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Henning Ohst: Die ›Epistulae ad familiares‹ des Kaisers Augustus. Studien zur Textgeschichte in der Antike, Edition und Kommentar (= Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte; Bd. 152), Berlin: De Gruyter 2023, XII + 322 S., 5 Farb-Abb., ISBN 978-3-11-119151-5, EUR 109,95
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Rezension von:
Laura Losito
Durham University
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Laura Losito: Rezension von: Henning Ohst: Die ›Epistulae ad familiares‹ des Kaisers Augustus. Studien zur Textgeschichte in der Antike, Edition und Kommentar, Berlin: De Gruyter 2023, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 2 [15.02.2024], URL:

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Henning Ohst: Die ›Epistulae ad familiares‹ des Kaisers Augustus

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In "Die 'Epistulae ad familiare' des Kaisers Augustus. Studien zur Textgeschichte in der Antike, Edition und Kommentar", Henning Ohst focuses on Augustus' letters, exploring their textual and reception history, and transmission as fragments. Insightful exegesis is offered. Augustus' letters present challenges no less significant than those found in Cicero's epistolary corpus, a comparison aptly established by Ohst as a valuable exemplum from the book's outset. Going beyond mere historical documentation, Augustus' letters signify a shift from 'private' to literary forms, echoing a process initiated by Cicero's letters, and in particular, the Ad Familiares. The author's exploration of Augustus' epistolary legacy is meticulous; Ohst scrutinises questions that have long intrigued scholars in the field of epistolography and especially on Augustus' letters; particular attention is therefore given (but not limited) to the examination of the formation and circulation of these letters, from the first century C.E. to early Middle Ages.

The book unfolds across six main sections: an introduction (4-15); textual history and reception of the letters from the first century C.E. to the early Middle Ages (17-75); preliminary remarks on the edition and commentary (77-97); edition, translation, and commentary (99-238); language and style (239-261) and a brief treatment of the letters of Augustus as biographical sources (262-267); and the appendix, bibliography and indices of passages and names (269-322). Their contents will be unpacked immediately below.

Following the author's introductory note (1-3), where they briefly but effectively present the work and the problems it poses, section 1 offers a comprehensive introduction that summarises previous research on Augustus' letters, providing concise descriptions of their contents and methodologies. The analysis of previous research on these letters commences with an exploration of the early edition by Rutgers and Fabricius. This edition comprises a collection of 73 quotations, paraphrases, and references in ancient literature, compiled in the 17th century by Johannes Rutgers and published in 1727 as part of Johann Albert Fabricius' Imp. Caes. Augusti temporum notatio, genus, et scriptorum fragmenta. Moving forward, the author discusses the research on fragments of Augustus' letters by Jonathan August Weichert, in his volume published posthumously in 1846. The analysis progresses to Enrica Malcovati's Epistulae ad res privatas pertinentes (1921/1969), the most recent critical edition of Augustus' writings (according to Ohst: 5-7). Malcovati's work is said to distinguish itself by significantly expanding the corpus of letter fragments to include quotations and paraphrases from Greek sources. However, Ohst suggests a supplementation to Malcovati's content-related classification, of extant testimonials of Augustus' letters, into Epistulae ad res privatas pertinentes (to family members, Virgil, Horace, Maecenas, and Marcus Antonius) and Epistulae ad res publicas pertinentes (to generals and including diplomatic letters). In a brief digression (7-11), Ohst, starting from Karl Ermert's (1979) study on letters' types, proposes to categorise letters based on the relationship between their writer/recipient and their socio-political role, rather than solely focusing on their contents. Returning to the analysis of previous editions, the author reviews (11-13) Paolo Cugusi's Epistolographi latini minores (1970-1979), praising it as a milestone for research into Augustus' letter fragments. De Biasi/Ferrero (2003) and Bringmann/Wiegandt (2008) come under scrutiny immediately after (13-15). Ohst, however, raises critiques, particularly regarding the German edition, challenging Malcovati's division and organisation of testimonials without offering a clear substitute for them.

Section 2 stands out as the most significant and captivating section in the entire book; its clarity is enhanced also thanks to the summary positioned at its end (69). This section delves into the reception and publication history of Augustus' private letters, from the first century C.E. to the early Middle Ages. It draws parallels with the literary evolution of private letters, particularly those of Cicero. Here, Ohst emphasises that Augustus' private letters garnered substantial attention between 60 and 120 C.E. The focus of that attention was twofold: an appreciation of Augustus as a writer by influential figures such as Pliny the Elder, Quintilian, and Suetonius, and an interest in Augustus and his correspondents as historical personalities (as reflected in Suetonius' biographical writings). However, after the second century, the primary transmission of Augustus' letters appears to have ceased; the dominance of codices over papyrus rolls, but also changing literary preferences (driven notably by early Christianity) created a bottleneck in the transmission of ancient literature from the second to the fourth century. This shift influenced the selective preservation of certain texts and the loss of others, including Augustus' letters.

Section 3 lays the groundwork for the subsequent commentary, providing an overview of the edition and commentary structure and its methodology. Section 4, the commentary, adeptly addresses the challenges posed by the text. It typically begins with a general introduction offering readers information about the recipient, attempting to reconstruct the possible reasons for the exchange of letters between the writer and recipient, and contextualising this information within the extant testimonial. The introduction is then followed by the text of the testimonial of Augustus' (lost) letter and its translation. Finally, the commentary proper, which varies in relation to the text analysed. In some cases, a classic line-by-line analysis is provided, while in others, the author prefers to contextualise the contents of the testimonial, setting aside the line-by-line analysis. Nevertheless, both approaches are informative and ensure a comprehensive understanding of the topic for the reader.

Sections 5 and 6 close the book. The former summarises key findings, emphasise the letters' linguistic and stylistic features and evaluates the autobiographical significance of Augustus' letters. The concluding section 6 is adorned with insightful appendices. A meticulous concordance traces references to Augustus' letter fragments across Greek and Roman literature. The up-to-date bibliography and indices of passages and names are well crafted and informative.

Overall, the book is a scholarly tour de force that not only unravels the complexities surrounding Augustus' letters but also places them in a broader historical and theoretical context. The meticulous research and insightful commentary elevate this work to an indispensable resource for anyone delving into the intricacies of its topic. Whether a seasoned scholar or a curious reader, this book promises an enriching journey through the layers of Augustus' letters, offering an understanding of the princeps' unique communication style and the intricate processes shaping the transmission of his letters through time.

Laura Losito