulsion: as Augustus distributes coins, he compels his retinue to spend them as he wishes (exegit cautionem).

I next turn towards Augustus’ feast on Capri, a jest-filled banquet that seems, like the Saturnalian feast, to relax social constraints. Yet the hilarity that Augustus incites actually emphasizes his power over fellow diners, as the violent imagery of the feast makes apparent. The princeps throws missilia of food at his guests, who fight over them using vocabulary (deripere) that Suetonius elsewhere uses the verb for sacking (Caes. 54.1, Ner. 43.1) and plundering (Ner. 11.2). The image, I suggest, evokes the dinner-side brawling that occurs in a number of satiric cenae, in particular the roughly contemporaneous Juvenal Satire 5; the resonance draws our attention to the sheer distance that separates Augustus and his guests despite the notional Saturnalian tenor of the feast. Moreover, I note that the entire permissive atmosphere owes itself entirely to imperial compulsion as, during the feast, Augustus does not permit license to joke, but in fact demands it -- praebuit permissa, immo exacta iocandi licentia (98.3) -- a striking formulation that emphasizes the princeps’ power over freedom itself. In conclusion, I suggest the formulation taps into contemporary discourse on freedom under empire, in particular Pliny’s praise of Trajan (iubes esse liberos; erimus) at Panegyricus 66.4 and Tacitus’ account of Nero as Saturnalian king at Annals 13.15. As my reading shows, Suetonius rewards the sort of close reading he rarely receives and that, far from being interested merely in documenting curiosities of the past, the biographer, like his contemporaries, seeks to understand the dynamics of power, be it between guest and host or emperor and subject.

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Augustus and After

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