Sunday, May 27, 2007

Anthony Everitt: Augustus: the Life of Rome’s First Emperor (Random House) In the preface to his new history of the first Roman emperor, Anthony Everitt calls Augustus the founding father of western civilization. The description is difficult to dispute. Augustus gave us much that our political world is built upon and much cruelty and injustice that plague us still. He was one of the first proverbial great white European men, but great only in the old mannered historian’s definition of great. His life was enormous and changed the human world forever. In so many ways he was a repellent monster. Then again by the standards of his time he was quite the moderate. Likewise, considered by most commentators to be a man of great modesty, Augustus nevertheless named the eighth month of the year after himself. Early in his career he declared Julius Caesar a god posthumously. Caesar’s will named Augustus his heir and son. As Mark Antony points out in the recent, partially fictionalized and brilliant HBO series Rome, Augustus was, in fact, declaring himself the son of a god. During the build-up to war with the anti-Caesarian factions of Cassius and Brutus, Augustus presided over a Proscription, a political process perhaps unique to Roman politics. During such a crisis when there was a need to quickly fill the government coffers, instead of raising taxes or some other slow, inefficient method, the Romans would simply kill large numbers of the wealthiest members of the opposition party, seize all that was theirs and finance the political efforts with the spoils. This was called the Proscription. Karl Rove would approve of such a political "dirty trick." Augustus initiated one of the bloodiest Proscriptions on record in his effort along with Mark Antony to defeat the armies of Brutus and Cassius. For 40 plus years Augustus ruled a Roman empire of relative prosperity and calm. Numerous books have been published about this remarkable, complex man and his kingdom. With the possible exception of the Claudius novels of Robert Graves, none bring him to life or make him real to the 21st century reader better than Everitt’s new study.


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