Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.05.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.05.39

Adrian Goldsworthy, Augustus: First Emperor of Rome.   New Haven; London:  Yale University Press, 2014.  Pp. ix, 598.  ISBN 9780300178722.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by S. J. V. Malloch, University of Nottingham


Adrian Goldsworthy’s Augustus was ambitious for personal power from the start of his long life. A gambler rather than a planner, he seized control of the state with a military dictatorship (in fact, if not in image) that was accepted by the majority of Romans who saw no better alternative, or feared worse. If ambition was a traditional motivation among the Roman elite, Augustus’ means to supremacy were as unprecedented as the times in which he pursued it, but supremacy saw him act for the common good and his restoration of the res publica, in Goldsworthy’s view, was a success as worthy of praise as the violence of his rise invites censure. This is a cautious and fair biography that contains reasonable interpretations of controversial episodes, such as Crassus and the spolia opima (226-9); the settlement of 23 BC (266-72); Tiberius’ withdrawal to Rhodes (388-91); and the disaster of Varus (446-55). Acute observations pepper the narrative, such as the awareness that Augustus’ supremacy ‘was more rather than less obvious after 23 BC’ (272), or the appreciation that there was ‘something chilling’ in Augustus’ display of ‘absolute assurance’ (i.e. dominance) in objecting to Vedius Pollio’s nasty habit of feeding disgraced slaves to his lampreys (327), or the elucidation of Tiberius’ loss of independence on his adoption by Augustus (430). The biography will satisfy the curiosity of its intended audience of ‘general readers’ who enjoyed Goldsworthy’s Caesar: The Life of a Colossus (2006) and Antony and Cleopatra (2010). Undergraduates will find here a reliable and readable account of Augustus’ life and principate. Advanced students, however, will not be provoked fundamentally to reconsider their view of Rome’s first emperor.

Goldsworthy eschews a thematic approach on the grounds that it loses sight of Augustus the man and disregards chronology (4-5). He proceeds chronologically, from cradle to grave, with a Tiberian coda that emphasises difference rather than continuity. The biography is divided into five parts according to changes in Augustus’ nomenclature. These nuances are reflective of substantial change in some cases (‘Caius Octavius (Thurinus) 63-44 BC’ ~ ‘Caius Julius Caesar (Octavianus) 44-38 BC’) more than in others (the grant of pater patriae in 2 BC). This arrangement combines with Goldsworthy’s insistence on calling his subject ‘Caesar’ from 44 BC to avoid the notorious habit of approaching Augustus in bifocal terms as Octavian/Augustus, even if it elides developments in other areas that cross these chronological boundaries. Goldsworthy’s annalistic framework does not exclude treatment of themes altogether: for example, Augustus’ relations with the poets (307-17), his private life and habits (418-23), and provincial administration (286-301). The inclusion of such topics is somewhat arbitrary and draws attention to those that have not been given the same treatment, such as religion. Thematic discussion also interrupts a narrative that is already disjointed by the chronological structure, particularly in the later years of Augustus’ principate, when military affairs, social policy, dynastic dramas, and building projects jostle for narrative space. Goldsworthy takes the chance provided by wars and revolts to write in greater detail on a broader canvass, and in sequences such as his discussion of the disaster of Varus his knowledge of ancient warfare and narrative skills are displayed at their best.

Goldsworthy’s structural and interpretative choices are occasionally questionable. Augustus’ early, novel appropriation of imperator as a praenomen is not integrated into the story very well; more could have been made of Augustus’ boast of being diui filius; and the label ‘warlord’ is often applied inappropriately to Augustus and his elite contemporaries. In view of Goldsworthy’s interest in Augustus ‘the man’, a firmer position could have been taken on which version of his conduct during the proscriptions is the more credible (the claim at p. 133 that none of the triumvirs can escape blame sidesteps the decision rather too conveniently), and generally more historiographical analysis would have been welcome in place of touches more at home in a novel (92, 156, 163, 211, etc) and banal argumentation: ‘Everything else [Augustus] achieved in his life was based on his success as a warlord and we should never forget this’ (481), a doubtful claim, however it is expressed. The famous aureus of 28 BC, which (on the most likely interpretation) advertised the restoration of leges and iura to the Roman people, is introduced on p.223 in the awkward context of the appointment of the praetor urbanus by Augustus rather than by lot (so much for restoration…), and its significance (not least to the chronology of this first ‘settlement’) is neglected. Would Augustus have missed the complexity of contemporary poetry and instead have been moved ‘simply’ by its ‘beauty’ (317)? Is it believable of Agrippa that he ‘surely expected to step into’ Augustus’ position (322), when his lack of auctoritas and obscure background ruled him out as successor (360)?

Goldsworthy’s Augustus lacks the knowing, cynical hypocrisy that Gibbon elaborated from Tacitus (and foreshadowed in Syme) when he claimed, for example, that Augustus ‘wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government’ (Decline and Fall ch. 3). Gibbon’s interpretation, like Goldsworthy’s, is based on an appreciation of Augustus’ enormous ambition, but it is put at the service of an historical enquiry that shows up the limitations of the biographical approach: Goldsworthy is right to place Augustus in the context of republican history (9), but the analysis ultimately proceeds no further than trying to understand Augustus’ character. Nonetheless Goldsworthy’s intended audience can be grateful for having so measured a guide who has also provided them with excellent maps, a glossary of terms and personalities, and an outline of the senatorial career. Yale University Press must be congratulated for high production values that make this book a pleasure to handle and read.

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