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Closing Janus’ gates

28 November 2014

Cally Hammond reads a new life of one of the greatest of the Roman emperors



The imperator: the prima porta statue of Augustus. From the book

The imperator: the prima porta statue of Augustus. From the book

Augustus: From revolutionary to emperor
Adrian Goldsworthy
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT292 )

IT IS as easy for me to praise the writer of this book for his achievements as the Roman senators found it to heap praises upon its subject - the man named Octavius, who first took the name Caesar, and later became Augustus. The difference is that while the former praises are entirely sincere, the latter were at least partly based on fear of proscription or assassination.

Adrian Goldsworthy does justice to the many sides of Augustus's character: devoted husband, ruthless politician, masterly tactician. He makes complex Roman politics digestible with generous illustrations; quotations from the emperor's own writings; a glossary to help with technical terms from Roman law and politics; a list of dramatis personæ; helpful end-notes, index, and bibliography; and - of particular interest to readers of the Church Times - a short appendix on the date of the birth of Jesus.

The biography mixes vivid anecdotes (sometimes with a caveat about historical accuracy) with narrative detail of military and political developments. It brings out Augustus's talent for reinventing obscure religious rituals and making them relevant to a modern situation without offending Roman religious conservatism.

He closed the gates of Janus, for example, to show that war had given way to peace in the empire; and he inaugurated Secular Games, which marked the beginning of a new era, with great religious ceremony. His interest in reinventing ancient custom also appeared to extend into the moral sphere: he repeatedly legislated to reinforce the importance of marriage, and the production of legitimate offspring.

There was a political aspect to this legislation, however. It helped to stabilise property transmission, which, by then, had been chaotically disturbed by the decades of civil war.

The story of Augustus is inseparable from that of his family. It is a complicated, fluid picture, made even more so by any reader who tackles this book after having read I Claudius. Like other such stories, the narrative of the rise to power, and seizure of supreme control, is more exciting than the explanation of how that power was reinforced.

Such stories follow a type well known not only from history, but also from novels such as The Godfather. Stories about action and bloodshed may be more attractive than building programmes, provincial administration, or the imperial bureaucracy. But they all help to consolidate the story of Augustus, who not only became the archetypal Roman leader, but also found a solution (radical, to be sure, and not easily followed) to the problem that so preoccupied many another Roman - how to be remembered after death.

The landscape of Rome, the multiplicity of images in art and on coins, the names of settlements across the Mediterranean, and the poetry of Virgil, Horace, and Propertius secured his immortality. In sharp contrast, a then nascent religion, Christianity, offered to the many, not the few, a rescue from death's oblivion by very different means.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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