Gaius Octavius Caesar, better known as Augustus is without question one of the most influential men in the history of the West. The story of his life and accomplishments is an astonishing one, and yet full of contrasts. He was the first emperor of the Roman Empire, yet he never used that title. Augustus began his life as the son of a relatively minor Italian aristocrat but became the most powerful man in Rome. He was the grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar and used this connection to leap to the heights of Roman politics, yet his cautious personality was the opposite of Julius Caesar’s more flamboyant style. His rise to power showed a ruthless and often bloodthirsty deposition, yet when he had achieved absolute power, he governed justly and humanely. He had little military skill, unlike his grand uncle, but, with the aid of his friend Agrippa, he was able to defeat his rivals in the civil wars that ended the Republic. He was an absolute ruler, but he maintained the fiction that he had restored the Republic and scrupulously followed the forms of the old Constitution, while remaking Roman politics in a form that endured for the next two centuries. He always suffered from uncertain health, but he outlived nearly every one of his associates, including several possible heirs to his position.
Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor by Anthony Everitt is a wonderful biography about the first Roman Emperor. Everitt tells the story of Augustus from his boyhood to his climb to power and his death. This is a sympathetic biography and while reading it, one feels exhilarated by Augustus’s victories and sorry for his losses, especially in his last years when it seemed that no one would be able to maintain the political structure he so carefully built after his death. Everitt portrays Augustus as a statesman, who for all of his faults was concerned to leave Rome better than he found it. His influence lasted as long as the Empire lasted and on to the present day.
Augustus’s last words were reputed to be, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” He certainly had played his part well.
- Caesar Augustus (mkukahiwaharuno.wordpress.com)
- A nice new fragment of Augustus’ Res Gestae — so there! (timesonline.typepad.com)
- Caligula: Mad, bad, and maybe a little misunderstood (telegraph.co.uk) That may be true. A lot of what we know about the early Roman Emperors was written by people who thought the Republic should be restored. The stories of mad emperors like Caligula and Nero not be entirely true.