Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.23

Christopher Smith, Anton Powell (ed.), The Lost Memoirs of Augustus and the Development of Roman Autobiography.   Swansea:  Classical Press of Wales, 2009.  Pp. xii, 227.  ISBN 9781905125258.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by John Henderson, King's College, Cambridge (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Thirteen books of 'memoirs' from Augustus ('de uita sua'), down to the Celtiberian War 'and that's your lot' (Suetonius tells us: Aug. 85.1 'nec ultra': = T1). All long gone, but for less than a score of attributed quotes, mainly a sentence or phrase, plus a long-disputed trail of re-presentation, re-writing, and re-processed adaptation in Plutarch, Appian, and Dio. This latest conference collection brainchild of Anton Powell (who provides a succinct introduction, of the 'thought-provoking book proposal featuring essay summary in 100 words or less' kind) is blessed with an early sight ahead of publication of the entry for the memoirs as they will appear in the Oxford edition, by Tim Cornell et al., of "Fragments of the Roman Historians" (a major project involving seven UK universities and several of the contributors).

1. Chris Smith's Testimonia (T1-5) and Fragments (F1-3, with assignment to their books; F4-10, unassigned; F11-18, possible fragments; F19, doubtful fragment) are set out at volume head, with translation, but bare of notes or comment. References through the volume key to this version (re-numbering Malcovati).

The book is up for generic consideration of literary textuality ('memoirs' or 'autobiography' ...?) and includes new scholarly research, but clearly caters too for Greekless and (esp.) Latinless historians prepared nevertheless to ponder -- in the 'yes, but what if?' mode -- or to wonder -- 'doubtless' riding the hunches. Translation never can give the clientèle enough help on its own, and once Chris Pelling has set to work showing how the (half-dozen) cases starring Plutarch text are framed, pointed, and nuanced, and Mark Toher weighs in to argue the methodological toss on the perils of excerpting nuggets taken from less than well-specified or -specifiable lost writings which pursue their own agenda into pasted lumps set off in bold, you can't help but feel Smith -- along with the big project -- may've been rather hung out to dry.1 The prefix faithfully appends the essential bibliography (p. 13).

2. Tim Cornell takes the step back to look for antecedents to Sulla and Caesar in the establishment of a 'distinctively Roman habit of autobiographical writing' (p. 15). He presses hard the quirky wealth of lore we have on Cato for its chances of originorating in the Origines (very low) as opposed to the orationes (correspondingly high), before deconstructing this opposition while disconcertingly sketching out how little we can know of this just as 'lost (non-) memoir': it recounted war, suppressed the names of commanders, and (note well) inserted Cato's speeches into the narrative (p. 25). A magisterial spanking of the topic, as you would expect.

3. The next essay is some hot knife through all the buttering up. Chris Pelling's first barrel aims straight at Augustus: 'Did he know what he was doing?' He establishes a main theme of the collection -- rejection of the notion of a 'standardized' form, let alone a formulaic 'standard mould', of Roman autobiography (as strongly presented by R. Geoffrey Lewis).2 Now we register how next to nothing is what we, or Cicero for that matter, can know of the famous duo of Tacitus' Agricola proem (1.3), Rutilius and Scaurus, before passing on to the other antecedents, Sulla, as tantalizingly dreamridden as Augustus' Fs but otherwise again so elusive, and Caesar, surviving as if to dare us suppose Augustus' effort was anything like a re-run -- in the first person (F1). The second barrel is trained on Plutarch quoting Augustus as, exactly, a consequential act of quotation -- beyond (scholarly) accreditation or (Mandy Rice-Davies) discreditation, (writerly, atmospheric, thematic) rhetorical colouring, where 'the spin is the point' (p. 47). Quotation in fuller scope than Smith allowed is followed by translation in full, of FF13 and 5, prompting us to consider which sort of act we should consider this in Pelling's trichotomy. A complicating cross-system of emphasis by underlining graphs the thematic construction of the 'immediate' contexts that throw up the (emboldened) Fs.3 A couple of Pelling's accents go awry (p. 48) and in the translation 'fasces' displace lictors, 'onto' has come apart, and 'this young man who' isn't what Plut. says (p. 49),4 but presumably because he is intent on what Plutarch is up to, his versions knock spots off Smith's, as close reading goes on to bring out the prominent rhetoric organizing the key paragraph from the Life, 'almost an ancient counterpart of putting a passage into bold type' (p. 50). The horizons at once extend to take in the whole Life as a grand toppling of the old master, outthought and outfought by that (sc. stupid) boy, who, forging past honours to power, 'knows it all already' (p. 51, hooking Cic. 44 back to 1). In a final turn of the screw, Pelling scotches the duh notion that Velleius' story of a game Octavian battling sickness in the front line (2.70.1) goes back to the Memoirs. Contemplation of the possibility of a 'rhetoric of honesty' fires a shot across the bows of any plonking reconstruction of (such egregiously partisan and ineluctably parti pris apologetics as) the Memoirs: couldn't Augustus have coughed up about that rat Octavian precisely to bury him, 'draw a line' and 'move on', to the new challenge ...?

4. Smith's own essay now backtracks to focus on Sulla as forerunner. Twenty-two books of Latin dedicated to Lucullus, the last completed by his faithful freedman after the worms got the Big Cheese, chock full of warrior exploits plus the full panoply of portentous 'felicitas', while finessing the climactic dictatorship and its inventive massacre, proscription. With Aemilius Scaurus, Rutilius Rufus, Lutatius Catulus, this provides a maybe matrix for the Roman officer's campaigning to the triumphal top in elogium-style, as scorned by Sempronius Asellio (?; cited by Gellius 3.18: pp. 75-6), in tune with other élite protocols developing a resilient ideology of bellicose virtue through (self-)portraiture. The last paragraph brings us to Augustus, who in this version 'perhaps appropriately, did not flinch from choosing [the model] of Sulla' (p. 79).

5. Alexander Thein first sets out the dynamic of 'felicitas', which cost Augustus association with Sulla but slotted him in as auspicious generalissimo proven virtuous by victory and, this time, sublating to become the moral cosmos' binding principle of prosperity rooted in legitimacy: Augustus' 'felicitas' goes explicit only with Suet. (Aug. 94.1 ~ 58.2: father of the fatherland ~ birth-omens). Next, how would such aretalogy deliver narrative form? The merger of luck revealed through narrow squeaks and odds overcome as stardom writes drama shielded from 'inuidia'. Where grey-eyed Sulla's incubation was protracted, reviving a fallen clan before eventual vindication by newfangled nickname(s), the grey-eyed boy-wonder from a decent background was there to self-fashion almost from his début, but both sign off with triumphal re-naming -- prescinding their incumbency ('Felix' in 81 by plebiscite: App. BC 4.10: p. 99 at n. 73). Systematic synkrisis shows up the points where the son of god took over from his son of a gun precursor.

6. Peter Wiseman gives his take on many of these same Sullan parallels, focussing on pre-battle and such spooking and starring (esp. p. 113 on the crux in F4 = Tert. anim. 46.7), to underline long-standing and advertised continuity staked out between old grey eyes and young, but mediated through Julius and staked on living the dream through, this time. Sleuthing good as ever.

7. Thank goodness, there's always one. Mark Toher brings the vinegar: 'The memoirs of Augustus are effectively lost' (p. 125). To roast Quellenkritik (as practised to left and to right?), he brings on Nicolaus of Damascus' fragmentary Life, i.e. Byzantine excerpts on virtues and vices like the start of the Cyropaedia, and on conspiracies (the Ides of March), claiming him btw for the earliest Greek autobiographer we know (p. 128). Undoing Jacoby's bold (l. wild) conjecture of mid- to late- 20s composition at Rome making hay with Augustus' still drying memoirs, Toher revives the thesis that Herod's agent quit a vengeful Judaea for Rome at his king's death in 4 BCE, taking seriously pointers such as the shifter retrospecting over Augustus' 'whole life' (p. 132). He then scotches hypotheses that flow from presumption that Nicolaus' version of the juvenalia and début bodily free-paraphrased the horse's account, rather than curtain-raising a standard 'Hellenistic encomiastic biography' (p. 136). Instead of hitting on likely 'Augustan' patches, we should abjure 'divination' of what Augustus, Pollio, Messala, Agrippa, Livy, Nicolaus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Appian, and Dio 'must' be deriving and re-boring via each other from the Memoirs, and use the Life to assess 'what was not likely to have been in the autobiography' (p. 138). Allow for ongoing inventiveness in storyboarding the Roman revolution, as in some post-Philippics smears for a start, and, where after Nicolaus, after the Memoirs too. Here's the essay to pump up the volume.

8. John Rich wants to know what ending after His Brilliance's last campaign in person at thirty-six, raiding by the Bay of Biscay, and at or soon after his triumphant but non-triumphal Return from Cantabria, would mean for the Memoirs. He swashbuckles us through the messy (l. brute) business of crushing this 'first started, last to be completed province' (Liv. 28.12), appending the re-writes of Livy 135 in Florus and Orosius (translated, pp. 162-4), and then doesn't buy near 'deathbed' trauma as the reason for his hero summing up the story so far on paper, but looks for strategically planned closure to the Rise to Power prequelled by the trialling of temporary lieutenantry in Spain.

9. Anton Powell's chapter would read naturally as the introductory chapter, breezily running through the fragments to establish that they -- 15 of 19 -- are indeed apologetic in tone, and to formulate the catena of denunciations they repel with concessionary self-exculpation: Philippi, proscriptions, Sicilian War, one humiliating scrape and upbeat extrication after another, all good reasons for the Memoirs to get lost; but he finds special traction in arguments that Appian's version of Octavian's rescue from Sextus when washed up ashore (BC 5.86) and his account of more 'skulking' at Tauromenium (5.112) merit inclusion as further 'fragments' of Augustus (with the word ἀτηεράπευτος in common). We presume he hasn't convinced Smith of this -- or at least that it is possible to boundary and bolden an excerpt hereabouts: the ed. will have his say. On the other hand, primed with this theme of destiny's runaway, Powell further knits the Memoirs into an 'age of apology' by linkage to the contemporaneously gestating Aeneid's Julian hero, and rounds off his puff for the project. Missing linkage, I should say. Yes, best to read this essay first.

10. With the final essay we look at the other 'Augustans' of the 20s to see how they may've told their wars, for themselves, on behalf of, as well as beside, Augustus. The dirty work needed doing: Kathryn Welch notes the different rhetorical challenges facing the likes of Agrippa, M. Crassus, Dellius, before settling to present full re-appraisal of the case of the proscript Messalla, whose opposition to the new Caesar ended at Philippi, pace Syme, to be followed by loyalism throwing all blame on Antony. But did he write either memoirs or history, as is usually supposed? (Does Appian lift inserts on him as Octavian's life-saver (BC 5.113) and as scourge of the Salassi (Ill. 17) right out of Messalla?) If so, this may be another case, argues another contributor, of self-narration triumph-bound.

The Res Gestae is still all we've got; but the Memoirs exercise is worthwhile, and advancing on all fronts has won several successes.5 Production quality is excellent.6


Anton Powell, 'Introduction', ix-xii
Christopher Smith, 'The Memoirs of Augustus: testimonia and fragments', 1-13
Tim Cornell, 'Cato and the origins of Roman autobiography', 15-40
Christopher Pelling, 'Was there an ancient genre of "autobiography"? Or, did Augustus know what he was doing?', 41-64
Christopher Smith, 'Sulla's Memoirs', 65-85
Alexander Thein, 'Felicitas and the Memoirs of Sulla', 87-109
Peter Wiseman, 'Augustus, Sulla and the supernatural', 111-23
Mark Toher, 'Divining a lost text: Augustus' autobiography and the Bios Kaisaros of Nicolaus of Damascus', 125-44
John Rich, 'Cantabrian closure: Augustus' Spanish War and the ending of his memoirs', 145-72
Anton Powell, 'Augustus' age of apology: an analysis of the Memoirs -- and an argument for two further fragments', 173-94
Kathryn Welch, 'Alternative memoirs: tales from the "other side" of the civil war', 195-223
Index, 225-7


1.   Some details: F1, 'per septem dies ... sub septentrionibus': a note should point out the fiendish mumbo-jumbo astro-logic here, just before the eleventh hour. F8, the trans. of φυλαχαμένου τὴν ἡμέραν as 'guarding against the day' is opaque -- 'spending the day en garde'? -- compared with Pelling's 'but had avoided the day' (p. 52). Powell explains the apt 'military overtone' here (p. 186). F8, final sentence of trans. not included in Greek text. F13, κινδυνεύων is garbled in the trans., 'admits that, fearing his destruction and that he was in danger of becoming isolated', where Pelling has it right (p. 49), 'acknowledges that, fearing that he might be destroyed and in danger of being isolated'; ibid., similarly, ἐν δέοντι is off the money, 'in dire necessity he used Cicero's love of office', where Pelling gets it (p. 49), 'used Cicero's ambition for power at an opportune moment'. F14, 'tabellas duplices' is under-trans. as 'a set of writing tablets', where the tricksy doubleness of the folded diptych makes it the classical 'violin-case, handy for the submachinegun'. F17, 'invited by him' should add '(= Augustus)' for those Latinless faithful.
2.   'Imperial autobiography, Augustus to Hadrian', ANRW 2.34.1 (1993) 629-706.
3.   Since Pelling's lemmata amount to a 'rival' recension: note that he challenges registration of Plut. Cic. 45-46.1 and 52.1 (= Comp. Dem. Cic. 3) as separate FF; disemboldens the reference in the latter to Cicero and Pompey; and provides a (scholarly? Mandyesque? ...) disquisition arising from uncertainty over the text of F13 (esp. pp. 48 and 61 n. 28). F7 from Plut. Brut. 41.5, Ant. 22.1-2, plus App. BC 4.463, is also set out anew: Pelling revisits his Antony commentary for the pattern that most likely ties Plut. and App. to Pollio for intermediary, plugging them both into Augustus' Memoirs -- if so, with his own agenda, not likely (at all) like theirs. Pressing which of the three versions of how Octavian faced his dreams while Antony fought at Philippi should be 'credited' to Augustus -- in what order should the editor list, so load, the witnesses? -- again indicatively leads the Plutarchan to uncover different agenda in the two Lives, as part of the rhetorical color (a network of quotes figuring Brutus as someone opinionated and to be opinionated about) and of the compositional design (Octavian's dream mirroring Brutus' evil visitation, that is, starring him as gods' gift, not doomed).
4.   It doesn't help that 'young man' renders both νέον ἄνδρα and the hypo-coristic μειράκιον, mind. The idea that Octavian 'puer'-παῖς would play Cicero's son the way that Cicero's son was playing Brutus is of course on the grander scale all about competition to bag the gig of 'pater patriae' for a revolutionary's future.
5.   The joke from Julius served up by Suetonius (DJ 77), 'Sullam nescisse litteras qui dictaturam deposuerit' is first re-told at p. x, 'Sulla in giving up the dictatorship showed that he didn't know his political abc'; bring back the birch for the other ed., naughtily claiming (p. 69) that 'Caesar distances himself from the dictator of whom he famously said that he did not know his letters'! Don't they get the pun on classroom dictation?
6.   p. 57, booshops. p. 114, πομπηίον for -ου. p. 131, ἀυτῶι. p. 133, peering (for peeping?). p. 154, Sestius in 22 (for 23). p. 178, panitentiam.

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