Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Life of Rome's First Emperor

In my various adventures since I last rapped at you, I picked up Anthony Everitt's new biography Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor to fill the time while moving about the country with my tray table in its prostrate and unlocked position. The book is an interesting exploration of Augustus' life and Everitt admits quite frequently that we know little of the man based upon contemporaneous record simply because Augustus was an example of the quintessential autocratic politician: image control was everything and political secrets could make or break an administration. For example, at one point very late in his life Augustus went on a super-secret mission to visit his ne'er-do-well nephew Agrippa Posthumous (whom the princeps had adopted as his own son and would have succeeded him if he would have behaved better). When a senator who accompanied him on the tripped blabbed the top secret news to his wife, the man mysteriously died and his wife wailed at his funeral that she was the cause of his death. The wife, apparently, had told the news to others and it eventually got back to Augustus's politically adept wife Livia. Ultimately Augustus seemed very upset with the senator and removed him from his circle of close friends. As Everitt admits, the senator could have committed suicide (quite a common occurrence in Roman politics) or he could have died (which seems far-fetched to me) of stress at being on the outs with the head dude in charge.

Robert Graves (see I, Claudius) used such stories to portray Livia as power-hungry and manipulative. Everitt, however, dismisses such a portrayal of Livia and uses it more to show that Augustus simply wanted to see for himself the status of his would-be son and determine if he could be rehabilitated. To Everrit, Augustus was engaging in the very thing that got him on the throne in the first place: political sleight of hand and manipulation. Given that Posthumous was killed right after the Emperor's death one could either determine (ala Graves) that Livia and Tiberius had the kid killed simply to clear any possibility of his ascension to imperium. Everitt, however, takes the position that as always, Augustus was scheming himself and knew that his unfortunate progeny was unfit to rule and thus assured Tiberius ascension to the purple.

Everitt does engage in some pretty knowledgeable explication of Roman life and the political scene at the dawn of the millennium, but he seems to make use of speculative narrative to explain away the actions of people whom we have very little historical knowledge. Granted that his conclusions make sense given Augustus' proclivities to control political situations, but like Greenblatt's Will in the World, it often stretches the blend of historical fact and authorial interpretation to the point that the historian's bias, if not sifted out by the careful reader, is presented as historical fact. I must respect Everitt, however, in that unlike Greenblatt he readily admits (quite often) that he is engaging in speculation. Greenblatt does indeed do that too, but oftentimes his own thesis overwhelms the sparse factual evidence.

In all, however, I think I would prefer to read a biography like Will in the World or Augustus rather than some dry events-only text.


  1. It's too late to listen to your article on Talker, but I must ask: where are you? When I was last in the U.K., I got to see a little bit of the Roman Wall, which really was kind of a big deal to me. Also Bath, with the Roman baths.

  2. Anonymous1:44 AM

    I've kind of gotten into reading history lately myself. I recently finished a book on Catherine the Great. It was interesting and added a bit of embellishment that did let you get a sense of the kind of person the author thought she was, but in the end it was pretty dry and became a recitation of the facts surrounding the later stages of her rule and death. Dull as shit.

  3. I'm not really in the UK, lb. I am just goofing off.