Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.35


W.K. Lacey, Augustus and the Principate. The Evolution of the System. ARCA Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers and Monographs 35. Leeds: Francis Cairns (Publications) Ltd., 1996. Pp. x + 245. $52.50 (£30.00). ISBN 0-905205-91-X.


Reviewed by Jane Chaplin, Middlebury College.

L(acey) here brings together the results of his efforts to address central questions of Augustus' career. Many of the chapters deal with constitutional matters: the 'settlement' of 27 [a revised version of "Octavian in the Senate, January 27 B.C.," JRS 64 (1974) 176-184]; the 'settlement' of 23 [a revised version of "Augustus and the Senate: 23 B.C.," Antichthon 19 (1985) 57-67]; the development of Augustus' tribunicia potestas [a revised version of "Summi Fastigii Vocabulum: The Story of a Title," JRS 69 (1979) 28-34]; the nature of Marcus Agrippa's authority in the years after his consulships of 28 and 27; and the date when the Principate can be considered actually to have begun [based on "19 B.C.," Classicum 23 (1983) 30-35]. Other chapters deal with Augustus' public entries into the city of Rome, his methods of maintaining power, his reshaping of religious activity to focus it on his own person, and the banishment of Julia in 2 [a revised version of "2 B.C. and Julia's Adultery," Antichthon 14 (1980) 127-142]. The introduction gives historical background and previews the contents of the book. The final chapter surveys various areas (honors, army, finance, coinage, census, elections, politics, self-glorification, justice, religion and succession) where changes occurred under Augustus, and L focuses on the degree to which we can or cannot see "encroachment" in these areas.

"Encroachment" is the theme that ties the book together. L begins with the famous opening of Tacitus' Annals, and "encroach" is his preferred translation of Tacitus' verb insurgere (1.2.1) to describe the way in which Augustus concentrated power in his own hands. As a theme, encroachment has the organizational virtue of matching L's method: for each topic he proceeds systematically through the evidence, trying to reconstruct changes with as much chronological precision as possible.

Further, encroachment has the advantage of being an idea under which L can address the wide range of problems in the book. Even the previously published material has been re-worked to fit this idea. So, for example, in his discussion of the events of January of 27, L expands on his original idea that Octavian used the regular senatorial procedures of Cicero's time to transfer the provinces to the Senate by suggesting that the subsequent division of provinces had political implications as well as military ones. The significance of Gaul, Spain and Syria as Augustus' sphere of command is not merely that large numbers of troops were based in these places, but also that they had been the provinces of the proconsuls who had started the previous round of civil wars. Augustus' choice of these provinces might then have had the political benefit of sending the message that civil war would not recur. L emphasizes what he calls the political value of Augustus' activities in these provinces and argues that "The public relations benefits of the provincial division were soon revealed, as Augustus encroached steadily on the People's provinces" (p. 97).

The term encroachment, however, also reveals L's prejudices. L's perspective on Augustus remains very much that of Tacitus; it is senatorial and political. L starts with a close reading of Annals 1.1-3 and argues that "the opening of Annals ... is not just a few preliminary remarks but a penetrating insight into the system established by Augustus which we call the Principate" (p. 1). The choice of encroachment is also Tacitean in its negative connotations, and yet L does not always make explicit who or what is being encroached on. Tacitus' judgment certainly offers one very strong interpretive framework for the Augustan period, and constitutional questions will always contribute significantly to our understanding of what happened in the Roman world between 44 B.C.E. and 14 C.E.; however, recent efforts in social and cultural history seem more likely to allow us to see that period in new and more fruitful ways.

L is familiar with recent work on the image of Augustus, and he makes reference to the complex nature of Augustus' power ("It is often if not always difficult to be certain of the impetus behind a new encroachment: did it come from Augustus himself or his immediate circle of amici or from below -- from the plebs preferring his government to that of potential noble competitors, or Senators trying to win his attention or approval to further their own careers, or even from magistrates voluntarily ceding powers or rights?" pp. 3-4, n. 9). There is thus a tension between L's stated position and general approach on the one hand and his discussion of specific evidence on the other.

In fact, the word evolution, which appears in the book's subtitle, more aptly catches the processes L details. This is especially clear in the first chapter where he takes up the interesting topic of Augustus' entries into Rome, both those designed as civic occasions and those meant to avoid publicity. After reviewing the different ways Republican leaders could enter Rome (including triumphs, surreptitious returns, and hostile marches on the city), L takes Augustus' returns as an index of his standing at every stage in his tenure of power. The point is that Augustus' use of the institution was evolving and flexible. Equally, even in a chapter where L is trying to argue that the Senate's attitude towards Augustus changed measurably at an identifiable moment in time (the year 19), he ends up pointing out that "one of the reasons for his [Augustus'] success was that he deliberately avoided the clearcut and explicit and preferred cautiously to allow political developments to occur" (p. 153).

In the same way that the content of L's book is caught between traditional and fresh approaches to Augustus, its tone and style are unresolved. On the one hand, L has attempted to make the book accessible to those without Latin and Greek, and parenthetical translations appear with (sometimes) excessive frequency. On the other hand, he writes with great familiarity about the evidence for and arguments about this period of Roman history. This familiarity may account for the casualness of such sentences as "For the dates, see above and note 111" (p. 48) and for the sketchiness of the indices of passages and topics. On the whole the book is best read as the contribution of one scholar and teacher of Augustus to on-going conversations about the nature of Augustus' power and accomplishments.