Saturday, September 20, 2014

Augustus, First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

The 650 or so pages of this biography of Caesar Augustus (Octavius - Octavian) are a gift to Ancient Roman history fans and students.  The author has combed through all the ancient texts and collected together everything having to do with Augustus.  Then he has put them together chronologically.  He has evaluated the fact, fiction, and propaganda (spin-doctors are as old as politics) and presented the most likely truth.  Even modern conspiracies are evaluated, and discounted for the most part.

What remains is a detail-rich story of the life and times of Julius Caesar's heir, Rome's first permanent Emperor, the man who gave the ancient world the famous Pax Romana, Octavian, who became Caesar Augustus.   

Front view of the same statue as on the cover of the book, showing the depiction of Augustus recovering lost Roman military standards, a big PR coop for the politician.

Along with the details, the author includes in the last twenty percent of the book:
  • Maps
  • Appendices that include a description of the career stages of the typical Roman senator, and oddly on the date of birth of Jesus of Nazareth
  • a list of Key Personalities
  • Family Trees
  • and a full and extensive Bibliography, Notes, Index, and a Glossary of Roman terms. 

The statue that was replicated many times and displayed all around the empire.

The book is divides the life of Octavian into five stages, related to his changing title.  A child of the civil wars that rocked the end of the Republic, the man grew into  its First Citizen, its Emperor, who held supreme power for forty-five years, and the honorary Father of his country.  The five titles correspond well to the phases in the man's life:
Part 1 - Birth Name, Caius Octavious/Octavianus/Octavian:  Childhood during the turbulent civil wars period of Rome's late Republic (from Res Publica - the public thing, the commonwealth)

Part 2 - Adopted name, Caius Julius Caesar:  Civil Wars to attain total power (warlords at war)

Part 3 - Imperator Caesar, Divi Filius:  Battles to expand and subdue the Empire (military dictator)

Part 4 - Imperator Ceasar Augustus, Divi Filius, Princeps/First Citizen:  Infrastructure building throughout the Empire and the capital, Rome (First Citizen of the Principate or Kingdom, the Prince), and keeping the peace

Part 5 - Imperator Caesar Augustus, Divi Filius, Pater Patriae/Father of the Country:  Efficient organization of the administration, communication and taxation needed to maintain the Empire, and keeping the peace.

A color depiction showing the light skin and hair of the Emperor.

Roman leaders were expected to be military men who were tested in military campaigns, but also politicians who were expert in the administration of Rome's vast territory.  So, necessarily, the story of a Roman leader is a story of battles and civil administration.  Anything other than that would "have baffled the Romans", as the author explains.

Once all the gossip is removed from the stories surrounding Octavian, what remains can be tedious reading:  battles, massacres, building, more battles, more massacres, more building, deaths, rivals, spoils, wealth, sickness...  You have to be a real fan of Ancient Roman history to enjoy this book.  It is not for dabblers in history.   

The writer's style is clear, fluid, and concise when needed, but it is not especially interesting.  Dry, is the word I would use to best describe it.  But that seems to be what the author was aiming for.  His stated goal is: write as if this were the biography of a modern statesman, asking the same questions even if our sources make it difficult to answer them, and trying as far as possible to understand the real man.

Augustus relied on two loyal friends during the first half of his reign:  Maecenas and Agrippa.

Like all politicians past and present, the man's story is clouded by personal reinvention, propaganda and a slippery, chameleon-like ability to pretend to be just what is necessary even as the times and situations change.  But, as much as possible, the author tells the story of the man's life, relating the details we know, and summarizing events that do not directly involve Augustus but which relate to him.

The major sources for the book are:  Appian, Dio, Paterculus, Cicero's letters, Suetonius, Plutarch.  I provide links below to free e-books of many of these works in translation.  The author quotes from Roman lawyer, writer and politician Cicero to explain why one would want to read history books:
For what is the life of a man, if it is not interwoven with the life of former generations by as  sense of history.

Agrippa, Augustus Caesar's right hand, a master general and administrator.  Yes, he was a tough as he looks.

Much time is spent setting the scene into which Augustus is born and into which he emerges as an ambitious player in the political struggles that are tearing apart the Republic.  And if you ever doubt that the past speaks to the present, then those doubts will disappear after reading about Roman politics in the first century b.c.:
" was better that a problem not e dealt with than to permit a rival to gain credit for solving it."

"a recipe for inertia"

"Personal hatreds and rivalry loomed larger in most senator's minds than the good of the Republic."

Cicero was killed on the order of Augustus and Marc Antony

Who was leader Augustus?  He was a warlord with loyal subordinates, who funded his command of armies through, at first, his inheritance of the wealth his uncle Julius Caesar stole from Gaul and Spain.  Later armies were paid for by the wealth of Egypt, which went into his pocket rather than to the State, and by theft-by-war of the riches of the east.  Eventually, taxation funded the armies that kept the military dictator in power.

Who was the man Augustus?  He was confident, with a serious sense of entitlement, lucky, politically skillful due to his ability to listen to advice from intelligent and honest subordinates, crude and vulgar, opportunistic, randy, prone to ill health until he stuck to a diet of moderation, vain, arrogant, self-centered, superstitious, a liar, devious, cruel, a mass-murderer, sadistic, hypocritical, power hungry, not so bright and poorly educated, a user, a gambler, greedy, callous, pompous, conceited, bigoted, full of blood-lust, conservative, and a megalomaniac.

Cleopatra killed herself rather than be taken by Augustus to Rome to parade through the town in his Triumph, the celebration of his military victory over Egypt.  Painting of her death scene, and her live children were paraded through Rome, instead.

The only point in the man's story where he is at all sympathetic is when his family members start to die, leaving him to live to very old age with few of his close relatives to comfort him.  He quickly does the Roman thing, which is to adopt the children of his relations and friends.  He marries them to each other to build a dynasty, in the usual in-bred way dynasties tend to favor, seeding their own demise through the weak progeny they produced.  On the whole, Augustus is about as loveable as any military dictator, past or present.

A few negatives, more me...   There were a few odd tangents to side players in the course of the biography, like to Herod, King of the Jews.  I didn't think we needed the author to interpret Augustus's character for us, as he does periodically throughout the book; we are well able to glean what the man was like through the bountiful details the author provides.  And more commas in the text would have aided readability, but perhaps they were added after my review-copy was prepared for print. 

And I felt the sadism, blood-lust and slavery of the era was glossed over, rather than studied for the insight it could offer on the sick and brutal nature of mankind, that modern, enlightened mankind fights to overcome with the help of philosophy, religious instruction, and international law.

A depiction of the death of Augustus, with Livia, his loyal wife by his side, and some of the parade of men he had visit him, including Tiberius, his successor, while he was dying.

From the book's description:
Caesar Augustus’ story, one of the most riveting in western history, is filled with drama and contradiction, risky gambles and unexpected success.  He began as a teenage warlord, whose only claim to power was as the heir of the murdered Julius Caesar.  Mark Antony dubbed him “a boy who owes everything to a name,” but in the years to come the youth outmaneuvered all the older and more experienced politicians and was the last man standing in 30 BC.  Over the next half century he reinvented himself as a servant of the state who gave Rome peace and stability, and created a new system of government—the Principate or rule of an emperor.

In this highly anticipated biography Goldsworthy puts his deep knowledge of ancient sources to full use, recounting the events of Augustus’ long life in greater detail than ever before.  Goldsworthy pins down the man behind the myths:  a consummate manipulator, propagandist, and showman, both generous and ruthless.  Under Augustus’ rule the empire prospered, yet his success was never assured and the events of his life unfolded with exciting unpredictability.  Goldsworthy captures the passion and savagery, the public image and private struggles of the real man whose epic life continues to influence western history.

Virgil Reading Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia.  Octavia faints when the poet reads the part of his epic poem that refers to Octavia's deceased son, Marcellus.  Livia is Augustus's wife.  Octavia is his sister.

Augustus, First Emperor of Rome is published by Yale University Press, which hosts an interesting blog.
By publishing serious works that contribute to a global understanding of human affairs, Yale University Press aids in the discovery and dissemination of light and truth, lux et veritas, which is a central purpose of Yale University.

Here are links to the book at

Here are links to FREE e-books of translations of ancient texts dealing with the history of Rome, all via Project Gutenberg, the grand-daddy of free e-book sites on the Internet.

The links go to pages listing the texts available for that author.  When you click on a text, you are brought to a page with links to e-books in various formats of that text, for immediate download.

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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