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.
Mary Ambler said:
I definitely want to launch my school’s first online Classics magazine based upon Augustus’ bimillenium this year. I would love to ask you if you would be willing to contribute an article, or even be interviewed about Augustus’ legacy by our Head Girl, who is off to Merton College, Oxford, to read Classics next year. I’d be keen to keep abreast of ideas I could incorporate into a school context to commemorate and promote Augustus as worthy of study.
Many thanks, Mary Ambler
It’s good to hear from you, and great to know that you are taking full advantage of Augustus’ bimillennium in your school. I’d be very happy to make a contribution to your online magazine, and of the options you suggest I think being interviewed by your head girl would probably work best. That way, she gets the experience and the credit for the written piece, which is obviously really valuable at her age.
What I would suggest is that you drop me an email so that we can arrange the details. You’ll find a link to the correct address in the final line of my text, above – or just Google me, and you will quickly find it at my University of Leeds profile page.
George Groves said:
Is it a bit weird to commemorate someone who was a bit of a git, in some scholars’ eyes?
Well, this is part of what the project is here for – to investigate the debates sparked off by the event, and explore who wants to commemorate Augustus and who doesn’t. But the key point to bear in mind here is that ‘commemorate’ doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘celebrate’. Commemoration can involve finding ways to make sense of the past and its impact on us today, as well as making value judgements about it.
This is fantastic, though I’d be judicious in using the word “prosperity” (especially with something as general as “its inhabitants”). That might well be the 30,000-foot view, but it moves out of focus a lot of texture, including the many who suffered in the wake of Augustus’ reformation.
I might also cap the period at two centuries (rather than three), ending with the death of the Antonines, after which many structures (especially military) transformed quite a bit. Still, a fascinating study, and a fascinating moment in time that lingers yet today. This is very exciting.
Frank Dubois. said:
Is deze etkst nergens in het nederlands te lezen? Mijn engels is te beperkt hiervoor.
vriendelijke groet, Frank
I am sorry to say that my Dutch is not good enough to provide a translation either, but I’m sure you can get the gist of it from Google translate.
Paul Found said:
My 6th form students are about to start their A2 studies on ‘Augustus and the founding of the Principate’. We are a ‘new’ Classics department that has been running for 1 year now and I am very keen for the students to do something that will commemorate Augustus. I am thinking along the lines of maybe getting permission for them to present some school assemblies which will raise awareness, and, of course, promote our Classics department. I would appreciate any other ideas from Classics teachers who might be doing something similar!
This sounds great, Paul. I’m glad to hear your new department is doing so well, and of course thrilled to hear you’re doing some events around Augustus’ bimillennium. School assemblies sound great, and if you’re looking for further tips, I’ve suggested a few of my own in a report elsewhere on this site of an INSET day which we held last November. (Scroll down a bit to see them.) I’d love to hear what you eventually decide on – do get back to me here and let us know!
Paul Found said:
A few good ideas taken from your inset notes Penny! I’ll let you know how we get on 🙂
Paul Found said:
Well my Year 13 Classicists were given the floor every day last week to present school assemblies to every year group. As they are studying the Augustus unit for their A2 exam, I more or less left them to put their own presentation together and they certainly didn’t disappoint. After a whistle-stop background to who Augustus was, they focussed on his short and long-term legacy and how his influence can be seen throughout history to current day. With the aid of their own Powerpoint, and some excellent spoken delivery (and one dressed in a toga), they generated significant interest from all age groups (and staff!) and promoted the new curriculum Classics option to some very eager and inquisitive youngsters.
John C said:
This project is great! I have been sorely disappointed with the lack of things (to my knowledge) going on here in Sydney to commemorate one of the most significant figures of all time. As a student myself, I have been trying to get my peers and teachers to take better advantage of this anniversary and reflect on both Augustus’ contributions and both how he is remembered today and how he has been represented (in Suetonius, Dio and Tacitus at the very least). This website has been invaluable in helping me to raise awareness, amongst my limited sphere of influence, about the impact of my most admired (yet controversial) historical figure and I will continue to recommend it.
Thanks, John! I hope you’ve spotted that there are a couple of events in Sydney on the 2014 events list, which makes for two more than in any other part of Australia, at least. Let me know if you hear of anything else happening on your side of the world, and I’ll make sure I add it to the list so that others can find out too.