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Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor
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184 of 193 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2006
For a man who's achievement in terms of altering Roman history, Augustus Caesar has always stood (literally from the git-go) in the shadow of his magnificent great Uncle, Julius Caesar. There's a sort of magnificence to Caesar that Augustus simply couldn't match; where Caesar was a protean talent, equally at home in rhetoric, literature, art, ambition, or military genius, Augustus' talents were on a far more normal scale. That said, as was remarked by a grieving friend of Caesar's after the Ides of March, "If Caesar could find no way out, who can?"? And it was the 18-year-old Octavius who, over a 45-year-career, found that way out.

Augustus' achievement was to ruthlessly pursue supreme personal power in Rome for 20 years, and to spend the next 40 years turning that power into a functioning system that prolonged the Roman Empire for at least 200 years, arguably until its demise, and provided the peaceful environment for some of its greatest Roman art and literature. When he was born, Rome was, as it had been for centuries, firmly in the political grip of an incredibly small, wealthy elite of Senators who essentially ran the Republic as their own personal preserve. When he died, men from all over the Empire were now actively involved in its administration, the grip of the "old boys club" on power politics was broken forever, and he managed to harness the incredible competitiveness of Roman politics to solve most, if not all, of the old Republic's problems while taming the aristocracy. He did this through a constant, thoughtful, trial-and-error process that managed - just! - not to offend the hypsensitive reactionary elements in the Republic while accommodating them to a new world in which Roman power, and Roman talent, had to be harnessed world-wide. An extraordinary achievement.

This is simply the best biography of Augustus I have read on multiple levels (although, finally, his regime is receiving the kind of attention it has long deserved; another excellent recent book is Caesar's Legacy). Everett's biography of Cicero was superb, and he brings the same ability to condense multiple facts and sources to his biography of Augustus. While not bowing down in worship, neither does he show the unfortunate tendency of late-20th-century biographers to simply write off Augustus as some kind of proto-Mussolini. After a thorough sketch of the disintegrating Republic, he fairly notes the ruthlessness and power-mad qualities of Augustus' earlier career, the vicious quality of much of the Triumvirate. Of course, after Caesar's murder, Augustus was playing a zero-sum game in which victory or destruction were his only options. More interesting to me is the quiet crawl towards a proto-empire that, if all of Octavian's dynastic plans had not suffered destruction, might have worked far better than the system did under later Julio-Claudian Emperors. In fact, nothing shows up Augustus' extraordinary qualities so much as the fact that his decades-long balancing act could not be maintained by the lesser men who came after him. However, it DID endure, and peace throughout much of Europe and Asia was the greatest goal Augustus achieved. All this was painstakingly achieved through infinite patience, the ability to take pains, coolly analyze situations, the willingness to innovate while appearing to act traditionally, but the determination that the workings of the Roman state would be inclusive, rather than exclusive. It worked. As Augustus loved to say, "Make haste slowly."

Full of fascinating history and highly recommended.
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68 of 70 people found the following review helpful
Anthony Everitt follows up his excellent biography of the Roman politician, lawyer, and writer Cicero with a strong biography of the first Roman emperor, Augustus (born Gaius Octavius in 63 BC). If one add in Goldsworthy's well done recent biography of Julius Caesar, one then has a trio of excellent biographies that help make the political intrigues of Rome in the late Republic and early Empire come to life.

The challenges facing the author include holes in the life story of the man who became Augustus, leaving certain key questions about his life unanswered (nicely outlined in the last chapter). Writing the biography of someone from two thousand years ago is a daunting task, but one that Everitt ends up pulling off well.

The narrative traces the life of Octavius from his childhood onward. What we see is a young man with a lot of grit and determination--and luck. His great uncle, Julius Caesar, became his patron and adopted him, providing a jump start to his career. After Caesar's violent death, Octavius showed political skills by allying with Mark Antony and Lepidus to create a triumvirate, in opposition to those who killed Caesar (whose leaders included Cassius and Brutus).

The book shows how, with great patience, one of his greatest attributes, Octavius slowly increased his power and authority. With some exceptional friends and co-leaders (for instance, Agrippa), he ended up defeating Mark Antony and ascending to power.

The books shows the nature of that ascent, the value of his patience (compared with the impatience of his great uncle), the way that he used his power to stabilize and enhance the Roman Empire, his continual efforts to maintain peace in Rome, his intolerance toward his own family, his dilemmas at trying to organize the succession.

All in all, a very good biography of one of the more important figures in the West.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Anthony Everitt has followed up his earlier biography of Cicero with this compact one-volume work on the life of Rome's first emperor, who began his life as Gaius Octavius, later added Caesar, and then became Augustus. In the end, he was known simply 'princeps', the first citizen. This bit about being just the first citizen was perhaps a useful piece of political flummery - after all, he was supposed to be bringing back the Republic!

Everitt tells Augustus's life story in a straight forward, no nonsense way. He abjures speculation and sticks to the known record. The problem is that there are far more sources for the first half or so of Augustus's life than for the rest. The text reflects this change as the level of detail drops dramatically. The sparseness of sources must be a nightmare for scholars of the classical era.

Having recently read Tom Holland's excellent 'Rubicon' on the last days of the Roman Republic, it seemed to me that Everitt sort of squeezed the life-blood out of this story. In fairness, this grayness at least partly reflects the colorless prig who was Augustus - at least in public. Everitt's 'Augustus' is a study in first the gathering of power and later the mostly judicious use of power.

Everitt misses an opportunity to explore a couple intersting inquiries. First, how did Augustus manage to hold on to power for so many decades in a Rome that had a habit of regularly and sometimes violently changing leaders? Second, why did Marcus Agrippa, Augustus's great general, eschew the pursuit of power - even to the extent of refusing his well-earned 'triumphs'? Agrippa seemed well placed to challenge his friend's power, if he so desired, but never did so, at least openly.

On the whole, an edifying work and reasonably readable. Recommended.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2006
Thorough, solid, scholarly, and balanced, this well-written biography immerses the reader in the haunted, violent, and sprawling empire whose focal point of power was Rome and its princeps, or first citizen, Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, the first and longest reigning and arguably most influential of all of Rome's emperors. Apart from giving us a well-drawn portrait of Octavius's rise to power through his adoptive father Julius Caesar and his long and eventful life thereafter, this biography places us in the midst of constant struggles for power and the ever-present border wars that were necessary to ensure the empire's expansion and stability. We are treated as well to the complex world of political intrigues, shifting loyalties, and shaky alliances that sewed the empire together over the years. Monumental events in the lives not only of Julius Caesar and Augustus, but also of Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Agrippa, and Tiberius, among many others, are portrayed in detail from available historical sources. The author is careful to guide us as to the accuracy of these sources, and his judgments seem reasonable and fair. In the end, Augustus was on balance a decent leader, but Everett doesn't spare us the princeps' vicious cruelties and shrewd drive to power as well as his willingness to sacrifice anyone and anything for the good of the empire and for the perpetuation of his bloodline after his death.

Anyone wanting a thorough understanding of this period of the Roman Empire is well advised to read this work. Not only is it highly educational, but it's damned enjoyable reading.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2007
This is a well written, anecdotal history of a complex and pivotal life, a study in how a single man can be the focus of world changing significance. Anthony Everitt's disciplined recounting of the events and manner of Gaius Octavius Caesar (Augustus) allows for more than a pleasant re-acquaintance with important historical facts. Fundamental to the author's approach is the manner in which he allows us to see parallels to our own time and culture in the issues confronted by nation whose very success surpassed its political structures' capacity to resolve. Furthermore, at a bit further distance, this book supplies a study of the nature, perils, rewards and costs of unwavering ambition when it controls a capable, energetic and charismatic leader. When read with an eye toward this aspect, it is a sobering reminder that a person must count the cost of significance. If any aspire to greatness, the pathway they must walk, the cost they must bear and the steel resolve they must demonstrate, cannot be far removed from that we see in Augustus. The book is an excellent critique of ambition even as it clearly demonstrates that which can be attained through it.

This book does not conduce to a loving appreciation of the man but it does make him very human to us, separated as we are by two thousand years and a considerable gap in cultural perspective. One admires Octavius as one admires Don Corleone, and there is much similarity between them. One feels the anguish in his soul as he contemplates his own, far-from-heroic military capacities. He was not a "man's man" as was his prime opponent Mark Antony. He was far from the brilliant general that was Julius Caesar. Yet, the flame absent in him, that drove those men, made them vulnerable. Mark Antony's passion obscured his judgment and hid the potential of greatness which lay open to him. Julius Caesar was not patient and hence pressed to hard, too early and too fast. Where Octavius lacked the fire and brilliance of these men, he more than surpassed them in deliberation. And it was deliberate, steady, unyielding resolve which carried this man beyond even Julius Caesar's glory.

Octavius is a study in leadership in a time when penetrating and sure-footed leaders were necessary. It is easy to speculate that apart from him, Rome would have surely never lasted another 200 years. The internal fragmentation and centrifugal forces in the society could not have been contained and the barbarians at the gate would not have had to wait another half millenium to have the city at their feet. But Augustus did live and the world was changed. Such was a man's potential then and certainly, such it must be now.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
To get to Augustus, you need to wade through Julius, which comprises the first 60+ pages. It was well written, but I was anxious to jump into Augustus. When I got to Augustus, it was a slow mover until the death of Marc Antony. Perhaps it's because the story is familiar, or because of my expectations or maybe because the battles are written in a text book fashion.

After this it gets very good. You see how the republic actually morphed into an empire by Augustus centralizing his power, using his bonds with his militarily competent partner Agrippa, the changing demographics of Rome and the reduced Senate and shrewd use of a civil service prototype. You learn about how this family spent its days and what was functional and what was dysfunctional in their relationships against the backdrop of making appearances and running an empire.

Everitt was careful to separate fact from opinion. I liked that he often described alternative views, such as to whether poisoning conspirancies actually occurred, or why family and associates were actually banished.

Now that I'm better informed, I'm ready to see how HBO's Rome portrays this fascinating personage.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 9, 2007
I know that it is difficult to write a comprehensive and correct biography of folks from over 2000 years ago, because of the scarcity of sources, and the questionable accuracy of those that survive. The author of this work has done an admirable job of sifting through what is available, and making an educated assumption as to what is correct. When there is some stark contrast among the sources, he gives his reasons for why he has chosed a particular situation. This is an excellent and thorough biography of the first Roman "Emperor", and it begins, of course, with Julius Caesar, and continues down, in an afterward, to the reign of Claudius. The writing is crisp and clear, and one never gets confused by the proliforation of Roman names. Everything is set out perfectly, and the reader goes from page to page learning new things, along with recognizing things that he or she has already known. A master of the biographers art!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2013
I agree with the other reviewers that this writer does not seem to know his history. And yes, I too was baffled at some of his claims and assertions made in the introduction. Some things simply strain credulity upon reading. I do not believe Augustus had any sort of plan with anyone as to his succession. Livia had worked the plan out years before. Nor do I believe for a minute that Augustus arranged the murder of Posthumous with the writer going on to describe Augustus' visit to him, complete with tears and embraces. On the surface, his telling is preposterous. If indeed Augustus had make arrangements for the murder of his grandson...the flesh and blood of his own daughter and greatest friend Agrippa -- then why on earth would he ever make the voyage to visit him after having done so? Posthumous was banished, period. It's not as if Augustus had any obligation, nor Posthumous any expectation, of such a visit. And Livia smearing 'ointment' on the figs? Now, let me ask you, if you picked a piece of fruit off a tree, and it was covered in a neosporin-type substance, would you eat it? His assertion about Augustus being sent on a 'mop-up' operation to take out a group of some 5000 survivors of Spartacus' group is also something I have never heard before.
Right then and there I checked this guy's sources. He cites the customarily classical works, although nothing in his book is footnoted, and then provides what I consider a lightweight bibliography, most of the works extremely recent.
I guess what floors me the most is that apparently Everett has written several books about this period. Based on what I've seen so far - and I'm unsure if I'm even going to continue reading this - I consider this man neither a historian nor a scholar.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2007
I've been watching the HBO series "Rome" and wanted to read about the real Octavian's life. This book provided exactly what I was looking for. The book emphasised those important years between Julius Caesar's death and the deaths of Cleopatra and Antony during which Octavian went from a boy to an Emperor, and then the difficulties he faced within his family after he took power. I suppose that the highest praise I can give this book, is that I liked it so much, I plan on reading Everitt's book about Cicero as well.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2007
I found this book to be well written and straightforward in its presentation. The Author includes information regarding Ceasar Augustus that is interesting and relevant on many levels - not only about politics and the Roman state, but also about individual personalities, personal relationships, and gossip of the time. The inclusion of such personal insights also made the book a bit of a page turner - sometimes it reads a little like a soap opera. The inclusion of such multi-dimensional information on Augustus and the Rome of his day helped me to get a feel for what it must have been like to have been there. This book is not detailed enough for an academic or a scholar, but is just right for someone like me who just wants to learn more about Ceasar Augustus and his times. The book is merely a chronologically organized collection of well written stories about people who led remarkable lives.
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