BMCR 2019.05.28

Afterlives of Augustus, AD 14-2014

Penelope J. Goodman, Afterlives of Augustus, AD 14-2014. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xv, 418. ISBN 9781108423687 £90.00.


This volume records the proceedings from one of many conferences held in 2014 to mark the bimillenary of Augustus’ death, this one in Leeds.1 Its primary aim is to open new avenues of inquiry into the reception of Augustus from antiquity to the modern day, which it does by devoting space to historical periods and material that tend to be sidelined in contemporary work on Augustus’ afterlives. In particular, the volume looks beyond the two periods that typically receive the most attention — “the so-called Augustan age literature of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England, and the association between Mussolini and Augustus in 1930s Italy” (1-2) — focusing instead on a fuller-scope investigation of Augustus’ appearances before, after, and between these two eras. In the process, the volume points up the constructedness of our contemporary vision of Augustus and attempts to deconstruct piece-by-piece the Augustus that has been bequeathed to us by two thousand-years’ worth of receptions.

The volume is structured loosely chronologically as opposed to thematically or geographically, with chapters grouped under the following four periods listed by Goodman in her introductory essay: Antiquity, Christianity and the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and Modernity. With the exception of James T. Chlup’s chapter on Governor General of Canada, John Buchan’s Augustus (1937) and Karl Galinsky’s concluding chapter on Augustus in America, the essays are all Eurocentric (though Hobden does discuss some American material). Literary receptions of Augustus predominate, though some non-literary receptions are discussed, including monumental (Boeye & Pandey; Popkin), museological (Clareborn), and televisual (Hobden). Most of the essays complement each other well, but while Goodman makes some effort in the introduction to illuminate the connections between individual chapters, the connections in the essays themselves are more often implicit rather than explicit, or they are relegated to simple cross-references in the footnotes of chapters. Some attempt by the essays’ authors to engage in dialogue with one another would have been welcome, though of course this is always a challenge (and desideratum) with edited volumes.

Following Goodman’s introductory first chapter, which not only previews the essays but also lays out the rationale for the volume, the next five chapters cover material chiefly from antiquity. Alison Cooley draws heavily on Suetonius as she examines how Augustus already was fashioned as a god while in Campania during the days leading up to his death. Steven Green considers how Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis and De Clementia, though written only a year or two apart, represent Augustus as an exemplar for Nero in radically different ways—a response to Nero’s rapidly evolving reign and growing cruelty. Patrick Cook’s chapter, “Embodying the Augustan in Suetonius and Beyond,” seems a missed opportunity. For all its careful reading of how Suetonius describes and assimilates the bodies of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero as a way of legitimizing imperial succession, it does not attempt to square Suetonius’ claims with the abundant surviving imperial portraiture of the four emperors. In the context of bimillenary celebrations of Augustus, the omission is especially striking since to my mind one of the most compelling features of the 2014 exhibition Augusto, which I had the fortune of seeing at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, was the room of portrait busts of the Julio-Claudian line, where one could easily recognize how Augustus’ family and successors visually emulated the first emperor. Surprisingly, the only image included with Cook’s chapter is not an imperial image but rather Lawrence Alma Tadema’s “A Roman Emperor, AD 41” (1872), which also seems to be the only evidence falling under the category of “Beyond” referred to in the chapter’s title. Some effort to marry or at least consider the interplay between literary and material evidence for Augustus and his successors’ bodies would have strengthened the chapter’s conclusions—a point made implicitly in Maggie Popkin’s chapter in the volume, discussed below.

The next two chapters move toward non-Christian late antiquity and touch on a similar theme, though they do not engage with each other explicitly. Joseph Geiger tackles the question of how ancient authors from three distinct eras after Augustus—from Tiberius to Trajan, during the reign of Trajan, and then after Trajan—marked the beginning of the Principate, namely whether they cited Julius Caesar or Augustus as Rome’s first emperor. Shaun Tougher considers the status of Augustus in Julian Augustus’ fourth-century Caesars, querying what role Augustus plays for Julian as an imperial model. The missed connection between the two papers is Julian’s decision to bring in Julius Caesar first into his imagined banquet of Caesars while slotting Augustus into the second position, thereby implying that Augustus was Rome’s second, not first emperor. Although the chapters complement each other nicely, given the way students and scholars tend to utilize edited volumes—mining individual chapters as opposed to reading the full suite of essays sequentially—a gesture toward linking the two chapters explicitly would have better prodded readers interested in the one to also consult the other.

With the following four essays, the material creeps forward to Christianity and the Middle Ages. Michael C. Sloan considers the reception of Augustus in Orosius’ Historiae Adversus Paganos, highlighting in particular how Orosius casts Augustus as the “secular forerunner of Christ” (104), and how Orosius’ characterization of Augustus in turn influenced Charlemagne’s understanding of the first emperor and thus motivated his own adoption of the secular title “Augustus.” Charlemagne and the Carolingians reappear in the chapter by Jürgen Strothmann, where, as at the end of Sloan’s essay, the question of Charlemagne’s (and his successors’) assumption of the nomen Augusti features prominently, as do the implications of this gesture for the “Carolingian concept of history” (148). In between these two chapters, Kosta Simić tracks Byzantine receptions of Augustus in the fourth, sixth, and ninth centuries, noting how Byzantine writers invoked the name and memory of Augustus to help negotiate the relationship between church and state at pivotal moments in Byzantine history. The three chapters represent a cohesive triad, as all three ultimately touch on the reception of Augustus more as an idea than as a person in the Early Middle Ages; readers drawn to one of these essays should therefore consider consulting all three.

The fourth of the essays to draw on evidence from the Middle Ages is Kerry Boeye and Nandini B. Pandey’s investigation of the Augustan altar in S. Maria in Aracoeli in Rome and the theophanic legend behind its foundation. The chapter—the first in the volume to address material evidence and one of the strongest contributions in the collection—argues that the altar (and the legend of Augustus’ erection of it) underscores the role of Augustus as “medieval exemplar of the subjugation of political power to the authority of Christ and ultimately the Church” (152). One of the chapter’s major interventions is a new reading of the inscription etched into the altar: the authors explain how grammatical ambiguities (or seeming errors) in the text of the inscription actually help guide the viewer/reader’s experience of the altar, namely by showing how the altar reifies Augustus’ theophany and therefore enables the viewer/reader to “share in Augustus’ transcendent revelation” (175). The chapter thus nicely complements Sloan’s and Simić’s essays insofar as it examines physical evidence for the phenomenon that both authors had previously isolated in Byzantine literature.

Robert Black’s essay ventures into the world of the Italian Renaissance, surveying responses to Augustus by political thinkers spanning the years 1265 to 1536. Although the chapter is constituted mostly of lengthy quotations from various Renaissance writers without a clear overarching argument, the richness of the selections makes it a useful tool for readers interested in the reception of Augustus in the political thought of Italy from the Late Medieval period to the height of the Renaissance. Following Black, Bobby Xinyue travels north to France in the late Renaissance, offering a close reading of the prologue to Book 8 of Claude Barthélemy Morisot’s relatively obscure Fasti (1649)—a work imagined as the six-book continuation of Ovid’s Fasti. As Xinyue shows, Morisot’s account of Augustus’ triple triumph displays an Augustus who embodies all the qualities associated with seventeenth-century French monarchs, especially Louis XIV, thereby reinforcing the volume’s prevailing theme of Augustus as exemplar for rulers of all kinds.

James T. Chlup moves the volume forward in history once again, taking the reader to the 1930s and the novelist, historian, and politician John Buchan’s biography of Augustus (1937). Chlup’s chapter deftly unravels the influence of Buchan’s novels, his previous biography of Oliver Cromwell (1934), and his experience as Governor General of Canada on Augustus, ultimately arguing that Buchan’s biography painted a picture of Augustus that was suitable and perhaps even necessary for the interwar period in which it was written. Martin Lindner considers the writing of another modern author, the German novelist Günther Birkenfeld, whose four historical Augustus novels—the first three being different versions of the same novel (1934, 1943/44, and 1962), while the fourth (1984) is a posthumous reprint of the 1943 version—each painted a slightly modified picture of the princeps, and therefore served as indicators of the particular German Zeitgeist in which they appeared. Kathleen S. Lamp rounds out this trio of essays on Augustus in contemporary literary studies by coming at the question of Augustus’ reception obliquely, arguing against the exclusion of Augustus and the Augustan period from the rhetorical tradition, particularly because the Augustan period shows that “the visual and material can be rhetorical in the same way as the oral and the written” (267).

The final four essays in the volume are less easily categorized. The first, by Maggie Popkin, is largely ancient in its focus, as it traces the influence of Augustus’ “triumphal” Parthian arch and its non-triumphal origins on later, similarly non-triumphal imperial arches—namely those of Titus, Septimius Severus, and Constantine—highlighting how these arches manipulated the memories of military victories and triumphal processions, leading to false narratives of these emperors’ triumphs in modern historiography; based on the volume’s organizational scheme, it is unclear why this essay does not appear earlier in the collection with the other ancient pieces. Fiona Hobden’s essay veers from antiquity to the world of modern television documentaries, showing how three in particular from three different countries— I, Caesar (BBC Two, 1997), The Roman Empire in the First Century (PBS, 2001) and Augustus: Totengräber und Friedensfürst (ZDF, 2004)—present Augustus in ways that ultimately speak to their own contemporary political moments. Following Hobden, Amanda Clareborn casts a critical eye on the Augustan museum exhibitions launched in Rome in 2014, noting on the one hand how some of these exhibitions successfully challenged the prior fascist associations attached to Augustus, while lamenting (and indicting) on the other hand bureaucratic failures to fully capitalize on the museological potential of the bimillenary of Augustus’ death. Concluding the volume is Karl Galinsky’s breezy discussion of Augustus’ (non-)reception in American culture—a satisfying, conversational bookend to a stimulating suite of essays.

In sum, this is a meaty collection that offers something for nearly everybody, and it should be a sine qua non for any scholars of Augustus looking to expand the chronological scope of their studies.


1. The volume’s editor, Penelope J. Goodman, has maintained a listing of all conferences and events held that year in commemoration of Augustus’ death: