Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Augustus by Antony Everitt

What a fantastic book of history. It mixes facts and their interpretation in a proportion so perfect that it makes you walk through Rome that was two thousand years back.

Augustus was a very great man, but he gradually grew into greatness. He was a physical coward who taught himself to be brave. He was intelligent, painstaking, and patient, but could also be cruel and ruthless. He is one of the few historical figures who improved with the passage of time.

May I achieve the reward to which I aspire ... of carrying with me, when I die, the hope that these foundations I have established for the state will abide secure." His hope was fulfilled. Of all Rome's emperors, he reigned the longest; and his work lasted, with modifications, for many generations. How many statesmen in human history can lay claim to such a record of enduring achievement?

Augustus had put the state in order not by making himself king or dictator, but by creating the Principate. The empire's frontiers were on the ocean, or distant rivers. Armies, provinces, fleets, the whole system was interrelated. Roman citizens were protected by law. Provincials were decently treated. Rome itself had been lavishly beautified. Force had been sparingly used - merely to preserve peace for the majority.

Augustus' signet ring was removed from his finger. His eyes were closed. Tiberius, being his closest relative, called him by his name and said, 'Vale,' 'Farewell'. Slaves belonging to undertakers washed and perfumed the corpse. A coin was placed in his mouth, to pay the ferryman to carry Augutus' spirit across the river Styx to the underworld.

I found Rome built of clay: I leave it to you in marble.
He has seen life as a pretense, something not to be taken too seriously, and at his house on the Palatine Hill at Rome, he had his bedroom walls painted with frescoes of the tragic and comic masks that actors wore.
Have I played my part in the farce of life well enough? If I have pleased you, kindly signify appreciation with a warm goodbye.

At various parts of the novel, the author stops to show his admiration for Augustus and probably has every reason to. He was a coward who would be ill at battle when power was first thrust on him but later proved to be an able general. He took over when a dictator had been killed and a republic was in favour. But he built the foundation for an empire. And he achieved progress. Blood had been shed and probably many innocents lost their lives. What would be the real costs of building an empire? Not just in gold and silver but in the lives lost and the blood shed.

Throughout his life, Augustus was a master of self-control, but every now and again we can detect an overflow of deep and powerful feeling. Perhaps his rage expressed an unspoken, admitted bitterness at the truth that he had bought his high place in the world by subduing the claims of affection to the imperatives of power.

Over the years, the princeps had allowed his household to be corrupted into a court where a family's ordinary loves and tiffs gradually mutated into a political struggle. Maybe this was an inevitable development, but it was Augustus who set the inhuman tone. His insensitivity to the feelings of others, his treatment of relatives as pawns, created a deadly environment. It would not be surprising if, in time, blood relations came to bloody conclusions.

It gets lonely at the top. How many times has that been said before? Augustus had to choose his friends and family and in doing so brought the daggers out.

If Julius Caesar had lived he would probably have devised a far more radical scheme, imposing a brutally abrupt transition from a republican past to an imperial future. Augustus may have been less brilliant than his adoptive father, but he was wiser. He understood that if his new system was to last, it should be seen to grow out of what came before. Rather than insist on a chasm, he built a bridge.

Janus was the God of gateways; he had two faces, one looking forward to the future, the other to the past. The temple had doors on either end, which were closed in times of peace and open in times of war. The Romans were a warlike people and the doors were always open. That they were shut now was a great compliment to Octavian, and a symbol of the much heralded, much delayed arrival of peace throughout the empire.

Gods were imagined to leave besieged cities before they fell - Troy, Athens, Jerusalem. If the story has a basis in fact, perhaps Alexandrians were hearing Octavian, supported by a soldier's chorus, conducting an evocatio; in this ceremony, a Roman general used to call on the god of an enemy city to change sides and migrate to Rome.

In the end, maybe even the Romans got tired of fighting so much so that they closed the gates of war. Maybe even Augustus was tired of fighting and triumvirate agreements which is why he needed diplomacy to create a new order.

The wounded victim twisted from side to side, bellowing like a wild animal. He was amazed to see in the throng Marcus Junius Brutus, a man of whom he had grown very fond. After Brutus delivered his blow, Caesar saw that further struggle was pointless. He wound himself in his toga and fell neatly at the base of the statue of Pompey the Great. He was later found to have received twenty-three wounds, of which one had been fatal.

Probably one of the most repeated assassinations in history - countless plays, stories and movies made out of it.

The town was built on the side of a steep crag, crowned by a temple of the sun and a lighthouse; it was originally and island, and the malarial Pomptine Marshes lay on its landward side. According to legend, on one of the numerous caves on its slopes the witch Circe once lived, she who changed visitors into swine. It was not an inappropriate spot for one of Rome's least appealing politicians to end up in.

The son of Pompey the Great had wasted his last chance of survival. He was about twenty-six when he died - an age at which most men are launching, not concluding their lives and careers. The youthful challenger to the post-republican regime lost, not so much through lack of intelligence or military and naval ability, but because he failed to think things through.

The fate of the defeated and disgraced. Looking back everything seems to be adversarial - like the white and black pieces on a chessboard. There is no right, there is no wrong, there is only the winner who moves his pieces better.

Antony was an old-fashioned kind of politician, who was happy with things as they were provided that he could maintain a leading role in public life. Octavian was a revolutionary, who meant to transform the Roman world. For the time being though, the triumvirs silently forgot about each other and concentrate on their own projects. There was room enough in the empire not to trip over each other.

As he settled down to an indefinite reign as the de facto monarch of the east, amid the uncompetitive luxuries of Alexandria, Antony must have thought of Rome with annoyance and distaste. He could do without the scratchy tetchiness of triumviral politics. His supporters in the capital were perfectly capable of looking after his interests without him having to go there in person.

And the Alexandrians thronged to the festival
Full of enthusiasm, and shouted acclamations,
In Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
Charmed by the lovely spectacle -
Though they knew of course what all this was worth,
What empty words they really were, these kingships.

Whoever makes his journey to a tyrant's court becomes his slave, although he went there a free man.

Who doesn't want to be a king? But would you then miss the peace and quiet outside the palace walls? In the end the glittering walls are maybe nothing more than prison bars.

Alarmed by Tiberius' decision to open Agrippa's death to public debate Sallustius warned Livia that 'palace secrets, and the advice of friends, and the services performed by the army, were best undivulged ... the whole point of autocracy is that the accounts will not come right unless the ruler is the auditor.' Tiberius was persuaded to remain silent. The matter was closed.

No one should consider this action unjust, or savage, or excessive, in the light of what happened to Caesar and ourselves. The decree closed with an assurance that the names of none of those who receive rewards will be noted in our records. What was to be done was shameful and it called for concealment.

Once more the colleagues parted. Everyone was becoming accustomed to treaties signed with great solemnity that almost instantly became obsolete, so there were no celebrations of the kind that had marked the accord at Brundisium.

The purge that had caused an upheaval and the agreements that were worth not even the paper they were written on. So maybe this was the base layer of any empire. Shameful deeds that are best concealed and promised that are better forgotten. Who wants to know the inconvenient truth anyway?

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