Banned Books and Freedom of Speech

Augustus and the Ars Amatoria

L'idylle, William-Adolphe Bouguereau 1850Ovid’s Ars Amatoria was a controversial piece of writing that instructed Romans on the best way to attract and keep romantic attention. Meanwhile, the contemporary Leges Iuliae (the Julian laws) were designed to prosecute Romans for adultery and to promote marriage and childbirth among Roman citizens. Ovid’s text indirectly challenged those laws by promoting seductive and morally questionable behavior. In 8 A.D. Augustus exiled Ovid, and the public believed that Augustus exiled him because of his disapproved of the Ars Amatoria. Nevertheless,  passages in the Tristia must have made them wonder if there had been a secondary cause. Ovid sings of a song and an error as the causes of his exile, and the song may well be the Ars, but the error was not publicly acknowledged by Augusuts. The Ars Amatoria was published in 1 B.C, well before Ovid’s exile in 8 A.D., calling the public rationale into question. It is more likely that Ovid was exiled because of his political and legal entanglements with Augustus’ daughter Julia. More detail about the exile of Ovid and the potential causes of his exile can be found here. One outcome of Ovid’s exile was the banning the Ars Amatoria on the charge of immorality, and this is one of the few examples of the Roman government censoring a Roman author’s writing.

So called  “Augustus Bevilacqua”. Bust of the emperor with the Civic Crown.The Leges Iuliae

The Leges Iuliae were a series of legislative acts pertaining to morality. These laws were introduced during the reigns of Julius Caesar and Augustus.  In 18-17 B.C., Augustus created laws to encourage marriage and childbearing, but punish adultery and regulate divorce. These laws were likely an attempt to impose Augustus’ sense of morality and increase the Roman population, but they set a moral standard, which the Ars Amatoria did not meet.

Augustus and Censorship of the Senate

Before Augustus' reign, the deliberations of the Senate could not be censored by any individual.

Cicero Denounces Catiline, Cesare Maccari 1889. Before Augustus’ reign, the deliberations of the Senate could not be censored by any individual.

In addition to banning Ovid’s book, Augustus also censored the public record of governmental affairs and debates. The gave an account of the regular protocols of senatorial meetings. During his consulship Julius Caesar made these records public in a collective publication called the , which essentially functioned as a news report for the people of Rome. When Augustus came into power, he decided to limit the daily reports. Some of the senatorial proceedings and outcomes were published under Augustus, but only if the imperial government saw fit to make them public knowledge. This selective publication, like the banning of the “immoral” Ars Amatoria, is another clear example of Augustus using censorship to privilege his political agenda. Augustus’s censorship of the acta senatus shows his desire to hide some of his more controversial political decisions. It is possible that he censored Ovid’s writing to distract the citizens from his more politically sensitive censorship of the Senate.

Augustus of Prima Porta, early 1st century CE, Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican

Among the Roman elite there was a lot of resistance to the new form of government, in which Augustus was the ultimate authority. Power in the hands of one man, and not the people, directly conflicted with the principles upon which the Roman Republic had been established. This devotion to the Roman  Republic was certainly one of the most important factors behind the civil war, and Augustus’ victory in the war did not silence the republican partisans who frequently tried to voice their discontent with Augustus’ imperial government. Rather than prevent the senators from speaking out entirely Augustus censored the written account in a method he probably believed to be “less dangerous than to muzzle the senators directly.” With these actions he still allowed freedom of speech, but he minimized its effectiveness by limiting the general public’s awareness. Augustus’ aim did not seem to be the total prohibition of free speech though. He continued to allow the public reading of wills, and many senators used this opportunity to make their anti-monarchical sentiments known.

Augustus and Anonymous Attacks

Julius Caesar, Nicolas Coustou 1872, Louvre. Augustus sometimes struggled to live up to the example set by his adoptive father.

Julius Caesar, Nicolas Coustou 1872, Louvre. Augustus sometimes struggled to live up to the example set by his adoptive father.

Augustus did allow Roman wills to be read in public, and Roman opposition to the new monarchic order was often voiced in this setting. Some of the deceased acquaintances of Augustus were not always complimentary on the subject of their new emperor and although Augustus did not take steps to prevent the reading of wills he did express his disappointment in such criticisms.

While Augustus tolerated the condemnation of the dead, he did not allow anonymous attacks from the living. When Julius Caesar was faced with dissenting views he tried to address any concerns in public. Augustus tried to mimic his predecessor’s actions, but did not succeed in this manner, and could not answer critiques to anyone’s satisfaction.x  Augustus created new legislation declaring that any author who wrote an anonymous attack about anyone was subject to punishment. The punishments for such infractions were generally mild, but this form of censorship was almost solely beneficial for Augustus, who, as emperor, suffered far more attacks and criticism than any other citizen.

Augustus did punish his dissenters with fines and the milder forms of exile, (for more information on exile in Rome see this link) especially in the cases of Junius Novatus, Cassius Patavinus and Aemilius Aelianus. His actions suggested that prohibition of free speech was not his intent, but he did try to limit any potential damage to the stability of his government. In a letter to his successor, Tiberius, Augustus says “Do not be swayed by youthful ardor, my dear Tiberius, into too great a rage over the fact that there are people who speak ill of me. For it is sufficient for us to have the power to prevent them from doing us any harm.”Here he is promoting free speech for Roman citizens as long as it does not endanger his personal safety, political power, or governmental stability.

Augustus and Cornelius Gallus

Bust of Gaius Cornelius Gallus, c. 30 B.C.E. Cleveland Museum of Art. Exile by Augustus led to his suicide and the disappearance of almost the entire corpus of his poetry.

Another Roman poet, Cornelius Gallus, also ran afoul of Augustus with even more disastrous consequences. Gallus was considered to be one of the greatest Latin elegists along with Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius. His standing as a great poet is based almost entirely on his reputation with contemporary writers who lavished him with praise. In particular, Virgil dedicated his tenth Eclogue to Gallus and praised him as a divine poet. Augustus never explicitly censored the writing of Cornelius Gallus, but his repressive actions indirectly led to the loss of almost all of Gallus’ poetry. For, in addition to his career as a poet, Gallus also held military and political positions. In 29 B.C.E. Cornelius Gallus lead a military campaign to put down a growing revolt in Thebes, a key city in Egypt, then the vital source of much of Rome’s grain, and therefore a politically critical province. Upon his victory, Gallus erected a monument advertising and celebrating his accomplishments, and Augustus saw this as a real political threat. Augustus decided to punish Gallus with exile, a punishment that led to Gallus’ suicide. Very little of Gallus’ writing has survived, although his notable reputation still persists. There is no concrete evidence to suggest that the disappearance of Gallus’ work was the outcome of his exile, but only nine lines of his poetry have been found.



Works Cited

Bookburning and Censorship, p.165
Tristia 2.207
Bookburning and Censorship, pp165
Bookburning and Censorship, pp165
Augustus the Life and Times, pp 228
The Acts of the Senate
The Daily Acts of the People
Bookburning and Censorship, pp162
Bookburning and Censorship, pp163
Bookburning and Censorship, pp 163
Bookburning and Censorship, pp 163
Bookburning and Censorship, pp 163
Bookburning and Censorship, pp 164
Bookburning and Censorship, pp 164
“Gaius Cornelius Gallus” Brittanica 
Vergil and Cornelius Gallus, pp 108
Gendering Time in Augustan Love Elegy, pp 15