Review: Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Brian G Turner

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With the title "Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor" I was hoping for something approaching a biography of this iconic Roman. Unfortunately, it's little more than a dry political history of the early Roman Empire, that does nothing to answer questions about the man Augustus himself.

And as Augustus was of little political importance during the first 18 years of his life, we learn almost nothing about it. Instead, during the opening hundred pages, Goldsworthy focuses almost entirely on Julius Caesar and Cicero. I can accept the need for context, but this reduces Augustus to a footnote in his own history.

Even Agrippa, whose name is inseparable from Augustus, doesn't even appear until a third of the way through the book, and that's only because Aggripa happened to command the Battle of Actium against Anthony and Cleopatra. He gets some coverage later on, but Goldsworthy probably spends more time focused on Judea, Herod, and the possible birth of Jesus, than on the life-long friend of Augustus.

No doubt there's an argument that the historian cannot speculate - Goldsworthy derides it when faced with answering personal questions about the man. And yet appears dedicated to listing every single Consul during the reign of Augustus, even though he has to preface much of this with words like "maybe", "perhaps" and "possibly".

Additionally, Goldsworthy generally covers events in chronological order, but not always, resulting in some frustrating backtracking as he realises he needs to provide more information on a previously covered subject.

Overall, if released last century, no doubt the book would have been highly lauded. But history has since moved on - we want to know more about the ordinary people, and experience insights about them. Instead, Goldsworthy refuses to acknowledge Augustus as a man, only a politician.

In that regard, this relegates the entire book to being little more than a particularly detailed political history of the early Roman Empire - and offers almost nothing new, or specific, about Augustus himself, despiite the book title.
 

Brian G Turner

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I've just finished reading Marcus Argippa by Linsay Powell, a fantastic piece of work that manages to construct a pretty comprehensive overview of the life of Agrippa - as well as his friendship and work with Augustus - using a wide variety of historical sources.

No doubt there's an opportunity for criticism regarding some of the source and interpretations made, but that aside it's wonderfully detailed and researched, and a great platform and resource for further study.

Definitely recommended for anyone looking for more information on the Augustan period, and arguably provides more information and insight on Augustus himself than Goldsworthy's larger but rather distant book.

Even better - it's only £1.19 at the moment - presumably priced as an introduction of Powell's work. I'll definitely be buying more. :)
 

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