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Book Review: Augustus: First Emperor of Rome (Adrian Goldsworthy)

This review will combine something very old with something very new.  The very old, of course, is the title character, the Emperor Augustus, and his times.  The very new is a continuation of my thoughts on reaction as a modern political movement.  You will see how these things fit together, and in fact are much the same thing, for today, more than ever, everything old is new again.  And I will begin to distinguish “conservatives” from “reactionaries,” as I recently promised I would.

Adrian Goldsworthy is one of those British historians, of whom the late John Keegan was probably the first modern example, who are tremendously erudite and deeply familiar with the latest scholarship, but whose own writings are directed to the educated popular market, often with an emphasis on military history.  Goldsworthy’s particular focus is Rome and his earlier books cover the very famous:  Julius Caesar, Antony, Cleopatra, and so on.  This book, Augustus, if you think about it, is a departure.  It focuses on a cipher—the most important man in Rome’s history, perhaps, the hinge around which that history turns, but not one whom people really discuss, other than pro forma nods to his role as “First Emperor of Rome” and as the ruler during whose reign Jesus was born.  We all recognize his statues, which were ubiquitous (if idealized—you have never seen a statue of an old Augustus, though he lived to 75).  But what other details can you remember?  Probably none (unless you watched and can remember the second season of the HBO series Rome, which was excellent, though very much not for children, and in any case only covered the early parts of Augustus’s career).  As Goldsworthy points out, there exists no biography purely of the man—rather there are books on his times in which he appears dimly or even as a mere spectator, and usually most of his reign is almost wholly ignored.

The author therefore offers a straightforward chronological history focusing on the man, beginning with Augustus’s birth in 63 B.C.—the birth itself being less immediately important than what was happening then, namely the Catilinarian conspiracy and the ongoing rise of Julius Caesar, the maternal great-uncle of Augustus.  Very quickly Goldsworthy cuts to Julius Caesar’s death and subsequent events.  We get an excellent summary of a confused time.  We are shown the ambition of the nineteen-year-old Gaius Octavius, known as Octavian to us, made the heir of Julius Caesar but lacking experience of both war and command, and without an army compelled to make his way back to Rome from Macedonia not knowing what to expect when he got there.  We review the Second Triumvirate; the battle of Philippi (where Brutus and Cassius died); and the growing appreciation, or apprehension, of relevant men (most especially Cicero) for the Octavian they had under-rated or ignored, figuring they could control him (something that usually seems to turn out poorly for would-be puppet masters).  Finally, in this time period, we get the defeats of Sextus Pompeius, as well as of Antony and Cleopatra, with Octavian then immediately assuming supreme power (sidelining, but not killing, Lepidus, the third member of the Triumvirate, who in fact lived to a ripe old age).

This history is the history we tend to know of Augustus, and as I say, he’s the cipher in the mix.  We thrill to Cleopatra and her asp, the death of Cicero, and other such episodes, not to the growing, consolidating, yet unspectacular power that Octavian held (Augustus, after 27 B.C.).  Nobody makes movies in which Augustus is the central figure.  At this point, most people studying Rome gloss over the rest of his reign and begin focusing on his successors.  Here, the remaining three-fifths of the book covers the forty years of his reign as Augustus, where less exciting things happened and nearly everyone was grateful for the return to boredom, or at least the disappearance of uncertainty and terror, combined with economic and cultural flourishing.

Augustus began by reforming the Senate, along with the consulship and the other magistracies, reducing their number, restoring their prestige, and making various structural changes while retaining the outward forms—at the same time still permitting the upper classes to achieve real power and prestige not solely dependent on his favor.  He restored and enhanced religious rites (some of which were embellished or reinvented for the new age, such as closing both doors of the Temple of Janus when Rome was at peace, thereby increasing piety while highlighting his own successes).  The rule of law generally prevailed, even as against Caesar in small things, although everyone knew and functionally acknowledged that the ultimate power was Caesar’s, so there was not rule of law in precisely the sense we would use it.

Goldsworthy further covers many other aspects of the early Empire, from colonies to roads, as well as extensive details about Augustus’s family, where, most importantly, his succession plans were frustrated by the deaths of the men and the bad behavior of the women.  The Emperor implemented a building program that allowed him to say at his death that “Behold, I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble.”  Some of this was decorative; some practical, as in fixing and building new aqueducts and fountains from which the people got fresh water.  Naturally, all of this was devoted to strengthening his prominence, as well as the civil society of the city and the fibers of empire.  It’s not that Augustus had a grand plan, but he incrementally followed basic principles, and stuck to them whenever possible.  At the same time, of course, he particularly rewarded the soldiers who had put him into and kept him in power.  As Goldsworthy repeatedly notes, Augustus was a military dictator.  No military, no power.  He did not make the mistake that Julius Caesar had made, of going around unarmed by himself; nor did he make the mistake Pompey had made, of disbanding his army at the height of his power and trying to rely on his auctoritas (roughly, status and respect due to position, power, and charisma).  Augustus had massive amounts of auctoritas—and plenty of soldiers to keep his auctoritas fresh.  And he kept his soldiers busy, no longer fighting other Romans, but expanding the empire into more of Spain and Germany, and keeping Rome’s ancient enemies, such as the Parthians, at bay.

From this narrative, a clear portrait of the character of Augustus emerges.  Unlike Julius Caesar, he was not a particularly impressive military leader.  In fact, with at least some justice he was accused of being conveniently ill or otherwise incapacitated at crucial and dangerous moments, such as Philippi, where he was accused of hiding in a marsh, and by his own admission he absented himself because of a warning dream his physician had.  Still, he was wildly ambitious, yet cautious enough to not be constantly risking everything on a throw of the dice, as Antony did, or to do stupid things like allow himself to be cast as a drunk bewitched by a foreign queen, as Antony also did.  “Hurry slowly” was one of his watchwords.  At the same time, like nearly all warlords, he could be bloodthirsty—Augustus, along with the other members of the Second Triumvirate, used proscriptions extensively, both to eliminate their opponents (Julius Caesar’s policy of aggressive clemency was one of the reasons he got killed, because nobody likes to be beholden in that way) and to get land and money to reward their supporters.  It was said in making these proscriptions that Augustus was both callow and vicious, traits that later left him, or were subsumed, but which Goldsworthy notes are part of the balance of the man.  On the other hand, he was fond of humor, even at his own expense, as when after Antony was defeated at Actium he paid a man in Rome 5,000 denarii for a bird that was trained to cry “Hail Caesar, victor imperator!”—and when told there was a second bird, paid the same for that one, even when he discovered its cry was “Hail Antony, victor imperator!”  He was also reportedly amused when “he encountered a man who looked uncannily like him, prompting the princeps to ask the man whether his mother had ever spent time in Rome.  The man said no, before adding that his father was a frequent visitor.”

One of the things that makes this book interesting, and also suggests routes of further inquiry for the interested reader, is that quite frequently Goldsworthy will, without going into detail, refer to scholarly controversies surrounding a particular point.  This often happens, for example, when he is discussing possible or putative resistance by the senatorial class to the dominance of Augustus.  As is well known, records of events and their motivation tend to become less reliable in authoritarian societies, not so much because of fear of punishment as because the real decisions are taken informally, behind closed doors, by groups of the powerful.  Thus, scholars must tease the facts out of relatively little evidence.  Goldsworthy rejects what appears to be, from his comments, the common scholarly idea that this or that event showed a strong undercurrent of opposition to Augustus.  For the most part, Goldsworthy believes that the upper classes (and all the other classes) were much happier with Augustus than with the previous disorders, and while they jockeyed for position, wealth and power, both with respect to obtaining those from Augustus and purely among themselves, there was no coherent set of individuals who had any actual desire or plan to restore the true Republic.  Apparently others (whom he cites) disagree, though what Goldsworthy describes certainly seems likely, given nearly a century of civil war. Throughout the book, there are numerous other interesting points.  For example, everyone knows that much of the writing of the ancient world is lost—but it seems odd, and sad, that even Augustus’s own voluminous memoirs (written early in his reign) are wholly lost.  Other facts add flavor and depth:  “Centurions were men of some property and often came from the aristocracies of the country towns of Italy.  The old view of them as sergeant majors promoted from the ranks is a sadly persistent myth.”  And, finally, we get fashion tips.  One sometimes opponent, sometimes ally was the Germanic tribe of Suebi, “who were famous for wearing their hair tied in a knot on the top or side of their heads—the Suebian knot.”  So the man-bun has respectable antecedents.  I’m pretty sure, though, that today’s wearers of man-buns lack the masculinity of the Suebi.

Augustus allowed a modest amount of criticism of himself, and generally free discourse.  He also patronized the greatest artists, not for propaganda, but because he “prided himself on association with only the finest writers. This was a matter of self-respect, but also good politics.  Alexander the Great’s reputation had suffered through accepting overblown praise from mediocre poets.”  Goldsworthy rejects “the modern prejudice [that assumes] that all great artists must by nature be dissidents, especially if they live under a leader who has fought his way to power.  As a comparison, we would do well to think of the many great works of music and art produced under the rule of, and often with direct patronage of, absolute monarchs in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”  To this I would add every single great work of art created prior to the modern era, all of which (other than some in ancient Athens) were produced under some form of government other than democracy—not to mention that most “great works” of modern art, mostly created under democracy by artists eager to undermine and destroy their own societies, often funded by those they viciously attack, aren’t great at all.  The causative linkage among great art and forms of governance, though, if any, I will leave to another day.

This is not a Christian or religious book in any way, but Goldsworthy elsewhere has identified himself as Christian, and perhaps that shows in his intermittent focus on Herod the Great’s client kingdom.  Among other things, he notes that Herod rebuilt the capital of Samaria and renamed it Sebastos, and settled it largely with veterans, whose sons often served in the Roman army under the governor’s command—hence, “the soldiers who executed Jesus were almost certainly Sebasteni.”  And in an appendix, Goldsworthy evaluates the dating of Jesus’s birth, in particular as relates to the census of Cyrenius [i.e., Publius Sulpicius Qurinius] mentioned in Luke 2 as the reason for Jesus being born in Bethlehem.  Although Goldsworthy doesn’t mention it, very frequently simplistic attacks on Christianity are made claiming that “Augustus never ordered an empire-wide census.”  That may be true—or it may not, given that so much of the records are lost, and Goldsworthy says it’s “perfectly possible,” since it would just be formally ordering and organizing what already happened in practice in an ad hoc manner.  But it’s not relevant to or probative of the truth of Jesus’s birth, since as Goldsworthy says, “There was no reason for Luke to be careful in precisely describing the administrative methods of taxation within the Roman Empire, even assuming that he understood such things, given how few people really understand today all aspects of the taxation system in their own countries. . . . What is clear is that under Augustus . . . most—perhaps all—provinces were subjected to one or more censuses which assessed liability for taxation.”  “The Gospel writing may merely reflect the perspective of a provincial, for whom census and taxation were imposed by the Roman authorities with a regularity that must have seemed as if it was a system imposed by a single decision.”  And given that the taxation census of Qurinius (the first one imposed directly by the Romans) was in A.D. 6, and Herod died in 4 B.C., it was probably not actually this census that was the one mentioned, but an earlier one carried out by Herod, who would have been perceived as acting for Augustus—and which very well may have required registration in one’s home community.  “The Gospel writers were not providing fully detailed historical contexts for the events they described, but telling their readers what they felt was important.”  Thus, the precise contours of the Nativity census or taxation are not known, but what is known is wholly consistent with the Biblical account.

So much for history.  What of today?  It is an obvious and fair question what, if any, lessons or warnings there are for us in the Augustan transition to a new form of governance.  In the unsettled modern age, facile parallels to Rome are constantly drawn.  Most of them are ignorant and foolish—as with using any historical parallel, great caution is needed, both in order that false conclusions not be drawn and in order to avoid excessively constraining thought and action by believing, even if only implicitly, that past performance dictates future results.  But if the Augustan transition tells us anything, it is that all systems end, and that there is no magic to the republican form of government, whatever we may viscerally feel.  When Augustus died, there was no serious movement to return to the Republic.  “The acknowledgement that the principate worked was universal and only a little grudging.”  The key word there is “worked.”  What works today may not be what worked yesterday, but usually people are trapped into existing frames of thought, until one day, they aren’t, and something new works.  The trick is to figure out where we are in that cycle and what actions to take in response.

The Augustan transition is usually thought of as the change from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, but that is not really true.  The Republic was already dead as a doornail when Augustus was born; the only question was what was going to replace it.  Certainly, we can argue why the Republic had run its course, but no educated person would disagree that it had run its course.  That wasn’t obvious to all at the time—for example, the assassins of Julius Caesar hoped to return to the days of republican virtue.  Whether because it was actually virtue, or because those days privileged men of their class, is irrelevant.  The point is that their hope was always pitiful.  Revolutions seeking to wholly return to the past are merely embarkations on the proverbial ship of fools. They never restore the past and rarely result in achieving any of the goals of those who create them.  Our view of the end result of revolutions is distorted by the primacy in our thought given to the American Revolution and the Glorious Revolution, which are viewed as having positive, largely cost-free results in accord with their movers.  But essentially all other revolutions have left most people worse off, usually including most of the revolution’s instigators, and have accomplished few, if any, of their supposed goals.  And none have restored the past, because you can’t restore the past, which after all is necessarily prologue.

The return to Rome of monarchy, the default form of human government, was probably inevitable, given the circumstances of constant disorder, that no person will tolerate if he can avoid it at nearly any cost.  Really, the ascension of Augustus was socially Pareto optimal—nobody was worse off, and many people were better off.  The traditional rebuttal to this is to point to either the nasty later Emperors (Caligula, Commodus) or to the eventual breakdown of the Empire.  Neither suggests that Augustus was not an improvement to the first century B.C.  If we, in the United States, had for decades been swept from coast to coast by war, tanks swarming across Nebraska cornfields, mass confiscations of money and goods, destruction of hundreds or thousands of towns, with each party as it captured a city posting lists of thousands of civilians to be immediately hunted down and killed, we would be not unhappy if someone stopped all this by grasping the reins of power permanently, especially if republican forms were maintained (a particular focus of Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy, the subject of a forthcoming review of mine), considerable freedom was maintained for all people (more than under civil war, certainly), the rule of law was restored, the economy boomed and national prestige was reborn.  In fact, I would bet that almost nobody would miss democracy.  I certainly wouldn’t, in those circumstances.  Democracy, or republicanism, is overrated, probably because we associate the (fading) glory of the modern West with democracy, likely overstating the connection, or even seeing one where none exists.

Certainly, nothing succeeds like success, and Augustus had plenty of that, as Goldsworthy notes, whether due in any given case to luck, leadership skill, or smart delegation.  But why is Augustus different from a zillion other warlords, that we remember him?  The answer, of course, is that he changed the course of an entire civilization, and that what he founded endured.   Why, precisely, what Augustus created endured is always going to be impossible to say—there are too many variables, including many that, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, are “unknown unknowns.”  I think that much of the reason, though, is that Augustus, properly viewed, was a quintessential reactionary.  I imagine the likely response to this claim is incredulity—how can someone who erased hundreds of years of one system, replacing it with a wholly new one, be a reactionary?  True enough, at some level—but that is not what Augustus did.  Instead, through trial-and-error, not through ideology or grand theory, and not through a revolution, he chiseled out the rotten sections of the Roman system and replaced them, sometimes with an improved version of the same, sometimes with something different that was treated as the same but was not, and sometimes with something totally new.  This is like the Ship of Theseus, in a way—Augustus replaced much of the ship of Rome, yet it was undoubtedly the same ship.

So why do I say this process is reactionary?  In the view of the simplistic and borderline literate, reaction means merely an attempt to force return to a past Golden Age—revolution to turn the clock back.  This definition is false, meant to be pejorative and a substitute for reasoned discussion, but reaction does imply both that change to what is happening now is necessary, and that such change must be informed by positive aspects of the past (thus, it is not pessimistic at all, though again that attack is commonly made).  Reaction is therefore the counterweight of progressivism, which also claims that change is necessary now (usually in order to achieve some ideological, theory-based utopia), but places that change upon an arc of continual improvement reaching from the past to the future, where the past is an object lesson in darkness, not a source of valuable lessons and organic, evolved institutions.  What Augustus did was neither to ignore or despise the past, nor to return to the past, but to erase the immediate past as a set of errors, and then look to an earlier past, then already long dead, for forms and substances that could be used to accomplish the current needs of state and society, incrementally altering those in light of the recent past and the reality of empire.  The keys are “incremental” and “past”—nothing wholesale, and prioritizing and maintaining large segments of what had been shown to work before, rather than rejecting earlier collective wisdom embodied in the practices of a people.  Properly viewed, this is the essence of reaction.

For us, or for any looking for lessons from the time of Augustus, this is the question of, if the current system has reached the end of the line, what is to be done?  Modern conservatives often fail to recognize that systems do reach the end of the line.  They grip tightly to the Burkean idea that with enough incremental change, we can restore a system.  There is much truth in Burke, of course—in his lengthy debates with Thomas Paine, Burke rejected the idea of wholesale change, or remaking the world.  But what if the world is already broken, and therefore must be remade, even if we would not choose that if we had the choice?  That is, if incremental change is foreclosed, radical change is dictated.  Recognizing this is, I think, the key difference today between “conservatives,” who would continue trudging down the Burkean path, finding themselves ever more in a dark forest, and “reactionaries,” who, in common with progressives, will countenance radical, even revolutionary, change.  It is just the type and degree of radical change that is then at issue.  Burke, after all, believed that in his time “our ancestors . . . have left us with the inheritance of so happy a constitution and so flourishing an empire.” But that is not, of course, the inheritance of today, and the Burkean project of today’s conservatives is therefore implicitly based on the truth of something not true.

Burke saw this problem, naturally.  Addressing himself to the French revolutionaries, he said “If the last generations of your country appeared without much luster in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors.”  Burke, properly viewed, wasn’t opposed to change, even perhaps to very substantial change, but to radical wholesale change based on theory.  The Augustan transition was a very Burkean change in many ways—there was no grand theory, and in large part Augustus was “deriving his claims from a more early race of ancestors.”  Today’s reactionaries recognize the distinctions among different types and purposes of radical change; conservatives do not.  Instead, they burn incense to their lares and penates, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, engaging in necromancy in the hope that their household gods will restore things to the way they were.  But maundering about Russell Kirk’s permanent things is worthless when our enemies have shattered those things and thrown them on the dung heap.  Breaking our enemies and throwing them on the same dung heap, rather than weeping and begging them to stop, is effective and worthwhile as a response, and probably the only response that is effective and worthwhile.

Thus, we today can and should implement radical change upon largely Burkean principles, as contradictory at that sounds.  The career of Caesar Augustus proves it can be done.  In our own American context, we should stop talking about James Madison, and how if we just get one more Supreme Court justice we can restore the rule of law and the Constitution, and instead start talking about a possible future Augustan-style change of our entire system—not necessarily to absolute monarchy, but perhaps to a constitutional monarchy with a heavy aristocratic element, or, less dramatically, to a restricted franchise or other devices designed to alleviate the defects of a hijacked democracy that are becoming ever more apparent to us, but were well known to the ancient Greeks.  They were also well-known to the Founders, whose project has failed along the fracture lines they feared. Along the way we can have proscriptions, not of the execution type, hopefully, but of the denazification type, where civil rights involving public presence are withdrawn from offenders, who are rusticated until they demonstrate their commitment to, rather than hatred toward, civil society.  This would not be a rewind of our system of governance, but, like the Augustan transition, a remix of the new, freshly informed by the old, and not informed by grand theories.  Of course, such a change would be possible only at a time to be revealed, prior to which disorder and chaos will increase rather than decrease.  But as this book teaches us, the right man at the right time can lead to an optimal outcome for society.  He won’t be a conservative, though.

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