BMCR 1998.01.02

Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction

, Augustan culture : an interpretive introduction. . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. xi, 474 pages : illustrations (some color). ISBN 9780691058900

Karl Galinsky’s newest book bears the sub-title An Interpretive Introduction. It is a sign that the book, far from simply surveying the various departments of culture during a certain period, advances an interpretation of that culture as a whole, an interpretation that proves to be strong, serious, and weightily argued. Galinsky’s thesis is that auctoritas is the central notion informing Augustan culture. He organizes the book around it, setting forth the history, significance, and use of auctoritas in the opening chapter, describing next its relations to the realms of politics and of morals and ideals under Augustus, going on to explore its place in art and architecture, literature, and religion in successive chapters — these are the heart of the book — before summarizing the central characteristics of the age and then, finally, assessing the sources and consequences of Augustus’s auctoritas. As in a well-wrought book of Augustan verse, the end returns to the beginning: a matter of political theory is now embodied in the historical achievements of a single man. Galinsky limits himself, appropriately, to those aspects of the age that might show the impress of an Augustus — literature, art, architecture, state religion. Nothing is said about agriculture, technology, social life, personal religion, or scholarship. Even so, the book ranges over a number of fields of expertise, and the author’s mastery of each is revealed no less by the argument he conducts than by the notes and bibliography he furnishes.

The discussion of auctoritas itself is excellent (pp. 10-20). Galinsky gives a clear and accurate history of the term; he well brings out the range of its meanings, nuances, and associations. He then demonstrates convincingly that auctoritas was central both to Augustus’s presentation of himself and to his actions, a vital element in his obtaining, holding, and exercising power, the key to his rule. The introduction of a distinction drawn by contemporary political scientists, between transactional leadership and transforming leadership, illuminates the point nicely. The analysis of the Res Gestae as documenting the importance of auctoritas, if not original (cf. OCD 3 ed., s.v. Res Gestae), is still shrewd and persuasive.

When he moves outside the political sphere, however, and looks for probative instances of auctoritas in the arts of the time, Galinsky is much less successful. To illustrate, he takes up in turn literature, sculpture, and coinage (pp. 20-41). The famous first simile of the Aeneid does not represent auctoritas, however. Virgil describes the statesman to whom Neptune is likened as pietate gravem ac meritis (1. 151). True, Fitzgerald’s version, which Galinsky quotes, renders “by his authority,” and the translator may be influenced by Servius Danielis, who glosses pietate gravem thus: cuius illis auctoritas ob pietatem est gravis. But neither the translator nor the ancient commentator nor the various historical incidents to which the simile has been referred, in which auctoritas did play a role, alters the fact that the quality on display in the simile is pietas, with obvious resonances. The rest of the discussion of the simile is enlightening, especially about the role of Neptune, but the attempt to have it illustrate the importance of auctoritas in Augustan Rome must be accounted a failure.

The discovery of auctoritas in the Prima Porta statue of Augustus is similarly shaky. Quintilian, it is argued, in passages unconnected to one another (12.1.27-28, 5.12.20-21), ascribes auctoritas both to the statesman of Virgil’s simile and to Polyclitus’s Doryphoros, which is a likely model for the statue of Augustus. A weak argument on its face, this is reduced to no argument at all when one realizes that neither passage includes the word auctoritas or even implies it. Again, the general discussion is fine, and the reader’s understanding of the statue is further enriched by an analysis of the cuirass in Chapter Four. The perception of auctoritas in the coinage of the day does not bear discussion.

Galinsky not only has difficulty in reliably locating instances of auctoritas outside the political sphere, but also runs into the problem of giving it so expansive a definition that it may be comparable to virtually any quality. “Auctoritas,” we are told, “(as well as other such terms) has multiple meanings, connotations, and associations. It is precise without being limiting and it is elastic without being vague. Its power is suggestive and asks for participation, interpretation, and response. These are the very qualities of much of Augustan poetry and art” (p. 12). A definition of this sort licenses linking auctoritas with the characteristics of ambiguity and polysemy (see p. 258 on the difference between ambiguitas and “ambiguity”). But it also licenses linking “other such terms” with them: one might on these grounds equally well claim that pietas or fides is the key to understanding Augustan art. In the same section Galinsky compares the statesman simile to auctoritas: “the simile does not express one simple equation, but is generic and paradigmatic, and it calls for the reader’s involvement” (p. 23). It is true that a leading characteristic of Augustan art, written or carved, is its polysemy. But does that bear a resemblance to auctoritas? Furthermore, while agreeing that the simile does call for the reader’s involvement, one may question whether that is a special characteristic of Augustan art. Cannot the same be said of similes in Homer and Apollonius?

In the central chapters of the book, problems recur that stem from the broad definition of auctoritas. A discussion of the portraits of Augustus found on coins succeeds in rebutting the ideas that the four distinctive types stand in a clear sequence and that they are closely related to political events (pp. 164-179). This is an instance of Galinsky’s sensible position, no longer so controversial, to the effect that there was no monolithic Augustan ideology, no propaganda machine (p. 251), that civic life and religion did not revolve around the princeps (p. 330), etc. And the discussion itself is intelligent, enlightening, and persuasive. It is introduced, however, with the assertion of a link between the more accurate, messier history of the portrait types and Augustus’s auctoritas (p. 165). Given that Augustus must have been concerned about how he was represented but that the coin portraits do not conform closely to an evident political program, it follows, according to this argument, that he influenced the monetales only through his auctoritas; the independence of the moneyers is then equated with that of the writers of the period. Auctoritas has here come to mean artistic autonomy.

With an equally questionable expansion of meaning, the term is applied to two of the greatest monuments of Augustan visual art, the Ara Pacis and the Forum of Augustus. In regard to the altar, Galinsky speaks of the “interaction between viewer participation and the guiding auctoritas of an overall meaning. The two elements of the abundance of vegetation and ordered composition call for a synthesis by the viewer. They take on their full significance with reference to the general theme of the creation of order under Augustus’ rule” (p. 155). Later, before detailing the varied sources and traditions, the many purposes and programs that lie behind the forum — a task which he carries out admirably — Galinsky summarizes: “tremendous multiplicity operating within the auctoritas of guiding ideas” (p. 197; cf. 258). Auctoritas here is a large envelope or framework the contents of which are very varied, even contradictory.

Students of Rome are grateful that Polybius did not impose on his narrative the theory of cyclical changes in forms of government that he elaborated in Book Six. As with Polybius (with whose prose his own shares many characteristics), so with Galinsky. The reader is grateful that he does not impose his notion of auctoritas on the discussions of the various cultural phenomena. The objections raised above hardly affect his treatments of the Aeneid, of coinage or sculpture, or of the Forum of Augustus. He does not press the evidence too hard, forcing it to serve his thesis. If the interpretation of the culture as a whole falls flat, the account of the parts stands up well.

Nor, in order to make his point, does he exaggerate or otherwise falsify the novelty of the Augustan age. On the contrary, he stresses the Augustan evolution — this is the title of the Introduction, in which he also pays due homage to Syme’s epoch-making study — and he is as ready to trace continuities with the Republic as breaks with it. In such passages we often see Galinsky at his best. Augustus’s attachment to Roman tradition is not to be taken for granted: his adoptive father conspicuously disdained it, with fatal results (p. 49). One important restoration Augustus carried out was the returning to the public sphere of traditional values such as virtus and pietas, which an earlier generation had made into private virtues (pp. 80-88). Galinsky shows that classical Greek art was collected and valued by Romans under the Republic, to be sure, but it was not endowed with moral purpose until the Augustan age (pp. 338-40). And, in the arena of literary criticism, he makes a fine and telling contrast between Jason and Aeneas as post-Homeric heroes (pp. 357-58).

Nonetheless, Galinsky’s definitions of Augustanism demand further refinement. He repeatedly singles out the fusion of Greek and Roman traditions as a hallmark of Augustan culture (pp. 332-63, also 83, 200, 229; in the last place, as also on p. 346, he broadens this to the fusing of many traditions). Though the assertion is incontrovertible, greater precision is called for. Catullus also fuses Greek and Roman, as did Plautus and Ennius before him. What is the difference that distinguishes the Augustan fusion? A thesis, to be worthwhile, ought to exclude something. Similarly, the reader, before accepting the assertion that these exemplify Augustan characteristics, will want particulars that define more strictly the “dynamic quality” in Horace, Carmina 2.16 (p. 241), the “complexity” of the Aeneid (pp. 229-34; cf. 213), and the “experimentation” to be found in wall painting (p. 179; cf. 234-37). It is not that the individual examples adduced are not probative, nor that they are insufficient in number or variety to establish a general point. Rather, the general point established is too general; it needs to be sharpened somewhat if it is to truly define Augustanism, and not Roman or perhaps European culture at large.

If the thesis about auctoritas be discarded and allowance made for the somewhat unfocused notion of Augustanism, what remains? A great deal. Most of it is not original with the author, who is scrupulous in citing sources. Some special strengths must be mentioned. In addition to the excellent treatments of individual monuments, mentioned above, and the persuasive connections made between fields that tend to be treated separately, of which a good example is the discussion of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine (pp. 213-24), it is important to note how successfully Galinsky brings out certain general themes. No reader of the book will put it down without keenly feeling how deeply implanted in Augustan art (and not just the Georgics) is a sense that peace is bought at a price, toil is always required, and the achieving may be more valuable than the achievement (pp. 107-11, 125-26, 246-47), or without being surprised to recognize how frequently public themes are appropriated for private use (pp. 30-31, 272-79, where the examples include a gladiator’s helmet and the elegies of Tibullus).

Despite its historical basis, the book sometimes gives off a whiff of the New Criticism, the tradition that prevailed during the author’s formative years. He denounces the biographical fallacy (p. 10), gladly discovers multiple meanings (passim), and emphasizes “creative tensions” (p. 4, e.g.). A questionable correspondence can be perceived between Galinsky’s own critical positions and the qualities he finds in his subject. Careful to avoid “false dichotomies,” he holds the view that the Augustan age was characterized by a blending of opposites. Ears open to a wide range of resonances, he regards multiplicity of meanings as another characteristic (read in this light his own words, p. 258). A scholar well versed in the history of earlier art and literature, he sees the drawing upon a variety of traditions as still another characteristic. It may be difficult to distinguish the interpres from the interpretandum. Does this represent an appropriate, perhaps even necessary fit between author and subject, or rather a regrettable projection of the former on to the latter? A qualification for writing the book, or a disqualification?

However that may be, the book is so useful for its collection and presentation of material that no one interested in Augustan Rome should fail to read it. (Its price is surprisingly modest, even though the well-chosen illustrations, some in color, are numerous and of high quality. For this we must be grateful to the patroni whom the book found.) In writing it, Karl Galinsky was supported by a truly Roman set of scholarly virtues. Not a hint of acrimonia is to be heard. Instead, magnitudo animi abounds, along with probitas and industria, nor are humanitas and urbanitas lacking, and in their train follows, of course, a certain auctoritas.