The Res Gestae was a unique public relations move for the first emperor of the Roman Empire, whose political career was in many ways experimental.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Eng. The Deeds of the Divine Augustus) is the funerary inscription of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, giving a first-person record of his life and accomplishments. The Res Gestae is especially significant because it gives an insight into the image Augustus portrayed to the Roman people. Various portions of the Res Gestae have been found in modern Turkey. The inscription itself is a monument to the establishment of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that was to follow Augustus.
Structure of the Text
The text consists of a short introduction, 35 body paragraphs, and a posthumous addendum. These paragraphs are conventionally grouped in four sections, political career, public benefactions, military accomplishments and a political statement.
The first section (paragraphs 2–14) is concerned with Augustus’ political career; it records the offices and political honours that he held. Augustus also lists numerous offices he refused to take and privileges he refused to be awarded. The second section (paragraphs 15–24) lists Augustus’ donations of money, land and grain to the citizens of Italy and his soldiers, as well as the public works and gladiatorial spectacles that he commissioned. The text is careful to point out that all this was paid for out of Augustus’ own funds. The third section (paragraphs 25–33) describes his military deeds and how he established alliances with other nations during his reign. Finally the fourth section (paragraphs 34–35) consists of a statement of the Romans’ approval for the reign and deeds of Augustus. The appendix is written in the third person, and likely not by Augustus himself. It summarizes the entire text, and lists various buildings he renovated or constructed; it states that Augustus spent 600 million silver denarii (i.e. 600,000 gold denarii) from his own funds during his reign on public projects. Ancient currencies cannot be reliably converted into modern equivalents, but it is clearly more than anyone else in the Empire could afford. Augustus consolidated his hold on power by reversing the prior tax policy beginning with funding the aerarium militare with 170 million sesterces of his own money.
According to the text it was written just before Augustus’ death in AD 14, but it was probably written years earlier and likely went through many revisions. Augustus left the text with his will, which instructed the Senate to set up the inscriptions. The original, which has not survived, was engraved upon a pair of bronze pillars and placed in front of Augustus’ mausoleum. Many copies of the text were made and carved in stone on monuments or temples throughout the Roman Empire, some of which have survived; most notably, almost a full copy, written in the original Latin and a Greek translation was preserved on a temple to Augustus in Ancyra (the Monumentum Ancyranum of Ankara, Turkey); others have been found at Apollonia and Antioch, both in Pisidia.
By its very nature the Res Gestae is propaganda for the principate that Augustus instituted. It tends to gloss over the events between the assassination of Augustus’ adoptive father Julius Caesar and the victory at Actium when his foothold on power was finally undisputed. Augustus’ enemies are never mentioned by name. Caesar’s murderers Brutus and Cassius are called simply “those who killed my father”. Mark Antony and Sextus Pompey, Augustus’ opponents in the East, remain equally anonymous; the former is “he with whom I fought the war,” while the latter is merely a “pirate.” Likewise, the text fails to mention Augustus’ imperium maius and his exceptional tribunicial powers. Often quoted is Augustus’ official position on his government: “From that time (27 BC, the end of the civil war) I surpassed all others in influence, yet my official powers were no greater than those of my colleague in office.” This is in keeping with a reign that promoted itself from the beginning as a “restoration” of the old republic, with a leader who was nothing more than “first among equals”, but was akin to absolute monarchy by divine right, backed by the swords of the legions.
The Res Gestae was a unique public relations move for the first emperor of the Roman Empire, whose political career was in many ways experimental. If their frequent use as “history” by later historians (both ancient and modern) who characterized Augustus’ rule according to categories he himself constructed in the Res Gestae is any indication, it is a rather successful piece of propaganda. On the other hand, it would be absurd to overlook the usefulness to historians of what is essentially a first-person account of his rule.
- Augustus (14 May 2009). Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Cambridge University Press.
- Understanding Roman Inscriptions by Lawrence Keppie. pp. 132–133
- Although there are other possible groupings; see discussion in Scheid, “Introduction”, XXXVI–XLIII.
- Aug. RG 17.2
- The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. G.E.M. de Ste. Croix p362 Cornell University Press 1981.
- Eck, W. (2007) The age of Augustus. 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 169.
- Eck, p. 171.
- Barini, Concetta (1937), (in Ancient Greek) / (in Latin) Res Gestae Divi Augusti ex Monumentis Ancyrano, Antiocheno, Apolloniensi, Rome.
- Cooley, Alison (2009), (in English) Res Gestae divi Augusti: Text, Translation and Commentary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
- Gagé, Jean (1935), Res gestae divi Augusti ex monumentis Ancyrano et Antiocheno latinis, Paris.
- Mommsen, Theodor (1865). Res gestae Divi Augusti ex monumentis Ancyrano et Apolloniensi. Berolini: Weidmannos, 1865.
- Scheid. John (2007). (in French) Res Gestae Divi Augusti: hauts faits du divin Auguste. Paris: Belles Lettres, 2007.
- Volkmann, Hans (1942), Res gestae Divi Augusti Das Monumentum Ancyranum, Leipzig.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 04.08.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.