It’s a busy week here at Commemorating Augustus HQ. The abstract deadline for next summer’s conference is just two days away, and they are coming in thick and fast now. I’m happy to say that the quality of the submissions is very high, and I’m really looking forward to putting the programme together and making it all public.

Before that, though, I should write up a report of the Augustus INSET day in Manchester which I organised a couple of weeks ago with fellow JACT member Peter Liddel. JACT exists as an organisation to support the teaching of Ancient and Classical topics in schools, and one of the things we do is run regular professional training days. Often, topics like Ancient History and Classical Civilisation are taught in schools by people who aren’t subject specialists – for example, modern historians or English literature specialists who have chosen to branch out into ancient history or literature. And of course those who do have a Classics background like to keep up with the latest developments in the field and to learn new material and approaches. So that is where we come in, and what we aimed to do with our Augustus day on November 16th.

Planning the day

Augustus is a popular subject on both Ancient History and Classical Civilisation syllabuses, and if you add in Augustan literature the relevance extends to Latin as well. So we knew he would make a good topic for an INSET day at any time. But with his bimillennium coming up next year, it seemed the perfect opportunity to make sure that teachers were all set to make the most of the occasion in the classroom.

Thanks to Peter’s hard work in applying for and securing funding from the University of Manchester, we were able to offer the day for free to participants, who only needed to cover the cost of their own lunch. That made life simple for us as organisers, because we didn’t need to process booking fees, and obviously it also helped to ensure that we attracted plenty of attendees. Around 50 people came on the day, which is excellent for an event of this type – and I really cannot thank Stephen Jenkin at The Classics Library enough for helping to advertise it.

Meanwhile, as the Augustan expert on the team, my job was to put together a suitable programme of speakers and topics. We aimed for a mixture of academic lectures and interactive workshops, led by both academics and school-teachers, with the idea that participants would be able to benefit from the combination of new research input and direct classroom experience. We also organised the programme of workshops into two ‘threads’ – a historical one dealing with key sources and issues, and a literature / receptions one dealing with Augustan poetry and the responses of later emperors, so that people could choose what was most relevant to them and their teaching.

My own plenary: Commemorating Augustus’ bimillennium

It was also my honour to open the day with a plenary lecture entitled ‘Commemorating Augustus’ bimillennium’. The idea was to introduce the day by saying a little bit about why anniversary commemorations are so popular and how they tend to function, with a particular focus of course on examples from the Augustan period, from the bimillennium of his birth in 1938, and also looking ahead to what is coming up in 2014. The passage which I used as a lynchpin for my discussion was Tacitus Annals 1.9.1, which as it so happens is about discussions in the senate immediately after Augustus’ death:

Then tongues became busy with Augustus himself. Most men were struck by trivial points — that the same day [idem dies] should have been the first on which he assumed imperium and the last of his life — that he should have ended his days at Nola in the same house and room as his father Octavius.

In that passage, one of the ‘trivial points’ which the senators notice is that the date of Augustus’ death in AD 14 is also the anniversary of the date on which he took up his first consulship (i.e. assumed imperium) in 43 BC. It is the date which the Romans called “fourteen days before the Kalends of September”, but we call August 19th.

There is no ‘real’ relationship between these two occasions, of course – it is simply that the names or numbers used to date them look the same. But, as Denis Feeney has pointed out in his excellent Caesar’s Calendar, Tacitus’ Latin very clearly shows up how powerful that similarity can feel. His senators call the two dates ‘the same day’ (idem dies), as though they had somehow collapsed into one single moment, in spite of the fact that they were actually separated by no less than 56 years.

It is similar to our modern concept of ‘on this day in history’ – a sheer coincidence really, but one which it is very tempting to treat as a sort of worm-hole through time. Tacitus’ senators use their example as a prompt to think about the relationship between a past event (the start of Augustus’ political career) and a present one (his death), and about the span between the two. Similarly, we too use anniversaries today to think about what the past means to us; to discuss, debate and reinterpret it in terms which make sense to us in the present.

Augustus himself of course did this in a big way, writing imperial anniversaries into the Roman calendar on a scale which had never been seen before. And as I pointed out in my talk, he would very definitely have understood and applauded the idea of people commemorating his bimillennium. He, after all, made very canny use indeed of a round-number anniversary when he celebrated the Ludi Saeculares, and if later emperor Philip the Arab could proclaim that his own ludi saeculares marked a millennium since Rome’s foundation, then I’m pretty sure Augustus would have done so too, given half the chance.

Tips for marking Augustus’ bimillennium in the classroom

I finished my lecture with some suggestions for suitable ways of marking Augustus’ bimillennium in the classroom. My top tip, really, was simply for teachers to capitalise on the interest which the anniversary will raise in whatever way best suits them and their pupils. As for Tacitus’ senators, the anniversary is above all a good reason to think about Augustus and what his life and career mean for us today – and that thinking can take any form. But if I had to home in on one way of thinking about Augustus at the time of his bimillennium, I would suggest using it to weigh up the positives and negatives of his career, and to reach an overall evaluation of him.

This is partly because it suits the occasion which we are marking – his death, which also means the end of his career and the first chance to judge it as a completed whole. But also because it is an useful exercise to perform with Augustus anyway, and one which both school pupils and University students often struggle with. Was he the good guy who just wanted to bring about peace and prosperity? Or the bad guy who slaughtered his enemies in a ruthless quest for political power? The truth is that the material to support both arguments is there in the ancient sources – so what do we do with that?

Rounding off, I suggested a few ways of opening up that discussion, several of which take their cue from scenarios in the ancient sources. I will share those here for any teachers who are looking for ideas, but weren’t able to attend our event:

  1. Get your pupils to write a modern obituary of Augustus. How would we sum him up today?
  2. Going back to Tacitus, use the full text of Annals 1.9-10, where he reports a ‘pros and cons’ debate about Augustus’ career amongst the senatorial classes. You could get your pupils to re-enact that debate, arguing opposite sides and adding their own points to supplement the ones included by Tacitus.
  3. Hang the discussion on the question which Augustus himself asked on his death-bed: “Did I play my part well in this comedy called life?” (Suetonius, Augustus 99). Yes or no?
  4. Or you could adapt the basic scenario set out in Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis. In the original text, it is Claudius who finds himself up before panel of gods, tasked with judging whether or not he is worthy to become one of their number. But it would be very easy to adapt this idea, and have students playing a panel of gods judging Augustus instead. You could have Apollo singing his praises, but Hercules still boiling with anger at his treatment of Antony; Mars thrilled with his new temples, but Pluto unimpressed with the administrative burden caused by having to deal with so many deaths during the triumviral period. The possibilities are endless!

A round-up of the other sessions

Of course, the nice thing about giving the opening talk at an academic event is that you can then relax and enjoy the rest of the day. My first stop was a workshop on Augustan coinage given by Clare Rowan of the University of Warwick. Though we hadn’t planned it, there was some nice overlap between Clare’s session and mine, because she got us all looking at the coins minted for Augustus’ ludi saeculares. It was a really lively session, and I learnt plenty of new things from it myself. Sadly, I don’t have a time turner, so I couldn’t attend the parallel session on Augustus and the poets given by my Leeds colleague Bev Scott. But having seen Bev talk about Ovid’s Heroides in the past, I already know how brilliant she is at conveying the complex concepts involved in thinking about ancient literature in a really accessible and engaging way.

After lunch, it was time for the second plenary lecture: this time from Alison Cooley, also of the University of Warwick, about that most difficult but rewarding source for the age of Augustus: the Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Alison recently published a new edition, translation and commentary for this text (of which my copy is already very well-thumbed!), so she was in a perfect position to help our audience understand how to approach it and think about how to get the most out of it.

We then finished the day with two more parallel sessions, which again I had to (reluctantly) choose between. I went first to a session on Suetonius run by Sarah Holliday of Aylesbury Grammar School and Nina Wallace of Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke – both JACT committee members like myself. Sarah and Nina teach in quite different types of schools, so they were able to share and compare perspectives on how to get their different groups of pupils interested in Suetonius, and what responses his Life of Augustus tends to provoke. For me as a University lecturer, I found this session especially useful for the insights into the practicalities of classroom teaching (which is useful for my role on the JACT committee), and for understanding where students are coming from when they arrive with us to begin their degrees. Meanwhile, another JACT committee member, Peter Reason of Gower College, Swansea, applied some of the models which Bev Scott had already set out in her earlier workshop to a particular Augustan poetry case-study: Horace, Virgil and the battle of Actium.

I had followed the historical thread up to this point, but I then switched to literature and reception for the final session, going to hear Manchester’s own Shushma Malik talking about how both Nero and then Vespasian had responded to Augustus’ legacy. Shushma did a brilliant job of getting everyone fired up and contributing to the discussion – not always easy for the last session of the day! – and really demonstrated how much we can get out of assessing Augustus’ impact not only during his lifetime, but long after his death. That, of course, is very much what my conference next year is all about, too. I was sorry to miss the parallel workshop by James Harrison of Bootham School York on ‘Augustus the contradiction’, especially since he was dealing with exactly the issue I had raised at the end of my own plenary – the difficulty of finding our way through source material which says such conflicting things about Augustus. But having talked through James’ material with him beforehand, and having seen how excited he was about it all on the day itself, I’m certain it was a great session.

Judging from the feedback forms which people completed on the day, the whole programme went down very well, with people feeling that they had both learnt new things about Augustus and picked up new practical tips for teaching him. That’s exactly what we were aiming for, so it’s satisfying to know that we hit the mark. I was particularly pleased myself to find two-thirds of our respondents saying that they were now planning to do something to mark the bimillennium in their own schools as a result of the day – and that of the remaining third, all but one already had similar plans in mind before they arrived. Given that part of the remit of my project is to encourage people to make good use of Augustus’ bimillennium, and to help support them in doing so, that is very pleasing indeed.

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