BMCR 2012.12.04

Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution

, Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. viii, 319. ISBN 9781107012110. $99.00.


In 1982, J. K. Galbraith critiqued contemporary American economic policy by comparing it to the ideas of the 1890s: “what an older and less elegant generation called the horse-and-sparrow theory: If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”1 This idea is more popularly known as trickle-down economics. Keynes and Hayek, Democrat and Republican, Labour and Conservative have fought over this idea and its application for over a century, with no clear winner. One’s adherence to, or disavowal of, this idea largely comes down to what you perceive are the best markers for studying an intangible.

Within historical and cultural studies, especially those dealing with identity, there is an equally long-standing and irreconcilable debate surrounding an intangible. One that is founded on similar mechanisms of interaction – that of the role of elite emulation in cultural change. Both ideas, economic and acculturative, are basically about how many usable oats the lower orders can harvest from horse-shit. It is taken as a given that the lower orders are picking through it in the first place.

Spawforth’s book is an important contribution to this fundamental debate, and in many respects it is a logical culmination of his previously published works. He sees the Romanisation of the Greek East as a ‘re-Hellenisation’ driven by a distinctly Roman vision of what constitutes Greekness, largely drawn from the exempla of Classical Athens and Sparta. Roman elite readings of Greek culture are imparted to self-interested provincial elites, and this trickles down to everyone else. This idea, simply stated, has important ramifications for our understandings of cultural interaction, elite behaviour, and the nature of the early principate. What was the place of Greece in Roman perceptions? To what extent were the Greeks complicit in the imposition of a dominant Augustan ideology of Greekness? Can culture and its expression be reduced to a continual process of renegotiation by those at the top?

Spawforth begins within his first chapter (Introduction: Greece and the Augustan Age) by clearly laying out his assumptions: his theory of Romanisation, the mechanisms of cultural transformation as he sees them, the place of Augustus within the Greek world, and the character of the Greek provincial elite, who he sees as increasingly influenced by the tastes and behaviours of their Roman counterparts. Strongly implicit in all of this is a Machiavellian central ideology whose basic tenets were devised by Augustus and his close circle, and whose spread was facilitated by targeted patronage and the strong desire amongst provincial elites to support the new system. Rather than a reactionary principate that sees ideology accrete and cohere over time, this is a driven, far-sighted Augustus who seeks to rework what it means to be Roman from the beginning of his rule. Within the context of Greek provincial life, this can be seen in the careful application of civic benefaction and the increasing awareness of, and emphasis on, distinguished ancestors amongst provincial elites. Spawforth emphases that this process began before Augustus, but nevertheless it forms a central plank in his theory. Augustus selects existing trends, and by his selection makes them policy.

The following chapters are, in essence, extended case studies intended to support the core argument: each merits a close reading, for each is a complicated and delicate construction that supports a relatively simple idea. This review can do little more than sum up the main points as I see them. Chapter 2 (‘Athenian eloquence and Spartan arms’) explores the two best-documented instances of concrete Augustan intervention (or ‘cultural initiatives’ as Spawforth calls them [p59]) in Greek poleis. The Agrippeum in Athens and the Augustan support for the disciplina of Sparta, in the guise of the (in)famous whipping contest.

In the case of the Agrippeum, its architectural form and sculptural decoration are secondary to its function: the promotion of Atticising forms of declamation. Spawforth sees the structure (and the associated performances) within a militarized atmosphere, with specific references to Classical Athenian force of arms, and the nearby Temple of Ares, bearing this out. In the case of Sparta, he follows the traditional model of using the Temple of Artemis Orthia as an example of that polis’ civic institutions propping-up and promulgating a de-historicised Lygurgan constitution that approached ancestor cult. He sees both Athens and Sparta as important trans-Mediterranean hubs of cultural contact for both Greeks and Romans. Visitors flocked to these poleis and drank from Augustus’ Hellenising well while doing so.

Chapter 3 (‘The noblest actions of the Greeks’) builds on the notion of Athens and Sparta as central nodes in culturally transformative networks by examining Roman views of key moments in Greek history. So Athens’ role in the Persian wars (especially Salamis) and Sparta’s leadership at Plataea were used by Augustus to shape attitudes towards Greece – both at home and in the provinces. For the Athenian case, a masterly discussion of a fragmentary inscription (SEG 26.121 = IG ii 2 1035) seeks to establish Salamis as a touchstone for an Athenian program of antiquarian restoration with Augustan roots.2 In the case of Sparta, it is the remains of the theatre and the Pausanian description of the Persian Stoa that, for Spawforth, point to the Augustan emphasis of the Persian wars. Plataea itself sees renewed (or just new) ritualized performances that Spawforth reads in an anti-barbarian light. These three examples are all tied to each other by a shift in Greek commemorative practices that highlights their ritualized landscapes of triumphalism, their emphasis on past glories, and Augustan approval.

The next chapter (‘The gifts of the gods’) aims to incorporate elements of the main counterargument to Spawforth’s thesis (that of cultural convergence, as opposed to his notion of domination). Spawforth is evidently influenced by his subject: for a study that is based so much on careful readings of rhetoric and declamation, he does an admirable job of employing the techniques he enumerates. Spawforth sees changes in Greek ritual as responding to Roman ideas of religious antiquarianism – he envisages a network of elite interactions creating a dialogue between Greeks and Romans that eventually bleeds into the organizing of civic festivals and polis administration.

The fifth chapter (‘Constructed beauty’) builds on his consistent theme of collaborating locals by examining examples of restored civic buildings within several poleis – most notably Messene, Athens and Sparta, Olympia and Mantinea. As with the previous chapters, the evidence is drawn primarily from epigraphy and select historical sources. Spawforth suggests that the mechanism of cultural transformation lies in power relations, tied to ideas of gender that allow the creation of shades of Greekness. In other words, contemporary Greeks are feminine, but the Greek past is virile and masculine, and the emphasis of that past will transform the contemporary Greeks into acceptable near-Roman proponents of civilization. Or, the more the current Greeks adhere to Roman ideas of past Greekness, the more acceptable it is for aspects of Roman culture to be based on Greek models. Past behaviour excuses contemporary weakness so long as the diagnosis is accepted, and the cure taken willingly.

The final substantive chapter takes this idea up to the time of Hadrian (Hadrian and the legacy of Augustus) by selecting examples of later imperial policy that have their precedent in the activities of Augustus. A concluding chapter neatly summarises the main ideas.

Spawforth is clearly influenced by Wallace-Hadrill and Zanker, and to his credit he is transparent about his influences and underlying assumptions. From Wallace-Hadrill he takes the model of “circulatory acculturation”, where Rome is the beating heart taking in ideas of Hellenism and spurting out a ‘re-oxygenated’ form to the imperial extremities.3 From Zanker (and German art historians more generally) he takes the notion of a centrist, absolute Augustan program of cultural intervention in the lives, public and private, of imperial citizens.4 Underpinning the argument is the idea that the Augustan ‘restoration’ of the Roman state was supported, indeed enabled, by the interdependence of the moral and the political, and that this can be extended to the provinces.

This idea, implied but never really dissected, is supported by saying that the ‘meanings’ of Augustan outputs (coarsely: the reforms, the images, the literature) are multivalent, both for producers and consumers. It is very hard to argue against the notion of multivalency, because as an idea it includes the evidence that corroborates and that which contradicts. Indeed, part of the interpretive power of the idea of multivalency as Spawforth wields it is this syllogistic rationale that sees divergent or contradictory explanations as further proof of its efficacy.

One of the ways Spawforth is able to make this rhetorical edifice appear sound is by following the transhistorical ideas of Shumate.5 Spawforth isn’t using the transhistorical aspect of Shumate’s work in relation to modern instances of nationalism and imperialism, but the underlying projection of ideas backwards and forwards in time allowed by transhistorical reasoning is evident in his arguments. He jumps around in time, selecting his evidence carefully and interpreting it as either laying the groundwork for later Augustan manipulation, or as evidence of what must have been an earlier Augustan intervention. It is skillfully done, but is it correct? Through his selectivity he creates a Mirror of Erised; he sees what he most desires.

He weaves these interpretive threads together in an impressively original manner, but ultimately what Spawforth is doing is marshalling an array of proxies for culture, and his selection of evidence is telling. Throughout most of the book, Spawforth’s discussion is based on Pausanian description, a judicious reading of historical texts, fragmentary inscriptions, and very selective archaeological interpretation. So with the Agrippeum the emphasis is on the decorative program (pp.60-70) and the associated oratory (pp.70-80), rather than the archaeology (on which he relies on Thompson). Similarly with his discussion of religion, the emphasis is on the dedicatory inscriptions rather than the religious spaces (see the eloquent but rootless discussion of Athenian sacred embassy to Delphi, pp.147ff.; Spawforth is aware of the limitations at times: p.192). When it comes to his discussion of the transformation of civic space, it is to Pausanias and epigraphy, not archaeology or topography, that he turns; at Messene, it is the decree discussing the urban fabric that is highlighted (SEG 23.205 and 207; pp. 213-217), not the extensive excavations and topographical research of Themelis.

It shows what he thinks culture is, or rather, what he thinks the recoverable elements of culture are in a Greek and Roman context. Culture is writing, perhaps writing about objects, but not objects themselves. As writing changes, so goes culture. He constructs a nuanced, imaginative, and fundamentally important argument within the bounds of this restrictive definition of culture, but, in the end, despite its nuance, it is an argument in monolithic views; a single Augustan Rome with discrete boundaries driving, coercing, and shaping a single vision of Greekness, from the top down. This is a position that you either accept or reject based on your perceptions of how culture operates, and what its most significant markers are. If you accept that ‘high literature’, art historical readings of buildings, and state- sanctioned epigraphy are proxies for the operation of culture (broadly writ), then Spawforth is surely correct. If, on the other hand, you think that culture operates on a much more contextualized and indistinct basis, with no bounded categories of select markers, if you think that culture exists beyond and outside of the elite, then Spawforth is frustratingly high-minded and, when all is said and done, incomplete.

This work is an important crystallization of a particular (and predominant) point of view regarding the operation, transmission, and evolution of culture in the Greek East. It is a skillful, provocative, beautifully flawed work that annoyed and delighted in equal measure, and is essential reading for anyone working on Roman Greece or issues of cultural interaction more broadly. In reference to art, Simon Schama said that you can identify a great work when you turn your back on it and still feel its presence.6 By that definition, Spawforth will be at our backs for some time to come.


1. Galbraith, J. K. (February 4, 1982) “Recession Economics.” New York Review of Books 29.1: 34.

2. See CJ Online 2012.09.02 for a discussion of this aspect of Spawforth’s argument.

3. Wallace-Hadrill, A. 2008. Rome’s Cultural Revolution. Cambridge University Press. Reviewed in BMCR 2009.07.50

4. Zanker, P. 1988. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. University of Michigan Press.

5. See BMCR 2008.01.38 for an excellent critique of the ‘transhistorical’ character of Roman imperialism.

6. Schama, S. 2006. The Power of Art. BBC Books: 6-7.