The First Citizen

Review: ‘Augustus: The First Emperor of Rome’ by Adrian Goldsworthy

Emperor Augustus / Wikimedia Commons
• September 1, 2014 12:00 pm


Augustus is the greatest ancient Roman leader. He ended decades of civil strife, brought order to a vast empire stretching from the coast of Normandy to the Nile Delta, and created the quasi-monarchy that lasted two centuries and gave Rome its most successful and stable years.

And yet, Augustus remains something of an enigma. The general public realizes he is important, but knows little about his motivations or personality, beyond caricatures in literature (the ruthless and dishonest Octavian of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra) and television (the well meaning, but doddering old man of I, Claudius). So his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, and his nemesis, Marc Antony, rate higher in the popular imagination than Augustus, despite the fact that he succeeded where they failed.

Adrian Goldsworthy’s wonderful biography will change all that. Augustus is revealing of its subject’s character and the time in which he lived, judicious on his shortcomings, and rich in portraits of secondary figures—everything a biography should be.

An Oxford-educated historian, and the author of books on the Roman Army and a well received biography of Julius Caesar, Goldsworthy’s aim in Augustus is to "write as if this were the biography of a modern statesman … and trying as far as possible to understand the real man."

To understand the real Augustus, one needs to grapple with the most striking aspect of his life: his meteoric rise to power. He entered politics at 18, was "one of the most powerful men in the world" at 20, and sole master of Rome at 33. How did he do it?

In short: a famous relative, innate talent, and luck. Born Caius Octavius to a wealthy provincial family in 63 BC, Augustus was a great-nephew of Caesar’s on his mother’s side. Caesar took a liking to his young relative, and Augustus accompanied him on one of his many military campaigns. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Marc Antony had Caesar’s will read aloud in the Forum. It contained a surprise: Caesar (who had no legitimate son) named Augustus his adoptive son and heir.

This act, more than anything else, irrevocably altered Augustus’s life and was the foundation of all his later success. Overnight, an obscure 18 year old became the representative of one of Rome’s most powerful families—and was expected to continue its record of success. The name "Caesar" gave him money, a political base, the right (and obligation) to pursue his father’s killers, and the loyalty of veteran soldiers who could help him bring those killers to justice.

As Goldsworthy astutely notes, Augustus chose to accept this inheritance—he didn’t have to. In so doing, he showed two qualities that are key to both his character and eventual triumph. Accepting the inheritance was a bold move, and only could have been done by someone possessed of enormous ambition, confidence, and courage. And, before he chose to publicly announce that he would pursue his rights as Caesar’s son, he took counsel from his family and two close friends—one of whom, Marcus Agrippa, went on to become the general and admiral responsible for Augustus’s many military victories. Augustus knew his own strengths and weaknesses, and listened to the advice of his talented subordinates when he sensed his own judgment might not be accurate.

Augustus was also lucky in his enemies. His first set of opponents, the conspirators who murdered his adoptive father, didn’t have a very popular cause. Caesar was well liked by most people, because he governed effectively (if illegally) and in a way that advanced the populace’s material well being. Brutus et al claimed to defend liberty, but their "liberty" was freedom for a tiny set of very wealthy Romans. It didn’t include most citizens, much less the vast urban and rural masses who had no political rights. And the conspirators engaged in the exact sort of illegal power-grab of which they condemned Caesar: They used violence to eliminate an opponent and raised a private army to overthrow the government. Moreover, their army wasn’t all that great; the battle-hardened veterans of Caesar’s Gallic wars destroyed it. Goldsworthy quotes Cicero’s apt summation of the conspiracy: "for although the courage was that of men … the strategy was that of infants."

Augustus’ bête noir, Marc Antony, had the potential to be a far more dangerous foe. Charismatic and brave, Antony was Caesar’s most enthusiastic disciple. He also learned from Caesar’s mistakes. When Caesar became dictator, he showed mercy to his former enemies—who repaid his kindness by killing him. Antony made sure his enemies received no such grace, and, along with Augustus, he proscribed thousands of Roman citizens, via an official death list posted in the Forum.

Unsurprisingly for a mass murderer, Antony was also arrogant and hotheaded, which alienated potential allies. His harsh treatment and obstinate refusal to pay promised wages to some of his troops cost him an early chance to crush Augustus—the legionaries switched sides when Augustus delivered better pay.

And Antony’s intensity frequently caused him to overindulge in whatever intoxicants were on offer. His only published work, the fabulously titled On His Drunkenness (the his being Antony’s), emphasized that while he drank frequently, he wasn’t drunk when performing official duties. And he eventually abandoned his Roman family and took up with Cleopatra, a foreign queen, by whom he had multiple children. This lack of propriety seriously harmed Antony at home, as it allowed Augustus to portray him as an oriental degenerate, besotted with wine and an Egyptian woman who seemed all too eager to promote Antony’s dream of a new eastern empire based in Alexandria—not Rome.

If Augustus was fortunate in his enemies, he was even more fortunate in his timing. At the conclusion of his war with Antony in 31 BC, Rome had suffered through decades of catastrophic civil wars. A large portion of the already small governing class had died in the violence. Goldsworthy points out that Augustus’s promise of a return to peace and order—vouchsafed by a massive army under his command—strongly resonated with war-weary Romans. Citizens that might not have tolerated Augustus’s designs in an earlier time were now simply too exhausted to struggle any longer.

After he bested the conspirators and Antony, Augustus kept his promise and brought peace and economic prosperity to the Roman world. He physically rebuilt Rome itself on a grand scale, created new farming colonies for his loyal veterans and the urban poor, and granted Roman citizenship to new groups. Goldsworthy uses the years after Augustus’s victory to more fully explore his character. Augustus’ personality is appealing—he had deep and lasting friendships, and a serious interest in Rome’s history, traditions, and literature—he went so far as to write vulgar poetry, in the style of Catullus. He seems to have genuinely loved his wife, Livia, whom he impulsively married after meeting her at a dinner party (a minor scandal, as Livia gave birth to her ex-husband’s son three days before her marriage to Augustus). And, in his later years, he was gracious toward patrician and plebian alike, and displayed a good sense of humor.

But Goldsworthy rightly says that Augustus’s positive attributes shouldn’t absolve him of his conduct. For whatever else he might have claimed, Augustus was a military dictator. Though he kept the forms of the republican government—he preferred the title princeps, or "first citizen," and took the opinions of the Senate seriously—he vested ultimate power in himself. And he was not above using this power to authorize horrific violence against his fellow Romans. The fact that Augustus was "unusually efficient and benevolent by the standards of warlords and dictators," Goldsworthy writes, shouldn’t excuse those acts.

Goldsworthy rightly cautions against drawing direct parallels between Augustus’ time and our own. But there is one lesson from Augustus’s experience that is especially relevant: the importance of precedent. Most of what Augustus did in his early career had some antecedent; even the proscriptions took after an earlier series of extrajudicial killings ordered by the dictator Sulla. Historical analogies give cover to crafty politicians seeking to expand their power, and can be used in unexpected and harmful ways. This is as true today as it was in ancient Rome, even if the stakes aren’t quite as high.

Augustus is the best sort of biography because it inspires readers to make these comparisons without making them explicit. It deserves wide readership, and, in the best way, demonstrates the truth of Petrarch’s famous query: "what else is all history, but the praise of Rome?"

Published under: Book reviews