Wednesday, May 18, 2011

2011.05.46

Andrew Lintott, The Romans in the Age of Augustus. The Peoples of Europe. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pp. xi, 198. ISBN 9781405176545. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Amy K. Bosworth, Muskingum University (bosworth@muskingum.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

The history of the Roman Empire has fascinated scholars and students alike for centuries. Andrew Lintott's The Romans in the Age of Augustus addresses the need for scholarly and accessible histories geared toward undergraduate students and/or readers with no previous exposure to Roman history. Lintott offers a snapshot of Roman civilization during a specific period of strength and power, focusing on topics such as the role of the family, the organization of social classes, urban and rural life, religion, education, and the military. Although the title suggests a focus on Roman society during the life and reign of Augustus (63 BC–14 AD), the author also provides a detailed overview of Roman history from the early habitation of the city of Rome through the civil wars that brought Augustus to power.

The first three chapters of The Romans in the Age of Augustus detail the history of Rome from roughly the eighth to the first century BC, introducing the reader to the most critical events, persons, and institutions that formed the empire, and creating context for the author's subsequent discussion of society. Chapter one contains a brief overview of the Roman world, which the author terms "first impressions," noting in particular the importance of trade, travel, and the sea in molding this successful urban civilization. Lintott frames these introductory comments with the story of a meeting in 20 BC between Augustus and an embassy from India. Recognizing that ancient Rome would be as alien to a modern reader as it was to the ambassadors, he seeks to demystify it through detailing how the Romans achieved their power, and how they lived; he aims "to stress the features of their society that would have seemed exotic to a foreigner"(5).

The next two chapters cover the history of Rome from its founding to the time of Augustus. Chapter two begins with an account of the early habitation of the city prior to the eighth century BC and the transition from monarchy to republic, including an explanation of how the republican system of governance operated. Lintott stresses the role of both internal and external conflicts in the shaping of this civilization, discussing interactions with neighboring peoples, Rome's gradual expansion beyond Italy (and the wars that ensued), and social tensions between patricians and plebs within the city itself. In the second century BC economic issues, the power of the military in the political process, and "discord and vast ambitions among the governing class" added to the disquiet in Rome (67).

Chapter three provides a detailed account of the wars (civil and with neighboring civilizations) and political maneuvering that eventually led to the collapse of the Republic and rule by Augustus. The author combines a narrative of the major events of the last decades of the Republic with an explanation of the changes in Roman society that both resulted from and helped to cause political upheaval. Lintott offers a clear presentation of the complexities of the second and first centuries BC and thus a thorough backdrop for his discussion of Roman society in the time of Augustus.

Moving into the first century BC and beyond, the remaining chapters represent the heart of the monograph, highlighting various aspects of Augustan society and noting changes over time when appropriate. Chapter four discusses the organization of Roman society, beginning with the role of the family. Lintott describesboth the importance of Augustus' family for his regime and the general influence of the Roman family in public and private. . He also explores some of Rome's more striking cultural divides, such as those between free and slave and male and female.

The next chapter focuses on life in the city of Rome itself and in the communities beyond (both urban and rural). With the aid of several maps, Lintott tours the layout of the capital city and notes the influence of a long history of habitation and the lack of a universal urban plan on its overall configuration. He also discusses the administrative, judicial, and economic structures of Rome. An overview of the Italian cities and countryside follows, with the author noting that many cities mirrored the imperial capital in their physical layout and governance. In this section, Lintott focuses his attention primarily on rural communities and the question of land ownership, providing the reader with a glimpse of the complexities of the historical record without overwhelming the narrative.

Chapter six concentrates on some of the cultural aspects of the empire under Augustus. Lintott begins with Roman religion, emphasizing its public nature, connections to the elite (including the ruler), and centrality in daily life. The variety of deities, both native and foreign, allowed for numerous celebrations, although the author puts to rest the notion that most Romans spent their days participating in festivals rather than working. A discussion of education and the arts (limited here mostly to literature, theater, and history) follows. The author stresses the Roman debt to the Greeks, in particular in the fields of literature and theater. The Romans in the Age of Augustus concludes with a discussion of one of the most crucial elements in the creation of the empire, the military. Lintott's argument revolves around the process and necessity of building, maintaining, and paying for an army and navy, and stresses the increasing importance of troops from beyond the empire in this process. The chapter, and the book, ends with the argument that "the basis of its [Rome's] existence was at least as much in the barrack-blocks of forts and camps as in the streets of Rome"(165).

The Romans in the Age of Augustus successfully presents the main elements of a complex civilization ina clear and organized narrative. The inclusion of subheadings within each chapter and the translation of common Latin phrases into English makes the text more accessible to the intended audienceof undergraduate students and non-specialists. Lintott's ability concisely to summarize ancient historiographical accounts provides readers with an understanding of the complexity of historical analysis without losing them in a detailed discussion of the arguments. Finally, by framing his introductory comments in Chapter one with the story of a foreign civilization encountering the Romans, Lintott acknowledges that Roman society might seem alien to a modern "visitor" also, allying any fears a novice might have about engaging with the text.

My only criticism of the book pertains to the abundance of background information and its prominence in the overall narrative. Lintott begins specifically to address Augustan Rome only in chapter four, so that almost half of the work is an explanation of the historical context. Pairing down chapters one through three would allow the author to dedicate more time to Augustan society itself and to include an explanation of Augustus' rise to power and leadership. Lintott acknowledges that "it is not the aim of this book to discuss all the details of Augustus' constitutional arrangements … nor to follow the twists of politics, which led Augustus to redefine not only his constitutional powers but the function he conceived that he had to fulfill," and he provides bibliography on these topics for further study (78). Yet an audience of non-specialists would benefit from just such a detour, which would create a richer context for understanding the society he seeks to demystify. A reduction in the background information would also allow for the addition of a conclusion, a useful and necessary device for monographs geared toward an undergraduate audience. This aside, The Romans in the Age of Augustus presents a complex topic in an accessible format and would make a useful addition to courses on Roman history as well as to those that offer general surveys of the ancient world.

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