August 19th 2014 marks two thousand years since the death of the Roman emperor Augustus. The commemorations may not be as lavish as in 1938, when the Italian government celebrated the bi-millennium of his birth with a major exhibition, but there is still a great deal of Augustus-related activity taking place (comprehensively documented on Penny Goodman’s site. So why are we still interested in Augustus?

Augustus as Emperor

Augustus may or may not have been regarded as the first emperor of Rome – Suetonius starts his set of imperial biographies with Augustus’ great-uncle Caesar – but politically and institutionally Augustus marks a turning point. In his reign the methods by which a single individual was grafted onto the existing framework of Senate and magistrates as its supreme citizen were formulated. Rome’s enormous conquests over the previous two centuries were organised, systematised and in some cases completed, and the Roman army became a professional standing army dedicated to protecting the empire and the emperor. Augustus managed this complex process of change whilst claiming to have restored the Roman res publica, a powerful message of continuity which was at the heart of his carefully-managed self-presentation.

Augustus and peace

Augustus emerged as sole ruler at Rome by defeating Mark Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., the end of a period of civil war which began with Caesar’s invasion of Italy in 49 B.C. and had continued with brief interruptions ever since. These conflicts had been fought out over most parts of the Roman empire and caused enormous destruction; they had also involved a brutal purge in 43 B.C. when Octavian (as Augustus is known in modern historiography before he assumed the name Augustus in 27 B.C.), Mark Antony and their ally Lepidus published the names of the enemies and had them executed. Augustus did not subsequently draw attention to the triumviral period, emphasising instead the peace and stability of the post-Actium period. This message of peace was at the heart of the appeal and popularity of the Augustan regime, and Augustus’ longevity – he ruled without serious challenge for over forty years – was a vital element in establishing a stable monarchy.

Augustan culture

During Augustus’ reign, and particularly its first two decades, many of the literary and artistic works which came to define the nature of Roman culture were created or completed, including the Aeneid, Horace’s Odes, Livy’s history. The built environment of the city of Rome was transformed, in ways that showcased the new phenomenon of an imperial family and demonstrated the re-establishment of harmonious relations between Rome and the gods. The Augustan period rapidly became ‘classic’, enormously influential as a model of cultural achievement.

A divided legacy?

A ruthless military dictator, or a benevolent and effective ruler? Recent research, showcased in this set of articles, does not eschew such questions of evaluation. But it is more interested in how Augustus secured his ends than whether we should approve of them.  As they indicate, there are still new questions to be asked of this most studied of Romans and new answers to be suggested.

Until 31st December, you can access a selection of articles about Augustus published in The Journal of Roman Studies. Click here to enjoy this offer.

Articles about Augustus published in other Cambridge classics journals can be accessed here.

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