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Thursday, March 7, 2013

“Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor”, by Anthony Everitt

377 pages, Random House, ISBN13: 978-1400061280

For a man whose achievement in terms of altering Roman history, Augustus Caesar has always stood in the shadow of his magnificent great-Uncle, Julius Caesar. There's a sort of magnificence to Caesar that Augustus simply couldn't match; where Caesar was a protean talent, equally at home in rhetoric, literature, art, ambition, or military genius, Augustus’ talents were on a far more normal scale. That said, as was remarked by a grieving friend of Caesar's after the Ides of March, “If Caesar could find no way out, who can?” And it was the 18-year-old Octavius who, over a 45-year-career, found that way out.

Augustus’ achievement was to ruthlessly pursue supreme personal power in Rome for 20 years, and to spend the next 40 years turning that power into a functioning system that prolonged the Roman Empire for at least 200 years, arguably until its demise, and provided the peaceful environment for some of its greatest Roman art and literature. When he was born, Rome was, as it had been for centuries, firmly in the political grip of an incredibly small, wealthy elite of Senators who essentially ran the Republic as their own personal preserve. When he died, men from all over the Empire were now actively involved in its administration, the grip of the "old boys club" on power politics was broken forever, and he managed to harness the incredible competitiveness of Roman politics to solve most, if not all, of the old Republic's problems while taming the aristocracy. He did this through a constant, thoughtful, trial-and-error process that managed – just! – not to offend the hyposensitive reactionary elements in the Republic while accommodating them to a new world in which Roman power, and Roman talent, had to be harnessed world-wide. An extraordinary achievement.

This is simply the best biography of Augustus I have read on multiple levels (although, finally, his regime is receiving the kind of attention it has long deserved; another excellent recent book is Caesar's Legacy). Everett’s biography of Cicero was superb, and he brings the same ability to condense multiple facts and sources to his biography of Augustus. While not bowing down in worship, neither does he show the unfortunate tendency of late-20th Century biographers to simply write off Augustus as some kind of proto-Mussolini. After a thorough sketch of the disintegrating Republic, he fairly notes the ruthlessness and power-mad qualities of Augustus’ earlier career, the vicious quality of much of the Triumvirate. Of course, after Caesar's murder, Augustus was playing a zero-sum game in which victory or destruction were his only options. More interesting to me is the quiet crawl towards a proto-empire that, if all of Octavian's dynastic plans had not suffered destruction, might have worked far better than the system did under later Julio-Claudian Emperors. In fact, nothing shows up Augustus' extraordinary qualities so much as the fact that his decades-long balancing act could not be maintained by the lesser men who came after him. However, it DID endure, and peace throughout much of Europe and Asia was the greatest goal Augustus achieved. All this was painstakingly achieved through infinite patience, the ability to take pains, coolly analyze situations, the willingness to innovate while appearing to act traditionally, but the determination that the workings of the Roman state would be inclusive, rather than exclusive. It worked. As Augustus loved to say, “Make haste slowly.”

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