The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story
TP Wiseman
Princeton University Press
264pp, 71 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £27

Excavated between 1958 and 1984 and first opened to the public in 2008, the House of Augustus is one of Rome's major sites. In his latest work, TP Wiseman, Professor Emeritus of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter, examines the accuracy of this identification of the living quarters of the illustrious Augustus (63 BC–AD 14) and to reveal their true whereabouts.

This is indeed a detective story and, like the best of sleuths, Professor Wiseman delves deeply into the evidence in a spirited exploration of the archaeological and textual data. It takes us on a highly engaging journey through the history of Rome and the Palatine, and particularly the spectacular career of Augustus. For his other main notion is that the reputation of Augustus has been unfairly and erroneously sullied.

He begins by robustly challenging the view that Augustus's rise to preeminence was accomplished by the destruction of the Roman Republic. Rather, Julius Caesar and his adoptive son broke the power of the ruling faction of optimates by championing the interests of the many – or populares. Incorrectly described as 'Emperor', Augustus was, in fact, imperator (Commander) and princeps (First Citizen), Wiseman reminds us, who brought a sustained period of peace and prosperity to Rome.

This contention is also woven into the quest to find the home of Augustus. The history of the Palatine lies at the heart of the story. Nearly all the existing structures on the Palatine, Wiseman tells us, were destroyed by the catastrophic fire that engulfed Nero's Rome in AD 64. He therefore starts at the beginning and works forward, tracing the topography of the site from Rome's prehistory to the time of Augustus and beyond.

Cicero famously noted that the Roman people hated private luxury but loved public magnificence, something Augustus well understood. After becoming consul, at the age of 19, he lived on the Palatine but his own home was famously modest and he took pride in rescuing public space from private use. After defeating his opponents in the civil wars of 42–36 BC, Augustus implemented a policy of confiscation, demolition and redevelopment of parts of the Palatine where many of them had lived. The erection of the fine temple of Apollo and Diana formed part of that project. Dedicated in 28 BC, it had a substantial portico and public forecourt.

While Augustus' house was destroyed in the Neronian fire, it is known, that it was situated in front of the temple, and it is the identification and orientation of this temple that lays at the crux of locating the house of Augustus. Wiseman examines the archaeological evidence, including its early mistaken labelling as the temple of Jupiter and its correct identification, which was confirmed in 1966. There is intriguing textual evidence too. Its inauguration was celebrated by Virgil and Horace; and Virgil, Propertius and Vitruvius were all writing when the temple was completed.

It is somewhat sobering to think that the Augustan Palatine was of comparatively short duration. Nero built on a grand scale after the fire and a great palace – the Domus Augustana – rose on the site where Augustus' house once stood. Over time, the imperial palaces were extended but, by the 5th century, parts of the Palatine were derelict. Then in 1861 Naopleon III, who was a keen historian, started an ambitious progamme of excavation, which later led to the discovery of what was believed to be the house of Augustus.

Professor Wiseman has mined a rich vein of Roman history. Few historical detective stories could be as enjoyably informative and absorbing as this one.

Diana Bentley

 

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