Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.06.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.06.22

Margaret L. Laird, Civic Monuments and the 'Augustales' in Roman Italy.   New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  Pp. xvii, 349.  ISBN 9781107008229.  $99.99.  

Reviewed by Rose MacLean, University of California, Santa Barbara (


In Civic Monuments and the Augustales in Roman Italy, Margaret L. Laird examines the material culture of this municipal organization in several of its diverse local contexts. Laird’s case-study approach, while more limited in scope than traditional surveys, allows her to concentrate on well-documented sites and to produce a nuanced account of how Augustales engaged with their urban surroundings. She argues that, although emperor worship provided one idiom in which Augustales constructed identity, members of the group used a range of commemorative strategies to produce and negotiate meaning. While most readers will not be surprised to learn that the organization enabled “legal outsiders” of financial means to participate in civic life, or that imperial cult was not its sole purpose, Laird’s study sheds light on how Augustales defined themselves through burial monuments, architectural embellishments, and public benefactions.

The book is divided into three parts, a long middle section framed by two shorter ones. Part I, “Representation in the Funerary Realm,” treats the use of verbal and visual signs in tomb markers that attest Augustales. In Part II, “Augustales and Their Meeting Places,” Laird examines precincts that belonged to the group, particularly at Herculaneum and Misenum, and asks how Augustales built communal identities both within and outside those walls. Part III, “Monuments in Public,” locates the Augustales more firmly in the civic sphere through analyses of public statues and paving projects.

Laird treats inscribed letters and iconography as comparable and connected parts of a “visually communicative whole” (p. 20). She emphasizes the aesthetic qualities of inscriptions, such as letter size, layout, and abbreviations (Chapter 1). For example, the funerary inscriptions of seviri Augustales et quinquennales at Ostia almost invariably list that distinction first, above other priesthoods and guilds. Laird argues that this aligns the organization with the decurionate, since magistracies tend to appear together at the head of Ostian aristocrats’ cursus.1 Images of the bisellium and other emblems of civic standing worked closely with inscriptions to present cogent, albeit partial and compressed, versions of Augustales’ public personae (Chapter 2). Text and image are governed by what Laird calls a “grammar of representation,” a set of locally and regionally inflected patterns that facilitated communication.

Part II makes up the core of the book (Chapters 3-6). In these chapters, Laird examines the meeting halls of Augustales to show how members articulated individual and communal identities. She advocates for a rigorous distinction between public sites of emperor worship and more private or circumscribed locations (Chapter 3). Meeting houses, while differing widely in form, were likely bestowed in most cases by the town council then outfitted by the Augustales. Laird’s case- studies demonstrate the ways in which the group made these spaces their own.

According to Laird’s reading of the epigraphic evidence, the Collegio degli Augustali at Herculaneum was assigned by decurional decree.2 This public aspect of the structure’s history is balanced by decorations that address the community of members who frequented the building. In a reinterpretation of the painted panels that adorn the sacellum, Laird identifies moments of transition in the Hercules cycle: the defeat of Achelous and marriage to Hebe. These images not only associate the Herculanean Augustales with the town’s mythic origins, but also draw out themes of victory and transformation that would have been especially relevant to an audience of upwardly mobile citizens.

Chapters 5 and 6 treat the definition of individual and community in the Sacello degli Augustali at Misenum. Laird’s diachronic analysis illuminates the dynamics of emperor worship and shows how benefactions helped to articulate identity within the precinct, as well as to link Augustales with the military and civilian populations (Chapter 5). In the mid- to late second century CE, Laird identifies an increasingly individualizing and outward focus in the dedications of the Augustales of Misenum, a phenomenon that she attributes in large part to the forces of euergetism (Chapter 6). A benefactor might, for example, endow annual feasts at which Augustales and decurions dined together or donate statues that required public rituals of upkeep every year. Emperor-worship provided another powerful means by which the Augustales situated themselves in the social, political, and monumental landscape of Misenum.

In these chapters and throughout the book, Laird downplays the importance of ex-slaves to the form and function of the Augustales.3 This decision is helpful in some respects, partly because it makes room for considerations other than status, which has dominated the scholarly debate on this topic. However, one of the strengths of Laird’s study is its attention to local variation, and this same principle should apply to the treatment of freed and freeborn Augustales. That is to say, deemphasizing freed status makes better sense in areas like northern Italy, where significant numbers of freeborn Augustales have been attested, than it does in places where liberti seem to have comprised the bulk of the organization’s membership.4

Laird turns in Part III to Augustales who operated outside their meeting houses to join ranks with other civic donors. Here, she continues her discussion of public statues, including honorific dedications that inserted Augustales into public space and the group of imperial statues commissioned by L. Mammius Maximus at Herculaneum (Chapter 7). Along similar lines, Chapter 8 presents a fascinating account of urban paving projects sponsored by Augustales throughout the Italian peninsula. As Laird observes, many of these projects were undertaken in less prestigious neighborhoods than, for example, the Forum. Nevertheless, they tied benefactors into the city and into the broader network of imperial roads, which were themselves laden with cultural significance.

Laird contributes not only to the study of the Augustales, but also to research on the material processes of identity formation in imperial Italy. Her methodology raises key questions about how commemorative media worked in the Roman world and, consequently, about what modes of interpretation are most productive. Laird suggests in her discussion of burial markers that “if a viewer did not recognize, could not understand, or misunderstood the message, the [funerary] monument had failed in its communicative function” (p. 22). However, the detailed analyses of text and image that she proffers throughout the book ultimately demonstrate that commemorators manipulated text and image in subtle ways and that their messages were (and are) open to interpretation. With respect to imperial dedications at Misenum, Laird observes that “the meanings the commissions shaped were vulnerable, just as their significance was never one-dimensional” (p. 212). Although epitaphs and honorific inscriptions occupy different genres, the overriding force of Laird’s study is to highlight the multivalent nature of inscribed monuments, particularly as they interacted with urban space.


1.   Bruun makes a similar observation in an article on the Ostian Augustales published in 2014, too late for Laird to have included it in her bibliography, especially in light of the fact that her book was completed in 2010 and delayed for several years by permissions. Bruun’s piece, moreover, supports Laird’s arguments about euergetism (see below on Parts II and III). See Bruun, C. (2014), “True patriots? The public activities of the Augustales at Ostia and the summa honoraria,” Arctos 48: 67-91.
2.   Laird responds in a footnote (p. 77, n. 7) to Wallace-Hadrill’s recent argument that this building may not have been a meeting-place for the Augustales, but rather the curia. See Wallace-Hadrill, A. (2011), “The monumental centre of Herculaneum: in search of the identities of the public buildings,” JRA 24:121-160.
3.   Drawing on Abramenko, A. (1993), Die munizipale Mittelschicht im kaiserzeitlichen Italien: Zu einem neuen Verständnis von Sevirat und Augustalität (Frankfurt); and Petersen, L. H. (2006), The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History (Cambridge University Press).
4.   On local and regional variation, see esp. Mouritsen, H. (2006), “Honores libertini: Augustales and Seviri in Italy,” Hephaistos 24:237-248; and Mouritsen, H. (2011), The Freedman in the Roman World (Cambridge University Press), p. 255.

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