Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 26, 1998
Karl Galinsky Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction Princeton University Press, 1998. 474 pp.; 11 color ills.; 164 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (0691058903)

One can only admire Karl Galinsky’s courage and self-confidence in attempting a one-volume synoptic study of what is perhaps the single subject that has exerted most dominance within Roman studies for over a century (and particularly in recent years). In the 1990s, in the relatively narrow field of Augustan art alone (narrow by the very broad standards of Augustan Culture, where “art and architecture” receive one chapter out of eight), in the English language alone, we have seen at least four monographs devoted exclusively to the arts under Augustus—not to speak of innumerable articles (among which the present reviewer is responsible for two!).1 Perhaps this was all part of the Augustan plan: the very last word of the appendix to his autobiography, the Res Gestae (which was inscribed in sanctuaries and city centers in Asia Minor as well as in Rome), was "innumerabilis"—used to describe the infinite and uncountable expenditures and benefactions, both public and private, bestowed by the first and greatest of the Roman emperors.

In part, the overwhelming deluge of secondary material on Augustus is a testament to the sheer excellence of the cultural productions of his time. Not only is Augustan “history” the defining period of the passage from Republic to Empire (and hence a key moment for the genesis of later European versions of imperium), but it produced much of the finest of all Roman writing. From the poets Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus to such fundamental masters of prose as the historian Livy, the Augustan age presented itself as a new cultural golden age. And there is little doubt that in the quantity, quality and innovation of its visual and architectural arts (especially, but by no means exclusively, in the city of Rome), the reign of Augustus was no less remarkable than in its literary productions. In addition, the reign—the longest in the whole history of the Roman empire—saw revolutions in the legal system, in the government of the provinces, in the coinage, in epigraphy. Worse (from the point of view of any attempt to synthesise all this), Augustus has been the subject of several classic studies this century (some of which Galinsky surveys elegantly in his introduction)—especially Ronald Syme’s brilliant Roman Revolution of 1939 and Paul Zanker’s superb The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (1988), as well as a significant number of classic discussions focusing on narrower or more specific topics.2

All this makes Galinsky’s task well-nigh impossible. To master the primary materials in any one of these areas is a major undertaking; to be able to talk synoptically about all is remarkable. And it is the singular achievement of this book that its author manages this. Indeed, the book is a fitting culmination of Galinsky’s scholarly career to date, in that he is uniquely placed to speak with equal authority about Augustan literature and Augustan art. There can be little doubt that the result is an important general introduction to the period, indispensable for students and to be placed beside the even longer Cambridge Ancient History volume devoted to Augustus, whose new and (relatively) up-to-date edition was also published in 1996.3

Of course, there is a price. In any area he discusses, Galinsky’s book must needs be more general, more selective, less deep, than a study devoted solely to that area. His Augustan culture is always fated to be introductory—and when it makes new contributions to the field (as in the critique of Zanker on the art-historical side, hazarded on page 5 and implicit in the “art and architecture” chapter) these are easily lost in the grand synthetic sweep of the whole. Perhaps the most signal success in the choice to write a general book is the well-grounded and well-rounded presentation of the concept of auctoritas to replace the notion of “propaganda” for defining the self-projection of the Augustan regime (especially in chapter 1, but supported by the discussion through the rest of the book). This effectively builds on and extends Zanker’s work—but does so across a greater range of materials than just images.

I suppose my main disagreement lies in Galinsky’s definition of culture. Does “culture” consist of what everyone who matters agrees it should be, or does it also include the mass of minority disagreements, tensions, and conflicts with the normative view? In this book, the cultural products of the Augustan age are polysemic, complex, and multivalent—but the tune they sing together is always a harmony. Whether discussing literature (Chapter 5), art (Chapter 4) or “ideas, ideals, and values” (Chapter 3), Augustan Culture is elegantly nuanced toward multiple levels of experience on the part of viewer or audience (usually depending on relative sophistication and education). But all these views are presented as colluding with the messages put out by the regime in more or less complex ways; everything is made to chime to the tune of the golden age. In this, again, Galinsky follows Zanker’s lead; but unlike Zanker, who has been willing to question in the light of criticism the collusive and harmonious interpretation he himself pioneered,4 this volume makes no concession to the possibilities of difference. Not only is there no space here for outsider or marginal views—actively and willfully nonnormative responses to the normative pressures of Augustan art and ideology (those of Jews, for instance)—but there is no consideration of ways in which Augustan art might build the deconstructive or undermining antitheses to its mainstream ideological structures into its public statements. The necessary selectivity of Galinsky’s citations works in his favor here: he can seem comprehensive while excluding the more difficult texts (especially Ovid’s love poetry, which is hardly mentioned in the section on elegy, pp. 269–79), which even in their time were perceived as going too far in their undermining of officially sanctioned thinking. And his citations of secondary literature simply ignore those literary scholars (such as Don Fowler, Thomas Habinek, or John Henderson), whose work has offered telling deconstructive readings even of the grandest official statements of Augustus’ poets laureate, Vergil and Horace.

Effectively, Galinsky’s Augustan Culture presents the story as the princeps might have wished it to be received. But was it really like that at the time? Did no one (other than Ovid) see the ironies in the imperial “restoration” of the Republic? Am I merely a subversion-seeking fetishist because I find it hard to swallow (or to believe that everyone except Ovid and his readers swallowed) the golden fantasy Augustus’ spin-doctors were manufacturing? Or is it Galinsky, and the significant number of Roman art historians who reject any recourse to “deconstructive” critical tendencies in explaining Augustus,5 who have themselves swallowed too gullibly the brilliant and masterly ideological mesh spun by Augustus’ court poets and artists? This point is not—I hasten to add—a methodological one about the relative applicability of particular kinds of modern theory; it is a substantial question about the nature of culture. The problem is on two levels. First, there is the issue of the Augustan literature and its reception (in which Ovid, who was exiled by Augustus, should make a hard case for the integrative culture lobby—except that he is easily dismissed: “it is misguided . . . to overinterpret the reasons for Ovid’s banishment” (268). Second, there is the understanding of Augustan art—which is (in my view) inevitably dependent on our response to the literature. Galinsky is certainly right not to attempt to separate these two areas where the State chose to address its subjects, but he chooses to read both in what is (at least to my mind) an insufficiently skeptical vein. In the end, one wonders whether Galinsky’s powerful argument for auctoritas in place of propaganda as a way of propelling the image of the reign is not ultimately the result of an Augustan propaganda richer and more subtle than (as well as immensely influential on) that of any later totalitarian regime?

Jas’ Elsner
Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

1 I am thinking of D. Castriota, The Ara Pacis Augustae and the Image of Abundance in Later Greek and Roman Imperial Art, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995; D. A. Conlin, The Artists of the Ara Pacis: The Process of Hellenization in Roman Relief Sculpture, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1997; D. Favro, The Urban Image of Augustan Rome, Cambridge, 1996; A. Kuttner, Dynasty and Empire in the Age of Augustus: The Case of the Boscoreale Cups, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995. Also relevant are J. De Rose Evans, The Art of Persuasion, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1992 and C. B. Rose, Dynastic Commemoration and Imperial Portraiture in the Julio-Claudian Period, Cambridge, 1997, while J. Pollini, The Image of Augustus: Art, Ideology and the Rhetoric of Leadership and B. Kellum, The City Adorned: The Visual Rhetoric of Augustan Rome are apparently still to come (at least). Significant French contributions include G. Sauron Quis deum? L’expression plastique des idéologies politiques et réligieuses à Rome à la fin de la république et au début du principat, Rome, 1994 (surprisingly not cited by Galinsky), and German works include D. Boschung, Die Bildnisse des Augustus, Berlin, 1993, and H. von Hesberg and S. Panciera, Das Mausoleum des Augustus, Munich, 1994.

2 I have in mind, for instance, G. Alföldy “Augustus und die Inschriften: Tradition und Innovation,” Gymnasium 98 (1991) 289–24, and A. Wallace-Hadrill," Image and Authority in the Coinage of Augustus," Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986) 66–87.

3 A. K. Bowman, E. Champlin, and A. Lintott, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. X, The Augustan Empire, 43 B.C.–A.D. 69, Cambridge, 1996. The bulk of this text (some 1,000 pages) was written in the 1980s and, hence, antedates the impact of Zanker’s contribution. The specifically art-historical chapter, by Mario Torelli, is well worth reading.

4 See P. Zanker, “Nouvelles orientations de la recherche en iconographie: Commanditaires et spectateurs,” Revue Archéologique 1994, 281–91.

5 E.g. K. Galinsky, “Venus, Polysemy and the Ara Pacis Augustae,” American Journal of Arhcaeology 96 (1992) 457–75, esp. 474–75, and J. R. Clarke, “Deconstructing Roman Texts, Viewers, and Art,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 9 (1996) 357–80. The hostility implicit in both these pieces is ultimately directed against a particular view of (and set of approaches to) Roman culture specifically and cultural studies more generally.

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