Classically Inclined

May 30, 2013

Commemorating Augustus colloquium

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:05 pm
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I decided to take an afternoon trip up to Leeds one Friday to attend the first of a series of events designed to commemorate the bimillenium of the death of the emperor Augustus. (I’m a bit late writing this up, as the colloquium actually happened at the beginning of May, but this is what happens during exam term.) The Commemorating Augustus project has its own website which explains its aims far more elegantly than I can, but suffice it to say that it is being run by Penny Goodman (she of Penelope’s Weavings and Unpickings), and seeks to take a good look at what the last two millennia have done with Augustus and his image. There’s also an official report of the colloquium available here.

I have only a humble delegate’s views to add, but I wanted to make some observations about the colloquium. I’m afraid the first is rather mundane: if I’m ever in a position to do so, I’m replicating the format. Starting with lunch, then having four papers broken by a tea break, made the whole thing far more convivial, and meant that those of us coming from a bit further afield could arrive in time for lunch and not miss anything (especially handy as I had to subject invigilate a Latin exam that morning). Let my hearty noises of approval inspire others!

More importantly, the papers at the symposium began the countdown to the big conference scheduled for 2014 which will mark the actual anniversary of Augustus’ death. They formed two well-matched pairs – Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence’s paper on Augustus’ old age and Valerie Hope’s paper on Augustus’ funeral both looked at events very close to his death, while Penny’s paper on commemorations of the bimillenium of Augustus’ birth in 1938 and Martin Lindner’s paper on representations of Augustus in the novels of Günther Birkenfeld brought us closer to the present day, and provided a structure for how we might look at more contemporary approaches to the first emperor.

As well as being an afternoon of listening to interesting scholarship, I also had an alternative motive behind attending – I’m planning to pull together an abstract for the 2014 conference myself, and I wanted to listen in to what other people are doing with the subject. It’s always nice to see how other people are framing what they’re looking at, especially if you’re dealing with something as thematically unified as this topic. I’m planning to use some of the work I did in my PhD on Augustus as an exemplum (an improving anecdote told to Romans for the purposes of emulation), and seeing how Seneca uses Augustus for the purposes of moral exhortation. There are plenty of reasons this is an interesting question to ask – Seneca was alive when Augustus died, and lives a little over fifty years more himself, but within that short time span there’s a noticeable calcification in the way that Augustus is handled. That said, Seneca also uses a number of devices to point out the shortcomings of the emperor, despite his exemplary role – so it will be interesting to see whether that flexibility of working around the established image continues as the distance from the actual death increases.

What was particularly helpful for me at the colloquium was to see the sorts of themes and ideas that I think will emerge from what I’d like to say, and how I might make the most of those intersections with the work of others. It was a fascinating afternoon, and I hope that the conference next year will be equally as rewarding!


  1. Thanks for the write-up, Liz. It’s really great to read a delegate’s view of the event, and I’m especially glad to hear that as a prospective contributor to the conference next year you seem to have got exactly what I hoped you would out of it – i.e. an idea of the sorts of debates which the main conference will be dealing with, and how you can contribute to them. I’m looking forward to getting your abstract. 🙂

    One tiny quibble – obviously the project as a whole will be looking at what the last two millennia have done with Augustus, not just the last two centuries! (Don’t worry – it’s an easy mistake to make.)

    Comment by weavingsandunpickings — May 30, 2013 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

    • I hope I wasn’t the only attendee thus inspired.

      You are, of course, totally correct that a millennium is longer than a century! I shall correct the error forthwith.

      Comment by lizgloyn — May 30, 2013 @ 10:29 pm | Reply

  2. The context of Seneca’s comments on Augustus are crucial. The positive ones, and you are certainly right that they tend to coincide with Seneca’s earlier writings (just after his recall from exile), are aimed at Nero and the ideal of a good emperor. What is telling is how few references there are to Augustus in Seneca’s later writings. But it is not the case that the comments get more negative.
    Some positive references:
    “On Mercy” speaks of Lucius Cinna who was plotting the death of Augustus and yet was pardoned. And also the exile of Tarius’ son who had plotted the death of his father.
    “On Anger” provides two examples. First, the treatment of Timagenes who had continually criticised the emperor and was banished from the palace but suffered no other punishment. Second the saving of the slave boy who broke a glass and was condemned to be eaten by lampreys until Augustus ordered him to be released, the pond with the lampreys to be filled in and all the host’s glasses to be destroyed.
    Even the references to Augustus in “On Benefits” (a late work) are positive. These examples are of benefits Augustus bestowed on others that they did not appreciate (Seneca criticises them not Augustus).
    And there is only one reference in “Epistles to Lucilius”, Epistle 83, and it is not very significant (how he had trusted the drunkard Lucius Piso).
    Really the only negative comments about Augustus in Seneca correspond with the positive ones given earlier and merely point out that Augustus was hot-headed when young.
    A paper I would like to see is one which explores the negative allusions to Augustus in Virgil.

    Comment by Max Bini — May 31, 2013 @ 3:05 am | Reply

    • I’m not arguing that the comments get more negative as time progresses, but that through the well-established practice of two-level discourse Seneca uses exempla to point out both positive and negative elements of Augustus’ behaviour. But you’ll have to wait for the paper for more!

      Interestingly, in the Senecan corpus, Caligula features in more substantive anecdotes than Augustus does. But that’s another subject for another time.

      Comment by lizgloyn — May 31, 2013 @ 9:04 am | Reply

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