Tag Archives: emperor augustus

Scholars of later Rome know earlier Rome, too

Nothing says ‘Later Roman Empire’ like giving the Tetrarchs a hug

I was thinking about how a certain amount of knowledge of earlier Rome is an important ingredient in being able to interpret the Later Roman Empire and the fall of its western portion. As my previous post about the Age of Augustus observes, knowing Augustus helps you interpret Constantine.

This point illustrates itself very well in Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. In order to demonstrate that the sort of complex society and economy that typified the Roman world ceased to exist as a result of the dismemberment and manslaughter of the western Roman Empire at the hands of invading barbarians, Ward-Perkins had to marshal the evidence for just such a complex society. By showing what sort of economy and standards of living people had before the fall of the Roman Empire, Ward-Perkins is able to show us the final years of Late Antiquity and on into the Early Middle Ages were less economically stable with a lower standard of living.

But you need the evidence from earlier, imperial Rome to be able to do that.

For example, to discuss common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire, you need evidence of common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire. And Ward-Perkins finds it, from Pompeii to Britain.

If your concern is not the fall of Rome, the rest of the Roman world is still important for understanding Late Antiquity. One of the realities that stands out in late antique Latin verse, for example, is its awareness that it is not ‘classical’. Even if they might at times wish to rival the greats of the past, the poets of the Later Roman Empire know that they live in a different age. There is perceptible distance between them and Virgil, and they make it known.

If you don’t know Virgil, it is much harder to interpret Prudentius and Claudian, let alone Macrobius.

If you don’t know Cicero, Jerome is harder. If you don’t know Livy, Augustine’s City of God is interpreted differently. And on it goes.

Furthermore, Elsner’s art history book Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph makes an important point about the monumental art of Late Antiquity — it has models and precursors from the High Empire, at least as early as Antoninus Pius. That is to say — reading Late Antiquity as a hermetically-sealed cultural entity will miss the connections it has with the Roman past.

I do hope this is no surprise for anyone else who studies Roman history! It would be a great shame if colleagues who study Republican Rome or the empire from Augustus to the third century thought we knew nothing of those epochs of the grand Roman story. It is also worth mulling over if you want to get into the history and culture of the Later Roman Empire — how well do you know what came before it? This, I think, has sometimes contributed to some of the clashes over interpreting the fall of the West.

Anyway, we late Romanists enjoy the rest of Roman history! It’s part of our education and training, essential to our research.

The Age of Augustus

Writing job applications makes you think not only about what you are good at but about what you’d like to do. I have always wanted a position that would allow me to research ancient Christianity and the Later Roman Empire while teaching Roman history and Latin. This includes crafting a course on the age of Augustus. I like the age of Augustus. Here I am with the Prima Porta Augustus (I really did come close to crying upon seeing it):

Why the age of Augustus?

Augustus was the ‘first emperor of Rome’. He blazed onto the scene at age 19 in 44 BC when his great-uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated and adopted him as his son posthumously. He consolidated power unto himself by 31 BC and acquired the title ‘Augustus’ from the Senate in 27 BC. He then proceeded to rule the Roman Empire until AD 14. Politically, what sets Augustus off from people like Uncle Julius, besides his longevity, was his formal acquisition of powers, authorities, and titles from the Senate. He didn’t simply aim for something like ‘Dictator for Life’. He gathered into himself a variety of constitutional powers that no single man had previously held, and his successors managed to hold onto them, turning Rome into a monarchy. This is a reason for such a course.

As a result of this, and here my late antique expertise adds weight to the importance of teaching the early empire, Augustus becomes sort of a ‘model emperor’. Consider the image above, of the beardless emperor, as opposed to:

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, British Museum

Augustus’ beardlessness thus makes Constantine’s ‘look’ of particular political importance:

Augustus boasted that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Monuments from his era can still be seen in the city of Rome, such as the Ara pacis. Besides such monumental art and the shift in the city’s grandeur, a lot of great surviving Roman art comes from the Augustan era, such as the wondrous frescoes from his wife, Livia’s, villa, now on display in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. Art and architecture from the age of Augustus, then, provide another reason.

The Laocoon Group, now in the Vatican Museums, may date to this period

Furthermore, this same era, from 44ish BC to 14ish AD is a productive time in Latin literature — at least, Latin literature that survives. In prose, we have here the last years of Cicero and the work of Sallust, Livy, and the later works of Cornelius Nepos and Varro. Poetry is a larger domain, however — all of the famous elegists, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid, as well as the lyric achievement of Horace, not to mention the great epic poet Virgil.

A course on more than just politics, then

Take these elements, couple them with studies of ‘daily life’, and a course on the age of Augustus would be a wonderful glimpse of the Roman world as it existed for 58 years. The political narrative could be woven together with art and poetry, and how these interacted with each other could be part of the dialogue between professor and students.

Imagining this as a course with two lecture slots per week, I would divide it between narratives bringing history forward from the Ides of March 44 BC to the fourteenth day before the Kalends of September AD 14 (August 19). Parallel to the narrative lectures would be sessions combining lectures with discussions, moving through the art, architecture, and literature.

The primary learning outcome would be to see the transformation of the Roman world from the self-embattled Republic to the Early Empire, seeing Augustus and the culture that thrived during his reign in context. It would provide a background to understanding the rest of Roman history as well as later imperial aspirers, such as Charlemagne whose biographer Einhard used the biography of Augustus by Suetonius as a model.

‘Julius Caesar was not Emperor.’ – Or was he?

'Green Caesar', ca. AD 1-50, in Altes Museum, Berlin (my photo)

‘Green Caesar’, ca. AD 1-50, in Altes Museum, Berlin (my photo)

In Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 1.18, the late sixth-century (AD, obvs) Bishop of Tours writes:

After these Julius Caesar was the first Emperor to gain jurisdiction over the whole Empire. (Trans. Lewis Thorpe for Penguin)

Thorpe’s footnote to this sentence is:

Julius Caesar was not Emperor. (p. 80, n. 63)

This little fact is one that we students and scholars of Roman history like to tote out and display to our friends and family, demonstrating our superior knowledge of the Roman world through it. What we mean is that Julius Caesar was not the first person to establish an official position within the structures of the Roman state that gave him some degree of lifelong autocratic power and ushering in an age of monarchical rule. Not that he didn’t try — hence the Ides of March.

The establishment of the Principate, and therefore the ‘Empire’ by Octavian ‘Augustus’ is one of the big watershed moments in Roman history. It is the dividing point between what we call ‘Republic’ and ‘Empire’. It’s a big deal, and worth talking about and considering a big deal — whether you count it from 31 BC at the Battle of Actium when Octavian gains sole power over the Roman Empire or from 27 when he is officially invested with the title of Augustus which emperors would use down to Konstantinos Palaiologos XI in 1453.

So, while I would say that we are in a particular sense correct in seeing Augustus as the first of something new, it need not follow that Gregory is wrong in seeing Augustus’ great-uncle Julius as the first as well.

What Gregory actually says is that Julius Caesar was the first imperator who obtained the monarchia of the entire imperium. I suppose, when we consider the various dictators and others who attempted the gain sole power of the Roman imperium in the Late Republic, it could be argued that Julius Caesar was not the first of one thing but the last of another.

But that may just be splitting hairs so much that we go nowhere.

So.

Imperator is the term given by the Romans to a general who holds an official capacity of command in a given area or situation. Power of command in Latin is imperium. From these words come emperor and empire. Of the different imperatores, Julius Caesar, after the defeat of Pompey in civil war, established himself as the holder of sole rule (mon-archia — this word is Greek) in the lands where the Roman state held power of command (the imperium, the empire). Given that his assassination did not stop the consolidation of power in the hands of a couple of individuals — Mark Antony and Octavian — who were considered his heirs and then one individual — Octavian/Augustus — it could be argued that Julius Caesar, with his dramatic military and political activities, was the man who established the scenario in which one man could/would emerge as princeps (leading man — the term used of early emperors), as sole imperator. Had he not been assassinated, he may have lived long enough to become dictator for life and establish a constitutional way of being princeps as Octavian/Augustus did.

But he died before such could transpire, so we tend to consider Augustus the first Roman Emperor.

Now, these historical and constitutional arguments for Julius Caesar as first emperor are all well and good, if I remember everything correctly (which I may not). But there’s another reason by Gregory of Tours may have been correct in his assessment:

Everyone else seems to have thought so as well.

This November, I was at a conference about the fifth-century (AD) poet, letter-writer, and Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Sidonius Apollinaris. In the poem analysed by Aaron Pelttari’s paper, Sidonius refers to Ovid as having been exiled by the second emperor (I forget the exact wording and which poem this was — apologies!). Timothy Barnes reminded the room in question time that back in the ancient world, everyone considered Julius Caesar the first emperor, not his great-nephew Augustus.

I believe Tim Barnes, even if I cannot marshal the evidence here. But it is an interesting fact that the idea of Julius as the first emperor is not some mediaeval misreading of the evidence or a fabrication of Astérix. The ways we examine and delineate history, the demarcations we make with our own ‘scientific’ way of examining the past, are not necessarily those of the men and women who lived through it and handed on the record of the past to later generations.

While I think there are hard and fast truths in history, humility should keep us from thinking that our way of seeing the past is the only one and that we have all said truths bundled up in our hands.

The best little museum in Paris

Paris is a city of museums and galleries — the Louvre, d’Orsay, l’Orangerie, Cluny, la Crypte archéologique beneath Notre Dame, Carnavalet, Marmotan Monet, du quai Branly, Rodin, Invalides, Centre Georges Pompidou, and so forth. Last Saturday I visited what I think may be the best little museum here (and it’s free!!), the Bibliotheque nationale de France’s (BnF) collection of ‘Monnaies, médailles et antiques’ — coins, medallions, and … antiquities?

Now, you may think a museum that bills itself as a coin museum would be pretty lame. If you think thus, you’re clearly not that into numismatics and haven’t visited the Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh. I have two things to say to you — 1. coins can be cool; 2. this museum isn’t only coins. It’s not even mostly coins. Or medallions. Mostly, antiques (antiquities??).

At heart, this little two-floor museum is the BnF’s collection of the above items, on display for the public to view for free, no library card necessary!! (I have such a library card, but that’s beside the point.) It’s in the old library site, ‘Site Richelieu’, 5 Rue Vivienne, through the right entrance, and then up the big, marble staircase.

I went expecting a bunch of small but awesome items, and I wasn’t disappointed.

By small, I mean that the largest item, besides a headless statue torso, was a Mesopotamian stele with cuneiform on it — about three feet high. And a few statue heads. And a beautiful Persian sword. But most of the artefacts were small and most of the space was devoted to these small objects.

The first small items I enjoyed seeing were Early Modern, including a medallion from some French King or other (they’re all Louis or Charles, anyway), and cameos of Reine Elizabeth Iere d’Angleterre and Olivier Cromwell. Didn’t expect those – certainly not the latter!

Elisabeth Iere, Reine d'AngleterreThose were not the most exciting cameos, mind you. Throughout the museum, I found a wondrous array of cameos of Roman emperors and family as well as of mythological figures. This was excellent. I could have played ‘Guess the Roman Emperor’ (extolled by me here) if I’d wanted. I didn’t, but I still delighted in them, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Trajan, (amongst others) and a family portrait including, of all people, Geta!*

A cabinet of cameosHere’s the cameo with Caracalla and Geta:

Caracalla and Geta!The best cameo was this one of Augustus (the mounting is Early Modern):

Beautiful Cameo of AugustusI loved the cameos, I really did. But we should move on. Because there was other amazing stuff.

Like the throne of the Merovingian King Dagobert I (603-639). If it’s not his, it is at least seventh-century from the right part of the world.

Not my photo; my photo is blurry.

Or an eleventh-century ivory chess set, called ‘Charlemagne’s chess set.’

Mediaeval chessman

Mediaeval chess!Or a large number of consular diptychs, such as this one:

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus

 And the other ivory diptychs, to boot.

Mid-14th-century diptych

Gothic diptych from the mid-1300s

There was also a variety of other Late Antique stuff, including things from the fifth century, such as these medallions of the Emperor Honorius (r. Western Empire 395-423) and his sister, Galla Placidia (392-450; mother of Valentinian III):

Medallions of Honorius and Galla PlacidiaThis pleases me greatly, given that sometimes those centuries (the fifth in particular) feel a bit neglected in the world of museums. But not here. There were grave goods from the Merovingian King Childeric (d. 481)!

Sword hilt of Childeric

Childeric’s sword hilt

Decorations from the Sheath of Childeric

Decorations from the Sheath of Childeric

Oh, and some coins.

Coin of Valentinian III

Coin of Valentinian III (r. Western Empire 423-455)

Coin of Theodosius II

Coin of Theodosius II (r. Eastern Empire 408-450)

Coins from Romulus Augustulus, last Roman Emperor

Coins from Romulus Augustulus, last western Roman Emperor (deposed 476)

I recommend you visit if you’re ever in Paris, take in small objects, including Mesopotamian, Pharaonic Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Late Antique, Early Mediaeval, Central Mediaeval, and Early Modern ones. Small, beautiful, delicately-carved exquisite objects populate the two small floors of this museum. Worth seeing.

*Who is Geta? Geta is a short-lived emperor of the late-second/early-third century, brother to the Emperor Caracalla who had his younger brother executed and then pronounced a damnatio memoriae on the poor fellow. As a result, few portraits survive (although there is one in the Louvre), and there is a famous painting where Geta’s head has been blotted out:

A happy family