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Review of Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

It was with great pleasure that I recently read Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy.

Augustus is, in my opinion, one of the greatest men of history, if not the greatest.

Like Julius Caesar, who adopted him, Augustus aspired to power, aiming to place all of Rome under his control. Unlike Julius Caesar, Augustus succeeding in holding that position until he died of natural causes.

Like his great ancestors, Augustus aimed to ensure the glory of Rome. Like them, but unlike many of his successors, he succeeded.

He came upon Rome as it was at the end of the Republic, when the city was a den of decadence, men were without virtue, an oligarchic elite controlled almost everything, and the Empire was wracked by civil war. He left it a stable society “clothed in marble.” Great buildings were erected. Roman eagles were recovered from the Parthians, all the pretenders to the purple had been dealt with, he had found a ready and able successor, the borders of the empire were secure. Augustus turned a decaying society into a vibrant one, a rotting city into a symbol of greatness.

So, because he was such a great man, I wanted to learn more about him. While I have no aspirations to the purple and diadem, there’s much to be learned by reading about great men; why not cut to the chase and learn about the greatest man?

When I saw that Goldsworthy, author of the excellent Pax Romana (although that one should have been called the Pax Augusta), had written a biography of Augustus, I knew I had to read it.

And wow was it excellent. I wasn’t disappointed and you won’t be either.

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And yes, as Goldsworthy notes, we’d be suspicious of a man like Augustus in our age. Were he to exist in some distant land, America would likely intervene to stop him (and, if Afghanistan is any guide, promptly lose after a long and fruitless struggle). But he’s a great man. He’s worth remembering nonetheless, if you’re the sort that cares about the man’s title and bloodier moments rather than his accomplishments:

The modern world has grown very suspicious of dictators of whatever political hue, and less willing to pardon the murderous nature of Augustus’ rise as being justified by the peace he eventually created. Yet we need to be careful not to paint the past in simple shades, or automatically to assume that all dictators or all empires, or indeed all states, are essentially alike. Augustus killed a lot of people, but he inflicted on the world nothing like the misery of a Hitler or a Stalin, and, as ever, we should view his behaviour in the context of the times.

Goldsworthy begins by setting the stage, describing Augustus’s monumental importance in a few short sentences:

“You cannot study Roman history without coming across Augustus and his legacy. He was the first emperor, the man who finally replaced a Republic which had lasted for almost half a millennium with a veiled monarchy. The system he created gave the empire some 250 years of stability, when it was both larger and more prosperous than at any other time.”

And was that great man a seasoned political and/or military man when he began his climb to the purple? No. He was barely a man, a young adult with a good name:

he was not quite nineteen when he thrust himself into Rome’s extremely violent politics – hence almost always younger than anyone in the class. It is often hard to remember this when recounting what he did, skilfully and unscrupulously manoeuvring his way through the twisting allegiances of these years of civil war. The great-nephew of the murdered Julius Caesar, he was made the principal heir in his will and given his name, which he took to mean full adoption. Power was not supposed to be inherited at Rome, but armed with this name he rallied the dead dictator’s supporters and proclaimed his intention to assume all of his father’s offices and status. He then proceeded to achieve precisely that, against all the odds and opposed by far more experienced rivals

But there was genius in the boy, when he won power, he, unlike his uncle and adopted father, Julius Caesar, ensured it would remain his as long as he was breathing:

The young, murderous warlord of the civil wars then managed to reinvent himself as the beloved guardian of the state, took the name Augustus with its religious overtones, and was eventually dubbed ‘the father of his country’, an inclusive rather than divisive figure. He held supreme power for forty-four years – a very long time for any monarch – and when he died of old age, there was no question that his nominated successor would follow him.

And how did he do so? By acting ruthlessly, fighting to win and playing for keeps. Unlike his uncle, he was not forgiving to his enemies:

The triumvirs [Augustus and two others] presented the proscriptions as the necessary elimination of enemies of the state and its leaders. They declared that Julius Caesar had shown clemency only to be murdered by the very men he had spared. They did not intend to repeat that mistake, and so would kill without mercy anyone they considered to be an enemy, ignoring even ties of friendship and family.

The result of that brutality and much more was that the young man eventually won, gaining control over the entirety of the known world:

At the end of 30 BC Caesar was thirty-three years old and for the moment had no serious rival for mastery of Rome and the entire Mediterranean world.

But, despite what people today say about strongmen such as Augustus, he didn’t use his power to stroke his vanity or pursue his darker proclivities, at least not much. Instead, he slashed away the decay of the Republic and made Rome great again, working tirelessly to solve the issues facing his beloved empire:

Augustus was able to make things happen. If he was not involved, then the inertia which had characterised senatorial government for so many years seemed to return.

There is every reason to believe that the princeps felt he deserved to win the civil wars, to gain supremacy and to hold onto it because it served the wider good – obviously as he perceived it. Thus he could really see himself as merely the first magistrate of the state, a servant rather than a ruler. Self-restraint, and the desire to live up to his own ideal, make far more sense as curbs on his behaviour than the opinions of the senatorial elite.

And it wasn’t just glorious accomplishments Augustus pursued. He also fought to bring back the Roman virtue that the city and its citizens had been praised for and prided themselves about before the decadence set in:

Around the same time he also introduced a law, the lex Julia de adulteriis, punishing adultery and any sexual intercourse with free-born women outside of wedlock.

Augustus pursued power ruthlessly, but once he achieved it showed a great desire to make things work properly, whether it was the food or water supply, the road system, the various magistracies, or the administration of Rome itself, Italy and the provinces. The resources lavished on repairing old temples and building new ones were intended to restore a proper relationship with the gods who had once made Rome great and could do so again.

Eventually, Augustus died. But while he was alive, he gave us a brilliant example of what greatness looks like. It was because of Augustus that Rome became what it did, because of Augustus, perhaps, that a society torn to shreds by Civil Wars quickly emerged from the darkness and lasted for almost 500 more years as the premier power in the world.

What’s the lesson? Perhaps that, with certain men, having a princeps is better than having a Republic:

‘Democracy, indeed, has a fair-appearing name . . . Monarchy . . . has an unpleasant sound, but is a most practical form of government to live under. For it is easier to find a single excellent man than many of them . . . for it does not belong to the majority of men to acquire virtue . . . Indeed, if ever there has been a prosperous democracy, it has in any case been at its best for only a brief period.’ -Dio, early third century AD

By: Gen Z Conservative