19th August 2014 marks the bimillennial anniversary of the death of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. The Commemorating Augustus project, led by Dr. Penny Goodman from the University of Leeds, takes this opportunity to think about Augustus’ legacy across the two thousand years which have passed since his death, and to look at what he means to us today.
Augustus and his legacy
Augustus is one of the few historical individuals who can genuinely be said to have changed the world around him. He forged a system of rule by emperor out of political chaos, consolidated Roman control over an empire spanning three continents, and put the military and administrative structures in place to sustain it for almost five centuries. This makes him one of the major architects of the modern world, and his legacy has been felt ever since in political thinking from John of Salisbury to Jonathan Swift; political image-making from the Holy Roman Emperors to Mussolini; art, architecture, literature, film and television.
Yet Augustus has also tended to divide opinion. As a man who overthrew his enemies and ended the Roman Republic, but then established a stable and peaceful regime which many welcomed, he is capable of being seen either as an exemplary ruler (e.g. by Dante) or as a ‘subtle tyrant’ (Edward Gibbon). While interest in the historical Augustus has always remained strong, this ambivalent posthumous legacy has received little direct scholarly attention – in stark contrast with similar Roman leaders such as Nero, Julius Caesar and Elagabalus. This is a barrier to a full 21st-century understanding of Augustus which prevents us from deciding for ourselves what he means to us today.
At present, attitudes towards Augustus tend to be critical, and his public profile is low by comparison with other emperors. For example, he appears relatively little in films and on TV, and when he does it is usually as the ruthless overthrower of the Republic – not the widely-acclaimed mature emperor. This perspective may well be fitting for the early 21st century, but it is shaped by the critical view of Augustus expressed in Syme’s influential book The Roman Revolution (1939) and by Mussolini’s attempts to associate himself with Augustus in the 1930s. We can only be sure whether or not it is really our perspective if we first understand how it has been influenced by previous assessments.
The Commemorating Augustus project
The Commemorating Augustus project lays the ground for a 21st-century re-evaluation by exploring the wide range of responses to Augustus expressed across the 2000 years since his death. The project launched in May 2013 with a half-day colloquium at Leeds which examined Augustus’ old age and death, and responses to him around the bimillennium of his birth in 1938. This year, its main event is a conference held at Leeds from the 18th to 20th August 2014. Running over the bimillennium itself, the conference explores responses to Augustus from the public mourning immediately after his death to his depiction in 21st-century culture, taking in genres from political discourse to computer games along the way. The best papers from the 2014 conference will be published as an edited volume, designed to bring out the main themes in the history of responses to Augustus and to set our 21st-century view of him in context.
The project will also lead to a monograph-length study of the commemorations held for both of Augustus’ major bimillennia: his birth in 1938 and death in 2014. Though the Italian commemorations for Augustus’ birth in 1938 are well-known, they were in fact only part of a nexus of international events held elsewhere in Europe, North America and Australasia. These commemorations reveal that on the eve of the Second World War Augustus was pressed into service as an icon of a fragile international peace and cosmopolitan intellectual identity – and they badly need to be better known if we are to fully understand the anxieties of the period, and set the Italian celebrations in their true context. As for 2014, people across the western world have seized the opportunity to think about and engage with Augustus this year. The events which they are running can tell us a great deal about why anyone is still interested in Augustus two thousand years after his death, and how his controversial career can be understood and negotiated today.
Commemorating Augustus also has an important public engagement aspect. After all, the 2014 bimillennium is a public event, not just a subject for academic study. Dr. Goodman has already conducted a survey of attitudes towards Augustus (and other Roman emperors) in Leeds city centre, run a teachers’ training day about Augustus in Manchester, and is giving regular public talks about the bimillennium as the year itself unfolds. She has also written articles on the topic for The Journal of Classics Teaching, and the Classical Association magazine CA Nova, and is contributing a regular series of Augustan-themed blog posts for the Augustus Collection. If you are planning an event to mark Augustus’ bimillennium, and are interested in exchanging expertise or discussing opportunities for collaboration, please get in touch with Dr. Goodman here.