Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.23

Loïc Borgies, Le conflit propagandiste entre Octavien et Marc Antoine: De l’usage politique de la 'vituperatio' entre 44 et 30 a. C. n. Collection Latomus, 357.   Bruxelles:  Éditions Latomus, 2016.  Pp. 518.  ISBN 9789042934597.  €74.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University (lmfratan@owu.edu)

The present volume is a revised version of a mémoire du Master thesis defended in 2015 at the Université libre de Bruxelles, the home of the Latomus journal and its accompanying series of monographs, the Collection Latomus. The monograph series offers a diverse range of titles dedicated to all manner of Roman and Latin studies (encompassing the literature, history, art, archaeology and more of archaic, classical, and late antique Rome and Italy).

As one might suspect given its thesis origins, Borgies’ work is dense, heavily annotated, and admirably comprehensive. For anyone interested in the study of the propagandas wars between Octavian and Mark Antony, it is now the work of first and last resort, and a title of major significance in the study of the political and historical significance of much of the literary testimonia for key events in the years between the assassination of Caesar and the deaths of both Antony and Cleopatra.

Borgies’ mammoth tome is essentially a study of the use of invective or vituperatio in political life in the pivotal years of the fall of the Roman Republic. The analysis is divided into three parts: first the themes of the invective (obscure birth origins; incompetence; drunkenness; various other slanders); then the audience for the invective; and finally the manner in which the insults are conveyed. Literary evidence is considered alongside numismatic and art historical. It is an account writ large on a vast stage; the introduction alone is a valuable account of the development of propaganda in ancient historiography.

One of the great strengths of Borgies’ treatment of the propaganda war between Octavian and Antony is its extensive and learned commentary on key concepts in Roman political and social life. The charges of ignobilitas, crudelitas, and ignavia all receive detailed consideration; the predilection for “luxury” and “Eastern ways” for which Antony was condemned by his triumviral colleague is examined in light of the development of what would eventually be the ideological underpinning of the Augustan principate. For Borgies, Antony and Cleopatra were in large part responsible for setting the tone for much of later Augustan foreign policy in the Roman East (not least the Augustan engagement with Parthia); the propaganda war is seen as a non-sanguinary but all too decisive battle in the development of a Roman attitude toward the East.

What Borgies accomplishes admirably in his work is the tracing of a direct line from the propaganda wars that erupted in the years before Actium to the formation of a nascent Augustan regime. The methodology by which Borgies advances his thesis is close historical criticism of key passages of extant evidence concerning the propaganda, coupled with the aforementioned comprehensive attempt to define the important elements of the charges and rebuttals. The result is a dense, well nigh encyclopedic, account of a vast body of material; if one laments the absence of a convenient précis of the surviving propaganda, the sheer quantity of material considered here mitigates against easy cataloging.1 Students of the Suetonian life of Augustus will find ample material here to digest, not least in light of the major Oxford commentary of David Wardle of which Borgies makes extensive use.2

Borgies’ volume also provides something of a history of Roman political and military affairs from the Ides of March to the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra, with events viewed through the perspectives of not only Octavian and Antony, but also the senate and Roman aristocracy. The engagements at Philippi, the events of the Perusine War, and the ongoing operations against Sextus Pompey are the subjects of especially close investigation. Thoughout, the forging of a renewed emphasis on Roman identity and Italian nationalism in a climate of civil disorder and internecine strife is a recurring theme, of what it means to have vices that are peculiarly Roman as opposed to faults implicitly decadent and eastern, or even servile. Borgies offers a fresh look at a perennially popular period of Roman history, and the picture that emerges is one that is at once definitive in the range and depth of its coverage, and novel in its careful interpretation of familiar testimonia.

Nor is the poetic evidence of Augustan verse neglected: key passages of Horace, Virgil, and Propertius are treated to the same rigorous analysis as other literary evidence; the portrait that emerged early on of what exactly happened in the waters off Actium is subjected to a close critical investigation.

There is an extensive bibliography and a useful index locorum; an index nominum et rerum is a welcome aid to navigation.

Borgies’ book merits a place on the shelves of all those interested in the history of the transition from Roman Republic to Empire, and of the formative years of the political career of the future Augustus. As much a reference book as a monograph, Borgies’ account of how the young Octavian defied the odds in maneuvering himself from vulnerable heir to Caesar’s legacy to master of the Mediterranean deserves careful attention and repeated consultation.


Notes:


1.   Cf. M.P. Charlesworth, “Some Fragments of the Propaganda of Mark Antony,” in The Classical Quarterly 27.3/4 (1933), pp. 172-177.
2.   David Wardle, Suetonius: Life of Augustus, Oxford, 2014.

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