- Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War
Because they occur at precise moments in time, battles can provide a convenient means to mark political and even cultural changes. In Roman history one thinks of battles such as those of the Allia, Cannae, Zama, Pharsalus, and Philippi, all of which came to be regarded as major turning points. As is the nature of such things, however, the recollection and representation of a battle can eclipse the event itself and assume a meaning far out of proportion to the battle’s strategic or even immediate political significance. This is particularly true of the confrontation between Antony and Octavian at Actium in 31 B.C., arguably the single most important battle in Roman history.
In Actium and Augustus Robert Gurval undertakes a fresh examination of the impact that the battle had on Augustan culture. His thesis is a provocative one. While not in the least denying the powerful influence of the battle, he casts considerable doubt on the notion that from the outset Augustus deliberately sought to promote Actium as part of an imperial ideology (an ideology, that is, devised by the emperor himself) and that the attention paid to the battle by Augustan poets constitutes a reaction against or collusion in such an ideology.
To that end Gurval surveys all of the available evidence. The first two chapters are devoted to historical inquiry: chapter 1 covers such matters as Augustus’ triple triumph in the summer of 29, the so-called Actian arch, Augustus’ coinage, Nicopolis, and the Actian Games; chapter 2, Octavian’s relationship with Apollo and the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine. In each of these areas Gurval calls into question a substantial body of scholarly opinion that seeks to interpret these monuments and events as part of a propagandistic celebration of [End Page 638] Augustus’ victory at Actium. In Gurval’s view, this argument, often grounded in inference and speculation, simply does not stand up to scrutiny. For example, there is little hard evidence to suggest that the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine, originally vowed following the defeat of Sextus Pompey at Naulochus in 36 and dedicated in October of 28, was in any obvious way meant as an offering to the Apollo who assisted Octavian at Actium. (As Gurval observes, Apollo Actius does not appear on coins until 16 B.C.). Similarly, he refutes those who would identify as the “Actian arch” a single-span structure that abutted the Temple of Divus Julius in the Forum but was evidently torn down to accommodate the triple arch erected in 19 B.C. to commemorate the recovery of the standards from Parthia. As he demonstrates, there are problems with both the precise date and purpose of the original arch, which he prefers to see as a generalized monument to the emperor’s military achievements rather than a reminder of Antony’s defeat.
Having considerably shaken the view that Augustus sought to make propagandistic capital of Actium, Gurval turns in chapters 3–6 to the treatment of the battle by Augustan poets. Chapter 3 deals with Horace; chapter 4 with Propertius’ references to the battle in books 1–3; chapter 5 with Aeneid 8; and in chapter 6 Gurval returns to Propertius and 4.6. The special value of his close readings of these texts is that, set in the context of his broader consideration of the “Actian myth,” they yield useful insights into the way the literary handling of the battle varied from author to author and evolved over time. As one would expect, given the conclusions reached in the first two chapters, Gurval maintains that these texts neither attempt to undermine an “official propaganda” (213) about Actium nor constitute any kind of “political panegyric” (208). Rather, they are to be read as fundamentally personal reflections on an event to which the poets themselves had attached a particular and not necessarily similar importance.
Faced with the irrefutable and well-illustrated fact that...