Review: The House of Augustus

5 mins read

The House of Augustus: a historical detective story
T P Wiseman

Princeton University Press, £30
ISBN 978-0691180076
Review by: Andrew Selkirk

What is the most terrible fate that can befall you if you are a very distinguished professor of Classics? What if the student sitting quietly at the back of the class should turn out to be the most successful author of our generation? What if the media then decide that your real name is Dumbledore and that you are really the headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? True, you have a fine beard and are of an amiable disposition and, yes, you are an expert in the more obscure aspects of Roman mythology; but, no, you are not Dumbledore, you are T P (Peter) Wiseman, the Emeritus Professor of Classics at Exeter University, and you have just written a most splendid book on The House of Augustus: a historical detective story.

Augustus is the crucial figure of Roman history, who turned the chaotic republic into the highly successful Roman Empire. But he has been greatly maligned. In 1937, Mussolini held a huge exhibition in Rome to celebrate the bimillennium of his birth, and to present the Augustan age as a model for fascist Italy. As a riposte, the young Ronald Syme wrote his great book The Roman Revolution, which portrayed Augustus as a proto-Mussolini, and the emperor has been damned ever since. Peter Wiseman sets out to rehabilitate Augustus.

We must see him in a new light, in the light of contemporary Roman politics and the conflict of the Optimates (the ‘best’) and the Populares (the ‘popular’ party). The story begins in the 130s BC, when Tiberius Gracchus proposed a campaign of land redistribution. Rome had acquired a lot of public land in the course of its conquests, and much of it had been seized by wealthy landowners, who formed an oligarchy of all the ‘best’ people, the Optimates. Gracchus and his brother proposed to redistribute this land to the people of Rome and were murdered for their efforts. This set the political scene for the next century. Sulla was an Optimate, Marius was a Popularis; and then Julius Caesar came along. He was hugely successful and hugely popular with the people, and he too proposed land distribution, and he too was murdered as a result. He nominated as his heir, his young nephew, the 18-year-old Octavian, who was later to become Augustus.

Now the secret of Augustus and the basis of Wiseman’s rehabilitation of him was that he always set out to be on the side of the people: he was a Popularis as against the Optimates. True, he was a very great conciliator who took care not to antagonise the Optimates, many of whom were fed up with the chaos of the civil war. But he always understood that the rich were supposed to live modestly yet spend lavishly on public buildings. Augustus certainly spent lavishly on public buildings, but did he live modestly? Much of this hangs on the question of where he actually lived, and this is the other theme of the book: where was ‘the House of Augustus’?

According to Suetonius, he lived in a modest house distinguished for its lack of elegance (no marble), where for more than 40 years he remained in the same bedroom for summer and winter (rich Romans always had separate bedrooms: a cool one for summer, and a warm one for winter). But where was this house? The centre of Rome was divided between two hills: the Capitoline Hill to the north, which was the ritual centre, and the Palatine Hill to the south, where the rich lived. Between them was the forum, where business and government was carried out. However, following the murder of Caesar, the triumvirs gained power and published a proscription list in which all who had conspired to murder Caesar were named as public enemies, and their property confiscated. This meant that the Palatine began to open up.

The young Augustus bought up some of the houses and was given more. One of the properties was struck by lightning, which made it sacred, so he decided to build a grand temple to Apollo, and much of the argument revolves round this temple. Was there also a house attached to the temple, forming a temple-palace complex? This is where the real problem begins, for in the 1960s a couple of fine houses were excavated on a low level on the side of the Palatine. They date to the 40s BC, just when Augustus was beginning his career, and today they are labelled as being the house of Augustus and the house of his wife Livia. Is this a mislabelling? Are they simply a pair of houses of some Optimate, destroyed by the building of the temple?

The problem is that little survives of this period. In AD 64, the whole of the Palatine was destroyed by a great fire, after which Nero took the opportunity for a grand rebuilding of it as a palace. But he perished, it was all trimmed back, and a more modest palace was built in the AD 80s by his successor, Domitian, the ruins of which survive today.

However, the great Temple to Apollo that Augustus built survived, because it was at the far end of the site, and was only destroyed in the 4th century AD. Three great lumps of concrete which formed the foundations of the temple were excavated (badly) in the 1860s. For the visitor today, it is at the far end of the Palatine.

But which way did the temple face? Did it face outwards to the Circus Maximus or did it face inwards to the centre of the Palatine Hill? The current wisdom is that it faced outwards and that the rich houses excavated beside it in the 1960s were designed by Augustus to be a palace and part of the temple complex.

There is, however, a problem of levels. The houses are 9m below the temple platform, which is three storeys high, and the only access – a tunnel or ramp – appears to have been backfilled in the building of the temple. Wiseman argues that temple and houses were not connected. He argues instead that the temple faced inwards and that, in front of it, Augustus built a great piazza, which was open to the public. By its creation, Augustus ostentatiously reclaimed the Palatine from the Optimates for the People. Literary references suggest there may have been a library and shaded porticos where occasionally the senate could meet, while Ovid recommended it as a good place for the boys to pick up girls and for the girls to pick up boys (no wonder he was banished!).

There is, of course, absolutely no evidence on the ground for his piazza: it was all swept away to make room for what is today the grand palace of Domitian. The position of Augustus’s house is unknown, but Wiseman suggests it was probably at a higher level on the eastern side of the piazza.

This is jolly nearly a brilliant book. I am convinced by Wiseman’s reassessment of Augustus – though I am biased in this as I had already reached the same conclusion by a different route. But the trouble is that he spends too much time chasing hares. I like the way he always quotes his references in full, but many of these references are to obscure scraps of obscure authors quoted casually by later and often unreliable commentators. One can get bogged down in many of the side turnings.

But I believe his conclusions are broadly right. Augustus needs to be reassessed: he was a great man and his greatness needs to be recognised. This is not an easy task. As Wiseman points out, the great historians of this period – Tacitus, Gibbon, and Syme – have all taken the side of the Optimates, whose cause was pleaded so eloquently by Cicero. Wiseman needs to show that they were all wrong, we should recognise that the Optimates were the real cause of the civil war, and that Augustus sorted out the problems brilliantly, but always from the side of the people. (Was he perhaps – perish the thought! – a crypto-socialist?) I am sure that in future, all writers about Augustus will have to take this book into consideration.

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