The Augustan Aristocracy

The Augustan Aristocracy

The Augustan Aristocracy

The Augustan Aristocracy


While the monarchy established by Caesar Augustus has attracted much scholarly attention, far less has been said about the reemergence of the old nobility at that time after years of civil war. One clear reason for this has been the lack of reliable evidence from the period. This book goes backward to the early years of the first century B.C. and forward to the reign of Nero in search of documentation of the Augustan aristocracy. Syme draws particularly on the Annals of Tacitus to cover 150 years in the history of Roman families, chronicling their splendor and success, as well as their subsequent fall within the embrace of the dynasty.


The study of history has been pursued under a long preoccupation with the origins of Rome, laws and institutions, biography, and so on. Neglect attended upon an aristocracy unique in duration and predominance; and the better sort in the towns and peoples of Italy conveyed little appeal. Evidence there was, but miscellaneous and dispersed, infested with all manner of vexatious problems.

As always, material determines treatment, although it need not preclude variety. On a surface view the epoch of Caesar Augustus appears well documented. Narrations are built up around the person and actions of the ruler. Not enough is said about the nobilitas now renascent after civil war and tribulation. A proper enquiry into their families cannot be confined within narrow limits. Both ancestors and posterity come into the count.

A subject of this kind defies continuous exposition. The present volume comprises a sequence of studies (arranged not without care for coherence), each composed so as to be intelligible in itself and by itself. An original plan of ten chapters went on to fifteen, and, after changes and omissions, expanded to a portentous total. Much labour therefore and anxieties of selection for an author unable to emulate the easy people 'who write without fear or research'.

Since the same characters recur again and again in various contexts and combinations, repetition could not be avoided. Other constraints or defects will be evident, such as rigorous compression or scant regard for sundry aspects of a multifarious theme. When the annotation comes to be added in the course of the next twelve months, an attempt will be made to concentrate on the primary evidence. The execution may well turn out to baffle zeal for economy.

The thirty chapters were composed at different times in the course of the last decade. One essay for example, Nero's Aunts', coincided with a year which official declarations consecrated to the honouring of women. Seven others are likewise anterior to History in Ovid (which was completed in 1976).

Given the nature of the evidence, the present compilation carries conjecture and controversy in full measure. As a kind of incomplete work of reference it may be of use to students of literature as well as history.

Wolfson College R. S. 30 September 1982 . . .

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