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In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/ corpora
(“My mind impels me to tell of forms changed to new bodies”; Ovid, Met. 1.1–2)
Ovid's extraordinary tour-de-force in representing all of mythology, indeed the whole history of the world from creation to the deification of Caesar, as a seamlessly interconnected series of transformations, offers a vision rooted in contemporary Augustan experience. The transformational skill with which Augustus constructed his new order out of the elements of the old order is conceptually parallel to the processes, which Ovid loves to describe, by which Daphne's metamorphosis from human to tree happens gradually, almost organically, using individual elements of the old body to fashion a new body.
It is hard for us to find the appropriate language in which to characterize the impact of Augustus. If we speak of a 'Roman Revolution', we not only inescapably evoke the revolutions of the modern world, and their social antagonisms rooted in the specific circumstances of capitalism, but we also represent the outcome in a way that does violence to the ideology of the players themselves. 'Metamorphosis', unlike 'revolution', allows some space for the Augustan claim to be restoring and adding to Roman tradition. But terminology is not the issue. That the reign of Augustus represents a major rupture in political systems is beyond dispute. The much larger issue is how political revolution (or transformation) ripples outward in its effect on society and culture.
Pompeii, recovered from under Vesuvius ash, offers a famous ‘frozen moment’ in archaeological time: a city as it stood at a certain day. Beyond and beneath the dating evidence visible in its standing buildings is to be found a more archaeological chronology.
The work of the last generation of historians has represented a large step towards a better understanding of the early imperial court. Several major studies have extended the detailed knowledge of the freedmen personnel, the equestrian amici principis, and of links among the senatorial elite. Above all, study of contacts between emperors and their subjects, the decision-making process and the distribution of resources and patronage, show the network of imperial personnel in operation and reveal something of the structures within which they operate. In discussing the nascent court of the Julio-Claudian period, it is necessary to generalize more broadly about the function of the court in the structure of imperial power. The social rituals of a court may act as a facade to screen the realities of power. Between Augustus and Nero the patterns of court life were developing, and still far from fixed. The court was a system of power which tended to its own perpetuation.