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Creating an Empire

by Michael Auslin

Augustus: First Emperor of Rome, by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale, 624 pp., $35)

There will be no animals sacrificed on Tuesday, August 19, 2014, nor will priests hold ceremonies at the ruins of any temples of Jupiter. Yet the Western world should nonetheless pause to commemorate on that day the 2,000th anniversary of the death of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. While Roman religion has long since disappeared, along with Rome’s legions, its senate, and its gladiatorial bouts, the modern world nonetheless continues to owe much of its political, cultural, and technological patrimony to ancient Rome. And that Rome was in many ways the creation of Gaius Octavius, also known as Imperator Caesar Augustus. By any estimate of achievement, Augustus was one of the most important and successful figures in all of world history.

When the world of republican Rome collapsed in unrestrained civil war in 49 b.c., any rational observer would have assumed that the ultimate winner would be one of the giants of the time: Julius Caesar, whose crossing of the Rubicon that year precipitated the final crisis; larger-than-life Pompey the Great; the hedonistic Mark Antony; or the fantastically wealthy Marcus Crassus. Other great names from those years, such as Cicero and Cato, loomed as large in the eyes of the terrified and fascinated Mediterranean world, as it appeared that Rome was going to tear itself apart.

None, however, would have paid even the least attention to a sickly, undistinguished teenager, the grand-nephew and posthumously declared heir of Julius Caesar. Yet Octavian, as he was then known, would, in the space of just a decade, make himself one of the key contenders for power over much of the known world. Attaching skilled supporters such as the indispensable Marcus Agrippa to his side, acquiescing to proscription lists that killed many of Rome’s elite (including Cicero), and patiently working his way back from every setback, Octavian soon faced only Mark Antony for mastery of Rome and its empire. In the Battle of Actium, off western Greece, the 32-year-old Octavian defeated the Cleopatra-besotted Antony to become the undisputed ruler of Rome in 31 b.c. He would hold supreme power for 44 years.

Triumph in the civil wars would have meant nothing, and Rome may well have fallen apart, had Octavian, now called Imperator Caesar, not possessed a political genius that surpassed his military skill. Actium marked the effective end of a full century of civil disturbance and war in Rome. An even greater challenge than destruction was creation. From anarchy, Augustus had to create order. It was his success in doing so that gave birth to the Rome so celebrated in history.

Yet for all his political achievement, Augustus has remained a lesser-known figure, always in the shade of his uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar. Adrian Goldsworthy’s massive new biography should go a long way toward correcting this situation. Certainly, by dint of its comprehensiveness, it will become a standard work on Augustus and his times for the non-academic reader. It joins other, briefer recent academic offerings by Werner Eck (2007), Karl Galinsky (2012), and Patricia Southern (2013). Its depth of analysis far outstrips the readable yet thinner 2007 popular treatment by Anthony Everitt. (More academically inclined readers should tackle Sir Ronald Syme’s unsurpassed 1939 masterpiece The Roman Revolution.)

Goldsworthy cut his teeth writing books on the Roman army, yet this military historian has long aimed at popular audiences. His equally massive Caesar: Life of a Colossus (2006) reflected his earlier background, being stronger and more certain when discussing Caesar’s wars than when describing his politics. On the other hand, How Rome Fell (2009), a 400-page treatment of the later empire, its division into two halves, and the ultimate collapse of the western empire, is a comprehensive, readable, and well-argued review of one of the enduring dramas of history.

This new offering is both a sequel to Caesar and a bookend to How Rome Fell. In telling the story of the end of the republic and rise of the empire, Goldsworthy seeks as well to give his due to one of the most fascinating figures of history. He does so by a fairly conventional chronological treatment of Octavian/Augustus’s life within the context of a world falling apart.

There is little doubt why the republic fell: Ambitious, unprincipled, and extraordinarily talented men decided to destroy the system that nurtured them. Whatever their excuse, none was forced to choose the path he did. Republican Rome corroded itself from the inside out through repeated civil war. As Goldsworthy showed in How Rome Fell, the same thing happened in the fourth and fifth centuries, ultimately leading to the destruction of the imperial system that Augustus had created. The difference is that, half a millennium earlier, Augustus was able to impose order on a chaotic state that was still growing in power, whereas his successors in the 400s could no longer draw on the resources of a shrinking and exhausted empire to fund their civil wars.

The Age of Augustus was indeed a golden time. If, as Goldsworthy shows, it was bloody and saw the destruction of many of the republic’s venerable families, it also was a period of cultural flowering, with the Odes of Horace and of course Vergil’s Aeneid to stand through the centuries. Augustus may not have been the greatest builder in Rome’s history, but his boast that he found a city of bricks and left it one of marble reflects the reality that he ensured that the city on the Tiber was revitalized as the core of a world empire.

Underneath it all, Goldsworthy asserts, the reality of authoritarian power cannot be masked, nor Augustus’s relentless pursuit of it. Where his interpretation differs from that of many before him is in his rejection of the idea that Augustus had a far more refined understanding of the exercise of power than did Julius Caesar, and that this was why he avoided Julius’s fate. Augustus’s approach is often described as “hidden,” in that he refused honors multiple times and preferred always to portray himself simply as Rome’s “first citizen.” By keeping the Senate at the forefront of imperial legitimacy but lacking power, he gave the fig leaf of authority to the patricians and modified the balance among various interest groups in the state, but also ensured that his ultimate control was unquestioned.

In Goldsworthy’s analysis, Augustus’s conception of real power evolved over the years. Goldsworthy sees him as a gambler, not unlike Julius Caesar, and his career as one marked by improvisation and experimentation. Accused of cowardice on the battlefield, Augustus certainly was not Rome’s greatest war leader, but there is little doubt that he turned into a great political master, learning from mistakes and patiently building up the structures that would support his rule and that of his successors.

In too many of the numerous histories of this period, Augustus as an individual is blurred, if not overlooked, as strange as that may seem. Goldsworthy’s goal is to rescue the life of Augustus from the history, limning the passions, cruelty, and wiliness that made up that often-dismissed character. Foremost among the personal aspects of his life was his second marriage, which would have been an ancient analogue to the relationship of John and Abigail Adams, if Abigail had been almost a co-ruler: Livia, with whom Augustus had no children, was by far her husband’s most important adviser, supporter, and defender. Her reputation in modern times has never recovered from the savaging given it by Robert Graves in his novel I, Claudius, but, it is at least questionable whether Augustus, without her counsel, would have successfully navigated the deaths of so many of his preferred successors until he was forced to make her biological son, Tiberius, his heir.

Augustus was celebrated for his general modesty and simplicity of appetite, which marked him off from so many of his sybaritic successors. Perhaps this very self-effacement, while ensuring Augustus’s hold on power, also led to his being overshadowed by others in history’s eyes. This is a grievous oversight, for there are few individuals in all of world history who were more important or left a greater legacy. That the system he created withstood so many vicissitudes is ample proof of the skill of its initial craftsman. In a way, Goldsworthy’s attempt to resuscitate the reputation of Augustus parallels that of Lynne Cheney, in her new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, to recover the achievements of America’s most overlooked founding father.

This bimillennium of Augustus’s death happens also to be the semiquincentennial of the flash of inspiration that produced the greatest work of history written in the English language. “It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764,” wrote Edward Gibbon, “as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.”

Gibbon could have written, with equal accuracy, of “the decline and fall of Augustus’s City.” Adrian Goldsworthy’s fine new biography tells the founder’s story as it deserves to be told.

– Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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