Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, dawdled through much of his youth before leaping into action at the decisive moment.
His great-uncle, Julius Caesar, had encouraged him to gain the military experience required for a political career, but Octavian was slow to heed his advice. Even his parents seem to have assumed — and hoped, for his sake — that he would turn down his inheritance when he was named as the late dictator’s adopted son and primary heir. The fact that Octavian accepted it without hesitation was the first sign that there was more to him than met the eye.
There is nothing hagiographical about the late Jochen Bleicken’s monumental and highly readable biography of Rome’s first emperor, now published in an elegant translation by Anthea Bell from the 1998 German original.
Through his early years, Octavian is presented as incredibly lacklustre, not to say spoiled. His father, a politician, came from an upper-class family from Velletri, south-east of Rome. His mother was the daughter of one of Julius Caesar’s sisters, and married handsomely, first Octavian’s father, then a distinguished senator. Perhaps the young Augustus had it too easy. In 45 BC, the year before Caesar died, the 18-year-old future heir had no political or administrative experience to speak of, and no military experience in the field. Mark Antony, who was one of Caesar’s reserve heirs, had all three.
Bleicken has dedicated the first few hundred pages of his 620-page book (excluding the extensive endnotes) to untangling the crisis that arose after the assassination of Caesar. Brutus and Cassius and the other so-called Liberators believed that they had freed Rome from tyranny, but as Cicero realised, their act “was carried out with the courage of men but the understanding of boys . . . The tree was felled, but the roots were not torn out.”
There was always going to be chaos in the wake of Caesar’s death, but things might have been marginally less chaotic had Octavian taken his parents’ advice and rejected the role as heir. Mark Antony would still have faced a considerable struggle to put Rome back on an even keel, but who knows how quickly the situation might have been resolved without the conflict that resulted in the casualty-heavy Battle of Actium between Antony and Octavian.
Although Octavian’s late leap to military prowess was significant in his rise, Bleicken also emphasises the way in which his beneficence presaged his victory. Whereas Antony kept hold of what he had acquired of Caesar’s goods after his death, Octavian handed over much of his inheritance to the citizens of Rome, who were always grateful for gifts.
Then, at the age of 27, he charmingly asked them for their pardon for the chaos of the civil war, before providing the veteran soldiers with new settlements. The loyalty of the military was a sound investment for a man whose life would often be under threat.
Since neither Antony nor Octavian, nor indeed an alliance between them, was about to do the impossible and reestablish the defunct republic, Octavian’s prevailing challenge after his victory at Actium in 31 BC was to shape, almost imperceptibly, a one-man rule that would be acceptable to a population that had grown up innately fearful of monarchy.
As Octavian consolidated his position in this way, he emerges from Bleichen’s bold but detailed biography as rather a remote figure. Tellingly, he ceases to be elusive to us principally when he is unpleasant: “Octavian’s ethical standards were a good deal lower in affairs of the heart than those of most of his contemporaries and equals, and all his life he ruthlessly exploited his position of power to satisfy his sexual needs. He did not stop short at other men’s wives.”
After impregnating his wife Scribonia, Octavian fell passionately in love with the married Livia Drusilla, who was descended from the illustrious Claudii Pulchri family, and herself pregnant at the time with her husband’s child. Surprising though it may be, their marriage proved to be a strong one. Livia’s virtuous reputation to some degree made up for Augustus’ deficiencies, which was important because he liked to present himself as the redeemer of national morality.
Before he died, he wrote the Res Gestae, an immodest account of his own achievements, which included the reconstruction of many of Rome’s temples, and the introduction of laws to reinvigorate family life. One of these laws required the Roman people to marry and have children. Another — which remained in force until the third century AD — rendered adultery illegal.
While it is easy to point to Augustus’s hypocrisy, not least in his failure to have children by Livia, we are discouraged from doing so. The majority of Rome’s senators supported his legislation, Bleichen reminds us, as it professed to revive good old-fashioned morals. In its very willingness to agree to it, however, “society gave up a part of its freedom”. The people led themselves into the principate that Augustus was subtly establishing by combining the flavour of the old with the new.
Bleichen has acknowledged a debt here to the 19th-century historian Theodor Mommsen, whom he gushingly called “the foremost historian of the ancient world, and not only in his own time”. While Mommsen attracted criticism from fellow scholars for appearing to play down the monarchical nature of the principate by emphasising its continuity with the early republic, Bleichen has breathed new life into his argument. Augustus’s preoccupation with moral legislation helped him to make radical changes beneath a veil of tradition.
Look at almost any portrait bust of Augustus (there are no plates in this volume so one must look elsewhere) and you will be struck by his serenity. The smooth appearance of the man who believed in his own divinity and championed the Pax Romana, one starts to realise, isn’t mere whitewash.
The first emperor of Rome was perfectly capable, and certainly fixed in his ideas, but by comparison with Julius Caesar he was just a bit bland. Fortunately for Augustus, a bit of blandness wasn’t entirely uncalled for in Rome after the turmoil of the previous decades.
Augustus will always be remembered as the architect of empire, and it is no failure on Bleichen’s part that the architecture is more interesting than its draughtsman.