Father of the empire
Even where a historical figure is the greatest letter-writer of his era, or an obsessive diarist, the biographer will hit potholes in the narrative that can either be filled with spurious assertion or cautiously bridged with prevarication. The problem is vastly amplified in the case of a subject dead for two millennia, whose unparalleled achievements were predicated on his close management of appearances.
The First Emperor: Caesar Augustus and the Triumph of Rome
by Anthony Everitt 432pp, John Murray, £25
Anthony Everitt confronts the challenge by opening with a boldly coherent novelistic reconstruction of Augustus's last days. It is a vision of a carefully prepared transition plan clicking into place, with the co-operation of all the main parties: even the rumoured poisoning of the figs that may have killed Augustus is explained as an act of complicity by his wife Livia, when her elderly husband's unexpected recovery of health threatened to upset the conspirators' timetable. In Everitt's interpretation, the ruthlessness and precision of events at this haziest of moments are true to the character of the man, but the following chapters reveal how contingent were the calculations that shaped the Augustan age, and how to the very end Augustus's adaptability outweighed any autocratic dogmatism.
The context of the young Octavian's rise has been thoroughly covered in a number of recent works, including a rather cumbersome biography of his adoptive father Julius Caesar, whose flawed answer to the crisis of the Roman Republic and consequent assassination informed nearly every political step taken by his heir. Octavian's fraught years as the junior colleague in government of the glamorous Mark Antony is especially well described here, as is the key military encounter at Actium: a minor naval skirmish as Antony and Cleopatra's fleet attempted a breakout from a blockade, quickly rewritten as a defining moment of Roman identity. A generational shift had taken place, with the dead and discredited of the civil wars giving way to a group of teenagers intent on proving that they had learned from the mistakes of their elders.
Everitt's writing is elegant and worldly, displaying a strong grasp of the realities of power politics and a clear eye for character. It is inevitable in a work of synthesis like this that some of the detail will seem over-familiar, but his cultural insights are particularly refreshing. The propagandist role of Virgil in establishing the providential myth of Augustus - as Octavian was honorifically renamed - is almost a cliché, but we are reminded of how Octavian's sister came out of lifelong mourning for her dead son to listen to preview readings of The Aeneid.
Recent archaeological findings, too, are deployed to telling effect. The cultural assimilation figured in an Egyptian statue of Anubis clad in Roman military uniform speaks volumes about the nature of imperial rule in Augustus's new provinces, while the subtle projection of state power that Augustus experienced in the architecture of Alexandria when visiting as conqueror is seen to inspire his transformation of Rome into a city of shining marble. Even today it is hard to escape the fixed image of Augustus that he propagated throughout the empire: the statues with their air of youthful determination and semi-divine stare of moral purpose that occupied pride of place in Roman forums across the empire. But it was by making the diverse peoples of the empire into stakeholders in the Roman project that Augustus ensured the longevity of his legacy.
In everything from his moral reforms to his manipulative patronage, the father of the empire proved himself a master of psychology. It is the mark of this exemplary biography that Everitt does likewise, and does so with increasing confidence as political control begins to slip from the ageing Augustus and his vulnerabilities are revealed.
This review first appeared in The Guardian.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006