Propaganda Old and New: Greg Woolf Compares the Rhetoric of Augustus and Vladimir Putin

Green College Staff

There were early signs that Green College was reaching the end of winter on March 7th. The sun was still shining at five in the afternoon as the audience slowly filtered into the Coach House to see Greg Woolf, the Ronald J. Mellor Distinguished Professor of Ancient History at UCLA and Cecil H. and Ida Green Visiting Professor at UBC, give his talk, “Fake News is Old News: A Hostile Reading of the Emperor Augustus’ Last Words.”

As the title suggested, Greg was not going to limit his talk to the ancient world. Instead, over the next hour and a half, he would compare and contrast the rhetoric of contemporary politicians with that of Augustus in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti. The talk also held the additional interest of not being a finished product. This was not an explanation of a complete project but research Greg was still in the process of working over in his mind.

Greg launched into his lecture with an engaging air, speaking energetically, cracking jokes and enlivening the detailed analysis of recent and ancient words. Beginning with much more recent propaganda, Greg examined the words of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. He pointed to Trump’s claim that “we built the greatest economy in the history of the world,” a statement with staggering scope that Trump, Greg noted, had repeated in some form 493 times. The majority of his analysis of contemporary propaganda, however, focussed on Vladimir Putin’s article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which appeared shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As Greg explained, Putin argued that Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians formed a cultural whole with a single history dating back to the Rus, the “largest state in Europe” bound by language, economic ties and orthodox Christianity. The article went on to say, Greg continued, that the subsequent divisions of the Rus would be reunited and that Ukraine’s ruling circles only denied the past in an attempt to justify their independence and power.

Paying attention to the specific phrasing and the distribution of the article, Greg demonstrated how it blended Soviet-era propaganda as well as that from post-1991. In addition, it was published in Russian, Ukrainian and English, and displayed prominently across a number of online platforms. It was intended to serve as a rallying point for Russians, as well as a justification of behaviour to Ukrainians and the world. It was at this point that Greg transitioned to Augustus’ last words.

The Res Gestae Divi Augusti was first identified in 1555 and published in 1579. It contains three codicils, Greg explained. The first gave instructions for Augustus’ funeral, the second a summary of his accomplishments and the third a concise account of the state of the Empire.

Originally, Drusus, the son of Augustus’ wife, Livia, read the Res Gestae in the Senate in the days following Augustus’ death. The Res Gestae was then displayed prominently throughout the Empire, including carved in stone on temples and displayed on massive bronze pillars in front of Augustus’ mausoleum. That latter display has not survived. The fullest surviving copy is in modern-day Ankara, where a Roman and a Greek version adorn a temple to Augustus. What is so interesting about these displays, Greg brought to our attention, is that the monumental displays make them quite difficult to read. Their grandiose appearance often comes at the expense of what they actually say. What they actually say, though, paints a very careful picture of Augustus the emperor.

There are a few common themes that Greg observed in the Res Gestae: Augustus beloved by the Senate and people, Augustus the liberator, and Augustus the generous spender. Concerned about being seen as a ruthless tyrant, Augustus attempts to legitimize the banishments he issued and the military campaigns he carried out by stating that the Senate instructed him to carry out those missions and he only did so with the greatest restraint. His victory over Antony and Cleopatra, for example, is described in the language of liberating a state oppressed by a despotic faction. In the final chapter, Augustus states, “when I was holding my thirteenth consulship, the Senate and the equestrian order and the people of Rome all together hailed me as father of the fatherland.”

Turning to the minute details, Greg explained that the Res Gestae is written in the first person perfect, giving a sense of completion to Augustus’ deeds, while also giving the text a sense of “anti-rhetoric.” It aims to come across as a sequence of facts, also using endless amounts of numbers, drowning the reader in impressively imposing statistics. Augustus lists great numbers of conquests in a procession similar to how the conquered would be paraded through Rome. However, the Res Gestae hides a great deal of Augustus’ time in power.

Greg called the omissions “unsurprising” in their attempt to uphold a positive image of the emperor. There is no mention of political murders early in his reign or his survival of conspiracies. The unpopularity of his attempt to have the Roman elite marry each other and have children is elided. The military disasters in the final years of his reign go unmentioned. Palace intrigue and the struggle over succession never appear. The detailing of his generosity conveniently overlooks that he has left the state with a looming financial crisis over military pay.

The question, Greg argued, is how should a historian read the Res Gestae. One could mine for facts, looking at the names, the numbers, the buildings. Historians love facts, Greg said, calling it the “vice of ancient historians.” Alternatively, one could look at the rhetoric of lists or the “geographies of power.” One could also listen for anxieties, with Greg offering the legitimacy of Augustus’ actions, his legacy and his memory as potential options. Maybe one could also read it against other testimony but then the question becomes: whose testimony?

The Roman historian Cremotius Cordus wrote an anti-Augustus history during the reign of Augustus’ adopted son and successor, Tiberius, but this testimony is now lost: he was killed for his efforts and the books burnt. Greg noted that there are only a few other accounts existing from after Augustus’ death. Strado, for example, gives an account of visiting his mausoleum, but never mentions the bronze columns. And the Roman historian, Tacitus, gives two accounts of Augustus, the first apologetic and the second portraying Augusts as a corrupt briber of soldiers, with a lust for power.

Perhaps the greatest contemporary argument against the legacy of Augustus comes from Meroë, in modern-day Sudan. It is the site of a desecrated bronze head of Augustus, likely damaged during or shortly after his lifetime. The original sculpture was not kept ready for display, as might be expected with an image of the deified emperor, but rather decapitated and buried. Greg connected this artefact to the desecrated statues of Putin, and how it is sometimes in the form of iconoclasm that such attempts to criticize those in power can be best traced.

So what does the lesson of Augustus’ Res Gestae teach modern historians and political theorists? Perhaps it is to serve as a reminder of the long tradition of propaganda in written, official form, and how oftentimes this tradition can only be safely challenged in an indirect and anonymous fashion. However academics grapple with the legacy of this work, Greg underscored the overall need to bring our understanding of the past into better dialogue of with our understanding of the present.

Greg Woolf is Ronald J. Mellor Distinguished Professor of Ancient History in the Departments of History and Classics at UCLA. Before moving to the US in 2021, he served as Director of the Institute of Classical Studies in the University of London and before that was Professor at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Before that he was educated and taught at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His interests range across the economic, social and cultural history of the Roman world and his most recent book is The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History. He has held visiting positions in Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. He is currently editor-in-chief of the Journal of Roman Archaeology. For more information on Greg Woolf, visit:

Post by: Noah Stevens, Green College Resident Member