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Augustus: First Emperor of Rome.

Augustus: First Emperor of Rome. By Adrian Goldsworthy. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 598. $35.00.)

The Roman Empire and its motley array of rulers has never relinquished its powerful hold on the popular imagination, and it is a great irony that its founder is essentially unknown outside the academy. Augustus created the imperial system, ruled over it for nearly half a century, and thereafter enjoyed the undying affection and respect of generations of Romans. He is indisputably one of the truly remarkable individuals of history. Yet no Shakespeare plays, films, or TV series celebrate his life.

Adrian Goldsworthy's thorough and meticulously researched book, timed for the two thousandth anniversary of Augustus's death in AD 14, seeks to rectify this anomaly, which is a truly daunting task. To no small degree, Augustus's obscurity reflects his own baffling inscrutability. The institution he created was no less ambiguous. He presented the empire as simply a rejuvenated republic, but it was in reality a monarchy subject to the whims of individual emperors--good, bad, and sometimes downright wacky.

As Goldsworthy shows, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, his great nephew, who would become Augustus, was an unknown, rather sickly thirteen-year-old. Yet within months of the dictator's assassination in 44 BC Augustus was a serious contender to succeed him, and by defeating Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC he became incontestably the most powerful man in the Roman world; his elevated status was confirmed by the title of "Augustus" in AD 27, where historians conventionally place the birth of the empire.

His career trajectory would have been impossible without a bloodthirsty determination, and Goldsworthy, although an admirer, does not shy away from his callous brutality, vividly describing the proscriptions (mass murder) that accompanied his rise to power. The great conundrum is that once in power, Augustus supposedly underwent a transformation into a liberal, even enlightened, statesman. Goldsworthy shows persuasively that Augustus in reality was not transformed; however admirable, he remained a warlord--one who had mellowed, but still a warlord. And he remained so right to the end: A mere two years before his death, he destroyed the writings of Titus Labienus, who committed suicide in protest, and at about the same time Augustus charged the pamphleteer Cassius Severus with treason and exiled him (460-461).

Goldsworthy writes elegantly and conveys complex historical issues engagingly and comprehensibly. The polished narrator does sometimes prevail over the sober historian, and he often omits to caution against the reliability of the ancient sources. Hence stories of Augustus rewarding a Greek poet who wittily responded to an imperial prank, or generously defending an Actium veteran who sought legal support, reek of flattering literary distortion but are presented as fact.

With that very minor caution, this book can be confidently recommended to both students and interested lay readers. It is a fine achievement. The picture of Augustus that emerges in its almost five hundred pages may not be complete, given the scanty and unsatisfactory source material, but Goldsworthy has provided as complete a picture as we are likely to get.

Anthony A. Barrett

University of British Columbia and University of Heidelberg
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Author:Barrett, Anthony A.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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