Review of The Age of Augustus by Werner Eck

Eras Journal – Taylor, T.: Review of “The Age of Augustus”, Werner Eck

Werner Eck, The Age of Augustus,
Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2003
Isbn 0 631 22958 2

Werner Eck’s biography of the founder of the first dynasty of Roman emperors, Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), The Age of Augustus was first published in 1998 in German as Augustus und seine Zeit. This 2003 English translation by Deborah Schneider includes additional material by Sarlota Takács in the form of an updated bibliography and an English translation of the Res Gestae, Augustus’ own record of his achievements.

Eck opens with a brief first chapter introducing Augustus’ self-representation of his reign in the Res Gestae – essentially a catalogue of achievements – and a contrasting assessment presented by second century CE Roman historian Tacitus, of Augustus as a duplicitous, power-conscious and power-hungry individual.

Chapters 2 to 6 contain a straightforward, chronological narrative of the young Octavian’s (later Augustus) rise to power, from his emergence on the public stage as the heir of Julius Caesar, through the civil wars in alliance with Marc Antony and Lepidus against Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius to his eventual falling out with Marc Antony and subsequent defeat of the combined forces of Antony and Cleopatra, leaving Octavian as master of the Roman world in 30 BCE. The narrative is lively and easy to follow, managing to convey the essential events of a very politically complex period.

Once Octavian has emerged as the sole power in the Roman world, the book breaks from a straightforward chronological narrative to focus on key topical aspects of his reign. Two chapters focus on the gradual creation of a constitutional basis for Octavian’s power and his assumption of the name Augustus. In his own propaganda, Augustus claimed that he “restored the Republic” after the civil wars via this process. In contrast, Eck argues that this restoration was largely illusory due to the very firm foundation on which Octavian’s power rested: his command over several provinces and the bulk of the Roman army, his incomparable financial resources, and a vast network of clients who supported him. Eck argues that the term “emperor” is not applicable to Augustus, who was ratherprinceps, or first man in the state – the chief difference from the Roman Republic was whereas under the Republic there were several principes, now there was only Augustus.

In a chapter entitled “The Princeps and Elite”, Eck deals with Augustus’ relations with the Senate and its members. Eck argues that while Roman Senators continued to occupy the positions of power and responsibility that they always had, the death of rivalry for political leadership due to the insurmountable position Augustus held led to the Senate seeking to take initiative, instead taking their orientation from Augustus.

The government of Rome itself and the provinces is dealt with in Chapter 10, “The Practical Implementation of Political Power: Governing the Empire”. This chapter focuses largely on building programs; the creation of new offices to address particular issues, such as the corn supply of Rome; the public post and provincial governorships.

Perhaps emphasising the crucial role that the military played as a basis for Augustus’ power, two chapters are devoted to military matters, the first “A Standing Army”, looks at how Augustus maintained the loyalty of the armies under his command and dealt with issues such as the settlement of veterans. In the second chapter, “War and Peace: Expanding the Empire”, Eck argues for a principally expansionist policy under Augustus and provides summary details of the various campaigns of expansion fought during Augustus’ reign, principally in Germany, Spain and the Alpine region.

Chapter 13, “Rome, the Augustan City”, outlines in brief the Augustan building program in Rome itself. The descriptions of the buildings themselves are quite summary.

The penultimate chapter, “The Quest for Continuity: The Succession”, outlines Augustus’ attempts to create a dynasty by enabling a relative to succeed to his position of power. Augustus’ attempts in this regard were continually frustrated by the premature deaths of those he was building up to be in the position of his successor until Augustus settled on his stepson, Tiberius, who succeeded to power on Augustus’ death in 14 CE.

In the final chapter, “Augustus’ Death and the Future of Empire”, Eck details Augustus’ death and mausoleum and provides his final assessment of Augustus’ legacy:

“He founded the res publica in the form of a monarchy, granted a new political status to the provinces and achieved a solid peace for most of the empire. None of his successors as ruler of the Roman empire could present a similar balance sheet. And what statesman of later ages could enter into competition with him?” (p. 125)

Few would, I think, disagree.

Unfortunately, what would otherwise be an excellent introduction to the period is marred by some minor flaws. First and foremost is the lack of referencing. While a considerable amount of scholarship clearly underlies each page, except where occasionally discussed in the text itself, there is almost no reference at all to the sources, whether primary or secondary, upon which the content of the book is based. “Modern scholars” (eg, p. 113) are mentioned, but almost never by name. While the bibliography is certainly useful, this lack of referencing will be a source of frustration for specialist readers. In the absence of a glossary, non-specialists, without an elementary understanding of the Roman constitutional system and perhaps even the outline of late Republican history, may also struggle at times to fully comprehend parts of the text.

Furthermore, while most of the areas that one would expect a political biography such as this to deal with are covered by the book, there are some surprising omissions. One of the most notable being any discussion of Augustus’ social legislation, particularly that of attempting to encourage marriage and child bearing, through a system of rewards and penalties, and which punished adultery. The former is not discussed at all and the latter is mentioned only as a source of embarrassment for Augustus due to the indiscretions of his daughter, Julia.

In conclusion, the book is well written and highly readable. It deals concisely with many complex issues and provides a generally comprehensive and balanced assessment overall of Augustus and his achievements.

Tristan Taylor
School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania