BMCR 2020.09.23

The house of Augustus: a historical detective story

, The house of Augustus: a historical detective story. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. 264 p.. ISBN 9780691180076. $35.00.


Between the 1950s and the 1980s, Gianfilippo Carettoni excavated a building complex of the first century BC on the Palatine in Rome, which he identified as the residence of the Emperor Augustus.[1] In contrast, Irene Iacopi and Giovanna Tedone demonstrated in a seminal article from 2005/2006 that the building was intentionally filled in after 36 BC for the construction of the temple dedicated to Apollo Palatinus, and that Augustus consequently could no longer have lived there.[2] Since then, a fierce debate has arisen about who lived in the house. A large number of (mainly Italian) scholars identify it as the residence of Hortensius, which Octavian is supposed to have acquired after the proscription of Hortensius’ son at the end of the forties BC. The later Princeps is assumed to have lived here, until, after an aborted attempt at extending the house with an additional peristyle in the eastern part, he would have given up the building after 36 BC in favour of another residence. Anglophone researchers have shown themselves to be sceptical of this interpretation for the most part, emphasizing the uncertainties inherent in connecting house owners mentioned in written sources with archaeological finds.[3]

Peter Wiseman is one of the sceptics, who, in a series of contributions since 2009, has sharply criticised the propositionsof Andrea Carandini and others.[4] In this book, Wiseman reprises his earlier arguments, embedding them in a broad narrative of the history of the Palatine. Wiseman begins by emphasizing that Augustus saw himself less as the first Roman emperor than as the rescuer and preserver of the Republic (Ch. 1), and he questions modern ideas in which his residence is frequently imagined as a palace (Ch. 2). To better understand the Augustan Palatine, he describes the great transformations caused by the fire under Nero in 64 AD and the subsequent periods up to the present day (Ch. 3). Subsequently, Wiseman undertakes the reconstruction of the hill’s development from archaic times to the late Republic, on the basis of the geomorphological investigations of Albert Ammermann[5] and the analysis of written sources, primarily Varro (Ch. 4), taking into consideration the various legends located there (Ch. 5-6). On this foundation, he then examines the Augustan hill, on which the entire book is focused, and in particular the temple of Apollo Palatinus (Ch. 7-9). An epilogue on the family of the Princeps and Augustus’ ‘optimate’ view of history, supposedly perpetuated without criticism since Tacitus, concludes the volume (Ch. 10). In the end Wiseman connects his examination of the Palatine with a new evaluation of the first Princeps as a paragon of ‘popular’ policy in a Republican period of crisis. Only later did the ‘optimate’ historians declare Augustus to be the first emperor, tending towards a critical judgment of his role. Instead, according to Wiseman, Augustus was in reality a modest man living in an equally moderate domicile located in the area of the later domus augustana. The author’s adoption of such a one-sided evaluation of the historical personality of Augustus is surprising, in particular as much of the scholarship that has appeared over the past years, with very careful, nuanced judgments and explicit emphases on reception, is ignored.[6]

Peter Wiseman has written a vividly illustrated and easily readable book with a strong (sometimes polarising and polemical)[7] narrative. He intends his book to be understood as an example of method, consistently treating literary sources in combination with archaeological finds, an approach which he poignantly labels “A Historical Detective Story”(see preface, Ch. 2, Epilogue). In doing so, Wiseman postulates a hierarchy of source quality in favor of literary texts over archaeological data (p. XVI): ‘and the evidence that matters most is textual’. His aim is ‘to make the methodology as transparent as possible, by presenting the reader with the texts… and explaining…what they imply’ (p. 16). But both the approach and the results are not convincing, which I can only illustrate here with two case studies, but which have far-reaching consequences for the central theses of the whole book:

1. The literary sources remain more contradictory than Wiseman admits. Velleius Paterculus (2,81,3 / p. 20) expressly states that the young Caesar, prior to 36 BC, had bought several houses on the Palatine in order to have more room for himself (quo laxior fieret ipsius), indicating, for this point in time at least, that his expectations for his residence were rather greater than those of the average member of the Roman upper classes. A different statement on the same matter, by Cassius Dio 49,15,5 ‘τὸν γὰρ τόπον ὃν ἐν τῷ Παλατίῳ ὥστ᾽ οἰκοδομῆσαί τινα ἐώνητο’ is translated by Wiseman as ‘in order to build something’ (pp. 20-22), although in view of Dio’s preceding sentence, it would seem clear that the point was made in particular about residential architecture.[8] In what follows, Wiseman does not deal further with this original need on the part of the first Princeps for a comparatively large residence.[9]

2. Far more problematic, however, is Wiseman’s general disregard for the self-evident nature of archaeological finds. This particularly pertains to the debate on the orientation of the Temple of Apollo Palatinus, which Wiseman presents—in contrast to the usual opinion—as oriented to the north-east with only four columns across the front (pp. 122-128) on the basis of a suggestion by Amanda Claridge and citing a possible mention of the temple by Vitruvius (De Arch. 3,3,4).[10] This assumption serves as a starting point for many of his further thoughts on the topography of the hill, the porticoes and the house of Augustus itself. But the orientation of the temple towards the Circus Maximus is clear from traces of the robbed foundation blocks in the caementicium core, which demonstrate that there were six columns (also attested in various fragments that fit the principal measurements) with a widened central intercolumnation. Moreover, the division of the cella and the pronaos and the location of the cult images, also evident from the foundations, speak against any opening of the temple towards the north-east.[11] Here it is the archaeological evidence that matters.

The hermeneutic problem of Rome’s urban topography can only be tackled by seriously considering various kinds of sources, even if the initial situation is rendered more complex by such an approach. Wiseman’s criticism of the reconstruction and interpretation of the so-called House of Augustus by Carandini is perfectly justified, but his own unwillingness to participate in an interdisciplinary discourse is regrettable. Wiseman is called the ‘Hercule Poirot of classicists’ by Tom Holland on the book cover but unfortunately, this detective remains often in the dark because he only takes half of the evidence available to him seriously, and even so does not acknowledge contradiction.


[1] On the history of excavations: M. A. Tomei, Augusto sul Palatino. Gli scavi di Gianfilippo Carettoni. Appunti inediti (1955–1984) (Milan 2014).

[2] I. Iacopi—G. Tedone, Bibliotheca e Porticus ad Apollinis, RM 112, 2005/2006, 351–378.

[3] Most recently on the research debate: J. Lipps, “Die Stuckdecke des oecus tetrastylus aus dem sog. Augustushaus auf dem Palatin im Kontext antiker Deckenverzierungen”, TAF 25 (2018) 80–87.

[4] For example, T. P. Wiseman, “The House of Augustus and the Lupercal, Review of A. Carandini—D. Bruno, La casa di Augusto. Dai Lupercalia al natale (Rome 2008)”, JRA 22 (2009) 527–545; idem, Where did they live (e.g., Cicero, Octavius, Augustus)?, JRA 25, 2012, 657–672. This criticism has been received primarily in the English-speaking world: A. Claridge, From 100 BCE to 600 CE, in: C. Holleran—A. Claridge (Hrsg.), A Companion to the City of Rome (USA 2018) 120; H. Platts, The Development and Role of the Roman Aristocratic Domus, in: C. Holleran—A. Claridge op.cit., 306 f.

[5] A.J. Ammerman, Morfologia della valle fra Palatino e Velia, Bollettino di Archaeologia 1992, 107–111.

[6] See for example, the summary of twelve recent books on Augustus in: P.J. Goodman, “Twelve Augusti”, JRS 108 (2018) 169 f.: ‘Much of Augustus’ persistent fascination, of course, lies in the fact we can never reliably distinguish between political expediency and genuin philanthropy when assessing any of his actions. Perhaps for this reason, ambivalence, ambiguity and metamorphosis are the major key-words across all twelve books. Augustus at his bimillennium remains doggedly inscrutable.’

[7] For example, he divides scholars into ‘Classicists, who know the texts, and […] archaeologists, who know the sites’ (p. 16), which ignores the wide differences in education across different countries.

[8] Cf. for instance the translation by Earnest Cary in the Loeb Classical Library 82, Dio Cassius Roman History V (Harvard 1961) 373.

[9] How is one further to harmonise the statement by Suetonius (Augustus 72), that Augustus disliked palaces (p. 22f.), with the complures domusmentioned by Velleius Paterculus in connection with the extension of his residence? Is it possible that the two authors are evaluating different phases in the life of the princeps, or that different expectations at the times of writing, and thus differing intentions of the two authors, influenced their diverging judgments? cf. F. Coarelli, Palatium. Il palatino dalle origine all’impero (Rome 2012) 371–378. And how are we to judge the archaeological discovery of the so-called casa interrotta which proves the extension of previously existing houses directly beneath the temple of Apollo Palatinus, thus exactly corresponding to what Velleius tells us, when the supposedly preferable literary sources contradict each other? Should we go along with Wiseman, not question the alleged modesty of the Princeps as described by Suetonius, and ascribe the find to one of the ‘mighty and arrogant’ optimates of the Late Republic (p. 23)?

[10] A. Claridge, Rome, An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford 1998) 131. In detail: A. Claridge, Reconstructing the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine hill in Rome, in: C. Häuber—F. X. Schütz—G. M. Winder (Edd.), Reconstruction and the Historic City: Rome and Abroad, an interdisciplinary approach, colloquium October 2012 (Munich 2014) 128–152; idem, op.cit., 121. Wiseman has followed this view since no later than 2012: T. P. Wiseman, Roma Quadrata, Archaic Huts, the House of Augustus, and the Orientation of Palatine Apollo, JRA 25, 2012, 371–387.

[11] S. Zink, Augustus’ Temple of Apollo on the Palatine: A New Reconstruction, JRA 2008, esp. 51. 55–58; idem, Old and New Archeological Evidence for the Plan of the Palatine Temple of Apollo, JRA 25, 2012, 401 f.