Con­found­ing char­ac­ter of Au­gus­tus, Cae­sar’s shad­owy heir

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

An­thony Everitt did a re­mark­able thing a few years ago when he turned Latin stu­dents’ most loathed sub­ject into a best-sell­ing star with “Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Great­est Politi­cian.” In flesh­ing out the in­ge­nious, ide­al­is­tic and near-re­pel­lent nar­cis­sist, Mr. Everitt set his mark as the pre­mier Ro­man bi­og­ra­pher — ex­cept for that “great­est politi­cian” part, which one hopes was an overzeal­ous pub­lisher’s mis­take.

Mr. Everitt re­turns to first cen­tury B.C. Rome with a politi­cian whotru­ly­de­ser­vesthat­ap­pel­la­tion, GaiusJuliusCae­sarOc­ta­vianus,bet­ter known as Au­gus­tus. It is an am­bi­tious choice for a sec­ond book, but Mr. Everitt han­dles one of his­tory’smost com­pli­cated per­son­ages with con­sid­er­able skill.

Whereas Cicero left be­hind a vo­lu­mi­nous col­lec­tion of speeches, books and — un­for­tu­nately for his rep­u­ta­tion — per­sonal let­ters, we have very few pri­mary sources on Au­gus­tus. Later Ro­man his­to­ri­ans like Tac­i­tus and Sue­to­nius did man­age to cob­ble to­gether a good chunk of in­for­ma­tion Au­gus­tus had sup­pressed, most of it con­cern­ing his pre-em­peror days. But the sad re­al­ity is that there are ma­jor gaps bi­og­ra­pher­s­likeMr.Everittare­forced to­con­tend­with—and­of­fer­cre­ative guesses to fill.

Mr.Everit­tof­fer­sush­is­firstguess intheopen­ing­pages.He­clev­er­ly­in­tro­duces read­ers to Au­gus­tus near the end of the ag­ing monarch’s life, while he is busily pre­par­ing a smooth tran­si­tion for his suc­ces­sor, Tiberius. The task re­quired Au­gus- tus to or­der the ex­e­cu­tion of the son of one of his most trusted ad­vis­ers. It also re­quired — in Mr. Everitt’s guess­work — Au­gus­tus to die while the pieces were all in place. So the au­thor imag­ines that Au­gus­tus had his own wife poi­son him to death. Noth­ing, not not even his life, could be left to chance.

Alas, in the case of Au­gus­tus, guess­work isn’t enough. Mr. Everitt isn’t the first bi­og­ra­pher or his­to­rian to no­tice that Au­gus­tus him­self was some­what “shad­owy.” The au­thor quotes Ten­nyson’s phrase “fault­ily fault­less, icily reg­u­lar, splen­didly null,” a de­scrip­tion that cer­tainly fits.

The rea­sons for this are twofold. First, Au­gus­tus in­tended for it to be that way. Take his fa­mous last words: “Have I played my part in the farce of life well enough?” Ac­tors play parts; hu­man be­ings play them­selves.

Much more im­por­tantly, how­ever, Au­gus­tus ap­peared to un­dergo a change, lit­er­ally, from a lit­tle tyrant to a philoso­pher king. In Mr. Everitt’s words, “He was de­vi­ous, un­trust­wor­thy, and blood­thirsty. But once he had es­tab­lished his author­ity, he gov­erned ef­fi­ciently and justly, gen­er­ally al­lowed free­dom of speech, and pro­moted the rule of law.” To­day we might sim­ply say Au­gus­tus ma­tured.

The an­cients would have thought some­what dif­fer­ently. Char­ac­ter to them was un­chang­ing. The dif­fer­ences a per­son might show over the course of a life­time was con­sid­ered ei­ther il­lu­sory or rev­e­la­tory. So, for in­stance, if a man seemed to im­prove with age (or vice versa), he was ei­ther re­veal­ing more of his true char­ac­ter or just do­ing a bet­ter job of con­ceal­ing it. Cyn­i­cal crowd.

Whichev­er­per­sua­siony­oupre­fer, this­p­re­sentsama­jor­prob­lem­for­bi­og­ra­phers, and cer­tainly for Mr. Everitt, who says his in­ten­tion is to makeAu­gus­tus“comealive.”That’s dif­fi­cult to do when the “real” Au­gus­tus­con­found­suswitht­wowholly dif­fer­ent sides to his char­ac­ter. Which one was au­then­tic?

In­deed,Mr.Everitt­doe­safine­job of chron­i­cling Au­gus­tus’ “ex­traor­di­naryand­of­ten­ter­ri­fy­ing”life.His re­search is so thor­oughly com­pli­mented by his writ­ing style that at times I wished he had pro­duced a novel, rather than a bi­og­ra­phy.

How­ever, my guess is that if a reader held the au­thor to his in­tent, he would find Mr. Everitt’s con­clu­sions about the “real” Au­gus­tus un­sat­is­fy­ing. Au­gus­tus, he writes, is “one of the few his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who im­proved with the pas­sage of time,” sug­gest­ing the change in the em­per­or­was­grad­ual,ora­mat­terof growingup.It­wasn’t,asMr.Everitt’s own nar­ra­tive makes clear.

Let me cite two in­dica­tive ex­am­ples. De­scrib­ing Au­gus­tus’ cal­cu­lated war with Mark Antony, Mr. Everitt writes that “his ca­reer since his ac­cep­tance of his legacy from JuliusCae­sar­makescom­plete­sense only if it is un­der­stood as a care­ful and un­de­vi­at­ing pur­suit of ab­so­lute power.”Qui­teright.Butwe­mus­tremem­ber that Au­gus­tus (then Oc­ta­vian) was a mere 18 when he ac­cept­edthes­lainCae­sar’sadop­tionof him. He went to war with Antony in his early 30s.

Then, with the last ri­val for supremacy ut­terly de­feated, Mr. Everitt dis­counts the ru­mor, given to us by Sue­to­nius, that Au­gus­tus con­sid­ered re­in­stalling the Repub­lic. Non­sense, says Mr. Everitt, since “ev­ery­thing we know about Oc­ta­vian — above all, his slow, un­de­vi­at­ing pur­suit of mas­tery — sug­gests that this must be a mis­un­der­stand­ing.”

In other words, Mr. Everitt ac­cepts the no­tion that Au­gus­tus had made the de­ci­sion ear­lier in his ca­reer to pur­sue power for a pur­pose other than for the sake of power. When pre­cisely, is the key ques­tion.

We know he had a pur­pose in mind, be­cause Au­gus­tus is on the short list of monar­chs who, hav­ing ob­tained ab­so­lute power in the cru­elest fash­ion, was never cor­rupted by it. Hence, Mr. Everitt’s ac­cu­rate sum­ma­tion­thatAu­gus­tus,on­ceem­peror, “suf­fered no delu­sions of grandeur.”

What this sug­gests to me is that Au­gus­tus saw power as the only meanstoa­nend,andtheend­wasthe es­tab­lish­ment of an ef­fi­ciently run em­pire­un­derone-man­rule.He­did what he could, killed whomever he hadto,but­then­stoppedand­fo­cused on­govern­ing.Curious,wouldn’tyou say?

Which is why I side with the an- cients on this one. Au­gus­tus didn’t change or im­prove once he had se­cured the throne. At the ten­der age of18,Oc­ta­vianknew­pre­cise­ly­what he was go­ing to do. In his mid-30s, he sim­ply ex­e­cuted the sec­ond half of his plan. The sup­posed “two sides”toAu­gus­tus’per­son­al­i­ty­were in fact one and the same.

And that is a scary thought; that a teenager could have de­vel­oped such a life plan (per­haps the most am­bi­tious plan in hu­man his­tory), then found the dis­ci­pline to fol­low it through un­til the end of his life. We can see why Mr. Everitt is more com­fort­able with his “im­prove­ment” the­sis.

Au­gus­tus’ am­bi­tion is also the most fas­ci­nat­ing part of him and whyi­tis­so­hard­tomake­him“come alive.” Au­gus­tus is so un­like the rest of us, so be­yond our ap­pre­ci­a­tion, that Mr. Everitt’s al­most to­tal si­lence on it is un­der­stand­able. We moderns have an aver­sion to un­qual­i­fied great­ness, or ge­nius or what­ever you want to call it. We don’t seem to like peo­ple we can’t put on “Oprah” — whom we can’t probe un­mer­ci­fully un­til they break down in a heap of emo­tion. But that doesn’t get Mr. Everitt off the hook.

Ido­thinkMr.Everittgetsclos­eto the­heartofthe­mat­ter­when­heem­pha­sizesAu­gus­tus’pietyand“deepseated pa­tri­o­tism.” Only a man who be­lieved in some­thing higher than him­self could have suc­cess­fully done what Au­gus­tus did. He had to love Rome, for if he didn’t, then he would have been Nero.

Blake D. Dvo­rak is an edi­to­rial writer at The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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