Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones in The Sunday Telegraph, June 20 2004

Augustus was the first emperor of the Roman world (27 BC - AD 14). The fact is well known, but the story of his rise to power is less so, and this is the tale on which Richard Holland concentrates.

He was born Marcus Octavius in September 63 BC. His father was the first of the family to become a senator (though never consul), but his grandfather had married Julius Caesar's sister, and it soon became clear that Caesar rather took to the lad (he was invited to join one of Caesar's triumphs in 46 BC).

Nevertheless, it must have come as a bolt from the blue when, after the Ides of March 44 BC, he found out that he had been adopted by Caesar and made chief heir to his massive fortune - at the tender age of 18. As an adopted heir he now became Marcus Octavianus - Octavian. He returned to Italy at once from his posting on the eastern Adriatic coast - he did not want Marc Antony to grab the cash - and with utter ruthlessness set about using his great uncle's money and military connections to make himself Number One. Cicero patronisingly said of him that he was a young man of talent and promise, who should be 'praised, honoured - and removed'. Cicero did not know his man, and was later 'removed' himself.

Octavian, who was well aware that power in a collapsing Republic followed military might, privately raised two legions and was soon calling himself 'Caesar'. He made an alliance with Antony and Antony's old comrade Lepidus, and a law was passed, the lex Titia, effectively granting the three of them absolute power to rule Rome as they wished. First, they defeated Caesar's assassins at Philippi (Macedonia) in October 42 BC, and then divided up the Roman world between them. Octavian initially got the wooden spoon (Tunisia, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia) but he soon set about changing that and eventually, with Lepidus 'retired', he emerged with the Western empire, Antony the Eastern. Slowly Octavian began to drive a wedge between himself and Antony, portraying his rival as a traitor to Rome and puppet of his Egyptian lover Cleopatra, and seeking any casus belli against them. In 31 BC at the battle of Actium in Western Greece, Antony and Cleopatra were defeated, and a year later were both dead. Octavian was undisputed master of the Roman world, soon to take the title by which he is best known - Augustus, 'venerable, august, majestic'.

The model for this style of book is the brilliant Rubicon by Tom Holland (no relation). But Richard Holland does not have his namesake's narrative flair, and the story, with its grinding details of the changing alliances and personalities, does not make snappy reading. Further, a book entitled Augustus - Godfather of Europe suggests to me the story of Augustus as the godfather rather than how he became the godfather. Only the last quarter of the book is devoted to this topic, and here Holland misses the central importance of the grip that Augustus kept on the nexus of the provinces, which produced the revenues, that paid his newly professionalised armies, who thus stayed loyal to him, while controlling the provinces, which ... .

The book as a whole is rather slapdash. On page one we are told that Greece was smashed and Carthage destroyed in 167 BC (it was 146 BC); on page two that the Latin for 'Catiline' was Catilinus (it was Catilina); Pharsalus on the map becomes Pharsala on the page; and so on. This does not create confidence in an author who affects an irritating air of matey superiority throughout, as if the scholars responsible for the real work on which the whole book is based did not actually know what they were on about. No one expects an author to kow- tow to authority, but when Holland takes on Sir Ronald Syme and claims that Octavian was not a revolutionary - on the grounds that he liked a bit of a laugh and adopted highly conservative views on various matters, and besides, Caesar had done it all already - one can only groan. The whole point is that Caesar hadn't; and Octavian's conservatism in religious and institutional matters was, of course, all part of the game.

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