By Richard Alston
OUP (2015) h/b 408pp £20 (ISBN 9780199739769)
This is a history of the political and military events and processes leading to the ‘revolution’ of the book’s title. After starting his story with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Alston closes it with the death of Augustus in AD 14. In between he sandwiches a back-story starting with the Gracchi brothers, the ‘revolutionary’ tribunes of the later 2nd century BC. Although the territory is familiar, Alston complains, with justification, that the usual treatments are too ‘nice’, with too many ‘settlements’, ‘restorations’ and so on. This more traditional approach may be convenient for setters of exam papers, but fails to do justice, as he argues, to the sheer nastiness of the manner of the fall of the republic and the irrelevance, by and large, of matters ‘constitutional’.
It follows that the reader should not expect to be overly dazzled by Alston’s presentation of famous individuals attractive to ancient and modern biographers. Cicero, Caesar and co. are certainly on stage, but no one emerges in an especially flattering light. As for Augustus, the reader is offered a portrait of a particularly unsympathetic human being. Alston starts his revolution with the proscriptions of the old political class ordered by the future first emperor and Mark Antony in 43 BC (ch. 8). They had lists of names of intended victims painted on white boards and offered financial rewards to those who produced the decapitated heads. Apparent neighbourliness was replaced overnight by a murderous hatred, reminiscent, as Alston notes, of accounts of intercommunal violence in recent times. The awful Octavian was not just a killer. Alston’s lucid account of the serpentine politics of the ‘restored’ republic of 27 BC, and Augustus’s successful manoeuvring to stay in power through the later crises of his reign, manages to make this stale topic as fascinating as it should be. It is perhaps the best part of the book, even if this reader was left uncertain whether Augustus was, or was not, an ideologue. Conservatism is, after all, deeply ideological (cp. 238-9, 283, 293).
Alston’s book is in a series called ‘Ancient Warfare and Civilization’ and does not stint on the military narrative, but he is mercifully clear and sparing of the detail so that, e.g., the campaigns of the triumviral period are almost comprehensible. He also offers a perceptive running commentary on the issues and attitudes underlying and shaping Roman politics that is likely to engage the general reader and the expert alike. He emphasizes, and explains, the disdain of republican nobles for the plebs (senators depended on each other for their sense of status, not the poor). He uses a version of network theory to illuminate the mounting impossibility of challenging the position of Augustus. More than any earlier Roman warlord, he established in Alston’s view an ‘almost monopolistic control’ of resources so that he could buy everyone who mattered politically—soldiery, plebs, and what was left of the old political class.
In sum, this book, written in straightforward, accessible, English, is recommended as a knowledgeable guide to, and with a fresh ‘take’ on, an enthralling period of Roman history.
Antony Spawforth—Newcastle University