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Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor
by Anthony Everitt
[Augustus] himself is a shadowy figure. Many books have been written about his achievements, but they have tended to focus on the Augustan age, rather than on the man as he was. My hope is to make Augustus come alive. As well as narrating his own doings, I place his story in his times and describe the events and personalities that affected him. Shipwrecks, human sacrifice, hairbreadth escapes, unbridled sex, battles on land and at sea, ambushes, family scandals, and above all the unforgiving pursuit of absolute power. Augustus lived out an extraordinary and often terrifying drama. The stage is crowded with larger-than-life personalities…
So writes the author in his Preface. After my second read-through of the book, I'm still not enthusiastic about it. In fact, rather than breathlessly following an ‘often terrifying drama,’ I got bored at times, and more often than not, Augustus did not ‘come alive,’ at least not to me.
The book is one of the many new popular history books, a worthy undertaking, bringing history back into the eye of the general public. However, it should also be readable to the more knowledgeable history enthusiast and the professional. Mr. Everitt, known to many Roman history buffs through his Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician, has done an enormous amount of research. The problem, for this reviewer at least, is how he made use of it. One often isn’t quite told whether the narration deals with straightforward history (as far as ancient historians can be ‘straightforward’), hagiography, propaganda, or ancient gossip. Unfortunately, the way the endnotes are constructed they are of no help either, but most likely that is outside the author’s province, given current publishers’ practices.
Apart from the first chapter – more of this later – the book is a more or less chronological history of the life of Octavius/Octavian/Augustus. This is preceded by a brief romp through the recent history of the republic, unfortunately sometimes a bit too glib or even careless. For example, Sulla’s march on Rome does not give his reasons for it, he “marched his army, loyal to him personally and to no one else, into the city to fight against Marius and his friends.” At another place, Julius Caesar becomes suddenly Lucius Marcius Philippus’ brother-in-law rather than his nephew-in-law. The author, relying on Appian, reports that Mark Antony, during his first service in the east, meets a very young Cleopatra, a fact considered unlikely by many modern historians. There are more of such instances; however, on the whole, this summary sets the scene for the story, and after Octavius’ antecedents, childhood, and schooling have gotten a decent treatment, his education from the newly minted dictator Caesar begins, “with the most remarkable introduction to the twin arts of politics and war in the history of western civilization. That finishing school finished off the Roman Republic for good.”
We are led through the familiar story. Octavius, still a teenager, learns of Caesar’s assassination from afar and makes the momentous decision to enter the fray and becomes Gaius Julius Caesar, better known in the serviceable modern convention as Octavian. While his ruthlessness and the resultant civil wars should make for high drama, as the author promised, this all comes across more as matter-of-fact. More than half of the book is devoted to this period, which ends with the deaths of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Then comes the personality switch resulting in the eventual designation of the title Augustus, and the princeps becomes the “founding father of western civilization.” The remaining chapters, while still more or less chronological in nature, are organized into themes, showing a development further and further away from the idea of the republic, describing the expansion of the empire, and discussing the series of dynastic problems caused by the consecutive deaths of the designated heirs.
And so to “The Bitter End,” the Varian disaster, and the death of Augustus, which event brings us back to the Introduction, the first chapter. The latter is a highly dubious “imagined narration” of the last weeks in the life of Augustus, beginning with his clandestine visit to the banished Agrippa Postumus, and ending with the poisoning of figs by Livia, presented as assisted suicide, “this is how it may have happened.” Since the author, in the above ‘Bitter End,’ dissects these events with pros and cons and writes that the truth of Augustus’ death will never be known, one wonders about the intent of this “imagined narration.”
One would have liked to read more about the famed “Golden Age.” The quote itself is thrown in somewhere, and the poets are mentioned and cited here and there, but there is no cohesive treatment of the subject. Rather, the reader is given a general education of the Roman way of life, from the schooling of the young to a two-page treatment of what the Roman dinner was like, funeral practices, and the like. On the other hand, the author assumes a wider education by the occasional use of French phrases, and, at one point, of the term “quisling.” (To be fair though, one should point out that the original intended audience presumable is British and more familiar with the French language and with recent European history.) A problematic issue of sorts is the author’s repeated projection that Augustus allowed, even encouraged, free speech. This should be taken with a hefty grain of salt.
The author is ambivalent about Mark Antony, and about Cleopatra. Julius Caesar fares poorly in comparison with Augustus. Agrippa is given his due as loyal supporter and co-regent, and as an able general, without whom Augustus most likely would not have survived. Livia, on the whole, is given a positive treatment, rumors about poisonings are mostly treated simply as that. Tiberius is portrayed well also.
All in all, Augustus is presented as a reformer and forgiven his considerable flaws, the latter outweighed by the “public good.” The author also stresses Augustus’ and Agrippa’s management of the provinces, encouraging urbanization and the Roman way of life and extending Roman citizenship to many thousands of provincials throughout the empire.
“This had a hugely important consequence. It generated loyalty and gratitude to Rome. It made people feel that they were not victims of the empire, but its stakeholders. They were members of an imperial commonwealth. It was this shared consciousness that helped to bind Europe and the lands of the Mediterranean basin together for half a millennium and more.
How many statesmen in human history can lay claim to such a record of enduring achievement?”
“Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor” is a workman-like treatment of the subject of Augustus, intended for a general audience. For the interested reader, there is an excellent “Further Reading” list.
© 2007 Irene B. Hahn
Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor
by Anthony Everitt
Random House 2006
List Price $26.95/£13.66
also by Anthony Everitt Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician
Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition 2003
List Price: $14.96
Trade Paperback out in October 2007
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