Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Caius Octavius, son of Caius, was born on 23 Sept 63 BCE to a decent but hardly spectacular family of the Roman aristocracy. When he died as Augustus in 14 CE he was the most powerful man in the world, the first Roman Emperor, hailed as “Father of his Country”.

Part of the reason for this spectacular career arose from his relationship with his maternal uncle, one Julius Caesar who, at the time of Octavius birth, had just been elected Rome’s most senior priest, Pontifex Maximus. Julius Caesar adopted Octavius shortly before his own assassination. But in the chaotic aftermath of the Ides of March, this bequest could easily have proven lethal rather than beneficial. Nevertheless, while still not yet 20, Octavius not only decided to embrace Caesar’s legacy, but to take up where his uncle/adoptive father had left off and become the most powerful man in Rome.

Goldsworthy notes a number of difficulties with Augustus, principally how to make sense of the way that the vicious warlord of his youth seemed to give way to the sober statesman of later years; how the organiser of the death squads for the proscriptions (“These many, then, shall die; their names are prick’d”) became, after Actium and the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, a patron of the arts and restorer of Rome.

Goldsworthy contrasts the magnanimity of Julius Caesar during the Civil Wars with the ruthlessness of Octavius. But of course, while Julius Caesar drew the line at using indiscriminate violence against Roman citizens, he had used ruthless terrorism during the Gallic Wars and this had contributed to the conquest and pacification of Gaul. In his own resort to terrorism perhaps Octavius was thinking about this as well as Sulla’s bloody coup in Rome, during which Julius Caesar himself almost lost his life. Octavius certainly had no intention of following Julius Caesar’s precedent of being murdered by the very enemies that he pardoned.

Goldsworthy tries to resolve the apparent contradictions in the career of Augustus within the structure of a narrative biography. But while the overall book is both elegant and erudite, Augustus still seems somewhat unknowable. This is perhaps intrinsic to Augustus. On the surface he tried to live his life simply as “Princeps”, first among equals with his fellow senators. But this was mere façade. The truth was almost absolute power and this colours all of Augustus’ utterances. Was Virgil flattered by the joking letters that Augustus sent him enquiringly about his work? Or was he frightened and uneasy by the interest shown him by someone who had in the past shed the blood of so many citizens, and still held the power to do so with impunity?

The Head of Augustus, excavated in Sudan, on display in British Museum

The official depictions of Augustus, on coins and in statuary, such as the one on the cover of this book (above), tend to show Augustus as regal and youthful, every inch the ideal of Roman fatherhood and generalship. But there is another image of Augustus, excavated from Sudan where it had been taken after its capture in Egypt by Ethiopian troops. To my mind it is the image of an altogether more haunted figure.

Goldsworthy notes that if there is one theme in the life of Augustus it is that he got better as he got older. While still able to summon moments of murder and ruthlessness right through his life, perhaps some of his later moderation grew from his own horror at what he had once been.

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