Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25. Order at £20 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy, book review

 

More images of Augustus survive than of any other human being in the ancient world. Rome's first emperor ruled for over 40 years, establishing a quasi-monarchic system (in place of the fading Republic) which lasted for centuries. He and his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, have given their names to our summer months, and he has been played onscreen by no less an actor than Brian Blessed.

Yet still he eludes us. We don't even really know what to call him. He was born Caius Octavius, and as a child (according to the imperial biographer, Suetonius) acquired the name, Thurinus. Before he became emperor, his enemies called him Octavian, as most writers do today. When adopted by his great-uncle, Caesar, he himself added 'Caesar' to the mix. And once Antony and Cleopatra were dead, and his control of the Roman world was unrivalled, he was known as Imperator Caesar Augustus, divi filius (son of a god, which Julius Caesar had now become).

This problem isn't a modern one, as Adrian Goldsworthy's meticulous biography reminds us. The Emperor Julian, in the middle of the fourth century, "wrote a satire imagining a banquet where the gods welcomed Rome's deified emperors. Augustus is there, but is depicted as a strange, unnatural figure, constantly changing colour to blend with his surroundings, like a chameleon".

We have Augustus' own view of himself, in his Res Gestae (Achievements). The trouble is, he is utterly disingenuous: blithely claiming to have returned power to the senate and people of Rome, when in fact he was its sole ruler. Having seen Julius Caesar assassinated for assuming the role of a dictator, he knew that appearance mattered more than reality. By claiming not to have the power he undeniably possessed, he kept himself from getting murdered. But just what did he really believe?

Goldsworthy admits that pinning Augustus down is a tricky task. But he never allows any aspect of the Augustan project to slip away. The focus shifts easily from Augustus' military might to his love of poetry (he ensured that Virgil's Aeneid be preserved for posterity as the poet had specified in his will). He shines a light on the many contradictions of Augustus' character: the emperor introduced moral legislation, to discourage extra-marital affairs. But he himself met Livia, his wife, when she was married and pregnant. He valued family above all else, but exiled his daughter Julia for behaviour no worse than his own youthful bedroom antics. He was the father of his country, but a country he came to rule only after killing a vast number of its citizens.

Goldsworthy doesn't hesitate to describe the emperor for what he was: a mass-murderer and then a military dictator. But he reminds us of Augustus' charm and humanity too. The emperor once asked the poet Horace to help him out with a letter to a friend. Horace refused, preferring to write poetry rather than imperial letters. Not only did the emperor remain on good terms with Horace, he jokingly referred to him in letters as "a perfect penis".

Augustus took the Roman world from civil war to lasting peace and prosperity, and the mechanisms he used to obtain and maintain power were extraordinary. Like Goldsworthy's biography of Julius Caesar, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Ancient Rome.

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game