Hello! I live in London, and I like reading about history, travel and literature. I also like good non-fiction about things I don't know about yet, and adventures.
On the plane to San Francisco I polished off this new biography of Augustus/Caesar/Octavian/first hottie of the Roman republic, which was released to time with the 2,000th anniversary of his death on August 19. He’s one of my favourite historical figures: my birth month is named after him and I love his characterisation in eg Rome and Antony and Cleopatra as a placidly ambitious weedy sociopathic teenage politician (so hot). Goldsworthy sets out to break down the boundary history has created between the young ‘Octavian’ (above-mentioned teenie sociopath) and the older ‘Augustus’ (wise emperor who created aqueducts, firefighters, decades of pax Romana, etc.), and create a picture of one man, and he does it clearly and thoughtfully.
Goldsworthy is I believe a military historian and he focuses a lot more on Caesar’s campaigns than on the questions I really want answered about his life, such as: How accurate do we think was that scene on Rome where he talks to Livia about spanking her? Because personally in that relationship I see him as more the spankee. Do you think that Agrippa and Julia went to orgies together, or was that more something she did on her own? Tiberius: probably terrible in bed, right? That said, Goldsworthy does get into some comedy anecdotes, like when Mark Antony was taking petitions in the Forum and he was so hung over he had to grab a friend’s cloak to throw up in, or when a provincial governor decided that the best way to get into Antony and Cleopatra’s good graces was to strip nude, paint himself blue, affix a fishtail (…where?) and dance in front of the Egyptian court on a festival day. (It worked, apparently, the guy had a very successful career.) For his part, teenage Octavian was reportedly much sought after by the adulterous matrons of Rome and very, very understandably so.
After the gossip, I was most interested in Goldsworthy’s look at the way Caesar developed his iconography, the way he chose to present himself to Rome and the world. Despite being effectively a military dictator, Caesar never called himself emperor: he was princeps, the first citizen of the republic, and carried out this odd contradiction of amassing power and squashing enemies while apparently genuinely believing in the republican ideal. Possibly, and this is the really surprising part, not because he was lying or self-delusional like a lot of dictators, but because Rome, which had been going through a civil war every 10-20 years for nearly a century, actually did just need one guy working hard for a few decades to make sure aqueducts were laid and firefighters were paid for and grain routes were secure. Caesar delegated to competent friends and colleagues, and brought up his extended family to be committed public servants. After using his famous uncle Julius’s name to boost his teenage power smash-and-grab, he didn’t take on anything that resembled hereditary power or titles; only ones that were specific to his accomplishments and would die with him. He apparently tried very hard to ensure there wouldn’t be just one guy in charge after his death. It was apparently just extremely bad luck that his carefully brought up network of young civic-minded future co-leaders nearly all died young, leaving his former son-in-law Tiberius as the last one standing and creating the position of One Guy In Charge almost by default.
Anyway it turns out ancient Roman teenage sociopaths = hot, ancient Roman teenage sociopaths who grow up to become dedicated public servants = hotter, Julia remains my favourite, this was among the clearer and wittier works of classical history I’ve read. Recommend.