Friday, September 02, 2011


Map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent

I have just read Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor by Anthony Everett. Under Augustus the Romans stabilized their empire, expanding north to the Rhine and the Danube from their domination of the lands bordering the Mediterranean. Everett points out that this vast area (which then had a population of some 45 million people) was about as much as could be managed with the administrative technologies of the state at the time. After all, consuls serving for limited periods, seeking to run an empire without a bureaucracy but only with their own family, servants, slaves and friends, could only do so much. I found the information on the way the Roman government was organized tantalizing, but unfortunately brief. It was very different that what we have today, mixing politics with religion, dictatorship with democratic processes, and based on slavery.

Ultimately, it is the size of the Roman empire and its longevity that led to its huge influence on modern society. This popular history helps one to recall the empire that was Rome at the time of Christ and Augustus. It provides an occasion for us to contemplate the impact of Latin language and culture on Europe and the vast area of former European colonies.

Everett does not go into Roman technology (other than to point out that Augustus left Rome a city clad in marble), but clearly its ability to build and maintain good roads and to communicate at a distance was critical to the ability of a relatively small population of Roman citizens to rule so large a geographic area.

Similarly, Everett does not provide much explanation of the Roman military system. How for example, was the society able to support a large standing army or to expand the numbers of men under arms hugely during the civil wars? How was it able to provide logistic support to legions fighting in distant lands? Everett also chooses not to explain how the Roman forces were organized to utilize cavalry, archers, artillery, and the infantry, nor why the Roman legions were so effective. Nor does he explain the naval technology and strategy in much detail.

I found the book ultimately unsatisfactory on the life of Augustus, something unavoidable when an author seeks to portray a person who lived 2000 years ago, based on the little and contradictory evidence that still exists. Of course we know quite a bit about the sequence of military campaigns in the Civil War and wars of conquest of the time, but I found myself doubting Everett's portrayal of the strategic thinking of Augustus and his contemporaries. I tend to suspect that Augustus combined good strategic plans with a good ability to adjust to unplanned for events and patch things in operation. It also seems to me that, like any biography of a great leader, this book tends to give too much credit to the principle character and not enough to the vast number of people surrounding him and working hard to make his plans work.

I found some of the side information provided by Everett about Roman life fascinating, such as the discussions of food, clothing, and family life. I found it refreshing that Everett shows us how much more earthy Roman society was than our own, failing to balderize the language used in Roman politics. Roman naming conventions are quite different than our own, and interesting, but they make it difficult to follow the characters in the history.

Irene Hahn provides a review of the book suggesting that Everett too easily passes over some controversies among historians as too what actually happened 2000 years ago; I don't know enough about the period to judge. I was concerned that Everett imputed thoughts to Augustus that we can not possibly know. I suspect there was more "muddling through" than Everett would suggest, and lest "grand strategy".

Would that other authors of popular historical biographies would include great sets of maps, chronologies of events, and genealogical tables in their books as has Everett! I found myself returning to them often.

Ultimately this is a short, readable book. It is half a century since I studied Latin and Rome in high school, and long past time that I learned a little more of its history. This book covers much of the same time and territory covered by Robert Graves' I, Claudius which I loved in both book and dramatic forms. However, Everett is writing history and Graves historical fiction. Everett's book is a good companion for Graves'.

Model of the Forum of Augustus, Rome, dedicated in 2 BCE.

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