AUGUSTUS: The Biography

By Jochen Bleicken (tr. Anthea Bell)

Allen Lane (2015) h/b 771pp £30.00 (ISBN 9780713994773)

In this work de longue haleine, first published in Germany in 1998, and now admirably (one confidently hazards) translated by Anthea Bell, B. gives a very detailed account of how the 18 year-old Gaius Octavius, with little to back him in terms of birth, wealth, appearance, or military accomplishment, and indeed of distinctly poor health and dubious physical courage, yet rose to become, as Augustus, the first Roman emperor and one whose auctoritas enabled him to rule as princeps for over forty years, while establishing the Roman empire—in doing so he travelled widely and often—in a form that successfully endured for centuries. His one great advantage was that he had been named as son and heir in the will of the assassinated Julius Caesar; and besides steely ambition and will-power, he also enjoyed considerable good fortune in the very difficult years of civil war before Actium, and, nearly a year later, the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BC.

It is a little surprising that B.’s book opens without an Introduction or Foreword of any kind (was there one in the German edition?); and the text mercifully dispenses with those too frequent references to other scholars (eg ‘Syme [1939]’) to which we have become accustomed: Mommsen alone is referred to, and that not very often. Of course the Notes—nearly 100 pages—give the documentary evidence and the necessary references to modern scholarship; the bibliography is full, but notably less bloated than some we have seen (but cites only the first edition of CAH, volume X), and since the text is not lavish with dates, the Chronology given on pp.717-723 is helpful.

To resume: the text takes us through the long life (he died aged 76) and achievements of Augustus in as much detail as anyone but a professional historian of the period could possibly want: that life is far too well-known for there to be any need to recapitulate it here, but it is perhaps worth noting that (the then still) Octavian showed no inclination to match the famous clementia of Julius Caesar in the proscriptions of 43 BC made by the triumvirs: the many victims included his former tutor Toranius and, most notably, Cicero, the only consular to be killed, who had once described Augustus as adulescentulum laudandum, ornandum, tollendum (i.e. discarded): the words (not cited in B.) were reported to its subject. Later, during the Principate, what is remarkable is not that difficulties arose from time to time (Cornelius Gallus in Egypt, Marcus Primus in Macedonia), but that such episodes were so rare.

Given this background, the reader will want to ascertain B.’s views on the nature of Augustus’s principate. Many Anglophone readers are likely to have in their minds Syme’s rightly famous The Roman Revolution of 1939, in which the author, influenced not only by Tacitus but by the rise of fascism in Germany and (especially) Italy, described Rome’s constitution as a ‘screen and a sham’ (Syme’s exact words), and Rome as being run by Augustus’s ‘bully-boys’ (the word is Peter Green’s in Classical Bearings (1989) with reference to Syme via Mussolini). In B.’s Explanatory Notes Syme gets short shrift (pp.629-30): ‘for all the recognition of his purely literary [reviewer’s italics] achievement, Syme has had a number of critics’, many of whom are then listed with references. Since B. himself refers with reverence to Mommsen, except, indeed, where he takes issue with Mommsen’s contemptuous view of Cicero, we can see here the deep difference between the prosopographer and the constitutional historian.

On the nature of the principate—and, as B. frequently reminds us, even when he formally held no magistracy, Augustus’s word, thanks to his auctoritas, was law—the chapter headed ‘The Principate as Idea and Reality’ [what a very German title! cf. Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung] is essential reading. B. says: ‘The nub of the matter was his command of the army… The “constitution” might seem an illusion, and Augustus nothing but a hypocrite hiding his lust for power behind a glittering façade’. Not hard to guess whom B. has in mind here, but he continues: ‘Such an evaluation of the principate is wide of the mark … A form of government had to be sought that bound the ruler’s power to Roman society … That could derive only from the tradition that had made Rome all it represented … Augustus knew that his power had to be based formally in the law’. Yet on reading those words, one may reasonably ask, ‘How far on from Syme does this take us?’ The answer, for B., is to be found in Mommsen, who ‘interpreted the principate as a constitution [?institution] that, despite its monarchical structure, stood within the framework of the constitutional order of the “republic”’. He (Mommsen) ‘consequently counted the princeps as one of the magistrates of the republic’, thus restoring to the principate its ‘significance as a constitutional order, which was the way Augustus wished it to be seen’. Result!

If Syme was influenced by the rise of fascism, it may be no less relevant that B. was born in 1926, and thus was about 19 when the Third Reich met its end in 1945: B. early on refers to the ‘distaste felt through … the Graeco-Roman world for autocratic rule founded on no legal or moral order … History offered plenty of examples of this unpleasant form of government’, i.e. tyranny (with accompanying justification for tyrannicide). In this light, the antithetical positions of both Syme and Bleicken may be seen with sympathy and understanding. Here one may refer with warm commendation to B.’s chapter entitled (in part) ‘Self-presentation of the Monarchy’ (with its excellent account of the Forum of Augustus): for when in that chapter B. severely but justly censures the inaccurate and self-boosting account given by Augustus in the Res gestae of his achievements in the years 44-43 BC, he could be forgiven if he were to be recalling other rewritings of history in his own lifetime.

At least five biographies of Augustus are readily available, of which B.’s is certainly the fullest, if not the easiest to read (for this reviewer, it seemed rather to resemble an extended version of the account by J.A. Crook, admirable in itself, which is to be found in the second edition of CAH, volume X, ‘The Augustan Empire’). And although Livy, Virgil and Horace are given appropriately full treatment, and there are other anecdotes, such as the notorious one concerning Vedius Pollio and the slave, while Livia’s important role is assuredly not forgotten, this is not the book to buy for those seeking ‘Augustus the man’; if, indeed, such a book could ever be convincingly written. As for Bleicken-Mommsen versus Syme, readers may conclude that adhuc sub judice lis est.

The quality of production is high (a single typo in a Latin word, and an index reference to ‘pulchrus libertas 468’—not only bad Latin but factually incorrect—are all that came to the reviewer’s eye): maps and illustrations are few but helpful. Again, this is not a book for that elusive creature, the ‘general reader’, but rather for one with a real interest in what is an ever-fascinating subject, Augustus, one of the most remarkable men who has ever lived. When B. says that he ‘was not and is not considered as exceptional’, the sense in which we must take those words is a very specialised one indeed.

Colin Leach

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