BMCR 2021.08.07

The cultural history of Augustan Rome: texts, monuments, and topography

, , , The cultural history of Augustan Rome: texts, monuments, and topography. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 192. ISBN 9781108480604 $80.00.

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

The bimillennium of Augustus’ death in 2014 kicked off a flurry of conferences, exhibitions and subsequent publications to mark the occasion (e.g., Goodman 2018; Morrell, Osgood and Welch 2019). A product of that bimillenary moment (from a conference held at Rome), this slender volume proposes that Augustan Rome offers a fertile testing ground for assessing the dialogue between textual and material evidence in the writing of Roman cultural history. Totaling some seven chapters and an Introduction, intended to be read seriatim, the volume represents a somewhat eclectic, uneven collection, but nevertheless contains some substantial and, at times, brilliant contributions.

The opening chapter from David Levene tackles the relative absence of monuments and topographical detail in Livy’s history, a fact made all the more apparent when we compare Livy’s account closely to the work Dionysius of Halicarnassus (15-19). Levene ultimately finds that Livy is much more interested in the ethical lessons that his own text-as-monumentum can offer readers, rather than the monumenta within the city itself. The journey to this reasonable conclusion, however, sees Levene make some provocative claims about Livy’s audience. I found the most surprising to be “that Livy may be primarily writing for an audience outside the city of Rome” who would not know the city’s topography (24). Yet we might immediately point to Dionysius, whose audience was primarily Greek and likely not in Rome, and nonetheless, as Levene knows well, brought topographical specificity to his own account of Roman history. Not to mention that mobility to and from the urbs was much more common than once thought, Levene’s suggestion does not convince this reader.

Thomas Biggs then offers an incisive and compelling analysis of how “Cicero and the Rostra become an overlapping monument to the Republic” (35), primarily through an examination of the various fragments from Augustan and Tiberian-era authors on the death of Cicero, preserved in Seneca the Elder’s Suasoria 6. Here we find repeated slippage between the Republican Rostra from which Cicero spoke, and the Caesarian-Antonian (and ultimately, Augustan) Rostra upon which his bodily appendages were gruesomely nailed. In examining this conflation of Rostra, Biggs adeptly reveals how this was a product of a deliberate attempt at “periodic closure” between Republic and Principate, rendering Cicero’s posthumous exhibition on the Rostra (almost as one of its statues) as a symbol of “Republican time past” (44).

Double the length of all other chapters, Peter Heslin’s contribution revisits an old chestnut: the solar meridian of Augustus. Heslin confines himself to reiterating and slightly expanding on his earlier seminal argument (Heslin 2007) that the meridian advertised Augustus’ correction of the Julian calendar in monumental form. In the most interesting section (“Ideology,” 66-71), Heslin’s dismissal of the Greek zodiac inscriptions of the solar meridian as being of “limited interest” and that “the educated Roman layman … was not interested in Greek astronomy for its own sake” (67), perplexed this reader. Since Augustus placed so much emphasis on public knowledge of his own horoscope (Dio, 55.25.5; Barton 1995; Bertarione and Magli 2015), it seems that these Greek inscriptions were not merely “a sign of something foreign and powerful” (67), but spoke to an astrological prong in Augustan ideology and its popular advertisement.

In perhaps the most dynamic chapter of this collection, Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s study brings together the ways that the princeps was a powerful agent of “documentality,” occasioned by his intervention in Rome’s archival material through his (re)construction and renovation of the city’s temples. After a discussion of Varro’s antiquarian knowledge of temple holdings, it becomes clear that Augustus’ impact on such material was felt less through his control of access to it than through his role in actively curating the documents on display in Rome’s temples. As Padilla Peralta’s excavation of Festus then rewards us in spades, these interventions extended into the lexicographical and epigraphic spheres, as we encounter something of a palimpsest of Augustan (re-)inscriptions for Republican-era buildings (e.g. Porticus Octavia) preserved in Verrius Flaccus’ lexical entries (via Festus via Paulus). In this way, the monument revolution effected by Augustus resulted in “the embedding of that knowledge [of monumental texts and their memory] within a lexicographical frame” (97).

Askew from the rest of the collection, the chapter from Maddalena Bassani and Francesca Romana Berno, in two parts (“Things” and “Words”), attempts to marry archaeology and philology in their examination of the Porticus Liviae, built on the site of Vedius Pollio’s luxurious domus. Bassani (“Things”) first treats the meager archaeological evidence for the structures, while Romana Berno (“Words”) usefully parses the Ovidian distinction between luxuria and magnificentia, as terms carefully deployed to characterize the extravagance of Pollio’s domus versus Augustus’ porticus. However, the two very traditional approaches represented here rarely communicate with each other and when they do (e.g. 117-18), the one does not in fact provide much support for the other.

Carolyn MacDonald’s chapter offers a welcome shift to a number of lesser studied Augustan era Greek epigrams, preserved in the Greek Anthology, that take as their subject Myron’s bronze statue of a cow, of which a copy, or the original, once stood (within a herd of four) around the altar of the temple of Apollo on the Palatine. MacDonald productively moves away from reading these epigrams within the framework of ekphrasis, and instead reconnects them with the materiality of the object and its presence in a new Augustan context. She lucidly demonstrates how these poems engage not only in a conversation about Myron’s mimetic success (how life-like is the cow?), but how disagreements within this conversation serve to underscore “the limits of Rome’s mimesis of Greece” (140), vis-à-vis the fact that these sculptures had been transported from Greece to Rome’s own quasi-acropolis on the Palatine.

The volume is capped off by a contribution focused on the relationship between poetic and epigraphic media as “corporeal forms of writing” (142) in Stephanie Frampton’s examination of Ovid’s “two-body problem.” Here Frampton assesses the role these textual media played in the poet’s own quest for poetic durability qua monumental durability as an ongoing response to his corporeal displacement from Rome at Tomis. Though her contribution sometimes omits significant scholarship on the topic (e.g. Milnor 2014, Ingleheart 2015), Frampton’s piece has the merit of tracing the longer-term exilic development of Ovid’s corporeal “problem” and its resolution in the many Ovidian allusions found in later corpora (from Martial to graffiti).

Taken as a whole, the volume largely achieves one aim which the editors lay out in their Introduction, that is, in taking an expansive approach to “questions of materiality, textuality and monumentality” (5). It is notable, however, that the Introduction and many contributions do not engage with more recent theoretical developments in the field, such as the spatial turn in Roman studies.[1] Yet the editors do—refreshingly—acknowledge that their questions are “hardly new” (2) and that three types of material texts (inscriptions, graffiti and coins) are not featured in any meaningful way within the volume (8-9).[2]

Perhaps because of the centrality accorded to the close reading of texts, some chapters missed opportunities to fully engage with the wider material world and topographical discourses. When treating some instances of Livy’s use of topographical detail which appear to be confused or erroneous, Levene proposes that Livy is here catering to an audience “looking for the impression of local color without being concerned with specific details” (21), since they were unfamiliar with Rome’s topography (24). One must ask, however: why should Livy be so specific, if his audience is not “concerned with specific details”? Moreover, the examples he homes in upon might actually echo language found in other relevant genres of banal, yet topographically-oriented, texts.[3]

While several chapters muster persuasive epigraphic comparanda (e.g. epitaphic tropes) in their literary analyses, further material referents might still have been brought to bear. For instance, a glance beyond the epitaph to the materiality of the tomb itself might have proven fruitful for Frampton’s analysis. For probing the corporeal anxieties of posthumous repatriation which Ovid (Trist. 3.3) and many others expressed about their final resting place not being at Rome might have revealed a further, literal “one-body problem,” not least in light of the increasing prominence of the cenotaph for Augustus’ own family members (e.g. Gaius Caesar’s at Limyra, Lycia–see Borchardt et al. 2002).

Mention of Augustus brings us to the second acknowledged aim of the editors, to probe “how the ancients thought about, interacted with, and responded to the city during the transition from Republic to Empire” (1). Even as the editors state this, they offer no discussion of the term “Augustan,” and it is taken as a given that “how an Augustan author engages with the city of Rome … can operate as proxy for his response to Augustus and the Augustan regime” (3). Only Frampton (149-51) explicitly, and Padilla Peralta (passim) implicitly, grapple in any detail with what an “Augustan” framework might be. The lack of editorial discussion around what is or is not “Augustan” perhaps reflects the variety of approaches to the question: some consider the direct relationship between an author and Augustus (Levene, Frampton), others assert the thoroughly “Augustan” nature of certain authors (Biggs, MacDonald), while some rely on the direct actions of the princeps for their parameters (Heslin, Bassani and Romana Berno). This does not, on the whole, detract from the quality of the contributions, but it does limit the avenues some pursue, even as the “Augustan” conversation has begun to move on (compare the excellent Introduction in Morrell, Osgood and Welch 2019).

These qualms aside, the volume is well produced, with a solid general index, very few typographical errors and generally high-quality translations. Surprisingly, for a volume concerned with Rome’s topography, no complete map of Rome (“Augustan” or otherwise) is provided. Although a coherent message does not emerge from a cover-to-cover reading, graduate students and scholars of Augustan Rome, as well as those working at the interstices of texts and monuments, will find many worthwhile individual pieces and points of provocation to chew on in this collection.

Works Cited

Barton, T. (1995), “Augustus and Capricorn: Astrological Polyvalency and Imperial Rhetoric,” JRS, 85: 33-51.

Bertarione, S.V. and Magli, G. (2015), “Augustus’ Power from the Stars and the Foundation of Augusta Praetoria Salassorum,” CAJ, 25: 1-15.

Borchardt, J. et al. (2002), Der Fries vom Kenotaph für Gaius Caesar in Limyra. Wien: Phoibos.

Camodeca, G. (1999), Tabulae Pompeianae Sulpiciorum. Edizione critica dell’archivio puteolano dei Sulpicii. Rome: Qasar.

Fitzgerald, W. and Spentzou, E. (eds) (2018), The Production of Space in Latin Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Goodman, P. (ed.) (2018), Afterlives of Augustus, AD 14-2014. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heslin, P. (2007), “Augustus, Domitian, and the so-called Horologium Augusti,” JRS, 97: 1-20.

Ingleheart, J. (2015), “Exegi monumentum: exile, death, immortality, and monumentality in Ovid, Tristia 3.3,” CQ 65: 286-300.

Milnor, K. (2014), Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrell, K., Osgood, J. and K. Welch (eds) (2019), The Alternative Augustan Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Table of Contents

List of Figures (ix)
List of Contributors (x)
Acknowledgements (xi)
List of Abbreviations (xiii)
Matthew P. Loar, Sarah C. Murray and Stefano Rebeggiani, “Introduction.” (1-10)
D. S. Levene, “Monumental Insignificance: The Rhetoric of Roman Topography from Livy’s Rome.” (10-26)
Thomas Biggs, “Cicero, quid in alieno saeculo tibi? The “Republican” Rostra between Caesar and Augustus.” (27-44)
Peter Heslin, “The Julian Calendar and the Solar Meridian of Augustus: Making Rome Run on Time.” (45-79)
Dan-el Padilla Peralta, “Monument Men: Buildings, Inscriptions, and Lexicographers in the creation of Augustan Rome.” (80-102)
Maddalena Bassani and Francesca Romana Berno, “The Porticus Liviae in Ovid’s Fasti (6.637–648), Part I: Things; Part II: Words.” (103-125)
Carolyn MacDonald, “Greek Poets on the Palatine: A Wild Cow Chase?” (126-140)
Stephanie Ann Frampton, “Ovid’s Two-Body Problem.” (141-159)
Works Cited (160-186)Index (187-192)


[1] Levene gestures to the “spatial turn” (11 n.6.), on which, see now Fitzgerald and Spentzou (2018).

[2] Partly because many papers from the conference did not make their way into the volume (xii; 9 n.16).

[3] Levene (21) puzzles over why Livy (23.32.3-4) notes that senatorial meetings were moved to the Porta Capena and that the praetors heard cases nearby at the Piscina Publica. That Livy tells us that vadimonia occurred there, however, is telling, since specifying the location for vadimonia in Rome, down to a certain statue, was essential, even for those living outside of the city, as we know from the archives of the Sulpicii (Camodeca 1999). In another passage (41.27.7) that describes the paving of the Clivus Capitolinus, if we simply accept one editor’s reasonable suggestion—which Levene sidelines (22)—that a gloss (duplication of in Capitolium) has corrupted the text here, then Livy’s description actually resembles the type of specific language found in building inscriptions which record local magistrates’ paving of roads, e.g. at Cales (CIL 10, 4650; Augustan or Julio-Claudian).