JOHN MURRAY, £25. Order for £22.50 (free p&p) on 08700 798 897

The First Emperor, by Anthony Everitt

Hail, Caesar Augustus, leader of the Roman Empire and first master of spin

He may have been Rome's first emperor, but Augustus lacked a vivid character. In this he was unlike his great-uncle Julius Caesar, or, for that matter, Qin Shihuangdi, first Emperor of China, whose name also meant "august", and whose historic epithet Anthony Everitt seems to invoke. If we admire Augustus, it is because the history books tell us to - no great surprise, since he groomed his image throughout his career.

In the field that mattered most to his compatriots - soldiering - he did not excel. His signal victories, over Sextus Pompeius and Brutus, were constructed by his loyal henchman Agrippa; the latter was a brilliant strategist, but in one respect Augustus far outshone him: he understood the value of spin.

Everitt tells us at the beginning of his informative biography that if anyone qualifies as "the founding father of Western civilisation", it is Augustus. Fortunately, this somewhat silly statement is not followed through. Had Augustus never happened, Rome would doubtless have continued to expand through the Mediterranean world. What Augustus did achieve, after a period of civil wars, was a restoration job: not of the so-called Republic (in reality, an oligarchy), but of the autocracy briefly achieved by Julius.

Born Gaius Octavius in 63BC, Augustus was a strikingly pretty and clever provincial lad. He was noticed by Caesar, and this set him on the path to glory. In his will, Julius adopted him, and left him the lion's share of his colossal wealth. It was not just Caesar's money that helped Octavius on his way, but his patronage, his clientela. Augustus was a formidable padrone. Everitt does not specifically draw an analogy with the Mafia, but he leads us there. Augustus knew just when to reward, and when to exact cruel revenge.

After finally defeating Mark Antony at Actium, Augustus ruled the Roman world for the next 40-odd years. Everitt tells his story well by telling it carefully, with due regard for sources and resisting the unlicensed speculation that has characterised screen representations from I, Claudius onwards. The same caution, however, inhibits a sense of perspective. Had Everitt looked ahead, he would have seen how quickly Rome unravelled post-Augustus. It was the Flavian emperors, from Trajan to Marcus Aurelius, who did more for a still embryonic Europe, never mind the West.

Justin Wintle's biography of Aung San Suu Kyi appears this year

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'