Augustus and Autism 1: Introduction.

This is a post series dedicated to my autistic students.

When I graduated from Cambridge I hoped that I was going to become a specialist in some one topic, an academic. Instead, I have spent my life amateurishly acquiring small amounts of knowledge about lots of things; but sometimes I manage to collect a medium amount of knowledge about widely different but related things. So my only qualification for writing this series of posts is having acquired a medium amount of knowledge from a combination of reading and life experience about two different subjects which seem to be crying out to be thought about together – Augustus and Autism.

I have to write about Augustus and Autism as a series of posts, because I want to say something which is complicated enough to be interesting. I am not interested in the question; ‘Can you imagine Augustus’ being a bit like Sheldon off ‘Big Bang Theory’?’, or in other words, ‘Can we fit a meaningless stereotype of Augustus together with a meaningless sterotype of autism?’ It is only interesting to think about Augustus and Autism together, if we are actually a bit interested in Augustus and Autism already. So in this introductory post, I need to look at prevailing ideas about Augustus and Autism separately.


It is easy to know not-very-much about Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Wikipedia is a good place to start. After that it gets more difficult. There is no shortage of biographies, and no shortage of ancient literature and art created for or about Augustus. He even wrote his own autobiography which is strong on data, and political misdirection, but weak on personal detail – it was intended for monumental public display, which partly explains it. What is difficult, is to penetrate through what is said about Augustus to get any idea of what he was like as a person. The literature written in the ancient world for him was adulatory, part of a slick propaganda campaign with which he bolstered his claims to power. Most of what the relatively reliable historian Tacitus wrote about him is missing, and we are left with Suetonius and later writers. Suetonius was born after imperial rule had become established, more than 50 years after Augustus’ death and he is completely incapable of resisting a good story. All scholars roll their eyes when he is mentioned.

Augustus, Meroe head (c.27 BC) British Museum

Fortunately there are many people trained to deal with this sort of difficulty. There are many biographies of Augustus written by Classical scholars, but these too disagree. Augustus rose as a teenage warlord. It is hard for any modern reader to regard someone so steeped in blood as a normal human being, but steeping in blood was a fairly normal qualification for high office at Rome. So before we even look at details of Augustus’ personal behaviour, his profile is alienating, particularly in these post-imperial times. Where Victorians regarded him as an archetype of the benign imperialist, bringing peace through conquest to a disordered world, the Second World War saw him crash into disfavour as a proto-fascist. The enthusiasm of Mussolini and other Fascists for Augustus was only a superficial reminder of the really disturbing features of Augustus’ career, which became central to the narratives of historians like Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, who brought us Augustus the ruthless tyrant.

Mussolini shows off the reconstructed Ara Pacis of Augustus

My own interest in this comes not as a specialist, but as a teacher. Far from having directed focused attention to intricacies of Augustus’ rule, I just can’t get away from him. Years and years of reading and teaching about him at all sorts of levels, reading in Latin thousands and thousands of lines written for him or by him or about him. There’ve been days when his is the face I have woken up to in the morning – the unchanging symmetrical face which goes back to the Meroe head, and is best known from the Prima Porta Augustus. I have shown my students images of Augustan buildings I can only dream of seeing. I have taken an interest in the drains of Cologne. Eventually, as thoughts about Augustus wandered round my brain they bumped into thoughts about autism and resulted in this series.


It is easy to know not-very-much about autism too. Autism is now a widely accepted umbrella term for a range of personal traits which are related to particular types of mental processing. Some individual autistic people run the world – Elon Musk, for example, identifies as having Asberger Syndrome. Others have severe difficulties with essential social activities, and struggle to access education, employment and the basic essentials of fulfilling living. This is a wide range for any label to cover, and autism has only existed as a diagnosis until the 1940s. As autism becomes widely recognised and diagnosed, people are still asking whether it really exists. Then, is it something new? Are there more autistic people now? Is it something caused by parental behaviour (the thesis of the 1950s) or damage at birth or some sort of pollution – chemicals, mobile phones, vaccines?

All of this assumes that autism is a bad thing, and the word was coined to describe a severe disorder. But while people are likely to be diagnosed with autism because they present with problems, is autism itself actually a disorder? Is it a disability? Autistic people are united by thinking ‘differently’ in some respects – but then who decides what is normal? At the far extreme are activists who claim that autistic people are simply an oppressed community of people victimised for thinking differently. Claiming autism as a positive identity has a real corrective value but like other forms of identity politics, it tends to polarise debate. It is very hard for people who regard autism as a disability and people who regard it as a positive identity to talk to each other. Meanwhile, the friends and family of autistic people find themselves expected to identify either as self-effacing carers or oppressors – sometimes both simultaneously.

I am writing here for my friends in the mixed community of autistic and non autistic people who are bound to each other by ties of love, family and friendship. If anyone is offended by my view of autism, this series isn’t for them. It’s for my friends, and anyone who wants to sit in. I am not personally diagnosed as autistic, although I have a number of autistic traits, which most academic types share – for example the capacity to write for 10 hours non-stop. In current thinking, autism is usually described as a non-linear spectrum: that is, nobody now thinks you can rate autistic people against an imaginary straight line on a scale ranging from being a little bit autistic (1) to a lot autistic (10). I see autism as a sun, with rays radiating out from a circular centre. What follows is my own very unofficial model – you can see I struggled with Paint too.

I don’t really believe that anybody is totally ‘neuro-typical’ so I put us ALL in the centre, scoring 1 for each ray that starts from there. Each ray represents a form of mental processing. The further outwards you move on each ray, the more intensely you show that form of processing and the higher you score. So me, and my 10 hour writing capacity – intense hyperfocus. That’s an extension of ‘normal’ that looks a bit like an autistic trait. I see that as moving me to a higher score on one ray, maybe a 2 or 3. However, I tend only to use this capacity in crisis; it doesn’t give me joy, and it isn’t combined with other traits which would make it dominate my personality in normal circumstances. This is because I am mostly ‘neuro-typical’ in other words I am going to score mostly ones or twos. Autistic people are the high scorers – they score a lot more than 1 on a number of rays. But autistic people don’t all score on the same rays as each other. You could be a high scorer overall, but score less than me on 10 hour writing. Autism may be an advantage or disadvantage to you, depending how you combine your high scores, and what your environment is like. If you score highly on hyperfocus, preference for routine and order, preference for facts and data, memory for detail, low vulnerability to emotional distraction, and having a restricted range of interests which you pursue intensely – why shouldn’t you become a billionaire and build a rocket? But if you score highly on aversion to noise, extreme sensitivity to light and texture, and slow processing of language, then you may not finish primary school.

Why Augustus and Autism?

As I said above, thoughts about Augustus wandered round my brain they bumped into thoughts about autism. I suppose they also bumped into thoughts about other things, like tea, but my thoughts about Augustus and autism coalesced, until I became unable to think of Augustus without the lens of autism. We will never know enough about Augustus to know whether he was autistic or not. On top of that, autism is not a very informative diagnosis in itself. The autistic spectrum includes people who build rockets and people who need 24 hour care. All in all, there is no real point in asking the academic question, ‘Was Augustus autistic?’ That’s why it is nice to have a blog where I can share more informal thoughts about why I think it is interesting to add autism into our view of Augustus.

While my slightly obsessive special interest in Augustus’ autism definitely ups my autistic trait score, there is a wider relevance to all of this. Firstly, it is significant for the debate around autism to understand that there have always been autistic people – or rather people who would now be placed on the autistic spectrum. Secondly, autism diagnoses cluster around people whose autism is causing them problems; if you prefer, you can say an oppressive neuro-typical society is causing their autism problems. Either way, the operative word is ‘problems’. As autism is ‘incurable’, a diagnosis can be a depressing thing – a gateway to a life of problems. Autistic people who experience severe problems with building an independent life are easy to spot; lives lived successfully, even brilliantly, with autism hide in plain sight. ‘Outing’ these lives helps us get a better perspective on autism.

Finally, real lives are mixed. Being autistic isn’t a super-power, no matter what it says on the tee-shirt. Being neuro-typical isn’t a super-power either. Augustus’ life is definitely writ large, not least in very large letters on the Monumentum Ancyraenum. His achievements and his disasters are public property. In talking about him we can balance the roles of autism as both advantage and disadvantage, depending on context. And Augustus has been dead a long time and can’t sue. I am leaving out the aspirational aspect of finding an autistic Emperor; ‘you too can be like the Emperor Augustus!’ This is because, I am not sure, after reading the posts, anyone will actually want to be like the Emperor Augustus. But if you do want to be like the Emperor Augustus, autism might be a bit of an advantage.