Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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After Adrian Goldsworthy’s outstanding biography of Julius Caesar (David’s Bookshelf 72), the chronologically minded reader will almost inevitably next turn to Anthony Everitt’s Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor. After all, Everitt’s biography of Cicero was widely praised, and his Augustus is a handsome and plausible looking volume with 19 five-star ratings and 16 four-stars on Amazon. So I picked it up.

Big mistake!

Everitt opens his book with an eyebrow-raising account of Augustus’ final days. After neatly arranging the succession with his wife and advisers, an ailing Augustus prepared for death. Then to everyone’s surprise, he began to recover. Rather than upset all their plans, well here you read the rest for yourself:

That afternoon, while Augustus was taking a siesta and the house [on the island of Capri] was quiet in the summer heat, Livia went to the peristyle, a large cloister around an open-air garden. In the middle stood a fig tree, heavy with ripe fruit, which LIvia had planted years ago. Augustus liked to pick a fig or two in the evening. Livia coated some of them with a poisonous ointment, leaving a few untouched.

Later, the aged couple walked out into the garden and Augustus picked two of the poisoned fruit and ate them. He noticed nothing. Livia ate a fig she had left alone. There was no reason for her husband to know exactly how he was going to die, she thought; indeed, if she was lucky, he might not guess that she had to carry out what they had unspokenly agreed. Much more pleasant for him.

Augustus slept badly. He suffered from stomach cramps and renewed diarrhea, and developed a high fever. Guessing what had happened, he silently thanked his wife ….

Now bear in mind that the life of Augustus is much more poorly sourced than that of his power-seizing uncle, Julius Caesar. There are whole years of his rule where historians do not even know his whereabouts: Rome? Campaigning in Spain? Touring the peaceful provinces? So how on earth could Everitt possibly know the emperor’s minute-by-minute deathbed thoughts? I flipped to the end notes and read this:

The introduction is an imagined narration of Augustus’ death. I take as my premise the proposition that the sometimes extraordinary stories told by the ancient sources are broadly correct, and attempt as satisfactory an explanation as possible. … Although there are problems and implausibilities with the stories, the explanation I offer is, just about, credible. This is how it might have happened.

That one paragraph constitutes a self-forfeiting of any claim to be taken seriously as an historian. There’s a technical term for “imagined narration.” That term is: fiction. 

Everitt refers to “sources.” For this opening story he in reality has just one source: the gossipy and problematic Suetonius. But not even Suetonius supports the suggestion that Augustus welcomed his (hypothetical) poisoning. Everitt invented that bit out of thin air.

To write a racy and saucy work of popular history – ie, history for people who don’t read source notes – and then to tuck into a end note an acknowledgement that you fabricated your opening anecdote … that’s simply unacceptable in a work claiming to be history.

The rest of Augustus improves only very slightly on this appalling beginning.

Most of this biography amounts to a thin rewrite of the Roman historians and a chatty rephrasing of conclusions reached by modern scholars – who get only the most grudging acknowledgment by the way, despite Everitt’s near-total dependence on them. Indeed it is not at all clear to me that Everitt even reads Latin with any degree of fluency. Everitt makes barely any effort to do as Goldsworthy does and supplement the (thin) literary record with new findings from modern archaeology, coin study, and other techniques for broadening our understanding beyond the Romans’ own narratives.

Everitt boldly plunges into deeply uncertain questions, choosing one historical theory over another without ever explaining why – or even alerting his readers that a controversy exists.

Sometimes Everitt presents Augustus as a deeply dutiful and responsible ruler, taking the regime’s own propaganda at face value. At other times, he presents as his own work the original speculations of Ronald Symes, author of the 1939 classic The Roman Revolution, which makes the case for Augustus as a self-conscious seeker of absolute monarchical power who cunningly (and much more carefully than the flamboyant, convention-breaking Julius Caesar) overthrew the old regime behind a fraudulent appearance of restoration. Symes is not easy reading, but it’s eminently worth the trouble. Everitt by contrast is fun – but largely a waste of time

I don’t want to say that Augustus is wholly worthless. If you don’t know much about the man after whom the month of August is named, you can learn from this book the main outlines of the story. (Just be sure to double check anything interesting against a good encyclopedia or even Wikipedia’s for once accurate and reliable entry.)

But please do understand that Everitt’s Augustus belongs to the realm of HBO’s “Rome,” of I, Claudius, and of Colleen McCullough: It is historical entertainment, not history.

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