BMCR 2004.09.36

The Age of Augustus. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider, New Material by Sarolta A. Takács

, , , The age of Augustus. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. vi, 166 pages : maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0631229574 $19.95.

In June of 1939 Ronald Syme decided to publish his first book, despite its self-confessed “imperfections.” He felt a pressing need to dissent against a (mostly fascist) scholarly consensus enchanted by the first princeps. Syme’s narrative (still considered unsurpassed) reminds the reader that however Augustus remedied the chronic tribulations of the Mediterranean, he did not become autocrat by being gentle and honorable, and that his power ultimately rested on the loyalty of supporters whom he had enriched by killing and bullying his fellow citizens. Syme overtly recognized the discourse of the present in the past — when he wrote that “the history of this age is highly controversial,” he refers to something more than just matters of fact. Dictators from Mussolini to Pinochet have seen an attractive paradigm in Augustus.

The scholarly vision of this period has tended to cast a more favorable light since the death of Syme, partly according to the evolution of our historical understanding, and Syme’s latest work, The Augustan Aristocracy, shows that he himself had evolved considerably. Developments aside, however, there is a moral imperative to respect the truthful and insistent core of his account, which he never abandoned. Now, by a happy twist of fate, the eminent historian Werner Eck (henceforth E.) has made the most recent (and equally insistent) product reflecting this point of view a German export. His work certainly reflects fervent and self-conscious German sentiments about fascism. The correspondence, however, with modern continental (or even non-continental) views and methodologies ends there.

Through the fluent translation of Deborah Lucas Schneider, English speakers may also benefit from his lucid account. Many good, short introductions to Augustan Rome in English now exist. The complicated nature of the period constrains each to strengths and weaknesses corresponding to desired emphases. Jones’s 1970 version,1 the most comprehensive, excels in its incorporation (and discussion) of historical sources and successfully melds chronological narrative with all the essential historical themes. It is, however, somewhat excessive in detail, and now a bit dated. Shotter’s 1991 pamphlet,2 brisk and less dated, lucidly explains how the restoration succeeded against the background of the fall of the republic, but is thematically weaker and occasionally erroneous.3 Finally, Wallace Hadrill’s “interpretive essay” is good for illuminating the logistical and ideological mechanisms that lent the new system substance and authority. This version also surpasses for its broad incorporation of cultural evidence (including visual material), and it alone handles the fusion of politics and literature that framed the contemporary discourse of Augustan power.4

E. begins with the dissemination of the fundamental document of the principate, the Res Gestae, to all areas of the empire. From it he draws the most important events and themes that will guide his account, before establishing the interpretive framework with the famous Tacitean antithesis ( Ann. 9-10). He then takes up the origins of Octavian and his appearance on the political scene, interspersing the account up through the triumviral period with the treacheries by which he succeeded and which he later concealed or altered in the official version. Following Syme (the only modern author he mentions), E. finds the roots of the principate in the loyalty engendered by redistributing wealth and property, violently expropriated, to political supporters, who then, to secure this reallocation, endorsed the princeps when he came to stand for order and stability. He explains the importance of managing political opinion before the Actium campaign, and how this enabled Octavian to control the focus of political legitimacy without staging a coup d’état. At the same time, he remind the reader that the accounts were not written from the perspective of the losers, explains Antony’s attachment to Cleopatra as deliberately provoked, and defends the strategic integrity of his actions at Actium.

E. then describes the institution of a new political order and the “office” of princeps as wrought through an extended process of approximation. He provides a balanced estimate. On the one hand, the sentiment behind the honors decreed to the new emperor were genuine and the auctoritas upon which his political authority rested was real. On the other, the surrender of power implied by the restoration was theoretical, not practical. The elites who “introduced” key legislation empowering or honoring him were “coached” beforehand; many were skeptical of it all and frustrated that the republic was restored in name only.

The narrative then becomes more thematic. Chapters 10 and 11 concern changes in membership and admission to the senate, the integration of this organ into the new system, and the role of the elite in governing the empire. From there, the author covers changes in the Roman army and then the related theme of imperial expansion. Here, he concentrates on the return of the Parthian standards to emphasize the connection between military campaigns and public relations and then covers the Pannonian revolt and the Varus disaster. Chapter 13 handles the essential topographical and architectural metamorphoses of the city and the relationship of features like the forum Augustum to the wider imperial program. E. emphasizes that Augustus left his mark in a way that signified the advent of monarchy, which naturally addresses the issue of succession. Here, he duly stresses the necessity of orchestrating a career for an heir that would legitimate his succession to an officially un-inheritable position. At the same time he presents the sequence of projected successors, which centers on the crucial role of Julia.

E. then introduces the death of Augustus by explaining the significance of his mausoleum and its architectural context (the Ara Pacis and the Solarium Augusti), along with the cosmological pretensions implied that prefigured his deification. He highlights the success and permanence of the system that survived, before in the end turning full circle to balance the achievements of Augustus with his flaws.

The book provides maps of the city and the Roman empire, as well as a timeline with important dates. A select, up-to-date bibliography in several languages, organized by theme, directs further reading. One, however, misses a stemma clarifying the complicated relationships between members of the imperial domus. The “new material” advertised on the cover of the book consists of an annotated translation of the Res Gestae by Sarolta A. Takács. It is preceded by a short description, presumably by E. himself, who covers the historical context of the document, its proper evaluation, and its centrality in the field of evidence for the period. The fluent and accessible rendition identifies and glosses Latin terms difficult to translate, and indicates the years for the events dated by consulship. Notes to the text clarify terms and matters unfamiliar to the novice.

This introduction as a whole has many strengths. It is the most current, and the only one available that includes the Res Gestae and systematically discloses the discrepancies between the official report and what actually happened. At the same time, the account is balanced and not overly skeptical. E. does not, for example, pretend that Antony was appreciably superior to Octavian, and he admits the accuracy of Augustus’ claim to rule by auctoritas. In addition, his narrative (in this fine translation) is readable, rarely obscure and fluently glosses difficult terms and concepts in a way that obviates the need for a glossary. Moreover, he skillfully handles difficult constitutional matters (the official end of the triumvirate, the nature of Augustus’ imperium, etc.) without confusing the beginner, points out controversial issues, and marks his divergences with current scholarly opinion.

Sometimes E. omits important events, such as when Messalla Corvinus resigned as city prefect.5 One could in addition have more on the dysfunction that preceded the principate and the remedy it offered, and though the author presents imperial ideology in terms of a reorganization of republican tradition, there is little to suggest the sweeping cultural changes in art and literature experienced (Vergil and Horace find but incidental mention). The moral aspects of the restoration are lacking entirely. There is nothing, for example, on the social legislation or the promotion of traditional values that were essential aspects of political legitimacy. To Syme himself, in The Augustan Aristocracy, the princeps succeed in part because he skillfully managed the participation of the upper classes in the framework of a restored republic. That republic and its traditions from the earliest days had achieved an unprecedented clarity in the early years of the principate due to the activities of late republican and triumviral scholars. Inevitably influenced by the events of the last century, the great Italian heroes of the republic such as Marius and Pompey animated their portrayal of the likes of Camillus and Fabius, and Augustus found his script in works written for the consumption of the municipal aristocracy ravenous for a sense of their Roman tradition; precisely those who constituted his most important base of political support.

A quick introduction to this period, however, cannot cover everything, and these choices reflect the author’s vision as a scholar. The field of Roman history has lately become rather idealistic about the Augustan period and has turned from examining it in terms of a constructible historical narrative, that is to say a series of events and transformations centering on groups, individuals, intrigues and strategies, to treating the age as an interpretable opus perfectum, a unified cultural totality produced by imperial subjects under the benign auctoritas of the princeps. The latter approach certainly corrects the flawed tendency of the former to treat Augustan cultural products as the sinister accoutrements of power. But the former reminds the latter that for all the “free-willed participation” his subjects experienced, Augustus still felt compelled to lie at the end of his life, that he was capable not only of the violence necessitated by a political struggle but of entirely gratuitous cruelty, and that, while the voices of opposition were mostly dead, his core of support, who had been freely enriched by his brutality, would in turn be all too glad to participate freely in a system that secured that enrichment.

E., therefore, in the first work by an eminent historian to reassert Syme’s perspective after his death, wields his own considerable auctoritas with effect to remind the historian of his conscience.


1. Jones, A. H. M. Augustus, Norton, 1970.

2. Shotter, D. Augustus Caesar, Routledge, 1991.

3. E.g. on p. 30, the author states categorically that Augustus “did not become consul again after 23 BC.”

4. Wallace-Hadrill, A. Augustan Rome, Bristol Classical Press, 1993.

5. For the rest, there are few errors in the text, and only one, the result of modern spell-checking software, is significant. On p. 50, Octavian’s nomenclature Imperator Caesar Divi Filius is translated “Inspector Caesar son of the deified one.” There are also a few insignificant errors in the translation and notes to the Res Gestae. In Ch. 22 (p. 142), for example, the verb depugnaverunt by no means signifies that the gladiators “did battle to the death,” but simply that “they fought.” The translation of RG 8. 5 … multa exempla maiorum exolescentia iam ex nostro saeculo reduxi as “I have revived many exemplary practices of our ancestors, which in our age were about to fade away,” does not accurately reflect the use of iam, which here denotes a state of affairs prior to the indicated time, and the tense of the participle. On p. 144, “the” is omitted from the clause “the Cimbri … sought my friendship and that of Roman people.” In the notes, the translator consistently italicizes Latin nouns and distinguishes between their singular and plural forms, yet writes lictors (p. 148), and fails to italicize the word “penates” (p. 150).