So this is it – the day itself. It is exactly two thousand years to the day since Augustus died. And, as it happens, 2042 since he took up his first consulship as well.
That second anniversary in itself tells us quite a lot about the sort of man we are commemorating today, because it was not normal for consuls to take up their office in mid-August. Conventionally, consuls entered office on January 1st, and they were supposed to be over forty years old when they did so. Augustus took up his first consulship at the age of nineteen, after the two elected consuls had died in battle alongside him, and he had co-opted their legions, marched at their head to Rome and put himself forward for one of the vacant offices. It’s not that he took it by force. He was very careful to ensure that he was properly elected. But eight loyal legions hanging around the city are hardly conducive to free and fair elections. In fact, Suetonius claims that one of his centurions openly declared that his sword would make Augustus consul if the senate would not cooperate.
This is the man we are dealing with, then – audacious, opportunistic, unafraid to wield force and bend rules, and yet quite well aware of how crucial it was to position himself within a framework of legitimacy and consensus. The same boldness and astuteness can be traced throughout his career, even if he was able to dial back a little on the wielding of force once he had done it enough to wipe out his major political rivals. Sometimes things came close to falling apart for him. Pliny gives a great list of his mishaps and close shaves, several of which could very easily have ended in his death or political overthrow – and history would certainly be quite different if they had. But the risks don’t seem to have put him off, and as things turned out his gambles by and large paid off. He was able to die peacefully in his bed at the age of 75, surrounded by his family, widely believed by contemporary Romans to have saved the state from chaos and already regarded by many provincials as a god.
Whether his life and career can be judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’ overall depends entirely on perspective. In other words, good or bad for whom? A lot of the contemporary expressions of admiration seem to me to be very genuine, but it’s also clear that not everyone loved him, even in his own day. We can see that from the political opposition and conspiracies alone, and of course there must have been many others who resented or even despised him, but were powerless to do anything about it and whose voices are now lost to history.
This is why I called my project from the start ‘Commemorating Augustus’ rather than (for example) ‘Celebrating Augustus’. But the more I have read and thought about memory and commemoration, the more I have realised that even a ‘commemoration’ is not a neutral act. This is clear above all from the sort of people who don’t get commemorated. I noticed two years ago that people were hardly going crazy for the bimillennium of Caligula’s birth, and similarly the only people who ‘commemorated’ the 100th anniversary of Hitler’s birth on 20th April 1989 were a small number of neo-Nazis. In fact, the town council of Braunau in Austria, where he was born, marked the event by erecting a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in front of the family house instead, with an inscription reading “For Peace, Freedom and Democracy. Never Again Fascism. Millions of Dead Remind [us]”. It is an exhortation to remember, then, but one which turns the act of commemoration around, and ensures that it reflects on Hitler only in an utterly negative manner.
Set against those sorts of examples, it becomes clear that if we in the twenty-first century are ‘Commemorating Augustus’ – and we are, on an epic scale – we are saying that he is worth remembering. It is an acknowledgement that he is important to us, and a tacit agreement that it is reasonable for him to be important. But I think I am comfortable with that – and it is engaging with his reception history in the course of this project which has really made me so. The Augustus we think we know is not a real historical individual from 2000 years ago, but an echo mediated to us through multiple centuries of re-imaginings, starting in his lifetime and continuing right up to the present day. This means that when we commemorate Augustus, we are actually commemorating an evolving tradition which has retained its currency for (over) 2000 years, and all the many people who have sustained and transformed it along the way. The tradition in its own right is fascinating and worth commemorating, and that’s what I hope we will be doing at the Commemorating Augustus conference all day today.