BMCR 2006.07.26

The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus

, The Cambridge companion to the Age of Augustus. Cambridge companion to the classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvii, 407 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780521807968. $29.95 (pb).

The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus (hereafter CCAA) another installment of the Cambridge Companions series covers the transitional period between Republic and empire.1 Edited by Karl Galinsky, the volume consists of sixteen essays divided into six parts, “Political History,” “Intellectual and Social Developments,” “The Emperor’s Impact,” “Art and the City,” “Augustan Literature,” and “Epilogue as Prologue.” Despite their appearance, the subdivisions do not balkanize the material since many of the essays range much more widely than their assigned rubric might suggest. Given the focus of most of Galinsky’s work, it should come as no surprise to the reader that the bulk of the essays are anchored in cultural studies. The essays are by established scholars from universities in Europe and America and diverse fields. The intended audience is not limited to graduate students and faculty looking for background on aspects of Augustus’s reign but includes those already thoroughly familiar with this period. Galinsky observes that the work is neither an introduction to the period, nor an encyclopedia, nor just a set of discussions on the state of the field, but is intended to continue the examination he undertook in Augustan Culture and to suggest new areas that merit further attention.2 In this respect CCAA takes a course different from most of the other Cambridge Companions and will please or frustrate readers depending on their expectations.

In the introduction Galinsky defends the use of the term “Augustan Age” and identifies three key themes that guide the volume. First, he points out the necessity of avoiding fixed chronological boundaries in examining Augustus. Secondly, he focuses on the importance of examining Augustus in much broader terms than singular disciplinary approaches like political history, social history, literary studies, classical archaeology, or art history imply. The third theme he cites, fundamental to understanding the goal of the volume, is the necessity to define Augustus’s role, if any, in the changes that did occur.

Part one of the volume, “Political History,” includes essays by Walter Eder and Erich Gruen. The authors take up their assignment with aplomb and between them provide a narrative of Augustus’s career and lay the political foundations on which most of the remaining essays draw. Eder’s contribution, “Augustus and the Power of Tradition,” focuses on the question of whether Augustus was monarchic or Republican and provides the fullest narrative in the CCAA of Octavian/Augustus’s career from 44 to 2 B.C. In “Augustus and the Making of the Principate,” Gruen takes up the institutionalization of Augustus’s career by focusing on the settlement of 23 B.C. and the issue of succession. Both essays remind the reader of Octavian/Augustus’s flexibility in action and the ad hoc nature of the process whereby he acquired powers, but they are also in agreement that regardless of the way it evolved, the authority was genuine and effective. In the course of providing the narrative of Octavian’s efforts to succeed and survive, Eder appropriately emphasizes the weight of tradition within which he and his opponents had to maneuver. Eder also argues that the ultimate title pater patriae, granted to Augustus in 2 B.C., cannot be understood without an appreciation of his use of tradition. Augustus was able to recast and elevate traditions effectively to “rule like a monarch and die like a Republican” (32). Gruen treats the settlement of 23 as a case study on the nature of Augustus’s power and position and then analyzes the drive to identify and retain a successor. Throughout, he identifies the set of powers Augustus acquired (and sometimes shared) and narrates the consolidation of the imperial household through adoptions as significant elements of the process in passing along his position.

The second part of the book, “Intellectual and Social Developments,” starts with a wide-ranging essay by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, ” Mutatas Formas : The Augustan Transformation of Knowledge.” Drawing on Foucault, he presents a different way of trying to examine the impact of Augustus, one that privileges neither politics nor culture but considers the epistemological system that existed before and after Augustus’s rise to power. He demonstrates that it was change in the control and employment of knowledge that is so noticeable, and that change is manifest in every facet of the Augustan age from time-keeping to religion to organizing space. The situation he presents is one of diversity and breadth; whereas ‘insiders’ had controlled the important knowledge in the Republic and thus maintained their power, under Augustus (and even a bit before) the pool of those who used and controlled knowledge (of all types) broadened and evolved toward specialization.

In the next two essays, “Romans in the Roman World” and “Provincial Perspectives,” Nicholas Purcell and Greg Woolf respectively consider the situation outside of Rome. Purcell tackles the issue from the point of view of the Roman diaspora — the Roman citizens who left Italy for various reasons and became the face of Rome in the rest of the Mediterranean world. He discusses the effect of the Romans abroad: individually, locally, and provincially, as well as on Rome. Purcell rounds off his discussion by focusing some attention on the ways Augustus drew upon and used the diaspora but also on the impact it had on him and his age. Woolf, after rejecting Augustus as the inventor of empire, proceeds to discuss and demonstrate the many facets of Augustus’s relationship with provincials. Given the available evidence, it is not surprising that the analysis highlights various elements of the relationship between Augustus, Rome, and provincial elites. Expansion (of the empire, cities and prosperity) cultural change, and elite education affected local elites in their ties to Rome and vice versa. Purcell and Woolf share certain fundamentals of approach. Recognizing that it leads to flawed conclusions, in each case they avoid excessive compartmentalization of their analyses on any one variety of impact, since every facet (political, social, economic, cultural, and military) was represented in the local milieu, whether in Rome or the provinces. They also employ a broad geographical scope, emphasizing how the actions in Italy reverberated throughout the empire and beyond, as well as how the wide world of diaspora and provincials affected Rome. It is in their geographic breadth and emphasis on this Push Me-Pull You approach to the inter-relationships between center and periphery that make the essays by Purcell and Woolf so useful.

The final essay of part two, “Women in the Time of Augustus” by Susan Treggiari, is a concise treatment of current work on women during Augustus’s reign. Treggiari opens by setting out the legal situation, roles, and status of women during the late Republic. She observes that, although women were still excluded from public recognition and honors as well as direct political power, they exercised some authority at home and in religion. The rest of the essay focuses on the women of Augustus’s family (especially Livia), showing how in their numerous honors, benefactions, and limited public roles, these Augustan women were all quite different from Republican era women. They were held up as feminine models of respectability, loyalty, and especially motherhood, and these models of feminine behavior affected the lives of women outside the imperial household. Given the constraints on space it is a masterly treatment of the topic.

Part three, “The Emperor’s Impact,” begins with Richard Beacham’s essay, “The Emperor as Impresario: Producing the Pageantry of Power,” is a useful examination of theatricality as “a major defining element of the language, style, ceremony, and metaphors through which the Augustan principate imagined and presented itself at every level and on every occasion” (152). Although some will feel that Beacham paints the “life is a stage” metaphor a bit too broadly and with too modern a brush at times, his presentation includes many good points, drawing on an array of evidence, and will stimulate valuable discussion. The one issue on which exception should be taken is in his treatment of Augustus’s management of Roman theater. While Augustus was undoubtedly an active administrator, the image Beacham presents of Augustan micromanagement is one that would rival modern bureaucracies. Otherwise, his contribution is an informative addition.

In “Augustus and Roman Religion: Continuity, Conservatism, and Innovation,” John Scheid contributes a clear, concise treatment of the topic, and he argues that, while Roman religion may have gone through a period of weakness at the end of the Republic, it was not in total decay; it only looks that way to us because Augustus needed it to appear so in order that his restoration/reform could appear more stunning. Scheid goes on to argue that Augustus had a “religious program” that was largely in place by 28 B.C. and marshals evidence in support of his thesis. He concludes with a discussion of related issues tied to Augustus becoming pontifex maximus in 12 B.C. so that by the end of the essay the reader has acquired a good sense of religious activity and current research on religion during the reign of Augustus. Use of the words “program” or “policy” in connection with the ancient world can constitute an historiographical “red flag,” but Scheid’s discussion makes a strong case that is sure to cause debate. The fourth part, “Art and the City,” includes three essays focused on art and architectural history. The first of these, “Semblance and Storytelling in Augustan Rome” by Diana Kleiner, is the one disappointment in the volume. Describing Cleopatra as “bewitching” or casting spells over Roman generals (199-200) is to continue the obsolete practice of repeating Octavian’s propaganda. The reader may be excused for wondering if any history is to enter into Kleiner’s discussion when she anachronistically damns Romans for having not granted “even patrician Roman matrons” suffrage (198) and chides Augustus for not honoring Livia “or her contribution in the way that he should have, denying her such privileges as having her portrait on the official coinage of Rome,” (200) and for not including the Augustan women in his Res Gestae (222). Kleiner’s essay improves when she discusses the storytelling aspect of art in the Augustan period and its impact on artistic conventions. As a statement on current work in art-historical approaches, Kleiner’s contribution achieves mixed results.

The other two essays in this chapter, Diane Favro’s “Making Rome a World City” and “Augustan Domestic Interiors: Propaganda or Fashion?” by John Clarke, would make good required reading for those unversed (or in need of a refresher) in the themes of architectural history and interior painting. They also have much to offer those already versed in the fields. Both essays are distinguished by clear descriptions and sensible conclusions supported by a good selection of illustrations. Favro presents Augustan building efforts as the first real attempt to make Rome a distinguished capital city, the architectural equal, if not superior, to any Eastern city and yet in a unified style that reflected Augustus’s conservative, Italian-based tastes. Clarke provides a useful historiography and discussion of the nature of interior painting at the end of the Republic. He takes a position contrary to the dominant interpretations, concluding that interior painting was much more a function of fashion than of propaganda.

“Augustan Literature” is the title of part five, and it includes four essays on poetry during the Augustan Age. Alessandro Barchiesi opens it with “Learned Eyes: Poets, Viewers, Image Makers,” in which he discusses the relationship between poetry and art and architecture. His synthesis of a broad array of material is effective as he demonstrates the opportunities presented by the reign of Augustus for drawing “connections between political change, material culture, ideology, literature, and the visual arts” (281). Jasper Griffin tries to make sense of what it meant to be Augustan in his essay “Augustan Poetry and Augustanism.” His concise essay focuses on the rubric ‘Augustan’ and emphasizes the difficulty of defining it. In “Poets in the New Milieu: Realigning,” Peter White tackles the topic of patronage under Augustus. His essay is an examination of how the situation of producing and disseminating poetry had changed and how it had not under Augustus, and in the end he concludes that the patronage model, so often employed to explain Augustus’s impact, is no longer sufficient. The final of the essays in this part, Galinsky’s own “Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses as World Literature,” applies a much wider perspective to the literature. Drawing on the scale emphasized earlier by Purcell and Woolf, that the empire of Augustus was more broadly based than previously, Galinsky demonstrates that these key works of Augustus’s reign should be seen as reflecting a ‘global’ perspective. Galinsky builds up a convincing case and also provides the most extensive discussion of Augustan literature as a whole. Taken together the four essays are valuable treatments with little repetition. Unfortunately, in a chapter ostensibly about literature all four chapters are concerned exclusively with poetry. It is surprising that there is no contribution devoted to Augustan period prose. Livy, for example, appears in only two sentences (p. 342-43) in this entire section of the book. The omission is the more thunderous given that a quarter of the volume is devoted to literature.

The final part of the book, “Epilogue as Prologue,” includes only one essay — L. Michael White’s “Herod and the Jewish Experience of Augustan Rule.” White opens by emphasizing the significance of Judea and provides a narrative of Herod’s reign. In the process, White uses Judea as a case study of center-periphery relations during the early empire. His essay is useful for demonstrating the ways successful local rulers had to remain diplomatically nimble during the civil wars as well as Augustus’s relationship with them afterwards. White presents Herod as typical of local leaders in that he both followed the lead Augustus provided and occasionally entirely ignored Roman interests. Although there are many regions that might be the subject of case studies, Judea is small enough with sufficient primary sources to yield a manageable essay.

The volume contains an adequate number of good, black and white images, plans, and maps associated with appropriate discussions. Color plates are all relevant and well produced. Following the table of contents there are various large scale maps of Italy and the empire. The family tree is complete and full of useful details. The timeline is helpful, but the microscopic print requires magnification. Each chapter includes annotated “Suggestions for Further Reading” that are quite helpful. The bibliography and works cited lists are ‘select’, and, except for the unfortunate omission of Tonio Holscher’s works (cited in chapter 11), provide a useful collection. There is an index, but for those seeking more thorough word search capability, Cambridge is allowing searching of the volume on

The CCAA has much to commend it, but there are some distractions that deserve mention. Cultural discussions are important, particularly in the way Galinsky emphasizes the importance of the interconnectedness of the various facets of Augustan and imperial society, but the volume does seem to lack balance, particularly when compared with other recent volumes in the Cambridge Companion series. As previously noted, twenty-five percent of the volume is dedicated to poetry; this focus leaves much untreated. Despite Galinsky’s assertion to the contrary, by not including essays focused on the periods before and after Augustus’s reign, the volume has succeeded in maintaining the traditional periodization of 44 B.C. to A.D. 14. Finally, there is no discussion focused on the military or its activity during Augustus’s reign. This martial aspect may not appeal to everyone, but the military had a tremendous cultural impact on both Rome and the provinces, and Augustus’s reforms of this institution are still with us. The CCAA is not intended to be encyclopedic, but more balance would have made an already good volume even better.

Galinsky’s editing of the volume is to be largely commended. All the essays are clear and written in an engaging style. Although the inconsistent mixture of footnotes and parenthetical references is a distraction, all the articles have readable citations. Spellings are generally consistent (except for the use of Vergil and Virgil) and typographic errors are few. On the whole, this is a well put together volume. Those seeking a condensed version of the Cambridge Ancient History volume 10 may be disappointed, but for those seeking something more provocative and engaging, there is much with which to be pleased.


1. In addition to the volume reviewed here, the recent gaggle of Cambridge Companions includes volumes devoted to The Age of Pericles, The Hellenistic World, The Roman Republic, The Age of Constantine, and The Age of Justinian.

2. K. Galinsky, Augustan Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.