Recent years have seen a spate of books on Augustus and the Augustan age appropriate for students, including Werner Eck’s The Age of Augustus (2003; second ed. 2007), Barbara Levick’s Augustus: Image and Substance (2010), and Karl Galinsky’s Augustus: Introduction to the Life of an Emperor (2012). Meanwhile, there has been no shortage of new research presented in scholarly monographs and articles, often productively foregrounding material evidence or patiently reexamining literary evidence or (sometimes crucially) both. Work such as C. Brian Rose’s “The Parthians in Augustan Rome” ( AJA 112  57-89), Peter Heslin’s “Augustus, Domitian and the So-Called Horologium Augusti,” JRS 97 (2007) 1-20, Diana E. E. Kleiner and Bridget Buxton’s “Pledges of Empire: the Ara Pacis and the Donations of Rome” ( AJA 112  57-89), and T. P. Wiseman’s “The House of Augustus and the Lupercal” ( JRA 22  527-45), valuable in itself, cumulatively confirms the complexity of the period’s politics and the vibrancy of its culture. Where does J. S. Richardson’s new book fit in?
Augustan Rome is part of the new eight-volume Edinburgh History of Ancient Rome, under the general editorship of Richardson himself, “designed to present for students and all who are interested in the history of western civilisation the changing shape of the entity that was Rome…” (Series editor’s preface). In keeping with this goal, Richardson here sets out to explain two transformations in the lifetime of Augustus, the transformation of Rome from a republic into a monarchy and the transformation of the Roman Empire into “what it was to be for the next half-millennium, a territorial continuum with Rome, and then Rome and Constantinople, as its centre” (xi).1 He aims to do so principally “through a narrative account of the period” (xi).
The scene is set in a short introductory chapter which gives a survey of the Roman world in the year of the future Augustus’ birth and then recounts his early years, along with the will of his great-uncle Julius Caesar that named him principal heir. “The Assassination of Julius Caesar and Its Aftermath” are lucidly narrated in chapter 2, followed by “The Life and Death of the Triumvirate” in chapter 3, which ends in 29 BC. Two very long chapters follow which, distinctively, continue with detailed chronological narrative. In “ Princeps, 29-12 BC” Richardson focuses on the constitutional developments and military campaigning of the early and mid-20s BC; the crisis caused by Augustus’ near death in 23 BC and subsequent decisions made concerning the presentation of power through 19 BC; and then the development of the idea of a “new age” in partnership with Agrippa. “Emperor and Empire, 12 BC-AD 14” continues the emphasis on political, constitutional, and military history, with fine discussions throughout (see, for example, that of the Pannonian revolt, pp. 173-80 passim). The concluding chapter describes at some length Augustus’ Res Gestae and then furnishes other perspectives on his significance, for example Augustus’ relationship with Roman religion, his celebration by the poets, and his impact on the provinces.
The book has many strengths. Richardson shows excellent knowledge of the ancient sources and handles them deftly, making clear the problems they pose without weighing down his narrative. There is, throughout, well- informed and thoughtful discussion of constitutional issues—a focus announced in part of the book’s subtitle (“The Restoration of the Republic”); Augustus, Richardson argues, maintained what one could call a res publica, while also achieving an essentially monarchical role for himself; crucial to this was a division between traditional offices and their powers (famously exemplified by tribunicia potestas, but already evident before). At the same time, though, as Richardson acknowledges, there was “an inevitable flimsiness” to “a family based-regime, set within the structures determined by the constitution of Republican Rome” (139). A monarchy that calls itself by its name can transmit power more smoothly.
One can admire, too, Richardson’s decision not to suspend his narrative midway through. “The temptation,” as J. A. Crook said of accounts of the age of Augustus, “is for chronological narrative to be given up—for time, as it were, to stop—at the beginning of the Principate…giving way to thematic accounts of ‘institutions’ of the Roman Empire as initiated by its ‘founder.’”2 From the view of hindsight such a perspective may be logical, but it can lead to inauthentic history: Augustus’ re-articulation of his powers must be viewed in the light of the serious troubles from 22-19 BC, for example, or his military campaigns in the light of his domestic priorities.3 Richardson’s detailed narrative invites the reader always to ponder the interrelatedness of events and to entertain a philosophy of history that values both the logic of structural forces and the role of the contingent, including natural disasters, human illness, the deaths of individual men and women, and their unpredictable decisions. Events turning out quite contrary to the expectations of those who thought they could predict or even shape them is a motif that adds piquancy to this book (see, e.g., 8, 11, 34, 97, 133, 195).
Occasionally in reading this book I found myself wishing that Richardson’s account of political, legal, and military affairs had more room for the cultural, where so much valuable work has been done in recent scholarship. For example, students would benefit from a richer discussion of the important Temple of Apollo on the Palatine (dedicated in 28 BC) and its intimate relationship with Augustus’ promotion of the cardinal virtue of pietas. Or the account of the return of the Parthian standards to Rome in 19 BC could have included some account of the Parthian arch, its innovative iconography, and the ways in which a new vision of empire, with a new perspective on foreigners, was articulated in the years following (note the articles cited above); some discussion of the impact of Vergil’s Aeneid also would be welcome at this point in the narrative.
Still this is a valuable and unique addition to the proliferating surveys of the age of Augustus. It stands out for its detailed coverage of the political as well as military history of the whole period, the latter of which is often underemphasized in teaching, despite its lasting impact. Instructors interested in training students in how to write history with such a focus will welcome it warmly, while Levick’s acute Augustus: Image and Substance also is a good choice for politics. Galinsky’s Augustus gives a sparkling introduction to all aspects of the age as well as the man himself in a mere 200 pages or so and will be much appreciated by those offering interdisciplinary surveys. In a more ambitious class, Richardson’s account could work well in conjunction with Zanker’s classic Power of Images (Eng. trans. 1988), along with some specialized articles and primary readings.4 It also will be useful for students writing papers, and professional scholars consulting it will benefit from Richardson’s insights on specific issues as well as his conception of the age as a whole.
1. For this second theme Richardson’s earlier study of the changing conception of imperium is essential: J. S. Richardson, The Language of Power: Rome and the Idea of Empire from the Third Century BC to the Second Century AD (Cambridge, 2008).
2. CAH 10 (second ed.) 70.
3. On the latter point, see the essay by John Rich on “Augustus, War, and Peace” in L. de Blois, P. Erdkamp, et al. (eds.), The Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power (Amsterdam, 2003), 329-57; and reprinted in J. Edmondson (ed.), Augustus (Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World; Edinburgh, 2009), 137-64.
4. It would be useful to have the valuable volume of Edmondson (see previous note) in an affordable, paperback edition.