Augustus: here was a Caesar! Or at least his great-nephew

Jochen Bleicken’s biography comes to praise the first emperor, not to bury him, finds Harry Mount

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

Augustus: The Biography Jochen Bleicken (translated by Anthea Bell)

Allen Lane, pp.784, £30, ISBN: 9780713994773

It’s strange that tourists rarely visit the most famous site in Roman history. The spot in Pompey’s assembly hall where Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March, 44 bc, is right in the middle of Rome, in Largo di Torre Argentina. When I was there, the tourists were only interested in the feral cats that stroll across the murder scene.

Jochen Bleicken shrewdly begins this long, occasionally heavygoing but unequalled biography with that murder. It’s only because Caesar appointed his great-nephew Gaius Octavius (known later as Augustus) as his adopted son and heir that the latter rose to such heights. But for that crucial adoption, Augustus wasn’t that posh. His real father was a praetor in Velitre, a little town in the Alban mountains; his mother was from a small-town, senatorial background. Upper class, yes; elite, ruling class, no.

That relatively ungrand beginning explains a lot about the hard-working, self-aware, self-denying character that propelled Augustus to greatness. He ate sparingly —sardines, figs and cheese — and drank Rhaetian wine moderately, helping him to live to 75. He didn’t have too many self-indulgent baths, rode and walked into old age, and he’d often hop the last part of a walk to keep in shape. He left imperial excess — the orgies and the boozing — to the emperors who followed.

Augustus’s semi-posh background also explains his obsession with ancestry and the need to show his connections to the greats of Roman history. The Ara Pacis Augustae — the Altar of Augustan Peace, that sublime sculpture on the banks of the Tiber — is an altar to genealogy. Augustus is depicted alongside the royal flush of Roman history: Aeneas, Romulus, Remus and the goddess Roma. Augustus’s Forum followed the same pattern: there he is again, next to statues of his supposed ancestors, Mars, Venus, Aeneas and Romulus.

Bleicken, a German professor who died in 2005 (this is the first English translation of the 1998 original) convincingly argues that Augustus is more than a mere ancestor-worshipper. It took a leader of exceptional skill, force and ruthlessness to save Rome, which was in danger of total collapse after Caesar’s death. For the next 17 years, Augustus negotiated a tricky, blood-soaked path to absolute power.

First came the triumvirate, from 43 bc to 33 bc, with Augustus allied to Antony and Lepidus. Brutus and Cassius were defeated largely by Antony’s forces at the Battle of Philippi in 42 bc. Then Augustus took out Lepidus and Antony in turn.

He even had the self-control to resist the charms of Cleopatra when she threw herself at him after Antony’s death. A bit dull of him, perhaps? Surely Augustus should have followed the wise words of Zorba the Greek: ‘God has a very big heart but there is one sin he will not forgive… if a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go.’

Augustus may not have slept with the prettiest queen in history but, still, he had comprehensively wiped out his rivals and laid the foundations of an empire. In 27 bc, the Senate declared him Princeps (‘leader’) and Augustus (a word, crucially associated with Romulus, that meant something like ‘sublime’ or ‘holy’). It was an extraordinary conjuring trick. Julius Caesar was assassinated for becoming a quasi-monarch; and yet here was Augustus declaring himself Imperator Caesar divi filius: commander Caesar, son of the deified one. His triumph was an echo of the saying of a later Italian aristocrat, Prince Tancredi Falconieri in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’

Still, after decades of civil war and uncertainty, Augustus had brought peace to Rome and assured it a relatively secure future. On his deathbed, he asked his friends whether he’d reached the end of the comedy of life, adding, in Greek, a traditional dramatic request for applause: ‘If it was well-played, clap your hands, and accompany us on our way with cries of applause.’ It was well-played, Augustus.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £24 Tel: 08430 600033. Harry Mount is the author of Amo, Amas, Amat… and All That, and, most recently, Odyssey: Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus.

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  • Luke

    Augustus had little if any military aptitude as did his uncle Julius Caesar nor did he have Caesar’s charisma with his legions but he was a politician of the first rank. It would not be too far wrong to call him a combination of Bismark and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

  • MikeF

    Was Cleopatra the ‘prettiest queen in history’? The only image of her that I believe exists – on a coin of her reign – shows a far from alluring profile. She seems rather ugly with a big nose. Her real attraction may have lain in the resources of the land she ruled over.

    • OldPete

      Spot on.

  • mikes2653

    Augustus was not the first, but certainly the most successful, of a series of authoritarian military men and politicians who periodically came to power and restored order when Rome had fallen into chaos. Marius, Sulla, and Julius Caesar had preceded him in this role; and he has had successors in spirit ever since, especially in the Hispanic world, where the figure of the caudillo is a recurrent one. Franco, Galtieri, and Pinochet are recent examples of the type of Augustus Caesar.

  • OldPete

    Read Terry Jones ‘Barbarians’ The Romans were the real Barbarians destroying everything and everyone, until they overstretched themselves and the Western Empire fell.
    Octavius was not a great general but a canny ruler. Germanicus now he was a good general but Scipio who defeated Hannibal was by far the best and a Republican to boot.

  • Before I even start reading, I see a photograph of a statue at the Orange theatre identified as Augustus despite the site itself admitting it remains unidentified; the head being replaced with each new emperor. Not an auspicious start.

  • trace9

    Yup, if you can’t find a hero in your own world – try another. So long as he doesn’t turn out to be a Nero. What Augustus really shows is the effectiveness of steadily pursuing a rational & feasible goal – or linked set of them – as against serial opportunism. Classically Roman; their rise to empire through necessary defensive wars culminating with the salting of Carthage. Putin’s about to salt all our hopes & ambitions in the same region & we have no heroes left – not even the tiddliest shadow of any Scipio. Dave, Scipio Migrantatus? That’d kill Putin laughing. It almost does me. Germania again at the head of the barbarian tide, now encouraging the overrunning of Europe by proxy. Well is Lampedusa quoted. In a way Augustus was a sort of benign Roman Stalin..

  • Liverpool History

    Ancient Rome fell because of:

    1: Mass Immigration.
    2: The toffs all moving out once the immigrants moved in.
    3: The state employing everyone.

    Sound familiar….?

    • King Zog

      It didn’t really ‘fall’. It split because it got too big/expensive, and the Eastern Empire became Byzantium. In a way the Western half survived in the form of the Catholic Church.

  • WFC

    I’ve always been fascinated about Lepidus. History has treated him as a virtually unknown “footnote”. Some nondescript chap who just happened to be on the right place at the right time.

    And yet, he (not Antony) was Julius Caesar’s 2nd in command (“Master of Horse”). He was the one Caesar left in control of Rome whilst he (Caesar) was off fighting the Parthians and bedding Cleopatra.

    Then, after Caesar’s assassination, Lepidus somehow received a Senatorial commission (and 8(?) legions) to hunt down and destroy Antony’s legions, but then we hear a ridiculous tale about how his army refused to fight each, and, instead of being captured and killed, the hapless leader of this motley crew, Lepidus, was invited, over and above all Antony’s and Octavian’s other colleagues to become a triumvir.

    A triumvir exercising absolute rule over what was then the bread-basket of Rome – North Africa.

    No nondescript would ever obtain a cv like that. I suspect that, once Augustus became princip, he had Lepidus written out of history.

  • Marcus Scott

    According to Suetonius:

    “The charge of being a womanizer stuck, and as an elderly man he is said to have still harboured a passion for deflowering girls, who were collected for him from every quarter, even by his wife!”

    And yet the author describes Augustus as “self denying”.