Sunday, July 19, 2009

Some thoughts on Werner Eck's "The Age of Augustus".

Following chronologically from reading about the Civil Wars of the Late Republic between Caesar and Pompey, I recently picked up "The Age of Augustus" from the eminent German scholar Werner Eck (the work is well translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider). It's important to note, for reasons which will be made clear later, that I read the 2007 edition.

Briefly I must also make a brief statement regarding nomenclature. It's a convention of historical analysis of this period that prior to 27 B.C.E, Augustus is known by his birth name as Octavian (despite the fact he used his adopted fathers name - Gaius Julius Caesar - after 44 B.C.E) and that Augustus is used for 27 B.C.E and beyond. I will stick to this system in this small review.

Eck begins the work with a brief look at the Res Gestae of Augustus (essentially a lengthy statement of his achievements that was mounted on his mausoleum in Rome for all to see), which to my mind is the best place to start, by running through the main themes of the Res Gestae, Eck manages to introduce and foreshadow the main topics for discussion later in this work.

Using the Res Gestae to underpin the work is a smart choice, for it not only highlights the fact that our understanding of the period is heavily influenced by Augustus' own summary, plus his powerful influence, but also that the essential purpose of the work is to expose the half-truths evident in the Res Gestae itself for the propaganda that they are.

The next few sections are essentially preliminary - they cover the period before the "Augustan Age" (usually considered 27 B.C.E onwards, when the then Octavian "restored" the Republic and accepted the name Augustus), and so are a little outside the works remit. That said, however, much of the thrust of the work depends on Augustus' actions during this period. Nevertheless, it's an essential introduction and well constructed.

Eck recognises and outlines right from the offset that Augustus exerted a huge amount of influence on the period and subsequent history of it. His power was truly immense. Choosing to begin the work with a discussion of the Res Gestae both serves to illustrate this and undermine the "truths" put forward by that influence. Even in the opening sections Eck is at pains to emphasise the large amount of propaganda Octavian used in his Civil War against Mark Antony, and how much of our understanding of the period, and of Antony more generally from this time, is taken directly from the proclamations of Octavian.

The opening section also pays homage to the notion from Syme that the Augustan Age was one essentially crafted from great slaughter and promotion of partisans. Eck does not shy away from the brutality of Octavian during this period, but there is no excessive, Syme like, focus on it. Overall, I think, it's a fair and thoughtful introduction to the period - highlighting the main themes, the central problems and the general tone of the time and character of the future Augustus.

One curiosity of the opening period is the relatively few mentions of Augustus' "party" - namely his right hand man, Agrippa and his advisor Mycaenas. Agrippa is not mentioned until Actium (the decisive battle of the Civil War between Antony and Octavian) and Mycaenas gets barely a fleeting mention throughout the whole work. Given that Agrippa exerted huge influence on Octavian's early rise (he was a great General and soldier) this is somewhat bizarre. A few reasons exist for why this may be, though.

Firstly - all glory was Octavian's/Augustus'. Members of his direct family could share the glory of military victories, but essentially all glory was laid squarely at his feet. In this respect, it's not surprising that others who may be similarly powerful architects of his victories would be overshadowed. Secondly - the nature of politics in this period is essentially private - Octavian, and his aides, would make decisions behind closed doors, and so it's only natural that most of the successes that came from them would be attributed to the figurehead.

The sections following the chronologically based opening of the work are primarily thematic. The topics are all drawn from those highlighted in the opening sections. They cover the general areas of interest during the Augustan Age - the army, foreign policy, the development of his position, government and administration, the city of Rome, the succession and finally his death. Discussing the period in this way is sensible, as it allows Eck to show the deeply gradual process of change that underpins Augustus' entire reign. Nothing was immediate, every success experienced trial and error beforehand, and not everything worked as planned.

Eck's insistence on the slow and steady development of the new system (pg.57 onwards) is merited. He highlights the fact that our understanding of the period comes very much from later sources, who tend to conflate the almost final Augustan model present at his death (in 14 C.E) with the one in place in 27 B.C.E, and as such the essentially gradual development of his position is usually missed. The constant tinkering with army finances and also the fact that his actual position in the state was not clear until well after Actium, are two arguments Eck uses to support this. Given the evidence, I agree with him entirely, as does most scholarly opinion.

Each section has a nice discussion at it's heart. The official statements of the Res Gestae are compared with the, often, conflicting evidence, and Eck spends much effort trying to pull back the façade of the Augustan Age, although nothing excessively controversial comes to light. The effect of the thematic approach is that at the end one (should!) have attained a reasonably rounded and full understanding of the Augustan period. Eck certainly touches on the large themes and does them justice for such a short work.

Criticism of the work prior to the 2007 edition often focused on the complete lack of wordage given to Augustus' social legislation (an immensely important part of the overall Augustan "package" sold to the Roman world). Thankfully, this has been rectified in the 2007 edition, as the topic gets some coverage. That said, however, in some respects it's annoyingly scant - the lack of any discussion of the affair regarding Augustus' daughter, Julia, despite it being hinted at, is a source of chagrin.

Another criticism, which sadly still remains in force, is that there is little mention of the literary and artistic program instigated under Augustus. Vergil and Horace get little mention, and their patron, Augustus' confidant Mycaenas, along with his relationship to Augustus and his "program" more generally is sadly never really given any space or discussion.

The work, then, focuses more on politics. In this respect Eck is somewhat of a successor to Syme - he reads the period as one of people being bound to Augustus, forming a "party" of Augustus so to speak. That he spends considerably less time emphasising the brutal nature of the party's formulation that Syme, does not detract greatly from that essential point. Eck rallies against the conception of Augustus as a benign leader instigating a period of great (and successful) reforms across every layer of society (a rally first started by Syme in the "Roman Revolution"), and instead attempts to see through the Res Gestae (and by implication the propaganda). He sums this up wonderfully when he accuses many historians of taking Augustus "at his own word" (pg.148).

Before concluding, I'd like to make some brief comments on organisation and formulation of the work more generally. Firstly, it makes every effort to translate Latin phrases for the general reader, which is admirable, although curiously the work contains no glossary, which would be very helpful. Secondly, there is no referencing throughout the work, which makes it highly irritating to both the scholar and the general interest reader looking for more specific works.

Lastly, a copy of the Res Gestae is included within the book, and given it's importance, it's an excellent addition. It's a translation by Sarolta A. Takács, which is intended to somewhat supersede the Brunt and Moore edition. While it's an excellent addition to the work, I still think owning Brunt and Moore's edition of the Res Gestae is thoroughly worthwhile, not least for the introduction and copious notes.

In summarising, then, Eck's work is a thoughtful and useful piece of scholarship on the Augustan period. It tries to see through the propaganda (which is exceptionally difficult) and to understand the time much more objectively. Eck succeeds with this in most respects. He urges understanding of period to be clear on it's gradual development, and he covers most of the primary aspects of the complete overhaul Augustus instigated (art and literature aside, sadly).

Eck, though, is keenly aware of the difficulty in pulling back the Augustan veil (he emphasies that all portrayals of the period must stem from the Res Gestae - pg.171), but for the most part he does so with great vigor. One of the elements of Augustus' early life that is sadly underemphasised is his overriding brutality in the finishing of the Civil Wars. It's possible that this arises from Eck's German roots, and the uncomfortable nature of German's discussing brutal dictators, although I would not like to put to much weight on this thought.

In some respects, when one considers Eck's continuation of Syme's "Augustan Party" argument (in showing the Res Gestae to be a work of half truth, Eck essentially indicates how Augustus really asserted his position - brutality to begin with but ruthlessness throughout in developing a core of supporters), the essential conflict between attempting to reveal the true Augustus but being worried of the brutal dictator that may lay beneath, is the central idea that I will take away from my reading of this work.

These things aside, as an introduction, and considering it includes the Res Gestae, this work is certainly essential for anyone beginning to understand the Augustan Age, and also as an interesting piece of literature for those already familiar with it and the various scholarly debates it gives rise to.


Relevant bibliography: Eck, Werner, "The Augustan Age" (trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider) with "Res Gestae Divi Augusti" (trans. Sarolta A. Takács), Blackwell (2007).

Addendum: Some research on the translation by Sarolta A. Takács, and also of Eck's book more generally, has gave rise to some criticisms of the work, and also with regards to it's editing. Those criticisms can be found at the following link:

With regards the Latin translations, I feel unqualified to comment, but I can confirm that the 2007 edition reviewed here does not contain the rather humourous "Inspector Caesar" error.

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