Sunday, May 15, 2011


Barbara Levick, Augustus: Image and Substance. Harlow/London/New York: Longman, 2010. Pp. xxiv, 351. ISBN 9780582894211. �21.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Peter Keegan, Macquarie University (

Version at BMCR home site

As the bimillenary of the first Roman princeps approaches, it is appropriate that Levick brings her formidable knowledge to bear on the formative period of transformation in Rome's political system and in the shape of its sprawling imperium. From the outset, Levick depicts Caesar Augustus as 'the first Roman politician to aim right from the start at permanent sole supremacy' (p.5). Levick situates this radical clarity of purpose (Introduction) within Augustus' tumultuous entry into politics (Ch.1), his propensity for opportunistic shifts in policy (Ch.2), and his proficiency in establishing a political environment conducive to the achievement of his institutionalized autocratic objective (Ch.3)--despite opposition (Ch.4), a variegated and polyvalent sociocultural environment (Ch.5), established discourses of power (Ch.6), and critical contemporary (and later) perspectives on his res gestae (Ch.7). In all of this, Levick's exposition and evaluation of the Augustan legacy draw nourishment (or a focus for renewal of a traditional hypothesis) from a redoubtable catalogue of early 20th century and more recent scholarship: notably, though most certainly not exclusively, Syme,Galinsky, Raaflaub and Samons,Woodman and West, Gradel, Taylor.2

In her introduction ('The Enigma', pp.1-22) Levick eschews interest in whether the new system founded under Augustus should be defined as 'constitutionalist' or 'monarchical'. Declaring that her concern is 'not with the institution as it developed, but with its creator' (p.9), she nonetheless grapples briefly with how best to apply terms like 'propaganda', 'ideology' and 'representation' to Augustus, the system he founded, and the literature and art of his time. From this discussion springs Levick's primary insight: '[t]oo much attention has been paid to power, not enough to the inculcation of purpose' (p.12). Taking to task Galinsky's contrasts between auctoritas and potestas, and between 'transactional' and 'transforming' kinds of leadership, Levick proposes instead that we should regard Augustus as actively seeking sole, permanent political control and that Augustan Rome and the Augustan Age must be situated within a period of political convulsion characterized by institutional and cultural crisis rather than evolution.

Chapter 1 ('Octavian: Heir of an Autocrat', pp.23-62) traces what Levick contends was Augustus' 'rational and consistent pursuit of sole power and its perpetuation' (p.23) over the years 44-31 BC. Levick portrays Octavian's sole rise to power during this period as 'necessarily equivocal and at its worst treacherous' (p.27). Octavian's acceptance of the bequest in Caesar's will (and of the duty to avenge the dictator's murder) and of praetorian imperium; his march on Rome and occupation of his first consulship; his exploitation of Caesarian connections and Ciceronian influence; his appointment as one of the triumviri rei publicae constituendae causa; his negotiated alliances and strategic hostilities with Sextus Pompeius, Lepidus and Antonius, the chief obstacles to his supremacy; his acquisition of distinctions (his designation as divi filius, the title of 'Imperator' as praenomen, the grant of tribunician sacrosanctity, the oath of loyalty sworn by the inhabitants of Italy and the western provinces in 32 BC)--for Levick, all these point to the deliberation characterizing Octavian's 'relentless advance' (p.30). Underpinning his enterprise, Octavian is shown to be as culpable as his triumviral colleagues in respect to the proscriptions of 43-42 BC, a propensity for pitilessness echoed in the damaging tradition of Q. Gallius' savage execution and the brutal treatment of the defeated after Philippi and Perusia. Levick concludes her treatment of Octavian's rise by charting the fall of Antonius and Cleopatra.

Chapter 2 ('Augustus: Political Evolution', pp.63-114) casts Augustus' celebrated claim to have handed over the Res Publica from his power to the discretion of the Senate and People as a judicious redistribution of political effects designed as a palliative for what remained in essence an extra-legal autocracy manipulating the working of Rome's quasi-constitutional machinery. Seeing the name change from Imperator Caesar to Caesar Augustus as exemplifying this transition, Levick outlines how Octavian's settlement of 28-27 BC underwrote legal, military and economic adjustments that resulted in the transformation of his auctoritas into potentia (p.68-74). In simple terms, the elastic machinery of Republican government gave way to the similarly flexible dynamics of the Principate. For the remainder of the chapter, dealing in the main with the period 23-19 BC, Levick explores what she sees as the failure of this model. As it applied to the authority of the Senate, administration of the provinces, and management of foreign affairs, Levick consistently envisions the Principate in relation to Tiberius' formulation: tanta et tam libera potestate (Suet. Tib. 29). Levick's assessment of the inadequacies of the Augustan settlement is set out in a brief postscript.

Chapter 3 ('Techniques of Management and the Feel-Good Factor', pp.115-163) examines the manner in which Augustus influenced how others perceived him and won their loyalty. Following the same order as her subject, Levick first treats Augustus' repudiation of Caesarian or Triumviral 'style'. By deifying his adoptive father and establishing the cult of Divus Iulius, Augustus effectively separated Caesar from his historical role as Dictator and relegated him to a self-contained, symbolic function (as builder and victim) in the developing ideology. Levick views Augustus' method as 'less about what ends were to be achieved than how it was to be done' (p.118). Taking her cue from the official Augustan blueprint, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Levick catalogues what areas of governance the Princeps saw as essential and the techniques for implementing his initiatives. Underpinning this exposition is Levick's belief that the transactions of the Augustan state were manipulated. She considers it significant, for example, that Augustus suppressed the Acta Senatus but encouraged dissemination of the Acta Diurna. So, too, she discerns a carefully crafted image of Augustus' character and policy communicated in public promulgations of legislation. Levick rounds off this chapter by itemizing the extent of these manipulations in relation to the social orders, highlighting as exempla of the Augustan model promotion through kin and friends, senatorial emoluments, wide-ranging dispensations guaranteed to secure popularis appeal, and the consolidation of right community relations with the gods.

In Chapter 4 ('Opposition and Discontent', pp.164-201), Levick adopts as the model for her discussion Raaflaub and Samons II's 1990 essay on 'Opposition to Augustus'. 3 Essentially, Levick argues that we should not define 'opposition' as a unitary response; rather, reactions against the Augustan Principate--and by this is meant 'the realities of the political world' (p.166)--should be understood as representing a plethora of opinions held, and a spectrum of conduct exhibited by individuals varying in class, history and temperament. Levick gives over the majority of this chapter to consideration of senatorial resistance in its various forms. Under the heading of 'conspiracy', Levick includes Lepidus' attempted coup while a Triumvir, Cornelius Gallus' testing as Prefect of Egypt of the limits of acceptable power, and the alleged plots of Caepio and Murena in 23 BC and Egnatius Rufus in 19 BC. Levick suggests that any elite resistance after 16 BC succumbed to the weariness of a Senate inured to the familiarity of Augustan supremacy, to be replaced by struggles for succession among various members of the imperial house and their partisans, plebeian protestations over conditions of life in Rome and eruptions of discontent from the provinces and the army.

There is much to be gained, but little that needs elucidation, in reading Levick's next two chapters (Chapter 5, 'The Self-Presentation of a Monarch', pp.202-250; and Chapter 6, 'Augustus in Art and Literature', pp.251-287). With a view to encapsulating the comprehensive nature of Augustus' instantiation as Caesarian avenger, military triumphator, restorer of the Res Publica, popularis leader, sociopolitical, legislative and religious reformer, and princeps senatus, Levick outlines his propensity for Selbstdarstellungen in terms of his theatrical public appearances, his utterances (recorded on stone or papyrus), his oversight of numismatic issues featuring notable achievements or facets of Augustan ideology, his redoubtable building program, his interventions in the official calendar of ritual and celebration, his autobiographical Achievements, and his cultivation of architecture, artistic endeavour, poetry and history.

Chapter 7 ('Unmasking a God', pp.288-318) touches briefly on the association of divine qualities with Augustus as a final case-study in the versatility and ambiguity of the first princeps. For Levick the key to understanding Augustus lies in recognizing his ability to negotiate as wide a range of receptions and variations of his position as required. Thus, we may read about Augustus as an immortal god in the last years of his Principate (Ovid, Fasti 4.949-54) and that he 'determinedly refused this honour [of] deification during his lifetime' (Suetonius, Augustus 52). Whether by virtue of his attested origins, his gradual embedding in the festival calendar of traditional Roman religion, or the emergence of a household and state cult to the imperial numen, Levick argues that we are afforded a privileged exemplum of the means by which Augustus exploited the indeterminate nature of meaning production pervading the discourses of Roman power (language, image, conduct). Using this formulation as a point of entry to final assessments of Augustus, Levick articulates how ancient commentators on the early imperial period judged him (as a human being and as an emperor), and the extent to which she views any distinction between the recorded tradition of his words and actions as performance or belief.

How readers assess the validity of Levick's thesis will be determined in large part by their willingness to accept the introductory outline of her hypothesis (pp.12-15) and the statement that Octavian/Augustus was 'the first Roman politician actually to embark on his career with the intention of winning permanent supremacy' (p.23). All that follows is predicated on seeing Augustus' conduct through the filter of these blanket claims. While Levick is rigorous in her recourse to the existing sources and considered in her consultation of the prevailing scholarship, one is nonetheless left with the sense that her work--relentless in the confidence of its disquisition--embodies the influence of an academic tradition grounded in historical sureties (epitomized in this volume by the views of Ronald Syme and C. E. Stevens). Above all, it is the extent to which one sees Octavian's role in the 'thirteen-year period of violence and treachery' (p.63) following his adoptive father's murder as indicative of his self-interested quest to occupy Caesar's position as sole ruler which will govern reception of Levick's formulation. Instructive of the dangers inherent in this single-minded perspective, one might ask how it is possible for Levick to discern in Octavian's marriage to Livia Drusilla a motivation which eschews his calculated self-interest in all other respects and speaks to romance rather than political merits (pp.37-8).

Regardless of the evidentiary lacunae and ambiguities, which impede all attempts at an explanatory consensus on questions of historical motivation, there is a wealth of insight to be drawn from this book: not least, Levick's stylistically lucid and methodologically perceptive analysis of pertinent historical detail. Of especial usefulness in this regard is the commendable critical apparatus which bookends each chapter and a carefully pruned bibliography (pp.324-338) keyed to Levick's review of major Augustan scholarship of the past ninety years. A chronology, a stemma of Augustus' family, a map of Imperial Rome, and a glossary of ancient terms provide measured support for understanding the world in which Caesar Augustus rose to power.

In sum, Levick offers an embracing reassessment (or, rather, reaffirmation of an earlier understanding) of the Augustan Principate. Those to benefit most from her discussion will be persons familiar with the Roman political environment of the late Republican and early Imperial period and with the breadth of scholarly opinion and concomitant range of issues and problems inherent to this subject. In addition, a clear eye to the interpretative slant of the author is essential. With these caveats in mind, Augustus. Image and Substance is highly recommended.


1.   Tiberius the Politician, London: Thames and Hudson, 1976; Claudius, London: Batsford, 1990 (see BMCR 01.02.12); Vespasian, London: Routledge, 1999 (see BMCR 2001.01.20).
2.   R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939); K. Galinsky, Augustan Culture: an Interpretative Introduction (Princeton NJ, 1996); K. A. Raaflaub and L. J. Samons II, 'Opposition to Augustus', in Raaflaub and M. Toher, eds., Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate (Berkeley CA, 1990); A. J. Woodman and D. West, eds., Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus (Cambridge, 1984); I. Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford, 2002); L. R. Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (Middletown CO, 1941).
3.   For the reference, see Note 2 above.

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