Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor

Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor

4.0 46
by Anthony Everitt

View All Available Formats & Editions

He found Rome made of clay and left it made of marble. As Rome’s first emperor, Augustus transformed the unruly Republic into the greatest empire the world had ever seen. His consolidation and expansion of Roman power two thousand years ago laid the foundations, for all of Western history to follow. Yet, despite Augustus’s accomplishments, very few


He found Rome made of clay and left it made of marble. As Rome’s first emperor, Augustus transformed the unruly Republic into the greatest empire the world had ever seen. His consolidation and expansion of Roman power two thousand years ago laid the foundations, for all of Western history to follow. Yet, despite Augustus’s accomplishments, very few biographers have concentrated on the man himself, instead choosing to chronicle the age in which he lived. Here, Anthony Everitt, the bestselling author of Cicero, gives a spellbinding and intimate account of his illustrious subject.

Augustus began his career as an inexperienced teenager plucked from his studies to take center stage in the drama of Roman politics, assisted by two school friends, Agrippa and Maecenas. Augustus’s rise to power began with the assassination of his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, and culminated in the titanic duel with Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
The world that made Augustus–and that he himself later remade–was driven by intrigue, sex, ceremony, violence, scandal, and naked ambition. Everitt has taken some of the household names of history–Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Cleopatra–whom few know the full truth about, and turned them into flesh-and-blood human beings.

At a time when many consider America an empire, this stunning portrait of the greatest emperor who ever lived makes for enlightening and engrossing reading. Everitt brings to life the world of a giant, rendered faithfully and sympathetically in human scale. A study of power and political genius, Augustus is a vivid, compelling biography of one of the most important rulers in history.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
British author Everitt begins his biography of Augustus (63 B.C.- A.D. 14) with a novelistic reconstruction of the Roman emperor's last days, offering a new spin on his murder at the hands of his wife, Livia. Everitt presents the death as an assisted suicide intended to speed and secure the transition of imperial power to his stepson Tiberius. Later, Everitt presents a careful historical argument for this theory and, save for a few other shadowy incidents such as the banishment of the poet Ovid, he keeps guesswork to a minimum, building his narrative carefully on solid evidence. Everitt (Cicero) makes Augustus's rapid rise through Roman society comprehensible to contemporary readers, deftly shifting through the major phases of his life, from childhood through his adoption by his great-uncle Julius Caesar to the power struggle with Mark Antony that ended with Augustus's recognition as both imperator and princeps, or "first citizen." Everitt also neatly presents his subject's complex personality, revealing how Augustus secured a political infrastructure that would last for centuries while reportedly keeping up a highly active sex life, all the while fighting off longstanding rumors of cowardice in battle. This familiar story is fresh again in this lively retelling. (Oct. 17) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Close on the heels of a flood of books about Alexander the Great comes a very readable biography of Caesar Augustus (Octavian), first emperor of Rome. Everitt wrote a similar biography of Cicero (Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician), and while neither work tills new soil in the name of scholarship, both make these Romans and their era more accessible. In Augustus, Everitt titles the chapter about the proscriptions of Augustus and Antony "The Killing Fields" to give readers an appreciation of the slaughter promulgated to defang the Senate of Rome and raise money for the revolution. Even on his deathbed Augustus was killing relatives to ensure a smooth transition. Still, the author seems genuinely to think Augustus likable. Moreover, despite an unwillingness to go out on a limb (or perhaps because of it), Everitt includes an array of opinions on particular topics; for example, Cleopatra's role in Rome's history and the events surrounding her death are dealt with evenhandedly, with readers left to decide whether they wish to pursue further exploration. Recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/06.]-Clay Williams, Hunter Coll. Lib., New York Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
On balance, the 44-year reign of Caesar Augustus (63 b.c.-a.d. 14) had positive effects on Rome and its population. Unless . . . Unless, of course, you were a slave, a woman, a resident of some distant tribe Rome wished to "civilize," a political rival or a member of any other group penned in by the Pax Romana. Everitt has written elsewhere about notable Romans (Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician, 2002), and here he offers a balanced appraisal of Augustus, known earlier in his life as "Gaius," then "Octavian." Although reliable and unbiased documentary evidence for a biography of Augustus is scant, Everitt carefully sifts through what does exist and lets us know when he's speculating, when he's inferring. Some of the great names from ancient history appear in these pages: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, Horace, Virgil. We are reminded of the details about Caesar's relations with Cleopatra, the Ides of March, Antony's various "alliances" with Cleopatra (Everitt doubts the suicide-with-an-asp story), and readers confused by HBO's Rome or by the Roman plays of Shakespeare and Shaw will find here the balm of knowledge. The author follows Augustus from his fortunate birth (his father was a senator; his great-uncle, Julius Caesar) through his youth and education, his uncertain trials in battle (he seemed always to fall ill when swords began clanging), his increasing confidence and political savvy, his lifelong and quite complementary friendship with Agrippa, his long rivalry with Antony, his marriage to Livia, his emergence as princeps, his rule, his aging, his disappointments and losses, his death. Everitt periodically (and generally unobtrusively) offersmini-seminars on Roman food, clothing, religion, bathing, sexual mores, coming-of-age rituals (including a young man's first shave-the deposito barbae). Although the author declines to dwell on ancient parallels with our own age, readers will notice many, including, for example, the determination of rulers to silence dissent during a military crisis. Clear, concise, well-researched and reasonable-a sensible, healthful lunch rather than a Roman banquet.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


63–48 b.c.

Velletri is a compact hill town about twenty-five miles southeast of Rome. It lies at the southern edge of the Alban Hills, overlooking a wide plain and distant mountains. The walk from the railway station to the center is a steep, hot climb.

Little remains of ancient Velitrae, but signs of the Renaissance are to be found everywhere. In the main square stands an old fountain with battered lions spouting water. The streets leading off the piazza are roughly parallel and are gridded, echoing the original pattern of the old Roman vici. At the town’s highest point, where the citadel must have been, a sixteenth-century palazzo communale, which combines the functions of town hall and museum, was built on the foundations of a Roman building.

Here, on a stone platform, the modern life-size statue in bronze of a man in his late teens gazes blankly from empty eye sockets into the far distance, contemplating the life that has yet to unfold. This is Gaius Octavius, Rome’s future ruler Augustus: for Velitrae was his hometown and Velletri is proud to celebrate his memory.

Gaius would recognize the lay of the land, the rise and fall of streets and alleys, perhaps the layout, certainly the views. Now as then, this is a provincial place, which seems farther from the capital city than it really is. Change has always come slowly. The community leaves a powerful impression of being self-contained and a little isolated. Even today, elderly locals squint blackly at strangers.

A certain dour feeling for tradition, a suspicion of newfangled ways, a belief in propriety, have always been typical of provincial life in towns such as Velitrae, and it would be hard to imagine a more conventional family than that into which Gaius Octavius was born in 63 b.c.

Every Roman boy received a praenomen, or forename, such as Marcus, Lucius, Sextus—or Gaius. Then came his clan name, or nomen, such as Octavius. Some but not all Romans also had a cognomen, which signified a family subset of a clan. Successful generals were sometimes awarded a hereditary agnomen; for example, Publius Cornelius Scipio added Africanus to his existing names, in honor of his victory over Hannibal in north Africa. By contrast, girls were only known, inconveniently, by the feminine version of their nomen; so Gaius’ two sisters were both known as Octavia.

An important feature of the infant Gaius’ inheritance was that, although like most Italians the Octavii held Roman citizenship, they were not of “Roman” stock. Velitrae was an outpost on the borders of Latium, home of the Latin tribes that, centuries before, had been among the first conquests of the aggressive little settlement beside a ford on the river Tiber.

Two hundred years before Gaius’ birth, Rome finally united the tribes and communities of central and southern Italy through a network of imposed treaties. The men of these lands provided the backbone of the legions and were eventually, as late as the eighties b.c., incorporated into the Republic as full citizens. The little boy grew up with a clear impression of the contribution that Rome’s onetime opponents were making to its imperial greatness, a contribution not always fully recognized by the chauvinists in the capital. In a real sense, the Roman empire would be better called the Italian empire.

The Octavii were a well-respected local family of considerable means. A Vicus Octavius, or Octavius Street, ran through Velitrae’s center (just as a Via Ottavia does today), past an altar consecrated by a long-ago ancestor.

The family seems to have been in trade, a sure sign that it was not of aristocratic status. Gaius’ paternal great-grandfather fought in Sicily as a military tribune (a senior officer in a legion, or regiment) during the second war against the great merchant state of Carthage in northern Africa (218 to 201 b.c.). Carthage’s comprehensive defeat was the first indication to the Mediterranean world that a new military power had arrived on the scene. Gaius’ grandfather, who lived to an advanced age, was well-off, but had no ambitions for a career in national politics, being apparently content to hold local political office.

Later hostile gossip claimed that the great-grandfather was an ex-slave who, having won his freedom, made a living as a rope maker in the neighborhood of Thurii, a town in Italy’s deep south. It was also rumored that the grandfather was a money changer, with “coin-stained hands.” Friendly propagandists took a different tack and invented a fictitious link with a blue-blooded Roman clan of the same name.

When he came to write his memoirs many years afterward, Gaius merely noted that he “came from a rich old equestrian family.” The equites, or knights, were the affluent middle class, occupying a political level below that of the nobility and members of the ruling Senate, but often overlapping with them socially. To qualify for equestrian status, they needed to own property worth more than 400,000 sesterces, and were not actively engaged in government. They were usually wealthy businessmen or landed gentry who preferred to avoid the expense and dangers of a political career. Many were contracted by the state to collect taxes on its behalf from the provinces. By the time of the boy’s father, also named Gaius Octavius, the family had become seriously rich, and probably far exceeded the equestrian minimum.

The father Octavius, an ambitious man, decided to pursue a career in politics at Rome with a view to making his way, if he could, to the top. This was an extremely difficult project. The Roman constitution was a complicated contraption of checks and balances, and the odds were stacked against an outsider—a novus homo, or “new man”—from winning a position of authority.

Rome became a republic in 509 b.c., after driving out its king and abolishing the monarchy. The next two centuries saw a long struggle for power between a group of noble families, patricians, and ordinary citizens, plebeians, who were excluded from public office.

The outcome was an apparent victory for the people, but the old aristocracy, supplemented by rich plebeian nobles, still controlled the state. What looked in many ways like a democracy was, in fact, an oligarchy modified by elections.

The Roman constitution was the fruit of many compromises and developed into a complicated mix of laws and unwritten understandings. Power was widely distributed and there were multiple sources of decision-making.

Roman citizens (only men, for women did not have the vote) attended public meetings called assemblies, where they passed laws and elected politicians to govern the Republic. These leaders doubled as generals in time of war. Although in theory any citizen could stand for public office, candidates usually came from a small group of very rich, noble families.

If successful, politicians passed through a set sequence of different jobs, a process called the cursus honorum or honors race. The first step on the ladder, taken at the age of thirty or above (in practice, younger men were often elected), was to become one of a number of quaestors; this post entailed supervising the collection of taxes and making payments, either for the consuls in Rome or for provincial governors. Then, if he wished, a man could be elected one of four aediles, who were responsible for the administration of the city of Rome. During festivals they staged public entertainments at their own expense, so deep pockets were needed. The next position, that of praetor, was compulsory. Praetors were senior officers of state, responsible for presiding as judges in the law courts and, when required, to lead an army in the field.

At the top of the pyramid were two consuls, who were heads of government with supreme authority; they were primarily army commanders and conveners of the Senate and assemblies.

Consuls and praetors held imperium, officially sanctioned absolute power, although they were constrained in three important ways. First, they held office only for one year. Second, there were always two or more officeholders at the same level. Those of equal rank were allowed to veto anything that their colleagues or junior officeholders decided. Finally, if they broke the law, officeholders could face criminal charges once they were out of office.

On top of that, ten tribunes of the people were elected, whose task was to make sure that officeholders did nothing to harm ordinary Romans (patricians were not allowed to be tribunes). They could propose laws to the Senate and the people and were empowered to convene citizens’ assemblies. The tribunes held power only within the city limits, where they could veto any officeholder’s decisions, including another tribune’s.

The power of the assemblies was limited. They approved laws—but only those that were laid before them. Speakers supported or opposed a proposed measure, but open debate was forbidden; all that citizens were allowed to do was vote. There were different kinds of assembly, each with its own rules: in the assembly that elected praetors and consuls, for example, the voting system was weighted in favor of property owners in the belief that they would act with care because they had the most to lose if any mistakes were made.

The Roman constitution made it so easy to stop decisions from being made that it is rather surprising that anything at all got done. The Romans realized that sometimes it might be necessary to override the constitution. In a grave emergency, for a maximum of six months, a dictator was appointed who held sole power and could act as he saw fit.

The Roman Senate was mainly recruited from officeholders. By Octavius’ day, a quaestor automatically became a lifelong member, and he and his family joined Rome’s nobility (if he was not already a member of it). Senators were prohibited by law from engaging in business, although many used agents or front men to circumvent the ban.

In theory, the Senate held little official power and its role was merely to advise the consuls. However, because the Senate was a permanent feature of the government, whereas consuls and other officeholders had fixed terms, its authority and influence were very great. It was responsible for managing foreign affairs, and it discussed laws before they were presented to the assemblies. Its decrees, although not legally binding, were usually obeyed.

The Senate appointed former consuls and praetors, called proconsuls and propraetors (Octavius was one), to rule Rome’s provinces, usually for between one and three years.

The equites, who as has been mentioned were not members of the Senate, formed a second social class, mainly comprising businessmen and country gentry. Beneath them came ordinary citizens, listed in different categories according to their wealth. The poorest citizens were capite censi, the “head count.”

Modern governments employ many thousands of administrators who carry out their decisions. This was not the case during the Roman Republic. There were no bureaucrats, apart from a few clerks who looked after the public treasury. There was no police force, no public postal system, and no fire service, and there were no banks. There was no public criminal prosecution or judicial service, and cases were brought by private citizens. Elected politicians acted as judges in the law courts. The consuls brought in servants and slaves from their households, as well as personal friends, to help run the government.

Gaius Octavius won a quaestorship, probably in 70 b.c., and joined the Senate. This was no mean achievement for a country gentleman outside the magic circle of Roman politics. The promise of political success brought with it an important benefit: a wife from one of Rome’s great patrician clans.

Octavius was already married to a woman of whom history has recorded nothing except for her name, Ancharia. The couple had a daughter, and perhaps Ancharia died in childbirth, for families with only one child were rare, especially if the child was a girl. Her family was of obscure origin; she may have come from Velitrae or thereabouts. She would have been no help to an ambitious young man’s career and, if alive, must have been divorced. Her removal from the scene enabled Octavius to achieve a splendid alliance, when he married Atia, a member of the Julian family.

The Julii traced their ancestry to before the city’s foundation, traditionally set at 753 b.c. The legend went that when, after a ten-year siege, the Greeks sacked the city of Troy on what is now the Turkish coast near the Dardanelles, they killed or enslaved most of the leading Trojans. One exception was Aeneas, the son of the love goddess Venus and a handsome young warrior. He escaped the city’s destruction with some followers and after many adventures made landfall in Latium. His son Iulus (sometimes also called Ascanius) founded the Julian dynasty.

By the first century b.c., high birth was not sufficient to guarantee political success. Money was also required, and in large quantities. The Julii were impoverished; for long generations few of them had won important posts in the honors race. Like aristocratic families before and since that fall on hard times, they used marriage as a means of income generation.

The current head of the family, Gaius Julius Caesar, was a rising politician in his late thirties, about the same age as Octavius. Talented, amusing, and fashionable, he had a voracious appetite for cash and had built up enormous debts to feed both his lifestyle and his career. One of his sisters married Marcus Atius Balbus, a local worthy from Aricia, a town not far from Velitrae. Balbus was not prominent in public life and his greatest attraction must have lain in the fact that he was a man of substance.

As a new man, Octavius knew that his dubious ancestry would damage his career. A commodious dowry would be of value in a wife, but what he really needed was entrée into the Roman nobility. As a niece of Julius Caesar, Balbus’ daughter Atia was well placed to make that possible. Because the Balbi lived not far from Octavius’ home base of Velitrae, they may well have traveled in the same social circles. In that case, Atia formed an ambitious man’s bridge from provincial life to Rome.

Sometime before 70 b.c., the couple married and, in due course, Atia became pregnant. Disappointingly, the outcome was a second daughter. Five or six years passed before another child arrived: a son, this time, Gaius. He was born just before sunrise on September 23, 63 b.c., at Ox Heads, a small property on the slopes of the fashionable Palatine Hill, a few minutes’ walk from Rome’s main square, the Forum, and the Senate House.

By tradition, the paterfamilias held the power of life and death over his household, both his relatives and his slaves. When a child was born, the midwife took the infant and placed it on the floor in front of the father. Should the father wish to acknowledge his paternity, he would lift the baby into his arms if it was a boy; if a girl, he would simply instruct that she be fed. Only after this ritual had taken place did the child receive his or her first nourishment.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Anthony Everitt, visiting professor in the visual and performing arts at Nottingham Trent University, has written extensively on European culture, has contributed to The Guardian and Financial Times, and is the author of Cicero. He once served as secretary general of the Arts Council of Great Britain. Everitt lives near Colchester, England’s first recorded town, founded by the Romans.

From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Get out. Now.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bye, Serenity. You were a really great friend to me. x.x I guess you see now why I quit the first time, right? Yeah, well, here it goes again. I'm leavin for good this time. Kenny and Cy....they just kill me. Sometimes literally. The two most important people to me, and they hate me? Geez. That's not really motivatiohn to stay here, is it? v.v Well, tell Garrett I said goodbye. And I hope you guys are happy together. ^-^ I love ya, gurl. -Sun
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I as a student have pledged to read a biograophy on every roman emporer. This one being my first, though i read julius caeser augustas was considered the first emporer. It would take a great deal of time and hardship to get togetherr the information this author has provided. And his knowledge of Roman culture gives great insight towards the events that lead up to himtaking the crown. But unlike most authors Anthony Everitt gives that flow to reading that is essential to keep ones attention while reading, instead of just a list of facts aspects of roman cultures are entiwned into the reading and mentioned at the appropriate time that those aspects would play a hand in Octavian, later to be known as Augustas's life This book on the technical first roman empoerer, since caeser was established dictator for life and augustas technically being the first emporer. A few examples would be how he mentions at the begining Octavians name will be changed by the senate to Augusts meaning splended and how he origenally he was Octavian, the book after establishing that he will be augustas, reffers to him as Octavius until he reaches the point in time (and in the book) that his name was changed, then the author reffers to him as Augustus. It also mentions once the child reaches a certain age that he becomes a man, all the things that become apparen in his life once he reieves the Toga Virilus, his toga of manhood, from then on all the Aspects in reffering to his time as a man are introduced. Though the Author foreshadows these things in the begining. This Biography is so smoothly written that one does not need an interest in the emporer per say, for one to be enlightened about Rome, politics, warfare and the legacy of emporers to come and how the heirs were killed of and the runndr up chosen tiberius. You will have a great deal of fresh knowledge on roman culture politics and warfare, as well as the second triumvant, You will learn new things of rome in every way that effected the emporrers life and the people he ruled over This gives a detailed in depth look of the campaigns he and mart antony whent through to take down the conspiritors of His adopted father Julius Caesers well as the civil war that took place in the blockading in Egypt where He ingaged in the new civil war between mark anonies thabor of egypt, as well as Octavians right hand man, a brilliant naval commander which Augustas victories with owes him his carreer, he ramained a lifelong friend of agrippa long after the civil war was over The author gos through the aspects of the military campaigns brilliantly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It sucks
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Got this book for a history class, can't put it down :-)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In this book we meet Augustus and the people around him, in Rome and elsewhere. We also are introduced to the culture and politics of Rome during this period of its history. This book is well written and informative; I recommend it for anyone who enjoys history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gregor1066 More than 1 year ago
Well worth the money and time to read. The research Everitt has performed to provide this biography is unbelievable and is difficult to put it down. He as an amazing person to actually come up against some of the most powerful people in the world and end up becoming the Emperor. I look forward to my next trip to Rome to see his home. It is very balanced and relates to the reader the realities of the times and life. Highly Recommend this book. Kudos to Everitt. I also read his Hadrian and it too is outstanding.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LarryA-62 More than 1 year ago
This was a thorough and scholarly treatment of Augustus' life and times. Well-written, though at times it seemed tedious because of the scholastic desire to remain non-committal on questionable points that had little support in written records. Overall, I found it an enlightening presentation of its subject, and I learned a great deal from it. At times, the author seemed a little too eager to explain the sexual mores of the time. At other times, his comments seemed appropriate to the subject at hand.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago