It’s strange that tourists rarely visit the most famous site in Roman history. The spot in Pompey’s assembly hall where Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March, 44 bc, is right in the middle of Rome, in Largo di Torre Argentina. When I was there, the tourists were only interested in the feral cats that stroll across the murder scene.
Jochen Bleicken shrewdly begins this long, occasionally heavygoing but unequalled biography with that murder. It’s only because Caesar appointed his great-nephew Gaius Octavius (known later as Augustus) as his adopted son and heir that the latter rose to such heights. But for that crucial adoption, Augustus wasn’t that posh. His real father was a praetor in Velitre, a little town in the Alban mountains; his mother was from a small-town, senatorial background. Upper class, yes; elite, ruling class, no.
That relatively ungrand beginning explains a lot about the hard-working, self-aware, self-denying character that propelled Augustus to greatness. He ate sparingly —sardines, figs and cheese — and drank Rhaetian wine moderately, helping him to live to 75. He didn’t have too many self-indulgent baths, rode and walked into old age, and he’d often hop the last part of a walk to keep in shape. He left imperial excess — the orgies and the boozing — to the emperors who followed.
Augustus’s semi-posh background also explains his obsession with ancestry and the need to show his connections to the greats of Roman history. The Ara Pacis Augustae — the Altar of Augustan Peace, that sublime sculpture on the banks of the Tiber — is an altar to genealogy. Augustus is depicted alongside the royal flush of Roman history: Aeneas, Romulus, Remus and the goddess Roma. Augustus’s Forum followed the same pattern: there he is again, next to statues of his supposed ancestors, Mars, Venus, Aeneas and Romulus.
Bleicken, a German professor who died in 2005 (this is the first English translation of the 1998 original) convincingly argues that Augustus is more than a mere ancestor-worshipper. It took a leader of exceptional skill, force and ruthlessness to save Rome, which was in danger of total collapse after Caesar’s death. For the next 17 years, Augustus negotiated a tricky, blood-soaked path to absolute power.
First came the triumvirate, from 43 bc to 33 bc, with Augustus allied to Antony and Lepidus. Brutus and Cassius were defeated largely by Antony’s forces at the Battle of Philippi in 42 bc. Then Augustus took out Lepidus and Antony in turn.
He even had the self-control to resist the charms of Cleopatra when she threw herself at him after Antony’s death. A bit dull of him, perhaps? Surely Augustus should have followed the wise words of Zorba the Greek: ‘God has a very big heart but there is one sin he will not forgive… if a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go.’
Augustus may not have slept with the prettiest queen in history but, still, he had comprehensively wiped out his rivals and laid the foundations of an empire. In 27 bc, the Senate declared him Princeps (‘leader’) and Augustus (a word, crucially associated with Romulus, that meant something like ‘sublime’ or ‘holy’). It was an extraordinary conjuring trick. Julius Caesar was assassinated for becoming a quasi-monarch; and yet here was Augustus declaring himself Imperator Caesar divi filius: commander Caesar, son of the deified one. His triumph was an echo of the saying of a later Italian aristocrat, Prince Tancredi Falconieri in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’
Still, after decades of civil war and uncertainty, Augustus had brought peace to Rome and assured it a relatively secure future. On his deathbed, he asked his friends whether he’d reached the end of the comedy of life, adding, in Greek, a traditional dramatic request for applause: ‘If it was well-played, clap your hands, and accompany us on our way with cries of applause.’ It was well-played, Augustus.