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  • Sabina Augusta: An Imperial Journey by T. Corey Brennan
  • Jane Sancinito
Sabina Augusta: An Imperial Journey. By T. Corey Brennan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 302. Hardback, $85.00. ISBN 978-0-19- 025099-7.

From the outset, Brennan stresses that his latest book is not a biography of Sabina, the wife of Hadrian and, ultimately, the deified Augusta of Rome. Rather, the work is an attempt to contextualize and “situate Sabina in Hadrian’s aspirations” (xxiv). As a result, this is not a book, as the title somewhat suggests, intended to join the ranks of recent biographical studies of empresses, but one which means to look closely at a historical moment with Sabina as its thematic center. Brennan’s task is an ambitious one, especially given the limited evidence available for this reign as a whole, and for Sabina as an individual. While the work successfully analyzes some essential features of Hadrian’s reign and the ways that he used his court as an extension of himself, the work, by necessity, often strays from its eponymous empress, who remains a mysterious figure even in the book’s conclusion. [End Page 122]

Sabina Augusta is structured in two halves, supplemented by a pair of appendices, one of Sabina’s coin types and another of her portraits. The first half establishes the world of Sabina as empress and of Hadrian as emperor, collecting and presenting this material in an engaging and clear manner. Brennan begins with an excellent chapter on Roman empresses, tracing the development and public presentation of the role from Livia to Sabina. From here, in four chapters, he lays out crucial groundwork that, while familiar to most who study the period, will leave students and scholars of other periods informed and comfortable with the material.

Brennan’s Chapter 2 begins with Trajan, Hadrian’s adoptive father and immediate predecessor, and discusses the examples set by the imperial women who preceded Sabina: Plotina, Trajan’s wife, Marciana, Trajan’s sister and Matidia, Trajan’s niece and Sabina’s mother. Chapter 3 turns to Sabina’s “Personal History,” focusing on the sources that exist for a study of the empress. Throughout, Brennan has a clear understanding of the limitations of our evidence and addresses, among other subjects, the challenge of working with the Historia Augusta. The fourth and fifth chapters, “Hadrian’s Personality” and “Hadrian’s Relationships,” respectively, address succinctly and clearly the necessary background for Hadrian and his court.

In the second half, Brennan transitions to a chronological study, in so far as it can be constructed, of Sabina’s life. Needless to say, examples of lengthy narrative are thin on the ground, but Brennan draws on a variety of evidence to sketch out the picture as fully as possible. Brennan is able to be most expansive in Chapters 7 and 8, which discuss Hadrian and Sabina’s trip to and through Egypt. On this journey, it is possible to examine both the extent of the imperial court, including Antinoös and the princess-poet Julia Balbilla, and some of its relationships with the emperor and empress. Brennan characterizes this group as creative and competitive, but struggles, even with a unique example of Sabina’s “voice” preserved in an inscription on the statue of “singing Memnon,” to discern the place of the empress in that company. Following the trip to Egypt, Sabina is, once again, largely absent until her death and deification, when it is clear that Hadrian made the most of an opportunity to display his piety, as he had following the death of Antinoös. It is here that Brennan becomes controversial, siding with ancient evidence that suggests that Hadrian may have had a hand in, or actually compelled, Sabina’s death. He cites a series of “commemorative” coin types as possible evidence for the empresses impending doom, though this claim lacks any explanation of the role he imagines being held by the Roman mint in this period. [End Page 123] If intentional, these revived types may have signaled that Sabina was expected to die, naturally or otherwise, but it is also possible that these types were accidentally or incidentally...


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pp. 122-124
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