Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.06.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.06.37

Peter Heslin, The Museum of Augustus: the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii, the Portico of Philippus in Rome, and Latin Poetry.   Los Angeles:  J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.  Pp. xiii, 350.  ISBN 9781606064214.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Sander M. Goldberg, UCLA (


Today’s visitors to Rome rarely give thought to the Temple of Hercules of the Muses, and who can blame them? Little survives beyond its outline on the Marble Plan and some barely discernible traces amid the modern jumble that was once the Circus Flaminius. The temple looms much larger in discussions of Republican literature: the creation of M. Fulvius Nobilior (cos. 189, cens. 179 BCE), it housed a statuary group taken from Ambracia, an archaic shrine of the Camenae associated with Numa, and a wall of fasti. By the later second century, the so-called Collegium Poetarum, where Accius snubbed Julius Caesar Strabo and Sp. Maecius Tarpa later presided over poetic recitals, was probably meeting there. In the late 30s, though few besides Peter Heslin now trouble to remember, the temple underwent a major renovation sponsored by L. Marcius Philippus, stepbrother (and uncle) of Octavian.1 The temple was rebuilt and surrounded with a new portico displaying memorable works of art, including a famous painting of Helen by Zeuxis and a cycle illustrating the Trojan War. The result, claims Heslin, was a far more significant monument than its meager remains would suggest. It is the “Museum” of his title, closely aligned with the adjoining Portico of Octavia and to be paired with the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine as “a project of major ideological significance” (p. 325).

Its message was, if anything, even more pointed than that of the Palatine complex because the dedication of the Fulvian temple formed the original climax of Ennius’ Annals. A renovated temple might thus presage a renovated epic. As Heslin goes on to say:

Many of the programmatic and metaliterary passages in Augustan poetry involve imaginary temples that bear features of the Portico of Philippus. …The reason for this should now be clear: the Portico of Philippus embodied a demand from Augustus for a new national epic as well as a blueprint for it, and in return a promise to support literary culture at Rome. (p. 255)

This may seem a rather portentous claim to base on features of a building that has ceased to exist, but Heslin has a way to make it credible. His demonstration begins hysteron proteron, not in the Circus Flaminius of 28 BCE but in the forum at Pompeii some twenty years later, when the precinct of the Temple of Apollo there received a new portico decorated with, among other things, illustrations of the Trojan War. Those paintings caused a sensation upon their rediscovery in 1817, and although the painted plaster has since degraded irretrievably, a record remains in contemporary notebooks and architectural publications, and much essential detail is captured on the cork model of Pompeii constructed in the 1860s and now on display in Naples’ Archaeological Museum. The 1997 excavations by the Pompeii Forum Project have also contributed new information. Taken together, the evidence enables Heslin to reconstruct the decorative scheme of the Pompeian portico, and by arguing that the inspiration for it was in fact Philippus’ portico at Rome, he can use the reconstruction of the one as a model for reconstructing the other. Heslin then proceeds to show how the many instantiations of temple motifs in the poetry of Vergil, Horace, and Propertius can be read as responses to Philippus’ monument.

This paraphrase hardly does justice to the complex and elaborately detailed argument of a book that is in many ways a remarkable achievement. Heslin shows a formidable grasp of minutiae drawn from a wide variety of sub-specialties, many of them outside the bounds of his original expertise, and he builds his argument with clarity and acumen. The brilliance of its presentation is no less remarkable. Getty Publications has done a superb job with this book, which is not just lavish in its illustrations, many of them large and in color and all of them extraordinarily clear, but intelligent in its design. Photos, drawings, maps, and plans are all clearly numbered, labeled, and strategically placed for reference across chapters. To publish such a book, which is sure to be controversial in its claims and bound to outrage some while delighting others, is a bold and principled act, and those who made the decision to back Heslin in this enterprise deserve praise and thanks. This is a journey well worth undertaking and so valuable that it seems almost ungrateful to ask, as a reviewer must, if it succeeds in getting us where we need to go.

Besides being elegant, learned, and intelligent, the argument is also intellectually honest: its copious annotation is scrupulous in acknowledging debts, inconvenient facts, and contrary interpretations. Like a Fourth Style wall painting, there is much to inspire wonder and admiration in the beholder, but its architectural frame is no less frail than in such a painting, and some of the columns most essential to Heslin’s argument seem exceptionally thin for the load they must bear. Two examples:

An Augustan date for the portico at Pompeii and its decoration is more an innovation than an established fact: the more traditional view, as Heslin acknowledges, puts the portico in the second century BCE and identifies its paintings as Fourth Style, and thus post-Augustan. The question remains sub iudice. Contemporary opinion, at least in the Anglophone world and helped along by the 1997 excavations, does seem now to be turning in Heslin’s direction, and his explanation of how the Trojan panels were extracted from their original context and remounted in the course of later renovation is ingenious and credible (at least to me), but the hypothesis remains an hypothesis, which must inevitably put a reader on guard.2

Even more significant, because still more crucial to the overall thesis, is the claim that the Republican Temple of Hercules of the Muses was so firmly identified in the Roman imagination with Ennius’ Annals that its alteration could be equated with altering the epic tradition itself. Unfortunately, no direct evidence, either quotation or testimony, exists to support the widespread belief that Annals 15 concluded with the dedication of Fulvius’ temple. The single best indication is only indirect, viz. the invocation of Philippus’ structure at the end of Fasti 6, which Carole Newlands quite cogently read as a veiled allusion to the end of Ennius’ poem.3 But even if this is so, how many readers of the 30s knew and cared about the last episode of Annals 15? In what sense is it meaningful to think of a “finale” to an episodic work that contemporary readers knew not as one continuous narrative but as eighteen (not fifteen) discrete book rolls in a basket?

While the pattern of quotation and allusion in our sources makes clear that Book 1 on the founding of Rome was well known to Republican readers and Book 6 (the Pyrrhus book) hardly less so, and that the narrative of the Hannibalic War was probably also a point of reference, it is very hard to see how many (besides Vergil and Ovid) were still reading the whole of Ennius with attention. Cicero alludes to an episode that may have been treated in Book 15 and Macrobius cites another one unambiguously, but only the grammarians Nonius (one line) and Priscian (three lines) and Macrobius by emendation (eight lines) actually quote from it. Fulvius’ Aetolian campaign lived on in memory largely because Cato was offended by Ennius’ presence in his entourage and because Fulvius’ subsequent triumph was bitterly disputed. References to the temple are only sporadic, and none connects it explicitly with Ennius, whose poem ran on to three more books recording lesser campaigns of the 170s. Heslin may still be correct in his claims for the temple and its literary potency, but that weighty argument also rests on a surprisingly frail support.

Readers may also hesitate over its tone. The amalgamation of literary and artistic evidence to explore an issue bigger than literature or art alone is eminently sensible: even Classicists who think of themselves primarily as students of literature give thought to the world in which and for which their authors wrote. Who today does otherwise? While it may be true, as Heslin argues at rather distracting length, that critics since antiquity have too readily dismissed the plastic arts, and it is certainly true that talk of “originals” and “copies” is ultimately unhelpful for understanding Roman artistry of any sort, neither view dominates contemporary scholarship. The intersection of literary studies and material culture is today a very busy place. That Augustan art and the structures that housed it not only inspired, but were in dialogue with works of Augustan literature is a case well worth making, but it is not new. Heslin defends his enterprise with a vehemence that is hardly necessary, and though he never crosses the line into ridicule or abuse, his occasionally hectoring tone does remind a reader that such a line exists.

Yet the literary argument is also surprisingly old-fashioned in its refusal to think historically. A case in point:

I have suggested that it looks like more than a coincidence that within a very short span of time [my italics], the approximately two decades from 28 BC to 10 BC, the Temple of Hercules Musarum, the Temple of Juno in the Aeneid, and the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii were all provided with porticoes having cycles of paintings depicting the Trojan War. (p. 325)

That “very short span of time” comes very close to the lifetime of an average Roman: even Marcellus and Gaius Caesar barely lived that long, and Lucius Caesar did not. And what momentous decades! Heslin consistently writes of “Augustus” and “the Augustan regime,” but how similar was the cultural climate of Rome in 30 BCE to that of Rome in 10 BCE? Was Octavian in his early 30s the same man, with the same cultural aspirations and his hands on the same ropes, as Augustus when over 50? In saying of the princeps’ desire after Actium to rival the cultural landmarks of Ptolemies and Attalids, “All of this Augustus wanted for Rome, but as always [my italics again] he proceeded by stealth and misdirection” (p. 199), Heslin is assuming a unity of vision and a compression of time that are fundamentally unhistorical, if not anachronistic. The seeds of the later autocracy may well be discernible with hindsight in ideas and policies of the late 30s and early 20s, but to treat that result as not just inevitable but as consistently executed by plan is not a perspective on the Augustan Principate lacking in alternatives. How does the message of Philippus’ portico look if seen from one of those alternative perspectives?

This is, in sum, a challenging book to read, an easy book to admire, and quite possibly a difficult book to accept. As, of course, can be said of many books that really make a difference.


1.   Suet. Aug. 29.5, Tac. Ann. 3.72; cf. Ov. Fast. 6.797-812. The project is thought to have been financed from the spoils of Philippus’ campaign in Spain and thus dated between his triumph in 33 and ca. 28 BCE. The sources do not say whether the project reflected his own initiative or, as Heslin prefers to think, Philippus was merely fronting for the princeps.
2.   Thus J. J. Dobbins, writing of the forum in The World of Pompeii (London 2007) 173: “Especially controversial are the Augustan period modifications made to the Sanctuary of Apollo that were identified by the Pompeii Forum Project during the 1997 excavations.” I am grateful to Kevin Dicus for tutoring me on the status quaestionis.
3.   C. E. Newlands, Playing with Time: Ovid and the Fasti (Ithaca 1995) 215-18. An Ennian ring can be heard over the clausula in Cicero’s allusion to the temple at Arch. 27, “Fulvius non dubitavit Martis manubias Musis consecrare,” but its iambo-trochaic shape might suggest the praetexta play Ambracia rather than the hexameter Annals.

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