Marcus Agrippa: Right-Hand Man of Caesar Augustus by Lindsay Powell
Book Review by Philip Matyszak
Any biography of Vipsanius Agrippa has a huge obstacle to overcome, and that obstacle can be summarized in one word – Augustus. On the written page, just as in the reality, the life and deeds of Augustus tend to crowd Agrippa on to the sidelines. So closely were the fortunes of Agrippa tied to those of Augustus that any biography of Agrippa risks becoming merely another biography of Augustus, albeit written from a slightly different perspective.
Thus, for all practical purposes, the life of Agrippa began when he met Augustus (then Octavius), for virtually nothing is known of Agrippa before then. Thenceforth for most of the next decade, we only hear of Agrippa because he was at Augustus' right hand when something interesting happened.
Author Lindsay Powell straightforwardly acknowledges this problem in the book's title - 'Agrippa: Right-hand man of Caesar Augustus'. It is certainly as Augustus' right-hand man that we see Agrippa through the early chapters of the book. These take the reader through the grim years of the triumvirate and the civil wars. While the role of Agrippa is highlighted as much as possible, there is simply not enough information available to make Agrippa's role into a full narrative. Author Lindsay Powell is too conscientious a historian to flesh out his facts with invention, especially as events elsewhere need considerable description if the story of Agrippa's role is to make sense.
The book really hits its stride with the battle of Actium, which was certainly the highlight of Agrippa's military career. The battle itself is well described. Though we get mostly the author's interpretation of how that controversial battle played out, his version is very credible, with only a few nit-picking errors (such as when Cleopatra raised the sail on her flagship) which interfere with the text.
In fact, the text has a number of errors that proof-reading should have eliminated. Apart from occasional grammatical solecisms, the most contentious issue for this reviewer was the author's indiscriminate use of 'patrician' and 'plebeian' in both the technical sense of Roman social castes and in the modern sense of 'aristocrat' and 'commoner'. This leads - for example - to a reference to the Metelli as one of Rome's 'great patrician families', when the gens was famously plebeian. While the sense of what the author means is usually clear for the general reader, any confusion here is unnecessary and avoidable.
The strengths of the book more than compensate for such weaknesses, as the chapters after Actium take the reader through a fascinating exploration of the reconstruction and renovation of Rome. Here Agrippa is front and centre stage in his own right, building temples and even personally touring the sewers to make sure that the work was done properly. Outside Rome, we learn that Agrippa was perhaps the most widely travelled man of his day, and the places on his extensive itinerary are well and evocatively described.
Stressing Agrippa's attention to detail – in both building and diplomacy - is one of the ways in which the book brings Agrippa to life as a human being. We discover that he was unpretentious, meticulous, generous and unshakeably loyal. Perhaps as a reaction to the snobbish aristocrats who never fully accepted him, Agrippa was almost ostentatiously anti-intellectual. However, as the author shows well, the buildings of Agrippa which have survived show both taste and style, restrained and conservative as these may have been. Agrippa also believed that art was for the people, and ensured that statues and other works he commissioned were available to the general public.
Regrettably, Agrippa suffered from poor health and died when barely into his fifties. How Rome might have fared had Agrippa outlived Augustus (who lived for a quarter-century more) is one of the great 'what ifs' of history. As it is, Agrippa married Augustus' daughter Julia, so we get to follow the fortunes of the children of Agrippa through the Julian line, including Agrippa's disastrous great-grandchild, the emperor Nero. The appendices and index are useful, as is the bibliography for further reading.
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Overall then, the book succeeds in its basic purpose of bringing Agrippa out of the shadow of Augustus and portraying him as a historically important person in his own right. The author's easy writing style and ability to compress complex issues into concise explanations make this book a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in the formative years of the Roman empire.
Philip Matyszak is a British author, primarily of historical works relating to ancient Rome. He has a doctorate in Roman history from St John's College, Oxford. In addition to being a professional author, he also teaches ancient history for Madingley Hall Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge University.