Biblical Studies Augustus
Daniel Schowalter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0172


In 1985, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill remarked, “The task of surveying the bibliography on Augustus is impossible” (Journal of Roman Studies 75, 245). He did so while reviewing the book Augustus: Prinzeps und Monarch by Dietmar Kienast (Kienast 1982, cited under General Overviews Post-1975), which included some 1,500 names in its index of modern authors. Since that time, of course, the number of works on Augustus has continued to swell, and so this list of just over 100 seems a bit underwhelming. The goal of this article is to identify some of the many areas of study that should be of interest to students of the New Testament and to provide a spectrum of useful publications within each category. Gaius Octavius, also known as Octavian, was born on 23 September 63 BCE, and lived a fairly quiet life until the death of his uncle Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. In his will, Caesar made young Octavian his heir, and so the teenager was thrust into the middle of world events, including setting up an arrangement to rule one-third of the empire (43 BCE), avenging the death of his adopted father (42 BCE), and seeing that arrangement devolve into civil war, from which he emerged victorious after winning a decisive naval battle at Actium in western Greece (31 BCE) So at the age of thirty-two, Octavian found himself in control of the entire Roman empire, and that’s when the hard work began. Consolidating that power involved extensive fighting, both in the provinces and in Rome, until in 27 BCE he claimed that he turned his extraordinary powers back to the Senate and People. He preferred to be known by the title princeps (first man), but in that year the Senate awarded him the extraordinary title Augustus, and this was used by all emperors after him. Officially, Augustus was given power only in certain provinces, but through personality, accomplishments, and subterfuge, he came to control Rome and the rest of the empire. His power was extended in 12 BCE, when he was elected head of the priests in Rome (pontifex maximus). Augustus rebuilt the city physically and reformed many of the political and religious institutions in Rome and beyond. His final problem concerned succession, and since he outlived most of his preferred heirs, the honor went to Tiberius, the son of his wife Livia. After the death of Augustus in 14 CE, the Senate deified him, and the great emperor became the Divine Augustus.

General Overviews Pre-1975

As exemplified in Mommsen 2009, the modern study of Caesar Augustus has followed the path of much other scholarship—including biblical studies—in developing increasingly critical ways of reading ancient sources and examining the ancient world and its leading figures. While Syme 2002 (originally published in 1939) sets the standard for negative portrayal of Augustan actions and motives, Hammond 1968 (originally published in 1933), Rostovtzeff 1998 (originally published in 1957), and Jones 1971 admit the autocratic nature of his rule but include positive developments as well. Limitations of Syme’s view of the rise of Augustus are concisely addressed in Momigliano 1940. Ogilvie 2000 (originally published in 1969) discusses the religious practices and reforms that were necessary in order for Augustus to rule.

  • Hammond, Mason. The Augustan Principate: In Theory and Practice during the Julio-Claudian Period. 2d ed. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.

    Review of influences on the development of the career of Octavian/Augustus and the impact of his reign and policies on his dynastic successors. First published in 1933.

  • Jones, A. H. M. Augustus. New York: Norton, 1971.

    Written near the end of a very productive life, this concise account tells the story of Augustus’s rise to power and lengthy rule. It highlights some aspects of his reign (social and political policy) and leaves others, such as religion, relatively untouched. Takes a more moderate view of Augustus in reaction to Syme’s “violent prejudice” against him.

  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. “Review of The Roman Revolution by Ronald Syme.” Journal of Roman Studies 30 (1940): 75–80.

    Written shortly after publication of Syme’s monumental work, this review both praises and raises fundamental questions about the book and especially Syme’s dependence on prosopographical analysis. In short, Momigliano argues that the emergence of the Augustan principate is not a victory of one elite faction over another but rather “a victory of the non-political classes” (p. 78). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Mommsen, Theodor. The History of Rome. 4 vols. Translated by William P. Dickson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Mommsen wrote the original Römische Geschichte (Berlin: Weidmann, 1856) between 1854 and 1856 and transformed the study of ancient Rome by imposing a critical perspective on sources and traditional views. Although Mommsen’s work ends with the death of Julius Caesar, his approach has been extremely influential on later studies of Augustus.

  • Ogilvie, R. M. The Romans and Their Gods: In the Age of Augustus. London: Pimlico, 2000.

    Brief and helpful survey of the Roman deities and the religious practices used to honor them. Does not discuss the influence of eastern gods or the imperial cult. Originally published in 1969 (New York: Norton).

  • Rostovtzeff, Michael. The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. 2d ed. 2 vols. Revised by P. M. Fraser. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

    First published by Oxford in 1926. Chapters on “Italy and the Civil War” (pp. 1–37) and “Augustus and the Policy of Restoration and Reconstruction” (pp. 38–74). References to Augustus throughout emphasize that he “accepted the existing conditions, and only modified them slightly, when absolutely necessary” (p. 75). Originally published in 1957.

  • Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    This book set the trend in modern studies of Augustus in English and other languages as well. Syme looks at “Caesar’s heir” and his reign with a “critical eye,” and follows Tacitus in rejecting the claim that Augustus sought only to restore the Republic, leading to suspicion about every act and motive. Originally published in 1939.

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