Augustus (r. 32/27 BCE-14 CE) is considered to be the first emperor of the Roman Empire, although he wisely shied away using from that title. The statesman and historian, Cassius Dio (c. 163-235), wrote arguably the most complete ancient account of Augustus’ reign in books 50-56 of his text, The Roman History. In the last book of that section Dio wanted to give his readers a final recap of Augustus’ personality and character. In particular, he emphasized that the emperor was a very approachable man (at least compared to other emperors) who was willing to listen to advice and suggestions offered by the people whose word he trusted. To illustrate this point, Dio wrote about an odd encounter that supposedly occurred between Augustus and a man named Athenodorus.
This probably references Athenodorus Cananites (c. 74 BCE-7 CE), also known as Athenodorus Son of Sandon, who was a long-time mentor, friend and advisor to Augustus. He was a respected philosopher of Stoicism, but his work, unfortunately, has been lost to history. His ideas, however, were thankfully recorded in the works of other authors, such as Cicero and Strabo.
According to Cassius Dio, Athenodorus supposedly saw a flaw in Augustus’ personal security at some time during the emperor’s reign and decided to demonstrate the danger by making an unforgettable spectacle. Somehow, Athenodorus reportedly managed to hide in a curtained litter that was subsequently carried into Augustus’ private chambers. Dio did not write about how this was accomplished, but perhaps he convinced the people who were hauling the litter that he was Livia, Augustus’ wife. Whatever the case, Athenodorus apparently did indeed ride in the litter past Augustus’ security and arrived where the emperor was relaxing.
Once he was in close proximity to the emperor, Athenodorus leapt from his hiding place and brandished a sword in the air for the emperor to see. Dio wrote that, with sword in hand, Athenodorus asked, “Are you not afraid that someone might come in like this and kill you?” (The Roman History, Book 56, chapter 43). Staring at the unexpected armed man in such close proximity, Augustus had to admit that Athenodorus posed a valid point. Cassius Dio wrote that Augustus was not angered in the least by the bizarre demonstration, but merely thanked Athenodorus for exposing such a flaw in his security. This tale is more than likely just fictitious rumor or folklore, but it is an interesting story that Cassius Dio assessed to be of a high enough value to include in his history.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (“Augustus Bevilacqua”. Bust of the emperor with the Civic Crown, period of his reign. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.