Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

Book Review by Lindsay Powell

The 2,000th anniversary of the death of Augustus has renewed interest in the man regarded as the founder of the Roman Empire and its first emperor. With a canny sense for timing, acclaimed military historian Adrian Goldsworthy has published a new biography of this important, and still controversial, historical figure.

The new biography joins his other well-received profiles of the great personalities of the Late Republic, Caesar: The Life of a Colossus (2006) and Antony and Cleopatra (2010). In his Introduction, Goldsworthy states his goal is to “tell Augustus' story afresh” (p. 11), and his mission is “to write as if this were a biography of a modern statesman, 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” (p. 5). He makes clear that “this is not a history of the times, but a biography and thus, although wider events are considered, our attention is fixed on Augustus himself” (p. 11).

He arranges his material in five parts, dividing the story into blocks of time during which Augustus reshaped his identity and reinvented himself. Part One, 'Caius Octavius (Thurinus)', covers the years 63-44 BC; Part Two, 'Caius Julius Caesar (Octavianus)', covers 44-38 BC; Part Three, 'Imperator Caesar, Divi Filius', describes his life through the years 38-27 BC; Part Four, 'Imperator Caesar Augustus, Divi Filius', covers the years 27-2 BC; and the final Part Five, 'Imperator Caesar, Divi Filius, Pater Patriae', discusses the emperor's last years, 2 BC-AD 14, and wraps up with a conclusion.

The first hundred or so pages of the book detail the context and legacy of Julius Caesar, and similarly of Marcus Antonius over the next hundred, drawing on the author's deep knowledge of the men and their times. In the remaining four hundred pages of the story, Goldsworthy recognises that Augustus' success was never assured. “Augustus did not know that he was creating a new system that would last for centuries” he writes (p. 9), presenting the emperor's life as a continuation of the republic.

Modern biographers of Augustus, especially those writing in English, cast their studies of the man under the long shadow of Sir Ronald Syme's ground-breaking book, The Roman Revolution (1939), which has changed forever how historians view the heir of Julius Caesar. It was written in the decade during which totalitarian regimes ruled several nations in Europe and the outbreak of war with the remaining democracies was anticipated by many. That era of black or brown shirted and jack boot wearing fascists shaped Syme's perspective of the emperor and his world. He memorably summarized Augustus as beginning his career as “a revolutionary leader in public sedition and armed violence” and, in the transformation from dux to princeps, “he had sacrificed everything... achieved the height of all mortal ambition and in his ambition he had saved and regenerated the Roman People” in which the “heir of Julius Caesar had endured to the end” (Syme p. 524).

Goldsworthy suggests the extent to which Augustus acknowledged or disassociated himself from the legacy of the dictator perpetuo apparently continues to trouble many modern historians who refuse to use the name 'Caesar' in favour of 'Octavian(us)' (even Syme used “Caesar's heir” and “Octavianus” interchangeably in his book in describing events prior to 27 BC), which is decidedly odd when the man himself used it unashamedly in his lifetime. In his Introduction, Goldsworthy advances that “many scholars follow Syme and take this much further” (p. 10). He intends to be different.

The underpinning logic is that Julius Caesar sought supreme power exclusively for himself and was struck down, whereas Augustus achieved it and lived, so he must have been fundamentally different than his adoptive father. “The idea is convenient,” writes Goldsworthy, “and at a glance seems to explain their differing fates, and is repeated again and again, making it unfortunate that there is no evidence to support it” (p. 10). To his great credit, Goldsworthy is impeccably clear on what the evidence does and does not show:

“it is important to acknowledge the limits of our evidence, and there is no harm in reminding ourselves that there are similarly many aspects of Augustus' life and of ancient history in general that cannot be established with confidence – let alone absolute – certainty” (Appendix, p. 492).
(Or as director Peter Greenaway recently stated, when announcing a project to tell the life story of Marcus Agrippa, “there is no such thing as History, only historians”). Thus the Augustus of Goldworthy's biography is shaped by the mold of Julius Caesar.

“Then as now the man himself was much harder to judge”, writes Goldsworthy, “for he was too many different things to permit an easy verdict” (p. 476). In the end Goldsworthy cannot quite escape Syme's shadow. He still sums up Augustus as a 'warlord' (pp. 480 and 481). Echoing Syme's assertion “People and Army were the source and basis of his domination” (Syme p. 523), Goldsworthy states “Augustus was a military dictator who seized control of the state, and his eventual popularity should never hide this truth” (p. 479). He describes him as “nakedly and unrestrainedly ambitious” (p. 477). His final assessment of the “real man” is, “as military dictators go, Caesar Augustus was not such a bad one” (p. 481).

Ambition drove him, but Goldsworthy notes that Augustus was known for his clementia (p. 477). Yet one of the paradoxes of the man is how he valued the quality of moderatio (not least in Tiberius and one of the reasons he chose him as his successor), a theme the biographer does not explore. Prior to Actium, he was a ruthless killer, eliminating opponents as circumstances dictated, only becoming “more generous to his enemies as his eventual success came closer” (p. 477), but “once he achieved it showed a great desire to make things work” (p. 478). In truth, prior to 12 BC, much of this “making things work” was down to his talented and restless associate Marcus Agrippa. Augustus' friend since his childhood, Agrippa pursued a populist agenda in the provision of civic services (including free bathing and hair cuts) and essential public building works (which included repairing the Cloaca Maxima, repairing aqueducts, building a massive bathing and sports complex and, of course, the Pantheon) in Rome and wherever he travelled. In short, the Augustus' ascent and reign are unthinkable without Marcus Agrippa. He is crucial to understanding Augustus' rise to power, yet you would likely miss it from reading Goldsworthy's biography.

Goldsworthy certainly recognises the vital contributions of Augustus' friends and associates, but Marcus Agrippa and others like Cilnius Maecenas and Statilius Taurus are, for the most part, very minor characters in the story and mentioned only in passing. Key to understanding Augustus' success is his natural talent as the consummate manager of men. From an early age he surrounded himself with friends and advisors. Augustus expertly managed relationships with men of all classes, especially of the ordo equester and the nobiles. Goldsworthy alludes to it, but does not elaborate. He asserts that Augustus ruled through what he calls “a small informal college” of close confidants (p. 361), whose membership changed over time, “and clearly expected close family members to be able to work together as a team and share power” (p. 427). He further acknowledges that a group of fifteen senators and representatives of all the colleges of magistrates formed an advisory body later called the consilium principis (p. 319, not p. 320 as shown in the book's index); but there were also freedmen who were his personal secretaries. Suetonius mentions several by name – Licinus, Celadus, Julius Marathus, Polus, Thallus and others – who helped manage his burdensome administrative affairs and kept his records, and who were no doubt (a favourite and too often used expression of Adrian Goldsworthy) privy to many state secrets. To manage such a large body of diverse people took extraordinary leadership ability.

It is a key point. Syme's extraordinary The Augustan Aristocracy(1986) reveals the complex web of friendships, natural and manufactured, oftentimes bound by arranged marriages, between the princeps and the principal families of Rome. (Similarly Les collègues du prince sous Auguste et Tibère: de la légitimé républicaine à la légitimité dynastique by Frédéric Hurlet, but no mention of it in the bibliography). Without them Augustus could not have retained power nor have got anything done. Crucially, Augustus had an exceptional talent for picking good men to be his deputies (legati), the ones who ran his provinces and fought his wars under his authority. While the soldiers of the legions swore the sacramentum to follow the consuls and defend the state, operationally they were commanded by these hand-picked legates. Augustus was so shrewd a judge of character and good at choosing these individuals on a routine basis that not one seems to have been tempted to use the army at his disposal to challenge the princeps over his four decades as head of state – unlike some of his successors.

It was vital Augustus could trust his subordinates. Augustus used war as a – perhaps the principal – means to hold on to power. Hardly a year passed when the Roman army was not engaged in operations to pacify territory, necessitating Augustus' military power (imperium) to be renewed every five or ten years. The doors of the temple of Janus were closed just three times in forty years of rule. It was no accident. Paradoxically, there could be no Pax Augusta without ongoing war. War making was central to Augustus' domestic and foreign policy. Because of it he held on firmly to the army and with it the means to impose his will. This is the other meaning of the Pax Augusta, or 'Augustan Pact'.

Goldsworthy presents the known facts of the life of the enigmatic and complex Augustus even handedly. He admirably charts the events of his rise to power, revealing him variously as a second-rate military commander, clever manipulator, confident showman and consummate politician. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are the insights – gleefully recorded by Suetonius – into his personality, revealed in his letters to his stepsons Drusus and Tiberius; his hands-on involvement in the education of his adopted sons Caius and Lucius (teaching them to write in cursive and to swim); his preference for arriving at his travel destination by night (so he would not be bothered by sycophants); and personal fears (he was unsettled by dwarves), foibles and superstitions (he carried with him a piece of seal skin for good luck). There are interesting digressions about Vergil and his Aeneid, Horace (who Augustus jokingly nicknamed 'perfect penis') and the Carmen Saeculare, as well as details of the Roman army for which Goldsworthy is well known. There are two appendices, one which compares the cursus honorum in 63 BC and in AD 14, and another that discusses the date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

The book is illustrated with thirteen maps and sixteen pages of plates. Ten family trees, prepared by David Breeze, illustrate how Augustus' extended family changed over the years. Forty-six pages of endnotes provide plenty of scope for further reading about the points raised in the main text. The edition published by Yale University Press reviewed here, sports a handsome jacket with the Prima Porta statue of Augustus against a black background, but the plates are reproduced in black and white. The British edition, published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson under the different title Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor, is printed with a distinctive purple jacket and contains the same plates but most of them are reproduced in colour.

There are a couple of errors I feel bound to point out. Adrian Goldsworthy states that on 14th January 38 BC Livia gave birth to son “Drusus Claudius Nero”. She didn't. As Suetonius records he “at first had the forename Decimus and later that of Nero” (Suetonius, Claud.1.1), confirmed as Nero Claudius Drusus by coins minted by his son, the Emperor Claudius. It is minor but unfortunate blemish, and one that could have been avoided: Goldsworthy cites my own Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder in which I relate the tale (pp. 3 and 5). The date of birth may also have been the Ides (13th) of January, if Ovid – rather than Suetonius – is to be believed (Ovid, Fasti 1.597-598). In discussing the Pantheon Goldsworthy speculates “it is more than likely that the pediment above the entrance porch was decorated with a carving of the corona civica wreath” (p. 259). That's not what Pliny the Elder tells us. He states (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 36.4) that the fastigium was adorned with statues by Diogenes of Athens.

Goldsworthy writes “this is a long book, but could easily have been twice or three times the size” (p. 11). For his monumental Caesar, Goldsworthy had available to him the commander's own accounts of the Gallic and Civil Wars, which the biographer expertly dissected and analysed in minute detail. The result ran to some 280,000 words. In contrast, Augustus runs to approximately 235,000 words. True, the only first-hand account written by Augustus that has come down to us is his Res Gestae (a document describing the personal achievements, military and diplomatic victories and generosity to the imperium of the Roman People) and some letters recorded by Suetonius. All other written evidence is by third parties, much of it is not contemporary, and was composed with the benefit of hindsight. Yet the reign of Augustus is still one of the best documented periods of the Ancient World. One wonders why Goldsworthy was not more ambitious and did not push for a longer account.

Augustus is undoubtedly a fine book and I enjoyed it very much. A reader owning Goldsworthy's Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra will certainly want to add this to his/her library to complete the trilogy. The author's lively conversational style, going light on the academic controversies, will appeal to the general reader. The book comes into a market where several biographies of Augustus are already available. The news release supplied by the publisher claims Goldsworthy recounts the “events of Augustus' long life in greater detail than ever before”. It is certainly a much more substantial study than the short form biographies Augustus Caesar by David Shotter (2005), or The Age of Augustus of Werner Eck (2007), or Augustus: Introduction to the Life of an Emperor (2012) by Karl Galinsky, or the longer Augustus of Pat Southern (1998). It is more academically rigorous than Augustus: Godfather of Europe by Richard Holland (2005), or the best selling Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor by Anthony Everitt (2006), or Auguste by Pierre Cosme (2009); but it is arguably only on a par for “greater detail” with the Augustus: Prinzeps und Monarch (1999) of Dietmar Kienast.

The more academically inclined who thrive on original sources will be well served by the excellent The Age of Augustus (LACTOR 17); or the collection of papers edited by Jonathan Edmundson for the Edinburgh Press under the title Augustus, now thankfully available as a reasonably priced paperback edition.

Lindsay Powell is a historian and writer. His MARCUS AGRIPPA: Right-Hand Man of Caesar Augustus - the first biography of him in English in nearly 80 years – will be published by Pen and Sword Books. His other books include EAGER FOR GLORY: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania and GERMANICUS: The Magnificent Life and Mysterious Death of Rome's Most Popular General. He divides his time between Austin, Texas and Wokingham, England. Visit him at his website at www.Lindsay-Powell.com

Tell us your opinion - Submit your Review - Buy the book!

Get it now!

Union Jack Augustus: First Emperor for the UK