Augustan Culture by Karl Galinsky

Book Review by Ursus

Galinsky believes scholars and scholarship are the product of their times. Augustan scholarship was held captive in the 1930’s when Syme likened Augustus as the intellectual archetype of the ruthless one-party state leaders spreading through Europe. The “Roman Revolution” of his imagining was Augustus’ ruthless extermination of the Republican Old Guard and its replacement with imperial sycophants. Augustus was, in so many words, a thug with a prodigious propaganda machine.

Galinksy happily proposes himself and his scholarship as a product of our times. Our times obsess with the multiplicity of meanings in language and images, a myriad variance of moral options rather than a rigid dichotomy between good and bad, and the gradual evolution of social paradigms resulting from a change in the interaction among various demographic groups. Our age is concerned with power, much like any other age – but defines and explores power in vastly different ways.

The Galinsky project is to reevaluate Augustan culture in terms of our own modern analysis. In so doing it revises established theories that have been held since at least the 1930s – but unlike most modern revisionism, the central figure under study is largely redeemed rather than reviled. This alone makes the book an interesting exercise.

The central question under debate is whether or not Augustus was sincere in his claims to have restored the res publica after decades of civil strife. For Galinsky, a product of modern scholarship, language has nuance. The answer to the question begins with how one defines res publica. There are two translations to the term. There is a rather strict political translation which usually translates as “the Republic.” A looser translation, imbued with more abstract and moral connotations, defines it as “the common wealth” (that which is common to all).

If the res publica is translated as a republic, then certainly Augustus’ claim is something of a sham. Though carefully trying to disguise his power under a variety of republican offices, the spirit of the Republican government had clearly died ignominiously under his guidance. If however the res publica is not defined in a narrow political sense, but in a moral sense of “that which is common to all,” then Augustus has a firmer base for his claim for being Rome’s savior.

The tension between the outward form of politics and laws and the inner substance of morality and meaning is a central theme to Galinsky’s book. Galinsky argues the former is simply the instrument by which the latter is achieved. The problem with the late Republic is that the fossilized political system had not evolved substantially to allow Romans to express traditional values in a manner more suited to contemporary times – the constitution had not kept pace with Romanatis, as it were. Instead it had degenerated into a vortex of self-serving oligarchs whose vicious competition with each other nearly destroyed the commonwealth and strangled the culture.

The Augustan triumph was to place one strong man in firm control of the process, thus ending (temporarily at least) the paralyzing morass of elite pissing contests. With Augustus at the helm, Roman culture was allowed to adapt to contemporary times, to find new outward expressions of its inner being. In so many words it clothed old bones in new flesh. But Augustus himself was not the progenitor of this – he merely positioned himself in the right place and right time. Augustus helped steer the Roman civilization calmly down the course of a mighty river rather than row it uselessly upstream. From this perspective, the Augustan triumph was not a bloody revolution, but the pinnacle of an evolution that went on evolving after its helmsman expired.

But what exactly was the source of the Augustan Evolution, and how did it restore “that which was common to all [Romans]”? The answer lies in auctoritas, the term on which Augustus based his rule. Auctoritas connotes a special type of authority. Not the authority of a military strongman with an army at his back, but the spiritual and social authority of someone with a superior vision and sense of responsibility. The term is vague, but therein lies its power as it can be constantly reinterpreted by both the Augustus himself and his followers. The Augustus ruled because he had a superior type of visionary morality in which he invited others to participate; but the term was flexible enough that those so invited to follow had a certain leeway in how they responded.

What defines this commonwealth is a constant mutual interaction between the man of moral vision and those invited to partake in his vision. Obviously the Augustus has the upper hand in the affair; but a leader is effective only insofar as he has good followers. Galinsky spends the rest of the book showcasing in exquisite detail how various agents of politics, art, literature and religion partook in the Augustan evolution. The key to the Augustan evolution was allowing a broader segment of Roman society – inside Italy and out – to participate in what it meant to be a Roman; in contrast, of course, to the narrow band of Republican elites which had arrogated the right to themselves alone. Paradoxically the seizure of the state apparatus by one man enfranchised a broader base.

More to the point, Galinsky demonstrates how there was experimentation and variation in Augustan culture – and how they sometimes deviated from what Augustus preferred. The picture is of a continual flux and evolution in a greater Mediterranean culture which had antecedents before Augustus and which evolved after him. It was the Augustan vision, however, that most effectively solicited this trend through active participation of a broader base, truly establishing a Commonweal. While Augustus was hardly a saint, the picture of him as a totalitarian dictator who monopolized all “organization of opinion” is unfair from this perspective.

Reading this book, I was struck by how much it had in common it had with another work I recently reviewed: David Potter’s Roman Empire at Bay. Potter’s thesis was that the success of the Principate was its passive nature. It articulated a vague conception of Romanatis through the use of language, images and values - but allowed the various provincials to meet the central government halfway in realizing that Romanatis. There was unity but flexibility and thus overall stability. Galinsky seems to be working on the same plain as potter, but narrowing the concern specifically to the Augustan experience.

And like Potter’s book, I am afraid Galinsky suffers from a prose that is too longwinded and “postmodern” to appeal to all readers. This survey of Augustan culture seems to be written for academics and graduate students in mind, rather than the curious non-expert. That is a shame, for the ideas here are powerful and deserve to be circulated among the widest possible audience. Those who persevere will be well-rewarded, but those who want a quick read will find themselves challenged.

As a special note, The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus is a collection of essays by various authors, but which is edited harmoniously by Galinsky. It further explores the themes in Galinsky’s own book through a chorus of different voices. A multiplicity of voices united loosely by a central figure seems somehow appropriately Augustan.

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