BMCR 2011.06.60

Augustus. Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World

, Augustus. Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. xxviii, 543. ISBN 9780748615940 £95.00.


Edmondson’s selection of fifteen essays on Augustus is a fine addition to the series of Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World and should be praised as an excellent didactic tool for English-speaking, graduate students of ancient history. In accordance with the purpose of the series, Edmondson presents here some of the best scholarly work on Augustus published in the last fifty years, by important historians such as Ronald Syme, Fergus Millar, Jean-Louis Ferrary and Werner Eck.

The Note to the Reader (pp. xiv-xv) should be not overlooked by those not accustomed to the editorial principles of the series. For the essays (each of them is a chapter of the book) come from a number of different journals and books, one can find significant differences in the citation styles in use; similarly, in some cases the bibliography is at the end of the chapters, in other ones is given in full in the footnotes. All the works cited by the editor at various stages (general introduction, introductions to each part, guide to further reading, etc.) are to be found at the end of the volume, together with a chronology, an index of the consulates and the renewals of the tribunician powers of Augustus, a general index and a glossary. A full list of the different abbreviations used is handily placed at the beginning of the volume (pp. xvi-xxviii). Some work has been done on the text of the essays as well: every quotation from Latin and Greek has been translated into English (mostly by the editor himself) and placed within squared brackets; longer quotations have been replaced altogether with the English text, leaving the original in a footnote. Explanatory glosses have been added to make technical terms more clear. The size of some essays has been slightly reduced (particularly in the footnotes) in consultation with the authors and in two cases a brief postscript has been added to bring the content up to date with more recent studies. Werner Eck and Jean-Louis Ferrary took the occasion of this republication to introduce a number of minor modifications in their articles. The result is inevitably a lack of uniformity that reminds more of a medieval schoolbook than a modern handbook. Nevertheless the volume is easily readable and all essays share the same font and layout.

In the general introduction Edmondson points out briefly some of the key facts of the restoration of the Republic and of the political and cultural agenda of the first princeps, hinting at the most important epigraphic and archeological discoveries.1 Then he turns to a useful and well documented outline of the modern historical research on Augustus starting from Mommsen. Of course much space is given to English scholars, with a particularly vivid description of the antipathy between Ronald Syme and Hugh Last, but German, French and Italian studies on the subject are well represented and placed in their political and historical context.

The following fifteen chapters are divided in four sections, each one preceded by a concise foreword in which the editor introduces the reader to the authors and the subject of the chapters. Part I “The novus status : From IIIvir rei publicae constituendae to princeps ” deals with Octavian/Augustus’ rise to power. The section is opened by the famous and beautifully written article “Imperator Caesar: A Study in Nomenclature” by Ronald Syme. There follows the equally famous “Triumvirate and Principate” by Fergus Millar, here in the revised version of 2002 2. Chapter 3 is the fundamental essay of Jean-Louis Ferrary of 2001 on the powers of Augustus (translated by Edmondson). In chapter 4 John Rich examines the key role of the military commands of Augustus and his co-regents in the foundation of the new regime. Chapter 5 reproduces the seminal article by Nicholas Purcell of 1986 on Augustus’ wife Livia. A brief postscript by the author gives account of the growing bibliography on the subject in recent years. Part II “Res publica restituta” focuses on some of the most important administrative and social reforms of the Augustan era; it opens with an essay by Kurt Raaflaub on the political significance of Augustus’ military reforms (Chapter 6), followed by Werner Eck’s description of the pragmatic character of various administrative reforms of this period (transl. Claus Nader); Chapter 8 reproduces Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s interpretation of the much debated Augustan marriage laws; in Chapter 9 John Scheid’s article (transl. Edmondson) stresses the importance of religious rituals in the legitimation of the princeps. Part III “Images of power and power of images” takes inspiration from the well known book of P. Zanker and includes essays by Tonio Hölscher on the monuments related to the battle of Actium (ch. 10, transl. C. Nader), by Maria Wyke on the different images of Cleopatras in the Roman propaganda (ch. 11), by Peter Wiseman on the important role of the goddess Cybele in the Augustan ideology (ch. 12), and finally by T.J.Luce on the disagreements between the elogia of the Augustan forum and Livy’s tradition (ch. 13). Part IV “The impact of Augustus in the Roman provinces” draws examples from regional cases: in the first essay Walter Trilmich provides an overview of Augustus’ building programme at Emerita in Lusitania (ch. 14, transl. Nader); a postscript by the author brings the article up to date with the most recent excavations and studies. The final chapter is an excerpt of Glen Bowersock’s book “Augustus and the Greek World” (ch. 15).

Given the enormous bibliography in the subject, the editor could have picked a completely different set of studies and yet have come to the same good result. Therefore there is no reason to lament the absence of this or that essay.3 By deliberate choice, Edmondson did not reproduce any excerpt from Syme’s “Roman Revolution”, Zanker’s “Power of Images” or Nicolet’s “Inventaire du monde”, for students should read these works in their entirety. Limits of space prevented the inclusion of any Italian author, but the interested reader can find English versions of studies by Arnaldo Momigliano, Emilio Gabba and others.4 Edmondson’s selection is oriented towards essays of fairly general purpose and relatively recent publication: apart from the opening and the closing chapters, the other ones reproduce papers written or reworked after 1980. The editor avoided printing here studies that, despite their importance, could be seen as obsolete. This is particularly true for Ferrary’s article on the powers of Augustus, which is nowadays the most recent and widely accepted treatment of the subject: it includes the most important progress made in this complex field of study and contributed to changing the long-standing communis opinio on the imperium consulare/proconsulare of the emperor.

Given the composite character of this publication it is normal to find some incoherences that could perhaps confuse the less experienced reader. For example, Millar suggests that Augustus could have been proconsul in his provinces while holding the consulate in 27 BC (p. 81), but this view is rightly rejected by Ferrary in the following chapter. Another case is provided by the triumphal arch for Augustus in the Roman forum, about whose construction phases and celebratory purposes there is much debate and therefore the reader should not be surprised to find different points of view in the articles by Rich (p. 148), Scheid (p. 282) and Wyke (p. 362). In these cases an explanatory sentence should perhaps have been inserted, just to make clear where in the historical research progress is made and where the issue is still open.5 The postscript added by Trillmich at the end of Chapter 14 is of particular interest, for it compares the hypotheses proposed by the author in 1990 with the results of more recent excavations. As the editor points out (p. 424-25), this allows the reader to understand how new evidence can overturn previous reconstruction and why the historian must always be ready to modify or abandon his or her previous theories in the light of new data and new interpretations of existing materials.

As said above, the volume comes with a set of helpful tools. The chronology lists many events from the birth of Augustus in 63 BC to the deification of Livia in 42 AD and then jumps quite abruptly to modern times listing the dates of important publications, exhibitions and epigraphical discoveries that have been referred to in the introduction. The glossary is very general and is aimed at students with little knowledge of the Latin language and Roman culture for it includes terms like senatus, consul and so on 6. In the index of abbreviations journal names are given in italics, while series are not: this fact should perhaps be indicated at the beginning of the section (p. xxiii).

A few mistakes should be corrected: on p. 8 Mussolini’s “Repubblica Sociale Italiana” is surprisingly translated with “Italian Socialist Republic” while the right term is “Social”. Mommsen’s “Staatsrecht” consists of three volumes (in five actual books) and not two, as written on p. xxvi.

The price of the hardcover version is not accessible to everyone, but a paperback edition should appear shortly. In conclusion this is a valuable publication for every student interested in Roman history and in the age of Augustus. Experienced scholars too will find useful to (re)read the essays in this slightly updated version. This is not a reprint, but a well introduced and annotated republication of the original works. This fact makes the book particularly useful for teaching purposes, for the editor’s work is just a starting point to introduce graduate students to the complexity of historical research, with its methods, debates, mistakes, biases and clever reconstructions.


1. English-speaking students can now benefit from Alison Cooley’s translation and commentary of the Res Gestae (Cambridge, 2009) based on John Scheid’s edition of 2007.

2. To be found in Millar, F.; Cotton, H. & Rogers, G. M. (eds.); “Rome, the Greek World, and the East”, vol. I: The Roman Republic and the Augustan Revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C.–London, 2002).

3. The inclusion of Luce’s article is perhaps the only weak point of the selection. In fact, despite the interesting comparison between the texts of the elogia and Livy’s information, the author comes too easily to suspect that there was a deliberate attempt by Augustus to correct Livy’s version of the career of great men of the Republic. Furthermore the emperor is presented as if he were the author of all the elogia without much discussion.

4. see for example Momigliano, A.; “The Peace of the Ara Pacis”. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 5 (1942): 228–31; Gabba, E.; “The Historians and Augustus”, in: Millar, F. & Segal, C. (eds.): Caesar Augustus: seven aspects (Oxford, 1984): 61–88; Barchiesi, A.; The poet and the prince: Ovid and Augustan discourse (Berkeley–London, 1997); Fraschetti, A.; “Livia the politician”, in: Fraschetti, A. (ed.) Roman Women (Chicago, 2001): 100–17. Some of these titles are cited by Edmondson.

5. Similarly the quotation of Res Gestae 34 (p. 84) translates Mommsen’s conjecture potitus, while the new and correct reading is potens as rightly pointed out by Edmondson in his introduction (p. 9).

6. Defining a proconsul as a magistrate operating “instead of a consul” can be misleading. Proconsuls are Roman generals that, despite not being consuls, still had consular powers by mean of prorogation or direct assignment through a popular vote (e.g. P. Cornelius Scipio in Spain in 212 BC).