BMCR 2020.10.11

Augustus and the destruction of history: the politics of the past in early imperial Rome

, , , , Augustus and the destruction of history: the politics of the past in early imperial Rome. Cambridge classical journal supplements, 41. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 2019. 367 p. ISBN 9780956838162 £60.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The use (and abuse) of the past in the early days of the Roman empire has long been a central feature of studies of the Augustan principate. This volume—one of several to arise from the commemorations surrounding the bimillennium of Augustus’ death—continues this focus and argues that the Augustan relationship with the past was rooted in the ‘elimination of contingency from the historical process in the service of power’.[1] The idea seems to be that during his principate, Augustus sought to move away from ideas of historical time as an uncertainty, in which the future is unwritten; towards an ideology of timelessness in which the Augustan Golden Age sat outside all temporal bounds and in which history itself came to an end. In doing so, of course, Augustus glossed over those moments when his grasp on power was less than secure or his actions could not be redeemed by ‘propaganda’. This has too often led scholars to inadvertently collude with the princeps in his ‘destruction of history’, for example by switching from chronological to thematic analysis in the aftermath of 27 BC, and by succumbing to the temptation to talk of a homogenous ‘Augustan age’. This volume challenges this tendency through a series of wide ranging and thought-provoking essays which attack the problem of Augustus’ relationship with the past from a variety of angles, each emphasising issues of ambiguity and complexity. The editors’ lengthy introduction does a very good job of highlighting the key themes of the work, as well as providing a detailed background to the specific arguments presented in the main chapters. They begin with an introduction to their key phrase, ‘the destruction of history’, which is used to refer to everything from the ‘forgetting of inconvenient facts and deliberate distortions to the factual record’[2] to the outright transformation of the idea of historical time discussed above. The remainder of the introduction is dedicated to a helpful discussion of the role of cultural memory in pre-Augustan Rome and the problems and challenges that traditional historiography faced upon the arrival of the triumviral period and Augustan principate.

The book proper opens with the two-chapter section, ‘(One Possible) Order out of Chaos’, in which Hodgson and Welch explore alternative histories of Octavian’s rise to power via examination of the roles of the liberatores and Antony respectively. Hodgson convincingly demonstrates that the common modern catchphrase libera res publica was relatively rare in the ancient sources and is used exclusively to refer to the system of government defined by libertas envisioned by Caesar’s assassins in the aftermath of his death. It thus represents ‘the road not taken’ and pushes back against the traditional assumption that ‘the Augustan principate was a solution without alternative to an inevitable crisis’.[3] In a similar vein, Welch’s chapter presents an alternative view of the Philippi campaign in which Antony takes on a greater role as avenger of Caesar than Octavian’s later attempts to monopolise that position would suggest. Ultimately, the presence of this alternative narrative represents the failure of Augustus’ attempt to fully ‘destroy history’.[4]

Section B, Augustan Plots, contains three chapters that explore the ways the princeps used recent Roman history to promote his rule in the present. Biesinger uses the examples of the ludi saeculares and the Forum Augustum to explore the princeps’ attempts to sanitise the recent past and depict the Augustan present as the culmination of the story of Rome, particularly in relation to military conquest. According to Biesinger, this physical approach to the commemoration of the present had an impact on the literary practice of historiography, limiting Roman historians to commenting only implicitly on contemporary affairs, as opposed to the explicit narratives of earlier authors such as Asinius Pollio and Sallust. Gotter focuses on the Greek idea of translatio imperii, via a fragment of Aemilius Sura preserved in Velleius.[5] He argues that Velleius’ depiction of Rome as the culmination in a succession of empires reflects an Augustan change in ideology with imperium replacing libertas as the guiding principle of the res publica. Finally, Havener examines the intersection between the fleeting ritual of the Roman triumph and more permanent forms of public memoria. He argues that although many republican aristocrats hope their victories would have a lasting impact on the public memory (as opposed to appearing simply as one in a long list), Augustus was the first to truly achieve this. He did so via the commemoration of his Parthian victory as the culmination of Rome’s triumphalist history. By installing the Fasti Triumphales Capitolini on the arch decreed to commemorate his Parthian victory, he placed that victory outside and above everything that had gone before, effectively ending the tradition of republican triumphs by implying that no one in future would exceed his achievements.

Section C, The Histories of Empowered Subalterns, shifts the focus to the role of individuals surrounding the princeps, beginning with Osgood’s essay on family history. Osgood demonstrates the lengths to which both elite and relatively undistinguished families went to promote their family lineage via a new set of rules that placed an increased emphasis on their ancestors’ virtues, as opposed to their offices, and on proximity and service to the princeps. Next, Russell’s paper on the senate and the Fasti Capitolini provides a reading of the Fasti very different from Havener’s earlier chapter, interpreting the inscription as an example of the senate’s inserting its own view of history into the developing historical discourse, emphasising continuity between past and future and resisting any ‘destruction of history’.

Section D, Historical Palimpsests, examines ‘the superimposition of Augustan over republican realities’[6] in both literature and material culture. Price’s chapter opens the section by examining Augustus’ transformation of the Roman Forum from a traditionally republican space into a thoroughly ‘Augustan’ one. She identifies an ambivalence in Augustan literature about the transformation of this space of concentrated republican public memory, and sees the difficulty inherent in Augustus’ inserting himself into the pre-existing competing narratives of the Forum as a contributing factor to his decision to construct his own forum, in which ‘history began and ended with himself’.[7] Lowe’s chapter on the Aeneid closes the section by examining allusions to contemporary politics in Virgil’s Aeneid, sensibly emphasising the variety of such allusions and cautioning that Virgil should be seen as ‘more a logographer than ideologue’.[8] Though Virgil is clearly not impartial when it comes to Augustus, his allusions to republican history need not all be in service of a unified political message and can often simply add colour, especially since he knew many of the individuals being referred to only as characters on the page.

The final section consists of a single chapter that serves as an epilogue to the volume. Here Geisthardt and Gildenhard examine the idea of history from the late-republic down to the reign of Trajan via case studies focused on Catullus, Virgil, and Tacitus. The authors trace the engagement of these writers with Rome’s past, and particularly with the Trojan origins of the city, from Catullus’ tragic and pessimistic view in poem 64, through Virgil’s epic story of destiny culminating in the Augustan age, to Tacitus’ use of Trojan allusions to depict the recent imperial past as ‘an aberration with dire consequences for Rome’s political (and literary) culture’.[9]

Overall, this is a highly thought-provoking book. Despite the multiple authors there are clear arguments that run throughout and a strong sense of collaboration between contributors. Both editors and contributors should be congratulated for ensuring such a high level of overall thematic unity. On one level, many of the arguments presented here are relatively uncontroversial and will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with Augustan scholarship. It is clear that the Augustan regime was acutely aware of the ‘politics of the past’ and sought to manipulate that past to the benefit of the present through a complex process of forgetting, distorting, and overwriting. Examples of this kind of engagement with history (with varying levels of success) are convincingly presented in most of the essays in the book. However, what is more controversial, and less persuasive, is the assertion that this engagement with the past formed part of a more wide-ranging programme concerned with the ‘destruction of history’ on the part of Augustus, in which he sought to eliminate the very idea of history itself and place his principate outside temporal bounds as a culminative, timeless, ‘Golden Age’. On first impression this theory does seem to be supported by some of the examples presented throughout the book (e.g. the Forum Augustum), but it also necessarily side-lines those occasions where Augustus can be seen looking toward the future, not least in his famous obsession with the succession and his determination in the Res Gestae to offer a particular reading of his career (implying that there are, and will, be others). Nevertheless, the book remains an important and valuable resource for students of the Augustan period and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the ‘politics of the past’ and cultural memory more generally.

Authors and titles

Attending to the Past: On the Politics of Time in Ancient Rome, Ingo Gildenhard, Ulrich Gotter, Wolfgang Havener, and Louise Hodgson
A. (One Possible) Order out of Chaos
1. Libera Res Publica: The Road Not Taken, Louise Hodgson
2. History Wars: Who Avenged Caesar and Why Does It Matter? Kathryn Welch
B. Augustan Plots
3. Rupture and Repair: Patterning Time in Discourse and Practice (from Sallust to Augustus and Beyond), Benjamin Biesinger
4. The Succession of Empires and the Augustan Res Publica, Ulrich Gotter
5. Augustus and the End of ‘Triumphalist History’, Wolfgang Havener
C. The Histories of Empowered Subalterns
6. Family History in Augustan Rome, Josiah Osgood
7. The Augustan Senate and the Reconfiguration of Time on the Fasti Capitolini, Amy Russell
D. Historical Palimpsests
8. Flooding the Roman Forum, Hannah Price
9. Dust in the Wind: Late Republican History and the Aeneid
E. Epilogue
10. Trojan Plots: Conceptions of History in Catullus, Virgil, and Tacitus, Johannes Geisthardt and Ingo Gildenhard


[1] Pg. 3

[2] Pg. 3

[3] Pg. 39

[4] Although the extent to which this was a coordinated programme on the part of Augustus is debatable (see below). The survival of these ‘alternative histories’ could simply stem from a lack of interest in rooting out opposition (cf. Suet. Aug. 51.3 on Augustus’ toleration of criticism).

[5] Vell. 1.6.6

[6] Pg. 33

[7] Pg. 221

[8] Pg. 238

[9] Pg. 265