BMCR 2001.02.04

Kaiserliche Bautätigkeit in Rom. Das Echo in der antiken Literatur

, Kaiserliche Bautätigkeit in Rom : das Echo in der antiken Literatur. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien, Bd. 32. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2000. 338 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515074651 DM 120.

The literary representation of Roman imperial building activity has recently been the focus of a number of studies. An important step in this direction was Marietta Horster’s Literarische Zeugnisse kaiserlicher Bautätigkeit 1 which discusses a small number of important ancient authors and their representation of imperial building activity outside of Rome. Imperial building inside the eternal city and its representation in ancient literature, definitely the bulk of ancient testimonia on the emperor’s building activities, is now the object of the reworked 1994 Habilitation of Andrea Scheithauer (= S.).

To the modern viewer, the building activities of Roman emperors and especially the splendid architectural decoration of their capital, Rome, may be the most conspicuous element of imperial representation if not propaganda. And yet, the very concept of imperial propaganda recently has undergone severe critique and remodelling; the idea of a conscious modelling of public opinion has become questionable both regarding literary works (often interpreted as reflections of imperial propaganda) and imperial coinage (the most obvious and prolific medium of imperial self-representation).2 Obviously, a study that systematically explores contemporary views of imperial building activity can add considerably to this ongoing debate as imperial building in the capital has repeatedly been interpreted as an important channel of “propaganda,” particularly with regards to the first princeps who famously emphasized that he had found a city of brick and left one of marble (Suet. Aug. 28).

After a short introduction, essentially characterizing the most important authors and genres, the book falls into two halves. In the first seven chapters, S. discusses the various emperors’ building activities from Augustus to Constantine in chronological order (pp.27-220). In a highly inclusive approach, practically all imperial buildings inside the city of Rome are discussed, and these discussions often include questions of decoration and statuary. Those buildings that have attracted the attention of ancient authors are not the only ones treated; S. regularly also includes buildings that are archaeologically attested but have not been mentioned in the extant texts. Where there is a connection with Roman buildings, S. even includes questions of building codes and fire security. In this way, S. has created an almost comprehensive account of the known building activity in Rome of every single Roman emperor until Constantine, and this is, even if her ample discussion at times states the obvious, not the smallest merit of her book. Not surprisingly, the Augustan era receives particular attention (a third of this part, some 60 pages), and many of the conclusions of S. are largely based on these testimonia.

In the eighth chapter (pp.221-286), conclusions are drawn in diachronical treatments of selected aspects of imperial building: aesthetic and moral aspects, liberalitas, religion, quality of life, ideology and politics, changing perspectives at the end of a dynasty, use and function of buildings, the impact of an author’s personal status, and evaluations of imperial building that an author attributes to other persons or gods. S. demonstrates that the authors were interested in the outward appeal of buildings, in splendour and size much more than in programmatic aspects. While buildings that propagated dynastic continuity might be of repeated interest (particularly in Dio, who according to S. mentioned only Augustan buildings related to the emperor’s policy of dynastic continuity, cf. p.269), the only reflections of more intricate programmes, according to S., may be found in Ovid (p.269f.), and, to a lesser degree, in Flavian poetry. It was poetry rather than historiography, according to S., that perceived (and, it may be added, reformulated) imperial “programmes”, and many of the most prominent building programmes recovered by modern archaeology, such as the historical and political implications of the mausoleum of Augustus or the cosmological references of the rotunda in Nero’s Golden House, are passed over in silence in contemporary literature.

What, then, was the interest of ancient authors? S. can show how the outward appeal of material and size stood as the focus of most authors. Splendour, however, was ambiguous, as any emperor simultaneously faced demands of liberalitas and moderatio. Not surprisingly, then, building activities could serve to illustrate pre-existing judgements of an emperor both negative and positive, and, as in the case of Tiberius, the same activities might be interpreted as moderation or neglect (p.90f.). The same is, indeed, true for Domitian, praised throughout his lifetime only to be vilified after his death. Only in Tacitus, however, does S. discover the Roman’s senate’s interest in the imperial building policy, and their inquiry into the policy serves to demonstrate the decline of this body, which followed, if not anticipated, every imperial wish (p.282).

According to S., the standards applied changed slowly and only in a few cases: entertainment facilities, for example, tended to be disparaged by authors of the early principate, whereas they figure prominently in later literature (p.264f.). Most interesting is S’s contention that there is a change in the vocabulary and underlying concepts of the emperor’s role: while early texts stress the emperor’s liberalitas, eagerly emphasizing that even the building ground was paid for by the emperor, later texts (especially the Historia Augusta) tend to treat building activities in the more general context of an emperor’s preoccupation for his subjects, referring to more overarching concepts such as the imperial cura or praesentia (p.251f.). Such general concepts of liberalitas and cura, according to S., dominated public perception of imperial building activities. In this context, one would have been grateful to S. if she had included a systematic overview of the terminology used in ancient authors. Even such a crucial term as utilitas /utilitas publica (indicating something like “social concern”) is nowhere treated comprehensively.

While at times the festivities celebrating the opening of a new building might garner more interest than the building itself (p.253), this is not to say that ancient building programmes are the inventions of modern scholars. S., while cautiously substituting “Bauta+tigkeit” (building activity) for “Baupolitik” (building policy) in the title of her book, is reluctant to draw too negative conclusions. The case of Augustan building programmes is instructive: In the Res gestae, the first princeps put significant emphasis on the extant of his building activities, but most contemporary poets as well as later historians, as S. demonstrates, barely mention Augustan buildings, and were it not for Ovid’s Fasti, one might conclude that the propagandistic aspects underlying, for instance, many new or restored temples were of small value.

Criteria of literary decorum and genre-specific interest, according to S., determined the treatment or, more often, exclusion of imperial buildings in literary works. Technical literature or encyclopaedic authors, such as the elder Pliny, tended to include building activities and, what is more, paid equal attention to works of infrastructure that otherwise were mentioned only rarely and in passing; the fact that there is no such literature extant for most part of the second and the third centuries to S. accounts for the shortage of information on Rome’s infrastructure in these times. On the other hand, late antique chronography tended not to distinguish along such lines.

If this explanation generally holds true, it is not convincing in all cases. While the mentioning of infrastructural measures is repeatedly characterized as “unattractive” and “scarcely popular” (e.g. p.247), it may not only serve to illustrate the cura of an emperor but can even, as in Strabo (5.3.7f., a text that deserved more attention) become a central criterion in the comparison between Greek and Roman culture. Here, and in other respects, a closer look at the various authors might have helped clarify the picture. While S. has chosen only to give an overview of the authors in her introduction, Horster (cf. supra) decided to structure her argument along the various genres and authors, thus discussing the different sources in their context. In S., who organizes the testimonia by the buildings described, this context is often difficult to recover. Thus, one may feel sceptical about S.’s assumption that there is a difference in the approach of equestrian and senatorial authors towards the emperor’s building activity (p. 281ff.), or that the treatment of civil engineering was indicative of a profound social concern (e.g. p.166 on Frontinus), and many will not be ready to subscribe to the view that Herodian “wrote from the lower classes’ perspective” (p.21). However, S. in her mostly descriptive book generally is prudent in her judgements and clearly distinguishes between facts and hypotheses.

This is a sober and useful book. One is grateful to S. for having assembled a corpus of literary testimonia of imperial building in Rome and given a thorough overview of attitudes towards one important aspect of how “the emperor at work” was perceived by his subjects, an overview that may be no small stimulus to the discussion of imperial “propaganda” and its reception.


1. Marietta Horster, Literarische Zeugnisse kaiserlicher Bautätigkeit: Eine Studie zu Baumassnahmen in Städten des Römischen Reiches während des Prinzipats (Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 91), Stuttgart: Steiner, 1997.

2. As an introduction into the problem cf. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, “Image and Authority in the Coinage of Augustus”, JRS 76, 1986, 66-87 and most recently Reinhard Wolters, Nummi signati (Vestigia 49), München: Beck, 1999. Despite this discussion, the term propaganda continues to be used (and, to the present writer, rightly so), for instance in Edwin S. Ramage articles on Augustus’ Propaganda in various provinces, Klio 79, 1997, 117-160, 80, 1998, 145-201; 82, 2000, 171-207.