The First Roman Emperor
(Yale University Press)
Even for a well-educated citizen in these modern times, the details of the rise and fall of famous leaders in ancient Rome are hard to keep straight. The names themselves can be mystifying and at times seem interchangeable. For example there was Caius Caesar (24 BC-AD 4), oldest son of Agrippa and Julia, who should not be confused with Caius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) who is known to history as Julius Caesar. And then, of course, we have Caius Octavius who became Caius Julius Caesar and later Caesar Augustus or simply Augustus who is the subject of a monumental biography by Adrian Goldsworthy entitled Augustus: The First Emperor of Rome.
Goldsworthy is a prominent historian who has written extensively about the ancient world including acclaimed biographies of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Although there have been other histories of Augustus, they have generally been part of a larger canvas and not provided the kind of richly detailed and nuanced portrait a leader of his stature deserves.
The aim is to write as if this were the biography of a modern statesmen, 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.
In this objective, Goldsworthy succeeds admirably. It is biography of the highest order and made all the more remarkable when one considers the poverty and unreliability of available resources. Augustus is at once highly readable and definitive in its ability to provide the modern reader with comprehensive detail and fresh insights at every stage of the Emperor's long life.
Augustus was born September 23, 63 BC in Rome the son of Caius Octavius, a somewhat obscure but wealthy politician, and a great-nephew of Julius Caesar himself. Incredibly, he was adopted posthumously by Caesar which allowed him to add the name Caesar to his titles at the age of nineteen. In addition, he also referred to himself as Divi Filius (Son of the Divine) since, following his assassination, Julius Caesar was declared a god by the Roman Senate. Thus, Augustus' full name became Caius Julius Caesar Divi Filius. In 27 BC, following his defeat of Mark Antony, the Senate added the title of Imperator (Emperor) although he liked to refer to himself simply as Princeps or first citizen. In a further effort to clarify this business of names, Goldsworthy assures us of the following:
The dictator will always be named as Julius Caesar, and if ever the text mentions Caesar then it refers to Augustus.
All of this can make one dizzy, although as Goldsworthy notes such things were important in those times.
Names mattered a good deal in the Roman world --- and more recently, since we need only think of the longevity of Caesar or Kaiser or Tsar as the title of power. Mark Antony dubbed the young Augustus "a boy who owes everything to name" precisely because being called Caesar gave the teenager a significance he could not otherwise have had.
Following the death of Julius Caesar, Augustus together with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate to defeat the assassins of Caesar. In due course, this trio of good fellas divided the Roman Republic among themselves and ruled as military dictators. Eventually, however, Lepidus was outfoxed and driven into exile while Antony in 31 BC committed suicide following his defeat in the critical land and sea battle of Actium.
This victory left Augustus as the conquering hero and unchallenged authority of Rome's military and civilian centers of power. Augustus was now truly the first citizen of Rome and as Goldsworthy and other historians acknowledge, this marked the end of the 500 year history of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the nearly half-millenium rule of the Roman Empire.
This Actium was a victory for the virtues and traditions of united Italy supported by wholesome deities and led by the son of the divine Julius. The enemy were the chaotic forces of the East (read: Egypt) with their weird gods .... The right side had won an overwhelming and necessary victory, glorious because it brought the promise of peace.Following the victory over Antony --- and not, incidentally, over the formidable queen of Egypt, Cleopatra --- the Roman Senate bestowed the name Augustus (revered) on the victor. Thus began a 200 year period of unprecedented political stability and prosperity known as Pax Romana or Roman Peace. Augustus, who clearly felt more secure in his new role, put aside the murderous ways of his youth and concentrated instead on the tasks of expanding the Empire and implementing good governance for the benefit of his subjects.
There were many impressive achievements under his rule including a reformed system of taxation, development of a network of roads with an official courier system, the creation of a standing army as well as the establishment of official police and firefighting services for Rome. Mired as we are here in the United States in political gridlock, it makes one wonder if it isn't time for the return of another benign Augustus.
This revered leader, whose image is preserved on more coins and statues than any other person of the ancient world, lived until the ripe old age of 75. While no doubt he was loved by many, there is unconfirmed speculation that in the end he was poisoned by his devoted wife, Livia.
Upon reaching the end of this magisterial account, one might ask the question: If Augustus was such a formidable and important historical figure, why isn't he better known? After all, in addition to Julius Caesar, every school kid is familiar with the names of Nero, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Brutus and Antony and Cleopatra. But Augustus? Hardly. It is true, however, that we do observe the eighth month of each year that is named in his honor.
One of the reasons is that Shakespeare never wrote a play about him, perhaps because there is little natural tragedy in a man who lives to a ripe old age and dies in his bed. He appears as Octavius in Julius Caesar and as Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra, but in neither play is his character particularly engaging .... No play, film or novel with Augustus at its heart has ever captured the popular imagination.
While this is a readable account of an underappreciated historical figure, at 500 pages it might be a little long for the novice reader accustomed to tweets and instant messaging. However, for those who want more than a Wikipedia digest of Augustus and his times, there is no better place to begin. In addition to the text, as befits a scholarly treatise, there are two appendices, a glossary of common and obscure terms, a brief summary of key personalities, several pages of family trees, a lengthy bibliography and fully 46 pages of notes. Altogether, quite as sumptuous as a Roman feast.--- Larissa Belmondo