Thursday, November 22, 2012


Karl Galinsky, Augustus: Introduction to the Life of an Emperor. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xxiv, 200. ISBN 9780521744423. $27.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Francese, Dickinson College (

Version at BMCR home site

As pointed out recently in these pages (BMCR 2012.09.45) there are quite a few current books about Augustus intended as introductions in English. Galinsky (who, full disclosure, directed the reviewer's dissertation many years ago on a non-Augustan topic), enters a field occupied by some of the most eminent Roman historians of our day, including (to name only the most eminent) Werner Eck, Pat Southern, and Barbara Levick.1 This book, following on the author's highly regarded Augustan Culture (1996) and Cambridge Companion to Augustus (ed. 2005), brings a much deeper understanding of and sympathy with the literature, art, and architecture of the period than the other books, while still providing a judicious and lucid political narrative. Briefer than Levick and Southern, more reader-friendly than all three, it should be the first choice for students and colleagues who want a lively and an up-to-date introduction to Augustus and his age.

The structure is partly chronological, partly topical. Chapters 1 and 2 bring us up through the battle of Actium in sixty pages, economically sketching the regional and familial influences on his character, the political disasters of the late Republic, and Octavian's stunning and violent rise to power. Ch. 3 deals with the political settlements after Actium, Augustus' constitutional powers, and leadership style. Ch. 4 ranges broadly over the Pax Augusta, emphasizing the non-golden quality of the age and its "ethos of struggle." It succinctly explains the basics of Augustan imperialism, the moral legislation (closely tied to imperialism in Galinsky's view), Roman religion and Augustus' place in it, and the problem of succession. Ch. 5 deals with the other crucial players: Livia, Agrippa, Julia, and Tiberius, while giving a vivid picture of Augustus' sometimes difficult personality in a family context. Ch. 6, "Cultural Vitality," recapitulates some of the themes of Augustan Culture: innovation and experimentation within a classical framework, the variety of artistic and intellectual responses to Augustus' ideas, and the polyvalence and invitation to response that characterizes the best Augustan art. Ch. 7 treats imperial administration, Romanization, and the Roman economy in the age of Augustus. And a final chapter canvasses some of the divergent assessments of Augustus over time, from Tacitus up through a 2009 book on leadership.

The book's greatest strength, perhaps, is its inset boxes containing well-chosen excerpts of literary and epigraphical sources (including the expected: Res Gestae, Vergil, Tacitus, etc.; and the delightfully surprising: Livia's prescription for nervous tension from Apicius, Julia's repartee with her father and stepmother from Macrobius, an inscription from the theater at Leptis Magna). These documents come with brief comments that, with masterful economy, contextualize and interpret them. Similar treatment is given to material evidence (e.g., coins, statuary, a compital altar, the Pantheon, everyday objects like a terracotta lamp with Victory holding the clupeus virtutis). These are not simply reproduced as illustrations, as is so often done, but actually described, discussed, and contextualized. Though Eck's book includes the Res Gestae complete in translation, the other books give no inkling of the fascinating variety of material available, much less guidance on how to evaluate it.

Not that this book is merely a scaled-down version of Augustan Culture, which focused on literary and artistic monuments. Galinsky deftly handles the political and military narrative as well. Those wanting the details of how and why Augustus' various constitutional powers changed over time will want to consult Eck and Southern. But Galinsky provides a good account of the vicissitudes of the triumviral period, a clear description of what can and can't be known about the battle of Actium, and a good discussion of the Augustan rearrangement of the system of provincial government. Moreover, he recounts the essentials of the "restoration" of the Republic, without getting lost in the weeds of constitutional technicalities.

On the ten point Augustan Favorability Scale—10 being the Res Gestae (Augustus selfless in every action, observant of tradition, generous, moderate, dutiful), 1 being Levick's book (Augustus a man of deceit and violence, relentlessly self-interested manipulator of public opinion and political machinery, precursor to twentieth century dictators)—Galinsky comes in at about a 7.5. While detailing and acknowledging the atrocities of the triumviral period, he brings a refreshing lack of disgruntlement about the fall of the Republic. It is a very un-Tacitean view, one that assesses Augustus not from the point of view of the senatorial aristocracy whose privileges he curtailed, but from the perspective of the broader Roman world, and also from a modern reader's point of view, asking frankly what we can learn from Augustus, and why we should care about him. Galinsky highlights the "transactional" nature of Augustus' leadership, wedded as it was to broadly shared values, the way Augustus got in front of changes that were already happening, and the flexible and responsive nature of his approach within his overall goals. One of Galinsky's useful contributions to Augustan scholarship has been to consult modern studies of leadership, which have moved away from preoccupation with power and instead emphasize the more important task of a leader to inculcate purpose, and on this score one can take away some positive lessons.

Another strength of this book is an openness to social history. When relevant, Galinsky briefly discusses the kinds of topics about which students often ask: life expectancy, literacy, the status and roles of women, religious practices and beliefs, astrology, and various other Roman customs that bear on the main narrative, and he does so with a light touch that takes good advantage of all the progress made in these areas in the last several decades. The other recent accounts are much more single-mindedly political, and more traditional in seeing such things as outside the purview of "real" history. The result is not only a more rounded picture of Augustus in his milieu, but a good introduction to Roman civilization, made all the more effective because it focuses on a single fascinating personality and a single period of momentous change.

The bibliography is judicious and up to date, and the text well-edited and attractively presented. In its undogmatic willingness to canvass other views, and its readable and at times humorous style, it is ideal for college and university courses, and a model of how to combine political and cultural history for a contemporary audience.


1.   Werner Eck, The Age of Augustus, 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007 (German 1st edition 1998). Pat Southern, Augustus, London and New York: Routledge, 1998. Barbara Levick, Augustus: Image and Substance, Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2010.

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