More images of Augustus survive than of any other human being in the ancient world. Rome’s first emperor ruled for over 40 years, establishing a quasi-monarchic system (in place of the fading Republic) which lasted for centuries. He and his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, have given their names to our summer months, and he has been played onscreen by no less an actor than Brian Blessed.
Yet still he eludes us. We don’t even really know what to call him. He was born Caius Octavius, and as a child (according to the imperial biographer, Suetonius) acquired the name, Thurinus. Before he became emperor, his enemies called him Octavian, as most writers do today. When adopted by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, he himself added ‘Caesar’ to the mix. And once Antony and Cleopatra were dead, and his control of the Roman world was unrivalled, he was known as Imperator Caesar Augustus, divi filius (son of a god, which Julius Caesar had now become).
This problem isn’t a modern one, as Adrian Goldsworthy’s meticulous new biography reminds us. The Emperor Julian, in the middle of the fourth century, ‘wrote a satire imagining a banquet where the gods welcomed Rome’s deified emperors. Augustus is there, but is depicted as a strange, unnatural figure, constantly changing colour to blend with his surroundings like a chameleon’.
We have Augustus’ own view of himself, in his Res Gestae (Achievements). The trouble is, he is utterly disingenuous: blithely claiming to have returned power to the senate and people of Rome, when in fact he was its sole ruler. Having seen Julius Caesar assassinated for assuming the role of a dictator, he knew that appearance mattered more than reality. By claiming not to have the power he undeniably possessed, he kept himself from getting murdered. But just what did he really believe?
Goldsworthy admits that pinning Augustus down to anything is a tricky task. But he never allows any aspect of the Augustan project – from political skulduggery to image management – slip away from him. The focus shifts easily from Augustus’ military might to his love of poetry (he ensured that Virgil’s Aeneid be preserved for posterity, and not destroyed, as the poet had specified in his will). The strands of Augustus’ life are threaded effortlessly throughout the book, especially as Goldsworthy shuns the convention of referring to his subject as Octavian (in his early, civil war years) and Augustus (once he’s firmly in place as the emperor).
He shines a bright light on the many contradictions of Augustus’ character: the emperor introduced moral legislation, to discourage extra-marital affairs. But he himself met Livia, his wife, when she was married and pregnant. He valued family above all else, but exiled his daughter Julia for behaviour no worse than his own youthful bedroom antics. He was the father of his country, but a country he came to rule only after killing a vast number of its citizens.
Goldsworthy doesn’t hesitate to describe the emperor for what he was: a mass-murderer and then a military dictator. But he reminds us of Augustus’ charm and humanity too. The emperor once wrote to a friend, asking the poet Horace to help him out. Horace refused, preferring to write poetry rather than imperial letters. Not only did the emperor remain on good terms with Horace, he jokingly referred to him in letters as ‘a perfect penis’.
Augustus took the Roman world from civil war to lasting peace and prosperity, and the mechanisms he used to obtain and maintain power were extraordinary. Like Goldsworthy’s biography of Julius Caesar, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Ancient Rome.