Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.7


Robert Alan Gurval, Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. xiv, 337. $45.50. ISBN 0-472-10590-6.


Reviewed by James Clauss, University of Washington, jjc@u.washington.edu.

Actium and Augustus displays an enviable control of Roman history, numismatics, archaeology, art history, topography, and literature pertaining to the topic at hand: how to read events in the wake of the battle at Actium. In pursuing this question, Gurval does not hesitate to take on the standard view and some of its authoritative supporters (e.g., Syme on history, Zanker on art history, and Cairns and Hardie on literature), namely, that the Actian victory played a central role in the evolution of Augustan ideology and propaganda from the beginning of the principate. Contrary to this well-established reading of contemporary artifacts, festivities, and literature, Gurval proposes that, after the battle, we encounter "a mixed portrait of victory and defeat, joyful celebrations and bitter sorrows, a public ideology, slow, if not reluctant to emerge, and a wondrous and inspiring myth shaped more by the verses of individual poets, elated, angry, and at times indifferent, than by the concerted actions and directives of an imperious and vainglorious ruler" (17). Given that the communis opinio is based upon readings of various Augustan celebrations, monuments, coinage, and poetry, Gurval revisits each of these topics in considerable detail.

Chapter 1, "'The Imperious Show of the Full-Fortun'd Caesar:' Celebration in Rome and the Monuments of Victory," deals with the triple triumph celebrated in 29 BC, the "Actian" Arch, post-Actium coinage, and monuments and celebrations in the East.

On August 13, 14, 15, Augustus celebrated three triumphs, one each day, for his victories in Illyria, Actium, and Egypt. Rather than seeing the triumphs as separate events and the Actian triumph as the climax of the tripartite celebration, Gurval argues that the three-day ceremony should be viewed as one grandiose event, honoring Augustus' victories on land and sea, victories that ultimately led to the conquest of the world and the restoration of peace. This reading makes good sense, though the statement, "the Actian victory was upstaged" (28), would appear to me to be exaggerated.

The existence of a triumphal arch honoring the victory at Actium is based on mention of the monument by Dio Cassius (51.19.1), a denarius issue of Octavian showing a single triumphal arch (RIC2 267), and an inscription, dated to the time of the battle, honoring Octavian for having saved the Republic (CIL VI, 873). The discovery in the early 1950's of foundation piers near the site of Augustus' triple arch, erected in 19 BC in honor of the return of Crassus' standards, gave rise to a widely-accepted hypothesis: Augustus had the first single arch built commemorating Actium, but, ten years later, had it taken down and a larger monument built in its place; the new arch celebrated his diplomatic success with the Parthians in order to divert attention from the earlier victory in civil war. Gurval allows for the existence of an earlier arch, but, given that Dio also mentions the decree of an arch after Octavian's victory at Naulochus, suggests that the smaller monument could well commemorate the earlier battle. Moreover, the presence of bracing walls and underground props in the foundation piers of the single arch, he suggests, might well suggest a reason for the construction of a new arch: not a change in political ideology but cracks in the structure that threatened collapse.

What Gurval ultimately suggests is not all that far from the standard view; in short, he grants the possibility of an earlier arch for Octavian's victory in civil war but insists that it not be called or understood as "Actian." This is not unreasonable given the evidence. Yet the replacement of an arch commemorating a victory in civil war with one that honors a foreign conquest does represent a significant change of focus, even if the replacement was mandated by structural concerns. In order to dissociate the earlier monument from any conscious ideological program on Augustus' part, a better approach might have been to underscore the fact that both Dio and the inscription attribute the construction of the commemorative monument to the senate, a body not likely to have been playing a central role in developing Augustan propaganda, but more interested in courting the favor of the new dynast.

Adherents of the standard view have argued that perceived changes in portraits of Octavian on coins as well as the use of two different titles -- CAESAR DIVI F and IMP CAESAR -- were politically motivated, one style and title employed before, and the others after, the battle of Actium. Gurval's counterargument that the change in style might best be explained as evolution of artistic style, or even the result of different artists' renditions, should certainly be taken into consideration. Moreover, since Octavian won two important naval battles, I would agree with Gurval that without specific information identifying the occasion, coins with naval imagery are best left open-ended. The change of titles, even if it could be dated after 29, as has been argued on the basis of Dio 52.41.3-4, does not necessitate a major ideological shift.

Scholars have explained the motive for the establishment of Nicopolis near Actium and Alexandria, and the Actian games held there and eventually elsewhere, as part of Octavian's program to "exalt his achievement at Actium and to the contemporary recognition and significance of the decisive naval battle" (67). To counter this, Gurval suggests that the founding of Nicopolis addressed the political and economic disarray in this area which had been devastated during the Macedonian wars and now lacked any central government once the Acarnanian and Aetolian leagues ceased to exist. He goes on to attribute Octavian's founding of both cities to a desire to associate himself with Alexander. The first point seems unlikely to me. I cannot imagine that Augustus would have given much thought to the problems of the Greeks living around Actium while he was occupied in the delicate task of reorganizing the government in the wake of the civil wars. Any good that may have arisen from the founding of the Greek Nicopolis should be construed as secondary. More importantly, that Alexander, the benchmark against which all subsequent generals and rulers measured their success, is invoked at Actium and Alexandria, however one wants to read the allusion, exposes the princeps' not-too-subtle interest in creating an image which is founded, at least partly, on the victory at Actium.

The attempt to dissociate the founding of the Actian games from events celebrating the victory seems equally unconvincing. That there were traditional Actian games celebrated before the battle does not eo ipso eliminate their propagandistic value after the battle. One of the hallmarks of Augustus' regime from the start was his support of traditional cults. Moreover, Vergil's transferral of the games traditionally celebrated by Aeneas at Zacynthos to Actium, together with the hero's dedication of an enemy's weapons (Aen. 3. 278-88), a passage more likely to have been written earlier in the project -- and thus closer to the event -- than later, clearly reflects the connection between the Actian games and Octavian's victory and trophies. That Actian games were celebrated in later years, especially by Trajan and Hadrian, and even in other cities, does not detract from their linkage with the original battle. Like the Pantheon and other Augustan buildings reconstructed by Hadrian and others, such projects enhanced the later emperor's connection with the line of Principes that stretched back to Augustus. Tacitus is probably not unique in viewing the Actiatica victoria as the end of the Republic (Ann. 1.3.7). Moreover, the "prestige of the athletic and musical contests" (79) is an unlikely rationale for the adoption of the games by other cities. Rather, festivals connected with the imperial line were established throughout the empire to engender a closer relationship between distant citizens and the emperor.

In Chapter 2, "Tuus iam regnat Apollo: Octavian, Apollo, and the Temple on the Palatine," Gurval takes on "the prevalent assumptions of the so-called political and religious policies of the young triumvir" by refuting "the widely held notion that Octavian was involved at this time in a carefully orchestrated campaign of propaganda to promote a special relationship with Apollo as part of his public image in Rome" and unlinking any connection between Apollo and his temple on the Palatine with the victory at Actium and the Actian games (89). The first point entails an examination of several stories that suggest a close connection between Octavian and Apollo. Suetonius describes a banquet at which the guests dressed as gods and Octavian participated as Apollo (Aug. 70). Gurval is right to insist that this was a minor incident and, more importantly, that, being a private banquet, the costume did not constitute a public declaration of his association with the god. Nonetheless, the fact that Octavian cast himself as this god, whose cult he would later foster quite publicly, is highly suggestive of his interest in cultivating worship of this divinity. Given the predilection on the part of Hellenistic rulers for identifying a patron divinity, a practice which their Roman counterparts eagerly adopted, I find it difficult to dismiss the significance of the event.

Other issues involving an early association with Apollo include the use of the god's name as the watchword at Philippi, the story of Octavian's mother being impregnated by Apollo in the guise of a snake, and statements by the poets. As for the watchword, the real question here, I would contend, is not whether or not Apollo was the password used by Octavian or Brutus, but whether or not Brutus inadvertently quoted Iliad 16.849 (Patroclus' mournful statement that fate and Apollo killed him) before the battle; this detail would appear to me to be the kind of item which would be invented after the fact, not the use of a password. In any event, even if Plutarch (Brut. 24.4-5) and his sources were correct in attributing the password to Brutus, this does not argue against Octavian's association with the god; one might even argue that its use by the triumvir's opponents had a religio-magical purpose. The story of Atia and the snake is clearly a later invention, as Gurval states, but the time of its creation is less important than its presupposition of an intimate relationship between god and ruler. As for the poets writing in the period around the battle, Gurval looks at the opening of the Georgics in which Octavian is not associated with Apollo, Horace C 1.2 in which Augustus is identified with Mercury, and Eclogue 1 and 4 where there are no unequivocal links between Octavian and a god. I do not find the argumentum ex silentio -- if Octavian is not identified as, or overtly associated with Apollo, then he did not promote "a special bond with [the god] in the years before and immediately after Actium" (110) -- compelling. The preponderance of indications that Octavian/Augustus viewed Apollo as his patron divinity is stronger than the lack of specific references to this relationship in the works of two contemporary poets.

In the second half of this chapter, Gurval looks at the evidence associating the construction of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine with Octavian's victory in civil war. The fact and date of the vow of a temple to Apollo are not disputed, rather the dedicator's intentions are described as "difficult to ascertain" (113). Velleius (2.81.3), who did not write that much later than the events he described, clearly connects Octavian's promise to build a temple to Apollo with his successful return from his war with Sextus. Such promises were made too frequently by victorious generals to require much comment on the part of the ancient historian; Republican Rome teemed with such commemorative monuments. Comparison with the temple of Mars Ultor (113) is apt: no one questions the propaganda value of this building within its wider setting. The lack of explicit evidence linking the Apollo temple to Octavian's victory, either at Actium or Naulochus, does not, to my mind, prove that the temple was unrelated to victory in war. On the contrary, I would say that the predominance of such victory monuments in Rome, regardless of what Augustus may or may not have intended, would lead the contemporary Roman to link this temple with a victory in war, and even more so in this case given the awareness of a previous vow connected with a military conflict. While it is literally true that the temple should not be called "Augustan" given that it was dedicated one year before Octavian received the title (ibid.), such a strict application of this, and other such general terms describing periods of time or movements, is reductive and potentially misleading. Rather than look at the Palatine temple complex from the point of view of later Augustan monuments, we would do better to read it as transitional from republican to imperial public construction and to study how the tradition evolved from the occasional fulfillment of a specific vow into a an apparently well-organized program.

Turning to the poems that deal with the dedication of the temple -- Horace C. 1.31 and Propertius 2.31.1-16 -- Gurval notes that neither poet connects the god of the temple with Apollo Actius, an identification that only becomes clear some ten years later in the Aeneid (8.704-5). Again, silence regarding the battle does not appear to me to be a telling detail in these cases because celebration of victory in war is not central to either poem. Horace writes a personal lyric in which he celebrates the public event in his typical humble fashion, concluding with a prayer that he spend his old age singing to the lyre. Propertius characteristically situates the public dedication in an erotic context: it is the reason why he showed up late to his meeting with Cynthia; like Horace, he too concludes by focusing on the playing of music. Both poets thus focus on Apollo as musician, doubtless recalling a conspicuous feature of the god's cult statue -- his lyre.

I shall forego discussing Chapter 3, "Posteri Negabitis: Horace and Actium," and Chapter 4, "Bellaque resque tui memorarem Caesaris: Propertius and the Memorials of Actium" for two reasons: to keep this review to a reasonable length, and because the interpretation Gurval offers of Horace's Epode 9 in the former chapter, and of Propertius' elegies 2.1, 2.15, 2.16, 3.11 in the latter, closely parallels the approach and conclusions offered in Chapters 5 and 6, on which I prefer to comment. In short, by incorporating nuanced details in their descriptions of the battle of Actium, Horace and Propertius are said to underscore the shame and tragedy of civil war that rendered Octavian's defeat of Antony and Cleopatra inglorious. Both chapters, as the others in the book, are detailed and meticulously researched.

In Chapter 5, "'No, Vergil, No': The Battle of Actium on the Shield of Aeneas," as the title suggests Gurval turns to Vergil's description of Augustus' triple triumph in 29 BC. The goal of this chapter is to look at the passage "without the presumption of the poet's purpose of public obligation to the Augustan regime," which should lead to the conclusion that the famous ecphrasis "served more to mold a new 'Augustan' conception and ideology of the Actian victory than to endorse or transmit any prior propaganda of the battle" (213). Although the description of the shield has at its climax a gigantomachic description of the battle at Actium, Gurval argues that the victory and its celebration must be judged by the series of historical scenes leading up to it (215); in doing this, he focuses on the negative aspects of the pre-Augustan events included in the ecphrasis: Romulus and Remus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, the punishment of Mettius, inter alia. While a modern reader will agree with Gurval's reaction of horror and revulsion at these episodes, I do not think that most contemporary Romans would have quite the same response. In the early books of his massive work, Livy, himself acutely attuned to moral issues, covers the same pre-Gallic sack events with little evidence of outrage. In fact, Livy sees Mettius' grim fate as a unique lapse in an otherwise lenient history of punishment, concluding: in aliis gloriari licet nulli gentium mitiores placuisse poenas (1.28.11). This statement is particularly remarkable given that the Romans had so thoroughly refined the gruesome art of crucifixion; live burials, strangulation, and clubbing to death were also among their merciful repertoire.

In sum, I find no evidence of an overtly negative reading of pre-Augustan history in the shield's vignettes. These contain violent episodes, to be sure, but they are also defining events in the history of Rome; and it is their violent culmination in the battle of Actium that resulted in the conquest of peoples from all over the known world. I for one do not shudder at the image of Vergil writing verse that is so clearly panegyrical. He was doing for Rome, Aeneas, and by extension Augustus what Homer did for Achilles: create a poetic vehicle that would immortalize all three. In my view, Vergil is not to be viewed as sycophantic. On the contrary, by eschewing the kind of epic promised at the opening of Georgics 3 and turning instead to a mythological topic, the poet veered from the well-worn and truly obsequious path of historical epic and instead envisaged the tragedy of the last years of the Republic through Aeneas' experiences. This vision is tragic in this sense: the hero in the poem had to give up his individuality in the service of the state, even jettisoning what little was left of himself at the end, his inborn sense of compassion, in the name of the Roman virtue par excellence -- pietas. I have often thought that the reason Augustus refused to allow the Aeneid to be destroyed was that he saw himself, whether prior to encountering the poet's vision or because of it, in just this way.

In Chapter 6, "Alexandrian Poetics and Roman Politics: Propertius 4.6," Gurval looks at Propertius' last Actium poem and argues for a non-complimentary view of the Augustan victory. A point that is made early in the chapter might account in part for the interpretation offered here: "the narrative section of the poem fails to meet the reader's expectations of an epic confrontation" (251). The fact that we are dealing with a book of elegiac verse that advertises itself as Callimachean and with a poem that appeals to Philetas should in fact disabuse the reader of such an expectation. From this point, the argument becomes more strained. In his interpretation of Apollo's speech to Octavian, Gurval suggests that the generalissimo is seen in a negative light because he has received "a fair amount of encouragement" from the god; his association with Romulus is ominous; a conditional statement implies the possibility of failure; and Octavian is instructed not to be afraid even though his fear is unjustified; finally, because Apollo shot his bow before Augustus cast his spear and because the god claimed the trophies, he is the real victor (266-72). Rather than read the poem as a historical/military commentary on the battle, we should consider the usual rationale for this type of description: the portrayal of the hero's actions as parallel with the feats of a god places the accomplishments of the mortal on a higher plane.

Gurval reads other historical events mentioned in the poem as negatively nuanced. The defeat of the Sugambri is undercut by virtue of the adjective paludosos; the fact that the Parthians returned the standards after a long time and did not yet give up their own is unflattering; the poet may not be sincere when he asks Crassus to rejoice because the rejoicing is conditional (nigras si quid sapis inter harenas) and the adjective nigras has funereal associations (274-75). Each of these points has serious weaknesses. Paludosus is said to be epic-sounding but "the image of a marshy bog hardly evokes a feeling of grandeur or formidable challenge" (274); far from undermining the military credibility of the Sugambri, the adjective situates them in a dangerous setting for any attacking army, a strategic position that Gallic and German warriors frequently looked to exploit (cf. Caesar Gal. 3.28, 6.24, et passim). The return of the Roman standards is called late because it was late (some 34 years), a fact that makes the achievement all the more remarkable; the Parthians are said not to have yielded their own standards because they did not. The phrase used to qualify Crassus' enjoyment of the return of the standards is traditional (cf. the phrase si quid sapiunt inferi; CE 179 and 647.7, cited by R. Lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs [Urbana, IL 1962] 60) and the sands where Crassus and his army perished should be described in bleak terms -- the Romans suffered an ignominious defeat there.

Gurval concludes his detailed study by summarizing his arguments in a clear and concise epilogue, entitled "Actium Renascens." How was the victory at Actium first greeted? "... for the contemporary of Augustus, who witnessed a long succession of repeated civil wars, the Actian victory was felt as the culmination of a bitter past, no matter what side they had once supported; it could not become the start of a more glorious future until such a future became assured."

Actium and Augustus is a complex and sophisticated work. Gurval has been thorough in his research and systematic in his coverage of the information, archeological and literary, needed to make an informed judgement. While I remain unconvinced that the victory at Actium played an insignificant role in Augustus' program of public relations at the beginning of his regime, nonetheless Gurval's well written book has made me rethink the issue, as a whole and in its parts, and admit that this communis opinio, like all others, merits scholarly reconsideration, especially of this scope and seriousness, from time to time. Those interested in the transitional period between Republic and Empire under Augustus will want and need to consult this book.