Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 3.

Christopher Smith and Anton Powell (edd.), The Lost Memoirs of Augustus and the Development of Roman Autobiography. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2009. Pp. xii + 227. ISBN 978-1-90512-25-8. UK£50.00.

D. Wardle
University of Cape Town, South Africa

If Herculaneum were ever to give up a lost work of Roman history, high on the wish list of many historians of the early principate would be the thirteen books of De vita sua written by the emperor Augustus, documenting his life down to the end of his Cantabrian campaign of 25 BC. Of this sizeable work of autobiography only a meagre handful of fragments survive. How far is it worthwhile to extrapolate from these exiguous remains to speculate on the content and nature of the whole? This admirable volume demonstrates well the opportunities afforded by such extrapolation, as well as the uncertainties and problems encountered in the effort.

Christopher Smith, 'The Memoirs of Augustus: Testimonia and Fragments' (pp. 1-13) presents a foretaste of the long- awaited collaboration Fragments of the Roman Historians edited by T. Cornell et al. He presents his enumeration of the testimonia and fragments (all with English translation), five of the former and nineteen of the latter, subdivided into definite, possible, and doubtful. Even this division is problematic: the editor must determine not just the extent of the individual quotation, often embedded subtly in a text, but also express a view on whether the fragment is a direct (verbatim) quotation or an adaptation of the author's words. We must wait for Smith's own commentary and explanation of his choices, but the contributions of Pelling and Toher suggest that there are contentious issues to be faced.

In 'Cato and the Origins of Roman Autobiography' (pp. 15-40), Tim Cornell seeks the origins of imperial autobiography in Cato's Origines and examines how we come to possess the relatively large quantity of biographical detail about Cato that we do. While Cato's speeches did unquestionably contain such material the last books of his Origines also had a clear personal element, setting forth the author's actions and virtues, putting his perspective to the fore on the events in which he had played a part.

Chris Pelling, 'Was there an Ancient Genre of "Autobiography"? Or, Did Augustus Know What he was Doing?' (pp. 41-64), focuses on the key question of whether there was anything akin to a genre of autobiography for Augustus to follow, answering in the negative, as is required by our sheer lack of knowledge about how Aemilius Scaurus or Rutilius Rufus wrote. In considering whether (and how) the (pretend-)commentarii of Sulla and Caesar were models Augustus followed, Pelling rightly emphasises Augustus' choice of a first-person narrative (F 1a Smith) which marks a clear distinction from Caesar.

Most of the chapter has Pelling on home ground, giving an excellently nuanced discussion of how and why Plutarch quotes Augustus and considers with appropriate caution how Pollio, Plutarch's plausible source, himself used Augustus' De vita sua. Pelling rightly isolates (p. 54) that F7b Smith best reproduces what Augustus wrote about his controversial performance during the first battle of Philippi: he was not gamely in the front line but prudently withdrew before the battle, forewarned by Artorius' dream. Pelling speculates that Augustus' work as a whole may have been less tendentious and partisan than has often been surmised, as its author was happy to present his former incarnation 'the young Caesar' in an often less-than-glowing light, so different from the new Augustus.

Christopher Smith, 'Sulla's Memoirs' (pp. 65-85), examines the structure and content of the twenty-two books of autobiography left by Sulla, monumental in scale and replete with the paraphernalia of divination, to demonstrate that the author's success was divinely secured. Smith's conclusion, 'Of all the models before him, perhaps appropriately, Augustus did not flinch from choosing that of Sulla' (p. 79), goes beyond what we can reasonably extrapolate about both works.[[1]]

In 'Felicitas and the Memoirs of Sulla' (pp. 87-109), Alexander Thein starts from the premise that Augustus' use of the supernatural is a substantial point of contact with Sulla's memoirs. Sulla famously made much of his felicitas and acquired the cognomen Felix; Augustus too became synonymous with the quality (Eutrop. 8.5.3), but the official, contemporary vocabulary of praise did not mention it. Thein follows Erkell in suggesting that De vita sua was deliberately silent too (but cf. Wiseman on p. 112 of this volume). Thein hypothesises similarities between the respective memoirs in that the autobiography proper began only in Book II, that the climax of each was military triumph, Sulla's over Mithradates and Augustus' over the Cantabrians, and that both made much of supernatural indications of their future greatness, although the place in their respective lives where this material was prominent probably differed, as the overall patterns of their respective lives were dissimilar.

The supernatural theme is carried on by Peter Wiseman, 'Augustus, Sulla and the Supernatural' (pp. 111-23): 'Augustus . . . structured his life story in terms of divine support' (p. 111), accepting the parallel with Sulla and noting a sharp contrast with Caesar, whose commentarii omit such material.[[2]] Wiseman discusses the dreams of Augustus attributed to Cicero by Tertullian, Suetonius, and Plutarch, suggesting an appropriate context in De vita sua and the subtle slant given by Augustus.[[3]] A sage comparison is that Augustus refers only to the dreams of others, not to his own, as Sulla did. Indeed the one exception to this, his dream about the temple of Jupiter Tonans, Wiseman surmises, was the concluding act of the work, highlighting a contrast between Sulla who was unable to dedicate his temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the pious Augustus.

Mark Toher threatens to be the party pooper in 'Divining a Lost Text: Augustus' Autobiography and the BI/OJ KAI/SAROJ of Nicolaus of Damascus' (pp. 125-44): 'It is fair, then, to say that of Augustus' memoirs there is little left, and what there is does not tell us all that much. The memoirs of Augustus are effectively lost' (p. 125). His paper rehearses the arguments he has developed elsewhere to show that Nicolaus of Damascus' Bios Kaisaros, extant in far larger pieces than Augusustus' De vita sua, was not a paraphrase of the latter and was written towards the end of Augustus' life.[[4]] Indeed Toher asks pertinently whether Nicolaus' presentation of prominent characteristics of the young Augustus, his AI)DW/J, and his constant sickliness should be traced back to . His possibly surprisingly conclusion is the Nicolaus can guide us as to what was not in De vita sua -- for example, M. Antonius fleeing Caesar's murder scene disguised as a slave.

John Rich contributes a chapter on Augustus' Cantabrian campaign, 'Cantabrian Closure: Augustus' Spanish War and the Ending of his Memoirs' (pp. 145-72), and his choice of this as the conclusion of De vita sua. Rich demonstrates that Augustus did participate personally in several successes in 26 and that his campaigns contributed significantly to the pacification of Spain, which was the publicly proclaimed justification for the powers he had been given in 27. As to why Augustus ended his work with the Cantabrian War, Rich finds his answer in the nature of Roman autobiographies which placed major emphasis on campaigns waged by the author -- as the Cantabrian War was Augustus' last foray as commander it was the appropriate stopping point. Rich also speculates that the work was written in stages, perhaps the Illyrian War of 35-33 was the original end and the Cantabrian War something of an afterthought. An interesting idea, but in the end beyond proof.

In 'Augustus' Age of Apology: An Analysis of the Memoirs -- and an Argument for two further Fragments' (pp. 173-94), Anton Powell argues that De vita sua was to a large degree apologia, in the form of self-exculpation for the many questionable actions he performed.[[5]] Powell's analysis of individual fragments can be speculative, but in general he provides a plausible framework. Augustus did not shy from defending his role in the worst of atrocities, namely the proscriptions,[[6]] and in the most humiliating of campaigns, Powell makes a case for two further fragments not included by Smith: first the claim (App. BCiv. 5.112) that a god led him to safety after a defeat at Tauromenium and secondly the details of a narrow escape after defeat at Scyllaeum (App. BCiv. 5.84-7). The latter in particular involves the subjective selection of elements from a detailed narrative that Powell thinks appropriate to Augustus's personal account, but the case that Augustus lingered on episodes that were particularly problematic deserves consideration. How exactly to bound the 'fragment' is the rub.

Kathryn Welch provides the final instalment, 'Alternative Memoirs: Tales from the "Other Side" of the Civil War' (pp. 195-223), looking at former opponents of Augustus who survived and prospered to write their own accounts of contemporary history, in particular M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus, whom she sees as a source used by Appian in his description of the Sicilian War.

Overall this collection affords the reader a rich array of studies centred around an essentially unrecoverable text. The differences of approach and opinion over key aspects, while making this reader long for more overt interaction between the contributors, demonstrate the difficulties of the endeavour -- one well worth undertaking.


[[1]] It is noticeable that Smith's article does not respond to the points made by Pelling which undermine aspects of his argument. By contrast Thein, for example, refers frequently to other contributions. It would have helped tie together the individual contributions better had all perticipants followed Thein’s practice.

[[2]] Wiseman's case in relation to Caesar could be strengthened if the one appearance of portents etc. in Bellum Civile is in fact an interpolation as is argued cogently by G. Reggi, 'Cesare, De Bello Civili, III 105, 3-6', PP 57 (2002) 216-26.

[[3]] A personal peeve is that the bibliography omits any reference to my discussion of the Suetonius version ('Unimpeachable Sponsors of Imperial Autocracy, or Augustus' Dream-team'’, Antichthon 39 (2005) 29-47.

[[4]] For example, 'The Date of Nicolaus of Damascus' Bios Kaisaros', GRBS 26 (1985) 199-206; 'On the use of Nicolaus' Historical fragments', CA 8 (1989) 159-72.

[[5]] It is probably an editor's privilege that he allows himself different referencing conventions to the other papers in the collection

[[6]] Welch (p. 197) suggests that Augustus said as little as possible about the proscriptions.