Ancient History & Civilisation


Section Three


This section turns the spotlight onto some of the most famous names of the Roman empire – from emperors, good and bad (starting with Augustus in Chapter 11, ending with Hadrian in Chapter 18) to enemies, both glamorous and ghastly (Cleopatra and Boudicca star in Chapters 12 and 16). One crucial question surfaces time and again. How can we write a life story of any of these characters, in the modern ‘cradle-to-grave’ sense? Or, to put it even more strongly, what do we really know about these emperors, empresses and their enemies, and how do we know it? In the case of every single one of them, there are vast gaps in the narrative – so that we find even some of the best modern biographers reduced to fantasising (and it is fantasy) about the toddler Cleopatra scampering through the colonnades of the Egyptian royal palace, or about what Hadrian’s wife might have got up to in Britain while the emperor himself paid a visit to his Wall.

It may, at first sight, seem frustrating that any convincing year by year (or even decade by decade) story of these famous figures is quite beyond our grasp. But there is rich compensation for that in some extraordinary – sometimes eyewitness – glimpses of particular moments in their lives that do still survive and almost seem to take us back to the ancient world itself. Particular favourites of mine include a papyrus text, now in Oxford, of the speech given by the Roman imperial prince Germanicus, when he landed in Alexandria in 19 AD (as we find in Chapter 12, he complains about the journey and explains that he is missing his Mum and Dad!); the anecdote that reaches us, thanks to a mole in Cleopatra’s kitchens, of the cooking arrangements and life below-stairs in her palace (also in Chapter 12); or the Jewish eyewitness account of the Emperor Caligula’s passion for home makeovers, and his particular dislike of eating lamb (Chapter 14).

What is more, there is plenty of evidence to chew over, if we want to think about how the posthumous reputations of these different emperors have been formed. It is fairly clear, for example, that Nero (Chapter 15) was not always regarded as the monster of imperial depravity that he has become for us – and as he was for many historians in antiquity itself, who composed their accounts of his reign decades or even centuries after his death (notably Tacitus, whose terrifying denunciation of Roman autocracy is written, as I discuss in Chapter 17, in a style of Latin that is almost as difficult, or adventurous, as Thucydides’ Greek). In fact, Nero was so missed in some quarters that, after his suicide, a series of people emerged across the Roman empire pretending to be him, still alive after a miraculous escape: not something you would do unless there was political capital to be gained from it. And, although for most Christians he was a cruel persecutor of their faith, there remains a trace of an alternative tradition that claimed that he actually put Pontius Pilate to death – making him something of a Christian hero.

But fiction and film also have an undeniable part to play in how the modern world imagines the Roman imperial cast of characters – in particular Robert Graves’s novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God together with the famous 1970s television adaptation. These are very largely responsible for the stereotype we have of the Emperor Claudius, as an endearingly dotty old academic (not exactly what many people in the Roman world itself would have thought), and of Augustus’ wife, the empress Livia, as a scheming and slightly camp poisoner. Chapter 13 explores how Siân Phillips in the television adaptation ‘made’ Livia – while taking a quick look also at a little known, and disastrous, attempt by John Mortimer to adapt the novels for the London stage (an attempt not helped by the appearance of Graves himself at the opening party).

The British rebel, Boudicca, is even more a product of modern recreation than her Roman enemies. In the absence of almost any reliable evidence on her life story, character or aims, modern British writers and artists have for centuries tried to fill the gap.Chapter 16 looks at how they have done that – from Thornycroft’s glamorous and proudly ‘imperial’ statue on the Thames Embankment, to the New Age spiritualist who is the heroine of a series of recent novels. To be honest, the real-life Boudicca would probably have been a much more unsettling character than either of these rather comfortable or quaint images suggest.



The ancient Romans liked an emperor who could take – and make – a joke. Their first emperor, Augustus, was particularly renowned for his sense of humour. In fact, even four centuries after his death, the scholarly Macrobius devoted several pages of his encyclopedia Saturnalia to a collection of Augustus’ bons mots, very much in the modern ‘Wit and Wisdom’ genre.

Some of these quotations expose a frustrating distance between ancient humour and our own, or at least the difficulty of making good oral quips work in writing. ‘Do you think you are handing a penny to an elephant’ might have been a retort of inspired spontaneity to a man who was nervously presenting a petition (‘now holding out his hand, now withdrawing it’); but it hardly seems worth the loving preservation that it has enjoyed. But other quips still work surprisingly well. One of Macrobius’ anecdotes is particularly revealing.

It concerns the period just after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, at which Augustus (then known as Octavian, or just plain Caesar) defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra and effectively gained control of the entire Roman world. He was met on his return to the capital by a man with a tame raven, which he had taught to say ‘Greetings to Caesar, our victorious commander.’ Augustus was so impressed that he gave the man a substantial cash prize. But it turned out that the bird’s trainer had a partner who, when none of the 20,000 sesterces came his way, went to the emperor and explained that the man had another raven which he should be asked to produce. Predictably, the pair had been hedging their bets: this bird squawked ‘Greetings to Antony, our victorious commander.’ The emperor saw the funny side and did not get angry – but simply insisted that the prize money be shared between the two men.

The obvious point this story makes is that Augustus was a ruler with a human touch, not a man to take offence, and generous in his response to relatively innocent tricksters. But there is a rather more subversive political message here too. The pair of identikit ravens, with their nearly identical slogans, cannot help but hint that there was really very little to choose between Antony and Octavian/Augustus. Antony has gone down in history as a dissolute wastrel whose victory would have turned Rome into an Oriental monarchy, and Augustus as the sober founding father of an imperial system that would endure in some guise into the Middle Ages. But if you turn the clock back to 31 and to the end of the civil wars that had followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, the two antagonists look almost interchangeable. For most of the inhabitants of the Roman world, the victory of one or the other would require no more adjustment than the swapping of one talking raven for another.

In fact, this is exactly where the main historical problem in the career of Augustus lies. How can we understand his transition from a violent warlord in the civil conflicts of the Roman world between 44 and 31 BC to the venerable elder statesman who died safely in his bed (notwithstanding some conspiracy-theory rumours of poisoning by his wife, Livia) in 14 AD? How do we explain the metamorphosis of a young thug who was reputedly capable of tearing out a man’s eyes with his bare hands into a serious-minded legislator apparently concerned to improve Roman morals, increase the birth rate, revive ancient religious traditions, and turn the capital (as he himself put it) ‘from a city of brick to a city of marble’, while at the same time successfully repackaging the traditional political institutions to leave himself in the position of king, in all but title?

True, there are plenty of examples from all historical periods, including our own, of freedom fighters and terrorists being transformed into respected government leaders. But the case of Augustus is unusually extreme. As Octavian, he fought and schemed his way to victory over the course of a decade or more of bitter civil wars – in which the supporters of Julius Caesar first turned on those who had assassinated him in the name of ‘liberty’, before finishing the job by turning on one another. Octavian then dramatically reinvented himself. It was a change of image and substance marked by a change of name. In 27 BC he dispensed with ‘Octavian’ and its murderous associations. He flirted with the idea of calling himself ‘Romulus’ after the original founder of Rome, but that had some undesirable associations too: not only had he made himself king by killing his brother Remus (pp. 65–6) which might seem uncomfortably reminiscent of Octavian’s fight with Antony, but according to one story Romulus had himself been murdered, just like Caesar, by a posse of senators. So instead he opted for ‘Augustus’, a new coinage, meaning something like ‘Revered One’.

Anthony Everitt’s aim in his biography of Augustus is predictable enough, even if (given the state of the evidence) over-optimistic: it is ‘to make Augustus come alive’, amid all the ‘shipwrecks, human sacrifice, hairbreadth escapes, unbridled sex, battles on land and at sea, ambushes [and] family scandals’ that characterised the period. Although anyone looking for the ‘unbridled sex’ is likely to be disappointed, he certainly offers some colourful stories from the emperor’s life, robustly told. Sometimes, in fact, these are a little more colourful than the evidence allows, as in the introductory chapter, which opens with a look ahead to the very end of Augustus’ long life and to the events surrounding his death.

Admitting that his reconstruction is partly ‘imagined’, Everitt happily embraces the rumours of poisoning reported by the third-century-AD historian Cassius Dio. This launches a lurid and highly dubious tale of Augustus’ murder by his wife, Livia – contrived to ensure that the well-laid scheme for the succession of his heir Tiberius should not be disrupted by any unexpected recovery or undue lingering on the part of the sick and elderly ruler, and carried out with the victim’s own tacit assent (‘guessing what had happened, he silently thanked his wife’).

Whether this is anything like what happened on 19 August, 14 AD (the month of Sextilis had been renamed in his honour some twenty years earlier), we cannot possibly now know. But the account here reads like a cross between the BBC’s I, Claudius (which, as we shall see in the next chapter, memorably dramatised the final moments of the aged emperor) and the unsophisticated media management techniques adopted for the succession of British monarchs as late as the twentieth century. In 1936, as his doctor was in due course to admit, the death of George V was hastened by a lethal injection, administered partly to ensure that the news could be announced in the following day’s Times rather than in the less august evening papers.

But the main failing of Everitt’s Augustus is not its sometimes misplaced confidence in the ancient sources, or its over-imaginative reconstructions of key historical moments. It is that he fails fully to grasp the problem of the transformation of the emperor from thug to statesman, still less to explain how the transformed Augustus managed to put in place a radically new system of Roman government, replacing what had been a fraying democracy of sorts with one-man rule. These issues are as important a part of the project of ‘making Augustus come alive’ as the stories of murder, exile, adultery and family crisis.

The balance of the book points clearly to the avoidance of these big questions. More than half of its pages are devoted to the period between the emperor’s birth in 63 BC (to Julius Caesar’s niece Atia and her relatively undistinguished husband) and his defeat of Antony at Actium in 31 BC. As we know virtually nothing of his early life, beyond a few anecdotes revealing precocious signs of his future greatness, which were certainly invented later, this means that a large proportion of the biography is concerned with the years of civil war between 44 and 31.

The forty-five years of Augustus’ reign as sole ruler of the Roman world are, in comparison, thinly treated. The reason for this is clear enough. Much more ‘stuff happened’ during the war to fill the pages of a biography, or to get recorded in the ancient sources on which Everitt depends. So he tells in some detail the packed and tortuous narrative of Caesar’s assassination and its aftermath, when the young Octavian found himself, at eighteen years old, not only Caesar’s main heir but also posthumously adopted in his will (it was this that enabled him, after Caesar’s deification, to style himself ‘son of a god’). Unable to dislodge Mark Antony, the other main defender of the Caesarian cause and twenty years his senior, he joined forces with him and together, after a short-lived truce with the assassins, they defeated the army of Brutus and Cassius in Greece in 42.

Nine further years of civil conflict were to follow, largely but not exclusively between the supporters of Octavian and of Antony, all of which also receive full coverage in the biography. This is an even more intricate tale, featuring rivalry, marriage alliances between the various parties, and brief periods of reconciliation (enormously hyped by ancient writers) interspersed with bouts of vicious fighting – until Antony, notoriously in partnership with Cleopatra of Egypt (who had earlier been the mistress of Julius Caesar himself), escaped from defeat at Actium, on the coast of northern Greece, to commit suicide in Egypt (see Chapter 12).

There is some vivid narrative here, and Everitt deploys some of the marvellously varied evidence for this period with a sharp eye for a good story. He gives, for example, a stirring account of the battle at Perusia (modern Perugia) in 41 BC between Octavian and Antony’s brother Lucius, who was himself supported by Antony’s then wife Fulvia, one of the most memorable characters in the entire conflict (and the woman who used her hairpins to pierce the tongue of the severed head of her husband’s great enemy Cicero (p. 79) – a fair indication of the moral standards prevailing in this war). Octavian besieged the Antonians in the town and eventually forced them to surrender, before pardoning the leaders and sending Lucius off to be governor of Spain. But for once archaeology gives us a glimpse of how the siege was conducted on the ground. More than eighty lead sling-stones have been discovered at Perugia, left behind from the artillery of both sides in this campaign. On many of them rough and ready messages had been scratched – intended not so much, I imagine, for the enemy to read, but to convey something of the spirit in which they had been dispatched. They are mostly obscene: ‘I’m after Fulvia’s clitoris’ and ‘I’m after Octavian’s ass’ being typical examples. One, ‘Lucius is bald’, is regarded by Everitt as ‘rather more feeble’. Given the obvious tone of the others, I rather suspect that it is a nice indication that baldness was seen as a greater physical imperfection in the Roman world than it is today.

It is a fascinating vignette, and a rare glimpse into the gendered prejudices, black humour, and basic emotions that drove ancient front-line combatants no less than their modern counterparts. But the overall conclusions that we can draw from this and the rest of the detailed narrative of the war are unsurprising. Like most successful warlords-turned-statesmen, Octavian owed his victory to the usual mixture of violence, good luck, treachery and shrewd judgement. The wealth of information that we have, expansively recounted by Everitt, hardly gets us much further than that.

The picture changes dramatically after the Battle of Actium. This later, and historically even more significant, period is marked by a relative paucity of known ‘events’, despite the fact that Augustus must then have been busy rewriting the politics of Rome and embedding a regime of imperial one-man rule in the place of republican government by the Senate and people. Everitt explains that he has been forced to abandon any attempt to give a straight chronological narrative, in favour of a more thematic approach. This is, of course, a consequence of the character of the surviving ancient evidence, which, in a narrowly historical sense, is now much thinner than for the period of the civil war. As Everitt laments, ‘between 16 and 13 BC … Augustus was in Gaul and Germany, but we have no idea where he went or where he was at any particular time.’ Compare this with the sometimes almost day-by-day information that we have for his movements two decades earlier.

Part of our problem here is bad luck and the accidents of survival. Had, for example, the account of this period by Virgil’s patron and one-time supporter of Antony, Asinius Pollio, or the final books of Livy’s history Ab Urbe Condita (which originally went up to 9 BC – whereas the text we have stops in 167), survived the Dark Ages, we would almost certainly have a very different, more richly detailed story to tell. But it is not just that. For the long-term structural changes in politics and society brought about by, and under, Augustus are not easily or even usefully discussed in a linear narrative of significant events.

The establishment of the Augustan regime of one-man rule was not primarily a matter of momentary decisions or actions – however much many modern writers, as well as Dio, who provides the only surviving comprehensive ancient chronology of the reign, would like to pinpoint the major turning point in 27 BC (when Octavian changed his name and made some significant new arrangements for the administration of the Roman provinces). The regime was established much more by the gradual readjustment of political expectations among both the elite and the people, and by the gradual redefinition of the very idea of government and political activity. I strongly suspect, in other words, that even if the lost narrative of some thorough historian had been preserved, it would not have answered the most pressing questions we have of this period. It might well have told us more about Augustus’ route through Gaul and Germany between 16 and 13 BC; it is extremely unlikely to have explained directly the conditions that made such an enormous political transformation possible.

The historical record has also been affected by the changing nature, and location, of political activity itself during the period of Augustus’ rule. Under the Roman Republic’s constitution, decisions were debated and made in public. Of course, private deals of all kinds must have been stitched up and plenty of behind-the-scenes haggling went on. But historians were able to record and sometimes to witness the debates and resolutions that affected the course of Roman history, whether elections of office holders or decisions to go to war or to distribute land to the poor. Political decisions were observable events.

With the advent of the rule of Augustus, the locus of power shifted decisively from public to private spaces. To be sure, many of the old institutions, including the Senate, continued to operate. But if any specific, individual decisions were crucial in the pattern of political change that Augustus inaugurated, these were most likely made not in the Senate house or Forum but in Augustus’ own home (a relatively modest dwelling, a far cry from the vast palace that would later be built – but significantly part of the same complex as the Temple of Apollo, with all the resonance of divine power which that proximity brought). The political activity that mattered was now hidden from history.

This development was clearly seen by ancient writers themselves. Everitt quotes Dio on the lack of ‘freedom of information’ in Augustan Rome: ‘Most events began to be kept secret and were denied to common knowledge …. Much that never materializes becomes common talk, while much that undoubtedly came to pass remains unknown.’ Writing about a century after the death of Augustus, Tacitus, by far the sharpest and most cynical critic of Roman autocracy, pointedly compared the grand themes that could be addressed at will by those writing of the Roman Republic (‘vast wars, cities stormed … disputes between consuls and tribunes, land-laws and corn-laws’) with the apparently trivial, monotonous and demeaning material available to a historian writing under and about a virtual monarchy. The paradox was, in Tacitus’ eyes, that autocracy brought about the very conditions that made it difficult, if not impossible, for a historian to analyse it.

Everitt’s decision, then, to treat the period after Actium more thematically is obviously the right one and, in view of the material, almost inevitable. Even so, he tends to shy away from facing directly the big questions of Augustus’ success: what was the basis of his power? Why was it that he could succeed in supplanting the traditions of republican politics where Julius Caesar had failed? How did he manage to transform himself and his image from warlord to statesman? At times the version of Augustus that emerges from the second half of this biography is that of a sensible, efficient, and slightly ‘Blairite’ British civil servant. He was a careful drafter of speeches (in fact, he did not talk about important matters even to his wife without making notes first). He had a commitment to ‘clean government’. He replaced the ‘corrupt mechanisms of the Republic [with] … something resembling an honest state bureaucracy’. He introduced ‘orderly governance throughout the empire’. He ‘held a sombre commitment to the public interest’. He took no steps to restrict free speech. ‘No secret police knocked on the doors of dissident writers’, for he ‘understood that independence of spirit was central to a Roman’s idea of himself’. He made the citizens feel more like ‘stakeholders’ than ‘victims’.

Alternatively, you could see him as ‘a chief executive of a large organisation’; and at his side was Livia, his trophy wife who made sure she stood by her man and looked the part. ‘If guests were coming to dinner,’ Everitt concludes at one point, ‘she would need to look her best’ – a trite piece of modernisation only slightly less jarring than his description of the vast basilicas that lined the Forum as ‘shopping and conference centres’.

In fact, most of Augustus’ aims sound so utterly unobjectionable as they are described here that it is hard to understand why there remain so many undeniable hints, even in generally pro-Augustan ancient sources, of potentially violent opposition. He deals briskly with what seems to have been a serious conspiracy in 24–23 BC. He passes quickly over the fact that when Augustus reviewed the composition of the Senate in 28 BC, he turned up, according to Suetonius, wearing armour beneath his tunic and had the senators frisked on their way into the meeting. As for that commitment to freedom of speech, the poet Ovid would presumably have responded to any such claim with a hollow laugh. For Ovid was exiled in 8 AD to the shores of the Black Sea. His precise crime remains a mystery, but the fact that Ovid himself refers in this connection to his carmen et error (literally his ‘poem and mistake’) strongly suggests that his punishment was somehow linked to the publication of his mock didactic poem The Art of Love. This consisted of three books of risqué lessons for boys and girls on how, where, and when to pick up a partner: hardly ‘on message’ with the emperor’s programme of moral reform.

Whatever the exact circumstances that lie behind any of these incidents, together they suggest that Augustus’ monopoly of power provoked much more serious opposition than Everitt (or, to be fair, most recent historians) care to admit. Violence, or more often the lurking threat of violence, must have been a constant undercurrent in the Augustan regime. It is in this setting perhaps that we should understand the continuing circulation of the stories of the emperor’s ruthlessness, if not brute sadism, during the civil wars. However benign an image he might choose to present in middle age, it did his power no harm for everyone to know that he had once been capable of blinding a man with his own hands. Scratch the surface and perhaps he still was. As in many political systems, the economy of force operated through anecdote and rumour, as much as through the spilling of blood.

But the most frustrating aspect of Everitt’s book is that he does glance fleetingly at a number of the major issues that might have thrown clearer light on how the Augustan regime worked and what underwrote its ultimate success. But he does not stop long enough to draw out their importance or their implications. He has a few pages, for example, on the visual imagery sponsored by Augustus and his advisers, a brief reference to the famous Altar of Peace, to the vast sundial erected with an Egyptian obelisk to cast the shadow, and to the quip about finding Rome a city of brick and leaving it one of marble. Yet it would be hard to guess from this just how crucial in the establishment of the Augustan regime worldwide such images were.

Augustus was the first Roman politician to realise that power in part stemmed from visibility, or at least to act on that realisation. More portrait statues of him survive than of any other Roman ever, and they have been found throughout the empire – often, it seems, made from a model distributed from Rome. And in the capital itself, he repeatedly stamped the cityscape with his own image in various forms. Everitt has only a few words for what is probably his key monument, the so-called Forum of Augustus. This was a vast development in gleaming marble, adjacent to and towering over the old Roman Forum, which had been the political centre of the traditional Republic. Its decorative programme did not simply underline the power of the emperor (whose statue probably appeared in a triumphal chariot in the middle of the central piazza); it also demonstrated his direct descent from Rome’s two mythical founders, Romulus and Aeneas. If he didn’t actually take the name of Romulus, he certainly found other ways to convey the ideathat he had re-founded Rome, and to identify his own destiny with that of the city.

But the Augustan regime was not based on myth and image-making alone. As I have already hinted, the deployment and control of force went hand in hand with the softer side of political domination. Everitt clearly recognises that Augustus’ control of the Roman army was absolutely central to his power base. But again, he does not press the point long or far enough. As the civil wars that brought Augustus to power themselves illustrate, the Republic collapsed in part because Roman armies were semi-private institutions, owing loyalty to their own commander rather than to the state. Augustus nationalised the armies and directed their loyalty to himself. He did this by a vast programme of structural reform: regularising recruitment, conditions of service, and pay (from the state treasury), and providing a generous retirement package at the end of a fixed period of service, sixteen years by the end of the reign. The importance that Augustus must have given to this is indicated by the vast financial outlay that it entailed. One estimate has it that army costs alone devoured more than half the annual tax revenue of the whole Roman Empire.

Such financial commitments certainly left a legacy of problems for his successors. Significantly, the first main incident that Tacitus recounts at the beginning of his Annals (a history of Rome from the reign of Augustus’ heir Tiberius to the death of Nero) is a mutiny in Pannonia, a province in central Europe. Soldiers complained, among other things, that they were being kept under arms longer than the agreed term and that their retirement package was not forthcoming. The reason for this is clear: Augustus had overextended himself; there was simply not enough money in the treasury to cover the costs; the easiest way of economising was not to discharge the troops (after all, the longer they were in service, the fewer payouts there would have to be at the end).

But Tacitus’ starting point is significant in another way too. Critics have often wondered why his Annals dissects the history of Augustus’ successors, but not (apart from a few paragraphs of retrospective review) the reign of the first emperor himself. Was it that Tacitus intended to return later to examine this (as he himself hinted at one point)? That it was too large a subject to be combined with his successors? Or that it was too risky to take on? My hunch is that it was none of these, and that we have grievously misunderstood his Annals if we imagine that it is not about Augustus.

For, of course, it is exactly that, as its dark opening sentence (‘The city of Rome has been the possession of kings from the beginning’) hints. As we shall see again in Chapter 17, this is a far more complex claim than it may seem at first sight. For it is partly to say that, despite the democratic interlude of the Republic, monarchy was embedded in the history of Rome from Romulus onwards. But, so far as Augustus himself is concerned, by omitting a narrative account of his life Tacitus may be suggesting that his reign is only comprehensible if we understand it through his dynastic successors. Or even, from Tacitus’ position a century later, that Augustus’ reign existed primarily as a mythic origin of the new traditions of one-man rule – a vacant space to be reinvented and refilled by each succeeding successor, every one of whom, significantly, took the title ‘Augustus’; in a way each emperor through the centuries became Augustus anew.

Everitt sees part of this complexity. In fact, he refuses to describe Augustus as an ‘emperor’ on the grounds that the nature of the regime became established only when its dynastic aspirations were fulfilled under Tiberius. But neither he, nor the rest of Augustus’ would-be modern biographers, have taken the lessons of Tacitus sufficiently to heart.

Review of Anthony Everitt, Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor (Random House, 2006)

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!