Thursday, March 5, 2009

Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor

I am a huge fan of the HBO television series "Rome", a dramatized look at the Roman Republic during the turbulent First Triumvirate (the sharing of power between Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Marc Antony) and its aftermath. At the end of the series, we see Caesar's nephew Octavian assume the mantle of princeps ("head citizen") of Rome and take the title of Augustus ("revered").
Anthony Everett's Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor is the perfect complement to "Rome". It covers some of the same ground as the show in Augustus's boyhood, and then continues to the rest of his rule. Through the historical sources available, Everett examines how Augustus gained power--and how he managed to keep it, a task which had eluded his uncle.
The life of Augustus is a fascinating one because he presided over a period of great change in Rome--historically, his rule is recognized as the beginning of Rome as an empire. The revered Republic of the past was unwieldy for the task at hand and the Senate controlled by an oligarchic patrician class. Though a republic seems more democratic than a dictatorship, in practice the political class was small and wealthy. Julius Caesar gained his power, and passed it on to Augustus, through the populist channels of military victories, soldiers' loyalties, and reforms. During his rule, Augustus extended formal citizenship and voting rights to many Romans and Italians, such as provincials who had been thus far denied--siding with what he saw as the superior virtues of country residents compared to corrupt urban Romans.
While reading this book, it is impossible not to compare the historical events and figures to modern-day counterparts. The U.S. and Britain have been compared to Rome in terms of their imperial subjugation of client states, but by taking a closer look at the people involved, we get a more detailed picture. One instance of this detail is Everett's evidence of Augustus's obsession with sexual and family morality. He enacted draconian laws to ensure his nation's virtue, stipulating remarriage for divorcees and widows, and disallowing single people from inheritances. He put his own daughter under exile and house arrest for the rest of her life in a remote city when he heard rumor of her adultery. In his tyrannic laws and rhetoric, he appealed to the "good old days" of the early republic, when life was simpler--doesn't that sound exactly like something we would hear today?
Most strikingly, in one a concluding chapter, Everett states that Augustus was keenly aware that "in the long run, power was unsustainable without consent, and that consent could best be won by associating radical constitutional change with a traditional and moralizing ideology". This sounds exactly like the neoconservative agenda to me--except Augustus's dictatorship might actually have been more benevolent.
Everett's history is lifelike and fast-paced, full of the small details that allow us to feel a part of the action. I read almost all of this 300-something-page book in one sitting on a Friday night--I call that a recommendation.

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