- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

AUGUSTUS: THE LIFE OF ROME’S FIRST EMPEROR

By Anthony Everitt

Random House, $26.95, 416 pages

REVIEWED BY BLAKE D. DVORAK

Anthony Everitt did a remarkable thing a few years ago when he turned Latin students’ most loathed subject into a bestselling star with “Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician.” In fleshing out the ingenious, idealistic and near-repellent narcissist, Mr. Everitt set his mark as the premier Roman biographer — except for that “greatest politician” part, which one hopes was an overzealous publisher’s mistake.

Mr. Everitt returns to first century B.C. Rome with a politician who truly deserves that appellation, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, better known as Augustus. It is an ambitious choice for a second book, but Mr. Everitt handles one of history’s most complicated personages with considerable skill.

Whereas Cicero left behind a voluminous collection of speeches, books and — unfortunately for his reputation — personal letters, we have very few primary sources on Augustus. Later Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius did manage to cobble together a good chunk of information Augustus had suppressed, most of it concerning his pre-emperor days. But the sad reality is that there are major gaps biographers like Mr. Everitt are forced to contend with — and offer creative guesses to fill.

Mr. Everitt offers us his first guess in the opening pages. He cleverly introduces readers to Augustus near the end of the aging monarch’s life, while he is busily preparing a smooth transition for his successor, Tiberius. The task required Augustus to order the execution of the son of one of his most trusted advisers. It also required — in Mr. Everitt’s guesswork — Augustus to die while the pieces were all in place. So the author imagines that Augustus had his own wife poison him to death. Nothing, not not even his life, could be left to chance.

Alas, in the case of Augustus, guesswork isn’t enough. Mr. Everitt isn’t the first biographer or historian to notice that Augustus himself was somewhat “shadowy.” The author quotes Tennyson’s phrase “faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null,” a description that certainly fits.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, Augustus intended for it to be that way. Take his famous last words: “Have I played my part in the farce of life well enough?” Actors play parts; human beings play themselves.

Much more importantly, however, Augustus appeared to undergo a change, literally, from a little tyrant to a philosopher king. In Mr. Everitt’s words, “He was devious, untrustworthy, and bloodthirsty. But once he had established his authority, he governed efficiently and justly, generally allowed freedom of speech, and promoted the rule of law.” Today we might simply say Augustus matured.

The ancients would have thought somewhat differently. Character to them was unchanging. The differences a person might show over the course of a lifetime was considered either illusory or revelatory. So, for instance, if a man seemed to improve with age (or vice versa), he was either revealing more of his true character or just doing a better job of concealing it. Cynical crowd.

Whichever persuasion you prefer, this presents a major problem for biographers, and certainly for Mr. Everitt, who says his intention is to make Augustus “come alive.” That’s difficult to do when the “real” Augustus confounds us with two wholly different sides to his character. Which one was authentic?

Indeed, Mr. Everitt does a fine job of chronicling Augustus’ “extraordinary and often terrifying” life. His research is so thoroughly complimented by his writing style that at times I wished he had produced a novel, rather than a biography.

However, my guess is that if a reader held the author to his intent, he would find Mr. Everitt’s conclusions about the “real” Augustus unsatisfying. Augustus, he writes, is “one of the few historical figures who improved with the passage of time,” suggesting the change in the emperor was gradual, or a matter of growing up. It wasn’t, as Mr. Everitt’s own narrative makes clear.

Let me cite two indicative examples. Describing Augustus’ calculated war with Mark Antony, Mr. Everitt writes that “his career since his acceptance of his legacy from Julius Caesar makes complete sense only if it is understood as a careful and undeviating pursuit of absolute power.” Quite right. But we must remember that Augustus (then Octavian) was a mere 18 when he accepted the slain Caesar’s adoption of him. He went to war with Antony in his early 30s.

Then, with the last rival for supremacy utterly defeated, Mr. Everitt discounts the rumor, given to us by Suetonius, that Augustus considered reinstalling the Republic. Nonsense, says Mr. Everitt, since “everything we know about Octavian — above all, his slow, undeviating pursuit of mastery — suggests that this must be a misunderstanding.”

In other words, Mr. Everitt accepts the notion that Augustus had made the decision earlier in his career to pursue power for a purpose other than for the sake of power. When precisely, is the key question.

We know he had a purpose in mind, because Augustus is on the short list of monarchs who, having obtained absolute power in the cruelest fashion, was never corrupted by it. Hence, Mr. Everitt’s accurate summation that Augustus, once emperor, “suffered no delusions of grandeur.”

What this suggests to me is that Augustus saw power as the only means to an end, and the end was the establishment of an efficiently run empire under one-man rule. He did what he could, killed whomever he had to, but then stopped and focused on governing. Curious, wouldn’t you say?

Which is why I side with the ancients on this one. Augustus didn’t change or improve once he had secured the throne. At the tender age of 18, Octavian knew precisely what he was going to do. In his mid-30s, he simply executed the second half of his plan. The supposed “two sides” to Augustus’ personality were in fact one and the same.

And that is a scary thought; that a teenager could have developed such a life plan (perhaps the most ambitious plan in human history), then found the discipline to follow it through until the end of his life. We can see why Mr. Everitt is more comfortable with his “improvement” thesis.

Augustus’ ambition is also the most fascinating part of him and why it is so hard to make him “come alive.” Augustus is so unlike the rest of us, so beyond our appreciation, that Mr. Everitt’s almost total silence on it is understandable. We moderns have an aversion to unqualified greatness, or genius or whatever you want to call it. We don’t seem to like people we can’t put on “Oprah” — whom we can’t probe unmercifully until they break down in a heap of emotion. But that doesn’t get Mr. Everitt off the hook.

I do think Mr. Everitt gets close to the heart of the matter when he emphasizes Augustus’ piety and “deep-seated patriotism.” Only a man who believed in something higher than himself could have successfully done what Augustus did. He had to love Rome, for if he didn’t, then he would have been Nero.

Which is not to say that Augustus was a good man, even by ancient standards. With such a calculating intellect, it’s hard to like him at all, unlike his charismatic adoptive father, Caesar, who still manages to charm us to this day.

But Augustus wasn’t interested in being charming. He wasn’t even all that interested in being liked. And that’s about as close as we’ll ever get to who he really was. Still, Mr. Everitt has given us an impressive book, even if he did set his sights on the impossible.

Blake D. Dvorak is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.

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