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Goldsworthy's Augustus breaks away from the more traditional narrative of Augustus – that he was walking in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, his adopted uncle and famous Roman general and dictator, even if he takes the time to discuss Augustus's father's life, and a quick overview of Julius Caesar's rise and fall from power. Goldsworthy, however, is not afraid to be critical and harsh in pronouncement and judgment at the brutality and harshness of his actions and rule. Yet, he is equal in his assessment of the great positives of the emperor’s life and rule, as well as the hopeful optimism that great Roman figures had, like Cicero, Virgil, or Horace, upon hearing the news of Antony’s death and Cleopatra’s suicide (pp. 196-198), “The poets reflected an almost universal desire for a return to peace and stability after so many long years of upheaval and violence” (p. 197). After all, Goldsworthy is clear that violence and brutality in Roman politics was the norm, especially in Part One that deals with Caius Octavius, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Pompey, Catiline, among other notables in Roman history.
Moving all the way to Part Four of his biography, Goldsworthy highlights how Augustus took a tired and depleted Roman state, having been wrought over the past two and half decades with civil war and unrest, and turned it into a prosperous and stable “empire.” He also, in a way, shies away from the old narrative that he was remaking Rome into its old republican culture, but is clear to emphasize his renewal and revivalist campaigns that aimed at harkening back to the older days of the republic. In many ways, Dr. Goldsworthy shows how Augustus was a revolutionary and enlightened leader, possible foreshadowing what will happen in France in the late eighteenth century. For Goldsworthy, Augustus’s greatest accomplishment isn’t defeating his rivals and becoming emperor, but what was achieved, arguably, during his reign and in the immediate aftermath of his death. I take the title of the review from Chapter 22: Pax Augusta, as this (the larger Pax Romana) is the enduring legacy of Augustus as emperor.
Rome had been plagued by internal instability, jealous rivalry, and civil war before his birth and during his formative years. Yet, by the time of his ascension to emperor, Augustus would transform the entire Roman (Mediterranean) world. Pax Romana begins with the Pax Augusta – the Peace of Augustus. He would be Rome’s longest reigning monarch. He restored stability to an unstable realm. This stability ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity, not only for the elites, but also for the common plebeians.
In the end, Dr. Goldsworthy produces a fine piece of scholarship, very much akin to his earlier works in Roman history. His biography is second-to-none, and he is arguably well-deserving of being considered one of the greatest living classicists writing today. And while he does a great job in bridging the “two lives” of Augustus (the earlier soldier and warrior and the later emperor, statesman, and revivalist), Goldsworthy is honest and upfront that a definitive portrait of Augustus is hard to ascertain because of the lack of information available to scholars. Even so, Dr. Goldsworthy biography will become essential reading for historians, researchers, and anyone with an interest in Roman history, especially those with an interest in the transitional period between republic to empire. The book contains 44 images in the middle of the work, an 18 page bibliography, and is filled with a wealth of reference material for both the historian and laymen to research on their own time if one wants further reading.
Naturally, I didn’t purchase the book via amazon. I received a limited release (early release) copy from a local bookstore not far from where I live. Being familiar with Goldsworthy’s other works, when I saw this title, I naturally presumed it was his most recent release or a titled I hadn't come across before. In the tradition of his other works, this biography doesn’t disappoint. It's a solid read, not necessarily something special, but a good biography on Rome's first emperor.
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This book is a remarkable, skilful and very rich piece of scholarship which is targeted at the general public. It is written in plain and clear English. It is a rather easy read and contains maps, diagrams of Rome, genealogical trees and plenty of photos to support the main text.
It also makes a host of excellent points. To mention just a few, one of these is about the changing faces (and names) of Augustus, or rather Octavius, since this was his real family name. Another is that his reign, for lack of a better word, was hugely successful in bringing peace and ushering in prosperity to such an extent that it would be seen as some kind of “Golden Age” during the next centuries of what became the Roman Empire. A third is the skill with which Adrian Goldsworthy shows Augustus as a highly efficient politician and a master of spin and propaganda. There are also many other important points which are just as well made throughout the book.
One slight reservation, however, is the author’s claim that this this book is a biography, rather than the “life and times of Augustus”. In fact, it is at least both, and perhaps more of the later. Note that this is not a problem at all since the picture that the author draws of these “life and times” is a rather fascinating one. He also presents what is essentially the history of Rome and the achievements of the character he is dealing with during this period, with the two (the history and the achievements) being so intertwined that it is difficult to separate them without making the book significantly less entertaining. So, despite the author’s claims, the end result is worthy of praise, even if it is not exactly “what it says on the tin.” A similar comment can be made about the book’s subtitle - “from Revolutionary to Emperor”. This is because, strictly speaking, Augustus was neither one nor the other and certainly did his utmost to avoid being portrayed as either.
In fact, as the author admits several times, and can hardly do otherwise, Augustus was a military dictator in disguise who managed the “tour de force” to impose himself and get himself accepted and seen as the “Princeps” – something like “the First Man in Rome”, after having defeated Mark Antony.
There are many things that are absolutely remarkable with the character of Augustus, regardless of whether one “likes” him or not. While I cannot drum up much sympathy for Augustus, contrary to the author, his success is absolutely outstanding. Just after Julius Caesar’s murder, he was nothing more than nineteen year old with a famous name and some borrowed money yet he managed to become the First man in Rome after defeating all competitors. What is just as remarkable is that for more than forty years afterwards, he remained so and was never seriously challenged. All of this is well shown and described in the book, although the author’s strenuous efforts to show that there were essentially no serious plots to unseat him during his reign and that such plots are all speculation from modern historians did not quite convince me. A more measured answer would have been to state that we largely do not know and, even if they were, they seem to have lacked support and they failed.
Another series of comment can be made about the book’s structure. Essentially, the first part of the book, from the birth of Octavius to Caesar’s assassination, is skilfully used by Goldsworthy to summarise the main events of the period, the career of Julius Caesar and the civil war against Pompey and his partisans. Given his age, Octavius does not appear very much in it but the author gets a chance to present an overview of Rome, its institutions, its Empire and its problems at the time, in addition to the main events over the book’s first eighty pages or so.
The next hundred and thirty pages or so (a bit more in fact) make up parts two and three and are about the various bouts of civil wars, first against Mark Antony, then against Caesar’s assassins and then again and finally, against Mark Antony after a period of uneasy peace. These are perhaps the weakest and the least convincing parts of the book. Largely because of the author’s sympathy for his subject, he can become quite biased at times, and in several ways.
One of these is a tendency to minimise or disparage Mark Antony’s military experience and even in some cases, to omit some episodes entirely, such as his successful retreat across the Alps after his defeat at Mutina. Another is the author’s very short and somewhat slanted presentation of Mark Antony’s Parthian campaign, which is presented as an utter disaster. It certainly was a military defeat although Mark Antony did manage to cut his losses. However, and largely thanks to Octavius and his propaganda, it was turned into a political disaster. On the other hand, the two battles of Philippi were all to Mark Antony’s credit and certainly not to Octavius’ who behaviour could appear shameful during at least the first encounter, as was portrayed as such by his enemies, starting with Mark Antony himself.
What Goldsworthy does show rather very well is the political skill that Caius Octavius and his close associates deployed. While the author is very careful not to use these terms, because they do not exactly generate sympathy, his character was undoubtedly a fantastic propagandist, a master of spin and an arch-manipulator. Although no mean player himself, Mark Antony seems to have been severely outclassed in this area, with Octavius and his close associates Agrippa and Maecenas, systematically taking advantage of his blunders and angaging in what was to be a very successful campaign of character assassination that would destroy Mark Antony at least as efficiently than the battle of Actium.
At times, and with the benefit of hindsight, Mark Antony even seems to have played into their hands as when he agreed to lose control of Gaul and its numerous legions or were he handed over some 120 warships to fight Sextus Pompey after Octavius had been disastrously defeated and in exchange of promised troops for the Parthian campaign who never arrived. Here, unfortunately, the author chose not to elaborate on either of these features, possibly because they do not show Octavius in a very positive light.
A rather strange point made by the author is his insistence that Octavius was supremely self-confident from the very beginning. Here again, this might have benefited from some further discussion and clarifications. He was certainly extremely ambitious, but the behaviours of his youth, his ruthlessness, cruelty and savagery, do not give the impression of self-confidence, quite the contrary in fact. This stands in stark contrast with the period after Actium where he could afford to be merciful and benevolent and make a lot of political capital out of out.
The last two parts of the book (slightly over 260 pages) are the longest and, in my view, also the best and the strongest. They essentially show how Octavius accumulated power and made his position unassailable, but also how he profoundly reformed all of Rome’s institutions, and Rome itself. My favourite section is the one showing how Augustus remodelled Rome through his (and Agrippa’s) energetic and multi-purpose building programs. While renovating and embellishing Rome, these monuments were also – and perhaps mainly - very strong advertisements of Augustus and his outstanding achievements which associated him so closely with Rome that they illustrated and justified his titles of “Augustus” and pater patriae”. Other superb sections are those showing how Rome's institutions were remodeled while making sure that Augustus kept the true power - and control of the army in particular - in his own hands.
There are also interesting sections on Augustus, his extended family, and he tried to harness their support so that the Empire would in fact be ruled by a team, rather than a single individual. Here again, the author tends to be perhaps a bit partial because the success of this policy was at best mixed, and it did not only have to do with his various heirs dying before the "founding father."
Showing how adept Augustus was in manipulating his own image and making it evolve over time is yet another of the book’s major strongpoint, with every move carefully stage managed. They ways in which Augustus made his image omnipresent throughout the Empire, through statues, monuments and coins in particular, but also through the right to appeal to him and his multiple trips to the provinces, are also well shown. One other major strongpoint is that, to use Adrian Goldsworthy’s expression, he does show that “once established, he ruled well” and was dedicated to it.
One weakness, perhaps, is that while very correctly stating that his success and the longevity of his rule was, above all, dependent on his ability to “control the army and keep it loyal to him alone”, the author contends that all of his achievements were built upon his success as a warlord. In reality, he was not a successful warlord and this is perhaps one of the most remarkable paradoxes of the book. The military successes were those of others, and of Agrippa, his supremely loyal friend, in particular, but Augustus was able to take the credit for these victories, and then do so again and again for the victories of his extended family more generally. One cannot help wondering what would have happened to Octavius had Agrippa died at any time before the defeat of Mark Antony, although the author never really discusses this point in any detail.
Four strong stars for a very rich book whose reading I can only recommend, despite the need to take some of the author’s statements and positions with “a pinch of salt.”
To get a more balanced picture of this rather enigmatic character, I would also recommend reading this book together with one of the other – and less favourable) biographies of Augustus, such as that of Patricia Southern, for instance.
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“…as military dictators go, Caesar Augustus was not such a bad one.”
Great-nephew and principal heir to Julius Caesar, Augustus was just nineteen when Caesar was murdered, but it seems he was never in doubt of his right to take over the honours of the older man. His early career was as a warlord, using the wealth he had inherited and borrowing extensively to ensure that he had the largest army as the Roman republic descended into civil war. He was also helped by the loyalty of Julius Caesar’s troops – a loyalty they were willing, on the whole, to extend to his heir. Having at length achieved internal peace, Augustus’ later career was as a (fairly) benevolent military dictator who brought stability to Rome and enabled it to extend and, to some degree, pacify the empire.
Adrian Goldsworthy is a recognised scholar of ancient Rome and has a doctorate from Oxford University in ancient military history. Although this is a period I know nothing about, it quickly becomes clear that the book has been thoroughly researched. While concentrating on Augustus himself, Goldsworthy takes time to set his story well into the period, giving plenty of information about the period before Augustus rose to prominence, so that the newcomer gets a real feeling for the society that he was operating within. As always with histories of so long ago, the source documents are limited and often even they were written a considerable time after the events. Goldsworthy acknowledges this and reminds the reader of the effect of contemporary and later propaganda on the picture left behind of such a prominent figure as Augustus. As he says “As always with the ancient world, it is easier to say what he did than it is to understand the man’s inner thoughts and character.” He also remembers that not all of his readers will have a grounding in Roman history, so takes the time to explain things that can be confusing, like the naming conventions for both men and women or the structure of the army. This meant that I found the book very accessible and only very rarely felt that I was floundering a bit.
Personally there was a bit too much concentration on the military side of things for me. Obviously as a military dictator, the army was an important part of Augustus’ story, as were the various rebellions, battles and conquests. It certainly isn’t a criticism of the book, therefore, since I can’t see how Goldsworthy could really have left any of it out, but I did find it all got a little tedious after a while. He shows Augustus as a slick political operator rather than a heroic warrior – in fact, there is a clear suggestion that Augustus tended to fall conveniently ill and retreat to the rear whenever the fighting hotted up. However he seems to have been ruthless in pursuit of his aims, willing to change allegiance whenever he thought it would benefit him and displaying a high degree of brutality towards his defeated enemies - behaviour all the more remarkable, perhaps, given his youth. Goldsworthy covers the Cleopatra/Mark Anthony episode in some depth, but rather suggests that Cleopatra has been given more importance by later historians than she really deserved.
I found Augustus’ later life of more interest, especially his attempts to ensure that he had 'trained' heirs to take over after his death – attempts that were constantly thwarted by the tragedy of early deaths within his extended family. Names familiar to anyone who watched the BBC’s I, Claudius (or, indeed, who read the original book by Robert Graves) have their context and importance thoroughly explained, and Goldsworthy weighs up the evidence for and against the suggestions of Livia (Augustus’ wife) as murderer of more than one of her relations – and tends to come down in her favour on the whole. Considering the difficulties of lack of source material, I felt Goldsworthy gave a fairly rounded picture of Augustus – a man whose behaviour seemed, as Goldsworthy says, to improve as he got older. The man who in his youth cheerfully proscribed his enemies and had them killed seemed willing to show a little more tolerance in his old age – though not always to his own family. I got the distinct impression that Goldsworthy was being kinder to Augustus than some of his critics may have been over the years.
Overall, this is a well written book, accessible enough for a casual reader with little or no pre-existing knowledge of the period; but with enough depth and detail to be interesting to people more familiar with this part of history too.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press
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In his biography of Julius Caesar Caesar: Life of a Colossus, the image of the great man emerges almost immediately. Not so in this account of Augustus. Instead the features of Augustus emerge gradually as if one were watching a photo in a bath of developing solution. And the first faint images of Augustus are not very flattering.
The young Augustus seems cold, indifferent to the point of cruelty, and monstrously calculating. Of course, he had to be all of those things and more. At nineteen he was thrust into the blood-drenched world of Roman politics and was probably the least likely person to emerge on top. Yet, he somehow did reach the pinnacle and from there, and in the latter half of Goldsworthy's biography, he emerges in full view as a truly great and decent man and probably one of the most accomplished leaders in history.
Unlike his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, Augustus was not a great general. That he left to such men as Agrippa, who was a general and a great deal more. Almost our first understanding of the quality of Augustus comes from the fact that he could attract the love and loyalty of a man like Agrippa. Though a great general, Agrippa was not fond of war. Indeed, Goldsworthy quotes him as saying, "If peace makes small things grow, discord will tear down great things.' p. 353. Augustus and Agrippa built great things, roads and magnificent buildings, but because of them the Empire flourished with the growth of many of the fine, small things that are the true ornaments of civilization.
I was particularly struck by the problems that Augustus faced building his great Forum Augustum in the Roman Forum. Construction was delayed because nearby property owners refused to sell their interest. Ultimately, although much of the needed property was acquired, one or two obstinate property owners held out to the end and Augustus was compelled to build his great structure with an irregular shape in the northeastern corner. Goldsworthy says, "Perhaps it was frustrating for Augustus, but his willingness to accept this showed his respect for the rights of property and an unwillingness to override them even for the wider good of the state, let alone his own fame. In some ways this very imperfection of the new Forum was a more valuable symbol than perfect symmetry would have been." p. 403.
One may contrast the restraint of Augustus with the situation in the present United States where the Supreme Court's infamous KELO decision grants state powers not only to seize private property for the use of the public but also for resale to another, more attractive, private party.
Augustus in later life saw himself as a sentry guarding the Roman people and he worked very hard to improve their lives. The work was so arduous that his ultimate successor in training, Tiberius, dropped out and fled to Rhodes to listen to lectures and rest rather than grind away every day helping Augustus solve the problems of the empire. Ultimately, when Tiberius became emperor because there was no one else left to take the job, he held the title and fled to another island, Capri, leaving much of the toil to Sejanus with ugly consequences. But Augustus never quit until overtaken by death.
The first emperor cherished and encouraged the friendship of the likes of Agrippa, Livy, Vergil, Horace and many others. He boasted that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. On his last voyage down the coast of Italy his ship passed a merchant vessel from Alexandria. When they recognized the emperor's ship they shouted acclaim and praise, and thanked him for making their lives so good. Augustus seemed to take greater pride in this than the triumphs awarded to him. Many of the triumphs he turned down. He sent gifts to the Alexandrian merchants. Like his friend Agrippa, Augustus wanted to make the world safe for many priceless little things to grow.
Goldsworthy has given us a readable, interesting and valuable biography of one of the greatest men in history.