Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.02.03

Alison E. Cooley (ed.), Res gestae divi Augusti: Text, Translation and Commentary.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. xiii, 317.  ISBN 9780521601283.  $29.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Richard Westall, Pontificia Università Gregoriana (

Imagine the interest that would be caused by the discovery of a Gospel written by Jesus of Nazareth himself, and you have an idea of the interest that attaches to the document conventionally known as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (henceforth RGDA). Theodor Mommsen justifiably called it, in its bilingual version at Ancyra, the "queen of inscriptions", referring not so much to the extent and high quality of this text as to the interest of its contents. This political testament of the founder of the Principate is widely recognised as a masterpiece of dissimulation and fraud, but any attempt to write a history of the reign of Augustus without taking it into account would be irremediably impoverished. Hence, any attempt to shed light upon this document attracts notice. In her presentation of this text and its multifarious intricacies, Alison Cooley provides what will be the standard textbook for the RGDA in this generation.

Cooley has divided her treatment of the RGDA into three sections: an introduction; the text of the Latin original with facing Greek translation and an English translation of each version immediately following on the same page; and a commentary. The introduction (pp. 1-55) contextualizes this text from a multiplicity of perspectives. The text and accompanying translations (pp. 57-101) make available to a general reading public as well as scholars both the Latin original and the Greek translation. The commentary (pp. 102-278) deploys the whole range of evidence -- be it archaeological, art historical, literary, epigraphic, papyrological, or numismatic -- in order to illustrate the form and content of this document so important to the reign of Augustus. There follows an appendix listing differences in reading between the text of Cooley and that of Scheid 2007. The book concludes with indices that readers will find particularly reliable and useful.

Who are the intended readers of this work? In all likelihood university undergraduates and advanced high school students, in the first instance. The translation of both Latin and Greek versions of the RGDA and use of dual Latin/English lemmata for the commentary make this book a highly attractive choice for any course dedicated to Augustus and the creation of the Principate. On the other hand, the facing Latin and Greek texts will be the delight of anyone teaching an intermediate course in Latin or, mirabile dictu, Greek. Such a presentation has the benefit of encouraging students of Latin and Greek to adopt a comparative approach and thus to appreciate better fundamental similarities and differences. Moreover, it is to be noted that the information contained in both introduction and commentary is not simply for beginners. Scholars, too, will derive benefit from consultation of this work. While it does not altogether replace the critical editions of Scheid 2007 and Ehrenberg and Jones 19762, it will be an essential reference work for anyone dealing with the RGDA and the figure of Augustus.

Within a relatively brief, but detailed introduction, Cooley sets the stage by providing readers with a comprehensive review of the genesis, contents, and reception of the RGDA. Naturally there are some prefatory remarks about the importance of the RGDA (pp. 1-3). Proceeding to situate the RGDA anew within its original context, Cooley next turns to analysis of the relationship of this text to the Mausoleum of Augustus in the northernmost section of the Campus Martius, correcting the tendency to view the RGDA in isolation (pp. 3-6). Subsequently, she situates the copies of the RGDA within their provincial contexts (pp. 6-22). The Latin versions of Ancyra and Pisidian Antioch and the Greek versions of Ancyra and Apollonia are described in relatively abundant detail and an attempt is made to identify their original settings. There follows an equally scrupulous review of the various linguistic features of the Latin and Greek versions of the RGDA, highlighting characteristics of Augustus' style and pinpointing evidence for a provincial genesis of the Greek translation (pp. 22-30). Next, Cooley's discussion of the "messages" of the RGDA (pp. 30-41) deals squarely with problems of genre and authorial intent, convincingly offering a multiplicity of perspectives that are complementary. Most intriguing are the similarities between the Augustus of the RGDA and the Zeus of Euhemerus’ Sacred Record. Less persuasively, but with full representation of the debate, Cooley (pp. 42-43) argues for composition of the RGDA in the last year of Augustus' life. Her account (pp. 43-48) of the rediscovery and study of the Galatian copies of the RGDA in modern times is succinct, brilliantly evoking the excitement, difficulties, and acrimonious debates that have characterized this activity from 1555 down to the last century. Cooley also provides a brief review of responses to the text over time (pp. 48-55), ranging from the early second-century critique of Tacitus and imitation by Hadrian to the incidental conservatism of Richard Meier in 2006.

The text of the Latin and Greek versions represents a slight advance on occasion, such as when the Greek participle φονεύσαντας is used to restore interfecerunt in place of the unnecessarily spectacular trucidaverunt at 2. In view of Augustus' penchant for litotes and sobriety, surely interfecerunt strikes the right tone as well being semantically closer to the surviving Greek version. Most of the differences between Cooley and her predecessors are negligible in terms of impact, e.g. whether or not to print et within the numeral provided at 8.4. However, a few conjectures and emendations look extremely doubtful, when account is taken of normal Latin grammar and Augustus' stylistic traits or the Greek translation: 1.2 (simul dans), 5.2 (liberarim), 9.1 (salute), 10.2 (demum), 18 (ab illo anno). Despite these cavils, Cooley is to be warmly thanked for giving both the Latin and the Greek translation with some indication of what can still be read and what is the fruit of conjecture or emendation. It is only to be regretted that she did not go so far as to provide an apparatus criticus setting forth the contributions made by each of the four witnesses to the constitution of the bilingual text that she prints. Not many of her readers will be likely to possess or have ready access to a copy of the critical edition by J. Scheid.

The English translations of both the Latin and Greek versions strike a reasonable balance between fidelity to the original and readability as English. Students without any knowledge of Latin or Greek will be able to see clearly significant differences between the two versions, and may even be tempted to learn something of the ancient languages upon seeing how important it is to be able to deal with such nuances.

The commentary (pp. 102-278) furnishes a highly readable synthesis of material relating to the linguistic, historical, and literary issues involved in study of the RGDA. Despite the undeniable temptation to cram a commentary with as many authorities and parallels as possible, Cooley has wisely kept citations and references to the modern literature to a minimum, deploying erudition to good effect. Consequently, readers will find notice taken of unusual items such as the rendering of Latin consular dates in Greek by the dative rather than the genitive absolute that would have been expected. Likewise, they will learn of Octavian's financial dispositions in the wake of his victory at Actium. But they will also learn where they can turn for further bibliography and discussion of such topics. Yet, in spite of a wide-ranging vision, there are moments when the commentary proves too brief or strangely silent. For example, the senatus consultum ultimum seems far too important to be obliquely liquidated with a simple reference to Drummond 1995, excellent though that is. More surprisingly, the discussion of Augustus' moral legislation (8.5) is altogether inadequate, overlooking the complex nature of this attempt to reform society.

Perhaps the single most important item missing from what is a stimulating volume is any serious consideration of the influence of Caesar upon Augustus. Indicative of this grave oversight is the fact that only two citations are listed within the index locorum, one of them in fact coming from the anonymous Bellum Africum. Anyone who has read and spent time thinking about Caesar's Bellum Gallicum and Bellum Civile will immediately recognize echoes within the RGDA. For instance, the claim to have liberated Rome from tyranny by a faction (1.1) must surely have been influenced first and foremost by the identical claim made by Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon and launched his invasion of Italy in early 49 BC. To privilege Cicero and to speak of Augustus as "being a real heir to Pompey" (p. 109) is to miss the importance of libertas for the Caesarian faction throughout the 40s BC. Octavian, after all, began his career as divi filius. Similarly, items such as the phrase mare pacavi a praedonibus (25.1) are far more comprehensible when understood against the background of the political rhetoric of the late Republic and specifically that utilized by Caesar in his commentarii when dealing enemies such as Pompey the Great (e.g. Caes. BC 1.24.2; 3.4.4). If we are to properly appreciate the accomplishments of Augustus, more attention must be given to the models that explicitly and implicitly informed his actions. As the heir and adoptive son of Caesar, he naturally turned to Caesar in the first instance, and publication of the remaining Caesarian commentaries in the late 40s is a sign of the dead dictator's ubiquitous presence.

A similar remark might be made regarding finances. Cooley sometimes provides detailed commentary upon the financial aspects of the RGDA, even remarking that different units of accounting are used in the Latin (sestertii) and Greek (denarii) versions (p. 28). However, she is not immune to modern scholarship's curious failure to give due consideration to the financial content of the RGDA, and consequently offers a structural analysis that de-emphasizes the impensae, despite insightful remarks such as her noticing the prominence in layout accorded to Chapter 19 (p. 182). The very fact that this document is today commonly referred to as the RGDA is itself illustrative of the situation. As is indicated by the transmitted Latin heading and reference made to it by Suetonius (Aug. 101.4), the work's title was, properly speaking, Res gestae divi Augusti, quibus orbem terrarum imperio populi Romani subiecit, et inpensae, quas in rem publicam populumque Romanum fecit. Two items, arma et nummi, are given equal weight in a tradition of long-standing at Rome. The equal importance attached to these two items by Augustus is demonstrated by the fact that each is followed by an explanatory relative clause of some weight. Structural analysis based upon the contents of the RGDA reveals an interweaving of the two themes, rather than a straightforward diptych in terms of composition. Like Caesar and Pompey the Great, and those who went before them, Augustus owed his prominence ultimately to the twin pilasters of military and financial success.

Lastly, a word about copy-editing and possible suggestions for a future second edition. The quality of the copy-editing is generally quite high. There are, however, oversights and blunders that might have been avoided. For instance, the Ara Pacis Augustae has somehow been transferred to the east of the Via Flaminia (map 1). Similarly, Thrace was not a province of the Empire at the time of the death of Augustus (map 4). Items that might profitably be added include Ephesus and Pergamum (map 3) and Pelusium (map 5) as well as three genealogical tables focussed upon the figures/families of Augustus/Iulii, Agrippa/Vipsanii, and Livia/Claudii.

Overall, Cooley has provided students and colleagues with an edition of the RGDA that will serve both as a textbook and as a work of reference. In responding to the diverse needs of those turning to the RGDA for the purposes of history or languages and literature, she has successfully negotiated the shoals of banalization and excessive scholarly detail. The result is a book that is at the same time a pleasure to read and highly useful. That is no small accomplishment.

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