Today marks exactly one year until the bimillennium of Augustus’ death. Put another way, he died 1999 years ago today.

That’s actually a rather neat illustration of how round-number anniversaries work. We are one year closer to the event in time this year than we will be next year, but there is still some strange sense that next year we will be closer. It is pure numerology really. Like any anniversary, it is really just about the resemblance between two dates. Simply put, 19th August 2014 matches up with 19th August AD 14 better than 19th August 2013 does.

But it’s also about the fact that we can’t think about everything all the time. This time next year I will be in the middle of running a big conference about Augustus, and the ways in which people have responded to him over the past two thousand years. I’m really looking forward to it and it’s definitely something worth doing – but obviously I couldn’t do that every single day. Round number anniversaries also work for us because they help us to focus our interests, spurring us on to do something appropriate on a designated occasion, but also making it OK not to do that every single day in between.

So I’m working on Augustus today, because that’s my main research project for the moment, and will continue to be until this time next year (and indeed a little beyond). But there’s no big event going on for this year’s anniversary. Instead, it seems like a good time to update this blog with a report on how the project as a whole is coming along.

The conference

This is what I’ll be doing this time next year for the bimillennium itself. I began circulating the call for papers in April, and I’ve been thrilled by the response. The deadline for abstracts isn’t until 1st December, but because I asked people to contact me in advance to discuss their topics (in order to prevent overlaps), I already have a good sense of how interested people are. At the time of writing, I’ve had offers for nearly 40 papers, covering almost all of the major topics I hoped would come up. Obviously no individual papers are confirmed yet. I will need to wait until the formal abstracts come in, review them carefully with the help of the conference committee, and then send out official confirmations. So as excited as I am about some of the proposals I’ve received, I can’t really share any details about them yet. But I can definitely promise a good spread of topics at the conference, covering Augustus’ death and its immediate impact, later Roman emperors, provincial responses, late antiquity, the Byzantine empire, early Christian thought, early medieval literature, early modern philosophy and literature, 20th-century literature, contemporary popular culture, political theory and Augustan monuments.

I am still keen to receive more proposals, though. My initial plan was to run the whole conference on a plenary basis – that is, not to have parallel sessions, but only a single session at any one time so that all delegates can attend all of the papers. But doing it that way does mean that only a limited number of papers can be presented in the time available. Meanwhile, earlier in the summer my colleague Emma Stafford ran an absolutely excellent conference entitled Hercules: a hero for all ages, and applied a genius solution to the problem of parallel sessions. She simply ensured that every paper was recorded (in audio format), and the recordings uploaded afterwards to a password-protected website. This means that all of the delegates now can listen to each others’ papers – and, as a bonus, the conference team was able to offer ‘virtual delegate’ status to people who couldn’t attend in person, but wanted to be able to listen to the papers presented.

So if the number and quality of the abstracts submitted in December mean that (at least some) parallel sessions will be needed to fit them all in, I will go with Emma’s solution of recording the papers, rather than having to turn down good proposals because there isn’t space for them on the programme. And that means there is definitely room for more material.

Some ‘hot topics’ which are really important for Augustus’ reception history, but which I haven’t had proposals on yet, include:

  • Augustus in medieval Christian legend
  • Dante
  • Petrarch
  • Early modern royalty (e.g. Charles II, Louis XIV)
  • Alexander Pope
  • Voltaire
  • Augustus in the visual arts

If you have anything to say on receptions of Augustus in any of those contexts, please get in touch with a proposal!

The monograph

And this is my own personal day-to-day research focus at the moment. While the conference deals with receptions of Augustus right from his death up to the present day, the monograph is a close study of his two big bimillennia: his birth in 1938 and his death in 2014. I’m studying them from a receptions perspective, in the sense that I am looking at what they reveal about the public perception of Augustus in each period, how he was used to serve contemporary agendas, and how looking at all this can help us to understand Augustus better for ourselves. But I’m also setting them in a wider framework of commemorative practices, and particularly anniversary commemorations. Here, I’m looking at how the commemorative context encourages or suppresses particular responses to Augustus, how his bimillennia compare with other round-number anniversary commemorations, and what difference it makes to commemorate an event which took place so long ago and in a culture of which no-one can now claim direct membership.

Obviously the 2014 anniversary hasn’t happened yet, so there’s not much I can study! But I’m pleased to say that a growing number of commemorations of various different kinds are emerging as we get closer to the date. I’ve put a list here of the ones which are already in the public arena, but actually there are about as many again which I know are being planned but which haven’t been publicly announced yet. So I am confident I’ll have plenty to talk about, and am looking forward to seeing as many of them as possible for myself and talking to the people involved.

Meanwhile, I’m concentrating on the first half of the monograph: i.e. the introductory material setting up the issues of anniversary commemorations and Augustus’ receptions, and the chapters covering the 1938 bimillennium and its impact. I reckon I have about 15,000 words of fairly solid academic prose in the bag now, which includes the two introductory chapters, and the beginnings of the third chapter. This is the exciting one, where I get into the 1938 bimillennium commemorations in real detail, and there is so much to say! As I’ve already indicated in my previous posts on my research trip to New York and the paper which I gave at the colloquium which launched the project in May, I have uncovered a whole world of commemorative events which extend way beyond the ones everyone knows about in fascist Italy, and I am enjoying teasing out what they can tell us about Augustus’ role in the discourses of the day, and how they help to illuminate the historical Augustus in the process.

Public talks

I’m also getting out and about and talking about my work to all sorts of different audiences. I’ve already blogged here about two of these talks: one at Leeds Museum on a survey about public perceptions of Augustus which I gave in January, and one about the 1938 commemorations which I gave at the project launch colloquium. Since then, I’ve also given a talk on how to get the most out of Augustus’ anniversary next year in a classroom context at the JACT annual general meeting. This was a great event, which was more a conference than an AGM really, and which one of the other participants, Prof. Kate Cooper, has blogged in full here. It included a fantastic keynote speech from the JACT president, Caroline Lawrence, about her famous Roman Mysteries series and the ancient theory of the four humours, which she has also published in blog form. And in fact Caroline also tweeted a picture of me giving my own talk, so you can see me in action here:

Anniversary talk at JACT AGMSource credit: Caroline Lawrence

The slide shown in the picture was my montage of logos from recent and forthcoming anniversary commemorations, which I used to explain how anniversaries work and why they fascinate people. But the real focus of my talk was on how to use the anniversary to help school pupils get to grips with some of the aspects of Augustus’ career which they often find difficult – especially trying to make sense of the very different responses, from flowing praise to attempted assassinations, which he provoked (both in his own lifetime and ever since). I’ve now written up my talk in the form of an article for the JACT magazine, The Journal of Classical Teaching, and that should come out in September.

Other upcoming Augustus gigs include:

  • 1st October: presenting my research on the 1938 commemorations in the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, Liverpool
  • 31st October: a talk on Augustus for pupils at Fettes College, Edinburgh
  • 16th November: a full day event on Augustus for current and prospective Classics or Ancient History teachers in Manchester
  • 26th June 2014: another talk at Leeds Museum on what people are doing to commemorate Augustus in his bimillennial year
  • 31st July 2014: two sessions on Augustus’ own use of anniversaries and varying responses to him through time at the ARLT summer school in Durham

Quite a busy schedule, then. Apart from the Fettes College talk, I believe all of those are open to anyone who wants to come – although obviously they are aimed at different audiences and the ARLT summer school charges a fee. So do come along and see me in action if you are interested!