The Life of Augustus by Suetonius

Suetonius’s life of Augustus has 101 chapters compared with his life of Julius Caesar with 89.

(1) Traditional connection of the Octavian family with the town of Velitrae. Tradition that a forebear was in the middle of sacrificing to Mars when a neighbouring tribe attacked so that he grabbed the innards out of the fire half burned [no idea what this really means], giving rise to a tradition of sacrificing that way in the town.

(2) The family was of the equestrian class i.e. neither rich and venerable patricians nor plebeians. Generations back the family split into two branches, one of which sought high office, Octavius’s branch less so. His father was the first family member to become a senator. Mark Antony taunted him that his great-grandfather was a freedman and rope-make, while his grandfather was a money-changer.

(3) His father Gaius Octavius was a man of wealth and repute who served well as governor of Macedonia, defeating Rome’s enemies in battle, meting out justice to Rome’s allies. Marcus Cicero, in a letter to his brother, Quintus, who was serving as proconsular governor​ of Asia, advises him to imitate his neighbour Octavius.

(4) On the way back from Macedonia he died suddenly leaving a wife, Atia, and three children, one by his first wife, 2 by Atia. Atia was the daughter of Marcus Atius Balbus and Julia, sister of Gaius Caesar. Balbus came from a family with many senators in its history and was closely connected on his mother’s side with Pompey the Great.

(5) Augustus was born just before sunrise on the ninth day before the Kalends of October [i.e. 23 September] in the consul­ship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius [63 BC], at the Ox‑Heads, a small property in the Palatine quarter, where there is now a shrine, built shortly after his death.

(6) A small room like a pantry is shown to this day as the emperor’s nursery in his grandfather’s country-house near Velitrae, which is now said to be haunted.

(7) His names In his infancy he was given the surname Thurinus in memory of the home of his ancestors. Mark Antony uses the name as an insult when the two fell out in the 30s BC. In 44 BC he took the name of Gaius Caesar by the will of his great-uncle, Julius. In 27 BC he was awarded the surname Augustus, on the motion of Munatius Plancus, Augustus being a made-up name because sacred places and those in which anything is consecrated by augural rites are called ‘august’ from the increase (auctus) in dignity or authority.

Suetonius uses the name Augustus throughout.

(8) He lost his father when he was 4. At 12 he delivered a funeral eulogy to his grandmother Julia. When his uncle went to Spain to engage the sons of Pompey, although he had hardly recovered from a severe illness, he followed over roads beset by the enemy with only a very few companions and so endeared himself to Caesar, who soon formed a high opinion of his character.

Suetonius gives a fantastically abbreviated account of Augustus’s career in order to get onto the character stuff: so, after Caesar defeated the last of the Pompeyans in Spain, thinking peace had arrived for good, Augustus devoted himself to study in Greece. When he learned that his great-uncle had been assassinated, and he had been named his heir, he pondered whether to appeal to the nearest legions, eventually deciding against it. He returned to Rome and entered upon his inheritance, in spite of the doubts of his mother and the strong opposition of his stepfather, the ex-consul Marcius Philippus. Then he levied armies and henceforth ruled the State, at first with Marcus Antonius and Marcus Lepidus, then with Antony alone for nearly 12 years, and finally by himself for 44. That’s it, that’s the complete summary of Augustus’s political career.

(9) “Having given as it were a summary of his life, I shall now take up its various phases one by one, not in chronological order, but by classes, to make the account clearer and more intelligible.” In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Michael Grant points out that Suetonius’s fondness for assigning things to categories reminds us that he wrote the lives of great grammarians (now lost). Very bookish, very librariany, this love of taxonomies.

He wages five civil wars which Suetonius oddly names after their decisive battles: Mutina (43 BC), Philippi (42), Perusia (40), Sicily and Actium (31).

(10) Augustus initially wanted to avenge his uncle [for some reason Suetonius insists on calling Caesar Octavius’s ‘uncle’ not his ‘great uncle’] by gaining a position of power such as tribune of the plebs and then leading forces against Brutus and Cassius. But he was blocked in all attempts by Mark Antony and so went over to the aristocrats’ party. He plotted to assassinate Antony but when the conspiracy was uncovered, raised veterans to protect himself. He was put in command of the army which he had raised, with the rank of propraetor, and bidden to join with Hirtius and Pansa, who had become consuls, in lending aid to Decimus Brutus.

(11) Both Hirtius and Pansa lost their lives in this war and there were persistent rumours that Augustus had them arranged their deaths in order to create vacancies in the consulship.

(12) But when Antony, after his flight north, found a protector in Marcus Lepidus, and realising that the rest of the leaders and armies were coming to terms with them, he abandoned the cause of the nobles without hesitation and entered negotiations.

(13) He now formed a league with Antony and Lepidus and they finished the war against Brutus and Cassius with the two battles of Philippi. He was not merciful. He sent Brutus’s head to be thrown at the foot of Caesar’s statue.

When the duties of administration were divided after the victory at Philippi, Antony undertook to restore order in the East, and Augustus to lead the veterans back to Italy and assign them lands in the municipalities. But he could please neither the veterans nor the landowners, since the latter complained that they were driven from their homes, and the former that they were not being treated as their services deserved.

(14) Dangerous incidents during the siege of Lucius Antonius in Perusia.

(15) After the capture of Perusia he took vengeance on many, meeting all attempts to beg for pardon or to make excuses with the one reply, “You must die.”

(16) Details of the war in Sicily against Pompey’s son, Sextus Pompeius.

(17) When the final breach with Antony came, despite numerous attempts to patch it up, in 32 BC Augustus had Antony’s will read out to the people in which he named his children by Cleopatra as his heirs. Suetonius briskly deals with the battle of Actium, the difficulties he had sending his fleet and troops back to Italy, then his journey with some forces to besiege Antony in Alexandria.

Although Antony tried to make terms at the eleventh hour, Augustus forced him to commit suicide, and viewed his corpse. He greatly desired to save Cleopatra alive for his triumph, and even had Psylli brought to her, to suck the poison from her wound, since it was thought that she had died from the bite of an asp.

The young Antony, the elder of Fulvia’s two sons, he dragged from the image of the Deified Julius, to which he had fled after many vain entreaties, and slew him. Caesarion, too, whom Cleopatra fathered on Caesar, he overtook in his flight, brought back, and put to death. But he spared the rest of the offspring of Antony and Cleopatra, and afterwards maintained and reared them according to their several positions, as carefully as if they were his own kin.

(18) He visited the shrine of Alexander and placed a golden crown in the tomb. He annexed Egypt as a Roman province and had troops clear out the canals from the Nile in order to make it a more efficient bread basket. He founded the city of Nicopolis close to the site of his victory at Actium.

(19) Half a dozen assassination attempts are foiled.

(20) He carried on but two foreign wars in person: in Dalmatia, when he was but a youth, and with the Cantabrians after the overthrow of Antony.

(21) He subdued Cantabria, Aquitania, Pannonia, Dalmatia, and all Illyricum, as well as Raetia and the Vindelici and Salassi, which are Alpine tribes. He put a stop to the inroads of the Dacians, slaying great numbers of them, together with three of their leaders, and forced the Germans back to the farther side of the river Albis. But he never made war on any nation without just and due cause and was far from desiring to increase his dominion or his military glory at any cost. He only took hostages where necessary and if the hostage-giving nation rebelled, did not execute them but sold them into slavery.

His moderation in this and other things prompted India and the Scythians to send friendly envoys. Friendship with the eternally troublesome Parthian Empire allowed Augustus to reclaim the standards lost by Crassus at the battle of Carrhae in 53, and by Antony’s lieutenants in 40 and 36 BC.

(22) He had the doors of the temple of Janus Quirinuse closed three times, having won peace on land and sea. He twice entered the city in an ovation, after the war of Philippi, again after that in Sicily, and celebrated three regular triumphs​, for his victories in Dalmatia, at Actium, and at Alexandria, on three successive days.

(23) He suffered but two severe and ignominious defeats, those of Lollius and Varus, both of which were in Germany. [At the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 3 entire legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus were destroyed by Arminius, leader of the Cherusci.] It was said Augustus was so affected that for several months he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying: “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!” And he observed the day of the disaster each year as one of sorrow and mourning.

(24) He was a strict disciplinarian. He dismissed the entire tenth legion in disgrace because they were insubordinate. If any cohorts gave way in battle, he decimated them, [had every tenth man, chosen by lot, executed].

(25) After the civil wars he never called any of the troops ‘comrades’ either in the assembly or in an edict but always ‘soldiers’, thinking the former term too flattering for the requirements of discipline, the peaceful state of the times, and his own dignity.

He thought the worst quality in a general or officer was haste and risk. Hence his favourite sayings: “More haste, less speed”; “Better a safe commander than a bold”; and “That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.”

(26) He held the consulship an unprecedented 13 times. The first time he bullied the Senate into granting it him when he was only 20. He held his second consul­ship 9 years later, and a third after a year’s interval. The rest up to the eleventh were in successive years, then a long interval of 17 years till his twelfth and 2 years till his thirteenth.

(27) He was for ten years a member of the triumvirate for restoring the State to order, and though he opposed his colleagues for some time and tried to prevent a proscription, yet when it was begun, he carried it through with greater severity than either of them.

While he was triumvir, Augustus incurred general detestation by many of his acts and Suetonius lists the times Augustus had nobles he suspected of treachery arrested, tortured or executed on the spot.

He received the tribunician power for life, and once or twice chose a colleague in the office for periods of five years each. He was also given the supervision of morals and of the laws for all time, and by the virtue of this position, although without the title of censor, he nevertheless took the census thrice.

(28) He twice seriously considered restoring the Republic but both times was given pause at the thought of what would happen to himself, and by what new dissensions would immediately break out. [The same kind of argument which kept Oliver Cromwell in power.]

He undertook such sustained building work that in later life he liked to say he had found Rome built of brick and left it made of marble.

(29) A list of the notable buildings he had erected, and he encouraged other rich citizens to build new buildings or restore old ones.

(30) He reorganised the city into wards, organised fire watches, widened the channel of the Tiber to prevent floods and had all the approach roads to Rome widened and improved.

(31) After assuming the post of pontifex maximus on the death of Lepidus he collected whatever prophetic writings of Greek or Latin origin were in circulation and burned them. He restored Julius’s reform of the calendar and had the month Sextilis renamed after him, August, because it was the month when he held his first consulship and won his most famous victories.

He increased the number and importance of the priests. He increased the privileges of the Vestal virgins. He revived ancient rites which had fallen into disuse, such as the augury of Safety, the office of Flamen Dialis, the ceremonies of the Lupercalia, the Secular Games and the festival of the Compitalia. He provided that the Lares of the Crossroads should be crowned twice a year, with spring and summer flowers.

(32) To put a stop to brigandage, he stationed guards of soldiers wherever it seemed advisable, inspected the workhouses, and disbanded all guilds, except such as were of long standing and formed for legitimate purposes. He reformed the system of juries.

(33) In his administration of justice he was both highly conscientious and very lenient. [As so many have commented, it was as if the bloodshed of the civil wars and the proscriptions led to a psychological backlash, in which he tried to erase his former brutality.]

(34) He revised existing laws and enacted some new ones, for example, on extravagance, on adultery and chastity, on bribery, and on the encouragement of marriage among the various classes of citizens.

(35) Membership of the Senate had swollen to over 1,000 due to bribery and other reasons. He reduced it to 600, partly by having them vote worthy candidates, partly by his own intervention. He had sittings regularised to twice a month.

(36) Description of other administrative innovations designed to save money and avoid corruption.

(37) To enable more men to take part in the administration of the State, he devised new offices: the charge of public buildings, of the roads, of the aqueducts, of the channel of the Tiber, of the distribution of grain to the people, as well as the prefecture of the city, a board of three for choosing senators, and another for reviewing the companies of the knights whenever it should be necessary.

(38) He was generous in honouring military achievement for he had regular triumphs​ voted to over 30 generals. To enable senators’ sons to gain an earlier acquaintance with public business, he allowed them to assume the broad purple stripe immediately after the gown of manhood and to attend meetings of the senate. And when they began their military career, he gave them not merely a tribunate in a legion, but the command of a division of cavalry as well.

(39) His review of the knightly class, scolding and reprimanding many for bad behaviour.

(40) He revised conditions of the knightly class. He reviewed the way the free grain dole was distributed. He tried to abolish the widespread bribery at elections.

He was very hesitant to grant full Roman citizenship on foreigners. He made careful provision as to the number, condition, and status of slaves who were manumitted.

He wished to promote traditional forms of dress and directed the aediles not to allow anyone to appear in the Forum or its neighbourhood who wasn’t wearing a toga and a cloak.

(41) He increased the property qualification for senators, requiring 1,200,000 sesterces instead of 800,000. He loaned money at zero interest to people who needed it. He paid for the grain distribution in times of scarcity.

(42) But he was strict about acts of generosity and got cross when the people demanded more than he had promised.

(43) He surpassed all his predecessors in the frequency, variety, and magnificence of his public shows. If anything rare and worth seeing was ever brought to the city, it was his habit to make a special exhibit of it in any convenient place on days when no shows were appointed. For example, a rhinoceros in the Saepta, a tiger on the stage and a snake of fifty cubits in front of the Comitium.

(44) Reforms to rules surrounding the theatre, shows, gladiatorial combats, athletics competitions and so on.

(45) Games He didn’t attend all the games but when he did, he made a point of giving them his full attention, unlike Julius who was publicly criticised for answering correspondence and working during the show. He improved conditions for athletes. It appears that actors were legendarily lawless and he had some severely punished. For example, Pylades was expelled from the city and from Italy as well, because by pointing at him with his finger​ he turned all eyes upon a spectator who was hissing him.

(46) Population He increased the population of Italy by creating 28 new colonies. He paid for new buildings throughout. To keep up the supply of men of rank and induce the commons to increase and multiply, he admitted to the equestrian military career​ those who were recommended by any town. As he did his rounds of towns and districts he paid all who had had legitimate children 1,000 sesterces for each child.

(47) Provinces He assigned to himself rule of the stronger provinces; the others he assigned to proconsular governors selected by lot. Cities which had treaties with Rome but were on the road to ruin through their lawlessness, he deprived of their independence. He relieved others that were overwhelmed with debt, rebuilt some which had been destroyed by earthquakes, and gave Latin rights​ or full citizen­ship to all who could point to services rendered the Roman people.

(48) Foreign kingdoms He restored the kingdoms of which he gained possession by the right of conquest to those from whom he had taken them or joined them with other foreign nations. He encouraged dynastic intermarriages. He appointed guardians to the children of kings and had some brought up with his own.

(49) Reforms to the administration and pay of the army.

(50) Personal seal In dispatches and private letters he used as his seal first a sphinx, later an image of Alexander the Great, and finally his own image carved by Dioscurides.

(51) Clemency The evidences of his clemency and moderation are numerous and strong. He was content to let people speak ill of him, at dinner parties and such, confident they wouldn’t actually do anything.

[It is faintly miraculous the way the history of the Republic from about 100 BC to Augustus’s realm was continually riven by dissension and people supporting rival great men…and then all such talk just disappears.]

(52) When the people did their best to force the dictator­ship upon him, he knelt down, threw off his toga from his shoulders and with bare breast begged them not to insist.

(53) Lord He angrily refused the title of dominus or Lord. As consul he commonly went through the streets on foot, and when he was not consul, generally in a closed litter. His morning receptions were open to all, including the common people, and he met the requests of those who approached him with great affability, jocosely reproving one man because he presented a petition to him with as much hesitation “as he would a penny to an elephant.”

He was a highly effective socialiser: On the day of a meeting of the senate he greeted all the members in the House​, calling each man by name without a prompter and when he left the House he took leave of them in the same manner. He exchanged social calls with many and attended all their birthdays.

(54) Some senators cheeked him or made slighting remarks but no one suffered for their freedom of speech or insolence.

(55) He was relaxed about anonymous lampoons and satires.

(56) When he voted for officials he did so in his tribe as an ordinary citizen. He made sure all his friends and contacts were subject to the law. He even appeared in court and allowed himself to be cross questioned.

(57) As a result of this phenomenally wise rule he was immensely popular and regularly voted titles and given feasts and festivals by all classes of citizen.

(58) He was offered the title Father of His Country by popular acclaim and the Senate and graciously accepted it.

(59) A statue was erected to his doctor, Antonius Musa. Some of the Italian cities made the day on which he first visited them the beginning of their year. Many of the provinces, in addition to temples and altars, established quinquennial games​ in his honour.

(60) His friends and allies among the kings each in his own realm founded a city called Caesarea.

(61) Now Suetonius turns to consider his personal and domestic life.

(62) Three wives 1. When he became reconciled with Antony after their first quarrel, and their troops begged that the rivals be further united by some tie of kinship, he married Antony’s stepdaughter Claudia, daughter of Fulvia by Publius Clodius, although she was barely of marriageable age; but because of a falling out with his mother-in‑law Fulvia, he divorced her before they had begun to live together.

2. Shortly afterwards he married Scribonia, who had been married before to two ex-consuls, and was a mother by one of them. He divorced her also, “unable to put up with her shrewish disposition,” in his own words on the same day that she gave birth to his daughter, Julia.

3. And on that same day married Livia Drusilla, taking her from her husband Tiberius Nero, although she was with child at the time; and he loved and esteemed her to the end without a rival (although with numerous other sexual partners, see below).

(63) Children i.e. one daughter By Scribonia he had a daughter Julia, by Livia no children at all. He gave Julia in marriage first to Marcellus, son of his sister Octavia and hardly more than a boy, and then after his death to Marcus Agrippa, prevailing upon his sister to yield her son-in‑law to him. At this point the family tree of Augustus and Livia’s families, various children, grandchildren and adopted children becomes increasingly complicated.

(64) His grandchildren and very close supervision of them.

(65) Bad family Despite all his precautions Fortune intervened to screw up his family. He found the two Julias, his daughter and granddaughter, guilty of every form of vice and banished them. He lost grandsons Gaius and Lucius within the span of 18 months, the former dying in Lycia, the latter at Massilia. He then publicly adopted his third grandson Agrippa but soon disowned him because of his low tastes and violent temper.

Julia He exiled his daughter to the island of Pandataria where he denied her the use of wine and every form of luxury. No man, bond or free, was allowed to come near her without his permission, and then not without being informed of his stature, complexion, and even of any marks or scars upon his body. He frequently lamented having been inflicted with such daughters and wives.

(66) Friends He had few friends but was extremely loyal to those. Suetonius names two who he was forced to hand over to the authorities when it was discovered they were conspiring. He was very sensitive to friends’ death bed comments, or comments written in wills (which Romans often used to vent their true feelings, especially about rulers, once they were dead).

(67) Freedmen and slaves He had close friends among his freedmen but was severe with anyone who broke bounds:

  • he forced Polus, a favourite freedman of his, to take his own life, because he was convicted of adultery with Roman matrons
  • he broke the legs of his secretary Thallus for taking five hundred denarii to betray the contents of a letter
  • when the tutor and attendants of his son Gaius took advantage of their master’s illness and death to commit acts of arrogance and greed in his province, he had them thrown into a river with heavy weights about their necks

(68) Gay In young manhood many accusations that he was gay.

(69) Adultery His widespread adultery. He took the wife of an ex-consul from her husband’s dining-room before his very eyes into a bed-chamber, and brought her back to the table with her hair in disorder and her ears glowing. Mark Antony claimed his friends acted as his panders, and stripped and inspected matrons and well-grown girls, as if Toranius the slave-dealer were putting them up for sale.

(70) Vices The anecdote of the scandalous dinner of the twelve gods when Augustus and his circle dressed as, then behaved as, the gods and goddesses.

He was criticized as over fond of costly furniture and Corinthian bronzes. It was said some of the people proscribed in 43 BC were murdered so he could seize their bronzes. Sounds like the kind of gossip that always surrounds this kind of thing, compare and contrast with Sulla’s proscriptions.

(71) He was not greedy and freely distributed treasure he seized abroad. He was promiscuous, though: they say that even in his later years he was fond of deflowering maidens who were brought together for him from all quarters, even by his own wife.

He was open about his addiction to gaming and gambling, particularly dice.

(72) Temperate lifestyle Given his complete power and immense wealth he lived relatively simply, staying in one house in Rome, summer or winter, staying at other people’s houses, disliking grand palaces. He had the mansion built by his disgraced daughter Julia razed to the ground.

At his villa at Capreae he amassed a collection of the monstrous bones of huge sea monsters and wild beasts called the “bones of the giants”. These were fossils.

(73) Clothes He lived and dressed simply. He wore raised shoes to make him seem taller than he was.

(74) Dinner parties He gave dinner parties constantly, which weren’t that lavish or formal, at which he was a considerate host.

(75) Celebrations He celebrated festivals and holiday, sometimes with jokes and pranks, organising lotteries with wildly varying prizes.

(76) Eating He preferred plain food. He particularly liked coarse bread, small fishes, hand-made moist cheese, and green figs of the second crop. He would eat even before dinner, wherever and whenever he felt hungry.

(77) Alcohol He drank little, sometimes three swigs of a glass of wine and that was it. He would take a bit of bread soaked in cold water, a slice of cucumber, a sprig of young lettuce, or an apple with a tart flavour,​ either fresh or dried.

(78) Sleep He took a nap after lunch. After dinner he went back to his study to work. He slept 7 hours or less. He often woke up and called for a storyteller to speak till he fell asleep again. He hated getting up early. Due to his trouble sleeping he often nodded off during ceremonies or in his litter.

(79) Appearance He was unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life but wasn’t fussed about appearance, having his hair cut any whichway, not bothering whether his beard was shaved or trimmed. He had clear bright eyes in which he liked to think a sparkle of divinity shone and he liked it if people he stared at dropped their gaze as if before the glare of the sun.

His eyebrows met. His ears were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little at the top and then bent slightly inward.​ His complexion was between dark and fair. He was short of stature though you didn’t notice it because his body was perfectly proportioned.

(80) Health He was rather sickly: he was covered in spots, itched constantly and was not very strong in his left hip, thigh, and leg, and even limped slightly at times.

(81) Ailments He suffered from bladder stones, enlargement of the diaphragm, catarrh. He didn’t like the winter cold.

(82) Clothes In winter he wore an undershirt, a woollen chest-protector and wraps for his thighs and shins, four tunics and a heavy toga. He couldn’t endure the sun even in winter, and never walked in the open air without wearing a broad-brimmed hat, even at home. He travelled in a litter, usually at night.

(83) Exercise Riding, pass-ball, balloon-ball, running and leaping dressed in a blanket. He sought out street urchins to play dice with but abhorred dwarfs, cripples, and people of that sort, as freaks of nature and of ill omen.

(84) Speaking From early youth Augustus devoted himself eagerly and with utmost diligence to oratory and liberal studies. To avoid the danger of forgetting what he was to say, or wasting time in committing it to memory, he adopted the practice of reading everything from a manuscript. Even his conversations with individuals and the more important of those with his own wife Livia, he always wrote out and read from a note-book, for fear of saying too much or too little if he spoke offhand.

(85) Writings He wrote numerous works of various kinds in prose, most of which have perished [except for the blankly factual Res Gestae].

(86) Writing style He sought to write as clearly as possible, without the affectations of style common at the time.

(87) Suetonius itemises specific linguistic habits of Augustus.

(88) Orthography i.e. spelling. Augustus wasn’t strict or consistent, preferring to spell as words sounded, phonetically.

(89) Literature He was interested in Greek oratory and studied it but never became fluent in Greek. He gave every encouragement to the men of talent of his own age, listening with courtesy and patience to their readings, not only of poetry and history, but of speeches and dialogues as well.

[Suetonius doesn’t mention it, but the three most important Roman poets flourished under Augustus’s patronage, Virgil, Ovid and Horace.]

(90) Superstition When it thundered and lightninged he took refuge in an underground bunker because he was once being carried in a litter when lightning struck and killed the servant walking in front bearing a lantern, something he never forgot.

(91) Dreams Examples of dreams which saved Augustus’s life or in which he spoke to Jupiter.

(92) Auspices Certain auspices and omens he regarded as infallible. If his shoes were put on in the wrong way in the morning he considered it a bad sign. If there was a drizzle of rain when he was starting on a long journey by land or sea, he thought it a good omen.

(93) He treated with great respect such foreign rites as were ancient and well established, but held the rest in contempt.

(94) Omens Suetonius brings together all the omens surrounding his birth which hinted that he was to be a great man. No difference between him and Plutarch, similarly in thrall to superstitions, omens, auguries and signs:

  • The day he was born the conspiracy of Catiline was before the House, and his father Octavius arrived late because of his wife’s confinement. Then Publius Nigidius, as everyone knows, learning the reason for his tardiness and being informed also of the hour of the birth, declared that the ruler of the world had been born.
  • As soon as he began to talk, it chanced that the frogs were making a great noise at his grandfather’s country place; he bade them be silent, and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there.
  • As the Deified Julius was cutting down a wood at Munda and preparing a place for his camp, coming across a palm tree, he caused it to be spared as an omen of victory. From this a shoot at once sprang forth and in a few days grew so great that it not only equalled the parent tree, but even overshadowed it. Moreover, many doves built their nests there, although that kind of bird especially avoids hard and rough foliage. Indeed, it was that omen in particular, they say, that led Caesar to wish that none other than his sister’s grandson should be his successor.

(95) As he was entering the city on his return from Apollonia after Caesar’s death, though the heaven was clear and cloudless, a circle like a rainbow suddenly formed around the sun’s disc, and straightway the tomb of Caesar’s daughter Julia was struck by lightning.

(96) Auguries of victory As he was on his way to Philippi, a Thessalian gave him notice of his coming victory on the authority of the deified Caesar, whose shade had met him on a lonely road. As he was walking on the shore the day before the sea-fight off Sicily, a fish sprang from the sea and fell at his feet. And so on…

(97) Omens of death Towards the end of his life the first letter of his name was melted from the inscription on one of his statues by a flash of lightning. This was interpreted to mean that he would live only a hundred days from that time, the number indicated by the letter C, and that he would be numbered with the gods, since aesar (that is, the part of the name Caesar which was left) is the word for god in the Etruscan tongue.

(98) His final journey to the island of Capri. On the sea journey he contracted diarrhea. Anecdotes of his last few days, accompanying Tiberius, attending games, joking at a dinner party. He at last took to bed in Nola.

(99) Last day On his last day he was attended by servants and friends. He passed away as he was kissing Livia, uttering these last words: “Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell,” thus blessed with an easy death such as he had always longed for.

(100) Funeral His body was escorted back to Rome. Details of his funeral, his cremation, burial in the Mausoleum. An ex-praetor who took oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor, after he had been reduced to ashes, on its way to heaven.

(101) His will, very detailed and specific, giving sums to Rome, to the praetorian guard, city cohorts and legionaries and other named individuals and groups. Its most important provision was appointing Tiberius his heir.

Summary

It can easily be seen that Suetonius skimps on Augustus’s military or political record – barely records most of it – in order to move onto what really interests him, which is the carefully categorised itemisation of Augustus’s qualities and attitudes.

And many readers just remember the most colourful anecdotes, like the rhinoceros and the elephant, breaking his secretary’s legs, having Roman matrons stripped naked for his inspection, or addressing his wife from written notes to avoid making mistakes. Suetonius encourages the quirks and oddities.


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Cindy Sherman @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release, Cindy Sherman is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. This is a massive retrospective of Sherman’s entire career, from the mid-1970s to the present day. It includes over 190 works from international public and private collections, some of them never seen in public before, some of them reunited after decades apart.

What is Sherman famous for? For dressing up as fictional characters and types, and taking photos of herself.

She stumbled across the idea as an art student in the mid-1970s and – in an impressive example of an artist hitting a style, establishing a brand, and then sticking to it through thick and thin – she has followed the same practice for the past 45 years.

Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chronological order

The exhibition is arranged in a straightforward chronological order allowing you to see how Sherman’s art has evolved and developed from the mid-1970s to today. It opens with rarely exhibited photographs and films created while she was still an art student at the State University College at Buffalo from 1972 to 1976.

One early set, from 1976, is titled Unhappy Hooker where Sherman depicts herself as a prostitute waiting for a client.

In Murder Mystery (also 1976) she made a series of black-and-white photos of herself, in each one dressed up in the outfit of a character from a fictional murder mystery play (which she herself wrote) – the butler, the waitress, the rich old lady, the detective etc. Note the stereotyping of the characters.

In November 1976, shortly after she graduated from art school, Sherman created a series titled Cover Girl, in which she takes the covers of five fashion or ‘women’s’ magazines (CosmopolitanVogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle), and transposes her own face (generally pulling a yucky, silly expression) onto the face of the glamour model on the cover. Each work accomplishes the transformation from sensible to satirical in three images, and the five sets of three images are displayed here together for the first time since that heady summer of 76!

In Line-Up (1977) made just after she graduated and just before she moved to New York City, there are thirty-five black and white photos, in each of which Sherman appears, on her own, dressed in costume with make-up, playing thirty-five different characters.

So right from the beginning we can see the patterns emerging in Sherman’s work which will hold true for the rest of her career:

  1. She works in projects or series, all addressing a particular theme or taking a similar approach
  2. All the photos are of herself. There is never anyone else in the photos. But she is always ‘in character’, playing a role.
  3. None of her photos has ever had a title. They are all called Untitled and then given a number. Thus the final photo in the exhibition is named Untitled #549. (They may have brackets added after the number indicating the particular series the image belongs to.) One of the intentions of this is to ‘universalize the particular’, and leave the images open to the widest possible range of interpretations by the viewer.

Untitled Film Stills

Her breakthrough piece was Untitled Film Stills. Building on the previous series but going one big aesthetic step further, Untitled Film Stills is a series of 70 black-and-white photos which Sherman started creating soon after she arrived in New York City in 1977, and which, when they were exhibited, made her reputation. They are also – to give away the plot – in my opinion, by far and away the best thing in the exhibition.

They’re fairly small, portrait-shaped prints, about 18 inches high by a foot wide. In each of them Sherman dresses and poses as a completely different character. So that’s 70 female characters going about their business in the big bad city. Each of the figures is caught in different setting, in apartments, out on the street, in a suburban garden, several appear to be set in a swimming pool.

If there’s a consistent ‘look’ to the photos it derives from 1950s and 60s Hollywood – from film noir, B-movies and, maybe, from European art-house films. Some could be papparazzi shots of unknown celebs. The most obvious vibe they emit is a sense of suppressed anxiety or, in some of the long lens photos of blurred figures, a sense of mystery. Though all that makes them sounds too dark and indoors-y. Many of the best ones are outdoors or in full sunlight.

Untitled Film Still #7 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

A number of things make them great. As compositions, they are all top quality, imaginatively posed, full of detail and interest.

But the really obvious thing is how dramatic they are. They are like stills from a wider drama. You feel the presence of other people just out of the shot, who are about to walk in and say or do something, or else have just left the frame after saying something explosive. They suggest all kinds of possible backstories – who where what why how? – and prompt an incredibly rich response in the viewer, making you imagine all kinds of films and stories and plots of which these are decisive moments and fragments. Each one is like a short story in itself.

The Untitled Film Stills are given a room to themselves early on in the show and – in my humble opinion – it is by far the best room, the one I came back to at the end, once I’d reviewed the entire exhibition, and sat on the bench conveniently provided for visitors, and let my eye wander over the images and my mind – not exactly work out a complete story for each image – but respond to the mood and vibe and possibilities contained in each one.

This idea, of a kind of photo pregnant with meaning, struck me as a wonderful achievement. And doing them as a set hugely contributes to the cumulative effect, creating the sense of an entire world set in this one but, because of the demonstrably false and made-up actor Cindy Sherman featuring centre stage in each photo, both this world and vividly artificial, fake and created.

Bigger

From this point onwards, the remaining eight or so rooms show three things happening to Sherman’s work over the succeeding decades:

  1. the photos go from black and white to colour
  2. they get bigger and bigger until, soon they are four or five foor tall, in the work from the 1990s they are horribly, oppressively huge and, in the final room, have become photo-murals covering entire walls
  3. and, as a result, I felt that – as the photos became more technically adroit in colour and saturation, and evermore grandiose in size – the viewer, and the viewer’s imagination, gets progressively more and more squeezed out of the photos and, eventually, instead of leaning forward and entering her imaginative world, I felt I was cowering backwards and being harangued

Later series

Each of the remaining rooms hangs samples from Sherman’s major series, namely:

Rear Screen Projections (1980-1)

The first series she made in colour, the Rear Screen Projections are also noticeably larger than the Film Stills, about five times bigger. The camera is closer up to her face, which is more subtly made-up to create different characters. The commentary says this greater close-up creates more psychological depth, but I felt there was more imaginative depth in the Untitled Film Stills.

Centrefolds (1981)

In the new larger size, and in the new full colour, Centrefolds are cast in a wide, landscape format which is deliberately reminiscent of the centrefolds of men’s magazines i.e. soft porn. But instead of scantily-clad women arranged to titillate ‘the male gaze’, Sherman’s personas look ill at ease and troubled, women in trouble or some kind of extreme situation. Though referencing magazine culture, some of the images very clearly derive from the aesthetic of film posters or the kind of dramatic stills used to promote movies.

Untitled #92 by Cindy Sherman (1981) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Pink Robes (1982)

A series of big colour photos in which Sherman dresses as an artist’s or photographer’s model, who wraps herself in a pink robe between shots. So the idea is these are off-the-cuff casual moments in a photographer’s studio, with Sherman posing as the bored model.

For the first time in these photos Sherman stares directly at the camera, which led some critics to get over-excited about how we were ‘seeing the real Cindy Sherman for the first time’! This strikes me as taking a strikingly naive view of what constitutes ‘reality’.

Fashion (1983)

In 1983 Sherman was commissioned by New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce advertising images to promote clothes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Sherman responded with photos of herself – in different personas – wearing the clothes alright, but in characters which are obviously abject and neurotic. This was intended as a satirical critique of the shallow superficiality of the fashion world.

The trouble is you cannot satirise fashion. There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which the inhabitants of the fashion world are not completely aware of, but still love. Thus the client loved the photos, so new, so original daaahling.

Vogue Paris (1984)

Sherman received another fashion commission from a French fashion house to provide photos for a shoot for Vogue Paris. She created images of herself made-up to be the models, again wearing the designer clothes alright, but again shooting them in a subversive style, making her look deliberately gawky, clumsy and unhappy. The client loved them. And a glance at her Wikipedia article shows that she has had a long and extensive engagement with the world of fashion, receiving numerous further commissions, designing jewellery and other accessories etc. ‘There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which…’

Fairy Tales (1985)

In this series Sherman dresses up as ‘types’ from fairy tales, in enormous colour photos, heavily made-up to create some really aggressive, scary images. The lighting is (inevitably) more dark and in most of these shots, the settings looking like the forests and gravelly soil of the Germanic Grimm stories – a visual departure for Sherman most of whose photos – you realise – have been set in city streets or urban interiors. In some of them the Sherman personas looking like they’re undergoing real physical ordeals.

Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman (1985) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

History Portraits (1988-90)

the fairy tale series represents a conscious departure from the urban setting of most of her photos hitherto,

At the end of the 1980s Sherman took a conscious break from dissecting / analysing / subverting contemporary culture and immersed herself in the world of Old Master paintings, including a trip to Rome to see the real thing.

The result was a series of thirty elaborately staged, huge, richly coloured photos in which Sherman appears in a range of costumes and uses prosthetic noses, breasts and other accessories to drastically change her appearance and parody the appearance of male and female royalty and aristocrats, even a madonna and child.

Untitled Film Still #216 by Cindy Sherman, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

I didn’t like these at all. I thought they were a bad joke in poor taste. I thought they showed a complete lack of empathy with the Middle Ages, Renaissance or Old Master painting. You can’t really dress them up as a feminist ‘reclamation’ of the images as – unusually – half the images are of Sherman dressing up as late medieval men.

Sex Pictures (1992)

In a room by themselves – with a warning that it contains ‘adult content’ – is a set of huge, garishly coloured and disturbing photos of what look like plastic mannequins, cut up and reassembled to emphasise their (generally female) genitals, which – presumably – were specially created for these photos. The general aim is to produce disturbingly transgressive rewrites of porn tropes, and the handful of massive images here certainly are disgusting, showing cobbled-together bits and pieces of fake plastic human bodies, featuring not only vulvas but anuses, penises made of plastic, in one image a string of sausage-like turds proceeding from what looks like a vulva.

As far as I can see, these are the only series in which she does not appear. A very great deal has been written about these pictures, by critics who, apparently, do not understand what pornography is or who it is for. By which I mean they imagine that disassembling the human body into surreal conglomerates of chopped up pieces will act as a once and for all, decisive ‘subversion’ and undermining of the male gaze and pornographic imagery.

How pitifully, it seems to me, they underestimate the baseness of human nature, and woefully underestimate the ubiquitous power of pornography. A few repellent art photos change nothing, nothing at all.

Office Killer (1997)

In the later 1990s Sherman got involved in making films, directing an art movie titled Office Killer released in 1997. One critic called it ‘sadly inept’, others ‘crude’ and ‘laugh-free’. Having produced and directed TV myself, I know there is a world of difference between taking one inspired photo and creating a plausible and effective series of moving shots.

Clowns (2003-4)

Sherman dresses up as a variety of clown types. Obviously all looking miserable and forlorn. The sad reality behind the clown strikes me as being one of the more exhausted, clichéd tropes of all time.

Society Portraits (2008)

A series satirising rich women in high society. The ageing female characters created in these huge colour photos are all using make-up and cosmetics to try and mask the ageing process and, failing in that, emphasise their wealth via fashionable dresses, expensive accessories and to-die-for houses.

Untitled #466 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Presumably these are meaningful if you in any way read about, or are aware of, rich American society ladies – from magazines and high society and gossip columns in newspapers, or from the publicity surrounding fashion houses, or at the openings of new operas or plays or art exhibitions at the Met or New York’s fashionable art galleries. Not engaging with any of this content or people, I saw them less as satire than fictionalised portraits of a social type I’ve been aware of for decades – the swank American millionaire wife – who has been lampooned and satirised for centuries, going back to the so-called Gilded Age (1870s to 1900) and before.

Balenciaga (2008)

Balenciaga is a luxury fashion house, originally from Spain. Echoing her repeated engagement with the world of fashion, and mixing it with the ageing heroines of Society Portraits, Sherman created a series of six enormous, colour digital photos of herself playing the character of an ageing fashion doyenne, a bit like Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Like I say, this is maybe hilarious or relevant if you give a damn about the world of high fashion or rich-bitch society women – but I don’t.

Untitled #462 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chanel (2012)

Sherman was then commissioned by the perfumier Chanel to record some of their dresses and outfits. Sherman chose to create her biggest works to date, a set of absolutely enormous, wall-sized photos depicting more-than-life-sized women standing alone in enormous landscapes. On closer inspection these landscapes appear to have been either painted in, or digitally altered to have a painterly feel. The landscapes were from both Iceland and the isle of Capri, and I found them, artistically, the most interesting part of the compositions.

Flappers (2016-18)

Sherman dresses up as flappers from the 1920s.

Untitled #574 by Cindy Sherman (2016) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

For completists

If you are a Sherman completist then I can imagine you will be thrilled by the digital version on display here of A Cindy Book, a private album of family photographs that Sherman began compiling when she was eight or nine-years-old, which has never been seen before, and which reveals an early fascination with her own changing appearance.

Similarly, one whole room (in fact it’s the ‘transition’ space between the galleries at the front and the galleries at the back of the building) has been given over to a recreation of Sherman’s studio in New York, with wall-sized photos of her bookshelves, posters and collections of photos torn from glamour magazines and pinned to the wall, and shelves and cupboards full of masks and make-up and prosthetic attachments – all designed to provide ‘an unprecedented insight into the artist’s working processes.’

During the recent big exhibition at the NPG of photos by Martin Parr (which I found much more interesting and fun than Sherman) this space was converted into a working model of a transport caff which actually sold hot tea and cake. It would be funny if, for every exhibition they hold in these galleries, the National Portrait Gallery created a themed eaterie. A Giacometti pizzeria would have been good – imagine how thin the crusts would have been! Or a Cézanne café, with French peasants smoking pipes and playing cards, and a view of Mont Saint Victoire in the distance…

Thoughts

First of all, it is a striking achievement to have made a career out of what is basically one idea.

This is because Sherman has been able to come up with a succession of subjects and topics to each of which she can apply her distinctive, dressing-up approach and each of which are susceptible to rich and stimulating critical interpretation.

Then there’s the quality of the photographs themselves. The wall labels don’t go into as much detail about this as I’d like, but you get the impression that, as digital photography has evolved over the past forty years, Sherman has kept well abreast of all the developments and been able to incorporate each new wave of technology into her trademark concept. The sheer size of prints which modern digital photography enables, with pinpoint focus at every part of the image, becoming the most obvious one, as the exhibition progresses.

To keep mining the same vein and consistently coming up with apparently new and innovative variations on more or less the same theme deserves respect, especially in the shark pool which is the New York art scene.

However, at about this point questions of personal taste begin to intrude. All of the series certainly contained at least several highly impactful and striking photographs. And, unlike me, readers of this post may well like the fairy tale or Old Master or Flapper photos more than the earlier ones. Different people will have different responses.

All I can say is that, as the exhibition advanced through the decades and series, I was less and less engaged and attracted, and slowly became repelled by the sheer size and garish colouring of some of the photos. Way before the porn room I was actively shrinking from these big, shouty images, and I had certainly had enough by the end, and was relieved when I got to the final room with its overpowering wall-sized murals of vague landscapes with a modern woman plonked in front of them. Phew. Duty done, I could stroll back to the early room and enjoy again the marvelous Untitled Film Stills.

As well as feeling more and more repelled by the images, I also quickly disliked the ideas and subjects. Satirising the world of New York fashion, while making a lot of money from working within the world of New York fashion, just struck me as hypocritical and typically… American. If you are American, an American artist or photographer or film-maker, it appears to be very difficult to escape from the vast money-making machine which is American culture.

When it came to the society photos, taking the mickey out of vain, rich, wrinkly old American millionairesses is something I grew up watching the great Alan Whicker do on his TV documentaries back in the 1970s. It just seemed such a very…. old idea.

And lampooning Old Master paintings seemed to me a rather pointless thing to do, particularly when it’s done in such a grim and humourless way. Strapping on a fake plastic boob and spending hours dressing up to look like a madonna and child seemed a peculiarly futile exercise. If you’re going to mock them at least be funny, in the manner of Monty Python or the Horrible Histories. Just pointing out that the real-life kings and queens of that time were probably not as smooth-skinned and luminously handsome as their portraitists depicted them strikes me as being, well, not the most original or interesting idea.

The notes to the porn room made the point for me that her photos heavily referenced the disturbing sexualised mannequins the Surrealist sculptor Hans Bellmer was making back in the 1930s. Well, quite.

The curators suggest that Sherman’s work has never been more relevant than here and now, in the age of the selfie and the internet and Instagram and social media – but I disagree.

Watching my teenage kids and their friends has shown me that all my ideas about images and how they should and shouldn’t be used, assessed and consumed, belong in the Stone Age. The speed and sophistication of modern teenagers’ attitudes to movies, TV shows, stills, photos, ads and selfies is light years ahead of the kind of mainstream, dad culture represented by this exhibition.

For this exhibition – like most of the exhibitions I go to – was mostly populated by mums and dads, mostly filled, as usual, with grey-haired, older, white people, the majority of them women. No doubt some of the visitors have done courses in Critical Theory and Feminist Studies and are conversant with the numberless theories of gender and identity and performance which have been generated over the past fifty years, all of which can be liberally applied to Sherman’s work.

But a) Cindy Sherman’s basic idea – dressing up as ‘characters’ contemporary or historical or from fairy tales, and photographing herself – seems so old-fashioned, so pre-digital, as to be sweet and naive.

And b) I didn’t really believe anything I read in the wall labels about gender and identity and subverting this or that stereotype. In most of the photos she looks like a woman. When she was a young woman, she looks like a young woman, sometimes dressed and posed as a noticeably attractive young woman, pink towel about to fall off her lissom body as in a Kenny Everett sketch.

As she’s grown older, Sherman’s subjects have changed and, for example, the series of photos depicting fictional American women using cosmetics to appear younger than they are… well… that’s actually what millions of ageing American women do, isn’t it? I didn’t see that it was subverting any stereotypes. On the contrary, I thought almost all of her images reinforced the stereotypes so actively produced and disseminated by the mainstream American bubblegum culture which she so constantly refers to (all those compositions which look like scenes from movies) or which she has herself, personally, contributed to (all those fashion shoots).

For me the Untitled Film Stills series was the best series. It was the most modest in aim and so, somehow, the most effective. It had the most mystery and each one of the shots created an imaginative space for the viewer to inhabit and populate as they wished.

You may well disagree and find her later work funny or disturbing or inspiring or bitingly satirical, and I can see how different people – old and young, gay and straight, men or women – might get very different things from her work.

The one thing which is unquestionably true is that this is as definitive and complete an overview of a figure many critics refer to as ‘one of the most important and influential artists of our time’ (the Observer) as we are likely to see in our lifetimes.

So if you want to find out for yourself whether you like some, all, or none of Cindy Sherman’s work, you should definitely go along and check it out for yourself.

Video

This short video by Divento.com gives a good feel for the variety and layout of the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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