by Anthony Everitt
Born Gaius Octavius into an extremely wealthy family, adopted by Julius Caesar and designated his heir, and eventually renamed after the death of his political rival Marc Antony, Augustus was one of the most powerful and influential men in history. Entering the political arena at a young age, he vied for power with the assassins of Julius Caesar and, against great odds, eventually rose to become the Princeps (“First Citizen”) and leader of the Roman Empire. The government he created lasted for centuries and inspired later nations. Augustus oversaw expansion of his empire’s borders while maintaining peace at home. He transformed the city of Rome, proudly boasting "I found a Rome of bricks; I leave to you one of marble" on his deathbed. Anthony Everitt paints a picture of Rome’s first emperor by exploring records of his life and the people who surrounded him.
Since I’ve read many novels over the years in which Augustus appears, I’ve long meant to pick up a biography and see how these fictional depictions correlate with the historical record. He’s rarely the main character, instead appearing on the periphery of the story.
Sadly, this trend in fiction also extended into Augustus’ own biography. Everitt begins his tale by describing Augustus’ childhood outside of Rome, but quickly switches into a narrative of Augustus’ father Gaius Octavius and his great-uncle Julius Caesar, focusing on their political ambitions in Rome. While interesting and engaging, it doesn’t do much to reveal the character of young Augustus (or Gaius Octavius as he would have been called at that time). After Caesar’s death, as much attention is given to Antony and Cleopatra as to Caesar’s heir. Finally, when Augustus has come into his own, the historical record apparently goes silent, for very little detail is given for the activities of the latter half of his reign. I don’t feel as if I understand the man, his personality or his motivations, any better than I did before reading the book.
Despite this criticism, I did enjoy the biography. Everitt has a very easy to read style, and he spices up his story with lots of gossipy little stories about Rome’s leaders, their scandals and sex lives and personal peccadilloes. He glosses over some of the darker accusations about Augustus’ activities, like the murder of the children of Cleopatra, an act of ascribed to him. Everitt also does much to redeem the tarnished reputation of Livia, Augustus’ wife, who has been accused of poisoning many but, in Everitt’s view, was likely innocent of nearly every charge. But he always kept the story moving forward, rarely getting bogged down in the minutiae of Roman politics.
He also did an excellent job of describing daily life for a Roman of Augustus’ stature. In fact, one of the best chapters does exactly that, following Augustus on a typical day from the moment he wakes up ‘til he went to bed at night. The chapter, which draws on descriptions specific to Augustus and from passages of a more generic Roman’s routine, was really interesting. There was also a fairly comprehensive discussion of Augustus’ political reforms, from the establishment of a government bureaucracy to the creation of a standing army. It also detailed his attempts – and failures – to enforce a new moral code through legislation.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Guest Review: Taken at the Dinosaur Museum by Christie Sims & Alara Branwen
2012: Random Rant: E-Readers (Keep them away from me!)
2011: The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary
2010: Discussion Question + Happy Halloween!
2009: Totally Off-Topic: Steepster.com
2008: Bread & Chocolate by Philippa Gregory