BMCR 2019.01.32

The Semiotics of Caesar Augustus. Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics

, The Semiotics of Caesar Augustus. Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 224. ISBN 9781474277228. $128.00.


Semiotics has been consistently and variably applied in classical studies since Rubin’s 1983 article highlighted its interpretative potential.1 Merely a decade later, reception studies, evolving out of the classical tradition, advocated a reader/receiver-based theory of ancient literature and art.2 Pyy’s book, part of Bloomsbury’s series on semiotics, offers an approach that combines the two approaches to create an intriguing exploration of the ways in which Augustus Caesar has appeared in literature and film in the latter half of the twentieth century. It will be of interest to advanced students and scholars of both classical reception and twentieth century literature.

Pyy sets out to highlight the multitude of interpretations that Augustus Caesar and Rome have attracted and to explain the ongoing popularity of the ambiguous first emperor in modern thought. The work successfully interweaves post-modernism with semiotics and reception theory to create a compelling narrative of the role of Augustus in the twentieth- century context. Of particular interest is the Introduction (pp. 1-26), which provides a detailed overview of the ongoing debate surrounding theory in classical studies. Pyy concludes that semiotics and classical reception are intertwined. Her aim is to “bridge the tradition of classical reception studies with theoretical considerations of semiotics” (p.11). The introduction, therefore, provides an excellent starting point for those new to these approaches, as well as reminding the experienced reader of the recurring themes. The first three chapters focus on the dual interpretation of Augustus that Pyy identifies in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine. As is well established in the scholarly tradition, the reign of Augustus has been represented ambiguously, leading to a positive interpretation of Augustus, as the reluctant ruler who endures personal sacrifice in order to bring peace to his people, and a contrasting negative image, as the ruthlessly ambitious politician craving power and establishing a tyrannical government.3 Pyy is not only aware of this ambiguity, but makes use of it in her analysis of Vonnegut’s novel. She distinguishes the political uses of Augustus by two of Vonnegut’s characters—Senator Lister Rosewater and his son, Eliot Rosewater. Pyy associates Senator Lister Rosewater with the vision of Augustus as ruthlessly ambitious and explores how the character’s references to Augustus reflect this approach. Pyy more positively associates Eliot Rosewater with the reluctant-ruler image of Augustus, who inspires the moral actions of this character. These themed chapters (the appropriation of the image of the emperor in Chapter 1 (pp. 27-52), the concept of empire in Chapter 2 (pp. 53-77), and the discourse on tyranny in Chapter 3 (pp. 79-108)) follow a set structure, beginning with an overview of the classical representation of Augustus that highlights the ambiguity of the emperor in association with the set theme. This is followed by discourse on the ways in which Vonnegut interprets and portrays facets of the ambiguous classical tradition. The detailed analysis of Vonnegut’s interpretation of Augustus is accompanied by a comprehensive consideration of the political and social context of post-World War II America to which it belongs. In this way, Pyy is able to establish the pliable nature of the representation of Augustus, which can be adapted for opposing ideological points. He becomes “a model for and an archetype of a modern politician” (p.77), connected with both the reluctant, benevolent ruler and the despotic, ambitious tyrant. The depth of Pyy’s analysis of Vonnegut’s novel is impressive and provides interesting insights into the role of Augustus in debates surrounding political power and leadership in the post-war period.

It is only halfway through Chapter 3 (p. 93) that Pyy brings in another work for comparison with Vonnegut’s novel. She provides a detailed analysis of Christoph Ransmayr’s 1988 Der letzte Welt, or The Last World. Pyy continues her discussion of Augustus as a character on the periphery who, nonetheless, “is omnipresent” (p.94). Ransmayr’s Augustus is contrasted with the representation of the emperor by Vonnegut. She argues that the Rome of Augustus in The Last World represents “continuity, eternity, stability and certainty” (p.103), and the representation of Augustus engages with the established monarch rather than the rising youth. While Pyy links elements of the novel with concerns of fascism and democracy important in late twentieth century Europe, it would have been useful to include an equally detailed examination of the political and social context of Ransmayr’s work as was provided for Vonnegut, to further reinforce her analysis. Given the nature of her semiotic approach, this feels like an oversight, as this context would shape the development of the signs and symbols employed by the author. Despite this gap, Pyy’s exploration of the text is engaging as she analyses Augustus as an absent but compelling character.

In Chapter 4 (pp.109-142), Pyy explores representations of Augustus in historical fiction. The four texts included in her analysis of the genre are Elisabeth Dored’s 1959 Jeg elsket Tiberius, John Williams’ 1971 Augustus: A Novel, Alan Massie’s 1986 novel of the same name, and François Fontaine’s 1989 Le sang des Césars. Her professed dislike of this genre4 appears to have limited Pyy’s exploration of the field, and the social and political contexts of the works do not receive much, if any, attention. Despite these limitations, Pyy appears to warm to the possibilities for analysis offered by historical fiction and argues that these works are more heavily influenced by the classical depiction of the emperor than those explored in the previous chapters. She returns to the theme of contrasting representations, as Augustus is associated with both democracy and despotism in the genre, and is, therefore, used to explore the “controversial and conflicted emotions towards the concept of empire” (p.142). Pyy’s analysis reveals an Augustus who embodies the traditional Western hero of the twentieth century, which she defines as the youth who begins with nothing and relies on his own skills and intelligence to succeed.

The final chapter (pp.143-168) explores representations of “Augustus on Screen” in both films and television of the later twentieth and early twenty-first century. Pyy begins with a comparison of the portrayal of Augustus in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 Cleopatra, BBC’s 1976 I, Claudius, and British Granada Television’s 1968 The Caesars. Her focus shifts in the second half of the chapter to television at the beginning of the twenty-first century, exploring Hallmark Entertainment’s 1999 Cleopatra, Lux Vide/RAI’s 2003 Imperium: Augustus, ABC’s 2005 Empire, and HBO’s 2005 Rome. Again, there is limited discussion of the selection process or the political and cultural background of these portrayals, which is perhaps inevitable given that they take up only one third of the space dedicated to Vonnegut. Pyy begins by highlighting the impact that screen portrayals of history have on “shaping the modern imagination” and “modern audience’s ideas of the past” (p. 143). She divides her analysis into two sections, starting with the representation of Augustus in the 1960s and 1970s before continuing with the more recent works. Pyy focuses on the characterisation of the emperor rather than the production values and identifies a different adaptation in each cinematic work. Her analysis reveals contrasting portrayals. The Octavian of Cleopatra possesses the arrogance of youth and inexperience, bringing “the inevitable demise of the Republican spirit” (p.149), while The Caesars and I, Claudius portray the older, established emperor. Pyy argues that this distinction between the young and old Augustus, arising naturally from the genre, reduces the ambiguity of his character. She rightly notes the deficiencies of Hallmark Entertainment’s Cleopatra and ABC’s Empire, arguing that both lack depth, before moving onto the more successful Imperium: Augustus. Here, Pyy analyses the way in which different narrative levels within the series restore the ambiguity of Augustus’ character. Finally, she argues that HBO’s Rome, widely successful and therefore influential on the twenty-first-century perception of the emperor, functions “as an archetype and as an historical analog for the twenty-first-century Western villain-hero” (p.168). In this way, she links the Augustus of Rome with the “ruthless conniving, unspeakable nerve and a complete lack of conscience” (p.168) present in the political dramas House of Cards and The West Wing.

Pyy provides a brief concluding chapter (pp. 169-179), beginning with the anecdotal appearance of Augustus as a marketing tool for a Scottish Brewery. For the author, this is symbolic of the continuous reinterpretation that the emperor undergoes. This leads into a summary of the role of the emperor in the modern context, highlighting the ambiguity and fluidity of his representation. Pyy explains the ways in which Augustus as a sign has become synonymous with imperialism, revolution, power struggles and leadership in the modern imagination.

Throughout her book, Pyy has linked the varied interpretations of Augustus that inform his portrayal to the ambiguous nature of his representation in the ancient sources. Despite some limitations in the later chapters, the analysis is detailed and convincing. The volume establishes the role of the emperor in the postmodern discourse of power, politics, and leadership, highlighting his continuing significance in the modern imagination. It is an insightful work for scholars and advanced students alike, providing inspiration for a deeper analysis of the representation of Augustus Caesar, wherever he might be found.


1. N. F. Rubin, “Introduction: Why Classics and Semiotics?”, Arethusa 16 (1983): pp. 5-14.

2. As Lernout notes in his review of Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Classics in International Modernism and the Avant-Garde. Brill’s companions to classical reception, 9, classical reception is a topic that needs little introduction (BMCR 2017.09.17). For the development of reception studies, see L. Hardwick, “Reception Studies,” Greece & Rome: New Surveys in the Classics 33 (2003), pp. 1-5; C. Martindale, “Thinking Through Reception,” Classics and the Uses of Reception, edited by C. Martindale and R. F. Tomas, (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), pp.1-13.

3. E. Gabba, “The historians and Augustus” in Caesar Augustus: Seven Aspects edited by F. Millar and E. Segal, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 61-88; B. Levick, Augustus: Image and Substance (Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited, 2010), pp. 5-10.

4. Pyy states she has “always found [herself] to be somewhat suspicious and prejudiced about historical fiction as a genre,” p. 112.