Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

total_gulby's review against another edition

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informative medium-paced


scipio_africanus's review against another edition

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Adrian Goldsworthy is undoubtedly one of the best Roman historians of recent years. Never a dull moment and always great insight. Im a Julius Caesar guy, but I can see why he adopted Octavian.

davehershey's review against another edition

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A few months back I read Goldsworthy's biography of Julius Caesar, so it made sense to continue the story by reading the biography of Augustus Caesar. Simply put, this book is a fantastic account of the first Roman Emperor.

What I most appreciated was the story after Augustus had won the battle of Actium and the civil wars. Most overviews of history I've read go on to simply note that Augustus reigned until his death at 14 AD. But that's 45 years, a long reign in any era! Goldsworthy does not diminish the fact that Augustus had thousands of people killed and was as violent as any other military dictator. But as dictators go, Augustus is about as good as you can get and after the wars he set about to reforming and rebuilding the Empire. He left it in 14 AD much better then he found it.

Beyond Augustus' story, I was impressed with the character of Marcus Agrippa. Agrippa achieved great things in his own right and it is doubtful Augustus could have been so successful with Agrippa next to him. In a time of everyone competing for the top, it was amazing to me Agrippa remained loyal his entire life. He had no problem doing great things and giving credit to Augustus. I think we all could use an Agrippa by our sides throughout life.

It was also interesting to learn about how Augustus would have been referred. I always heard him as "Octavian" until he became "Caesar Augustus". But after Julius Caesar's death, when Octavian was adopted as his son, he went by "Caesar." So Goldsworthy calls him Caesar at this time, and when he has to mention the older Caesar he calls him Julius Caesar.

Finally, for those interested in Christian faith, there is an interesting appendix on the birth of Jesus. It was refreshing to read a historian with no skin in the game write on this. I have no idea what Goldsworthy's faith is, but he clearly is not trying to prove anything, like most Christians and skeptics who approach this text. He notes difficulties and probabilities and moves on.

Overall, a very interesting and engaging piece of historical biography.

markk's review against another edition

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informative inspiring reflective medium-paced


 Ask most people who was the first Roman emperor, and the name you are mostly likely to hear is that of Julius Caesar. Yet for all his prominence in the events surrounding the fall of the Republic, it was not Julius Caesar who became Rome’s first emperor, but his great-nephew Caius Octavius, a man better known to history as Augustus. Named Caesar’s heir in the dictator’s will, Augustus spent over a decade after his great-uncle’s assassination consolidating power through a series of wars and alliances. After establishing himself as Rome’s sole ruler, he received from the Senate the titles of augustus and princeps, which not only confirmed Octavius’s ascendancy but the establishment as well of a new system of rule, one that would endure for centuries after his death. 

Despite these achievements, Augustus’s lengthy reign has not received anywhere near the attention enjoyed by his legendary great uncle and the tumultuous events of the latter man’s life. Part of the reason for this, as Adrian Goldsworthy notes in his excellent biography of the emperor, is due to the uneven amount of information available about it in the surviving literary sources. These he employs with the growing body of physical evidence to provide not just an account of Augustus’s life, but an account as well of how the emperorship emerged to become the new center of power in the Roman Empire. 

To recount Augustus’s life, Goldsworthy divides his book into five parts. Though the first of these covers the years of his upbringing, the paucity of reliable details leads the author to recount instead the contemporaneous events of the civil war and Julius Caesar’s rise to power. Not only does this help Goldsworthy set the context for Caius Octavius’s rise, it underscores the unique set of circumstances required for it. Had Caesar lost to Pompey, it is debatable whether history would even know his grand-nephew’s name; had he avoided or survived assassination, it is possible someone else would have been the beneficiary of Caesar’s contacts and alliances. Instead, Caius Octavius was the inheritor of the bulk of his great-uncle’s vast fortune and patronage network, catapulting him instantly to the front rank of politics. 

Yet Caius Julius Caesar (as Caius Octavius now renamed himself) was just one contender for power in the vacuum caused by his great-uncle’s death. Thirteen years would pass before young Caesar would defeat the last of his enemies in battle to become the sole ruler of the republic. Recounting this process takes up the second and third parts of Goldsworthy’s book, as he details the various campaigns, partnerships, and conspiracies that brought it about. Here he downplays the inevitability of young Caesar’s rise, noting the numerous missteps and defeats that he suffered during this period. In many respects this period proved a learning process, one in which he learned how to better navigate politics and outmaneuver his enemies. Thanks to this experience, by the time of Mark Antony’s death in the aftermath of the battle of Actium in 31 BCE, Caius Julius Caesar had not only secured his power, he had mastered his ability to wield it on the Roman political scene. 

The Senate’s vote of the title of augustus in 27 BCE was thus an acknowledgement of Caius Julius Caesar’s unprecedented status. Though Augustus held a variety of different offices in the years that followed, Goldsworthy makes clear in the final two sections of the book that his real power lay in his control over the military. This he exercised in a peripatetic existence punctuated by campaigns designed to add to Rome’s glory. Augustus was aided in his efforts by a select clique of family and friends with whom he shared power, an arrangement that Goldsworthy notes was virtually unique in Roman history. Yet the deaths of his adopted stepsons, Gaius and Lucius, and the banishment of Agrippa Postumus meant that Augustus soldiered on with the duties of his position right up to his death in 14 CE, aided only by the reluctant support of his successor, Tiberius. 

Goldsworthy recounts all of this with an assuredness born of a thorough command of his subject. His confidence in his conclusions might be greater than his sources can support, but nevertheless speaks to a judgment honed by his considerably familiarity with the era. This he employs to bridge the many gaps in our knowledge of Augustus’s life and reign with speculation grounded in the sources we do have, supplemented by archaeological finds that fill out our understanding in important ways. Conveyed as it is with Goldsworthy’s deft writing style, it all makes for a biography that is a both an enjoyable read and one that is highly recommended for anyone seeking to learn about Rome’s first emperor and his enduring legacy for its empire. 

mirandaaaa's review against another edition

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challenging informative slow-paced
Agrippa is a legend and is underrated. 

Good overview of Augustus' actions but nothing extra. It exists tbh. I also looked like an absolute tragedy because was reading this at the tennis job and everyone else was reading light stuff. What can I say i'm not like other girls *flicks hair*.

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evallone's review against another edition

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adventurous informative


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fictionfan's review against another edition

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When in Rome...

“…as military dictators go, Caesar Augustus was not such a bad one.”

Great-nephew and principal heir to Julius Caesar, Augustus was just nineteen when Caesar was murdered, but it seems he was never in doubt of his right to take over the honours of the older man. His early career was as a warlord, using the wealth he had inherited and borrowing extensively to ensure that he had the largest army as the Roman republic descended into civil war. He was also helped by the loyalty of Julius Caesar’s troops – a loyalty they were willing, on the whole, to extend to his heir. Having at length achieved internal peace, Augustus’ later career was as a (fairly) benevolent military dictator who brought stability to Rome and enabled it to extend and, to some degree, pacify the empire.

Adrian Goldsworthy is a recognised scholar of ancient Rome and has a doctorate from Oxford University in ancient military history. Although this is a period I know nothing about, it quickly becomes clear that the book has been thoroughly researched. While concentrating on Augustus himself, Goldsworthy takes time to set his story well into the period, giving plenty of information about the period before Augustus rose to prominence, so that the newcomer gets a real feeling for the society that he was operating within. As always with histories of so long ago, the source documents are limited and often even they were written a considerable time after the events. Goldsworthy acknowledges this and reminds the reader of the effect of contemporary and later propaganda on the picture left behind of such a prominent figure as Augustus. As he says “As always with the ancient world, it is easier to say what he did than it is to understand the man’s inner thoughts and character.” He also remembers that not all of his readers will have a grounding in Roman history, so takes the time to explain things that can be confusing, like the naming conventions for both men and women or the structure of the army. This meant that I found the book very accessible and only very rarely felt that I was floundering a bit.

Personally there was a bit too much concentration on the military side of things for me. Obviously as a military dictator, the army was an important part of Augustus’ story, as were the various rebellions, battles and conquests. It certainly isn’t a criticism of the book, therefore, since I can’t see how Goldsworthy could really have left any of it out, but I did find it all got a little tedious after a while. He shows Augustus as a slick political operator rather than a heroic warrior – in fact, there is a clear suggestion that Augustus tended to fall conveniently ill and retreat to the rear whenever the fighting hotted up. However he seems to have been ruthless in pursuit of his aims, willing to change allegiance whenever he thought it would benefit him and displaying a high degree of brutality towards his defeated enemies - behaviour all the more remarkable, perhaps, given his youth. Goldsworthy covers the Cleopatra/Mark Anthony episode in some depth, but rather suggests that Cleopatra has been given more importance by later historians than she really deserved.

I found Augustus’ later life of more interest, especially his attempts to ensure that he had 'trained' heirs to take over after his death – attempts that were constantly thwarted by the tragedy of early deaths within his extended family. Names familiar to anyone who watched the BBC’s I, Claudius (or, indeed, who read the original book by Robert Graves) have their context and importance thoroughly explained, and Goldsworthy weighs up the evidence for and against the suggestions of Livia (Augustus’ wife) as murderer of more than one of her relations – and tends to come down in her favour on the whole. Considering the difficulties of lack of source material, I felt Goldsworthy gave a fairly rounded picture of Augustus – a man whose behaviour seemed, as Goldsworthy says, to improve as he got older. The man who in his youth cheerfully proscribed his enemies and had them killed seemed willing to show a little more tolerance in his old age – though not always to his own family. I got the distinct impression that Goldsworthy was being kinder to Augustus than some of his critics may have been over the years.

Overall, this is a well written book, accessible enough for a casual reader with little or no pre-existing knowledge of the period; but with enough depth and detail to be interesting to people more familiar with this part of history too.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.