7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 16 January 1999
Augustus is a legendary figure in Roman history. For us, and the later Roman world, he is a mythical figure, an image of himself that Augustus helped to foster. He is the god-like archetypal father of his country. In this new biography, Pat Southern has succeeded (as much as can be done) in penetrating behind the mask to give us the man behind the legend.
Her opening chapters brilliantly relate the background of Roman history prior to the career of Octavian. She does a remarkable job of untangling the politiacal web of late Republican politics and placing the figures of Julius Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Mark Antony and Cleopatra into perspective. She guides us along the very difficult and tortuous route that brought Octavian , the non-entity equestrian, to become the adoptive son of Caesar, the Triumver and finally the beloved ruler of the Roman world.
It is easy to take for granted that Augustus would become the eventual victor in the power struggle following the assassination of Caesar. It is a period populated by meny men who had their eyes on becoming the sole ruler of the Roman empire. Ms. Southern takes us step by step, including the mistakes made by Octavian. In this she reveals much about the personalities of the participants but Roman society.
This is a scholarly book. You will find Mark Antony referred to by his correct name Marcus Antonius; and Pompey is Pompeius. It is a scholarly book that is well written and also even exciting to read at times. She knows her material and has written a thoughtful biography that is the best portrait of Augustus, the man and princeps, that we have.
There are many books on “Augustus” (or Caesar Augustus), as he had himself named and has become known to us, as opposed to Octavius, which was his real name. I do not claim to have read all of them and do not intend to compare this one with any other title addressing the live of the “founding father” of the Roman Empire, or, perhaps more accurately, of its Principate form.
However, I do believe that this book, first published in 1998, is an excellent biography of Augustus and the means and ways he used to rise to supreme power and to remain there for over four decades, although it is perhaps not perfect. The reasons for believing this is a high quality book, and for warmly recommending it, are manifold.
The first and foremost of these reasons is that the book clearly shows Augustus as a master politician. He had a consummate talent for spin, self-advertisement and manipulation of people and events. A second set of talents that this very ambitious politician aspiring at supremacy possessed in abundance was his patience, his relentlessness and his ruthlessness. When combined with his abilities to use people and events to his own advantage and his rather extraordinary self-control, this made him into a rather formidable and eminently dangerous opponent and arch-manipulator, as Mark Anthony (on whom Patricia Southern has also written a rather superb biography) discovered to his cost.
The second reason is that although I simply could not raise any sympathy for Augustus when reading this book, although, to be fair, I have never “liked” Augustus, the author does her utmost to remain as objective as she can and present a balanced view of Augustus and his actions. She also demonstrates that given the tight control that he exercised over himself and his emotions most of the time during his whole life, you only get a few glimpses here and there of the real human being that generally remained hidden behind the stately mask. One thing that was clear, however, is that he was as hard on himself as he was on his family, starting with his own daughter.
A third reason for praising this book is that it also shows to what extent Augustus could inspire loyalty and how much he owed to his two henchmen and old friends – Maecenas and Agrippa. He could rely on them totally and implicitly and he could use their own talents, which complemented his own so well.
This was especially the case of Agrippa, his general and admiral to whom he owed his victories over both Sextus Pompey and Mark Antony, among other feats. Agrippa was almost invaluable to Augustus because the later was a rather poor soldier, to put it mildly, and was also afflicted with bouts of severe illness during his whole life which prevented him from conducting protracted military campaigns. Fortunately for the Princeps, at a time where prominence and success was largely defined through military victories, he had in Agrippa a talented and totally loyal friend who was even devoted enough to refuse his own rewards and triumphs and let Augustus claim the benefits from them. Maecenas, who is generally less well known, was just as important in promoting Augustus’ public image by supporting favoured authors, but also was a consummate diplomat and seems to have had in addition a first class network of informers which he put at Augustus’ service.
A fourth reason for reading this book is the way in which the author shows how Augustus, very cautiously, with consummate skill, little by little, and very careful to avoid offending Roman sensitivities (unlike Julius Caesar’s behaviour and mistakes, from which he learned), accumulated all powers that really mattered while publicly claiming to have brought peace and restored a reformed Republic. She also shows that, contrary to what is sometimes assumed, he had no “master plan” when he started out building the Principate from 30 BC onwards. He experimented, and made some mistakes which he was quick to correct. He also had a very developed sense of duty. He worked tirelessly to build in more sense than one both Rome and what would become the Roman Empire.
I will refrain from mentioning how he modified, transformed or established the institutions of Rome, starting with the army, since this is possibly among the better known aspects of Augustus’ achievements. Perhaps his most important achievement, however, was the “peace” that he brought to all provinces and to Italy. His reign marked the end of the endemic cycles of civil wars which had been going on since Marius and Sulla and it would take almost a century before Rome experienced another bout of civil war after the death of the last of the Julio-Claudians (Nero), the dynasty that he founded. This, of course, by no means implied that they were no more wars. On the contrary, Augustus’ reign saw the conquest of the Alps (modern Switzerland and Austria, in particular), the final pacification of Spain and Gaul, the conquest of Dalmatia and Pannonia, and, of course, wars along the Rhine and between the Rhine and the Elbe against multiple Germanic tribes, both before and after the Teutoburg disaster where Varus lost three legions (and a handful of auxiliary cohorts).
He also carefully planned his succession well in advance, with the author showing that, in addition to a “right-hand man”, he had up to two further dynastic generations of family members lined up for the dynastic succession. In fact, he planned so much ahead that he had to modify his plans several times as a number of his heirs died before him. He finally seems to have settled on Tiberius, Livia’s surviving son (the more dashing and lovable Drusus having also died years before), but this was clearly not his first (and not even his second) choice.
Despite all these qualities, the book is however not perfect. It has a few limitations and defects.
One of these is its format and presentation. While the main text is slightly less than 200 pages, there are few paragraphs so that the text is rather compact and initially somewhat daunting. I got the impression that the author was subject to a space limit and tried to get in as much substance as she could within that somewhat artificial limit. A less compact presentation would go some way in making the book more readable and accessible.
Another limitation is the rather lengthy notes (another fifty pages or so). While these contain multiple and valuable references for each of the topics under review in the respective chapters, they also often paraphrase the main text. They therefore do not add as much as they could have and they also could have been significantly shortened.
Finally, some might find that the book is a bit short and does not cover all events in as much depth as they might have wanted. Here, however, it is worth noting that the purpose of the book was to be a biography of the very enigmatic Augustus, as opposed to “a life and times of Augustus” or a history book on Rome ranging from about 60 BC to 14 AD. In this, and despite the above mentioned limitations, it is very successful.
This is the first biography (as much as there can be one) that I have read on Augustus, and I am glad I started with this book. The author writes clearly, explicitly and with a great deal in thought and intelligent interpretation of the primary sources. As such, the narrative is very clear and well layed out, and the book is a particularly enjoyable, as well as enlightening, read.
The story traces Augustus' life from Octavius to Octavian, to the son of Caesar, and then to his political career - the trimvurate, the elimination, one by one, of his rivals and those who doomed his great-uncle, until only Antonius stands between him and his ultimate goal. What Augustus really intended to do, and whether he had some master plan that he was working to over his whole political career is arguable, but he certainly appears to have been a master at the political strategies and games required in post-Republic Rome. While he comes across at times as a bit of a "cold fish", there is no doubt, from the sources, that he had a sense of humour and saw the irony in situations - some of the anecdotes told of his life show that he had a sharp sense of right and wrong, even if he chose sometimes to ignore it, to get his own way.
His sense of survival turned into what could be seen as a drive for a dynastic succession, a dangerous move indeed in Rome, particularly after what happened to Julius Caesar when he appeared to have taken over sole role of Rome in perpetuity. But somehow Augustus always pulled it off. Rivals were eliminated, but even then Augustus' rule was not smooth, nor his dynastic ambitions realised. His loyal lifelong supporter Agrippa died, then Augustus lost members of his family that he had been grooming for power and possibly succession after his death. By the time of his death, the "imperial family" had shrunk to a smaller number, but what Augustus could never know was how his successors took what he had built, and turned it into a world Empire.
A riveting, enthralling, and most intriguing and interesting read - highly recommended.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 20 October 2004
I am a student studying the age of augustus and how he founded what is known today as the true Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus is without conviction the most important figure of the Roman era. Therefore, modern historians have high expectations to fulfill if they are to truly reveal the life of such a monumental character.
Southern does it well. She is subtly critical, sometimes witty. Southern finds the fine line between bias and balance and sits on it throughout her analysis. The first few chapters are descriptive, giving a solid introduction to the rise of Augustus. The middle and conclusive chapters are purely critical, writing in crisp and sharp language. If you are studying the impact of Augustus on the roman times then this is a must. Equally, if you are a pleasure reader who is interested in history then you will find that Augustus is arguably the most important and shrewdest politican in recorded history. Read and find out.