Res Gestae Divi Augusti - an introduction

Written by Augustus himself - virtually the only contemporary account of his time as Emperor. The historians Tacitus and Suetonius wrote biographies of him but many years after his death.

Augustus may have intended it to be read out in the Senate after his death: in accordance with his wishes, it was inscribed on pillars outside his mausoleum as a permanent record of what he had done.

The original text has not survived: the text we have derives from a Latin inscription with an accompanying Greek paraphrase found in the 16th century on a temple dedicated to Rome and Augustus.

The tone and style of the Res Gestae has been described factual, down to earth and "dry to the point of tedium". However, much of it deals with how much money he spent on projects and if it was designed to be an inscription, it wouldn't be a piece of literature.

The work consists of a long list of personal achievements but it is very impersonal (and selective: no mention of his failures - the murder of political opponents like Cicero, for example). Augustus did not intend it to be an autobiography in that sense: he did, in fact, write an account of his own life up to 25BC but it has not survived.

Why did he write it?

a) As an "elogium" (formal funeral oration)

The language in these speeches, praising a dead statesman, tends to be formal and stereotypical (like a tombstone inscription).

The Romans were very keen on the idea of "glory" - Augustus probably intended this to be a lasting record of his glorious achievements. Was he trying to rewrite history to suit his own purposes?

In Augustus' defence, he had achieved the establishment of peace and stability in the Roman world. This probably explains why the people were ready to accept the Emperor ( a one-man ruler) - they were sickened by the civil war which had gone on for so long.

The people got "bread and circuses" (Res Gestae 15, 22). The army got land and salaries. People in the provinces found new openings for careers in the army and civil service. All of this made the principate preferable to the unrest, strife and bloodshed of the republic as it fell apart. For another view, however, see Tacitus:

"(Augustus) seduced the army by gifts, the common people by the provision of cheap food, and everyone by the blandishments of peace"                     (Annals: 1,2)

b) As propaganda

The Res Gestae is not an objective reflection of facts but a justification and explanation of events since the death of Julius Caesar: Augustus wanted to stress the elements of continuity and tradition, links between the old system of governments and the new. This meant that he sometimes had to leave out or disguise facts which did not fit in with his aim. A large section deals with his victories over non-Roman people (26-33) and this expansion of the Empire was always popular.

Some commentators disagree that Augustus was being at all deceitful - he was simply compiling a record of what he had done in the style of an "elogium": he therefore listed his offices, honours & public services in a dignified and predictable way and the records show that Augustus surpassed the standards of the great leaders of the past.

It could be argued that Augustus, by considerable skill, is presenting the facts in the best possible light but sometimes deliberately distorts or misrepresents these facts. He wanted people to see that his principate was a natural successor to the old Republic but he seems to have been concerned about the dangers of attempts to restore the Republic: trials for treason began under Augustus so he obviously needed to stop political opponents. He preferred, after Actium, to show tact, moderation and persuasion rather than displays of force, to be seen to be putting behind him the era of civil war.

Compare Augustus with "pius Aeneas" - there are hints in the Res Gestae. The qualities praised by Virgil, for example, are bravery, clemency, justice and piety (cf. 34)