Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.05.15

Beth Severy, Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire.   New York and London:  Routledge, 2003.  Pp. xiv, 280.  ISBN 0-415-30959-X.  $104.95.  

Reviewed by Beryl Rawson, Australian National University (
Word count: 2043 words

In the plethora of recent works on Augustus and his period, this book marks out its own terrain with a claim for uniqueness. And although it owes much to preceding work on the political system, legislation, cultural change, 'the Roman Family', art and iconography, religion and ritual, it does weave these threads into an argument with a new emphasis. This is that gradual developments within Augustus' family, and the growing role of that family as an instrument of state, by 14 CE made the heritability of his personal-political position seem natural and even inevitable. Establishing a dynasty was not Augustus' aim for at least the first two decades of his rule: he used family relations to consolidate his own individual position.

The book not only makes a contribution to the scholarship on early imperial Roman history but will also attract a more general readership interested in the role of women and family, in the transmission of power, and in transitions in world history. The period from approximately 30 BCE to 14 CE is a central one in most undergraduate and graduate teaching, and the book will be useful to many students. They may find some parts too detailed and technical, but the text is, on the whole, very readable and the structure makes it easy to identify and follow the argument, with its introductory and concluding remarks at frequent points along the way.

The general Introduction is followed by nine chapters:

1. Family and state in the late republic

2. Civil conflict and the postwar politics of restoration: Augustan experiments in image, order, and law

3. The family of Augustus, 25-12 B.C.E.

4. The military

5. Cults of family and state: piety, patriotism, and the pater, 12-7 B.C.E.

6. The familia of Augustus

7. The Pater Patriae and his family, 2 B.C.E.

8. Inheriting the res publica: Tiberius

9. The birth of the Roman empire.

There is a generous provision of 40 illustrations of good black-and-white quality, and, although some are well known (but nevertheless appropriate to the theme), others are less familiar and thus to be welcomed, such as minor artefacts, a number from the provinces. The Bibliography is valuable and wide-ranging, although there is little later than 1999, perhaps a reflection of a protracted period of publication. Thus Anthony Barrett's 2002 biography, Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome (Yale University Press), is not included. More understandable is the omission of Werner Eck's masterly 2003 study, The Age of Augustus (Blackwell), but there is little overlap between the two, as Eck does not focus on cultural developments or on Augustus' moral legislation. Because of the wide range of ancient source material used in Severy's book, an Index of Sources would have been a welcome inclusion.

The book naturally focuses on Augustus and what became 'the imperial family'. Severy (hereafter S.) describes the various intermarriages between different parts of this family, which created what she calls 'a tight endogamy' which blocked ties with other aristocratic families. She does, however, discuss other sections of elite society, mainly in chapter 9, in the context of how the development of an imperial family affected their own values and behaviour. There is little on the lower strata of society, but S. assumes that the example of Augustus' family influenced behaviour here too. In at least one respect (see below), she may underestimate the extent of two-way influence in social and cultural change and Augustus' responsiveness to more general social attitudes and the public mood.

In setting the late Republican background, S. emphasises 'the gendering of the public sphere as male' (25). In narrow political terms, this is indisputable. But to say that a Roman aristocrat's wife and household 'were excluded from official celebration' (7) ignores the visibility and activity of women, children, and even slaves in public places, ceremonies, and ritual.

S. sees the crisis of the triumviral period as breaking ideological norms, especially in the public roles of women. This had two almost opposite effects: in the longer-term it made possible the changes in women's roles under Augustus and his successors, but in the shorter-term it strengthened Augustus' claim to need to resist such changes and to return Rome to earlier, long-established traditions. Thus in the first decade of his rule there was little emphasis on his family or its individual members, and his position was being defined in institutional terms, not familial ones. After 19 BCE he introduced moral legislation which encouraged and enforced behaviour which was to be seen as befitting the claims of a restored res publica. Most of this is well argued, but I find implausible S.'s claim that there was no role for any member of Augustus' family, especially for any of the women or children, in the Ludi Saeculares of 17 BCE. She admits that there was a public role for married women in general: matronae held banquets, sang hymns, and surely had a role in coaching and supervising the choruses of boys and girls in their very public roles. With Augustus leading the ceremonies, how could Livia, at least, and probably other women and children of his family not have a prominent role? But S. is correct that there is no explicit historical reference to this.

S. recognises that from 25 BCE members of Augustus' family were coming of age, and thus the period 25-12 was one of important change. In 13 BCE Julia and her two sons appeared on Roman coins -- the first certain representation of a living woman on coinage from Rome,1 and one which celebrated her familial role. But S. argues well that these coins celebrated Augustus' fatherhood rather than any dynastic plans.

The role of father of a family became increasingly blurred with the concept of father of the whole people, years before Augustus accepted the title of pater patriae in 2 BCE. This concept took on religious qualities when Augustus became pontifex maximus in 12 BCE. He was Rome's intermediary between gods and the community, and he took Vesta under his protection in her new shrine in his own house on the Palatine. As members of his family became associated with him in religious roles, this family gradually became 'part of the religious framework of the entire community' (96). The Ara Pacis, dedicated in 9 BCE, is a notable depiction of this. Whereas in the East local cultures could sustain a cult of Augustus and members of his family as some form of divinity, in Italy and the West his religious role was more that of the pater of a Roman family. There is good discussion of the various cults in the West with imperial connections, especially with Livia. Another way in which Augustus and his family insinuated themselves (not a term used by S.) into the life and structure of the Roman state was their use of private staff and finances for public purposes. Most of this has long been recognised, but S. presents it in its familial perspective, describing Livia and Augustus as acting as the mater and pater of the whole state. An important result was that, eventually, Augustus' personal heir, who inherited his personal property, automatically inherited much that was public, and the position of emperor became heritable.

S. points out the irony that, although many of Augustus' efforts were aimed at strengthening the family life and values of Romans, Augustus' legislation allowed the state to intrude on traditional prerogatives and responsibilities of Roman heads of household. 'This process created the idea of an overarching family of Rome, with Augustus as its head' (154).

Augustus' acceptance of the title pater patriae in 2 BCE seems to be the culmination of several years of grooming three potential heirs: Tiberius, Gaius, and Lucius. The idea of political dimensions to the choice of personal heir had been evolving. In 5 BCE Gaius assumed adult status, as did Lucius in 2 BCE, and they both had prominent roles in the dedication of the new Forum Augustum in 2 CE. S. compares the new forum with the aristocratic atrium house: here public history and family history were intertwined.. And Augustus as pater was head of both household and state.

S. sets the condemnation and exile of Augustus' daughter Julia for adultery in the context of the significant year 2 BCE. By flouting Augustus' public image of the family, and especially in a public place (allegedly in the Roman Forum), Julia could be seen to be committing sacrilege and treason.

The last quarter of the book deals with the steps which led to Tiberius' succession and then the use of 'imagery, language, and ceremony' (213) to entrench the imperial family as a public institution. Chapter 8 on Tiberius is good, sensibly discounting conspiracies and 'Julian' and 'Claudian' factions. As the previous chapters had been arguing, and as has been outlined in this review, the intertwining of public and private meant that the heir to Augustus' family also inherited the Roman state. 'Tiberius legally became the pater familias and conceptually the Pater Patriae' (205).

According to S., the prominence acquired by the imperial family, and the importance of family groups in visual and literary representations, influenced other members of society, especially those of elite ranks. She assumes such influences to be all one-way, from upper levels to lower levels, and neglects the evidence for such representations before Augustus came to power. From the first half of the first century BCE, tombs in Rome for the sub-elite, mainly slaves and ex-slaves, were recording relationships between members of the one familia, usually parents and children, in their inscriptions and sometimes sculpture. It was not only that this was all that these people had to record, having no public office or long traditions to advertise, but it is arguable that in a period of instability of most other institutions (the first century BCE) the family offered a focus for sentiment and some solidarity. Augustus had these precedents to build on, and he capitalised on them to a degree not seen before. Undoubtedly the public visibility of women and children increased under Augustus, but it was not entirely his creation.

Livia was already being promoted as a model for other women under Augustus, but S. shows how Livia's prominence in public imagery increased under Tiberius. There was, however, a dramatic new stage in the imagery in 22 CE, and S. inexplicably misses the prime motivation for this. Livia's own portrait appeared on the obverse of a bronze coin, with the legend Salus Augusta. She was not explicitly named, but the portrait is indisputable and the associated legend is a clear indication. Livia had fallen seriously ill in 22, and there was a wave of emotion for her, with prayers and vows being offered for her safety and then celebrations on her recovery. A number of coin types were struck in her honour by the senatorial mint at Rome. (Many senators had reason to be grateful to Livia, as S. mentions but not in relation to these coins.) S. has two examples of these, Figures 9.6 and 9.7, but making no connection with the crisis of Livia's health in 22 CE. Figure 9.6 depicts the carpentum, a carriage used by high-ranking women in the city and often associated with funeral rites. The legend explicitly names Livia as Iulia Augusta. The carpentum was later represented on a coin of Agrippina the Elder under the emperor Gaius, but after Agrippina's death. The image in 22 was surely associated with Livia's illness in that year. There had been no coin portraits or legends identifying Livia before this, under Augustus or Tiberius, and S. could have sharpened her argument by discussing the familial illness of 22 as a turning point in the representation of Livia and a notable precedent for other women in other spheres.

The last three chapters seem to me the strongest part of the book. S. picks up the threads of the previous chapters and weaves them into a well patterned argument. The style, too, becomes free of annoying features of earlier chapters, such as the excessive use of 'interestingly' and 'significantly'. A firmer editorial hand there would have done the author and the reader a service. Otherwise the book is well produced, and the presence of footnotes rather than endnotes is welcome.


1.   Roman coinage issued in Greece in 38 BCE had a portrait of Octavia, wife of Antony and sister of Octavian, on the reverse. Provincial coin portraits attributed to Fulvia are doubtful.

Read Latest
Index for 2005
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:30:03, Friday, 03 April 2009