The Romans Had a Primarily Utilitarian Approach to Myth Essay

How ‘useful’ something is, is a very personal belief. Not everyone believes the same stories, myths or propaganda, and even if someone ‘believes’ in a myth they may see some aspects as being true and as some as being an exaggeration. Specific parts of a particular myth may feel more pertinent depending upon their social class, their level of education, their political beliefs and their experiences of life, whilst other parts may be irrelevant and ‘alien’. However, Roman’s used mythology throughout all aspects of their lives and they became a concrete, integral part of their history and traditions. For the purposes of this essay, when exploring whether or not the Romans had a utilitarian approach to myth, two areas shall be looked at; how the Emperors’ may, or may not, have used these myths to strengthen their positions of power and how myth was used and viewed in everyday life.

Whether an Emperor’s reign was perceived, retrospectively or at the time, as being unifying or destructive was inextricably linked in with their manipulation of myths and the publics’ acceptance of this exploitation. Direct comparisons can be made between two Emperors; one was seen as being successful (Augustus) whilst the other (Nero) has been portrayed as ‘crazed and self obsessed’ (Hughes & Hope 2011).

When Augustus came to power as the first Emperor of Rome in 27BCE, he inherited a nation that had been racked by civil war. In order to help unify his people, wherever they may reside in the empire, Augustus drew upon myths, especially the foundation myths of Rome, to give the people of Rome a sense of commonality. Augustus started his reign of Rome by changing his name from Octavian to Augustus. As he had been adopted by the assassinated ruler Julius Caesar, Augustus had to tread carefully; he needed to be accepted as a legitimate leader and seen as part of the ruling family, but he also needed to distance himself enough so that he was not tarnished with Caesar’s reputation (Armstrong 2008). When Augustus took his name he not only allied himself with Numa Pompilius (second King of Rome), who he claimed was an ancestor, it also connected him with Romulus and therefore Aeneas (Champlin 2003). Both Romulus and Numa were credited with the foundation of Rome. By aligning himself, especially with Romulus, it subtly implied that he was the second ‘founder’ of Rome. The connection with Numa was insinuating that he also was a leader of a peaceful and united Rome (Plutarch 1914).

As a way of unifying Rome’s citizens, Augustus commenced a programme of restoring and building new temples, these included the ‘hut of Romulus’ which had previously been destroyed by fire. These acts showed him to be respectful of Rome’s history and traditions, he was restoring Rome to its former glory (Hughes ; Hope 2011). He was mirroring the time of Rome’s ‘golden age’, which Livy refers to in his The Early History of Rome (Livy cited in; de Selincourt, A 1960). Livy is reflecting on a history that he views as superior to the corrupt present day Rome and he implies that under Augustus’ rule, there will be a return to this better age. Augustus’ aim was to be able to portray the people of Rome as pious and as a people who knew their duties were to the Gods, to avoid excesses and to encourage marriage and traditional family values.

Along with new and restored temples, Augustus erected statues and buildings around Rome. Augustus took as his patron the god Apollo, he wore Apollo’s symbol of the sphinx as his signet ring and the laurel wreath on his head. He thanked Apollo for his military victories against Antony and Cleopatra by building a temple on the Palatine. Apollo, representing the giver of life and light would have reflected these qualities onto Augustus; he was giving Rome a new life and bringing them into a new lighter era. (Champlin 2003). As a successful propagandist, Augustus achieved what he set out to do, by utilising myths to his advantage he helped create a unified Rome. Recreating and repeating the foundation stories through architecture and statues, it placed Rome’s history firmly in the minds of people as they were going about their lives, he drip-fed them with the idea that they all had a common background which they should take pride in rather than focus on their political differences (Hughes & Hope 2011). He created a precedent where future Emperors would thereafter be associated with Gods and myths.

In direct contrast, Nero used myth in a way that the elite ruling classes found unacceptable and ultimately helped lead to his demise. As Nero left no heir to succeed him, there was no one to posthumously protect his reputation so, many of the sources portray Nero in a damning light; an Emperor who epitomised excesses & of crossing the socially acceptable boundaries (Grant 1956). Nero, in an attempt to emulate Augustus, took Apollo as his patron. Like Augustus he wanted to be seen as an Emperor representing life, light, the sun, peace and the arts (Graves 1979).

Nero had a great passion for the arts, especially theatre, and used to act out characters associated with tragic myth. Over his lifetime Nero was linked with the murders of his mother, Agrippina and his pregnant wife Poppaea. When choosing roles to play, Nero would draw attention to his possible crimes by depicting mythical characters associated with these crimes (Orestes and Periander). By choosing these characters Nero achieved two outcomes. Firstly, he associated himself with characters, who although they had committed a great crime, they were proved to be crimes that were either justifiable or a case of temporary insanity. Orestes killed his mother, on Apollo’s instructions, after she had murdered his father and had denied him his inheritance.

By murdering his mother Orestes has released Mycenae from his mother’s tyrannical rule. By portraying Orestes Nero could justify his possible guilt of Agrippina’s murder by releasing Rome from her rule (Champlin 2003). Equally, by playing Periander who murdered his wife whilst temporarily insane, thanks to the intervention of the Gods, Nero could insinuate that, like Periander, the Gods had made him temporarily lose touch with reality. Secondly, by portraying himself as a hero associated with myth, even if he had committed the crimes he was accused of, he was raising himself above ordinary people. Laws and socially acceptable behaviour would not apply to him in the same way as, he was like a god or a hero. Although it cannot be proved either way, Nero may have been on some level proclaiming his innocence in these crimes as it was “fate”, he was pre-destined to carry out these acts (Champlin 2003).

Both Augustus and Nero, as well as other Emperors, used myths and mythical characters primarily to promote images and values that they wanted to be associated with. It was an extremely effective form of communication, it got messages across to their subject in either a subtle way (use of coins) or in a very obvious way (statues and the building of temples). How people across the empire would have perceived these messages there are no definite answers to, there can only be supposition as each person’s perception could and probably was different. The coins they used to keep in their pockets would have ingeniously conveyed the mythological references their leaders wanted them to be aware of. Nero can be seen on coins, his image shown on one side wearing a crown of ‘rays’, whilst Apollo (the god of light and therefore sun ‘rays’) is shown on the other. It inextricably linked Nero to Apollo so that every time they saw the coin it was reiterating the connection and his ‘god-like’ aura (Hughes & Hope 2011). Whether or not he was actually seen as being a God is impossible to know for sure, but the possibility of a divine connection was made.

Whereas the cultivated members of the elite ruling classes would have gained their knowledge of the myths from reading the classics, many everyday people would have picked up the main gist of the story lines from going to the theatre and from seeing mosaics or statues around them (Cameron 2004).

The theatre, specifically the amphitheatre, is where many people of lower social classes and education would have seen re-enactments of myths, usually in the form of punishments. In order to understand the inspiration behind the “show”, the audience would have had to have a basic knowledge of the mythological stories. Cameron (2004) states that if the audience did not identify the characters of the myths correctly, then the irony of the punishments meted out to the condemned would have had little meaning to them. For the common everyday people this use of myth was for entertainment purposes, it was not being used for propaganda purposes to influence their political beliefs, it was being used on a level that was relevant and fun to them (Hughes & Hope 2011).

When myths were used in the home it could be interpreted as the owner wishing to imply an air of education and sophistication, a little like listening to Classic FM or Radio 4 may be seen as doing today. Myths were used to decorate walls; with painting and pottery, in the gardens; statues and fountains, or even common daily items such as mirrors and lamps. So although on one level they may have been for private enjoyment, they were also being used to portray a public image. Anyone visiting the house would have been able to draw conclusions about their host, not only what their political views may be but also what their personal values and aspirations were (Hughes & Hope 2011).

In conclusion it is reasonable to assume that whilst the Emperors had a primarily utilitarian approach to myth, the ordinary everyday people may not have had to the same degree. The Emperors’ and ruling classes used imagery and representations of myth to communicate messages to their subjects. Myths were manipulated and politicised for the purposes of personal and dynastic power. They were a powerful set of images that when used well, portrayed the ruling class and specifically the Emperor in a positive light. As we have seen, Augustus is remembered as a wise and considered ruler who brought about unity across the empire. Whereas Nero is remembered for being mad, unpredictable and possibly capable of matricide and of murdering his wife. Nero’s use of myth, especially in his theatrical performances, were controversial and daring, which led to criticism, his being ostracised by the elite and ultimately his death.

The citizens of Rome however, appeared to use myth in a much more personal way. Their knowledge of myths was more likely to be patchy, often just being able to pinpoint the important (usually shocking) highlights. Their use of imagery in their homes was much more about personal taste and what the myths and characters symbolised to them on a personal level, as well as a way of promoting to the outside world how sophisticated they were. Myths were a part of their lives, it would have influenced their views of their leaders and of the world they inhabited but it was not something that they necessarily “used” in their daily lives in the same way the Emperors did. What the daily use of mythological representations by ordinary people along with the Emperors’ systematic propagandist use of myth helped achieve though, was a culture that could all draw upon symbols and ideas that united them as a nation.


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