During this summer’s uncluttered final few weeks, I had the pleasure of reading Anthony Everitt’s fine biography Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor.
The book is a brisk, exciting tour through the life of Rome’s great re-founder, set against the incredible events in the empire from about 50 B.C. to 50 A.D. Facinating figures like Julius Caesar, Cicero, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Ovid, Tiberius and others come to life in Everitt’s prose while the shadow of Augustus towers over them all. This is no hagiography, however. Augustus was an intelligent, ambitious, hypocritical ruler who did terrible things to return peace to Rome and set it on a stable path to growth and prosperity. This is a warts-and-all look at a man who rose from young Gaius Octavian born of humble origins, to his years as the adopted heir of Julius Caesar, to his rule of Rome as the emperor Augustus where he changed history dramatically.
Here are a few noteworthy tidbits from the text:
-The ‘divine family’ of Augustus did not have a happy history under his thumb as princeps (his preferred title, translating roughly as “First Citizen”). Simply put, he demonstrated a bad habit of treating family members cruelly until they turned on him. Daughters, granddaughters and nieces were treated as pawns to be married off to political friends and rivals regardless of their wishes. His daughter Julia embarrassed him with her brazen sexual proclivities to the point where he banished her to a distant island (she would not be the only member of his clan to receive this treatment). His adopted sons and stepsons bore the heavy burden of his expectations while also being forced to delicately avoid being seen as a threat. In the end, his male heirs either met a premature end, broke down mentally, or in the case of his eventual successor Tiberius, carried out Augustus’s wishes competently, but in a sullen manner.
-If Augustus were an animal, he would be a huge, muscular lion that punched bears.
-Physically speaking, Octavian was not the most remarkable specimen. He was sickly, had terrible acne, and did not have to shave until he was 24. As a military commander, he had a bad habit of coming down with mysterious incapacitating ailments on the on the morning of battle, leaving his loyal (and more militarily capable) advisor Agrippa to do the dirty work.
-The princeps practiced oratorical sleight-of-hand that would be familiar to followers of modern presidential administrations. In addition, his proxies regularly appeared on Roman Sunday morning political talk shows where they forced opponents to commit suicide.
-Mark Antony comes across in the text about how one thinks he would – a popular, skilled military leader, true to his word and politically cunning. At the same time, Antony was prone to make mistakes out of impatience, while his weakness for booze and women hindered him even further. He did not anticipate how his alliance (both political and sexual) with Cleopatra of Egypt would hurt him in the Senate and with the Roman people (sentiments fanned by Octavian’s propaganda). The uneasy alliance and eventual war between the hot-blooded, disdainful Antony and his young, calculating rival make for a fun stretch in the text.
-Though Augustus enacted laws enforcing some traditional Roman norms concerning family life, his own extramarital dalliances were routine and well-known. His personal life made Bill Clinton look like
Gandhi Billy Graham.
-Everitt details the so-called proscriptions decreed by Octavian and Antony during the years of their co-rule of Rome. This basically amounted to a list of people who were to be killed for having aided or sympathized with the killers of Julius Caesar. Thousands of names were on the list, including many of Rome’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens. They no longer had any protection under the law, their property was forfeit, and soldiers and mobs went on the hunt for their heads to claim their prize. It’s hard to imagine how horrifying this must have been, even by the incredibly violent standards of the ancient world. The wonderful HBO miniseries Rome depicted the death of Rome’s most famous statesman, the orator Cicero, which was called for by Augustus. It hauntingly details the Roman matter-of-fact attitude toward death as well as their philosophy of stoicism. It’s the scene that has stuck with me after the series ended – watch it here
-Augustus was able to proactively build brand equity using best practices and sustainably achieve value-added enrichment for the Roman empire.
-Augustus hated fat people.
-Much mystery surrounds Augustus’s death in 14 A.D. The Roman historian Suetonius describes rumors that he was poisoned by his wife Livia (a crafty political mind in her own right, but unpopular with other political figures). Everitt argues that there was little in Livia’s past to suggest such a betrayal. She had always been a loyal confidante and advisor to Augustus. Undaunted by a general lack of evidence one way or the other, Everitt posits that perhaps she poisoned his snack (of figs – no thanks) acting in accordance with her husband’s unspoken wishes. We know that Augustus had been in declining health, and plans for the transfer of power had already been set in motion, so perhaps she reasoned (not unreasonably) that the process would be much more smooth and less prone to factional civil war if the princeps was, in fact, dead.
-If Augustus were alive today, he would be Toby Keith.