Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.12

Mario Labate, Gianpiero Rosati (ed.), La costruzione del mito augusteo. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, Band 141.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2013.  Pp. 323.  ISBN 9783825361136.  €42.00.  

Reviewed by Nandini B. Pandey, University of Wisconsin-Madison (

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

This worthwhile edited volume stemming from a June 2011 conference at the Università di Udine might as aptly be called Some Constructions of Augustan Myths: it offers a kaleidoscopic array of glimpses into representations of Augustus and his age, largely within the literature of the principate and the century thereafter. The sixteen contributions are of consistently high quality, though they vary widely in their engagement with the theme of ‘Augustan myth’ and associated questions of agency and reception. This volume’s particular strength lies in the analytical depth and chronological range of its papers, with the Neronian and Flavian periods especially well represented.

The editors, Mario Labate and Gianpiero Rosati, discuss the collection’s framing and its limitations in a clear-eyed introductory essay. All but one of these papers focus on literary evidence to the near-exclusion of visual culture, and do not attempt systematic or exhaustive treatment of “la costruzione del mito augusteo.” The title, in any case, is self-deconstructing. “Costruzione,” as the editors envision it, is not a centrally organized act of creation, but rather, an incremental process by which authors re-elaborated Augustan mythology within fresh contexts, explored within constituent papers. This approach is valuable, timely, and congruent with increasingly decentralized conceptions of imperial culture within recent scholarship. It would be interesting to see this idea pursued further: in practice, contributions appreciate authors’ creative independence, but sidestep the admittedly difficult question of how, why, and through whose agency this “mito augusteo” arose in the first place. The latter term, as the editors recognize, is also contentious. They point out that the plural ‘myths’ might be more appropriate, since every age reinvented Augustus for itself. One might add that the public image of the princeps was hardly static, monolithic, or entirely self-determined even in his own day, and relied on the reception of a socio-economically and geographically heterogeneous audience—though such topics fall beyond the purview of this book.

Karl Galinsky’s essay, one of the few directly to address the mechanics of Augustus’ Überhöhung, offers some recapitulations and afterthoughts to his much fuller discussion in Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction (Princeton, 1996). Rather than treat ‘Augustan myth’ as a whole, it explores the association of the princeps with specific mythological figures, like Achilles and Romulus, that have received less scholarly attention in recent years than Apollo and Venus.1

Two contributions show how literature conceived even before the first constitutional settlement of 27 BCE begins to situate the princeps beyond history. Tom Geue explores how the later works of Horace and Vergil filter readers’ understanding of their earlier poems, with special attention to the belated crystallization within the Aeneid of divine intimations, temporal indications, and identities that the Eclogues leave indeterminate. This process of retrospective reading creates the sense that Augustus was “always already there” as a “hermeneutic anchor” (49) even in works written well before the solidification of his supremacy, thus naturalizing political change. Geue’s argument is refreshing and commendable for its attention to the dynamic and historically situated processes of interpretation that, as much as specific texts and authors, helped mythologize Augustus.

Reading forwards rather than backwards, Marco Fucecchi argues that Livy’s first decade presents certain figures from archaic Rome, like the paired opposition of T. Quinctius Capitolinus and C. Canuleius in speeches at 3.67-68 and 4.3-5, as “prototipi augustei.” He traces a dialectic between conservatism and innovation that culminates in the Augustan concordia ordinum. This argument harmonizes with Jane Chaplin’s Livy’s Exemplary History (Oxford, 2000) and raises some interesting questions of chronology. If we accept Fucecchi’s dating of this decade to the time of Actium (112),2 what might it mean for Livy to be working to “(ri)costruire le premesse del mito augusteo” (123) before Augustus had become Augustus and the new order had emerged in recognizable form? The paper, like Geue’s, provokes thought about the ways in which periodization and the idea of ‘prefiguration’ affect modern understandings of this age.

Stephen Harrison’s interpretation of Horace’s Odes 1.37 plays similar games with time, complementing Robert Gurval’s fuller and more devolved treatment of the myth in Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War (Ann Arbor, 1995). Harrison’s argument for the politically meaningful “absences” from Horace’s poem of figures like Antony, Agrippa, and Apollo, present in later representations of the battle, is interesting in many particulars, as is his comparison of Cleopatra’s death to Cato the Younger’s in Plutarch. Further discussion of the implications of such transhistorical interpretation would be welcome.

Two papers look beyond the written word. In “Der Sound der Macht,” Jürgen Paul Schwindt perceptively asks how the sound of Augustus’ name influenced the form of his myth. Others have already explored the name’s mythic resonances,3 and retrospective accounts of the naming (e.g. Ovid, Fasti 1.587-616, and Cassius Dio 53.16) need not be taken at face value. However, the paper draws interesting connections between the name and the Res Gestae as well as the Augustan transmutation of real into symbolic capital.

The sole contribution on visual culture is Victoria Györi’s study of a rare group of asses featuring Augustus on the obverse and Numa on the reverse, which she dates to 23 BCE. These figures’ association certainly merits further inquiry, and Györi’s paper usefully revisits and enriches some ground covered by Zanker (1987) et al. While some readers will continue to debate the chronology of the Forum Augustum and the identification of Numa on the west wall of the Ara Pacis,4 they will find plenty of food for thought here. It would be interesting, for instance, to pursue the interpretive implications of Györi’s ultimate claim, that these coins parallel Vergil’s parade of heroes at Aeneid 6.756-892, particularly given pessimistic readings of Augustus’ position there between the kings Romulus and Numa.5

Two strong papers on the Aeneid round out contributions on the principate. Martin Stöckinger argues that Vergil’s depictions of the di penates affected their use within Augustan ideology to link Augustus with Aeneas as a restorer of Roman religion. Drawing on anthropological theory, the paper suggests that the dual nature of the penates as material and religious artifacts rendered them “inalienable possessions,” and thus an “ideal icon of the Augustan myth and its own paradoxes of continuity and change” (142). While the argument as it stands is concerned more with literary than with political or religious discourse, it raises questions worth pursuing about Vergil’s relation with Augustan religious practice and his sources in representing the penates.

Interrelations among Augustan literature and monuments have received increasing and fruitful attention in recent years. Stefano Rebeggiani’s paper unfolds some intriguing intertextual and architectural associations of an under-studied scene: the Junonian asylum at Troy where the Greeks guard Trojan plunder and captives (Aen. 2.760-67). This darkest moment for the Trojans resonates with signs of their rising fortune elsewhere in the Aeneid, including Aeneas’ dedication of a Greek shield at Actium (3.286-88) and Augustus’ triumph on Aeneas’ shield (8.720-28). In Rebeggiani’s argument, these culminate outside the text, with the temple of Juno Regina in the Porticus Octaviae: Augustus’ rebuilding of this structure connected his own Dalmatian campaigns of 33 BCE with the triumph of Q. (not M.) Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus over Macedonia in 146 BCE, giving him symbolic credit for Rome’s ultimate conquest of Greece as vengeance for Troy’s defeat in Aeneid 2.

After a chronological gap in coverage, three Italian papers turn to (pseudo-)Seneca and Pliny, with many implicit interconnections that make treatment of this period especially coherent. Francesca Romana Berno argues that Seneca’s philosophical works frame Augustus as a ‘humanized,’ de-politicized, and multi-faceted exemplum for Nero in his youthful cruelty, later moderation as a ruler, and good (self-)governance in the face of adversity. Giulio Vannini discusses the caricature of Augustus within the Apokolokyntosis with a focus on the emperor’s speech patterns. In his view, the work’s comical but ultimately respectful portrayal of the princeps highlights Claudius’ relative unworthiness of deification, expressing a veiled nostalgia for the Augustan age around the time of Nero’s ascendancy. Sandra Citroni Marchetti contends that Ovid’s exile poetry advances a picture of Augustan felicitas that Pliny and Seneca subsequently ‘demythologize,’ instead portraying Augustus as a sufferer of misfortunes; one wonders how this argument might accommodate more ironic readings of Ovid’s exile poetry.

Next, Carole Newlands examines Statius’ Silvae 3.1 as a Flavian “recalibration” of Augustan themes of modesty, pietas, and domesticity as expressed in Aeneid 8, Ovid’s story of Baucis and Philemon (Met. 8.611-724), and the Augustan Palatine. In Newlands’ sensitive analysis, Statius’ poem, on the new temple to Hercules that his patron Pollius Felix and his wife Polla have built on their estate on the Bay of Naples, revises the Augustan poets’ implicit condemnation of luxury and the region’s longstanding association with immortality. Instead, his hosts’ wealth and marital harmony allow them to exercise hospitality that in turn constructs Campania as a new center of poetic patronage, marks a shift from public to private spheres, and redefines virtus and the good life for the age of Domitian.

Two papers from Lille explore other retrospective views of the princeps. After an initial theorization of myth, Alain Deremetz argues that Martial’s references by name to Augustan personages and representations of dining scenes evince a nostalgic desire to replicate the social and artistic dynamics of the Augustan age. Jacqueline Fabre-Serris examines how the pseudo-Vergilian Culex, dedicated to Octavian but likely written in the reign of Tiberius, positions itself as an Augustan text by playing intertextual games with and via the Augustan poets. Her analyses are ingenious and subtle, sometimes perhaps overly so (e.g., attempts to triangulate echoes of the elegist Gallus through reminiscences of Vergil). Both contributions are rich in ideas and evidence, though some readers may wish for more focused treatment of fewer examples as they relate to the conference theme.

An excellent closing contribution by Philip Hardie analyzes Ben Jonson’s re-interrogation of the ‘Augustan’ issues of literary judgment, interpretive control, and poets’ relationship with political power via sustained engagement with Vergil, Horace, and Ovid in his 1601 Poetaster. While it is a shame this volume treats no other postclassical works, Hardie’s paper inspires lingering meditation on the roles of envy, anxiety, and (mis)interpretation within both Jonson’s play and the classical tradition at large. One hopes that further exploration of Augustus’ reception beyond antiquity will emerge from the many international conferences commemorating the bimillennial anniversary of his death this year.

This collection is unusually sophisticated and well-produced for conference proceedings. It is free of major factual error and includes a limited topical index and useful list of passages cited. These merits, and its relatively speedy time to publication, make up for its occasional typographical errors, especially in the references, and some poor-quality reproductions among the figures accompanying Györi’s paper. All in all, it is a welcome and worthy addition to the field, and belongs on the shelves not only of research libraries but also of individual scholars concerned with Augustus’ literary representation and reception. I hope it will inspire further examination of ‘Augustan mythology’ across a wider range of media over the centuries, as well as closer inquiry into the questions of production and interpretation that this fascinating and fertile theme raises.

Table of Contents

M. Labate and G. Rosati, Tua, Caesar, aetas : un personaggio, un’epoca, un mito : Riflessioni preliminari, p. 1
K. Galinsky, La costruzione del mito augusteo : some construction elements, p. 29
T. Geue, Princeps, avant la lettre’ : the Foundations of Augustus in Pre-Augustan Poetry, p. 49
J. P. Schwindt, Der Sound der Macht : zur onomatopoetischen Konstruktion des Mythos im Zeitalter des Augustus, p. 69
V. Györi, Augustus and Numa : the asses of 23 BC, p. 89
M. Fucecchi, Storia di Roma arcaica e presupposti di un mito moderno nella prima decade di Livio, p. 109
M. Stöckinger, Inalienable Possessions : the di penates in the Aeneid and in Augustan Culture, p. 129
S. Rebeggiani, Words of marble : Virgil’s temple of Juno in Aeneid 2 and the construction of the Augustan Myth, p. 149
S. Harrison, Horace Odes 1.37 and the mythologising of Actium, p. 169
F. R. Berno, Eccellente ma non troppo : l’exemplum di Augusto in Seneca, p. 181
G. Vannini, Cesare contro Cesare : il divo Augusto nell’ Apokolokyntosis, p. 197 S. Citroni Marchetti, Divi Augusti adversa : un anti-mito augusteo nel I secolo del’Impero?, p. 221
C. Newlands, The ‘Good Life’ in Statius : Baucis and Philemon on the Bay of Naples, p. 241 A. Deremetz, Le mythe augustéen chez Martial, p. 267
J. Fabre-Serris, Le Culex et la construction du mythe augustéen : Pratiques et enjeux d’un poème faussement adressé à Octave, p. 285
P. Hardie, The Augustanism of Ben Jonson’s Poetaster, p. 303
Indice delle cose notevoli, p. 315
Indice dei passi discussi, p. 320


1.   Notably, by Paul Zanker, Augustus und die Macht der Bilder (München, 1987); John Miller, Apollo, Augustus, and the Poets (Cambridge, 2009); and Galinsky himself (1996).
2.   The piece does not cite discussion of this vexed question, summarized by P. G. Walsh, Livy (Oxford, 1974) and revisited by Paul Burton, “The Last Republican Historian: A New Date for the Composition of Livy’s First Pentad,” Historia 49.4 (2000): 429–46; cf. also Jürgen Deininger, “Livius und der Prinzipat,” Klio 67 (1985): 265-72.
3.   Inter alios, Galinsky (1996), 10-20.
4.   Györi adopts but does not defend Paul Rehak’s controversial 2001 suggestion (ABull 83: 196-208) that the southern panel depicts Numa rather than Aeneas sacrificing.
5.   Cf. Denis Feeney, “History and Revelation in Vergil’s Underworld,” PCPhS 32 (1986): 1-24.

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