BMCR 1999.05.16


, Augustus. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. xv, 271 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780415166317. $40.00.

The scholarly industry that is Augustan studies continues to grow at a remarkable pace. Yet the proliferation of works on the first princeps had not produced a biography since Kienast’s 1982 monograph, and no biography in English since the brief 1970 study by A.H.M. Jones. For a truly comprehensive treatment scholars have had to turn to Gardthausen’s massive and still unrivalled biography of Augustus published between 1891 and 1904. It is this gap in the scholarship on Augustus that Pat Southern’s new biography, which follows very quickly upon her 1997 biography of Domitian, is attempting to fill.1

Southern (hereafter S.) makes her aims explicit in the preface: “The main purpose of the present volume is to tell the story of Augustus in chronological sequence; it is primarily a biography and not a discussion of the finer details of administration” (xi). What S. has produced is a sober and well written account of the transformation of the Republic into the Principate with Octavian/Augustus at the center of the narrative. The nine chapters of the book, which include a final chapter on the legacy of Augustus, are organized in chronological order, with considerably more attention given to the triumviral period — in a text of 198 pages the fall of Alexandria and its aftermath comes only at 100 ff.

The strength of this book lies in its balanced treatment of controversial issues and overall clarity of exposition. S.’s various discussions of the often vexed questions surrounding Augustus’ evolving “constitutional position” are thorough and coherent (esp. 82, 85, 94, 111-114, 120-123, 131-133). The sustained focus on legal powers, however, nearly eclipses the limited analysis of Augustus’ honors and privileges, and there is almost no discussion of Augustus as a charismatic figure. As a result S. never really elucidates the complex relationship between powers and power.

A related problem, even more fundamental, concerns the overall purpose of the book. Because Augustus “was the embodiment of the state,” S. explains, “a biography must also become a history of the transformation of the Republic into the Empire” (x). I doubt that all readers will be persuaded by this, and in any case Augustus’ “life story” is often subordinated to the larger historical narrative. There are no ostensibly thematic chapters in the book, e.g. on the provinces, legislation, or the succession, but Augustus the man often disappears for long stretches while S. examines precisely these and related topics. And when S. does treat Octavian/Augustus himself, it is often unclear, despite a number of statements on the nature of the available evidence (cf. x, 114, 135, 194), where the author draws the line between reality and construct, between Augustus and his public image.

Rather than review the book on a chapter by chapter basis, I would like to consider more closely the two major aspects of this study which I have suggested are problematic: legal powers and leadership/authority, and the relationship between biography and historical narrative. These themes naturally recur throughout so this approach should provide a good sense of the overall method and scope of the book.

First, the question of powers and power. S.’s treatment of legal powers is solid. The especially convoluted cases, such as the expiration date of the Triumvirate (82, 94), the changing extent of Augustus’ tribunicia potestas (85, 122-23), and the so-called “consular power for life” which, according to Dio (54.10.5-6), Augustus received in 19 B.C. (131-133), are presented with admirable clarity. Discussion of the two critical stages in the development of Augustus’ legal powers, the “constitutional settlements” of 27 (111-114) and 23 B.C. (120-123), is also lucid and reflects the current orthodoxy which no longer makes the arrangements in these years the results of any “crises.” I imagine that S.’s book will be a convenient point of reference for those who wish to acquaint, or reacquaint, themselves with the main issues surrounding these developments.

An unfortunate result of S.’s focus is an imbalance in attention paid to legal powers on the one hand and honors and privileges on the other. The analysis of the Senate meetings of 13 and 16 January 27 (111-114) is a good example of S.’s method. After three pages of detailed discussion on the evidence and the numerous opinions about the meaning of res publica restituta and the scope of Augustus’ imperium, S.’s description of the honors bestowed on Augustus is limited to one sentence each for the honorific title Augustus and for the honors of the corona civica and the laurel trees. No one will deny the importance of Augustus’ imperium and extesive provincia in 27, but the honors, especially the title Augustus, clearly deserve more attention. In addition, S. fails to mention the clupeus virtutis at all. While the ideals of virtus, clementia, iustitia, and pietas may not have been canonical for Augustus (or for later emperors), they certainly provide a point of entry into the Roman elite’s conception of exemplary leadership. The author misses a good opportunity here to elucidate one aspect of the nascent ideology of the Augustan Principate.

In the final chapter (“The Legacy of Augustus”) S. attempts to explain the real basis of Augustus’ power: “The most important contributory factors in Octavian’s rise were the control of most of the armed forces after the fall of Alexandria, and the sole possession of the wealth of Egypt” (196). This is a defensible assertion, but one would like to know how Augustus controlled the army and the money. S. takes a step towards answering this question when she writes in the last sentence of the book, “Augustus ruled the Roman world because he had the capacity to make people believe in him, and then make them grateful” (198). Because S.’s consistent emphasis on legal powers comes at the expense of public entertainment, spectacle, ceremonial and the visual expressions of the new regime — precisely the vehicles for creating belief and goodwill — the book simply does not lay down the necessary groundwork for this conclusion.

Perhaps these questions are relatively unimportant to S.’s purpose: after all, this is supposed to be a biographical study. Despite the author’s declaration that “this is a book about a man” (x), however, there is not as much attention paid to Augustus the man as one might expect in a conventional imperial biography. S. does occasionally attempt to explain Augustus’ motives, such as the “genuine and completely undiminished hatred for the murderers of Caesar” which prompted his brutality after the victory at Philippi (65) or his determination “to rise to sole power” (76), and sometimes speculates on his feelings, such as his “genuine affection” for Livia (74) or his private grief over the death of Gallus (117), but this type of information does not bulk large in S.’s narrative, in which “individuals are relegated to the background, while events and trends take centre stage” (100).

In some cases S. overreaches in her attempt to present the “life story” of Augustus, especially in her treatment of his childhood. Would the three-year old Octavius really have known that his great-uncle Caesar was consul (4)? Would the eleven-year old Octavius really have had an opinion about the “legislative technicalities” concerning the terminal date of Caesar’s Gallic command (7)? Would he really have taken note of “the extent to which the Senate would tolerate the reality of (Pompey’s) power” (9)? None of this is impossible, of course, but S. comes dangerously close to the “retrospective padding” of Augustus’ youth of which she accuses Dio (3).

S. does initiate a potentially illuminating line of enquiry into the personality of Augustus when she recounts a series of anecdotes about the first princeps (136-7), but this section of the book is too brief and too isolated to make much of an impact. This section also reveals an inconsistency in S.’s interpretation of the evidence. S. writes that “Augustus’ public image is all that has descended through the ages, so that it is difficult to discern the man” (135; for the same idea, cf. 114). Few scholars today would dispute this. But such a declaration makes it all the more difficult to swallow S.’s claims, for example, that Augustus’ private life was “the embodiment of the old Roman virtues” (136), or that his “simplicity” and “lack of ostentation” were “genuine” (145), or that “the emotion attested in the sources” when Augustus received the title Pater Patriae is “no doubt accurate” (179). The reader is left to wonder how S. has managed to penetrate the public representation of Augustus to uncover the reality of his private life and emotions.

What niche does the author seek to fill with this book (whether we call it a biography or not)? S. states explicitly in her preface that she “makes no claims to the sort of completeness for which Kienast aimed” (x-xi). If indeed S has not set out to supersede Kienast (much less Gardthausen, not cited in S.’s bibliography), then we must assume, I think, that this book was intended for a general audience. This is perfectly legitimate: imperial biography continues to be a popular genre, and it appears to be an effective vehicle for sustaining the general public’s interest in Roman history.2 But more concessions must be made to an audience of this sort, especially in the use of technical or Latin terms. The following terms receive no definition: new men/novi homines, sesterces, noble, clientelae, optimates, master of the horse/magister equitum, denarii, suffect consulship, amici, tresviri rei publicae constituendae, patrician, client kingdoms, consilium, consilium principis, vici, the “secret of Empire.” The meaning of some of these terms can admittedly be deduced from context, but a simple glossary would have increased the utility of this book considerably.

The general reader could also use a bit more assistance in navigating the set of thirty black and white plates inserted in the middle of the book (between 130-131). The text makes no reference to the plates, so it is easy to overlook them altogether. For the reader who does take the initiative to explore these images, mostly coins and portraits, there are brief explanatory notes, but no indication of their importance for understanding the Augustan Principate, nor of the recent revolution of scholarship in this area.3 The plates, then, do not advance the analysis in any way, but simply serve as a token cosmetic garnish.

Southern’s Augustus does not cover in detail all of the facets of the life of the first princeps for which different readers will be looking, but to write a comprehensive biography of Augustus is a formidable task. The problems upon which this review has focused, especially the nature of Augustus’ power, are complicated and still subject to much debate. S. deserves credit for carefully weighing the primary evidence, working through an overwhelming amount of secondary scholarship, and producing a clear and balanced account of the period under consideration and Augustus’ central role in it.


1. D. Kienast, Augustus: Prinzeps und Monarch (Darmstadt 1982); A.H.M. Jones, Augustus (New York 1970); V. Gardthausen, Augustus und seine Zeit, 2 vols. in 6 (Leipzig 1891-1904; reprint with updated bibliography, Aalen 1964); P. Southern, Domitian: Tragic Tyrant (Bloomington 1997). On the relative paucity of biographies of Augustus, see the editors’ preface to K. Raaflaub and M. Toher (eds.), Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate (Berkeley 1990), xiii ff.

2. Recent biographies of Roman emperors include A. Barrett, Caligula (New Haven 1989); B. Levick, Claudius (New Haven 1990); B. Jones, Domitian (New York 1992); J. Bennet, Trajan (Bloomington 1997); and A.R. Birley, Hadrian (New York 1998).

3. The seminal work, of course, is P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, trans. A. Shapiro (Ann Arbor 1988). Recent studies of Augustus which emphasize the visual culture of his reign include K. Galinsky, Augustan Culture (Princeton 1996), and D. Favro, The Urban Image of Augustan Rome (Cambridge 1996).