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CL2363: Augustus: Propaganda and Power


In 28 BC Octavian returned to Rome having defeated Antony and captured Egypt. His first act was to restore the Roman Republic. In so doing, he inaugurated the period we know as the Empire, a period of monarchy. This course centres on understanding that transformation.

The period is one of marked change in social, cultural and especially political life. The Roman state went through what is sometimes called the ‘Augustan Revolution’ in which the structures of the old republican system were transformed to be replaced by new monarchic structures. Yet, this was a revolution clothed in conservative clothing, posing as a restoration of traditional Roman values.

The course concentrates on the period from 44 BC – AD 14. The period is well attested in our literary sources, Most of our time will be spent examining in detail original material (in English) and trying to place that material in a wider context. We will be looking at the contradictions in the  source material to attempt to work out what was really happening in Augustan Rome. You will learn how to put together material from diverse literary sources, such as the extensive poetic material of the period, architectural material and inscriptions, art (such as the Gemma Augustea, as well as more conventional sources for history, the historians and biographers.

Why Augustus?

Augustus was one of the first courses I taught. And I was very pleased to start with Augustus for personal reasons. At school, I had read some Virgil and some Ovid, both Augustan poets. Later, I had come across Propertius. The study of these poets taught me a lot about history and I came to understand how Augustus, a political leader, could affect the personal and indeed sexual lives of those over whom he ruled. The way in which the poets used their art to comment on and subvert Augustan ideology showed how the personal could become political, and, as I came to know more about the subject, I began to trace how the Augustan monarchy altered all aspects of life, from religion and the economy, to the political constitution of the Roman state. One began also to understand something about the totalitarian tendencies of power, how Augustus could at the same time proclaim his restoration of the Republic and his democratic credentials and be a dictator; how our political leaders tell us the truth, but how it somehow turns out not to be true. I keep returning to this course as a familiar friend, and every time I teach it, I see something new, and I come to understand a little more about Roman history. It is a period when everything changes, when the world is thrown into revolution, but at the same time, everything is dressed in conservative clothes. It takes stamina to understand the Augustan period and to read through all the historians who have written on in, but so much of the history of the Republic seems to be looking forward towards it, and so much of the imperial period looking backwards at it, that it is always the crucial time in Roman history. If you can understand Augustus, and I am still try to doing so, then all other Roman history will fall into place. The Augustan era is fascinating and complex, and I can never quite sort him out. If nothing else, Augustus makes you think.


Examination: 3 hr exam.

The examination will ask you to answer 3 questions, question 1 and two others in three hours. Question 1 will require the candidates to answer three questions from a choice of eight on passages drawn from ancient sources (for which a translation will be provided) or diagrams or pictures of monuments.


The Historiography of Augustus: This project will look at two biographies of Augustus (from a list provided) and examine how and why those biographies differ. Why does each generation seek to remake Augustus?


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