Augustus Caesar is, next to Julius Caesar, arguably the most famous Roman in history. Adrian Goldsworthy’s Augustus breaks away from the more traditional narrative of Augustus – that he was walking in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, his adopted uncle and famous Roman general and dictator, even if he takes the time to discuss Augustus’s father’s life, and a quick overview of Julius Caesar’s rise and fall from power. Instead, Goldsworthy charts out an Augustus all his own; a man, soldier, and statesman, who charted his own course and changed Roman and Western history in the process.
Goldsworthy, however, is not afraid to be critical and harsh in pronouncement and judgment at the brutality and harshness of his actions and rule. Yet he is equal in his assessment of the great positives of the emperor’s life and rule, as well as the hopeful optimism that great Roman figures had, like Cicero, Virgil, or Horace, upon hearing the news of Antony’s death and Cleopatra’s suicide (pp. 196-198): “The poets reflected an almost universal desire for a return to peace and stability after so many long years of upheaval and violence” (p. 197). After all, Goldsworthy is clear that violence and brutality in Roman politics was the norm, especially in Part One that deals with Caius Octavius, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Pompey, Catiline, among other notables in Roman history. But the violence that Augustus grew up in and involved himself in is just part of the story. And unlike other figures, Augustus’s dance with violence did, genuinely, aim at peace and stability after a century of violence that ruptured the very heart of Rome. (The peace of Augustus’s reign reveals as much.)
Moving all the way to Part Four of his biography, Goldsworthy highlights how Augustus took a tired and depleted Roman state, having been wrought over the past two and half decades with civil war and unrest, and turned it into a prosperous and stable “empire.” He also, in a way, shies away from the old narrative that he was remaking Rome into its old republican culture (a common story about Augustus) but is clear to emphasize his renewal and revivalist campaigns that aimed at harkening back to the older days of the republic. Augustus wasn’t an outright reactionary. He was also a modernist. In many ways Goldsworthy shows how Augustus was a revolutionary and enlightened leader who was also aware of the moral failings of the society he came to rule. For Goldsworthy, Augustus’s greatest accomplishment wasn’t defeating his rivals and becoming emperor but what was achieved, arguably, during his reign and in the immediate aftermath of his death. I take the title of the review from Chapter 22: Pax Augusta, as this (the larger Pax Romana) is the enduring legacy of Augustus as emperor. This, Goldsworthy strongly implies, is the emperor’s grand accomplishment.
Rome had been plagued by internal instability, jealous rivalry, and civil war before his birth and during his formative years. Yet, by the time of his ascension to emperor, Augustus would transform the entire Roman (Mediterranean) world. Pax Romana begins with the Pax Augusta – the Peace of Augustus. He would be Rome’s longest reigning monarch. He restored stability to an unstable realm. This stability ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity, not only for the elites, but also for the common plebeians.
In the end, Adrian Goldsworthy produces a fine piece of scholarship, very much akin to his earlier works in Roman history. His biography is second-to-none, and he is arguably well-deserving of being considered one of the greatest living classicists writing today. And while he does a great job in bridging the “two lives” of Augustus (the earlier soldier and warrior and the later emperor, statesman, and revivalist), Goldsworthy is honest and upfront that a definitive portrait of Augustus is hard to ascertain because of the lack of information available to scholars. Even so, Goldsworthy biography will become essential reading for anyone with an interest in Roman history, especially those with an interest in the transitional period between republic to empire. The book contains 44 images in the middle of the work, an 18 page bibliography, and is filled with a wealth of reference material for both the historian and laymen to research on their own time if one wants further reading. It is the definitive contemporary biography of Augustus. It also serves as a bridge to the wealth of scholarship on Augustus.
Augustus: First Emperor of Rome
By Adrian Goldsworthy
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014; 640pp.
This review is adapted from my Amazon review of the book.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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