Book Review by Lindsay Powell
Caesar Augustus is a pivotal figure in the epic story of the Roman Empire, but one who is difficult to assess today. Some see him as a ruthless faction leader, others as a military dictator – a prototype Führer – while yet others see him as a benign tyrant, or a patron of Rome's rebuilding, both of its political system and its artistic culture. Even ancient historians wrestled with how best to explain all aspects of his rule since his victory at Actium in 31 BCE.
Augustus attempts to introduce readers to some of the crucial questions about the contribution of this great man using a variety of sources, approaches and techniques. It is one of several titles in the 'Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World' which “introduces English-speaking students to central themes in the history of the ancient world and to the range of scholarly approaches to those themes, within and across disciplines”. The book is edited by Jonathan Edmondson who is Professor of Roman History and Classical Studies at York University, Toronto. He has trawled through the enormous body of academic research in the UK and USA, France and Germany to find a selection of “the most important work on the age of Augustus” (page 27) published over the past fifty years.
This is not a biography but a collection of papers addressing the central question of 'how dominant was Augustus himself in shaping general developments during his own Principate?' (page 24). The book is divided into four parts, each prefaced with a useful introduction by the editor. Part I is entitled “The Novus Status from IIIvir Rei Publicae Constituendae to Princeps” and explores Augustus' rise to power and how he secured it. It opens with Ronald Syme's “Imperator Caesar: a Study in Nomenclature” which presents Octavian as a revolutionary young leader who disregarded the law to take power for himself. Chapter 2 is Fergus Millar's “Triumvirate and Principate”. Millar was a student of Syme but presents a radically different view of Octavian than that advocated by his professor, presenting the young heir of Julius Caesar as having a legal base of power from the popular assemblies: he was the People's choice. Chapter 3 is Jean-Louis Ferrary's influential “The Powers of Augustus”, translated from the French by Jonathan Edmondson, which examines the constitutional base of his power. Chapter 4 is John Rich's “Augustus, War and Peace” and chapter 5 is Nicholas Purcell's “Livia and the Womanhood of Rome”.
Part II is entitled “Res Publica Restituta” and discusses the political processes which Augustus used to 'restore the Republic' and his unprecedented reforms and transformations of the state apparatus and its institutions. It opens with Kurt A. Raaflaub's “The Political Significance of Augustus' Military Reforms”. Chapter 7 is Werner Eck's “Augustus' Administrative Reforms: Pragmatism or Systematic Planning?”, translated by Claus Nader. Chapter 8 is Andrew Wallace Hadrill's “Family and Inheritance in the Augustan Marriage Laws”. Chapter 9 is John Scheid's “To Honour the Princeps and Worship the Gods: Public Cult, Cult in the Neighbourhoods, and Imperial Cult in Augustan Rome”, translated by Jonathan Edmondson.
Part III is entitled “Images of Power and the Power of Images” and discusses the military, religious and secular symbols Augustus leveraged to underline the centralised leadership the people of the empire enjoyed under his rule following the years of civil strife and disunity which preceded it. Tonio Hölscher's paper “Monuments of the Battle of Actium: Propaganda and Response”, translated by Claus Nader, opens the segment with a discussion of the symbolic art developed to evoke and celebrate the epoch-making victory at the mouth of the Ambracian Gulf. Chapter 11 is Maria Wyke's “Augustan Cleopatras”. Chapter 12 is T. P. Wiseman's “Cybele, Virgil, and Augustus”. T. J. Luce's “Livy, Augustus, and the Forum Augustum” rounds out the section.
The concluding Part IV is entitled “The Impact of Augustus in the Roman Provinces”. It covers the relationship of the Roman state to its provincial communities. Constrained by space, Edmondson decided to take one city as representative of the empire. He chose Walter Trillmich's “Colonia Augusta Emerita, Capital of Lusitania” – the “most Augustan cities of Roman Spain” (page 424) – for chapter 14. The final chapter of the book is Glen Bowersock's “The Cities of the Greek World under Augustus”.
A couple of the papers can be found on JSTOR, but the great majority can only be found in their original journals – and languages – which will be impractical for most readers to access. This collection provides both lay and specialist reader alike a genuine service. Moreover Edmondson worked with the authors to revise their material so these represent their most up-to-date views. His Introduction is a useful survey of the state of scholarship of the Principate of Augustus and highlights the context of contemporary events which inform and influence academics as they assess the man. The individual section introductions explain these contexts and draw out key themes, aiding understanding of the papers which follow. The papers are reproduced in a standard typeface with extensive footnotes and bibliographies, though styles of references vary according to the authors' tastes.
The current edition, published in September 2009, is available as a hardback (ISBN 9780748615940) published for £115.00, which puts this beyond most reader's means. The good news is that a paperback version (ISBN 9780748615957) is due in September 2013 for a much more affordable £19.99. Running to 576 pages, the book has a detailed index, a chronology, a glossary of technical Latin terms, a Guide to Further Reading and a general bibliography. In many ways this is a model 'portable library' of the very best of academic research other editors of collections should seek to emulate and Edmondson is to be applauded for his achievement. For readers with a passion for Augustus and his times this is a highly worthwhile addition to the bookshelf.
Lindsay Powell is the author of Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania. His latest book, Germanicus, is due for publication in 2012. He divides his time between Austin, Texas and Wokingham, England.