Book Review: “Augustus” by Anthony Everitt – The Body Politic

augustusbookMy education on the foundation of the Roman Empire is complete, for the moment, now that I have closed the cover on Anthony Everitt’s Augustus.  Not nearly as dense as Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar, Everitt’s Augustus still manages to paint vivid pictures of its subject, his family (both biological and honorary), and the world in which he lived.  One of the most interesting conclusions I came to was that Augustus was very much the embodiment of the state he helmed: powerful, sophisticated, multi-faceted, not without vice, and often incredibly dangerous.

Everitt’s work is comprehensive and accessible.  He relishes introducing readers to the world that Augustus, then Octavian, was raised in.  His focus and narrative passion seems to weaken in recalling the civil war Octavian fought against Mark Antony and Cleopatra.  In academically deromanticizing this often-told tale, he almost succeeds in stripping it of any drama whatsoever.  Once the rebellious lovers are vanquished, Everitt’s writing prowess returns.  He clearly feels that of Augustus’ considerable legacy, efficient statesmanship is his grandest triumph.  The successful administration of an empire that spanned most of the known world was no small task in a world without electronic communication (or electricity of any kind); the fact that Augustus so solidly laid its foundation that it was able to grow and prosper for half a millenia is a testament to his skill.

An opinion that Everitt often comes back to is that the success of Rome, and by extension the eventual course of western European history, would not have been possible in the hands of anyone but Augustus.  It’s hard to disagree with him.  With so many primary sources having survived to the present day, it is easy to see that the man was nothing short of a genius in his time.  He was an astute judge of character, a knowledgeable student of history, a perceptive thinker with a revolutionary perspective, and a masterful negotiator who was shrewd enough to never shy from strong yet subtle manipulation.  I think the scene below from HBO’s second season of Rome expertly and accurately portrays that.

The emperor was not without his faults.  He was a middling tactician, and something of a wuss on the battlefield.  He could shrug off any disapproval or disrespect from a senator or leading citizen of Rome, but such disrespect from his own family was never tolerated.  Indeed, while he possessed practically divine patience, once it was broken, his temper was volcanic.  He exiled most of his heirs at some points in their lives on suspicion or overreaction; some were recalled (his eventual heir, Tiberius), others were not (his granddaughter, Julia), and still others were slain on his order (his grandson, Agrippa Postumus).  His only steady confidant was his wife, Livia, who was likely the most powerful woman of her time.  Their bond was so strong that Augustus’ will called for her to be adopted into the family, which entitled her to the brunt of his legacy and fortune.  It was an incredibly unorthodox decision, and a true honor.

A bust of Augustus, complete with laurel wreath
A bust of Augustus, complete with laurel wreath

For me, the most interesting thing about Augustus’ governance of the infant empire was how he managed to completely change the Roman state while convincing the Roman people that everything had remained the same.  He did so by waging his own version of “the culture wars” that are so often alluded to by present day political pundits.  Augustus called for a return to traditional, virtuous, conservative Roman values.  He rewarded men whose sons entered public service and couples who grew their families large.  Soldiers were paid well and granted land in return for their lengthy tours of duty.  Speech and press were free, but held to a high critical standard.  Religion was tied more closely to the state, to Augustus personally, and thus more thoroughly woven into the fabric of daily Roman life.  By preoccupying the people with these reactionary social measures, Augustus was free to remake the Roman world in his image.  He may not have been a republican then, but he certainly sounds as if he could have been a Republican now.

I enjoyed Everitt’s Augustus, but I’m looking forward to a few breezy works of fiction now; though it might be hard to find more fascinating drama.

~ T

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