He made autocracy and war look good

Review Biography

December 17, 2006|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Reporter

Augustus - The Life of Rome's First Emperor

Anthony Everitt

Random House / 368 pages / $26.95

Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, known to history as Augustus, set a dangerous and appealing example.

He killed his enemies, completed the usurpation of the Roman Republic, set himself up as de facto monarch and launched the Western world into two centuries of peace and prosperity.

How many tears might have been avoided had he failed we'll never know. As it is, his Pax Romana (Roman Peace) glows like a candle for any politician who believes that autocracy and aggressive war will end all war. Charlemagne named himself Augustus. Napoleon imitated Rome's first emperor even in his portraits. Ronald Syme's account of Augustus in his 1939 book, The Roman Revolution, exudes fascist parallels.

Anthony Everitt's new book is written with no such heavy hand. But the rhymes of history are there for anyone to hear. Augustus avoided combat as a young man and approached power only by virtue of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. Caesar of course had crossed the Rubicon, overthrown Rome's representative democracy and become dictator for life.

His assassination on the Ides of March, however, created a power vacuum that threw the nation back into civil war. For the reader seeking page-turning narrative, these are the most interesting years of Augustus' life. Everitt wisely and skillfully gives them disproportionate space.

Octavianus was a long shot to attain supremacy or even survive. He triumphed because of canny alliances, an indifferent, sybaritic opponent and an enormously competent consigliere. Perhaps the last of these, a childhood friend, was most important. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was a polymath - an accomplished architect, engineer, general and author who advised Octavianus wisely in peace and won his battles for him in war.

Both were just 19 when Caesar died and 33 when Mark Antony, Caesar's former lieutenant, Cleopatra's lover and Octavianus' last major rival, committed suicide. Had the future Augustus not chosen his advisers well, had Antony lusted after political power the way he sought wine and women, Octavianus might not have merited a book-length biography 2,000 years later.

Many recent books on the early Roman Empire cover the Augustan age more extensively than Augustus. Everitt's subject is the man, but he doesn't neglect the cultural and political trappings.

Unlike later tyrants, Augustus wielded authority largely through disguise and remote control. There was no coronation, no title of dictator for life, which had been the kiss of death for Caesar. Augustus preserved the forms of the Republic - the Senate, the executive consuls - while eviscerating its substance. Even so, the portrait on the denarius coin left no doubt who was in charge.

Everitt is good on weighing his sources. Classical histories, which mix piles of propaganda and slander with their facts, are devilishly difficult to dissect. One should know as much about the chroniclers and their motivations as the chronicled. Everitt is conservative, questioning the face value of sensational assertions but also making modest bridges of logic when the sources are silent.

For example, he justifiably rehabilitates Augustus' wife, Livia, from her portrayal by Tacitus (and by Robert Graves in the Claudius novels) as a serial poisoner. Indeed, Everitt bends over backward to fairly illuminate Livia and other women around the emperor.

His portrayal of Augustus' death in A.D. 14 as a suicide to ensure an orderly transfer of power to his stepson Tiberius is less convincing. Those who obtain absolute power and grasp it for four decades do not relinquish it so willingly.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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