Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.06.30

John Bert Lott, The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2004.  Pp. xiv, 262.  ISBN 0-521-82827-9.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Adam Serfass, Kenyon College (
Word count: 1912 words

In the penultimate paragraph of his Res Gestae, Augustus locates the source of his imperial power in the consensus universorum.1 Examining Rome's neighborhoods against the broader backdrop of Roman history, John Bert Lott elucidates one facet of the process by which Augustus cultivated this consensus: through his reforms of the capital's neighborhoods (vici), which, to paraphrase Herodotus on Cleisthenes (5.66.2), brought the people into his party. Furthermore, the study contributes to our knowledge of Rome's lower classes, in that Lott gauges the impact of the emperor's reforms on the freedmen and slaves, who, as magistri and ministri vici respectively, typically assumed responsibility for the neighborhoods' cultic and administrative upkeep. What makes this study particularly useful is Lott's integration of the meager literary evidence for the vici during Augustus' reign with the comparatively abundant epigraphic and material evidence, which is assembled in an appendix.

The first of the study's six chapters consists of a concatenation of brief takes on introductory subjects. To mention just a few: Lott defines the term vicus and characterizes the neighborhoods of ancient Rome; he briefly situates his study vis-à-vis previous scholarship; and he orients the reader to contemporary sociological work on neighborhoods and voluntary associations. Two salient points emerge from this chapter. First, Lott flags his disagreement with the influential interpretation of Augustus' neighborhood reforms proffered by Lily Ross Taylor, who, in her monograph on the divinity of the Roman emperor, claims that Augustus made public the worship of his household gods by establishing the cult of the Lares Augusti and Genius Augusti at the crossroads (compita) shrine of each vicus.2 Indeed, later in the book, Lott argues that "... Augustus did not enforce the standardized worship of the Genius Augusti, derived from his family cults on the Palatine, in the neighborhoods" (112), which represents a significant departure from general opinion on the subject. While the Genius Augusti was venerated in some, but not all, neighborhoods in Augustan Rome, the impetus for this cult did not come from above. Secondly, Lott cautions against studying Rome's individual monuments in isolation, without attention to their broader topographical context. This may seem a well-worn caveat by those familiar with recent research on Augustus' refashioning of the Roman cityscape. But Lott adds to this burgeoning body of literature by showing how many of the monuments erected in the neighborhoods by local residents relate, both in terms of shared iconography and of spatial juxtaposition, to larger and more familiar Augustan constructions.

The second chapter sketches the history of the neighborhoods in republican Rome; it also introduces the basic administrative and religious apparatus of the vici. A snippet of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (4.14.3-4) indicates inter alia that Romans in Augustus' time believed that the organization of Rome into vici, the worship of neighborhood gods, especially by slaves, and the Compitalia, a festival held on or about 1 January at each of Rome's crossroads, dated to the city's earliest history. By the Second Punic War, the vici were official subdivisions of the city under the aegis of the aediles and, at a local level, of magistri vici drawn from the neighborhoods' lower-class residents. Turning to the late republic, Lott vividly describes the transformation of the neighborhoods from calm oases of community to centers of political agitation, where the Compitalia and, especially, its concomitant Ludi Compitalicii presented individuals, like M. Marius Gratidianus, C. Manilius, and above all P. Clodius Pulcher, with opportunities for mobilizing the plebs for political ends. Lott adeptly negotiates the difficult questions regarding the senatorial decree that suppressed certain collegia in 64 BCE and the potential impact of this suppression on the vici.3

The historical survey continues in chapter three, which considers the neighborhoods under Caesar as dictator, the triumvirs, and Octavian/Augustus before his reforms in 7 BCE. Between 27 and 7 BCE, Augustus donated statues, funded by the monetary gifts he received on New Year's Day, to selected neighborhoods. The divine subjects of the statuary are shown to have been chosen deliberately; many, like Pax and Concordia, are linked to Augustus' broader religious program. The fullest evidence in this period for Augustus' intervention in the vici testifies to the emperor's restoration in 10 BCE of a compitum in the Subura to which he donated a statue of Mercury -- Lott limns the appropriateness of this commercial and liminal god in the compital setting -- the inscribed base of which is extant. Lott notes that the restoration of the compitum was concurrent with the erection of the Porticus Liviae, on property once occupied by the notoriously luxurious domus of P. Vedius Pollio, less than 300 feet away: in both constructions, the emperor's interest in creating and adorning public space, both massive and modest, is evident.

Chapter four examines in detail the logistics and ideology of Augustus' reforms of the neighborhoods in 7 BCE. Contra Lily Ross Taylor, who implies that Augustus effected the reforms as pontifex maximus, Lott argues that Augustus initiated the reforms as part of the census he conducted in 8 BCE by virtue of his consular imperium (Res Gestae 8.3; cf. Pliny NH 3.66). Augustus reorganized the city into fourteen regions, each of which was administered by a praetor, aedile, or tribune chosen by lot; formerly each aedile supervised one of the four regions into which the city was divided. The emperor also mandated the annual selection of a college of (usually, but not always, four) magistri vici drawn from each neighborhood's residents. Lott shows that, as in the republic, these magistracies appealed to freedmen who were probably of modest prosperity (only four of the 86 magistri vici known from the Augustan era can be securely identified as freeborn). In addition to maintaining the local compitum and its cult, each college of magistrates coordinated tasks like security and fire prevention (until 6 CE) at the local level; in general, the magistri liaised between the residents of the vici and the regionary magistrates. These administrative reforms are quintessentially Augustan: they show a concern for defining the place of the lower classes and especially freedmen in politics and society; they point to the emperor's interest in the fabric of the capital; and they admix real innovations (e.g., the fourteen regions) with the restoration and regularization of practices (e.g., the selection of magistri) that were said to have atrophied in the chaos preceding the Augustan age.

Augustus' religious reforms within the neighborhoods share similar qualities. The Lares Compitales were renamed Lares Augusti, and the emperor distributed new statues of these latter Lares to each vicus. For Lott, applying to the Lares the epithet augustus, reserved only for a handful of gods, "pulled the neighborhoods, their religion, and their inhabitants into the new system of the Principate and declared the active support [of] the city's lower classes to be one of the ideals of the new regime" (110), but this does not indicate, as Taylor maintains, that the Lares Augusti represented the same Lares worshipped in Augustus' household. In addition, Augustus permitted and, on at least one occasion, partly subsidized the celebration of the defunct Ludi Compitalicii, which had been suppressed as late as Caesar's dictatorship, and established two new citywide holidays on which the neighborhood Lares were to be decked with flowers.

In short, Augustus cast himself as the individual patron of each vicus; the neighborhoods were linked to him like spokes on a wheel. The Lares Augusti reified the imperial presence in every neighborhood. For Lott, the cumulative effect of these reforms was both to integrate the vici more closely into the city's administrative and religious life and to dilute any real political power that the vici might have expressed through the violence prevalent in the late republic. The magistri and ministri vici articulated their allegiance to Augustus' reforms by adorning their neighborhoods with altars, statues, and other objects, which, though privately funded and built, employed the visual vocabulary associated with Augustan art and commemorated events of importance to the new regime. In 2 BCE, for example, the magistri of the Vicus Sandaliarius erected an altar whose imagery alludes to the dedication of the temple of Mars Ultor and the impending departure of Gaius Caesar on his first military command.

The fifth chapter examines in detail how the extant artifacts of the Augustan neighborhoods shed light on the ministri and magistri vici who donated them. It is often noted that the emperor and his family monopolized public building in Rome during the principate, but here is an exception. These artifacts, however humble, show that the magistri and ministri vici engaged in competitive euergetism. Lott considers five compital altars dedicated in the Augustan neighborhoods and then focuses on the evidence for two vici: the Vicus Compiti Acili, whose aedicula was discovered during the construction of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and a vicus, whose ancient name is unknown, wedged between the Tiber and the southwestern slope of the Aventine. The evidence for this latter neighborhood is unusually rich. For example, the names of its magistri vici for the years 7-5 BCE and 3 BCE-2 CE (as well as for a smattering of later years) are preserved on an inscribed list, the Fasti Magistrorum Vici, and additional inscriptions attest to several dedications made to the neighborhood by its magistrates. Ties to republican families of local clout seem to have remained valuable for those freedmen seeking to become magistri of this neighborhood. Four of the freedmen on the Fasti are Sulpicii Galbae, who had had a presence in the vicus since the second century BCE, and five more bear the nomen Annius or Milionius, perhaps indicating a connection to the family of T. Annius Milo, whose capacity for organizing the residents of the vici into paramilitary mobs is infamous.

The chapter closes with a fascinating vignette of Numerius Lucius Hermeros, resident of a vicus in the Forum Boarium, who was thrice magister vici and who, sometimes with his colleagues, dedicated in each of his years in office a gift to the neighborhood: a statue of Mercurius Augustus, another of Venus Augusta, and a shrine to Hercules with scale weights in silver and gold housed within. Hermeros' gifts were cleverly chosen for their polysemy. Each of the commemorated gods (1) played a role in imperial ideology, (2) was worshipped in a nearby shrine or shrines, and (3) reflected the mercantile flavor of the riparian vicus. The gods chosen even allude, Lott argues, to the dedicant himself, whose cognomen Hermeros suggests both Hermes (Mercurius) and Eros (Venus). A brief conclusion, in which Lott sketches the post-Augustan fate of the neighborhoods, discusses vici in other parts of the empire and evaluates the success with which the book met the goals set out in the introduction. This is followed by an appendix, which gathers the artifactual evidence for compital dedications in Rome from the Augustan era through 44 CE. Each entry describes a particular object or inscription (a Latin text is included) and provides brief commentary and bibliography. This corpus should prove convenient for further work on the Augustan neighborhoods.

The book contains a number of typographical errors, which, while they are distracting, do not occlude Lott's generally lucid presentation. Lott recapitulates his arguments as he proceeds, and the appendix enables the reader easily to check the analysis against the material evidence. In sum, the study contributes to our understanding of how Augustus, in forging a bond between vicus and princeps, reshaped the capital's administrative infrastructure, its religious practice, and the social and political dynamics of its humbler residents.


1.   Res Gestae 34.1; Lott too mentions this passage (26-27).
2.   Lily Ross Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (Middletown, CT, 1931; often reprinted) 181-195, which develops the ideas of Georg Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1912; repr. 1971) 77, 172-173. Cf. the criticism of Taylor's interpretation by Ittai Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford, 2002) 115-139, which may have appeared too late for Lott to include in the bibliography. Gradel (128ff.) claims that the Genius Augusti was worshipped at the compita after 7 BCE -- indeed that its veneration was more important than that of the Lares Augusti -- but that such worship was not part of state cult, as compital religion belonged to the realm of sacra privata.
3.   On this legislation, see e.g., Susan Treggiari, Roman Freedmen during the Late Republic (Oxford, 1969; repr. 2000) 169-172.

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