CJ Online Review: Galinsky, Augustus

posted with permission:

Augustus: Introduction to the Life of an Emperor. By Karl Galinsky. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xxiv + 221. 22 black-and-white illustrations; 3 maps. Hardcover, $90.00/£55.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76797-2. Paper, $27.99/£17.99. ISBN 978-0-521-74442-3.

Reviewed by Alden Smith, Baylor University

Karl Galinsky’s handsomely produced new biographical study of Augustus lives up to its subtitle very well. This book, which consists of eight chapters, offers the reader a complete introduction to the topic, rich with explanation of sources, and contains useful maps, a genealogical chart and a chronological synopsis. These are followed by Galinsky’s exposition of and commentary on important sources for the life of Rome’s first emperor, including evidence from material culture such as coins, inscriptions and papyri (e.g., 116).

The book largely follows Augustus’ life chronologically, beginning with his earliest days and carrying on through his death (ch. 8). Welcome details of the emperor’s private life, such as his marriages (40–1) and his personality/character (37–9) are not neglected. Galinsky’s approach is balanced. For example, he discusses Octavian’s shortcomings and mistakes, such as his handling of Perusia (43). Galinsky also cites Martial 11.20, which poem purports to contain verses of Augustus written against Fulvia (Antony’s wife); as the “author” of those lines Octavian does not come off very well. Galinsky also does a good job of presenting Octavian from Antony’s point of view (sc. as “a lowborn coward, Caesar’s boy toy,” 47) and thus reveals insights about how Octavian’s enemies regarded him.

The major events of Octavian/Augustus’ reign are, of course, not neglected. Galinsky’s presentation of Actium is excellent, with a useful map on p. 54. Further, the description of the principate as an experiment (ch. 3), too, is apt, as Galinsky demonstrates clearly that there was (certainly by the time Octavian has taken the name “Augustus”) no way back to the notion of the res publica as it had been constituted hitherto. His discussion, too, of the cast of characters around the emperor—Livia, Agrippa, Tiberius, Julia, Maecenas, Virgil, Horace, et al.—is first rate and helps the reader to understand the first emperor in the context of his own times.

Lest this review should be unqualifiedly positive, one or two quasi-distracting peculiarities of the book might be mentioned. First, the preface seems to me to be oddly placed, coming, as it does, only after Galinsky’s discussion of the sources. Was this idea that of the series editor? Secondly, in that preface, Galinsky speaks of a “welcome emphasis in this series to illustrate how we know what we know; hence the incorporation of a good number of ‘boxes’.” While I affirm Galinsky’s desire to explain “how” and not simply “what,” the idea of “boxes” seems to me a bit distracting. Although I am possibly just old-fashioned and too enamored of Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History, I am not fully convinced that the peculiarity of boxes enhances the volume’s otherwise excellent presentation of the material. This is especially noticeable when the boxes are oddly spaced (for example when two occur in immediate succession, as on pp. 23–4). Perhaps the series editor has adopted this new approach for a generation of viewers accustomed to links (a term that once better befit evolutionary species, chains or sausages)? De gustibus non …; but I prefer sausages and footnotes.

Quibbles aside, this is an excellent book, packed with information. Galinsky has done it again, offering a superbly useful volume for a new generation of readers hungering for knowledge about the Augustan milieu and the life of Augustus. This book offers both of those features, for it is much more than a biography. As he had in Augustan Culture, Galinsky interprets the context of the Augustan experience, adding fresh information about that period that is not found in the larger volume. Thus this book will be useful not only to those who are studying the emperor but also to those who are considering the wider context, i.e. those studying Augustan poetry or other aspects of that period. For teachers of Roman Civilization or seminars on the Augustan experience, this book is a sine qua non and could be ordered as a textbook, as it is seems to me the finest concise overview of Rome’s first emperor. I recommend it highly.

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