This book is a narrative of that period of Roman history between the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and the death of Augustus and accession of Tiberius in 14 AD. It is an oft-told tale and the author does not specify what audience he has in mind. However, as he inserts elementary explanatory matter into his text (see for example p. 45 on the praetorship), I take it he has the undergraduate and possibly also the general reader in mind.
A number of issues merit separate comment. It is refreshing to discover that, contrary to what many believe, Caesar had no real notion what to do with the republic. On Augustus, too, Alston is good as he demonstrates that the emperor, when necessary, could be as ruthless as the triumvir. We all know that Augustus proceeded in a pragmatic fashion as he inserted himself into the republican system, but Alston demonstrates how precarious, at times, his position could be. We do need to remember, though, that he succeeded; here a comparison with Caligula might be useful. Augustus was circumspect, Caligula extravagant so that one died in his bed, the other was assassinated. Good, too, is Alston’s treatment of the love-affairs of Augustus’ daughter, Julia (pp. 321-325). Too often in this and similar cases, we meet with a magisterial dismissal, such as ‘mere gossip’ from those who have not weighed the evidence or taken account of curial life. But Alston is judicious and, rightly in my view, concludes that there is a basis of fact here. Less successful, perhaps, is his attempt to claim that his predecessors downplayed the violence of these years, although I, at least, would not quarrel with the notion that in the republic the nobility controlled the business of state, while under the empire they did so by one man’s leave. Alston also likes to speak of the upper classes of Rome as forming a network. To me, this wears a somewhat anachronistic air, making the rulers of Rome sound like twenty-first century entrepreneurs or thrusting young academics. The excesses of some of its less skilled practitioners, together with changes in scholarly fashion, mean that prosopography is no longer utilised as much as it once was, but its proper application here would have served to highlight the nexus of relationships which bound the Roman military together. Alston also speaks of distribution of reserves. Perhaps ‘patronage’ might be a more appropriate term?
There are a number of doubtful or simply erroneous statements to be found in this book. Caesarion was not Caesar’s only child (p. 22). A ‘new man’ is not someone ‘without a distinguished heritage of senatorial service’ (p. 45). Alston places the battlefield of Vercellae near Milan but research published as long ago as the 1950s demonstrated that the neighbourhood of Rovigo is more likely (p. 46). Rome’s first civil war was in 83-82 BC and not in 84-81 BC (pp. 50, 136). Sulla did not force Caesar into exile (p. 58). Marian exiles were not restored in 70 BC. This appears to be a confusion with the followers of Lepidus, cos. 78 BC (p. 59). The Labienus who led the Parthians in 41 BC was not Caesar’s former legate but his son (p. 184). Augustus did not invent the Lusus Troiae (p. 227). Caesar’s first consulship was in 59 BC, not 60 BC (p. 340).
There is not a great deal that is new here. The strength of the book lies elsewhere. If we except the slips I have noted, Alston provides the putative reader with a reliable and also accessible narrative of the period. Leavened with a dry wit (see, for instance, p. 64 on Cicero’s poetry or p. 374, n34 where contemporary politicians, who sleep with their opponents’ wives, are advised to adopt Augustus’ excuse that they were doing it to discover what their husbands were up to), Alston is consistently clear and lively in exposition. Those who are new to the period will be well served.