Two years from today will mark the bimillennium of the emperor Augustus’ death, which took place on 19th August AD 14. I have been busy so far this summer getting started on a new research project all about that event, so today seems like a good day to say a little bit about it.
We have a real fascination with ’round-number’ anniversaries in western culture. Examples from this year alone have included the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth, the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and of course the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. On one level, of course, the apparent roundness of 60, 100 or 200 years is completely arbitrary. It relies on dating and numbering systems which we have invented, and we all know rationally that the 19th August 2014 bears no closer relationship with 19th August AD 14 than does the 18th August 2014, the 20th August 2014, or indeed any other modern date. But the basic similarity between two dates which are separated by a perfect round number like 2000 has a strong psychological effect. We even use phrases like ‘on this day in history‘ to speak of anniversary dates as though they somehow occupy the same day as the original event, in spite of the many years which have actually passed between them. The coincidence in the dates creates a sort of short-cut or wormhole effect, making us feel as though we are closer to the original event on its anniversary day than at any other time. This makes anniversaries into powerful tools for connecting with the past, looking at its relationship with the present, and thinking about the dialogue between the two.
The particular way in which an anniversary is commemorated is far from neutral, though. They usually speak volumes about contemporary interests, priorities, social structures and political relations in the societies which celebrate them. And the bimillennium of Augustus’ birth on 23rd September 1938 offers a very vivid example of that. Famously, Benito Mussolini used it to boost his own political status and promote a particular vision of Italy’s national identity and future. Mussolini’s political position was comparable to Augustus’, in that both had transformed quasi-democratic constitutions into effective dictatorships with themselves at the head – and in both cases they had done it in Rome. But Augustus had managed to pull it off to widespread contemporary acclaim, while being the head of an extensive empire to boot – and Mussolini wanted in on that. He made every possible effort to signal the parallels between them, and the bimillennium, with its strong sense of connection between past and present, was a perfect opportunity for doing so. The event was celebrated on a grand scale, including an exhibition (see poster to right), the clearance of Augustus’ Mausoleum and reconstruction of the Ara Pacis, academic publications, the issuing of stamps, coins and more. All of this was designed to push the association between Mussolini and Augustus, while also encouraging contemporary Italians to develop a sense of national pride and a belief in the virtues of hard work which would neatly serve his imperialistic agenda.
Not all anniversaries are quite so blatantly politicised, of course, but they all inevitably say something about the society which commemorates them. So it is with that idea in mind that I want to use the forthcoming bimillennium of Augustus’ death to explore what he means to people today, some two thousand years after he died. Part of my plan is to hold a major conference on and around the date of the bimillennium itself, which will take as its prompt the format we usually use for thinking about someone who has just died: the obituary. The conference will look at the close of Augustus’ life and his death, consider his life as a completed whole, evaluate his impact and think about the legacy he left behind. But because we are ‘writing’ this obituary two thousand years later, we will also examine that legacy as it has played out over a period of two whole millennia, trace evolving evaluations throughout that period and think about what is at stake when we formulate our own judgements of Augustus’s life and career. Once the conference is over, I’m hoping to publish an edited collection of papers arising from it, while in parallel I will also be researching and writing a monograph of my own on the subject of the bimillennial commemorations, and what they reveal about Augustus’ position in contemporary thought and culture.
The monograph will look at both of Augustus’ big bimillennia: his birth on 23rd September 1938, and his death on 19th August 2014. No matter how sternly I try to steer myself away from the silly word-play, I can’t help but think of these as the ‘natal bimillennium’ and the ‘fatal bimillennium’ respectively, and I’ve a feeling those terms are going to stick now. Certainly, they’re quicker to say or type than ‘the bimillennium of his birth’ and ‘the bimillennium of his death’. Anyway, I’m planning to explore how both were / will be celebrated, as a means of identifying the main ideas and values associated with Augustus in each period, and exploring how he (as a symbol of those ideas and values) gets used and abused for contemporary purposes. This should be a good way of assessing the historical significance of Augustus two thousand years after his life-time, and will also offer the opportunity to trace smaller-scale changes in how people have thought about Augustus between the two anniversaries in 1938 and 2014.
One thing I have certainly already discovered is that the natal bimillennium was commemorated by far more people and in far more places than just Mussolini in Italy. I’ve uncovered exhibitions, competitions, plays, lectures, academic publications and more – so far mainly in the USA and UK, but that is partly simply because I have started by running my searches in English. I’m sure more will emerge once I move on to French, German, Spanish and so forth. Some of these events intersected with Mussolini’s, and there is certainly an interesting story to be told there about the degree to which academics in what would soon become Allied countries were and weren’t prepared to cooperate with him in the run-up to the war. It’s rather more than you might expect with the benefit of hindsight.
Meanwhile, people’s reasons for being interested in Augustus outside of Italy in 1938 seem to have hinged around a sense of his impact on the development of western civilisation. There is a great deal of talk of achievements such as the establishment of a peaceful and prosperous empire which formed the roots of modern Europe, the essentially Latin (as opposed to Hellenistic) character of that empire thanks to his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, and the patronage of literature and the arts. Although scholars in this period were willing to criticise the means by which he achieved sole power at Rome, there is also a strong sense that the ends justified the means, and even a willingness to write apologiae for his more unpalatable acts – for example by claiming that Rome was hardly a democracy before his rise to power anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if he then transformed it into a monarchy!
Yet in the middle of it all there is Ronald Syme, about to effect a profound change in contemporary views of Augustus. At the time of the natal bimillennium he was going round beginning practically every book review he wrote with sentences like “A memorable and alarming anniversary looms heavily upon us” (that one’s from The Classical Review (1937) 51: 194), and proceeding to criticise other people’s efforts to assess Augustus’ career. Responding more astutely than anyone else around him to the tide of political developments in continental Europe, he was about to raise serious questions about that balance between means and ends. Few people since have been willing to argue that Augustus only did it all for the greater good.
With Syme, our actual experiences of 20th-century dictatorships, and another half-century of western democratic nations positioning themselves against first Communist and then Middle Eastern dictatorships under our belts, I’m pretty sure the bimillennium of Augustus’ death will be marked quite differently from that of his birth. After all, we are basically talking about a guy whose biggest achievement was to overthrow the Roman Republic and install himself as an absolute monarch. Not a very palatable story in the early 21st century. But we can still engage with Augustus without needing to eulogise him. We can certainly cast all sorts of light over our contemporary political landscape by examining the combination of brute force, rhetoric and careful public image-making which he used to persuade contemporaries to accept – and even welcome – a trade-off between their security and their civil liberties. Some good documentaries could be made exploring his political techniques, their parallels in the modern world, and what the degree of similarity or difference tells us about our own system.
But I will just have to wait and see what, if anything, actually happens for the bimillennium – apart from my own conference, of course. In the meantime, I am busy getting stuck into the planning for that – contacting key speakers, arranging a suitable venue, and putting together some funding applications. I’ve got some very exciting people lined up already, who have promised some very interesting papers, and I’m starting to feel pretty pleased by how everything is falling into place. But I suppose I need to wait until the ‘behind-the-scenes’ details are fully organised before I am in a position to announce it all formally. I can certainly say that any major developments will be covered on this blog, and that I’ll be circulating an open call for conference papers at least a year before the event itself.
And if there is anyone else out there planning something of their own for Augustus’ ‘fatal bimillennium’, do get in touch. (A comment on this post will reach me, or further contact details can be found here.) I certainly want to know about anything which museums, TV production companies, publishers or Classical societies might be doing to mark the event. Half of what I want to do over the next two years is engage with those sorts of activities, get a sense of what you are doing and why, and maybe contribute myself if that’s appropriate. And if there are other academics developing research work of their own around the forthcoming bimillennium, I’m keen to hear about that too. Maybe you’d like to contribute a paper at my conference, or if you’ve been planning a conference of your own, perhaps we could join forces? I would certainly much rather collaborate on one big conference than have two competing events happening in different places on the same day. I’ve started this project off by myself so far, and I have my own clear ideas about what I want to do. But it also feels to me like the sort of thing which has a great deal of what funding bodies call collaborative potential – both within and beyond academia. I’d certainly smile if Augustus’ real bimillennial legacy in 2014 was to inspire a project that was all about cooperation and sharing.