Augustus Down the Centuries

'History is a reinterpretation of the past which leads to conclusions about the present' wrote Arnaldo Momigliano. Taking that lead, John M. Carter explores the posthumous images of the Roman emperor, Augustus.

When the Emperor Augustus died in AD 14 in his seventy-sixth year, he had been master, jointly or singly, of the Roman world for fifty-six years. He had created the political and social conditions which ensured the perpetuation for another two centuries of a system of rule which brought almost unbroken peace, a large measure of prosperity, and very wide diffusion of Graeco-Roman material and intellectual culture to all those who lived within the confines of the Empire. It was he who gave that Empire definite shape and almost its final limits. His names Caesar Augustus became the titles of imperial legitimacy; the achievements of his reign in literature, architecture and the fine arts ranged from the sensational to the merely notable; and his posthumous deification reflected a strong tendency among the ordinary inhabitants of the Empire to see him as indeed a superman or species of divine being.

Yet there was another side to the picture. Before his metamorphosis into Augustus in 27 BC, the youthful Octavian had been a ruthless revolutionary. His early career was stained with blood, treachery, intrigue, and lust for power. The future Emperor Claudius, writing history seriously and with the encouragement of Livy, on being warned by his mother Antonia (Antony's daughter) and his grandmother Livia (Augustus' wife) that Augustus would never allow him to publish the truth, preferred to omit all account of events between the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and the end of the civil wars fourteen years later. There was much to hide, and the regime was not entirely successful in its attempts to obscure the record.

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