Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

When in Rome…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

“…as military dictators go, Caesar Augustus was not such a bad one.”

augustusGreat-nephew and principal heir to Julius Caesar, Augustus was just nineteen when Caesar was murdered, but it seems he was never in doubt of his right to take over the honours of the older man. His early career was as a warlord, using the wealth he had inherited and borrowing extensively to ensure that he had the largest army as the Roman republic descended into civil war. He was also helped by the loyalty of Julius Caesar’s troops – a loyalty they were willing, on the whole, to extend to his heir. Having at length achieved internal peace, Augustus’ later career was as a (fairly) benevolent military dictator who brought stability to Rome and enabled it to extend and, to some degree, pacify the empire.

Adrian Goldsworthy is a recognised scholar of ancient Rome and has a doctorate from Oxford University in ancient military history. Although this is a period I know nothing about, it quickly becomes clear that the book has been thoroughly researched. While concentrating on Augustus himself, Goldsworthy takes time to set his story well into the period, giving plenty of information about the period before Augustus rose to prominence, so that the newcomer gets a real feeling for the society that he was operating within. As always with histories of so long ago, the source documents are limited and often even they were written a considerable time after the events. Goldsworthy acknowledges this and reminds the reader of the effect of contemporary and later propaganda on the picture left behind of such a prominent figure as Augustus. As he says “As always with the ancient world, it is easier to say what he did than it is to understand the man’s inner thoughts and character.” He also remembers that not all of his readers will have a grounding in Roman history, so takes the time to explain things that can be confusing, like the naming conventions for both men and women or the structure of the army. This meant that I found the book very accessible and only very rarely felt that I was floundering a bit.

Anthony and Cleopatra - Hollywood style
Anthony and Cleopatra – Hollywood style

Personally there was a bit too much concentration on the military side of things for me. Obviously as a military dictator, the army was an important part of Augustus’ story, as were the various rebellions, battles and conquests. It certainly isn’t a criticism of the book, therefore, since I can’t see how Goldsworthy could really have left any of it out, but I did find it all got a little tedious after a while. He shows Augustus as a slick political operator rather than a heroic warrior – in fact, there is a clear suggestion that Augustus tended to fall conveniently ill and retreat to the rear whenever the fighting hotted up. However he seems to have been ruthless in pursuit of his aims, willing to change allegiance whenever he thought it would benefit him and displaying a high degree of brutality towards his defeated enemies – behaviour all the more remarkable, perhaps, given his youth. Goldsworthy covers the Cleopatra/Mark Anthony episode in some depth, but rather suggests that Cleopatra has been given more importance by later historians than she really deserved (somewhat disappointingly for any Liz Taylor/Richard Burton fans out there).

Augustus and Livia (Brian Blessed and Siân Phillips) - BBC style
Augustus and Livia (Brian Blessed and Siân Phillips) – BBC style

I found Augustus’ later life of more interest, especially his attempts to ensure that he had ‘trained’ heirs to take over after his death – attempts that were constantly thwarted by the tragedy of early deaths within his extended family. Names familiar to anyone who watched the BBC’s I, Claudius (or, indeed, who read the original book by Robert Graves) have their context and importance thoroughly explained, and Goldsworthy weighs up the evidence for and against the suggestions of Livia (Augustus’ wife) as murderer of more than one of her relations – and tends to come down in her favour on the whole.

Adrian Goldsworthy
Adrian Goldsworthy

Considering the difficulties of lack of source material, I felt Goldsworthy gave a fairly rounded picture of Augustus – a man whose behaviour seemed, as Goldsworthy says, to improve as he got older. The man who in his youth cheerfully proscribed his enemies and had them killed seemed willing to show a little more tolerance in his old age – though not always to his own family. I got the distinct impression that Goldsworthy was being kinder to Augustus than some of his critics may have been over the years.

Overall, this is a well written book, accessible enough for a casual reader with little or no pre-existing knowledge of the period; but with enough depth and detail to be interesting to people more familiar with this part of history too.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

42 thoughts on “Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

  1. FictionFan – Sounds like a very informative book indeed. Like you, I’m not as much interested in things military (‘though i grant their importance in lives like Augustus’). But it certainly seems as though this is comprehensive and engaging for the most part. And if it’s an accessible book too, that’s all to the good.

  2. Stellar review! This is of interest. I love this time period. You know, don’t you, Augustus was the like the coolest warrior–ever! Well, maybe.

    And I think Burton should jump off a roof. Why…Cleo is bigger than he is!

    • Yay! A Monday stellar! I can relax for the rest of the week now… *grins*

      You might enjoy this one – just let me know if you’d like me to put it on the list. But…according to Goldsworthy, Augustus may have been a great commander but he didn’t seem to like to get his own sword grubby. Conveniently ill a bit too often just at the crucial moments, it would appear. But maybe Goldsworthy is fibbing – you should challenge him to a duel…

      Have I ever mentioned that I think Richard Burton is the most gorgeous man who ever lived? Well, sexy rather than gorgeous, maybe – with the most amazing voice in the history of the world (until Schwarzy came along, obviously). And that Elizabeth Taylor is possibly the most gorgeous woman who ever lived? And Richard is clearly on his knees before her – the rightful place of all men. Are you going to dump Phaidor for Cleo, Mr Fickle?

      • *laughs*

        Nah! He’s too sweet to challenge. But what an interest of August! Hmm…makes me think. I bet it would be hard to walk into battle like that. Like Hector did.

        Burton?! *eyes wide with wonder, then laughs lots and lots and lots* You’re so funny, FEF! His voice is kinda nice… I mean, it always makes me laugh. Have you seen The Robe? Great comedy. Elizabeth Taylor, too? You’re kidding, right?

        On the knees? That’ll be the day. No, I don’t think so. Cleo can have herself. Or Burton.

        • I bet it would! But I think it’s a bit much to send other people into fight if you’re not willing to do it yourself…but then generals usually lead from the rear.

          *laughs head off* You’re laughing me to scorn!! You are!! You can’t deny it!! His voice is amazing, and he’s so…so…well…lovely! And you can’t possibly not think Elizabeth Taylor was beautiful! Those eyes! That perfectly womanly figure!

          HahahaHA! You’re such a romantic, C-W-W!! Don’t ever change… *laughs and laughs and laughs*

          • Well, Alexander the Great didn’t! Nor did Hector. Or John Wayne!

            Well, yes I am! Lovely? No! *laughing* Her eyes are always black and white when I see them, dadblameit. She’s okay…a bit weird looking!

            *laughs* Me?! The professor is not! Haven’t I just proved that??!!

            • Alexander the Great was my great hero when I was a little kiddie a few years ago. In fact, I wanted to call my dog after his horse, Bucephalus – but my dad wouldn’t let me, on the grounds that he thought it was a silly name for a poodle. Men! Tchah! So the poor thing ended up called Sandy…

              Hah! The truth at last! Well, sir, I shall no longer feel guilty about laughing the Professor to scorn! Weird looking??? The Professor needs to get his spectacles adjusted…

              Oh, I know you’re just putting up a front, you big softie!

            • *laughing* You had a poodle? That’s so…suitable! And what a name. I’d get it wrong every time. You must have been a wise yonker. Sandy sounds like the perfect Scottish poodle!

              You should! I only do it to you…every other moon. I’ve lost my spectacles…

              I am not! What proof have you otherwise? *laughs*

            • *laughing* I’m not sure if that’s an insult… Did you know that Alexander the Great founded a city and named it after his horse? When I’m Queen, I’m going to found one and call it Tuppenceburgh.

              So much to choose from! But let’s go with your taste for romantic love songs…

  3. Well done for making the lazy reader (me) feel as if I’ve read the book. If and when you write a History for Dummies, in that excellent series, i shall be happy to review it

    But…..does’nt Liz Taylor look remarkably like Kate Bush in your film still clip, as if for all the world she is having a moment of wishing to burst into song, thus:

    “Burton, it’s me Lizzie
    Come home. I’m so cold!”

    Wuthering Wuthering Wuthering Rome!

    PS I think you should tell the Prof that LIzzie is a perfect shrimp and is standing on a plinth

    • Haha! Did I mention I’m currently reading just such a History for Dummies, courtesy of Vine? I’m feeling distinctly patronised – I’m hoping it’s maybe because I’m not dumm(!) enough.

      She does! She also looks gloriously gorgeous – I really think I want to be her when I grow up! I feel an urgent desire to watch Who’s Afraid now…

      Poor Prof! Every day he comes here and every day I’ve posted a picture of some gorgeous man. You can understand his jealousy issues really… 😉

      • Is that the History one, or the Scottish one. If you are feeling patronised it will be because you are far and away out of dummy zone. I’d probably be pathetically grateful for enlightenment. I LOVE the computer ones, I am that so enlightened dummy

        (PS I don’t really want to be mentioning pictures of men who have surprising hairdos. Sniggers furtively in a corner – I bet the Prof felt happy then!)

        Of course, if and when you post a picture of Uma Thurman with some gorgeous man it will probably be perfectly true than Uma is the taller. And even that the gorgeous (though smaller) man is standing on a plinth

        • The Scottish one. Well, thank you, but I think it may have less to do with my superior intellect and more to do with the author’s overuse of exclamation marks!!!! to be honest.

          (Tsk! Tsk! Naughty!)

          Unless Uma is standing in a ditch…

  4. Yes, I do think young men tend to be more brutal or reactionary than those who are older and wiser—unless they just become more akin to psychopathic killers. Don’t political types use the percentage of single young men compared to total population as a measure of a country’s likelihood for unrest?

    Anyway, my husband will definitely be interested in this one. He’s read I, Claudius, and at some point, one about Julius Caesar, though I can’t recall which. There are so many.

    • Do they? Yes, I think that sounds like a pretty good measure myself. In his defence, it seems he was fairly typical of his time – I’m not sure ancient Rome is a place I’d like to spend my holidays…

      If he is interested, it’s been published as Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor as well. This habit of putting books out under different titles is just weird…

  5. I delved into Roman history a number of times. I went through it with my children when I was homeschooling them, then again when I was tutoring a seventh and eighth grade student and my husband and I watched I, Claudius. People who think the world is worse than it has ever been need to read about Rome.

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