Sep 232017

Today is the birthday (63 BCE) of Augustus, founder of the Roman Principate and first Roman emperor, who controlled the Roman Empire from 27 BCE until his death in 14 CE. He is a monumentally pivotal figure in ancient Roman history in the period known commonly as the Roman Revolution: the timespan seeing the tail end of the Roman Republic with the assassination of Julius Caesar, civil war with Augustus as a key player, and the emergence of the Roman Empire. Here are the bare bones.

Augustus was born Gaius Octavius into an old and wealthy equestrian branch of the plebeian gens Octavia. Julius Caesar was his maternal great-uncle, and, under the name Octavianus (Anglicized as Octavian). Octavian was named in Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, when Octavian was 20, upon which he, Mark Antony, and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate to defeat Caesar’s assassins. These were unsettled times in Rome. Powerful generals such as Caesar and Pompey wanted to wield greater individual power than the Senate and ended up in a civil war with Caesar triumphant. Thereafter Caesar’s power grew until many people were afraid that he would seek to be king. So they assassinated him. Getting rid of one man with ambitions for individual power did not return the Roman Republic to its old ways, however.

The Second Triumvirate (Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus were the First) defeated the assassins in various stages culminating in their victory at the Battle of Philippi.  Afterwards the Triumvirate divided the Roman Republic among themselves and ruled as military dictators, but the alliance was eventually torn apart by the competing ambitions of its members. Lepidus was driven into exile and stripped of his position, and Antony committed suicide following his defeat at the Battle of Actium by Octavian in 31 BCE.

After the demise of the Second Triumvirate, Octavian (Augustus after 27 BCE) restored the outward façade of the free Republic, with governmental power vested in the Roman Senate, the executive magistrates, and the legislative assemblies. In reality, however, he retained his autocratic power over the Republic as a military dictator. By law, Augustus held a collection of powers granted to him for life by the Senate, including supreme military command, and those of tribune and censor. It took several years for Augustus to develop the framework within which a formally republican state could be led under his sole rule. He rejected monarchical titles, and instead called himself Princeps Civitatis (“First Citizen of the State”). The resulting constitutional framework became known as the Principate, the first phase of the Roman Empire. Historians routinely refer to Augustus as the first emperor, but Latin titles are a bit confusing. Octavian was styled Imperator (from which we get “Emperor”) as early as 38 BCE, but Imperator should really be translated “Commander” (or “Conquering Hero”) rather than “Emperor.” It was a title bestowed routinely on victorious generals as well as certain magistrates in the time of the Republic, and could still be used by certain generals in the early Empire. It was only later in the Empire that it was the exclusive title of the Empire’s rulers.  We shouldn’t let linguistic quibbles get in the way of historical facts, however. Augustus, de facto, was the first Roman Emperor.

I’ve studied this transition period quite extensively ever since I chose it as a special paper for my history A-levels and for my Oxford entrance exams. It all seemed tremendously momentous when I first came to the period as a teen. Now, as a (hopefully) mature historian, I am given to wonder whether the changes that Augustus wrought as emperor were as obvious to people living at the time as they are to us now.  History frequently looks back at dates and events as crucial turning points.  Did they seem like turning points at the time? I’m given to doubt it.  History has a funny way of looking at things – in hindsight.

The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana (The Roman Peace). The Roman world was largely free from major conflict for more than two centuries thereafter, despite continuous wars of imperial expansion on the Empire’s frontiers and the year-long civil war known as the “Year of the Four Emperors” (a war over the imperial succession). Augustus dramatically enlarged the Empire, annexing Egypt, Dalmatia, Pannonia, Noricum, and Raetia; expanding possessions in Africa; expanding into Germania; and completing the conquest of Hispania. Beyond the frontiers, he secured the Empire with a buffer region of client states and made peace with the Parthian Empire through diplomacy. He reformed the Roman system of taxation, developed networks of roads with an official courier system, established a standing army, established the Praetorian Guard, created official police and fire-fighting services for Rome, and rebuilt much of the city during his reign.

It’s amazing what you can do when you have no serious rivals and when you have absolute power. Before Augustus the Republic was a mess, torn apart year after year by powerful men and factions seeking control and dominance.  The assassins finished off Caesar, then the Second Triumvirate finished off the assassins, then Octavian polished off the other triumvirs, and stood supremely alone at the top of the pile. Once that feat was accomplished and his hold on the reins of power was firmly established, it would have been mighty foolhardy to challenge him.  The times of challenging the emperor’s power lay in the future.

Augustus died in 14 CE at the age of 75. He probably died from natural causes, although there were unconfirmed rumors that his wife Livia poisoned him. Seems a bit far-fetched to me.

If you are paying attention you will note that Augustus was emperor when Jesus was born (around 3 BCE). Yup, Jesus was probably born in the year 3 Before Christ !!! He died around 30 CE at the age of 33. If we are to believe Luke’s gospel (which I don’t) the legendary census that sent a pregnant Mary and her espoused, Joseph, to Bethlehem from their native Galilee, where she gave birth, was commanded by Augustus. As I have commented here several times before, the idea of a census covering the entire Roman Empire requiring every man, woman, and child to up stakes and leave their homes to go back to their ancestral homelands is both laughable and physically impossible. If Augustus had actually had such a ludicrously deranged idea he would have been locked up.


He was succeeded as Emperor by his adopted son (also stepson and former son-in-law) Tiberius.

The common staple of rich and poor alike at the time of the Roman Revolution was puls, a porridge made from farro.  Farro is whole wheat grain produced from a specific kind of wheat.  You can find it pearled in health food stores in the US, but in Italy to this day they sell it unpearled in regular supermarkets. In ancient Rome puls was the normal breakfast food for the common people, but it could be eaten for any meal.  Vegetables or meat might be added to a main dish, or fruit and honey for a sweet one.

To make farro into a dish that almost certainly resembles ancient puls combine 1 part farro to 2 parts water (with salt to taste) in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and simmer uncovered until the grains are al dente (!) – ignoring the irony of using modern Italian as an English cooking term – and the liquid is mostly absorbed.  For a soupier dish use more water. It can be eaten plain on its own (as the poorer Romans would have done) or as a side dish. Otherwise you can add what you will to dress it up – meat, fish, vegetables, fruit. Something similar is served in Tuscany these days as a breakfast dish with coffee as the liquid and candied fruit added for flavoring. Not my thing – at all.



Jan 142016


Today is the birthday (83 BCE) of Marcus Antonius, commonly known in English as Mark or Marc Antony, Roman politician and general who played a critical role in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the autocratic Roman Empire – usually called the Roman Revolution. Mark Antony has shown up in posts here before, particularly as a critical player in the deaths of Cleopatra and Cicero The waning moments of the Roman Republic were exceptionally turbulent times with powerful figures rising, then falling, left and right. Mark Antony, friend and ally of Julius Caesar, was the last of the shooting stars to ascend and burn out before Octavian/Augustus ultimately triumphed, making Rome a dictatorial, hereditary empire. This period is, without question, the most studied point in ancient Roman history.


Antony was a supporter of Julius Caesar, and served as one of his generals during the conquest of Gaul and the Civil War with Pompey Antony was appointed administrator of Italy while Caesar eliminated political opponents in Greece, North Africa, and Spain. After Caesar’s murder by a faction – the Liberatores – led by Brutus and Cassius in 44 BCE, Antony joined forces with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, another of Caesar’s generals, and Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, forming a three-man dictatorship known to historians as the Second Triumvirate. The Triumvirs defeated the Liberatores, at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, and divided the government of the Republic between themselves. Antony was assigned Rome’s eastern provinces, including the client kingdom of Egypt, then ruled by Cleopatra VII Philopator, and was given the command in Rome’s war against Parthia.

Relations among the Triumvirs were strained as the various members sought greater political power. Civil war between Antony and Octavian was averted in 40 BCE, when Antony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. Despite this marriage, Antony carried on a love affair with Cleopatra, who bore him three children, further straining Antony’s relations with Octavian. Lepidus was expelled from the triumvirate in 36 BCE, and in 33 BCE disagreements between Antony and Octavian caused a split between them. Their ongoing hostility erupted into civil war in 31 BCE, as the Roman Senate, at Octavian’s direction, declared war on Cleopatra and proclaimed Antony a traitor. Later that year, Antony was defeated by Octavian’s forces at the Battle of Actium. Defeated, Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide.


With Antony dead, Octavian was the undisputed master of the Roman world. In 27 BCE, he was granted the title of Augustus, marking the final stage in the transformation of the Roman Republic into an empire, with himself as the first Roman emperor.

Antony features in two of Shakespeare’s plays – Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. Julius Caesar, despite its title, focuses on Antony’s defeat of Brutus and the conspirators after Caesar’s murder, with Antony’s funeral oration being the most famous segment. In it Antony skillfully appears to condemn Caesar as a tyrant and praise Brutus as a man of the people, but in reality turns the crowd against Brutus and in favor of his own ambitions as successor to Caesar. Despite a certain degree of poetic license, Shakespeare stays fairly close to historical fact.


Caesar’s funeral was held on 20th March (five days after his murder). Antony, as Caesar’s faithful lieutenant and reigning Consul, was chosen to preside over the ceremony and to recite the eulogy. During a demagogic speech, he enumerated the deeds of Caesar and, publicly read his will, which detailed the donations Caesar had left to the Roman people. Antony then seized the blood-stained toga from Caesar’s body and presented it to the crowd. Worked into a fury by the bloody spectacle, the assembly rioted. Several buildings in the Forum and some houses of the conspirators were burned to the ground. Panicked, many of the conspirators fled Italy. Under the pretext of not being able to guarantee their safety, Antony relieved Brutus and Cassius of their judicial duties in Rome and instead assigned them responsibility for procuring wheat for Rome from Sicily and Asia. Such an assignment, in addition to being unworthy of their rank, would have kept them far from Rome and shifted the balance towards Antony. Refusing such secondary duties, the two traveled to Greece instead.


Despite the provisions of Caesar’s will, Antony proceeded to act as leader of the Caesarian faction, including appropriating for himself a portion of Caesar’s fortune rightfully belonging to Octavian. Antony enacted the Lex Antonia, which formally abolished the Dictatorship, in an attempt to consolidate his power by gaining the support of the Senatorial class. He also enacted a number of laws he claimed to have found in Caesar’s papers to ensure his popularity with Caesar’s veterans, particularly by providing land grants to them. Lepidus, with Antony’s support, was named Pontifex Maximus to succeed Caesar. To solidify the alliance between Antony and Lepidus, Antony’s daughter Antonia Prima was engaged to Lepidus’s son, also named Lepidus. Surrounding himself with a bodyguard of over six thousand of Caesar’s veterans, Antony presented himself as Caesar’s true successor, largely ignoring Octavian. So the stage was set for Antony and Octavian to defeat the conspirators, and for Octavian subsequently to turn on Antony.

Here’s a recipe from Apicius that could have graced Antony’s table at some point. Molded aspics are attested in Roman texts as fancy centerpieces. I used to make a chicken aspic as a party piece once in a while when I was much younger. They weren’t very popular, so I stopped making them. The principle is simple – lightly grease a fancy mould with a clear oil. Pour a thin layer of aspic in the mould and let it gel slightly. For my aspic I used a clarified stock plus the requisite amount of gelatin dissolved in the warmed stock. Then put a decorative component on the bottom. Fill up the mould with meat, vegetables, or whatever, so that you have pretty layers – leaving a small gap between the filling and sides of the mould. Then fill up the mould with aspic and let set in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. Unmould by immersing the mould in warm water for a few minutes, being careful not to let the water flow into the mould. Place a serving plate on top of the mould, say a prayer, and invert. With luck it will come out clean. Serve immediately.


The following recipe is a translation which I have edited. It gives you some ideas for what you might use as a filling. If I were to use this recipe I would place the dressing in the base of the mould.

Salacattabia Apiciana (Apician Jelly)

Put in the mortar celery seed, dry pennyroyal, dry mint, ginger, fresh coriander, seedless raisins, honey, vinegar, oil and wine; crush it together in order to make a dressing of it. Place 3 pieces of Picentian bread in a mould, interlined with pieces of cooked chicken, cooked sweetbreads of calf or lamb, [ewe’s] cheese, pine nuts, pickled cucumbers, finely chopped dried onions, covering the whole with jellified broth. Bury the mould in snow up to the rim; unmould, sprinkle with the above dressing and serve.