Today marks exactly one month until the bimillennium of Augustus’ death, and thus also to the middle day of my Commemorating Augustus conference. For a couple of years now I have been tweeting Augustus-related events which can be dated exactly 2000 years ago to the day using the #Aug2K hashtag, and naturally I’d hoped that these would intensify in the run-up to the big day. I was certainly aware that we know quite a lot about Augustus’ comings and goings during the last few weeks of his life, and it didn’t seem unreasonable to hope that some of them would be datable – especially since one was a public appearance at a major festival in Naples. Frustratingly, though, I’ve discovered that in spite of how much we know, we can’t actually put a precise calendar date to a single thing Augustus did between holding a lustrum with Tiberius on May 11th and his death on August 19th. So this post sets out what we do know, what we don’t, and what we can guess.
The major historical accounts
In chronological order of their composition, the major accounts of Augustus’ final days are:
All basically agree that Augustus died in a family villa near Nola, and that he was in this area partly because he had just attended a festival held in his honour at Naples, and partly because he had been accompanying Tiberius on the first leg of a journey towards a military posting in Illyricum (or strictly, by that date, Dalmatia). All this is the sort of information we can usually be relatively confident in from ancient historical texts, since it would have been a matter of public record, and any author wishing to appear credible would therefore need to stick to it.
The only major area of disagreement is whether or not Tiberius, who continued towards Dalmatia when Augustus took to his bed but was summoned back once it became clear that this was his final illness, had time to get back to Nola before Augustus actually died. Velleius (a direct contemporary but also a strong partisan of Tiberius) is adamant that he did and Suetonius also takes it for granted, but Tacitus sows doubt on the matter (without actually saying that he definitely didn’t), and Dio (now writing some 200 years later) has come across both stories and is inclined to trust those who say he didn’t. Here, we’re dealing with the sort of historical issue we can’t really resolve – a private matter the truth of which would have been known only to people actually present at Augustus’ death-bed, and a highly politically-charged one to boot, since Tiberius as heir would have every reason to want to say he was there in Augustus’ final moments to receive his blessing, while his enemies would wish to say the opposite. That said, Carter 1982: 204 argues that Tiberius’ position was strong enough by AD 14 to mean that he did not need to pretend Augustus was still alive when he got to Nola in order to ensure his succession, which is the motive suggested by Tacitus. Also, the very fact that Tacitus merely says no-one knows whether Tiberius made it back in time, rather than stating as a fact that he didn’t, reveals the suggestion as a typically Tacitean slander. So, on the whole, I’m willing to believe Velleius and Suetonius here – and in any case, Tiberius’ presence or absence at the death-bed doesn’t make any real difference to Augustus’ own time-line.
What should give us more pause for thought is the fact that of our four accounts, only Suetonius gives any kind of detail about Augustus’ final journey – and his account is clearly a carefully-crafted literary set-piece, rich with resonances and symbolism about Augustus’ style of leadership. Indeed, two of the papers at my conference will analyse Suetonius’ account in exactly these sorts of terms. In her paper, ‘The last days of Augustus’, Alison Cooley will show how Suetonius uses the Bay of Naples setting to add meaning to Augustus’ death-scene and anticipate his deification, while Trevor Luke in his paper ‘ A Gift for the Princeps: Suetonius on Augustus’ Final Journey’ will show how the account works as a Menippean satire with Saturnalian motifs.
None of this necessarily means that the journey as Suetonius describes it didn’t happen. He may simply be the only author to cover it in detail because a) he had access to imperial records about it which other writers did not and b) he found those details interesting and worth including from his perspective as a biographer. For Suetonius, the final journey and death are the grand climax to his exploration of Augustus’ life and character; for Velleius and Tacitus in particular it is something they need to deal with briefly in order to get on to the events which follow, and which are their real focus of interest. (Dio gives it more space, but is still basically interested in it as a historical event, rather than a way of revealing character.) So Suetonius could well have worked up the skeleton of a real journey into a richly evocative literary set-piece. But we do also need to bear in mind that he may have invented some of the details, and especially those which work to create the literary effects he is after. The only points in the journey which we can really be confident of are Rome, Naples and Nola.
That said, this is the itinerary which Suetonius gives us:
- May 11th – Augustus and Tiberius complete the lustrum in Rome.
- After some considerable delay, Augustus leaves Rome in order to accompany Tiberius as far as Beneventum on his way to his military posting in Illyricum (aka Dalmatia).
- Augustus travels by road to Astura, and then boards a ship.
- Augustus sails along the coast towards Campania and the Bay of Naples. The first symptoms of his illness, a stomach / bowel disorder, appear.
- As he passes the gulf of Puteoli, he talks to sailors on a ship which has just arrived from Alexandria, and gives his companions money to buy goods from them. This means they must stop and dock alongside the Alexandrian ship.
- The party arrives at Capri and spends four days there. Augustus is in good spirits, giving out presents, watching gymnastic exercises, hosting a banquet, indulging in jokes and making up poetic verses.
- Augustus crosses to Naples, where he attends a festival which had been established in his honour.
- After the games, Augustus starts to journey inland with Tiberius towards Beneventum.
- But his illness becomes worse and he and stops off at his villa at Nola.
- Tiberius initially continues onwards with his journey, but is recalled when it becomes clear that Augustus is dying.
- Augustus has enough time on his death-bed to engage in conversation with the people around him, including Livia, various companions and (according to Suetonius) Tiberius.
- August 19th – Augustus dies at the ninth hour.
That’s detailed enough for us to be able to plot it on a map, as follows (with red representing travel by road, blue representing travel by sea, and a dotted line for the final part of the journey which Augustus planned but did not complete):
We could also come up with plausible estimates for how long Augustus took to move between each point on the map. Here, a passage from Suetonius on Augustus’ normal travel habits guides us:
He travelled in a litter, usually at night, and by such slow and easy stages that he took two days to go to Praeneste or Tibur; and if he could reach his destination by sea, he preferred to sail.
That would surely go double for this final journey, when he is elderly and increasingly infirm, so we might sketch out something like the following:
- Rome to Astura (by road) – 3 days
- Astura to Puteoli (by sea) – 2 days
- Time spent in Puteoli, then travel onwards to Capri – 1 day
- Time spent on Capri – 4 days (explicitly stated by Suetonius)
- Crossing to Naples and time spent at the festival – several days (more on this below)
- Naples to Nola (by road) – 2 days
- Time spent in bed at the villa – sounds like at least a week
- August 19th – death.
And that would be enough to build a framework of dates around… if only we had any more to hang it on than the final date, Augustus’ death. But we don’t. We don’t know exactly when he left Rome (only that it was probably quite some time after May 11th), and nor do we know the date of the festival which he attended at Naples. And this is the bit which really frustrates me, because at the time everyone must have known when that festival took place. But I have read up on the matter quite extensively, and that date remains just out of our historical reach.
The Sebasta at Naples
Here’s what we know about the festival at Naples, much of which is covered in this excellent article in Archaeology online. It was a set of games voted in Augustus’ honour by the people of Naples in 2 BC, but probably took place for the first time in AD 2. They were Isolympic games, which means that, like the Olympic games, they took place once every four years. They were officially known as in the local Greek language as the Italica Romaia Sebasta Isolympia, i.e. Italian Roman Augustan Isolympic games (Sebastos being the Greek equivalent of Augustus). However, they are often also referred to as the Augustalia – rather confusingly, because there were multiple festivals in the ancient world with that name. They involved athletic contests such as foot races, chariot races, boxing, wrestling and a pentathlon, followed by artistic contests in music, literature and drama. They crop up quite a lot in literary sources, which mention some of their most famous participants (e.g. Claudius, Nero and the poet Statius). Some of the rules and events held and the names of many humbler victors are also recorded in one inscription now on display in Naples Museum and discussed in Geer 1935 (sorry, JSTOR link – it’s not publicly available) and another recently-discovered one which the article in Archaeology reports on. And a letter from the emperor Hadrian, discussed in detail in Jones 2007 (sorry, JSTOR again), which came out of a meeting held at the 34th Naples Sebasta in AD 134, gives a detailed account of the cycle for all of the various contemporary isolympic games, including the Sebasta, and agrees to changes to the dates of some of them.
Quite a lot of information, then! But still what survives of the inscriptions and Hadrian’s letter does not give the actual date when the games took place. The letter places it in a cycle relative to other games, but even this only tells us that it fell after the Capitolia (May-June) and before the Actia (September 23rd, Augustus’ birthday). All that really does is confirm what we know from the accounts of Augustus’ death – that the Naples Sebasta took place not long before August 19th. We know from Strabo that they lasted several days, and the inscriptions confirm this, showing that the athletic events took place first, and were then followed by musical and literary events on their own days. But that is where the trail grows cold. The actual calendar date for any of this remains just out of reach.
That’s not to say we can’t put forward a guess. A very plausible one is offered on p. 253 of P. Herz 1997, ‘Herrscherverehrung und lokale Festkultur im Osten des römischen Reiches (Kaiser / Agone)’ in H. Cancik and J. Rüpke, eds. Römische Reichsreligion und Provinzialreligion (Tübingen); pp. 239-64. Herz argues that the most likely date in that vicinity would be 1st August, which was the anniversary of the day on which Augustus had occupied Alexandria and thus brought the civil wars to an end in 30 BC. The principle which Herz is following here is the same one applied to the isolympic games at Actium, which also opened on an important Augustan anniversary – in that case, Augustus’ birthday. 1st August was certainly in the same sort of league. It is marked up as a major anniversary in several ancient calendars (scroll down for August 1st), and was also the day of another important Augustan religious festival – the annual gathering of representatives from across Gaul at the Altar of Roma and Augustus at Lugdunum (Lyon). So it has the ring of truth about it that the Sebasta at Naples should also open on the same auspicious day.
Back to Suetonius
A date of 1st August for the Sebasta at Naples would fit neatly into Suetonius’ narrative, too. If the festival opened on 1st August and lasted for ‘several days’, and then Augustus took another two days to travel from Naples to Nola before taking to his bed, that would leave something of the order of another 10 days of illness in the villa before his death on August 19th. That’s very plausibly long enough for the sorts of death-bed scenes which our ancient authors describe, and particularly for Tiberius to carry on for a bit, maybe even make it to Illyricum, and still just about have time to get back before the end.
Counting back from the opening of the games, we can also make a stab at roughly when Augustus left Rome. In fact, 1st August for the start of the games, minus about 10 days spent travelling from Rome and larking around on Capri means he would have left Rome about now… or about now 2000 years ago, that is.
Alas, I can’t be sure of that, and of course nor can I be sure that the journey as Suetonius describes it really happened. But it’s about the best we can do. It’s certainly how I’ll be imagining Augustus spending his time for the next month on the parallel time-track which he occupies, exactly 2000 years ago.