History » Historical Eras » Ancient History (up to 500)

The best books on Augustus

recommended by Peter Wiseman

The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story by Peter Wiseman

The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story
by Peter Wiseman


Is it possible that Augustus was not the first Roman emperor, but the last of Rome's great populist champions? That's what classicist Peter Wiseman argues in his book, The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story. Drawing on a lifetime of research and writing on this period, the emeritus professor of classics and ancient history gives a brilliant overview of the Augustan age, and recommends what to read to better understand the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who found Rome in brick and left it in marble.

Interview by Sophie Roell

The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story by Peter Wiseman

The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story
by Peter Wiseman

Buy all books

Before we get to the books you’ve chosen, I wanted to ask you who Augustus was. I believe he was born Gaius Octavius, that he was the great nephew of Julius Caesar, and that he was in power for about 30 years until 14 AD. I also thought he was the first Roman emperor, but that’s something you disagree with, is that right?

Absolutely. The thing about Augustus is that we look back on him from what happens afterwards. It’s true that the result of his period of being ‘in power’—if you want to call it that—was indeed the dynastic monarchy that we call the Roman Empire, with its succession of emperors. But Augustus himself, like his great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar, was primarily a populist politician, opposing in the name of the Roman people an aristocratic oligarchy that had hijacked the republic.

That oligarchy was determined to destroy Julius Caesar. At first they failed, because he led a civil war against them and won. After the war was over they did succeed, by assassinating him. Then his great-nephew (and now adopted son), the young man who later became Augustus, took over the people’s cause against them.

He was born Gaius Octavius, but importantly by the terms of Caesar’s will he becomes ‘Caesar’ himself. Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC. In 43 BC, the young Caesar and two colleagues (Antony and Lepidus) were empowered by the Roman people as ‘Triumvirs’ to take vengeance on the assassins, which they did at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC. But even after the deaths of Brutus and Cassius, the remainder of the oligarchy fought on and there were ongoing civil wars until 36 BC. By that time, the young Caesar was calling himself Imperator Caesar, ‘Commander Caesar’, in the sense of being in command as the people’s champion, just as Julius Caesar had been.

Then came the quarrel between him and Antony, who had been on the same side, and that became a power struggle. The last of the civil wars only finished in 30 BC. Antony by then was in alliance with Cleopatra, who had intended to invade Italy but never got the chance. So Commander Caesar made war on Cleopatra’s Egypt, Antony tried to defend it, they failed, and Alexandria fell to the Romans.

Ptolemaic Alexandria was one of the richest kingdoms in the world. One of the consequences of its fall was that the young Caesar, still only 32 years old, was now not only the people’s champion—having defeated the oligarchs who had murdered his adoptive father—but also the great victor who had conquered the last of the Hellenistic kingdoms. He’d taken over the treasury of one of the world’s wealthiest states, and so controlled huge resources for public spending in Rome. That became what we call ‘the Augustan age.’

“Augustus himself, like his great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar, was primarily a populist politician”

This popular champion wanted the republic to be back in the people’s control. In 27 BC, he formally gave up the emergency powers he’d had during the civil war—what we might call martial law—and returned all proper powers to the Senate and People of Rome (SPQR). Now that the oligarchy had been defeated, the republic resumed. But what the Roman people were effectively saying was, ‘We need you to be Caesar. We need you to be our man, to make sure the restored republic is run the way we want it and the oligarchy don’t come back.’ So they empowered him: they gave him formal military authority for a renewable 10-year period, but only over the places around the Empire where serious warfare was going on.

Modern historians tend to say, ‘Right, at this point he becomes an emperor.’ On the contrary: he got power within a limited area for a limited period. His informal authority was of course much greater, and nobody knew, in 27 BC, that his formal power was going to be renewed again and again, that Commander Caesar—who was now Commander Caesar Augustus—was going to live on for another 40 years, and that his successors were going to become what we rightly call emperors.
So, that’s a pretty complicated thing to have to explain, but that’s why I say no, he wasn’t an emperor. He was the man who restored the republic, and he controlled those enormous resources, so huge amounts of public money were poured into Rome. All sorts of big public spending programs were put in place, which was exactly what the Roman people wanted.

Most politics is about public spending. You should have a lot of it, say the left; you should have as little as possible, say the right. Where does the money come from? In our world it has to come from taxation, but in their world it came from successful conquest. The newly-named Augustus had just done the most profitable conquest in Rome’s history, and he had money to burn.

I don’t think anybody even conceived of the idea of an ‘emperor’ at that point. And certainly—this is the point of my book—he didn’t live in a palace. Nobody expected him to live in a palace. Far from it: the people who lived in palatial houses were precisely the aristocratic oligarchs he had just defeated. He had a respectably modest house on the Palatine, and what he spent the money on was creating public works, including grand projects like the temple of Apollo and its portico.

So where does this idea of Augustus as the first emperor come from? Does it come from Suetonius and later historians?

You’re right to mention Suetonius, because he wrote this brilliant biographical work, very useful for the modern historian and very influential, called The Twelve Caesars. He begins with Julius Caesar, but don’t forget he was writing more than 150 years later, under Hadrian. His twelve Caesars go from Julius through to Domitian. Like everybody in his time, Suetonius saw that sequence as the first dynasty of what had by then, in the early second century AD, become the system of emperors succeeding each other that had been the norm for more than a century.

People get things wrong when they don’t try to think themselves into the contemporary evidence. If you’re looking back from where Suetonius was, it was clear, as he saw it, that the republic had come to an end in the civil wars. The emperors—Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, Nero and so on—were the successors of Augustus, in that they had inherited his power and authority. So it was natural to assume that he was an emperor too. But that’s not the case.

Augustus was empowered by the Roman people over a period of 40 years. At the time nobody thought of him as an emperor, because the concept didn’t yet exist. His unique personal authority, which had no precedent, eventually became a dynastic monarchy some time around the turn of the millennium. By then Augustus was 63, a decent age for the ancient world, and the Romans—who, thanks to him, had been living in peace and prosperity for two decades or more—were beginning to get anxious. What happens when the old guy dies? They wanted a successor; they needed another Caesar. We think ‘Caesar’ means ‘emperor’, but it doesn’t. Caesar is a personal name, the family name of the Julii.

“Nobody thought of him as an emperor, because the concept didn’t yet exist”

When there has to be a succession, that’s the point when you get a dynastic monarchy. That’s also the point where Tacitus, Suetonius’s contemporary, began his history of the early empire. He began it not with Augustus coming to power in 27 BC, but with the transition of power after Augustus’s death. He knew perfectly well that the true history of Roman emperors began in AD 14. That didn’t stop Tacitus putting forward a very cynical, and I think grossly unfair, picture of Augustus as a power-grabbing dynast. We needn’t worry about that: it’s just Tacitus’s own slant on things that had been happening in the century and a half before his time. But he was right that the key moment was when Augustus died and somehow his power and authority had to be transmitted.

You mentioned how we should be looking at the contemporary evidence. On that note, shall we turn to the first of the books you’ve chosen to understand Augustus? This is by Sallust, Catiline’s War, The Jugurthine War, Histories: translated with an introduction and notes by A.J. Woodman (2007). Sallust is, I believe, the earliest Roman historian of whom substantial works survive. He was also a senator. Can you explain why he’s important?

Sallust—Gaius Sallustius Crispus—is interesting because he was indeed a senator, and one who was what we would call ‘left wing’ or, in Roman terms, a popularis. As a young politician he had been ‘tribune of the plebs’, the representative of popular sovereignty. In 52 BC, just three years before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, another famous popularis, Clodius, had been murdered on the Appian Way. They brought his body to Rome, and there was a very, very tense situation. The oligarchs thought the murder of Clodius was a heroic act; the Roman people were absolutely furious. They rioted and burned down the senate house. Sallust was tribune at that very time, and had to organize the trial for the murderer of Clodius and make sure he was condemned. It was very difficult to do, but he did it.

“Sallust was what we would call ‘left wing’ or, in Roman terms, a popularis

Later he served under Caesar, but ingloriously: as governor in north Africa he was clearly lining his own pocket, and was disgraced. So his political career was not particularly distinguished. At the beginning of his first historical work he says, ‘I’ve been in politics and it’s totally corrupt. Now I’ve got out of it, I have an absolutely neutral position. I can be fair to both sides.’

Sallust started his monographs on recent history in 42 or 41 BC, just at the time when the triumvirs, including the future Augustus, had been empowered by the Roman people to make war on Brutus and Cassius and destroy them.

Catiline’s War, his first work, is about an event that took place 20 years earlier, but was an early example of a mini-civil war growing out of the ideological struggle between the haves and have-nots. Catiline made out that he was the leader of the Roman people against the oligarchs. He was a pretty thuggish, cynical character himself, as Sallust makes clear. That’s one of the things he is able to bring out, that while you can deplore Catiline’s character, at the same time you can equally deplore what he and his friends were reacting against. It’s quite a subtle argument.

Eventually there was a kind of peasants’ revolt in Italy. Catiline left Rome and put himself at the head of it. Sallust writes about the final battle, with Catiline commanding a group of self-armed rustics. Some of them were veterans, and still had some weapons and armor, but most of them were armed with pitchforks. But at the end, he says, not one of those men was found with wounds in the back. They stood and fought together, because they were desperate.

Also, right in the middle of Catiline’s War, you have a wonderful double character-sketch of Julius Caesar, the champion of the populares, and Marcus Cato, who was his great opponent, what we might call the moral figurehead of the oligarchy. Sallust is very, very even-handed about the two of them.

So I think he’s absolutely right when he says he’s not taking sides. At the time he was writing, the issue was still open. Nobody knew then that Antony and the young Caesar would succeed in defeating Brutus and Cassius at Philippi.

Later, Sallust moved on to his second big work, The Jugurthine War. This was a war that had happened about 60-70 years before Sallust’s own time, in what we would call the late 2nd century BC. He says, right at the beginning, after a generalizing preface, that he’s decided to write The Jugurthine War partly because it’s an exciting story with lots of ups and downs, but also because this was the moment when the first challenge was made against the arrogance of the aristocracy. He says that the effect of that arrogance, and the popular reaction to it, was the polarized politics that had been so disastrous that even in his own time there were still civil wars and devastation in Italy. This second monograph probably dates to 41 BC, when there was indeed a mini-civil war in Italy in which the city of Perugia was destroyed.

Sallust is writing as an ex-senator, but also as a historian, consciously trying to be fair to both sides. At the same time, he is absolutely clear that the responsibility for the corruption of the republic and the decline into civil war lies mainly with the oligarchy.

“Most politics is about public spending. Where does the money come from? In our world it has to come from taxation, but in their world it came from successful conquest”

So these are Sallust’s two surviving works. In both monographs, Sallust has little digressions in which he explains what it was all about, and how things had come to pass. In Catiline’s War, he says that ‘our ancestors in the early republic were formidable fighters and men of honour. They spent their money, such as they had, on honouring the gods.’ Then, in what we call the 2nd century BC, you get the beginnings of empire and the conquest of major powers. He dates this to 146, when the city of Carthage was finally destroyed in the third and last of the Carthaginian Wars. Once Carthage had gone, the Romans weren’t afraid of anyone, according to Sallust. They didn’t think that anybody could ever challenge them, and so they become complacent and arrogant. That led to all sorts of other vices, which is how he explains the origin of the corrupt aristocracy.

Let me read you a bit:

“Hence it was the desire for money first of all, and then for empire, which grew; and those factors were the kindling, so to speak, of every wickedness. For avarice undermined trust, probity and all other good qualities; instead it taught men arrogance, cruelty, neglect of the gods and to regard everything as for sale.”

So he sees the very success of the Roman republic as bringing about the creation of a ruling clique who simply thought that the world was theirs, that they were entitled to it and could exploit it for themselves, not only abroad but also at home.

What the oligarchy did—we’re still in the 2nd century BC now—was privatize public assets and in particular public land. That meant throwing out small farmers in order to create great estates for themselves. When, in 131 BC, a tribune of the plebs called Tiberius Gracchus protested against this and brought in legislation to prevent it, they beat him to death in a public assembly. No one was brought to trial for it.

“Sallust is a neglected author, but uniquely important if you want to understand what Caesar was all about”

That was the origin of polarized politics between what we would call the right and the left. The left in Roman terms were the populares, traditionalists who wanted the republic to belong to the people as a whole. The optimates, which means ‘the best people’, were the aristocrats, the oligarchs. They think, ‘No, we’ll run the republic on our terms because we know better.’ They got away with it, and that was the beginning of the downfall of the republic. It led to a polarized, partisan politics that was simply uncontrollable. Once you get away with murder—as the oligarchs did with Tiberius Gracchus—the next stage is invading the country. That happened in 88 BC, when Lucius Sulla solved a political dispute by bringing his army into Rome and making himself dictator.

The reason I chose Sallust is because he is a neglected author, but uniquely important if you want to understand what Caesar was all about, and therefore what Augustus, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, was all about too.

The late republic is a period we know incredibly well—better than any other period in the whole of the history of the ancient world—because we have an astonishing number of surviving works of Cicero. It’s not only huge amounts of his correspondence, which is a very rare thing from the ancient world, but also large numbers of his law court speeches and political speeches and a fair number of his philosophical dialogues. We know Cicero, who was a slightly older contemporary of Sallust, extraordinarily well. And although Cicero started off as a popularis when he was a young senator making his way, he moved steadily to the right. Every sense of what politics is about that we get from Cicero’s works—and I repeat, they are hugely voluminous and hugely influential—takes for granted the optimate position. He was one of the oligarchs himself. Not one of the brutal ones (he was a very civilized man), but he took it for granted that the right of the political spectrum was the right place to be.

That’s why it’s so important to use Sallust as a counterweight, because all classicists, all ancient historians, know Cicero and his works so well. The danger is that they simply internalize his political assumptions.
The edition of Sallust I’ve recommended is a very reliable translation with a very good introduction and notes by Tony Woodman, who is an exceptionally good scholar.

Let’s move on to your second choice, also a contemporary text, which is Res Gestae Divi Augusti: with text, translation and commentary by Alison E. Cooley. This is a funerary inscription that Augustus wrote himself, is that right?

No, not funerary. He wrote it knowing that he didn’t have long to live, but it’s not specifically to do with his funeral. There would of course have been a funeral speech at the time, but that’s lost. What we happen to have is this text that Augustus chose to compose, probably six months to a year before he died. He wanted to set out his res gestae, a list of his achievements, and that’s what we have.

We know it from a copy—both in the original Latin and in a Greek translation—that was inscribed on the walls of a temple at Ancyra (modern Ankara) in the province of Galatia (now central Turkey) and discovered and transcribed in the 16th century. Originally, the Res Gestae was designed to be inscribed on to bronze columns placed in front of Augustus’s monumental tomb on the Campus Martius in Rome.

And it includes the famous quote, about how he exceeded others in influence, but had no greater power.

If you look at the inscription, what he says right at the beginning, the very first thing he wants us to know, is this:

“Aged 19 years old, I mustered an army at my personal decision and at my personal expense, and with it I liberated the republic, which had been oppressed by a despotic faction … In this same year,” he continues (which is 43 BC), “the people appointed me consul, after both consuls had fallen in war, and Triumvir for settling the state.”

So the point he wants us to get immediately is that on his own initiative he liberated the republic from a ‘despotic faction’, by which he means the oligarchy. Much later, in the penultimate chapter (34), he writes:

“In my 6th and 7th consulship”—that’s 28 to 27 BC—“after I had put an end to civil wars, although by everyone’s agreement I had power over everything, I transferred the republic from my power into the control of the Roman Senate and People. For this service I was named Augustus by senatorial decree, and the doorposts of my house were publicly clothed with laurels, and a civic crown was fastened above my doorway, and a golden shield was put up in the Julian senate house. Through an inscription on the shield, the fact was declared that the Roman senators and people were giving it to me because of my valour, clemency, justice and piety. After this time, I excelled everyone in influence but I had no more power than the others, who were my colleagues in each magistracy.”

You can see what he’s doing. He’s saying, ‘Look, my position was absolutely unique. I put an end to the civil wars and then, when they were over, I made a conscious, formal transfer of power back to the Senate and People of Rome, where it belongs. The republic was thereby restored. After that, I excelled everyone in influence, because I had what you might call unofficial authority, but no more legal power than any of my colleagues in other magistracies at any given time.’ Because after 27 BC, he was elected consul again and again.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Many modern historians, especially academics, have what I think of as a knee-jerk cynicism. We live in a pretty privileged and self-enclosed world, but our subject matter is the world of high politics and high drama. It’s very tempting for academics to want to say, ‘Well yes, of course that’s what he says, but we know better, don’t we? We understand, we can see through it.’ So people have always been tempted to say, ‘This is what Augustus said. This is what he wanted people to believe. But we don’t want to believe it.’

“Many modern historians, especially academics, have what I think of as a knee-jerk cynicism”

My feeling is, ‘You don’t have to believe it. But in that case you’d better have pretty good evidence to show that it’s false.’ And that’s the point: there is no evidence that shows that it’s false. On the contrary, the evidence of contemporaries, much of which is in poetry (that’s just the accident of the survival of texts), is unanimously favourable. They certainly didn’t think of him as a despot. They thought of him as the ruler of Rome in a way, but not in any formal sense. He was simply the man who had earned this position of de facto authority.

The republic was still there; he was just the most influential person in the republic. That was why the term that Augustus used for himself was ‘princeps.’ This wasn’t a new term. It was one traditionally used: the principes rei publicae were the chief men of the republic.

Well, it’ll be quite fun for people to make up their own minds about Augustus, based on the arguments and archaeological evidence laid out in your book, The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story. When did you first become sceptical and decide that that you weren’t going to accept the prevailing view?

I don’t know. I think it’s been coming on gradually over the years. Way back in the late 80s, I was writing for The Cambridge Ancient History, which is a huge, multi-volume work that tries to cover the entire ancient world. I was asked to do two chapters on the 60s and 50s BC, that critical bit of the late republic before the civil wars break out. Narrative history is something that classicists don’t often write—I certainly hadn’t. But for something as formal as a narrative history, I was thinking pretty hard. How do I do this? And obviously you go to the primary sources and immerse yourself in them. You try to work out from first principles what was likely to have been happening.

That was the point when I first started realizing that most of the narrative history about the late republic is prejudicially weighted towards the ‘optimate’ point of view, which as I said earlier is largely the effect of people internalizing the way Cicero saw things. Cicero was an honest man, but his correspondence contains some pretty contemptuous comments about the Roman people. He thought they were the scum of the earth. That was when I started thinking that the populares had had a pretty raw deal in the way the late republic has been portrayed.

I’ve also always been interested in the city of Rome, ever since I was first a graduate student and had the good fortune to spend a year at the British School at Rome. This was in 1962-63, and there’s a sense in which the legend about the Trevi fountain is right: you throw your coin in and it means you come back. The city of Rome is an addictive drug. Once you’ve been, and you’ve had enough time to immerse yourself in it and feel your way around, if you’re at all interested in history it becomes a never-ending obsession.

So I was interested in the ancient city and got involved with its topography. The archaeology is difficult to work out, because you can’t systematically excavate a city that has been continuously occupied for 2,000 years. So the particular places where excavation is possible because they’ve never been built on—the Forum and the Palatine—become disproportionately important.

For a long time I simply believed what people said about the house Gianfilippo Carettoni excavated in the late 50s and 60s. He identified it as the house of Augustus, and I assumed he was right. There’s plenty of stuff published by me which assumes that, and indeed discusses it as the ‘house of Augustus’, how one approached it and so on. So anyone who wants to attack my current book by saying ‘this isn’t what you used to say’ is perfectly right. But I take the view that scholarship is cumulative, and there are many things that I believe I understand better now than I did 30 years ago. I don’t have any hang-ups about changing my mind.

I began thinking about the Palatine site, and how short a time the Augustine Palatine lasted. Augustus created his Palatine from 36 BC through to about 28. It was a period of less than a decade in which he redeveloped the Palatine, destroying several of the aristocrats’ posh houses and replacing them with this huge public-works complex of the piazza, the Apollo temple and the porticos behind it. Then in AD 64, a century later, it was all destroyed in the great fire. What was then built on the tabula rasa of the Palatine was Nero’s palace. Not that he had long to enjoy it: it was the Flavians, his successors, who really developed the palace. The remains of it are what you’re walking on when you go to the Palatine now.

“Everyone had got the Apollo temple facing the wrong way”

It’s very, very difficult to visualize not only what the republican Palatine was like, but even what the Augustan Palatine was like. The name Palatium came to mean ‘palace’, and so we think of it as always and necessarily the palace of the Caesars, the palace of the emperors.

It was sometime in 2011 or 2012 that I was talking to Amanda Claridge, an expert archaeologist whom I knew from the British School a long time ago, and she was trying to persuade me that everyone had got the Apollo temple facing the wrong way. At first I thought, ‘I can’t really believe this.’ But we got into an ongoing conversation and I came to realize that she was quite right.

The corollary of that is that I also came to realize that the supposed ‘house of Augustus’—which Carettoni believed was connected with the temple of Apollo, and the two buildings could only be understood as a complex—was nonsense. It didn’t work. The evidence implies that the Apollo temple faced out on to the summit of the hill, where the piazza must have been, and the portico was behind it. The house of Augustus must have been somewhere else.

And we should know where the house of Augustus was, because one of the big post-Neronian palace complexes, what is nowadays called ‘the Flavian palace’, was actually called domus Augustana in the ancient world. So it must have been on the site of the original house of Augustus.

Another stimulus for the book came in 2014, which was the bimillenary of Augustus’s death. I was invited to give a talk at the University of Lisbon, which was having a big Augustus conference, and I gave what in the book becomes chapter one. I called it ‘Augustus and the Roman people’, and I set out my ideas about Augustus as a popularis. The people at the conference were pretty sceptical, but the more I thought about this, the more the two arguments that had been going on in the back of my mind all this time—the political one about Augustus as a popularis, and the archaeological one about Carettoni’s house not really being Augustus’s house at all—fitted together with each other.

It was also because, as Carettoni’s house was further explored, it was revealed as demonstrably ‘palatial’. It had two grand matching peristyle colonnades, and a frontage of about 150 meters. It was a huge building. When Carettoni started he’d only excavated a bit of it and it looked quite modest. That’s one of the reasons he thought it was Augustus’s house—because we know from Suetonius that his house was modest. Now that didn’t work.

So that was how it began.

We should go on to the next book. This is by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution (2008).

Andrew’s a good friend, and this is a terrific book. He called it Rome’s Cultural Revolution in deliberate allusion to the great masterpiece of Roman history written by Ronald Syme in 1939, called The Roman Revolution. That was an account of Augustus’s rise to power, a very political story, and Syme had absolutely no time at all for the idea that Augustus might have been a popular champion. On the contrary, for Syme he was a dangerous demagogue with paramilitaries at his back. But Syme was writing at the time of Hitler and Mussolini, and he knew what demagogues with paramilitaries behind them looked like. That’s another story, which I talk about a bit in chapter 10 of The House of Augustus. But because The Roman Revolution was such a hugely influential book—certainly for my generation but also later on—Andrew alluded to it in his title.

His line, which he works out brilliantly I think, is that politics is not enough. There was a revolution in the way Rome became a different kind of place. In 100 BC Rome was still a city-state among other city-states in Italy. It was a disproportionately powerful one and had all kinds of political power over its ‘allies’ elsewhere in Italy, but it was still only one city-state among others. A hundred years later Rome was a world empire.

That change is not only political, it’s a cultural change as well, and that’s what Andrew wants to explore. The book is a wide-ranging account of the cultural background of Augustan Rome, as it had developed over two centuries in creative interaction both with Greek culture and with that the of other Italian peoples and their languages.

In particular, the reason I like the book is because in 2 BC, one of the great moments of the Augustan principate, when the Senate and People of Rome were conspicuously acting in consensus after two generations of being at each other’s throats, they hailed him as pater patriae: ‘father of the country’, ‘father of the native land’. It’s an honorific title, of course, but what is the patria? Is it Rome? No, it’s not. It’s Italy, because by now the whole of Italy had Roman citizenship.

That had happened two generations earlier, during what’s called the Social War. Socius mean ‘ally’ in Latin, so the bellum sociale is the War of the Allies against Rome. Roman power in Italy had depended largely on alliances with other notionally independent city-states, but they got more and more dissatisfied with the way Rome arrogantly assumed it could simply take their manpower and use it for overseas conquests without giving anything significant back. They rose in rebellion against Rome in 90 BC, and it was a very nasty war. The only way the Romans got out of it was by immediately conceding Roman citizenship to the whole of Italy. Against the background of all that, what Andrew does is look at the evidence of material culture. As an ex-Director of the British School at Rome, he’s a master of the archaeological record.

What you get in his book is a brilliant analysis of the independent life and culture of various Italian cities. It’s part of what ancient historians have called ‘hellenization’: the influence of Greek culture around the rest of the ancient world. Of course, that’s something everyone has known about for years; a famous example is the hellenization of what we call the Middle East as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. That’s back in the 4th century BC. But there was also the hellenization of the western Mediterranean, which starts a lot earlier than most people think, and applies in many different ways. Some places were much more hellenized than others, and the way each of these individual city-states in Italy developed during the fourth, third, second, even into the first century BC, was unique to itself.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

Then, in the first century BC, suddenly all these places were technically Roman. They all now had Roman citizenship, because it had become so desirable and they’d fought a great war in order to get it. Two generations later, one of the things that Augustus had to do—quite apart from healing the wounds of polarized politics in Rome itself—was to make sense of an Italy which was now a coherent entity for the first time. He was ‘the father of the native land’, and that native land was Italy itself.

The great literary statement of Augustan Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid, is all about the arrival of Aeneas and his Trojans after the fall of Troy, not specifically to Rome—Rome itself hardly comes into it—but to Italy. Virgil himself came from northern Italy, what we would now call the Veneto. So you have this concept of a city-state first dominating its neighbours and then morphing over a couple of generations into ‘Italy’ in the way we now understand the term, a kind of nation-state with a single citizenship.

“The way scholarship works, people are tempted to be specialists in literature, specialists in political history, specialists in archaeology, specialists in ancient religion. That’s great, but not if the specialists then never talk to each other and never look sideways”

During the desperate times of the late republic there was no time for any cultural assimilation to take place. What Andrew argues is not that the cultural revolution is different from the political revolution. It’s not that it’s the same thing as the political revolution, either. The two things were happening simultaneously and independently, but you can’t understand one without the other.

It’s a way of understanding the Augustan age that broadens the question out, and also helps to overcome a constant danger in academic studies, namely specialization. In the nature of things, the way scholarship works, people are tempted to be specialists in literature, specialists in political history, specialists in archaeology, specialists in ancient religion. That’s great, but not if the specialists then never talk to each other and never look sideways. The great thing about Andrew Wallace-Hadrill is that he has a mastery of several of these fields, and knows what these different subsets of scholarship are about. He can make them talk to each other and create a coherent narrative that makes sense at a cultural level.

He also writes very well. On the other hand, it’s a subtle argument with a lot of complex material, so from that point of view it’s not an easy read. But it’s a very important book. No other book gives such a broad sense of what 1st-century BC Rome and Italy were like, and how Augustus was able to get beyond politics and offer a sense of common culture that everyone could be loyal to.

Let’s move on to the next of the books you’ve chosen about Augustus and his time. This is by J. Bert Lott, The Neighbourhoods of Augustan Rome.

If Wallace-Hadrill shows us what the Augustan age was like for people who could afford posh furniture and read books in Greek, Lott’s book does the same for the common people of the city of Rome. Although the book is very technical, and on a very specific, quite limited subject area, it’s important because it gets you into the streets of Rome. It gets you into the world of the people of Rome, whom Augustus knew very well he had to have on his side as a popular champion.

In 8 BC Augustus organised Rome into 14 regions subdivided into ‘neighbourhoods’ (uici), with each uicus centred on a ‘cross-roads shrine.’ He funded these mini-temples and provided statues, and created a kind of humble priesthood for them. He gave people, a lot of them ex-slaves, the dignity of the responsibility for looking after these neighbourhood cult centres. The neighbourhood chapels had lots of different gods and goddesses whose statues were put up there, but the main cult was that of the Lares, young twin gods who were thought of as protectors.

Lares were the ‘guardian gods’ who protected households. So a Roman house would have a lararium, a little shrine in which the household’s Lares were honoured and worshipped. There was also a big public temple of the Lares for the city of Rome itself, because they were thought of also as protectors of the city. In between were the little chapels for the Lares of individual neighbourhoods, as set up by Augustus. There must have been hundreds of them.

So at the grand politics level, he was saying, ‘I’m standing up for you, the Roman people, against a dominant and oppressive oligarchy.’ But he’s also saying at the street level, ‘I’m looking after you, I’m giving you a way to belong.’ I think that’s terrific. It’s something you don’t normally think about , and the literary sources don’t mention it. But it’s there in the archaeology, the inscribed altars and architectural fragments that Bert Lott has collected up and discussed. I like the book because although it’s very specialist, it shines a light on an area of the ancient world that otherwise you just don’t see.

How amazing.

And having gone into all this rather obscure stuff, all these different kinds of evidence, I now thought your readers will probably want something where they can get an overall sense of what the Augustan age was about. That’s why I chose Karl Galinsky’s Augustan Culture (1996). He is a master of all these different areas, and he deals with stuff that we haven’t been talking about—literature, religion and so forth. The book is very, very reliable and level-headed. He’s an excellent scholar and it’s a super book.

So that’s still the best book for understanding this period?

Yes, it’s first-rate, still the go-to book for the Augustan age as a whole. It’s very intelligently argued, very well illustrated, the work of a master communicator.

Another famous quote associated with Augustus is that he found Rome in brick and left it in marble. I guess that’s from Suetonius. Is it true?

Yes, as I mentioned before, it was one of the effects of the conquest of Egypt and the huge resources that became available. As I try to explain in Chapter 2 of The House of Augustus, the late republic was a time when the super-rich were forever building spectacular houses for themselves, tearing them down and then rebuilding and expanding them. They were importing all kinds of exotic marbles from all over the world, at huge expense for their own private pleasure.

What the young Caesar did after the Battle of Philippi—and one person we haven’t mentioned is Agrippa, his loyal organiser—was confiscate the very same houses and marble columns the oligarchs had bought for themselves. With his huge resources, the future Augustus pumped everything into public works, and that meant above all public architecture. So you had these wonderful, grand temples and public buildings being created on the most lavish scale. That was done deliberately, because in the bad old days of the late republic this had been the sort of stuff that only the super-rich could have, while ordinary plebeians had to make do as best they could. Augustus was now saying, ‘No, this expensive material is for everyone, we’re going to produce a city which really will be the envy of the world.’

Now, we know from Cicero that the late-republican city wasn’t very impressive. A lot of people visiting Rome were quite disappointed. They thought it was pretty scruffy, the housing was in poor shape, and so on. And you have to remember that Rome in the late republic was five centuries old and still had all sorts of relics of the past. The beginning of a change was already happening with the people’s champions in the late republic—Pompey in the 60s BC and then Julius Caesar. There were now some grand public works: Pompey’s theatre, for instance, and Caesar’s building program that was cut short by his death. But Augustus took that over and hugely expanded it. So the city of brick is the city of ordinary tenement housing. The city of marble is the city of the grand public buildings.

Amongst other things, Galinsky talks about the fine art and the literature. What are the highlights of the Augustan age in terms of those?

It’s got to be the poets. The greatest of them are Horace, Virgil and Ovid. Virgil’s Aeneid is not only a great document for the early years of Augustus, but an undisputed world masterpiece. Horace’s lyric Odes are beautifully subtle, Ovid’s love poetry entertainingly cynical and tongue-in-cheek, like the famous spoof of didactic poems, the Ars Amatoria: two books for men on how to pick up women and then a third for women on how to pick up men. Ovid then produced an epic even longer than the Aeneid called Metamorphoses, a huge compendium of mythological stories from the creation of the world right up to Augustus’ own time.

They’re just wonderful. If you want to understand what Rome under Augustus was capable of producing, just read those three poets.

What’s left physically standing in Rome? Where should we go if we’re visiting?

What is there in Rome that’s of the Augustan period? That’s not easy. One of the things that seems to be of the Augustan period and is supremely worth seeing is the Pantheon. It’s an absolutely wonderful building—one of very, very few buildings of ancient Rome which is actually still standing in pretty well its original form, not a ruin or a reconstruction. The great inscription across the facade of the Pantheon says it was built by Marcus Agrippa in his third consulship, which was in 28 BC. His colleague in that consulship was the future Augustus. Agrippa actually made the first Pantheon, and this one is a reconstruction of it by Hadrian. But it’s a great thing to see.

Otherwise, if you’re looking for Augustus, your best bet is to go to the site of his mausoleum. This is just off the Via del Corso, the old Via Flaminia. The mausoleum itself isn’t much to look at. It’s just the concrete core and it’s very overgrown. But just next to it in the piazza are the remains of the Augustan Altar of Peace. He erected it around 8 or 9 BC, and it’s an example of Augustan art at its greatest. The museum to house the Ara Pacis was created by Mussolini in the 30s, but his version has now been replaced by a more modern one. It’s something you mustn’t miss, especially as on the wall outside the museum is the entire text of Augustus’s Res Gestae.

Stepping back a bit, what can we say about the Augustan Age overall?

It was an era of great relief, leading to great confidence. The civil wars had lasted pretty well 20 years—from Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC down to the fall of Alexandria in 30—and had been very, very damaging. An enormous number of people were killed, an enormous number uprooted, cities destroyed. It was a dreadful, dreadful time. Horace’s Odes are full of a sense of relief and gratitude to Augustus for having put an end to all that. There’s also a sense of foreboding: if we Romans have been capable of that kind of behaviour, where are we going to find ourselves now?

What Augustus was able to do, I think, was to channel that sense of having narrowly escaped disaster into a sense of confidence and enthusiasm. It didn’t last all that long, because his successors simply took his achievement for granted. His immediate successor, Tiberius, was deeply unpopular, and with him everything starts falling apart again.

But between the dystopia of the civil wars at one end and the dystopia of Tiberian Rome at the other, there was this moment of confidence and success, peace and prosperity, great authors and great art, architecture and sculpture that reflect all that. That’s what I think Augustus should be given credit for. That’s why I think the knee-jerk cynics who regard him as a despotic autocrat have got it all wrong.

Interview by Sophie Roell

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Peter Wiseman

Peter Wiseman is a classicist and emeritus professor at the University of Exeter. His 2019 book, The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story, tries to overturn conventional wisdom about Caesar Augustus as the first Roman emperor.