THE POETICS OF POWER IN AUGUSTAN ROME: Latin Poetic Responses to Early Imperial Iconography

Nandini B. Pandey

CUP (2018) h/b 302pp £59.95 (ISBN 9781108422659)

This is a brilliant book. Engaging, lucid, and wide-ranging, this monography by Pandey (hereafter ‘P.’) packs a serious punch. Its object is to chart the responses of Vergil, Propertius, Ovid, and, to a lesser extent, Horace and Tibullus to the iconographic programme of the early Principate, a goal in which it succeeds admirably. In the capable hands of P., these poets become quite the deconstructive literary theorists who use their own interpretative libertas to remind the Roman public of its own liberty in responding to the new regime, no matter how relaxed or repressive it could be. P. engages with poetic replies to the sidus Iulium, construction of the Palatine palace and its environs, erection of the Forum Augustum, and the Roman triumph.

In a way, the book itself is a response to Anton Powell’s programmatic and much-acclaimed Virgil the Partisan: A Study in the Re-Integration of Classics (Classical Press of Wales, 2008), which convincingly argued for a reconciliation of Vergil’s poetry and the political realities of his day. In these days of intertextual and self-referential readings of classical poetry such a return to historical Realien was deemed necessary. But whereas Powell thoroughly advocated a view of Vergil as an apologist and supporter of the new regime, P. argues for more ambiguous interpretations of the goings-on in the heyday of the Roman Republic on the part of Vergil and the elegists. She locates these interpretations not directly in the historical events of the time, but specifically in imperial iconography. On P.’s reading, these poets are not simply ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-Augustan’ (reductive terminology, anyway) who affirm or reject the ideologies of the nascent Empire, but are profoundly occupied with liberating meaning from texts, inscriptions, statues, coins etc. that supported the new ruler. 

By focussing on their poems from the perspective of reader response theory, P. arrives at the material from the opposite angle to Karl Galinsky’s magnificent Augustan Culture: An Interpretative Introduction (Princeton University Press, 1996). Galinsky sought to establish Augustus as auctor (simultaneously ‘[first] founder, author, model, producer, guarantor’) of meaning and investigated how existing literary topoi and iconography were pressed into service of the new regime, which therefore attempted to monopolise existing traditions. For Galinsky, then, Augustus was a semiotic autocrat: author of authors, an ideological model followed by everyone, and first and foremost producer, guarantor, and founder of political meaning. P. shows how the Latin poets reacted to Augustan material culture and attempted to wrest interpretative freedom from Augustus’ hands. If the physical space for freedom of speech became increasingly narrow, Vergil and his contemporaries endeavoured to maintain their readers’ free mental space, for not even Augustus could not gain absolute control of that (Victoria Rimell’s The Closure of Space in Roman Poetics: Empire’s Inward Turn [CUP, 2015] would have made a nice addition to the ample bibliography). The princeps’ first readers themselves thus become powerful creators of meaning.

After the solid introduction (Ch. 1: ‘The Mutual Constitution of Augustus’), P. in Chapter 2 investigates the fraught relationship between history in the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s murder and the Augustan iconographical programme which appropriated sidereal imagery to proclaim the young Octavian the one true heir of divus Julius. The so-called sidus Iulium (‘Julian star’, a widely used term, but only attested in Horace’s Odes 1.12.47) or Caesar’s Comet becomes a powerful tool for this. With historical hindsight it may seem as if Octavian was always destined to establish himself as Caesar’s successor, but, as the early responses from Horace (Odes 1.12) and Propertius (3.18) show, his programme for his own potential deification by association had hardly solidified, much less been universally accepted, especially in the face of competing ‘strong men’ and Augustus’ own frail health. Star symbolism in numismatic evidence, Vergil’s Aeneid, Propertius 4.6, Ovid’s Fasti and Metamorphoses, and Manilius’ Astronomica show that the notions of Caesar as a mortal-man-turned-god and Augustus as a future-god-on-earth remained problematic. 

On P.’s reading, the redevelopment of the Palatine into the imperial residence, outfitted with a Greek and Roman library, temple to Apollo, and the Portico of the Danaids, was not greeted with unqualified enthusiasm. Chapter 3 deals with the Augustan appropriation of the area and the new semiotics of power which the emperor attempted to instil in the Roman people. Part of the complex was dubbed domus publica and so took over from the Regia, which belonged with the House of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman Forum. This made Augustus a latter-day King Numa, the focal point of moral and religious legislation. (And, again, a rightful successor to Caesar, who himself as pontifex maximus had lived in the old domus publica—a point not mentioned by P., although it bolsters her reading of texts such as the Shield of Aeneas in Aeneid 8, itself a replay of Achilles’ Shield in Iliad 18 but also alluding to the shield of Numa preserved in the Regia, and the tour of Rome of Ovid’s exclusus liber in Tristia 3.1). Augustus’ patria potestas and clementia are undercut by the nearby presence of the Portico of the Danaids, whose mythology as a sterling example of filial piety gone wrong presumably was intended as a powerful warning to those who would oppose the emperor, but to an independent reader also a reminder of Augustus’ doubtful orders as ‘father of the fatherland’ (pater patriae). The daughters of Danaus, as P. points out, killed their husbands at their father’s command, except for Hypermestra, whose status as a dispenser of clemency Augustus would have wished for himself: compare Aeneas’ merciless murder of Turnus in Aeneid 12, upon seeing Pallas’ baldric, specifically its representation of the Danaids. Once more, an Augustan attempt to enforce a specific reading of mythical and historical events runs aground on the interpretative power of its audience. 

Chapter 4 admirably charts the regime’s ‘mapping impulse’. The age of Augustus witnessed an upsurge in representations of space (administrative, topographical, poetic…) in art, architecture, and literature. The ideological point is to bring the empire outside Rome, the orbis terrarum, within the moenia Vrbis and vice versa, showcasing Roman might to viewers both local and from abroad as well as the wealth and breadth of its territories in the world and bringing the glory and splendour of Rome into the farthest regions of the empire: in the words of Ovid, in short, ‘to add to the world what was lacking’ (Ars Amatoria 1.177-1778: quod defuit orbi | addere). As P. demonstrates, Augustan ideals of Italy and empire are imported into Aeneid 6, not straightforwardly, of course, but as colonialist desires that transcend the limits of time and space (e.g. the counter-chronological Parade of Heroes) that are mirrored in the Forum Augusteum, where Augustus likewise takes centre-stage – like a colossal monument at the centre of a monument, gazed upon by (the statues of) other characters past and present. 

Chapter 5 continues this line by assessing how the elegists imagine Roman triumphs (not unlike the Heldenschau in Aeneid 6): these, too, are as much physical processions as idealising expressions of power spreading far and beyond the limits of Rome. Curiously, however, as the triumph gradually became the exclusive privilege of the imperial family, and so a symbolical representation of their power by virtue of representing conquered nations through text, image, and ritual, the elegists liked to imagine triumphal processions that never took place. This culminates in Ovid’s wish from his living death in Tomi (Tristia 4.2) to be present at a fictionalized or fabricated triumph in Rome. This wish thematises issues of Romanness and imperial power: as Ovid is deprived of news from Rome, can he still feel Roman when he is cut off from the quintessential display of Roman power and pride? (This applies a fortiori to Ovid’s Getic hosts). At the same time, how can Roman rule truly be instilled in a people if it is not rendered visible? Ovid thus sets himself up as a useful mediator between the regime and the people. At the same time, the power of his ecphrastic poetry allows Ovid’s mind to wander where it will, regardless of physical or legal limitations. In a classic Derridean move, the poetic and cartographic margins of empire for a fleeting moment displace the Roman centre of power.

Chapter 6, the book’s coda, draws several strands together to assess the verbal power of Augustus himself, arguably the most powerful producer of meaning who through monuments, the Res Gestae, and his testament tried to control his own post-mortem reception in the ‘textscape’ that Rome had become under his rule. Naturally, ‘the Augustan reception’ (I allude to the title of the volume by Charles Martindale and Richard Thomas) was anything but monolithic and even a seemingly straightforward panegyric encodes its own undoing in its poetic fabric. 

Delightfully postmodern and political, P.’s book successfully straddles the divide between  ideological and historicizing readings of Augustan poetry by scholars such as Galinsky and Powell on the one hand and intertextual and metapoetic scholarship on the other. It integrates history, literature, and material culture into a vociferous echo-chamber and strikes a wonderful balance between fine-grained readings and ‘the bigger picture’. The book is produced impeccably (save for p. 82: ‘politic[al]’; 99n.43: ‘Bro[u]ckhusius’; 124: ‘beli[e]ves’; 155: gener is ‘son-in-law’, not the reduplicated ‘father-in-law’; 272: Duncan Kennedy, The Arts of Love: Five Studies in the Discourse of Roman Love Elegy [CUP, 1993] is not edited by Barbara Gold), with a full subject index and index locorum. P. is to be congratulated on such a fine work of scholarship, which hopefully, if this reader may exercise his interpretative freedom, is a sign of more to come. 

Gary Vos

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