The Afterlife of Imperial Pronouncements

Suetonius’ Life of Augustus ends with the reading of the emperor’s will, which records the division of his estate and his legacies to the people of Rome and the army. In addition to the will itself, the emperor had left three rolls:

…in one he included the instructions for his funeral, in the second a catalogue of his achievements that he wanted to be inscribed on bronze tablets to be set up in front of the Mausoleum, and in the third a summary account of the whole empire…’ (Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 101.4, trans. D. Wardle)

The catalogue of achievements – or Res Gestae in Latin – does not survive in the version inscribed on the bronze tablets outside Augustus’ mausoleum in Rome, as these are now lost to us. However, three copies have been discovered in the Roman province of Galatia (the central region of modern-day Turkey). The most famous of these comes from the city of Ancyra (now Ankara), the capital of the province, where the Res Gestae was inscribed on the Temple of Rome and Augustus in both Latin and Greek. The Latin text was carved in six columns inside the entrance way to the temple, while a Greek version was inscribed on the outside of the temple’s southern wall in nineteen columns.


Temple of Rome and Augustus, Ancyra (Ankara). (Photo by C. Davenport)

How did the Res Gestae come to be inscribed in Ancyra? Such a question is tied up with the issue of the Res Gestae’s intended audience, something which has long vexed scholars. We only know that Augustus wished it to be inscribed in Rome itself. It has therefore often been interpreted as a document primarily addressed to the inhabitants of Rome, but the plausibility of this argument has been questioned given that they needed to be able to read, understand and digest the text. Yavetz (1984) has proposed that the text was addressed to an elite audience, namely the aristocratic youth of Rome, who were the leaders of future. This is a plausible and persuasive argument, but it does not explain the impetus for inscribing the Res Gestae in Ancyra. Although Augustus’ account of his achievements was undoubtedly circulated throughout the empire, it is likely that there was no imperial order that they be permanently inscribed outside Rome, since such mandates were relatively rare in the early imperial period (Cooley 2012: 169-71). Instead, it is clear that the decision was made at the local level, probably by the senatorial governor of Galatia, either on his own initiative or in collaboration with the provincial council, made up of the local Galatian elites (Cooley 2009: 18-22). The Temple of Rome and Augustus was a suitable monument on which to inscribe the Res Gestae, given that it was a institution devoted to the veneration of the emperor in association with the cult of Roma.

One might justly wonder whether anyone in Ancyra was able to read the emperor’s words on the temple. Was it the intention that the Latin and Greek inscriptions were meant to be admired only as symbols of imperial power? The cumulative effect of column after column of text is certainly a powerful one, as I discovered on a visit to the Temple of Rome and Augustus in February 2014.


The Greek text of the Res Gestae at Ancyra. (Photo by C. Davenport)

The effect would have been even more dramatic in antiquity, since the temple itself was covered in gold paint and the letters of the inscription were painted in red, ensuring that they would stand out against the glittering background (Mitchell and French 2012: 68). Such an effort to highlight the text itself is a convincing indication that the Res Gestae was intended to be read, at least by the literate provincial elite. During my visit, I was particularly struck by the visibility of the Greek text, which was carved on the southern wall at a height which would have made it legible to passers-by. Although Ancyra was the Roman provincial capital, most of its inhabitants would have spoken Greek, rather than Latin. Greek is the predominant language used in inscriptions at Anycra, with Latin featuring primarily in inscribed texts involving Roman military and administrative officials (Mitchell and French 2012: 27-31).

The content of the Greek Res Gestae is thus of particular importance in determining the reception of Augustus’ words in Ancyra. Cooley (2009: 26-30) has persuasively argued that we should not speak of the Greek as a translation of the Latin original, but as a ‘version’. The Greek text was not produced at Rome, but composed locally, with the aim of making certain Roman concepts intelligible to a local audience. Some of the changes are relatively small, such as the omission of the names of bridges in Rome restored by Augustus (Res Gestae 20.5), which would have been of little relevance to the people of Galatia. Other aspects are more significant, in particular the change made in the heading, which is written in much larger letters than the rest of the inscription. Whereas the Latin heading refers to the subjugation of the entire world to the rule of Rome, such a sentiment is entirely missing from the Greek version, which refers only to Augustus’ ‘achievements and gifts’. As Cooley (2009: 30) has argued, the Greek translation ‘softens its imperialist tone, emphasizing instead Augustus’ role as a donor and benefactor, and playing down his role as a conqueror’.

When we read the Greek version of the Res Gestae, therefore, we must be aware that it is not the unadulterated voice of the emperor Augustus himself, but one that has been mediated through other agents. The Anycran Res Gestae that survives today is the product of a series of local initiatives, including the decision to inscribe it in permanent form, the choice of location, the colour of the text against the background of the temple, and the production of a local Greek version. These are all decisions that were not taken by the emperor himself, but nevertheless shaped his image in the province of Galatia.

The emperor’s letters and edicts often took on a life of their own after they had been dispatched from the imperial administration. We can see such a process in action at another Greek city, Aphrodisias, in the province of Asia (now western Turkey). Although it lay within Roman territory, Aphrodisias was a free city which did not pay taxes, a status granted to it by Octavian (later Augustus) in 39 B.C. for its assistance in the civil war. Aphrodisias’ free status was guaranteed by Augustus’ successors for several centuries thereafter. One such letter, sent by the emperor Trajan Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus in A.D. 250/1, serves as a brief but telling example:

 ‘It was to be expected, both because of the goddess for whom your city is named and because of your relationship with the Romans and loyalty to them, that you rejoiced at the establishment of our kingship and made the proper sacrifice and prayers. We preserve your existing freedom and all the other rights which you have received from the emperors who preceded us, being willing also to give fulfilment to your hopes for the future.’ (I. Aph. 2007 8.114, translated by J. Reynolds)


The ‘archive wall’ at Aphrodisias. (Photo by C. Davenport)

Two citizens of Aphrodisias, Aurelius Theodoros and Aurelius Onesimos, served as the city’s representatives on an embassy to Decius and Etruscus in order to welcome their accession, and to secure the city’s privileges. The letter survives today because it was inscribed along with other missives from Roman emperors into the wall of the north parodos (entrance) at the theatre of Aphrodisias in the third century A.D. (Reynolds 1982: 33-37). Although this is commonly referred to as the ‘archive wall’, it is not actually an archive, but a deliberate selection of documents designed to draw attention to the special status of Aphrodisias (Chaniotis 2003). Aphrodisias might have been a free city, but it was part of a Roman world – and in that world, the emperors’ approval mattered.

Not all imperial pronouncements were received in the same enthusiastic manner as the Res Gestae and the letters at Aphrodisias. The vast majority of imperial edicts and letters were not permanently inscribed, but displayed on whiteboards or other temporary materials (Millar 1977: 254). This left the emperor’s words open to abuse or maltreatment by local audiences. The most famous example of this is probably the response to the First Edict of Persecution against the Christians, issued by Diocletian and his imperial colleagues on February 24, 303. When the edict was posted in Nicomedia, the imperial seat of Diocletian himself, a Christian took it upon himself to seize the edict and rip it into pieces (Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 13.2; Eusebius, Church History 8.5.1). Lactantius’ account is especially memorable, as he claims that the Christian ‘mockingly cried that it was the victories of Goths and Sarmatians that had been announced’ (irridens diceret victorias Gothorum et Sarmatarum propositas).


The piety of the Tetrarchs on display on the Decennalia Base, Rome. (Photo by C. Davenport)

Such a statement was clever and subversive. The edicts of Diocletian and his three co-emperors, Maximian, Constantius, and Galerius (known today as the ‘Tetrarchs’), were headed with extravagant imperial titles, which painstakingly counted how many victories they had won over barbarian tribes along the Rhine and Danube borders and against the Persians (Barnes 1982: 17-27). In the Prices Edict of 301, Diocletian bears the title of Sarmaticus maximus IIII (‘greatest conqueror of the Sarmatians for the fourth time’). The Christian who tore down the Persecution Edict therefore claimed that it was not the order of emperors who had conquered barbarians, but of emperors who were barbarians. Diocletian and his imperial colleagues had risen from humble backgrounds in the Danubian provinces, and thus were particularly susceptible to snide remarks about their origins. It may well be that this clever joke, which undermined the emperors’ triumphal titles, was actually the work of Lactantius himself (Creed 1984: 94). He was particularly adept at undermining the rhetoric of the Tetrarchs, whose legislation went to great efforts to delineate actions and religious beliefs as either Roman or non-Roman (Corcoran 2004: 67-8). Accusing the emperors who promoted themselves as the guardians of romanitas of being Goths and Sarmatians was the ultimate insult.

How did Diocletian respond to the actions of the rogue Christian who tore down the edict? A good emperor was supposed to put up with insults directed at him in order to demonstrate his civilitas (‘civility’). For example, the avuncular Vespasian is said to have answered anonymous public postings about his character by posting his own in reply, an act that demonstrated his good humour (Cassius Dio 65.11.1-2). But there was no such soft treatment for the Christian at Nicomedia: he was burned alive.

The reception of imperial edicts and letters in these three different cases reminds us how the words of Roman emperors were manipulated by other agents. In the case of the Res Gestae, Augustus’ achievements were inscribed in Ancyra in the province of Galatia both in the Latin original and in a Greek version, which made his sentiments more palatable to a local audience. The imperial letters selected for inclusion in the ‘archive wall’ at Aphrodisias were chosen because they demonstrated that generations of emperors had recognised, and confirmed, the city’s free status and privileges. However, not all imperial missives could be assured of such a positive reception, as shown by the fate of the First Edict of Persecution, posted in temporary form at Nicomedia in 303. The actions of a renegade Christian – at least as interpreted by Lactantius – demonstrates that the emperors’ own public image in such edicts could be used against them. After the emperor had spoken, his words were no longer under his control.

Caillan Davenport

Want to know more?

The best translation and commentary on Augustus’ Res Gestae in English is Cooley (2009). She provides separate translations of the Latin and Greek versions of the text, enabling scholars and students to analyse the differences for themselves. Mitchell and French (2012) provide Latin and Greek texts of the Ancyra version as well as excellent photographs. On the transmission of imperial edicts and letters in general, and the various factors involved in inscribing them in permanent form, see Millar (1977: 253-9) and Cooley (2012). The city of Aphrodisias is brought to life by the web site Inscriptions of Aphrodisias created by Reynolds, Roueché and Bodard (2007), which features original Greek and Latin inscriptions, English translations, and full contextual discussion.


Barnes, T. D. 1982. The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Chaniotis, A. 2003. ‘The perception of imperial power in Aphrodisias: the epigraphic evidence’, in L. de Blois et al. (eds), The Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power. J. C. Gieben: Amsterdam: 250-260.

Cooley, A. E. 2009. Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Text, Translation, and Commentary. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Cooley, A. E. 2012. ‘From document to monument: inscribing Roman official documents in the Greek east’, in J. Davies and J. Wilkes (eds), Epigraphy and the Historical Sciences. Proceedings of the British Academy 177. British Academy: London: 159-182.

Corcoran, S. 2004. ‘The publication of law in the era of the Tetrarchs – Diocletian, Galerius, Gregorius, Hermogenian’, in A. Demandt, A. Goltz, and H. Schlange-Schöningen (eds), Diokletian und die Tetrarchie: Aspekte einer Zeitenwende. Walter de Gruyter: Berlin: 56-73.

Creed, J. L. 1984. Lactantius: De Mortibus Persecutorum. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Millar, F. G. B. 1977. The Emperor in the Roman World. Duckworth: London.

Mitchell, S. and French, D. 2012. The Greek and Latin Inscriptions of Ankara (Ancyra). Vol. I. From Augustus to the End of the Third Century A.D. C. H. Beck: Munich.

Reynolds, J. 1982. Aphrodisias and Rome. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies: London.

Reynolds, J., Roueché, C. and Bodard, G. 2007. Inscriptions of Aphrodisias (2007), available online at <>.

Wardle, D. 2014. Suetonius: Life of Augustus. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Yavetz, Z. 1984. ‘The Res Gestae and Augustus’ public image’, in F. Millar and E. Segal (eds), Caesar Augustus: Seven Aspects. Clarendon Press: Oxford: 1-36.

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