John's Reviews > Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor

Augustus by Anthony Everitt
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May 08, 12

I own a copy

A very interesting an informative biography of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, Rome's first emperor. I come to this biography knowing broad outlines of Roman history - Octavian, nephew of Julius Caesar became his heir and eventually rose to supreme power after the dissolution of the 2nd Triumvirate and the defeat of Marc Antony. Beyond that, it was merely the iconic image the Augustus statue that appears in every history book, and Roddy McDowell's turn as Octavian in "Cleopatra" that come to mind for me. :-) Professor Everitt thankfully fleshes him out in this engaging book. Even considering the gap in the sources, there is far more detail than I was ever exposed to in high school or college - our popular image of the Roman Emperors does not fit with Augustus. Augustus came to power ostensibly as a reformer and restorer of the state, tolerated opposition views in the Senate and society, and even held a series of elected offices with powers voted to him by the Senate and people of Rome rather than simply ascending to a throne and proclaiming his absolute authority. Augustus doesn't do the latter to some degree because it isn't seemly, but in part because he never had to. Augustus' authority was apparent and accepted, built up over a long struggle even before the death of his famous uncle and adoptive father.

It's a very long road from (more or less) scion of an up and coming family in the country to absolute ruler of the known world. Professor Everitt takes his time through Augustus' upbringing and early years and I'm glad of it. It's fascinating to see what not only shaped the foundations of the future emperor, but those of upper class Roman males in general - and to see how the ground was shifting underneath their feet throughout as the Republic slowly faded into autocracy.

Politically, Augustus certainly comes off as a great deal more self-serving and power hungry in this book than in other material I've encountered - even if we admit that he used his power pretty wisely on the whole. In terms of Augustus' personal life, I always knew there was something of a double standard in terms of the first citizen passing laws to promote family life in public while still making passes at women who weren't his wife in private. I had no idea until I read this book, however, as to the extent of Augustus' philandering and how long it went on. It makes the treatment of his daughter Julia later all the more shameful - and all the more likely a political statement as Professor Everitt concludes. Likewise, it is interesting to note how many of the political decisions are wrapped up in and touch on relationships and matters of the heart. Despite that, Professor Everitt seems to go a bit out of his way to kaibosh the traditional romantic angle between Marc Antony and Queen Cleopatra (they merely shore each other up politically here, despite the children they had together).

The only thing I find myself wondering more about is Livia, Augustus' wife. We do see a fair amount of her in the story, but considering her role during his life and especially after, I wish for some more detail - perhaps if only to clarify in my mind a bit her role. Was she a dutiful wife of many years who gave good counsel, or is she a master schemer who manages to manipulate all to see her son Tiberius eventually enshrined as Augustus' successor? Professor Everitt leaves open both possibilities, and even treads some ground in between.

Having said that, I heartily recommend the book to those interested in Roman history and in Augustus in particular.
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