In this study, I analyze the literary picture of the emperor Augustus as it is depicted in the rhetorical works of Seneca the Elder. Based on both direct and indirect references in Seneca’s collection of the examples of rhetorical tools published under the heading Oratorum et rhetorum sententiae, divisiones, colores, which is better known as Controversiae and Suasoriae, I call into question the usually accepted idea that Seneca admired Augustus for his respect for freedom of speech.
Augustus is mostly (6 out of 9 times) mentioned in a private or a schooling environment which is reflected in the stylized and idealized portrait of a learned, brisk, and witty, but also of a very perceptive man, who can fairly be described as “a master of bon mot and a man with a big heart”. Four times he is, in these anecdotes, but out of the anecdotic frame, referred to as a publicly active man. Although Augustus as princeps makes the impression of a noble, clement, and admirable man, the tension and fear his power arouses in orators starts to penetrate his idealized depiction. In the remaining references, he is inadvertently and furtively criticized. The criticism concerns the individuals close to Augustus who assist him in performing his duties, especially their low origin, as these were often freedmen and other careerists of low social rank. Another issue, for which Augustus is criticized, are the unforgettable injustices committed during the Second Triumvirate. Seneca’s indirect commentaries concerning this matter are very exasperated and wrathful, which suggests that he perceived Augustus’ time as the period of the loss of democracy and endangered law. These prove that Seneca the Elder coped with the new situation only unwillingly and with difficulties. The pessimism present in his works is not a common place, but a reflection of the real situation Romans had to face.