Thursday, September 25, 2014


Patricia Southern, Augustus. Second edition (first published 1998). Roman imperial biographies. London; New York: Routledge, 2014. Pp. xvii, 374. ISBN 9780415628389. $130.00.

Reviewed by Joshua Kinlaw, Queens College (

Version at BMCR home site


In light of the perennial popularity of Rome's first emperor and the amount of scholarship he continues to inspire, a decade is a long time. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to welcome a second edition of Patricia Southern's Augustus fifteen years after its initial publication.

Though Southern has incorporated recent scholarship into this edition, in terms of content and argument this new edition is basically the same as the first. It remains a chronological account of Augustus that emphasizes the earlier phases of his transition from a member of an unremarkable Italian family to emperor of Rome. Faced with a life that stretches nearly 77 years (from 63 BCE until 14 CE), the biographer is forced to prioritize, and Southern focuses on Augustus' rise to power. She devotes the first 175 pages of this edition to the years leading up to and immediately succeeding Octavian's victory over Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE. Chapters 5 and 6 contain excellent analyses of the consolidation of Augustus' power, while Chapters 7 through 9 move briskly through the last 25 years of the emperor's life.

There are however four structural differences in this edition. First, endnotes appear at the end of each chapter instead of only at the end of the book. More significantly, the actual notes have been incorporated into the main text, which results in the new version of the "endnotes" being a bare list of citations (many of which could have been consolidated into a single note) rather than a continuation of, or digression from, the discussion at hand (as is the norm). Second, there are three new appendices (330–359) featuring eleven photographs. Third, we now have more than fifty illustrations spread over the nine chapters (instead of the section of plates in the middle of the first edition). Finally, many of the longer paragraphs have been broken down and helpful subtitles have been inserted.

Three of these four changes will be welcomed by the primary audience of university students. The first is problematic. The decision to attach endnotes to individual chapters may have been thought to be more user-friendly, but the wholesale incorporation of their content into the body of the work brings material that could be tangential or parenthetical into the main text. This will prove distracting or disheartening to non-specialist readers. Southern's prose is often beautiful (and British), so it unfortunate to get the feeling periodically that comparatively technical details and scholarly speculations are not where they should be, namely in the notes (e.g. the discussions of titulature at 193–195 and 222–228). Nonetheless the other changes in this edition will just as certainly please nearly any reader—particularly the subheadings.

Southern's approach is unapologetically non-thematic. She reasserts this in the new preface, and adheres to a chronological framework throughout this edition. This approach, as any, has limits. The weightier historiographical issues of the first edition remain.1 For example, some readers would prefer to think about how Octavian became "august," rather than precisely when and in what order he accrued specific powers—and the nature and history of those powers. One must appreciate Octavian's institutional and legal context, however, in order to understand what made the "revolution" he won. With her clear and eloquent exposition of Augustus' life, Southern makes an excellent guide for those who seek to better appreciate just how revolutionary it was.

Chapters 1 and 2 cover what we know of the young Octavian. Among the most interesting themes is the mystery surrounding Octavian as a person, which makes it even more difficult for us to understand his charisma or influence as emperor. Southern helps us see how, as a political up-and-comer, the young Octavian used his family's relative obscurity to his advantage. The evidence for Octavian's ancestry and early life is relatively meager, and that which remains was almost entirely approved by Augustus himself. Octavian was determined to remain in the shadow of his adoptive uncle, Julius Caesar, and probably benefitted in later life from a little-known family tree which could be adjusted according to Augustus' desires. The emperor-as-actor motif spans the biography here. Octavian spent much the first quarter of his life (63–44 BCE) "offstage" (or ill), and Southern repeatedly mentions "fa├žades" and "masks" that helped him stay alive. Much later, the aged Augustus realized that, despite whatever vulnerabilities he may have felt after the death of his two closest associates, Agrippa and Maecenas, "the show must go on" (278). Jiggering a schema was not new in Octavian's time, but it was his practice that proved an eminently useful precedent for his successors. As such, it is a remarkable example of Octavian-Augustus defining the new "normal" of Roman life.

These early chapters admirably introduce another theme of Augustus' biography: the pure uncertainty of his early career. No matter how expert a performer he may have been, he stayed alive by reacting to circumstances and accidents. The most important of these was the death of his uncle-cum-father, Julius Caesar, whose murder made a teenaged Octavian, as Caesar's heir, a marked man. Southern's narrative effectively recreates the sense of confusion and crisis of confidence that must have resulted. Her use of Cicero's letters to capture the political importance and sheer unpredictability of personal relationships is particularly impressive. Baffled by the developments of 44 and 43, Cicero tells Atticus he is uncertain what to make of "the boy" Octavian. He is confused as to how to address him, let alone his relationship with the Senate or Antony. Octavian's choice of allies was a matter of life-and-death, and Southern helps us to sense the contingency of a period of Augustus' life that, as emperor, he wanted everyone to consider inevitable. Southern clearly tracks how Octavian navigated his way through alliances which, with few exceptions, devolved into rivalries and bloodshed. Southern also adds color to the apparent link between ruthlessness and power that seems to characterize Octavian's early career. In the same year he obtained the consulship (43 BCE), Octavian also agreed to a list of "authorized murders," i.e. proscriptions. One such list eventually included Cicero's name (94).

The larger issue overarching the first four chapters is our understanding of Octavian's role in the fall of the Republic. Undoubtedly a key player, he was also the last man standing and did his best to assure that the memory of the period was a victor's history. Southern incorporates new scholarship on the Res Gestae which, however whitewashed, is the closest we come to Augustus' autobiography.

The years between the Perusine War and the final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra are barely mentioned in the Res Gestae; they are also thoroughly "revised" ex post facto by literary lights Horace and Vergil (under the patronage of the emperor and his friends). But this period was fraught with some of the same political uncertainties that marked earlier decades. Southern adds as much color as possible to the fluid and fragile arrangements of the triumvirs and their associates. One wonders how many Romans actually thought Octavian, washed up on a beach after a naval defeat in 36, would triumph over Sextus, son of Pompey the Great, let alone Antony (or his wife, Fulvia, or Antony's younger brother, Lucius, all of whom could look down the social pyramid at Octavian). Her summary of Octavian's final struggle—ideological and military—with Cleopatra and Antony, though hampered by problematic evidence, is strong (152–166). We are left with an image of Octavian as a "cork" who, however often youth, inexperience, or bad luck might knock him under, came bobbing back to the surface.

Chapter 5, "Empire Building," focuses on the decade after Actium, during which the victorious Octavian officially transitioned to Augustus. Southern's description of the emperor as the double-faced Janus is apt (and perhaps connected to an actor's masks): he looks to the republican past to describe the current transition to future empire. The chapter begins with a very clear summary of this transition that incorporates recent scholarship. Much of this recent material is thematic; this is understandable given the spotty evidence and the popularity of Augustan culture in classical studies. It can be easier, Southern notes, to approach the period by way of, say, art or architecture. Nevertheless, Southern restates her determination to stick to "a linear account" of the Augustus the person—rather than the persona and its age (175-178). Moreover the new appendices make for an efficient compromise with the thematic. Their cogent descriptions of Roman architecture, the army, and provincial administration make for effective snapshots of these themes for a reader primarily interested in a biography per se.

Furthermore, the new subtitles also guide the curious toward those themes that most interest them. So Chapter Six, "Totus Orbis Terrarum", for example, does focus first on "Augustus and his family" before moving to his relationships with the provinces, then the senate, and finally a longer discussion of the social legislation of 18 and 17 BCE. The latter discussion will not satisfy readers interested primarily in Augustan culture, but those readers have plenty of options, to which Southern alludes. Similarly, the relative short shrift given the final two decades of Augustus' reign may disappoint those in search of nuanced reflections on the early empire. Yet the first succession of imperial power is very ably summarized as a political necessity. The second emperor, Tiberius, was, like his stepfather, the last man standing.

Whether the changes listed above warrant a new edition is debatable. This volume will not disprove the notion that editions are more of a publisher's prerogative than an academic necessity. But the timing was no doubt impossible for this publisher to pass on: 2014 marks the bimillennial anniversary of Augustus' death, and he is currently being celebrated in cities of his former empire and beyond.2 More importantly, the cosmetic changes to this edition will be welcomed by its intended audiences of undergraduate and graduate students. And while Southern's chronological approach results in more description than analysis, this is precisely what many readers want and need. My own teaching experience has confirmed that many students prefer the chronological introduction to the thematic.3 Furthermore, Southern's account is just what more advanced and graduate students require for fruitful, analytical discussions about Augustus, his context, and his legacies.


1.   See Carlos Norena's review of the first edition (BMCR 1999.05.16).
2.   There are exhibitions and events in Rome, Paris, and even Washington, D.C., among many other locations.
3.   There is certainly a place for Southern's approach between, e.g., the studies of Galinsky and the popular account by Goldsworthy.

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