Rome’s first emperor Augustus permanently recentered political, economic, and religious institutions around his public persona while claiming equality with private citizens and continuity with republican tradition. As Augustus expanded his office, though, observers found innovative, even humorous ways of turning its scope and visibility against him. This paper explores the poet Ovid’s use of the term res publica (“public property”) to highlight Augustus’ increasing self-conflation with the state, to the detriment of citizens’ liberty, freedom of speech, and access to information. On the flip side, Ovid suggests from exile, the emperor becomes public property, transferred into the possession of those who invest his image with meaning and value. Ovid’s imaginative (over)valuation of the emperor’s portrait in Ex Ponto 2.8, for instance, maps onto the trust consumers placed in Rome’s fiduciary currency as well as their autonomy in handling the imperial image on coins and domestic goods. In keeping with Ovid’s emphasis on the people’s interpretive sovereignty over symbols of autocracy, this paper argues for a democratic reassessment of so-called imperial propaganda. It also suggests some ways that ancient thinking about power, knowledge, and transparency might apply to contemporary debates about freedom of information.
Nandini B. Pandey is an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in Latin poetry and its postclassical reception. Her book The Poetics of Power in Augustan Rome: Latin Poetic Responses to Early Imperial Iconography is coming out this year with Cambridge University Press.