Ancient History & Civilisation



A Tide in the Affairs of Men

Late one January, a decade and a half before the soul of the murdered Caesar blazed across the skies of Rome, a girl was born destined herself to become a god.1 Even in the womb, the immortals had been keeping careful watch over her. Pregnancy was a perilous business. Only supernatural oversight could guarantee success. Right from the moment of conception, the unborn child had been growing under the protection of a succession of deities. As she finally emerged into the world from her squatting mother, to be raised aloft by the midwife, washed clean of blood and then given her first taste of milk, various goddesses were still on hand to keep track of her progress: Levana, Rumina, Potina.*1

The gods, though, were no longer alone in deciding whether the infant would survive. ‘The ten long months of tedious waiting’2 endured by her mother were over – and now the girl had passed into the power of her father. A Roman was made, not born. A baby in its first week of life was a nameless, rightless thing, ‘more like a plant than a human being’ until the loss of her umbilical cord.3 Whether in that time she would be acknowledged or exposed and left to die was the decision of her father, and her father alone. No man in the world held quite such authority over his offspring as a Roman.*2 The absolute rule denied a consul was readily ceded by children to their father. A son might come of age, marry, win the utmost glory and honour, and yet still remain under the patria potestas, ‘paternal control’. A father’s power over his child was literally one of life and death. This did not mean, however, that it was widely exercised. Just the opposite. Absolute power was combined, in the Roman parenting ideal, with mercy, forbearance and devotion. ‘What father, after all, is in a rush to lop off his own limbs?’4 Even the disposal of an unwanted newborn, though perfectly legal, tended to be shrouded in secrecy. It spoke of poverty, or adultery, or perhaps deformity in the child. Invariably, it was a matter of shame.

There was to be no rejection that January, though. Eight days after the girl’s birth, at a ceremony which combined solemn rituals of purification with joyous partying, she was finally given a name: Livia Drusilla.*3 Her father could well afford to raise her. Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus boasted a name as distinguished as any in Rome. From his own father, a famously principled statesman who in his day had been the city’s foremost champion of the poor, he had inherited connections that spanned the whole of Italy.5 The name of ‘Livius Drusus’, in a time of upheaval and civil conflict, had considerable heft. It was not, though, the only one to which the infant Livia Drusilla was heir. In Rome, where the great game of dynastic competition was at least as much about forging alliances as foiling rivals, adoption was a widely practised tactic. It was considered perfectly legitimate for the son of a skilful politician to be adoptive rather than natural – and such a man was Drusus Claudianus. It was his last name that revealed as much. Legally the son of Livius Drusus though he had ended up, he had not abandoned the memory of the house into which he had been born. That he was called ‘Claudianus’ marked him out, not just as someone adopted, but as the scion of a family as celebrated and formidable as any in Rome.

The fame of the Claudians was as ancient as the Republic itself. Attius Clausus, the founder of the dynasty, had migrated to Rome from the Sabine hills a few miles to the north of the city a mere five years after the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud. Less than a decade later he had become consul. From that moment on, the Claudians had never ceased to dominate the magistrate lists of the Republic. Staggeringly, they had even managed to secure five dictatorships. The name of the most celebrated Claudian of them all, an iron-willed innovator and reformer by the name of Appius Claudius ‘the Blind’, was stamped across the very plains and valleys of Italy. In 312 BC, at a time when the Republic was looking to secure its still precarious control of the peninsula, he had ordered the building of a mighty road southwards from Rome. Known as the Via Appia, this was ultimately extended as far as Brundisium, the great port on the heel of Italy which served as the gateway to the East. Such a feat of engineering, the mooring which bound Rome to her wealthiest provinces, was precisely the kind of accomplishment which best illustrated, in the opinion of foreign observers, ‘the greatness of her empire’.6Who were the Claudians to disagree?

Having the most famous road in the world named after one’s ancestor was, in the carnivorous struggle for magistracies that formed the essence of political life in Rome, a priceless advertisement. The hold of the Claudians on the people’s affections was formidable and self-perpetuating. Glory in war and prodigality in peace kept their name permanently burnished. Attius Clausus, arriving in Rome back in the first decade of the Republic, had come trailing a great band of clients with him, and this power of patronage, swelling over the succeeding centuries, translated for the Claudians into a peerless election-winning machine. Webs of obligation enmeshed the generations. Whether it was a favour done to a family on the make or an aqueduct built to benefit the whole of Rome, the Claudians had a rare talent for making offers that others could not refuse. It kept them nobilis, ‘well-known’. Men from humbler backgrounds, who found nobles such as the Claudians a near-insuperable obstacle on the road to their own advancement, could only fume. The glamour of the nobility inspired envy and resentment in equal measure: ‘All those born of noble family have to do is sleep for the Roman people to bestow upon them every kind of perk.’7

This, though, was an exaggeration. If nobility brought advantage, it also brought brutal pressure. No one became a senator, still less a consul, by right of birth. Even a Claudian had to win election. Boys raised on tales of Appius Claudius could hardly help but feel a monstrous burden of expectation. And not only boys. Girls too were rigorously schooled in the duty owed their ancestry. Naturally, there could be no question of them ever running for the consulship, commanding an army or building a road. As women, they had no political rights at all. Yet they too were expected to have aspirations. Virtus was not just for men. A girl, when she stood in the hallway of her father’s house and saw there wax masks of her ancestors suspended from the wall, their eyeballs made of glass, their gaze blank and impenetrable, their appearance eerily lifelike, was no less liable to feel haunted by their example than a boy.

The annals of the Claudians were filled with the deeds of women. One, a virgin consecrated to the service of Vesta, and therefore sacrosanct, had fearlessly ridden in her father’s chariot to protect him from enemies who were looking to drag him down; another, anxious to demonstrate that ‘her rectitude was of the most old-fashioned kind’,8 had done so in spectacular fashion by pulling a boat single-handed up the Tiber. Showing off her virtue, though, was not all that the young Livia could look forward to in adulthood. The decades prior to her birth had seen a subtle shift in the status of noble women. Whereas once they would have passed into the power of a husband on marriage, increasingly they were kept under the patria potestas. The prime loyalty of a Roman wife remained to her father’s line. A Claudian matron, possessed of the steely self-assurance that had long been her family’s birthright, was rarely content with a merely ornamental role. Rather than serve meekly as an appendage to her husband, she tended to operate to a distinct agenda. Even as her brothers strutted and fretted upon the public stage, she could be a player behind the scenes. More than many senators, she stood at the heart of things. Slapped down by a woman of status, even a former consul might feel obliged to hold his tongue.*4

In the first decade of Livia’s life, authority of this order still counted for much. Far from intimidating them, the monstrous shadows cast by Pompey and Caesar only encouraged in the Claudians an opportunism regarded as excessive even by the standards of the time. The head of the family, Appius Claudius Pulcher, was both implacable and shameless in his pursuit of Claudian interests. Content that the gods alone merited his respect, he paid obsessive attention to oracles and the entrails of animals, while behaving towards his fellow citizens with such arrogance and rapacity as to end up a byword for both. Entrusted on the eve of the civil war with reform of the Senate, he expelled swathes of his colleagues for vices of which, as his furious opponents did not hesitate to point out, he himself was invariably the most notorious exemplar. Not even his effrontery, though, could compare with that of his younger brother. Blending hauteur and demagoguery to ground-breaking effect, Publius Clodius brought gangsterism to the very heart of Rome. Paramilitaries passionately loyal to him squatted out in the Forum, menaced his rivals, and even at one point took to chanting aspersions on Pompey’s masculinity. Meanwhile, as Clodius’s street-gangs roamed the city, his sisters padded like restless cats from marriage to marriage, working their own magic in the family cause. The eldest, the dark-eyed and brilliant Clodia Metelli, was Rome’s undisputed queen of chic. The mingled devotion and dread which she inspired in her admirers was a fitting measure of the reputation secured by her family in the face of Pompey’s dominance and the gathering might of Caesar. ‘When injured, they resent it; when angered, they lash out; when provoked, they fight.’9 Even in the mood of crisis that preceded the crossing of the Rubicon, the power of the Claudians retained its allure of menace.

Nevertheless, it came at a price. In an era dominated by upstart warlords, the ferocity required of the Claudians to maintain their ancestral primacy struck a perturbing and scandalous note. The legacy they were fighting to defend could not help but end up tarnished by it. Increasingly, the pride of the Claudians in their lineage was cast by their adversaries as something altogether more sinister: ‘a timeless and inborn arrogance’.10 Antique Claudians of previously unimpeachable reputation began to be painted by chroniclers in melodramatic colours as rapists and would-be kings. Achievements were counterpointed with monstrous crimes. Long-forgotten figures of scandal gained a lurid new prominence. Set against the ruggedly pious builder of the Appian Way, for instance, was his grandson, who, informed on the brink of a naval battle that the sacred chickens would not eat, had ordered them dumped into the sea. ‘If they won’t eat, let them drink,’11 he had sneered – and promptly lost his fleet. Then there was his sister who, delayed while riding through the streets of Rome by a milling crowd of citizens, had lamented in a piercing voice that her brother was not around to lose a second fleet. Monsters of insolence such as these, in the age of Clodius and his sisters, loomed ever more grotesquely in the public imagination. No one could deny the range and extent of Claudian prowess; but increasingly the history of the family was cast by their enemies as a record of darkness as well as light. For every benefactor of the Roman people, it seemed, there had been a Claudian trampling and treading them down.

Better arrogance, the Claudians themselves might have retorted, than mediocrity. Yet even they, when the firestorm of civil war finally swept down upon Rome in 49, found it impossible to maintain their traditional independence of action. Already, three years before Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, Clodius had been murdered in a brawl on the Appian Way. Appius Claudius, torn between backing Pompey and backing Caesar, frantically sought guidance from the gods, and then resolved his dilemma by dying before battle could be joined. Livia’s father, who at the time of her birth had been a partisan of Caesar, kept his head down, quietly nurturing his resentment of his erstwhile patron’s ever more excessive dominance. When the Dictator was murdered, Drusus Claudianus publicly approved the deed. The conviction of Caesar’s assassins that by killing him they had set Rome’s time-hallowed political order back on its feet might almost have been designed to appeal to a Claudian. The times, though, remained confused. The heavens were dark, after all, and a comet was blazing through the sky. Nothing could be taken for granted. Only by husbanding their full strength could the Claudians hope to reclaim their rightful place in the affairs of the Roman people. That, at any rate, was how Drusus Claudianus read the situation. Accordingly, he drew up a plan. He would marry off his daughter.

Livia herself by this stage was more than ready for such a step. She was in her mid-teens, after all, and time was getting on. Many aristocratic girls were married off as young as twelve. A nubile daughter was too priceless an asset for a noble to delay putting her to dynastic purposes for long. Drusus Claudianus, though, had preferred not to hurry things. His eye was fixed on a particular prize. For many generations now, the descendants of Appius Claudius had consisted of two distinct offshoots. One of his sons, Claudius Pulcher, had fathered the line to which Drusus Claudianus himself belonged, and which, in the first decade of Livia’s life, had so fixated and appalled the Roman people. The descendants of a second son, Claudius Nero, had been altogether more modest in their achievements. The last Nero to hold the consulship had done so all the way back in 202, at a time when Scipio had still been busy fighting Carthaginians. What, though, if the two lines were to be reunited? Only give Livia a Neronian husband, and the result would be a potent consolidation of Claudian resources. A generation which had flowing in its veins the mingled blood of both Pulchri and Nerones would be a formidable one indeed. The times being what they were, it was certainly worth a try.

And an eligible Neronian, by great good fortune, just happened to be ready to hand. Tiberius Claudius Nero was some two decades older than Livia, and well set on a promising career. He had enjoyed a good civil war. Correctly identifying Caesar as a winner, he had commanded a fleet, secured various honours, and been sent on the Dictator’s business to Gaul. Now, on his return to Rome, he was offered Livia’s hand. Tiberius Nero accepted it. He also took on board something else: the politics of his prospective father-in-law. With a disdain for consistency that marked him out as a true Claudian, the man who had basked in Caesar’s favour now coolly stood up in the wake of his patron’s murder to propose honours for his killers. This volte-face was only incidentally about the rights and wrongs of the assassination itself. Tiberius Nero was laying down a marker. Emerged at last from Caesar’s shadow, Rome’s most celebrated dynasty was back. The future, like the past, was being cast as Claudian.

Already, though, events were overtaking these hopes. As maids under the direction of her mother fussed around Livia, braiding her hair into the ferociously complex ‘towered crown’12 demanded by tradition of a bride, fresh and murderous novelties were brewing in the world beyond. To these, the bridegroom in his gleaming white toga, arriving at the house of his wife-to-be, was as yet oblivious. That danger might reach directly into the home of a great nobleman was a prospect too sinister and monstrous to contemplate. The house of even the humblest Roman stood directly under the protection of the gods. It was what defined him as civilised, as a man rooted to the city in which he lived. ‘What more sacred than the house of a citizen, no matter his class – what more hedged about by every kind of religious safeguard?’13

To this question, a girl on her wedding day served as a notably reassuring answer. The six ornate tresses into which Livia’s hair had been woven gave her the look of a virgin pledged in service to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. Her veil, coloured saffron to match the one worn by the priestess of Jupiter, had been dyed by specialists using the same stamens of crocuses that would-be mothers sampled as an aid to fertility.14 A divinely sanctioned fusion of virginity and fecundity: what more could a bridegroom want? Tiberius Nero, at the end of a wedding banquet hosted by his father-in-law, duly wrested Livia from her mother’s arms and led her, as though taking her captive, to his own house on the Palatine. This pretended abduction of a bride harked back to an episode from the very beginnings of Rome. Once, in the reign of Romulus, when the original settlers of the city had found themselves lacking in women, they had stolen the daughters of the neighbouring people, the Sabines; and it was as a memory of that primal rape, perhaps, that a bride wore in her towering hairdo, interwoven with marjoram and flowers, a single spearhead. Yet though ‘war and conflict had attended the earliest pairing of man and woman in Rome’,15 the arrival of his new bride into Tiberius Nero’s home was greeted, not with foreboding, but with jokes, cheering and applause. Just as the stolen brides of the first Romans had bred a race of heroes, so Livia, it was trusted, would now perpetuate the Claudian line. She would do so as the guardian of her husband’s hearth, its flame banked up every evening and rekindled every new day. Like the ramparts of Rome itself, the walls of a citizen’s home stood inviolate and sacrosanct. As Tiberius Nero lifted his bride up into his arms and carried her over the threshold, Consevius, the god of conception, already had his eye on the couple. In 42 BC, on 16 November, Livia gave birth to a son. Like his father, the boy was named Tiberius Claudius Nero. In this tiny child, all the ambitions of the two great Claudian lines met and were joined.

But too late. Even as their son was being delivered, the hopes that had brought Livia into Tiberius Nero’s marital bed lay in ruins. The brief year of their married life together in Rome had witnessed a reign of terror on a scale unmatched in the city’s history. The days when its destiny could be swayed by the jostling for position among its leading families, and by their competition for magistracies and honours, had been terminated once and for all. Not merely put into the shade, as they had been by Caesar’s dictatorship, many of the great dynasties of the Republic had suffered hideous mutilation. The violence unleashed against them had been both calculated and savage. Even as Tiberius Nero and Livia were blithely celebrating their nuptials, the adherents of the slain Dictator had been preparing to seize the initiative in the most brutal fashion imaginable. A year and a half of manoeuvring against Caesar’s assassins had secured for them the mastery of the western provinces, and of Rome itself. Then, one night late in 43, almost a year to the day before the birth of Livia’s son, whitened boards had appeared in the Forum. They carried the names of men charged with treachery to Caesar. Rewards were offered for their murder. ‘The killers are to bring their heads to us.’16 Among those proscribed had been Livia’s father. Luckier than the 2300 reported to have perished, Drusus Claudianus had managed to slip the bounty-hunters and make his way east, where Brutus, still at liberty, was busy recruiting armies for the looming showdown.

Sure enough, the renewal of open civil war had not been long in coming. Early in 42, the defenders of Caesar’s memory had formally consecrated their murdered patron as a god. Over the succeeding months, they had spent the riches purloined from the proscribed on legions of their own before finally, towards the end of the campaigning season, they crossed from Italy to Greece. Advancing into Macedonia, they had confronted their adversaries on a plain east of the city of Philippi. Two terrible battles had ensued. Victory in the death-struggle had ultimately gone to the adherents of Caesar. Brutus had fallen on his sword. The aristocracy, already scarred as a result of the proscriptions, had suffered a second lethal culling. ‘In no other conflict did men possessed of the most illustrious names endure a bloodier toll.’17 Among the dead, fallen like Brutus on his own sword in the wake of the battle, was Drusus Claudianus. The news reached Rome a few weeks later. Livia learned of her father’s death as she was giving birth to his grandson.

That she was safe in Rome at all owed everything to Tiberius Nero’s slippery opportunism. Sensing the way the wind was blowing, he had made sure to renew his old allegiance to the now deified Caesar. As a result, despite the ruin of her father’s fortunes and the forfeiture of his property, Livia was able to deliver her son in surroundings befitting her rank. The Palatine, where Romulus had once built his thatched hut, was now easily the most exclusive district in Rome. The hut itself, reverently kept in a continuous state of repair, still stood above the cave of the Lupercal, but otherwise there was nothing on the hill that did not scream privilege. The Claudians, naturally, had long enjoyed a prominent position there. It was on the Palatine that Clodia Metelli had hosted the most fashionable soirées in Rome, and Clodius, after knocking through two already hefty mansions, based himself in flamboyantly imposing headquarters. Tiberius Nero, however much he may have mourned the slaughter of his class at Philippi, would have been reassured, as he paced his splendid house, that he had made the right call. Better a shift of loyalties, after all, than the loss of his property on the Palatine.

Yet even as his son was being raised up in the midwife’s arms, he knew his fortunes now stood on precarious foundations. Memories of the proscriptions were still raw. The shock given to the self-assurance of Rome’s elite was not easily suppressed. Nowhere, not even the most exclusive residence, could any longer be considered secure. The first victim of the proscriptions had been murdered in his own dining room, with his guests gathered all around him, in the innermost sanctum of his home. Bursting in on their quarry, the soldiers had shown no compunction in defiling this scene of hospitality. A centurion, drawing his sword, had decapitated the wretched host, then warned the other diners with a gesture of his blade that any fuss would see them suffer the same fate. Terrified, they had remained lying where they were until late into the night, as the headless corpse slowly stiffened beside them, and blood soaked through the couch onto the floor. What once had served as the marks of a citizen’s greatness – a fine house, beautiful sculptures, a swimming pool – had become, during the frenzy of the proscriptions, the opposite: potential death warrants. Even Claudians had learned to dread the midnight knocking at the door. Always now, at the back of the mind, there lurked the dread of what might follow it: ‘soldiers rushing in, the forcing of locks, menacing words, fierce looks, a glitter of weapons’.18

Clearly, then, to those of the nobility who had survived the carnage of the proscriptions and Philippi, and now found themselves stumbling out from their bolt-holes into an utterly transformed political landscape, the need to arrive at a permanent accommodation with their new overlords was a desperate one. Three men had claimed licence to rule the world as Caesar’s avengers. Their compact was not, as the original triumvirate had been, a murky arrangement of the kind traditional among Roman power-brokers, but something altogether more revolutionary: a formal grant of absolute rule. Legally, the goal of the Triumvirs had been defined as ‘the restoration of the Republic’ – but no one was much fooled by that fine slogan. The Caesarian leaders had not waded through blood merely to abdicate their hard-won supremacy. In the wake of Philippi, the only resistance to them still to be found was in Sicily, where Pompey’s son Sextus had established a rackety piratical regime. Otherwise, the authority of the Triumvirate was absolute. Yet its continuance could hardly be taken for granted. Triumvirs, as everyone was all too well aware, had a habit of falling out. The Roman upper classes, as they sought to set their fortunes back on a solid foundation, were accordingly faced with a potentially life-and-death decision: which member of the Triumvirate to back.

One could immediately be discounted. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was an old associate of Caesar’s whose impeccable pedigree and wide array of connections could not conceal his essential mediocrity. Demoted to serving as the watchman of Italy during the Philippi campaign, he was already on the way out. This left Rome and her empire divided, in effect, between two very different warlords. One, like Lepidus, was a noble of illustrious heritage and proven loyalty to Caesar: none other than the consul who had run with the Luperci, Marc Antony. His role in the proscriptions notwithstanding, there were many among the Roman elite who could not help but admire him. At Philippi, it was Antony’s prowess as a general that had won the day. Amid the carnage of the battlefield, he had stripped off his cloak and draped it over Brutus’s corpse. Resourceful, buccaneering and generous, his virtues were of a kind to which the Roman people had always warmed. He may have been a Triumvir – but Antony, to his erstwhile peers, offered at least the reassurance of familiarity.

Which was more than could be said for his partner in the rule of the world. Nothing, perhaps, better exemplified the upheavals and convulsions that had afflicted the Roman people since the murder of Caesar than the rise to dominance of the man born Gaius Octavius. His greatness served as a bitter reproach to the maimed aristocracy. His ancestry was sufficiently obscure that enemies could charge one of his great-grandfathers with having been ‘a freed slave, a ropemaker’,19and another an African perfumier turned baker – and be believed.*5 His childhood had been spent, not on the heights of the Palatine, but in a dusty town named Velitrae, some twenty miles down the Appian Way.*6 His brief career had consisted of a sustained and merciless assault on the most sacred traditions of the Republic. Eight months after the murder of Caesar, when barely nineteen, he had staged an abortive military coup. Ten months later, he had swept into Rome at the head of a private army. Consul when not yet twenty, legally appointed Triumvir, and commander alongside Antony of nineteen legions at Philippi, no one in his city’s history had won for himself such power so fast, so young. Neither morality nor considerations of mercy had been permitted to stand in his way. While Antony had gazed in sorrow at his fallen adversary on the battlefield of Philippi, his youthful colleague had shed no tears. Instead, ordering Brutus’s corpse decapitated, he had packed the head off to Rome. There, with pointed symbolism, it had been placed at the foot of the statue where Caesar had died.20

‘The malice of those who have plotted against us, and who brought Caesar to his fate, cannot be mollified by kindness.’21 With these words, the Triumvirs had justified their sanctioning of murder and civil war. To Gaius Octavius, the obligation to avenge Caesar had provided particular licence for his deeds. On the eve of Philippi, he had publicly sworn to build a temple in Rome to Mars the Avenger: a declaration that fighting in a civil war was not, to him, a crime, but an urgent and pious duty. The young man was the grandson of the Dictator’s sister – but he was also something spectacularly more. Caesar, blessed with an eye for talent, and lacking a legitimate son of his own, had moved before his death to adopt Octavius as his heir. This, of course, was the same tactic that had seen Livia’s father adopted by Livius Drusus: a perfectly legitimate expression of the perennial struggle of Roman nobles to maintain their lineage and entangle their peers in sticky webs of obligation. Adoption by Caesar, though, had provided Octavius with a leg-up like no other. The gawky eighteen-year-old from Velitrae had been graced with two priceless inheritances: his great-uncle’s fortune and his prestige. Caesar’s money had granted legions; his name, auctoritas. So potent were these bequests that they would prove to have lit in the teenage Octavius an ambition such as no young Roman embarking on his career had ever before thought to nurture: to win sole and permanent supremacy for himself. When it was subsequently confirmed that the comet seen above Rome had indeed been his adoptive father’s soul streaking heavenwards, his legacy had become even more awe-inspiring. The young man once known as Gaius Octavius could now lay claim to a nomenclature of almost superhuman resplendence. For all that his enemies delighted in calling him ‘Octavianus’, he himself scorned the name. Not merely Caesar, he insisted on being known as Caesar Divi Filius – ‘Son of a God’.

To the Roman elite, all this was liable to seem more sinister than splendid. Confronted by the chill and alien figure of the young Caesar, most nobles instinctively recoiled. Those who had survived the slaughter of Philippi tended to seek refuge, for want of any better alternative, in the train of Antony. Others faced a trickier choice. While Antony, in the division of the world that followed Philippi, had been granted responsibility for the East, the young Caesar had returned to Italy. Nobles such as Tiberius Nero, resident in Rome, found the Son of a God resident directly on their doorstep. With Antony far distant, and the young Caesar’s murderousness in defence of his own interests a matter of all too public record, most opted, unsurprisingly, to keep their heads down. A few, though, did begin to plot. Feelers were put out to Antony’s agents in Italy. Whispered schemes to restore the Republic began to circulate once again in exclusive circles. When Antony’s brother, Lucius, became consul and spoke in unsubtle terms of freeing Rome from tyranny, hatred of the young Caesar and everything he represented burst into open flames. Nowhere did they blaze more violently than in Etruria and Umbria, celebrated and beautiful lands north of Rome, where rivers glided beneath towering crags on which stood ancient ramparts. One of these hill-towns, Perusia, now became the stronghold of Lucius and his army. Men from across Italy flocked to join them. Most were destitute, with only their lives left to lose; but not all, by any means. Some were senators – and among their number was Tiberius Nero.

In this desperate throw, he was accompanied by his wife and infant son. Roman women did not normally travel with their husbands to war, but the times were far from normal. The world had been turned upside down – and even male prerogatives were starting to fray. During the proscriptions, condemned men, as they hid out in attics or stables, had found themselves humiliatingly dependent on their wives. The shocking tale was told of one woman, notorious for her affairs, who had betrayed her husband to bounty-hunters, and then married her lover the same day. Many wives, though, had proven themselves both faithful and heroic. One, in a particularly hardy show of courage, had even braved a beating from Lepidus’s heavies to beg for her husband’s life. ‘They covered you with bruises,’ he recalled later in grateful admiration, ‘but never broke your spirit.’22 Other women, in an even more remarkable display of masculine resolve, had taken to the streets. Early in 42, at a time when the extortions of the Triumvirate were bleeding Rome dry, an entire delegation of them had marched on the Forum. Climbing on to the Rostra, their spokeswoman had boldly awakened memories of a murdered tradition: freedom of speech. Hortensia was the daughter of Hortensius Hortalus, one of the greatest orators of his day, whose fearlessness in eviscerating his opponents could be measured by the splendid riches it had won him: a dining table on which, for the first time in Rome, peacock was served; an incomparable wine cellar; a mansion on the Palatine. Now, speaking as men no longer dared to speak, his daughter had fearlessly arraigned the Triumvirs themselves. ‘Why should we women pay taxes,’ Hortensia had demanded, ‘when we have no part in the honours, the commands, the rule of the state?’23 To this question, the Triumvirs had responded by having the women driven from the Forum; but such was their embarrassment that they did eventually, with much bad grace, agree to a tax cut. The episode was one that Livia would doubtless have noted with interest. It taught a lesson fit for the times. Such were the evils to which Rome was prey that a woman might find herself obliged, just perhaps, to take the defence of her patrimony into her own hands.

Meanwhile, of course, it was to her husband that Livia looked to ensure their son the gilded future befitting a child with the mingled blood of two Claudian lines in his veins. It did not take long, though, for her confidence in Tiberius Nero to start appearing horribly misplaced. Signing up to an insurrection against the young Caesar did not turn out to have been a sensible move. Calamity followed fast upon calamity. Lucius’s rebellion was crushed with predictable ruthlessness. Even though Lucius himself was pardoned, other senators were not so lucky. The young Caesar, as though offering up a blood-sacrifice to his deified father, had large numbers publicly executed on the Ides of March.24 There could be no doubt, then, that Tiberius, despite managing to flee the sack of Perusia with his family, was in mortal danger. Arriving in Naples, he tried to instigate another uprising. It too was crushed. Taking to the countryside, the fugitive couple were almost betrayed by the crying of the infant Tiberius, and only just managed to evade the soldiers pursuing them. Making their escape to Sextus Pompey’s pirate base in Sicily, they were greeted with such froideur that Tiberius Nero, prickly as only a Claudian down on his luck could be, ended up heading off east in a huff. Rebuffed in turn by Antony, he then managed briefly to find a bolt-hole in Greece, before being forced on the run yet again. As they made their escape through a forest, a fire broke out. Livia’s dress was left charred. Even her hair was singed. Meanwhile, back in Rome, her husband had been officially proscribed and his house on the Palatine confiscated. As the mother of the heir to the Claudians, Livia was entitled, perhaps, to feel that enough was enough.

By the summer of 39, when a treaty patched up between the Triumvirs and Sextus Pompey provided exiles such as Tiberius Nero with an amnesty, Livia could have been left with no illusions as to the brute realities of the new order. She returned to a Rome in which her circumstances were sadly diminished. Even the fact that her husband had got her pregnant again failed to improve her mood. Tiberius Nero had proven signally unequal to Livia’s hopes for herself and her heirs. There could be no disputing the courage she had shown in accompanying him on his disastrous travels. Ultimately, though, her loyalty was not to him but to her father’s line. Blue-blooded, beautiful and not yet twenty, Livia knew that she still had plenty to offer a man. All it needed was a match worthier than Tiberius Nero.

Meanwhile, in the splendid mansion on the Palatine that had belonged to Hortensius Hortalus until its confiscation in the proscriptions, the young Caesar was also tiring of his spouse. Scribonia was a woman of frigid dignity – or, as her husband preferred to put it, with notable lack of gallantry, ‘a wearing tendency to argue’.25 She lacked what even her enemies were willing to grant that Livia possessed in abundance: charm and sex appeal. Nor, despite the fact that she came from a noble and powerful family, could Scribonia’s pedigree possibly compare with that of a Claudian. To the young Caesar, whose status as the ‘Son of a God’ had made him seem only the more vulgar in the eyes of the authentic nobility, marriage into Rome’s most celebrated family had everything to recommend it. He might be master of half the world – but he was still sensitive to the charge of being a parvenu. That Livia possessed physical attractions in addition to everything else merely confirmed him in his decision. By the autumn of 39, only a few months after her return from exile, he had made his move on the pregnant wife of Tiberius Nero.

The cuckolded husband himself, too demoralised by now to stand on his dignity any further, was so desperate to repair his fortunes that he almost forced Livia on the young Caesar. Adding to the mingled shock and delight with which the Roman people greeted the emerging scandal was the fact that Scribonia too was heavily pregnant. Only once she had given birth to a daughter, Julia, did her husband feel decently able to divorce her. By the autumn of 39, the young Caesar was betrothed to Livia. The wedding itself still had to wait. To marry a woman pregnant by another man was a step too offensive to propriety even for the son of a god. At last, though, on 14 January 38, Livia gave birth to her second child, a boy named Drusus. Three days later, she was married to the young Caesar. Tiberius Nero, playing the role of her dead father, gave his former wife away. Livia’s return to the Palatine was formally sealed.

She was destined to remain there, its undisputed mistress, for the rest of her life. Her new husband understood full well what he had obtained by marrying her. ‘He would never cease to love her, esteem her, stay true to her.’26

Livia, at any rate, was secure at last.

The Roman Spring

It was not only nobles who risked losing everything to the criminal and disorienting age presided over by the young Caesar.

Early in 41 BC, a few months after the bloodiest campaign in Roman history had exhausted itself at Philippi, a troupe of scarred and burly men headed south along the Appian Way. As they advanced up the slopes of an ancient volcano named Mount Vulture, they followed a standard topped by that ultimate bird of prey, the eagle. Farmers watching it pass might well have found themselves eyeing its silver beak and talons with trepidation. They knew what its arrival signalled. The young Caesar, with vengeance on the assassins of his adoptive father now secured, had faced a most invidious task on his return to Italy. Some 50,000 of his soldiers, battle-hardened veterans all, were looking to him expectantly for their reward. And what they wanted was the prize for which, more than any other, they had been willing to cross the seas and slaughter their fellow citizens: a plot of land.

Even before Philippi, the Triumvirs had earmarked territory around eighteen Italian cities for confiscation. These plans were necessarily on a massive scale. It has been estimated that at Philippi a quarter of all citizens of military age fought on one side or the other.27 Now, with the return home of the victors, expropriation became the order of the day. Landowners across some of the most fertile regions of Italy learned to dread the appearance on their property of demobbed soldiers. ‘Everywhere, in every field, such confusion!’28 Villas, farm equipment, slaves, might all be seized. The larger the estate, the more scope there was for the surveyor, armed with his ‘pitiless measuring-rod’,29 to divide it up and settle entire units at a time. Resistance was brutally crushed. Generally, though, like doves before the approach of an eagle, the dispossessed knew better than to fight back. Some were permitted to stay on as tenants. They were the lucky ones. Most were left with no choice but to bow their heads before the evils of the age, and leave their stolen homes. ‘Fortune turns everything upside down.’30

The same spectres of larceny and violence that had brought terror to the nobility during the proscriptions were now general across Italy. While it was the prosperous lowland regions they stalked most menacingly, well-watered fields were not their sole temptation. On Mount Vulture, where wolves still haunted expanses of thick forest, and during summer the fields were baked by scorching winds, the poverty of the soil did not spare the locals from ruin. Too much else was at stake. No one concerned with the mastery of Italy could afford to neglect the spot. Already, 250 years before the arrival on Mount Vulture of the young Caesar’s veterans, Roman settlers had established a colony on its flank. Venusia, planted on a crag midway between two ravines, had served Rome as a key forward post, her gateway to the south. Italy back then was still little more than a geographical expression, the Romans themselves merely one among a patchwork of peoples. Others could boast characters no less distinctive. There were the Etruscans, whose sway at one time had extended beyond their native Etruria as far south as Rome itself, and whose talent for reading ‘auspices’ – supernatural markers of the future revealed through the flight of vultures or the dietary habits of chickens – was unrivalled. There were the Marsians, near neighbours of the Romans up in the Apennine hills, whose singing could make snakes explode. There were the Samnites, whose ancestors in ancient times had been led by a mysterious ox to the harsh mountain fastnesses above Naples, and who for more than fifty years, back in the fourth century BC, had obdurately defied the southward thrust of the legions. In time, though, they and all the other peoples of Italy had been broken; and gradually, as Roman supremacy established itself throughout the peninsula, Italians had come to think of themselves as sharing a common identity. Venusia, raised to stand sentinel over the Appian Way as it left Samnium and descended towards the Adriatic, had begun to lose its founding purpose. The assurance it had once provided the Roman people, ‘that it would block any hostile incursion’,31 had become redundant. No longer did it serve as a frontier town.

Let it fall into the wrong hands, though, and the city could still present a menace. It did not need ancient history to teach the young Caesar this. As recently as 91 BC, the people of Venusia had joined various other Italians, from the Marsians to the Samnites, in open rebellion against Rome. An independent state had been proclaimed. Its coins had portrayed a wolf trampled under foot by a bull. Yet, however savage the war had been before its final suppression, and however severe the fright it had given Rome, the insurrection itself had been bred less of hatred than of a snubbed devotion. The ambition of most Italians had been to share in Roman power, not annihilate it. To visit Venusia was immediately to understand why. Civic amenities rose everywhere. Baths, aqueducts, amphitheatres: none of these had come cheap. Italians, whether as soldiers or merchants, had profited splendidly from their mistress’s conquest of the Mediterranean – which was why, when the Senate approved a proposal that people across the peninsula become full citizens of Rome, the insurrection had promptly collapsed. From that moment on, the whole of Italy had ranked as Roman.

By the time that the veterans of Philippi arrived in Venusia to evict the local landowners and divide up their fields into neat chequerboard plots, such an identity was all that most Italians had left them. Fifty years previously, in the wake of the great rebellion against Rome, many of the inhabitants of Venusia had been enslaved and scattered far and wide. The children of new arrivals had filled the city’s leading school: ‘the intimidating sons of intimidating centurions’.32 Then, with the outbreak of civil war, an entire generation of young men had been conscripted. ‘Curved sickles were straightened out and forged into swords.’33 Many had perished in foreign fields. Those who returned did so with few loyalties save to their comrades and their generals. Now, like the blades of a giant plough, the surveyors of the young Caesar had arrived to slice up Venusia yet again. Few of the customs once characteristic of the region had been able to survive such repeated harrowings. ‘So utterly have they deteriorated that everything which once made them distinctive – differences of language, armour, dress and so on – has completely vanished.’34

Even so, there were still some Italians who suffered the knowledge of this as a form of bereavement. One last firestorm of destruction remained to come. When Antony’s brother Lucius raised the banner of armed opposition to the young Caesar in 41 BC and barricaded himself behind the walls of Perusia, the motives of those who flocked to him were various and confused. While a few, like Tiberius Nero, were inspired by dreams of restoring the Republic, and others, the vast majority, were men left impoverished and embittered by the appropriation of their lands, there were some whose dreams of a time before Rome, when their cities had been free, had life in them yet. Unlike in Venusia and Samnium, where the spirit of rebellion had been extinguished beyond all hope of resurrection, in the rich lands further north, and in Etruria especially, it still flickered faintly.

Not for long, though. The young Caesar was hardly the man to tolerate any challenge to his authority. The brutality with which he and his lieutenants crushed Lucius’s uprising brought ruin to many an ancient and famous town. Some, like Perusia, were burned to the ground; others hit with fines so exorbitant that their citizens were forced to abandon them altogether. Ever more refugees were added to the bands of the dispossessed. Amid the blackened fields and bandit-haunted woods of Etruria, phantoms could easily seem a more vivid presence than the living. Survivors were left to mourn ‘the devastated hearths of the Etruscans, that ancient race’.35

Yet where there was misery, there lurked opportunity as well. Cross the corpse-strewn hills from Perusia, and the traveller would come to a city blessed with what had become, amid the evils of the age, that most useful of attributes: a powerful patron. Arretium, which had lost its independence to Rome centuries before, had as its most prominent citizen a man who claimed descent from Etruscan royalty, no less. To the Roman nobility, the lineage of which Gaius Maecenas boasted was so contemptible as to border on the sinister; but Maecenas himself, a man much given to florid showmanship, felt no need to pander to the sneering of senators. The chaos that spelt doom to so many others had been the making of him. Restless and clear-sighted, he had glided with great facility to the heart of the new order. Backing the young Caesar as a winner right from the start, he had profited massively from his punt. Not everything stolen from the proscribed had gone to fund the triumviral war effort. Those sufficiently alert to the new wellsprings of power, provided they only had the talent and nerve to take advantage of them, had been able to drink deeply of spectacular riches. Certainly, even his enemies had no doubt of Maecenas’s ability. ‘He was a man who, whenever the occasion required it, would literally never sleep – and who was as quick to see what needed to be done as he was skilled in achieving it.’36The young Caesar, in his resolve to win for himself impregnable dominance over his fellow citizens, had urgent need of such lieutenants. This was why, even as Etruria blazed, the fixer from Arretium enjoyed his ear.

The violence, the theft, the calculated atrocities: these, for a new regime desperate to establish itself upon a firm footing, had been unavoidable. But Maecenas, like his master, understood that arbitrary illegalities could never hope to secure its long-term future. His preening as the heir of Etruscan kings was not merely a calculated defiance of Rome’s traditional power-brokers, to whom Arretium was a backwater best known for churning out cheap pots. It also served as a reassurance to the class of people who had borne the brunt of the appropriations: Italy’s landowners. The young Caesar, now that he had settled his veterans, desperately needed to broaden his support. This, in light of what his return from Philippi had meant for Italy, might have seemed a grotesque hope. Yet so convulsive were the horrors of the age, so devastating the vicissitudes of civil war, so absolute the seeming abandonment of the world by the gods, that someone, anyone, was desperately needed now to offer Rome a ray of hope. A regime that could restore to a bruised and terrified people a measure at least of peace might be forgiven much. Even, perhaps, the circumstances of its own rise to power.

For most Romans, though – whether they lived in the city itself or in the towns and villages of Italy – the future seemed only to be darkening. Victory over Lucius had failed to clear the field of the young Caesar’s enemies. On Sicily, Sextus Pompey remained as entrenched as ever, and certainly in no mood to do the heir of his father’s nemesis any favours. Instead, posing as a favourite of the sea god, he amused himself by sporting an aquamarine cloak and throttling the shipping lanes. As a result, a further tightening of the screw was now added to the miseries consequent on blackened fields and military requisitions. Thanks to a blockade of the grain ships that might otherwise have helped to feed a starving people, by 38 BC famine was gripping the land. Bands of murderous vagrants infested the roads. In Rome, where the slums seethed with refugees, hunger gave a desperate edge to the mood of misery and rage. Proposals for a fresh round of taxes, aimed at funding the destruction of Sextus, precipitated open rioting. The young Caesar was stoned in the streets. Only with difficulty did he escape the mob. Later, when the bodies of those killed in the clashes were slung into the Tiber, gangs of desperate thieves waded out and stripped them bare. Such were the straits, it seemed, to which the Roman people had been reduced. Nothing was left them save to scavenge corpses.

That Rome was doomed, that her streets might end up abandoned to beasts of prey, that the city itself be turned to ashes: these were fears some now openly acknowledged.

It is true: a harsh fate pursues

the Romans, and the crime of fratricide,

since the blood of blameless Remus

was spilt on the ground – a curse on his heirs.37

Well might the man who delivered this grim prognosis have felt a sense of despair. Quintus Horatius Flaccus – Horace – was a genial man; but he spoke for any number of Italians caught up in ‘the cruel miseries of exile, the miseries of war’.38The son of a wealthy auctioneer from Venusia, he had fought at Philippi on the side of Caesar’s assassins. Years later, veiling the horror of the carnage behind amused self-deprecation, he would describe how he had managed to escape the battle only by tossing away his shield and then relying on a supernatural mist; but in grim reality, he had seen enough of Roman slaughtering Roman always to be haunted by the experience. Certainly, after Philippi, he had lost his appetite for carrying on the fight. When an amnesty offered him the chance to head home, he seized it. The surveyors, though, had reached Venusia before him. His lands were gone. Resistance, with the shadow of proscription still hanging dark over those who had fought for the Republic at Philippi, was out of the question. Horace duly joined the flood of those made homeless, and headed for Rome. Here, either by scraping together what remained to him of his patrimony or by tapping a powerful contact, he managed to secure for himself a post as an accountant in the government treasury. A living, to be sure – but a sorry comedown for a one-time landowner, even so. Horace, who combined his evident head for figures with a genius for self-expression, dared to explore in verse the fracturing of the age. Existence was precarious, and the worst might yet be to come. A world in which men could be evicted from their lands upon a whim was one in which no one, not even the seeming winners, stood secure. ‘Let Fortune rage, then, and stir up fresh convulsions. How much worse will she make things than they already are?’39

A pointed question – and one which the young Caesar, who had murdered and extorted his way from out-of-town obscurity to the mastery of Italy, could hardly help but be haunted by himself. He knew from the scale of his ascent, none better, just how far he had to fall. Cornered by the starving mob, pelted with stones and filth, rescued only with difficulty from being torn to pieces, he had stared the precariousness of his dominance directly in the face. Yet only two years later, Fortune had once again confirmed the young Caesar as her favourite. In September 36, Sextus Pompey was trapped off the east coast of Sicily and his fleet destroyed. Although Sextus himself managed to escape, his power was broken for good, and within a year he was dead. Meanwhile, back in Italy, the young Caesar was being hailed for the first time in genuinely rapturous terms. ‘All the towns gave him, at the age of twenty-eight, a seat among their gods.’40 No spitting hatred now. Whereas Philippi had brought nothing but misery to Italy, the joy of the naval victory over Sextus was something in which everyone could share. Sicily with its rich fields was restored to the young Caesar’s rule. Ships bringing food began to dock once again at Italian ports. The blockade was over for good. In Rome, a golden statue of the victor was placed by official vote of the Senate on a column adorned with appropriate naval décor. ‘Peace, long ravaged by civil strife,’ read the inscription on its base, ‘he restored by land and sea.’41

At last, it seemed, enthusiasm for the new regime was starting to reach beyond those who had profited from it personally. The young Caesar, alert as ever to opportunity, moved with his customary deftness to encourage this trend. Conscious of how loathed the Triumvirate had become, and eager to hint at a brightening future, he began to pose with smooth shamelessness as the defender of all that he had spent so long attacking. Taxes were remitted, and documents from the dark days of the proscriptions burned with much ostentation. A few cosmetic powers were restored to the traditional magistracies of the Republic. Lepidus, long since neutered, was formally retired and packed off into exile. Meanwhile, the young Caesar himself began to hint that the Triumvirate itself should be retired.

Naturally, he avoided putting this fine-sounding sentiment into anything like action. Such a step, as yet, was out of the question. Even with Sextus and Lepidus both cleared from the board, there remained another player very much in the game. In the East, Antony showed no sign of losing his taste for power. Why would he? His appetites had always been on a swaggering scale. While the young Caesar, back in Rome, ‘wore himself out with civil strife and wars’,42 Antony had been revelling in everything that the wealthy provinces and kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean had to offer. Legions, riches, adulation: all were his. With the world now starkly divided between the two surviving Triumvirs, it was the younger man whose position still appeared the weaker. Yet in the glamour that was Antony’s as the master of the East, there lay, perhaps, a weakness. And weakness, as countless others had learnt to their cost, was something that the young Caesar had a lethal genius for sniffing out.

Certainly, to a man of his proven murderousness, character assassination was a minor consideration. A decade on from the proscriptions, it was his rival’s good name that he was now looking to dispatch. He knew the potency of rumour, ‘which revels in filling people up with endless gossip, and blends equally what is true and not into a single song’.43 Calumnies as shocking as they were colourful duly began to swirl through Rome. Antony’s every action was cast in the worst possible light. His affectations, it was whispered, had degenerated into something monarchical, more appropriate to a silken Oriental despot than a magistrate of the Roman people. Corrupted by the soft temptations of the East, Antony had taken to urinating into a golden chamberpot. He blew fortunes on dinner parties. Most shocking of all, he had succumbed to the wiles of the Queen of Egypt. Picking up where Caesar had left off, Antony had bedded Cleopatra; but his resulting infatuation had got the better of him, and he was now little more than her plaything and her dupe. That he was married to Octavia, the sister of his triumviral colleague and an impeccably respectable matron, shamed him not a jot. Instead, in a calculated insult to the young Caesar, he had packed her off back to Rome. The truest insult of all, however, was to the dignity of the Roman people. Now, when the Queen wanted a foot-massage, it was Antony who obliged. The implications, to those who believed such stories, were sinister in the extreme. Who was to say how far Cleopatra’s ambitions might not extend? What if Antony, in thrall to such a siren, should help her to the rule of the entire East? What if he should help her – horror of horrors – to the rule of Rome?

Articulated as it was with subtle and venomous brilliance, this image of Antony as a man seduced from all his natural loyalties began to take on a life of its own. Inevitably, the more damage was done to his reputation, the more brightly did his rival’s shine by comparison. Particularly devastating was the contrast to Cleopatra presented by Livia, that dutiful heiress of the Claudian line. Her doting husband duly sought to rub it in. In 35, he secured permission to set up public statues of Livia, and Octavia too. He also won for the two women a privilege that was naturally out of the question for Cleopatra: formal sanctions against anyone offering them insult. These measures were passed readily enough. Livia, whose breeding and public displays of modesty were exemplary, was widely admired in senatorial circles. Nor were the nobility alone in seeing her as one of their own. Many Italians did as well. Marcus Livius Drusus, her adoptive grandfather, had been their champion as well as the hero of the Roman poor. In 91 BC, he had sought to push through a law granting them citizenship. One evening, in the hall of his own house, an unknown assassin had struck him down with a shoemaker’s knife. It was grief and fury at this murder of their champion that had done much to push the Italians into open revolt. Almost sixty years on, he remained widely cherished as a martyr. Livia, as his heir, was heir as well to his renown. Her presence next to the young Caesar, devoted and adoring, served as a growing reassurance to Italians that her husband too, despite the proscriptions, despite the expropriations, despite Perusia, might after all be on their side.

The surest boost to this reassurance, however, was the palpable improvement in his record. With his authority at last secure across the entire western half of Rome’s empire, he now devoted skills once deployed in the cause of criminality to the restoration of law and order. Pirates were cleared from the seas and bandits from the hills of Italy. The one-time terrorist promoted himself as a dutiful public servant. Opportunism was replaced by a show of sober competence. As he had done since the beginning of his adventuring, the young Caesar displayed a keen eye for talent. Ability, not pedigree, remained the surest way to his favour. Upstarts continued to thrive. Senators might still roll their eyes at this; but for most citizens, relief that the worst seemed to be over, that the flood-tide of chaos appeared to be ebbing, outweighed even the pleasures of snobbery. For a decade now, ever since the Ides of March, the funeral games of the murdered Dictator had been raging. What mattered to the Roman people was no longer who won, but simply that there be a definitive winner. Bloodied and exhausted, they had grown too war-weary to care very much who ruled them – just so long as they were granted peace.

‘Harmony enables small things to flourish – while the lack of it destroys the great.’44 The man whose favourite saying this was knew well of what he spoke. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who from the first appearance of the young Caesar on the political scene had ranked alongside Maecenas as the most trusted of his partisans, came from a background of staggering obscurity. ‘Having such a son did not make the father any better known.’45 Agrippa brushed all such condescension aside. Charmless and dour, his passion was for the reality rather than the appurtenances of power. Always one pace behind the young Caesar, the image of the honest deputy, as colourless and dull as his leader appeared refulgent, he rested content in the knowledge of just how much he was needed. Agrippa shared with the taskmaster he served so loyally an unspoken secret. The young Caesar was a hopeless general. Rumours of uselessness in battle had always shadowed him. At Philippi he had managed to lose his tent to the enemy while spending most of the campaign sick; in the war against Sextus he had suffered two resounding defeats. Agrippa, by contrast, was a natural. He it was whose speed of manoeuvre had served to bottle up the rebels in Perusia; who had equipped the young Caesar’s fleet with metal claws fired from catapults; who had brought Sextus to ultimate defeat. Rugged peasant resolve and an eye for innovation: these were the very qualities that had first set Rome upon her path to greatness. Agrippa, far from cringing before the nobility, regarded himself as the authentic representative of his city’s antique virtues. Aggressive in his humility, he was willing literally to plumb the depths in the service of the Roman people.

So it was, in 33 BC, that the conqueror of Sextus descended into the murk and filth of Rome’s sewers. For generations, ambitious nobles had regarded the aedileship – the magistracy responsible for the city’s physical infrastructure – as a mere stepping-stone to more glamorous postings; but Agrippa, already the second most powerful man in Rome, did not disdain its duties. He welcomed the chance to get his hands dirty. A vast workforce was set to emptying and scrubbing clean the sewers – after which, in a triumphant demonstration of how practical were the benefits to be had from the new regime, Agrippa had himself rowed along the central drain. Meanwhile, even as the city was being given this enema, other workmen were busy restoring the aqueducts and building a whole new one, the ‘Aqua Julia’. ‘In such quantities was water brought into Rome that it flowed like rivers through the city and its sewers. Almost every house was given cisterns and service-pipes, and fountains were everywhere.’46 Feats of public service such as these were in the noblest, most muscular Roman tradition. Harking back to the heroic age of Appius Claudius, who had alternated winning battles with building roads, Agrippa was simultaneously working to usher in a new age – one that would see the city emerge cleansed of all its grime. Nothing was beneath his notice. Even barbers were recruited to the cause. Come a public holiday, and they would be sponsored to provide a free shave. Such was the future to which Agrippa, on behalf of his god-like leader, was guiding the Roman people: one scraped clear of all its stubble.

Even men with good cause to loathe the young Caesar – men who had fought against him at Philippi, men who had lost their lands – might recognise the appeal of such a programme. In 36 BC, at a party held to celebrate the defeat of Sextus, Horace had willingly toasted the victory, ‘to the music of flute and lyre’.47 His host that evening had been the subtlest and most valued of the young Caesar’s advisors, a man as close as any to the heart of the regime. Where Agrippa was abrasive, Maecenas was perfumed and smooth, practised less at killing than at ‘reconciling friends at odds’.48 Horace, in offering this judgement, spoke from personal experience. Shortly after his arrival in Rome, broken and embittered, he had been introduced to the great man. Tongue-tied with nerves, he had barely been able to confess his circumstances. ‘Nine months later, an order came, summoning me to be numbered among your friends.’49 It was an offer not to be refused.

The relationship between the two men, although never one of equals, was soon affectionate and close. Maecenas combined an aptitude for intimacy with a connoisseur’s eye for genius – and Horace offered him both. Inevitably, friendship with a power-broker of such intimidating influence came with strings attached. Travelling with Maecenas on the young Caesar’s business, Horace would sometimes be obliged to turn a blind eye, to affect a diplomatic conjunctivitis; pestered by others to betray his friend’s secrets, he would have no choice but to pose as ‘a prodigy of silence’.50 Yet the compromises were never simply one-way. Horace did not renounce his past; nor, though he paid affectionate tribute to Maecenas, did he permit himself to become his patron’s shill. He remained too independent, too much his own man, for that. In an age when the reach of poetry might be great, and the needs of the regime served by Maecenas no less so, he signally failed to offer the young Caesar public praise. With Antony still in command of a host of legions in the East, and the menace of war louring increasingly heavy, too much hung in the balance. Like so many others, Horace had learnt the hard way the perils of nailing colours to a mast.

Maecenas, subtle and penetrating, understood this perfectly well. He knew that Horace, like the Roman people as a whole, could not, in the final reckoning, be brutalised into loyalty. Their hopes had to be met, their terrors eased. They needed to be wooed. What, then, did Horace want? The liberty for which he had fought at Philippi was dead – irrevocably so. His hopes now were more limited, and as solid as his own round paunch. ‘These are the objects of my prayers. A plot of land – not so very large. A garden, a spring beside the house, its water ever-flowing, and a small wood on a slope.’51 Such a dream was shared by many others across Italy: by those granted land, by those robbed of it. Now, with the great cycle of civil wars approaching at last its definitive climax, the yearning of the Roman people for peace was more desperate than ever. Victory, in the final reckoning, was likeliest to go to whichever of the two surviving warlords could satisfy it the best.

By 32 BC, the young Caesar was ready at last to go for broke. The war of words no longer sufficed. It was time to meet Antony in open battle. Not that the young Caesar actually named Antony as his opponent. He had no wish to cast the war as one fought against fellow citizens. Instead, it was Cleopatra, whose baneful powers of seduction had already made a slave of Antony and eunuchs of his followers, whom he selflessly pledged to destroy. This he did in a manner that was fast becoming the keynote of his regime: by blending nostalgia with innovation. Back in ancient times, so it was said, a declaration of war had always been accompanied by the ritual hurling of a spear. Particularly memorable was the one thrown by Romulus, which on landing had sprouted branches and turned into a tree. Although it lay beyond even the young Caesar to emulate that particular stunt, his revival of the ceremony did satisfyingly showcase him as the defender of antique Roman virtue. It was not, though, the only step he took. A far more radical measure had also been adopted: one that served to define him in a way quite without precedent. ‘The whole of Italy swore loyalty to me of its own accord, and demanded me as leader in war.’52 This claim, as it happened, was not entirely free of spin. The oath had in fact been the young Caesar’s own idea, and very far from voluntary – but a masterstroke, even so. By appealing to the towns and villages beyond Rome for support, even before he had obtained a decree from the Senate, he potently signalled his ambition to fight as their champion. Back in the days of their revolt against Rome, the Italians had sworn a mass oath of loyalty to the cause of freedom. Now, en masse, they pledged their loyalty to the young Caesar. Less than a decade after his return from Philippi had wrought misery and upheaval across Italy, he could head back to war as its champion. When finally, in the spring of 31, he crossed the Adriatic to meet with the enemy in northern Greece, he took with him – in addition to his battleships and legions – a weapon that his rival could not hope to combat. No longer was he merely at the head of a faction. ‘Leading the Italians into battle, with the Senate and the people, and the gods both of the household and the city,’53 he had become something infinitely more potent: the face of the once and future Rome.

Granted, not everyone in Italy swallowed this. Some towns stayed faithful to Antony. Taxes imposed to fund the war effort resulted in much grumbling. In Rome there was even a full-blown riot. In general, though, people across Italy were content to hold their breath and wait. Infallible portents indicated that the crisis was ready to peak. The incineration by lightning of a two-headed snake, almost a hundred feet long, that had appeared in Etruria and caused enormous damage, was particularly noted. Sure enough, by summer it was clear that the fortunes of war were moving the way of the young Caesar. Antony, outmanoeuvred by Agrippa, was bottled up beside a promontory called Actium. In September, news reached Italy of a decisive development. Antony had launched a desperate attempt to force the naval blockade. Although he and Cleopatra had both made their escape, most of his fleet had surrendered. So too, a week later, had his legions.

The following spring, and the young Caesar was ready to wrap up his victory for good. Advancing on Egypt, he was met with barely a fight. First Antony perished by his own hand, then Cleopatra. The rule of her dynasty perished with her. Egypt was now the young Caesar’s to do with as he wished. So too the world. For thirteen long years, ever since the Ides of March, it had been ravaged by wars and horrors so devastating that many had dreaded the complete collapse of Roman power, and the end of the world. Now at last the conflict was done.

‘Time for a drink.’54 Horace’s relief, as he raised a toast to the defeat of Cleopatra and the victory of the young Caesar, was palpable. Maecenas, whose responsibility it had been during the months of his leader’s absence abroad to maintain order in Italy, was no doubt delighted to sense it. He knew just what he had in his reflective and independent-minded friend: a mirror held to all those who, storm-tossed by the evils of the age, had somehow attained dry land. ‘What are self-sufficiency and happiness? The ability to say: “I have lived.” ’ Maecenas could not return to Horace the lands stolen from him: they were gone for ever. He could, though, make some recompense now that the regime he served was secure at last. Shortly after Actium had ensured that he would not, after all, be appearing on any proscription list of Antony’s, he gave to his friend an estate just north of Rome, amid the Sabine hills. It was, in every sense, the answer to Horace’s prayers. No wonder it seemed to the poet a place hallowed by the joy he took in it. It was peaceful, it was beautiful, it was everything that the decade he had just experienced was not. In the farm’s fields, the crops grew with supernatural abundance; in its woods, the kids could roam without fear of the wolf, that beast of Mars. The gods, long absent from Italy, were back.

Or so Horace, and many, many others like him, now dared to hope.

The Spoils of Honour

‘Conquering your neighbours was your chief preoccupation.’55 So it was said of Romulus. Fighting foreigners, not themselves: this, everyone could agree, was the proper business of the Roman people. Naturally, in war as in peace, it was essential to respect legal niceties. Unprovoked aggression, while only to be expected from wild beasts and barbarians, was behaviour inappropriate to a civilised people. ‘When we go to war, it is for the sake of our allies – or to uphold our empire.’56 So it had always been. When Romulus attacked his neighbours, it had been with the resolve never to tolerate disrespect. Retribution for insult or injury had always been swift. One local king, ambushed and routed after presuming to raid Roman territory, had been cut down by Romulus himself. Here, in this slaying of a general by his opposite number, had been an exploit fit to illumine the succeeding ages. What more glorious feat of single combat could possibly be envisaged? Romulus, after stripping the blood-soaked armour from his foe, had borne it proudly back to Rome.

There was only one god worthy to receive the dedication of such a prize: Jupiter, the king of the gods himself. Hung at first from the branches of a sacred oak, the ‘spoils of honour’ had subsequently been moved into a temple custom-built for the purpose, the very first to be consecrated in the city. ‘Here,’ Romulus had decreed, ‘was where, in days to come, anyone who emulates me by killing a general or a king with his own hands, shall lay the stripped arms – the “spoils of honour”.’57

In the event, over the long and glorious course of Roman history, only a couple of other men had ever managed the feat. One was Cornelius Cossus, a cavalry officer who was supposed to have lived in the first century of the Republic, and the second a contemporary of Scipio Africanus by the name of Marcellus. The days when a commander would meet with his opposite number in single combat seemed to belong to a vanished age of heroes. Over time, the temple in which the ‘spoils of honour’ were stored had itself begun to crumble. Venerable though it was, it had long since been overshadowed. The steep hill on which it stood, across the Forum from the Palatine, had always been the seat of the gods. The Capitol was where, back in the golden age before history’s beginning, Jupiter’s father Saturn had established his throne. It was also where Rome’s largest temple had been raised in the final decades of the city’s own monarchy. Burned down in 83 BC, it had promptly been rebuilt on an even more grandiose scale. That it too was dedicated to Jupiter only served to emphasise the pokiness of Romulus’s original temple. As Rome, in the terrible decade that followed the Ides of March, grew ever shabbier, so the city’s oldest shrine seemed on the verge of collapse: ‘roofless and dilapidated with age and neglect’.58

Yet all along, beneath the cobwebs and the dust, the temple had been sheltering a weapon with the potential to set kingdoms tottering. Stored inside the crumbling walls, alongside the ‘spoils of honour’ and a lightning bolt made of stone, lay an antique spear. It was this that the young Caesar, when declaring war on Cleopatra in 32 BC, had hurled in accordance with venerable custom.59 Nothing could better have served to associate him with the martial virtues of Rome’s founder. Heading off to war, he did so as a second Romulus. Meanwhile, back on the Capitol, workmen were moving in. Comprehensive repairs were begun to Rome’s oldest temple. So comprehensive, indeed, as to rank as an almost total rebuild. The young Caesar knew better than to neglect the home front. The hammering and chiselling in the heart of the city provided a perfect accompaniment to the news coming in from Actium and Egypt. Even though the new Romulus was likelier, in truth, to pass a battle vomiting in his tent than engaging in hand-to-hand combat with enemy generals, that was beside the point. By 29, when he finally returned from the East with Antony and Cleopatra both dead, and the whole world seemingly his, it was to a city in which the wellspring of Rome’s martial traditions had been rebranded as his own.

It was not enough to be a victor. Auctoritas, that ineffable quality of prestige which served the Roman people as their surest measure of greatness, required a man to look and behave like a victor as well. The young Caesar, whose talents as an actor were no less formidable than his ambition, had long been sensitive to this. At Philippi, the prisoners-of-war had pointedly refused to salute him; at Perusia, the besieged defenders had mocked him as ‘Octavia’.60 By 38, he had had enough. Licking his wounds after a particularly humiliating reverse at the hands of Sextus, he had drawn a veil over his military inadequacies by means of one of his favourite and boldest expedients: beefing up his name.61 A new one had begun to feature on his coins. Henceforward, these proclaimed, he was to be known as Imperator Caesar – ‘Caesar The Victorious General’. Many commanders had been hailed as such on the field of battle, but none before had ever dreamed of making it so thoroughly and immodestly his own. Once Sextus was out of the way, the freshly minted Imperator Caesar had gone to great lengths to live up to his bold new nomenclature. In 35, he had headed across the Adriatic to the Balkans, there to test himself against bands of obstreperous barbarians named Illyrians. Two years of sporadic campaigning had enabled him to chalk up a succession of much-publicised victories. The tribes of Illyria had been variously ambushed, besieged and massacred. Some eagles captured a decade and more previously had been redeemed from captivity. Imperator Caesar himself had sustained a heroic wound to his right knee. Here, in the pacification of Illyria, had been a splendid appetiser for the even more glorious victories that were to follow. When, in the summer of 29, the conqueror of Egypt returned home from his settlement of the East, the refulgence of his auctoritas filled the whole world with its blaze. Imperator Caesar had become the sum of his name.

Italy, meanwhile, had been awaiting the conqueror with a degree of nervousness. Memories of his return from a previous civil war were still raw. As after Philippi, so after Actium the victor came trailing a monstrous number of land-hungry soldiers. His own recruitment drive and defections from his foes had combined to set him at the head of almost sixty legions. Such was the mood of anxiety that even Horace found himself pestered for inside information. ‘Where does Caesar mean to give his soldiers the land he has promised them?’62 The question weighed on everyone’s mind. Given how brutally the returning hero had consolidated his power in the early years of his career, it could hardly have done otherwise. Yet the trepidation was to prove misplaced. The murderousness of the young Caesar’s early career had been the measure of his weakness, not his strength. Now, with no foe left standing to oppose him, and the wealth of the East at his back, naked gangsterism no longer served his interests. The surest buttress of power he possessed was his auctoritas – and the surest buttress of that was his ability to serve the Roman people as the restorer and guarantor of peace.

That he had secured his greatness over the corpses of his fellow citizens was a truth no longer in anyone’s interest to dwell upon. In January 29, six months before Imperator Caesar’s return from the East, the Senate had formally approved his stupefying new first name. His status as the supreme exemplar of Rome’s glory, the embodiment of the military virtues that had won her an empire and then come close to destroying her, was now official. The days when predatory noblemen waded through blood after dominance were over. Henceforward, there was to be only one. ‘Let the better reign singly.’63 On 13 August, this was made manifest in the most public way imaginable when Imperator Caesar finally entered Rome. Riding in formal procession through the city, pulled by four horses in a chariot ornamented with gold and ivory and followed by his army, he celebrated his martial prowess as only a Roman knew how.

The ‘triumph’, as this ritual was called, trailed a reassuringly venerable pedigree. Scholars traced its origins back to the very beginnings of Rome.64 It was said that Romulus, after stripping his fallen adversary of the ‘spoils of honour’, had then blazed a trail by making his way into the city ‘dressed in a purple robe and wearing a crown of laurel on his head’.65 True or not, triumphs had long been serving the Roman people as waymarks on their road to empire. Scipio, Pompey and Julius Caesar had all celebrated them. None, though, could compare for sheer magnificence with the show now being put on by Imperator Caesar. Three whole days were required to celebrate the sweep of his victories. Illyria, Actium and Egypt: each was the focus of a separate triumph. ‘The streets resounded to joy, games and applause.’66 The climax came when the fabled riches of Cleopatra’s kingdom, all the most fabulous pickings that the land of the pharaohs had to offer, were paraded before the crowds. Roman jaws collectively dropped. The exotic was not the only focus of the celebrations, though. Entering Rome on the morning of his first triumph, Imperator Caesar had been conducted into the city by the virgin priestesses of Vesta; riding through the streets, he had been followed by the leading magistrates of the Republic. Simultaneously ground-breaking and backward-looking, his triumphs – the first ever to be celebrated on three consecutive days – offered his fellow citizens both spectacle and reassurance. The Roman people recognised, as they were meant to recognise, that they were watching the ultimate in triumphs.

And when the processions were done, when the crowds had melted away and the gilded chariot been put into storage, what remained of those three remarkable August days were memories, and the sense of a new beginning. For all that they might enjoy a good triumph, the Roman people had had their fill of militarism. ‘No son of mine will be a soldier.’67 There were many, over the past twenty years, who had come to feel the same. Imperator Caesar understood this perfectly well. He could not possibly enjoy popular support while also keeping the military underpinnings of his regime exposed nakedly to view. Accordingly, even as the clamour and dazzle of his triumphs were filling the streets of Rome, measures were being taken to disperse his vast train of soldiers.

With the riches of conquered Egypt behind him, Imperator Caesar could well afford to throw money at the problem. No need for confiscations now. Instead, vast sums of money were spent on buying up land for thousands upon thousands of demobbed soldiers. Some were settled in Italy, others in colonies abroad. None of them made trouble; none of them cut up rough. No feat of governance on such a mammoth scale had ever before been attempted by a Roman statesman – still less pulled off. The achievement was welcomed, not surprisingly, with widespread and heartfelt gratitude. The promises of Imperator Caesar, it appeared, were not just specious talk. Peace, after all the horrors of civil war, was a prospect genuinely in view. ‘The violent age of battle grows mild.’68

Not everywhere, though. The empire of the Roman people, bordered as it was by vast numbers of contumacious barbarians, could hardly afford to beat all its swords into ploughshares. Some legions, at any rate, were still needed to stand sentry. Gaul and Spain, Syria and Egypt, would certainly require garrisons. The Balkans too, despite the heroic performance of Imperator Caesar against the Illyrians, remained a festering source of trouble. Tribes of the kind who lurked beyond the Danube, bearded, shaggy-chested and armed with poisoned arrows, did not – as was the habit of civilised people – build cities and remain in them, but were instead forever on the move. In the summer of 29, even as Imperator Caesar was staging his triumphs in Rome, crisis was brewing in the badlands beyond the province of Macedonia. A tribe called the Bastarnians, who normally lurked in dank forests by the mouth of the Danube and were known, as a result, as the People of the Pine Trees, were heading southwards. Travelling in such numbers that they had even brought their wives and children with them, they were a patent menace. With their wagon train rumbling ever closer to Macedonia, the duty of the governor was clear. Even if the Bastarnians had no intention of actually crossing onto Roman soil, their temerity in approaching the frontier could not be allowed to go unpunished. The situation demanded a pre-emptive strike.

Such, at any rate, was the thinking of the governor himself. In marshalling his legions, ordering them to march out into the barbarian wilds and setting himself at their head, he was displaying the same dauntless spirit that had won the Roman people their empire in the first place. Romulus, no doubt, would have done the same. Yet back in Rome, the sudden flaring of war in the Balkans was signally unwelcome. Only one man was permitted to play at being Romulus – and it was not the governor of Macedonia. Thirty years earlier, when the deified father of Imperator Caesar had himself been the governor of a frontier province, his march northwards to stem a migration of barbarians had been the first step in his conquest of the whole of Gaul. No one needed any reminding of what had followed on from that. Yet Imperator Caesar was in a bind. He could not simply forbid a Roman aristocrat from doing what a Roman aristocrat was supposed to do. The dark days of the proscriptions, when his power had been naked and sanguinary, were past. He had no wish to rule as a despot. Do that, and he risked perishing as his deified father had done, beneath a hail of senators’ knives. Hence his dilemma. Somehow, he had to find a way of securing the co-operation of the Senate, while at the same time denying its big beasts any taste of authentic power.

And indisputably, the governor of Macedonia ranked as a big beast. Marcus Licinius Crassus was the grandson and namesake of the billionaire whose manoeuvrings had done so much to make the political weather in the decade before the crossing of the Rubicon and the eruption of civil war. The grandson was very much a chip off the old block. He had negotiated the treacherous rapids of the age with skill, leveraging abrupt shifts of loyalty to great effect. Abandoning Sextus Pompey in the nick of time, he had transferred his support to Antony; then, just before Actium, he had jumped ship once again. Displaying an eye for business that would have done credit to his grandfather, Crassus had driven an impressively hard bargain. Imperator Caesar had agreed to reward him for his treachery with a consulship, and then, when his term of office was done, a province with its own complement of legions. Twenty-four years had passed since the death of his grandfather amid the sands of Carrhae, and the loss to the Parthians of his eagles. The humiliation of the defeat was still vividly felt by the Roman people – and by Crassus, especially so. Now, by blundering their way towards his province, the Bastarnians had presented him with the perfect opportunity to ease it. He would wipe clean the slate of his family’s honour with barbarian blood.

The Bastarnians themselves, when they realised the full scale of the force that was advancing against them, responded with panic. Their king, a man named Deldo, sent envoys to Crassus, ‘urging him not to chase them – since they had done the Romans no harm’.69 Their pursuer, greeting the ambassadors with a smooth show of hospitality, offered them a drink – and then another, and another. The more inebriated the envoys became, the more he pumped them for information. The Bastarnians, it turned out, were hunkered down with their wagons beyond a nearby forest. Once he was certain of his quarry’s dispositions, Crassus did not hesitate. Orders were given. Even though it was dark by now, his men began to advance.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the forest, it was becoming clear to the Bastarnian king that his envoys would not be returning. Then, as dawn broke, Deldo made out, beyond the blaze of watchfires, Roman scouts on the edge of the forest. Warriors with sheath-knives drawn and bow-strings of horsegut tautened almost to breaking point began to spill out from the ring of wagons. A hail of arrows, their tips dipped in venom, rattled down upon the Roman scouts. Some fell; others melted back into the forest. Bastarnian warbands, plunging into the murk, pursued them as they fled. Battle-cries of triumph sounded above the crashing of the undergrowth. None of the Bastarnians – and certainly not their king – paused to think they might be blundering into a trap.

That, though, was precisely what Crassus had set. The ambush, when it was sprung, proved devastating. The Bastarnian warbands were wiped out and their corpses left to fertilise the roots of the forest; their women and children were rounded up; their wagons put to the torch. A message of Roman greatness, written in blood and fire, was being sent far across the Balkans. Most glorious of all was the memorial to the victory won by Crassus himself. It was upon his sword and nobody else’s that the king of the Bastarnians had perished. Deldo’s armour, stripped from his corpse, constituted a trophy such as no Roman general had won in centuries. Crassus’s soldiers, when they hailed him on the field of battle asimperator, were saluting him as well as something more: only the fourth man in their history to win for himself the ‘spoils of honour’.

To Imperator Caesar, of course, the news could hardly have been less welcome. His triumphs, his building programme on the Capitol, his very name: all had been designed to establish him in the minds of the Roman people as the epitome of the victorious general. That another imperator might now parade through the streets of Rome with armour stripped from a barbarian chieftain, and place it in the same temple that he had been restoring with such expense and show, was an intolerable prospect. It directly menaced his auctoritas. As such, it was not to be borne. Nothing better demonstrated the embarrassment felt at Crassus’s feat than the knee-jerk desperation of the attempt to stymie it. Imperator Caesar had long since mastered the art of veiling his own interests behind a smokescreen of often bogus tradition – and now he attempted the trick once again. Renovation of the ancient temple on the Capitol, it was abruptly announced, had turned up a remarkable find. Workmen had discovered an ancient linen corselet. Imperator Caesar himself, ‘the restorer of the very temple, had seen it with his own eyes’.70 An inscription on the corselet proved that it had belonged to none other than Cornelius Cossus, the second of the three heroes to have dedicated the ‘spoils of honour’ to Jupiter. Not only that, but it revealed a hitherto unsuspected fact. Cossus, contrary to what the annals and histories of the Republic had always claimed, had in fact been a consul when he won his famous trophy. Perhaps, then, in light of this revelation, there was a case for arguing that Crassus, as a mere governor, was not qualified to present the ‘spoils of honour’?

In fact, there was not. That Crassus had been a governor rather than a consul when he slew the king of the Bastarnians did not alter the reality that he had been in sole command. Nevertheless, the waters had been successfully muddied. With Crassus absent in Macedonia for at least another year, there was time enough for Imperator Caesar to neutralise any potential damage. There could certainly be no doubting now the urgency of the challenge that faced him. Hisauctoritas had to be rendered impregnable. So it was, throughout 28, that he renewed his efforts to cast himself as the defender of all that was noblest and best in the inheritance of the Roman people: ‘the man who had given back to them their laws and rights’.71 Any lingering traces of the terrorist he had once been, and of the criminality for which he had been notorious, were systematically erased. All unconstitutional measures enacted during the dark days of the proscriptions and the civil wars were solemnly rescinded; free elections to magistracies restored; eighty silver statues of himself, the height of upstart vulgarity, melted down. In their place, Imperator Caesar accepted no honour ‘inconsistent with the customs of our ancestors’.72 The man who in the early days of his career had sanctioned the murder of senators now sat in honour at their head. Gratefully, he received from them the venerable title once worn by Scipio Africanus: Princeps Senatus – ‘First Man of the Senate’.

The graciousness of Imperator Caesar in restoring to the Roman people their abrogated liberties naturally deserved no less. And there was more to come. On 13 January 27, in a spectacular gesture of renunciation, the man who had extinguished the flames of civil war and won for himself the rule of the world informed the Senate that he was laying down all his powers. Henceforward, he was content to serve simply as what he had been for the past four years, an elected consul. ‘The public welfare,’ as he would later put it with sonorous modesty, ‘I transferred out of my power into those of the Senate and the Roman people – to do with as they judged best.’73 What the Senate judged best, after listening to Imperator Caesar with carefully rehearsed surprise, was to salute him as a hero in the noblest traditions of the Republic. Almost two decades earlier, at the feast of the Lupercalia, a panting and thong-clad Antony had presented the Deified Julius with a royal diadem; but now, when the Senate in their turn pressed a crown upon a Caesar, it was to honour him, not as the master, but as the servant of the Roman people. The ‘civic crown’ was a simple wreath of oak leaves which celebrated, as its name implied, the shared bonds of citizenship. Only a Roman who had saved the life of another in battle, ‘slaying the adversary who had been threatening his fellow, nor ever giving ground’,74 was fit to be awarded it. Who more deserving, then, than the man who had kept the empire itself from implosion? Imperator Caesar, grateful to the Senate for the honour shown him, did not hesitate to accept it. The modesty of the award was precisely what rendered it so precious. Orders were given for it to be placed where all could see it: directly above Imperator Caesar’s front door. There it was to hang perpetually – a reminder ‘of the citizens he had saved’.75

What other noble could hope to compete with this – the mingled glory and humility of it? Auctoritas of such an order put every magistracy, every lineage, every battle honour in the shade. There were few in the Senate House, as they listened to Imperator Caesar declare himself ‘a mild man, interested only in a quiet life’,76 who would have doubted that. To be sure, his claim to be restoring to senators their ancient licence to compete for honours was no mere sham. Had it been otherwise, their resentment of his regime would have smouldered with the same desperation that had proved so fatal to his deified father. Imperator Caesar needed their backing. The changes that he offered them were genuine. The Senate was to become what it had been before the civil wars: the surest path to high office. Elections were to be open. Competition was to be unconstrained. Imperator Caesar himself, far from merely allocating magistracies to his favoured candidates, would be obliged to canvass for them, and cast his vote just like everyone else. The pre-eminence of the Senate, it might have seemed to the more trusting of its members, had indeed been burnished and redeemed.

Yet even though the lustre of the Republic’s ancient offices still burned brightly, the changed nature of the world inhabited by those who aspired to hold them was not easily ignored. Reminders of it loomed everywhere. Crossing the Forum that morning to hear Imperator Caesar speak, senators had made their way past gleaming new monuments raised to the glory of the Deified Julius and his son: temples, statues, arches. Glancing up at the roof of the recently completed Senate House, it would have been impossible for them to miss a statue of Victory, her feet treading down the globe. Now, watching Imperator Caesar deliver his momentous address, they could see directly behind him a second statue of Victory, conspicuous on a pillar and surrounded by trophies pillaged from Egypt. For some, the intimidating glamour of it all proved too much. Displays of loyalty lurched into melodramatic excess. One senator, after yelling that he would rather die than outlive Imperator Caesar, rushed from the Senate House into the streets, where he began urging the crowds to swear the same. Even the Tiber seemed overcome. Bursting its banks, it flooded the low-lying districts of Rome – a clear sign from the gods that they intended Imperator Caesar ‘to have the whole city under his authority’.77 To primacy of such an order, the formal title of Princeps Senatus hardly did justice. No formal title could. The greatness of Imperator Caesar far outsoared the capacity of any single rank or honour to define it. Best, then, perhaps, to think of him simply as princeps: the ‘first man’ of Rome, and of the world.

Imperator Caesar, as ever, was having it both ways. His resignation of formal powers was no resignation of power. The carnivorous rivalries that had brought the Republic to ruin were not being unleashed anew. Aristocrats with famous names might compete for high office, just as their ancestors had done – but they would be doing so in the manner of captive tigers, padding around the confines of an ornate and splendid zoo. The response to the Princeps’s speech from within the Senate House itself, minutely orchestrated as it was, made sure of that. Even as Crassus, in his winter quarters, was recovering from a second hard season of campaigning, measures were being taken to ensure that great dynasts like him would never again have the opportunity to go adventuring against barbarians. No sooner had the Princeps sat down after finishing his speech than pliant senators were rising and begging him not to abandon his military command. ThePrinceps, stern and selfless, refused. The senators continued to beg. The Roman people still needed a guardian of their liberty. That being so, the placemen asked, would the Princeps not accept a command such as Pompey or his own deified father had once held, embracing a number of provinces and set at ten years? Nothing remotely contrary to tradition, nothing remotely smacking of monarchy, about that. The Princeps pondered this argument. Then, after due reflection, he acknowledged that the senators perhaps had a point. Reluctantly, dutifully, nobly, he shouldered the command.

Gaul and Spain, Syria and Egypt: these were the pick of the provinces awarded by a grateful Senate to Imperator Caesar. Together, they provided him with a force of over twenty legions. Henceforward, those who commanded them in the field would do so as his subordinates – his ‘legates’. No more were men with famous names to go glory-hunting after ‘spoils of honour’. Crassus himself, in Macedonia, was permitted to keep his province – but his wings had been decisively clipped. When he returned home in the summer of 27, the Princeps did not feel it worth the bother of denying him his triumph. Crassus duly paraded his trophies and prisoners through Rome. Enthusiasm for his exploits was widespread. Horace was just one of many to toast them.78 There was no mention, though, of the ‘spoils of honour’, nor any visit paid to the tiny temple of Jupiter. Crassus, after his moment in the sun, faded from public attention. His days of campaigning were over. His successors as governor of Macedonia, although not appointed directly by the Princeps, were dull men, and obscure. One of them, it was true, did go so far as to launch an unprovoked attack on a nearby friendly king – but he was immediately hauled back to Rome, and put on trial for illegal adventuring. The Princeps himself deigned to appear as a witness for the prosecution. Governors after that made sure to stay well within the borders of Macedonia.

None of which meant that the Roman people were deprived of martial adventures to cheer. Quite the opposite. The Princeps took his provincial responsibilities very seriously. There remained a world still to be conquered and pacified, and he intended to prove himself worthy of this earth-shaking mission. Victories over barbarians were the necessary justification of his command. So it was that wars blazed along almost every frontier for which the Princeps had responsibility. His legates embarked on a programme of expansion without precedent in Roman history. Legions tracked the course of the Nile deep into Ethiopia; penetrated the remote desert sands of Arabia; tamed the bandits of the Alps. To people back in Rome, it began to seem that even the most remote and savage of nations might soon be brought to bow their necks. ‘Caesar,’ wrote Horace in a state of high excitement, ‘is heading off against the Britons, to the very ends of the world!’79 In fact, Caesar was not. He had a different target in mind. It was in Spain, where the tribes of the northern mountains had for two centuries defied the advance of Roman arms, that the Princeps, early in 26, took up personal command. Divine backing for this move was made spectacularly clear early on in the expedition, when a lightning bolt grazed the litter in which he was being carried, incinerating a nearby slave. That Jupiter was plainly keeping a personal eye on his favourite turned out to be just as well – for the campaigning did not play to the Princeps’s strengths. So debilitating did he find the style of guerilla warfare favoured by the natives that, as was invariably his habit when in the field, he retired to his sickbed – whereupon the barbarians, in a spasm of fatal over-confidence, engaged in open battle and were brought to defeat. The ever loyal Agrippa then mopped up the rest. The Princeps himself, naturally enough, took all the credit.

The willingness of the Roman people to indulge him in this, to bring out the garlands and to crack open jars of wine on his return from Spain, mingled flattery with palpable nervousness. The health of the Princeps was shattered. Physicians diagnosed abscesses of the liver. Many feared the worst. ‘While Caesar holds the world in his hands, I need have no fear of civil war or a violent death.’80 So declared Horace, speaking the simple truth. Settled contentedly on his Sabine farm, he had no wish to lose the fruits of peace. Neither did the vast majority of his fellow citizens. Early in 23, when the Princeps grew so ill that his death was hourly expected, the whole of Rome held its breath. There were some, no doubt, in their yearning to be free of his dominance, who prayed for it; but there were many more who did not. The slender thread from which the stability of the world hung stood nakedly exposed. The Princeps, even as he tossed and sweated on his sickbed, drew his own conclusions. When eventually he recovered, redeemed from death’s door by a vigorous course of cold baths, it was with the determination not to let the crisis go to waste. It was now much more apparent to him than before that widespread backing existed for his primacy. He moved fast to take advantage.

On 1 July 23, the Princeps announced that he was laying down his eleventh consulship. Once again, as had been the case four and a half years previously, a gesture of renunciation veiled what was simultaneously an entrenchment of his supremacy. The shadow-play that had characterised the original bargain struck between him and the Senate was now refined to yet further heights of ambivalence. Certainly, there was much in the terms of the new arrangement to delight upwardly mobile elements in the Senate. No longer would one of the two consulships be clogged up by the Princeps, year after year after year. Opportunities to secure Rome’s pre-eminent magistracy were doubled overnight. The old days of the Republic, and of its most competitive traditions, did indeed appear restored. Naturally, though, this came at a price. The Senate had its own side of the bargain to meet. Awesome new powers were ceded to the Princeps. The right to summon senators whenever he wished, to present them with legislation, and to outrank even those governors who were not officially his legates: all these privileges were agreed and ratified. Four years previously, Imperator Caesar would not have dared to demand them. Now things were changed. His auctoritas, that thing of dazzling light and deepest, darkest shadow, had gained fresh muscle, fresh teeth.

A year later, when the ravages of hunger and plague led the people of Rome to riot, and to declare that only his appointment as Dictator would serve to redeem the city, the Princeps dismissed them in affronted terms. Falling to his knees, he tore and ripped at his clothes. Time was when, coming to the Senate House, he had worn armour beneath his toga – but now, baring his chest, he begged the people to stab him rather than force him to be Dictator. Calculated these histrionics may have been, but his indignation was genuine. It no longer needed the example of his deified father to make him recoil from emulating it. Greatness such as he had won for himself was not to be constrained within the limits of any formal position. His power, like the perfume of the richest incense, had percolated to every nook, every cranny of the Roman state. No need, then, to offend tradition by desecrating it. What had he done, after all, if not make it his own? Now, when people gazed at the Princeps, they did not see the executioner of the Republic. Rather, they saw its embodiment. ‘What is Caesar, if not the state itself?’81

Ever since the age of nineteen, when he had declared himself the avenging son of a god, the one-time Gaius Octavius had known that the surest reality lay in the eye of the beholder. What people could be persuaded not to see was quite as important as what they could. Marcus Crassus, desperate to redeem the disgrace of his grandfather’s fate, had cornered a barbarian king and felled him with his own sword; but the Princeps, when he set out in September 22 directly for the eastern provinces, knew better than to trust to steel alone. The blaze of his reputation, fit as it was to overawe both the Parthians and his fellow citizens back home, was a surer weapon by far. Rather than risk the fate of Crassus by going to war, the Princeps opted instead to open negotiations directly with Phraates, the king of Parthia.

The gambit was unparalleled. No previous imperator had ever thought to settle a dispute with barbarians except by force of arms. Only a leader of god-like prestige could possibly have thought to fly in the face of such unyielding martial precedent – just as only a leader of god-like prestige could possibly have made it pay. Phraates, relieved to be treated as an equal by the bellicose and unpredictable superpower on his doorstep, duly accepted the offer of a negotiated peace. As a token of goodwill, he handed over precisely what the Princeps had travelled east to obtain: the eagles captured from Crassus at Carrhae. A glorious achievement. What was the stripping of armour from some stinking Balkan chieftain to compare?

Returning to Rome after three years away, the Princeps made sure to rub the point home. On the sacred hill of the Capitol, where the first ever battle honours won by a Roman had been placed many centuries before, he ordered a small temple built. Here it was, for the while, that the standards were to be kept: a function designed, like its location, to echo that of the ancient temple of Jupiter.82 The Princeps, with his customary blend of subtlety and precision, knew exactly the message that he was broadcasting to his fellow citizens. Although he might not have killed a rival general, he had won for himself the very ultimate in spoils of honour. Truly, he was the second Romulus – the founder anew of Rome.

On the day of the city’s founding, twelve eagles had flown over the Palatine. The sign had been touched by an awesome, superhuman power, a power described by the Romans as augustus. Back in 27 BC, when the Senate had been pressing on the Princeps his globe-spanning provincial command, one of its members had seized on the word as the perfect adjective to describe him. Other senators, alert to the taste of Imperator Caesar for accumulating new names, had been pushing for him to be called ‘Romulus’ – but the entire Senate, the moment augustus was mentioned, had known at once that nothing else would do. The Princeps himself, reluctant to bear the name of a king, had concurred. So it had come to pass. Imperator Caesar, by official vote of the Senate, had been awarded the additional name of ‘Augustus’. Less menacing than ‘Romulus’, it was also fantastically more impressive. ‘Augustus is what our fathers call anything holy.Augustus is what we call a temple that has been properly consecrated by the hand of the priests.’83

A man with such a name had no need of formal rank. Neither king, nor dictator, nor even consul, he was something infinitely more. The gods had given to Rome, in her hour of most desperate need, a touch of the divine. They had given her Imperator Caesar Augustus.

The God Father

During one of his periodic bouts of illness, the Princeps decided that he could do with a secretary. Casting around for a suitable candidate, his eye fell on Horace. Witty, personable and discreet, the poet appeared the perfect fit. Horace himself, though, was appalled. He had not escaped the grind of accountancy only to be chained to another man’s ink and scrolls. Summoning all his immense reservoirs of tact, he duly made his excuses. He too, he explained to the Princeps, suffered from ill health. The offer, very regretfully, was one that he would have to refuse.

This rejection, coming as it did from someone who had fought on the losing side at Philippi, might have seemed a bold one. The aura of violence and menace that had clung to Augustus when he was a young man still lingered faintly. It could be hard for those of a certain generation to see the Princeps raise his hand in a gesture of salute, and not remember a story told of him as a triumvir: of how with his own fingers he had once gouged out the eyes of a suspected assassin. Times, though, had changed. Augustus himself had been anxious enough about the story explicitly to deny it. His youthful atrocities had long since served their purpose. Now that he had won for himself the mastery of the Roman state, he had no further need of cruelty. Displays of mercy better served his love of power. Augustus was perfectly content to tolerate what he no longer had cause to fear. In the temple to Venus Genetrix built by his deified father, the statue of Cleopatra still touched the shadows with a shimmering of gold. Iullus Antonius, the dashing and cultivated son of Antony, was brought up in Octavia’s household and married off to a niece of the Princeps. Men who had fought for Pompey, who had commanded legions at Philippi, who kept statues of the Deified Julius’s assassins in their homes, were encouraged to serve as consuls. Augustus had no interest in pursuing vendettas once his own security was no longer at stake. Horace could turn down the offer of a secretaryship and still retain his favour.

Indeed, the Princeps was widely known as a man who could enjoy a joke against himself. Meeting a young man who looked just like him, he asked, ‘ “Tell me, was your mother ever in Rome?” “No,” came the answer. “But my father was –often.” ’84 Anecdotes such as these did wonders for the Princeps’s image. It helped as well that he could give as good as he got. Augustus’s sense of humour, like that of the vast mass of his fellow citizens, inclined to the raucous. Dwarves, cripples, people with gout: all prompted him to celebrated witticisms. Maecenas was joshed by the Princeps for his ‘loose, effeminate and languishing style’,85 Horace for being fat. Augustus meant it all affably enough. That he addressed the poet as ‘the very cleanest of pricks’86 was a mark of affection, not contempt – and he was perfectly capable, in his dealings with those he cherished, of displaying sensitivity and charm. Yet there remained a toughness, an asperity about his character that reminded those with a taste for snobbery of the small-town conservatism from which he had sprung. Whether cheering on boxers in back streets, sporting a battered sunhat or roaring with laughter at the sight of a hunchback, Imperator Caesar Augustus retained just a hint of the provincial.

None of which did him any harm among the mass of the Roman people. It gratified them to think of the Princeps as a man without airs and graces. Intimate personal details, carefully leaked, helped to cast him as a citizen of honest, simple tastes. It was common knowledge that a man whose name served to place him midway between the earth and the heavens ate much like a peasant, that his bread was coarse and his wine of an unfashionable vintage. Divine appetites, even in the son of a god, were capable of causing bitter resentment. Augustus had discovered this the hard way. In the aftermath of Philippi, when the world had seemed abandoned by the gods, aping the absent immortals had become quite the craze among ambitious warlords. A former consul might think nothing of painting his body blue, putting on the fish’s tail appropriate to a sea god and flopping around on all fours. Augustus, in the first throes of his passion for Livia, had staged a particularly provocative masquerade. At a time when Rome was in the grip of famine, he had held a drinking party to which all the guests had come dressed as immortals. The groom himself had starred as the golden and eternally youthful god of light and music, Apollo. Down in the streets of the starving city, outrage at the news had blended with bitterness and scorn. ‘Yes, to be sure,’ men had cried, ‘Caesar is Apollo – Apollo the Torturer.’87

The people of Rome had particular reason to associate a god more commonly worshipped as the patron of prophecy and self-discipline with vicious cruelty. In the Forum, next to the sacred fig tree, there stood the statue of a pot-bellied man with a wine-sack on his shoulder. This was Marsyas, a satyr who had once challenged Apollo to a musical contest, been cheated of the victory that was rightfully his, and then been flayed alive for his presumption. Such, at any rate, was the version of the story told by the Greeks – but in Italy an altogether happier ending was reported. Marsyas, they claimed, had escaped the irate Apollo and fled to the Apennines, where he had taught the arts of augury to the natives and fathered the snake-charming Marsians. Rome was not the only city to commemorate him. Statues of Marsyas were to be found in public squares across Italy. For all that the satyr might be shown with leg irons on his ankles, he stood defiantly unchained. He had slipped the bonds of his divine master. So it was that he served Italians as ‘a symbol of liberty’.88

Augustus, who in almost everything save his ambition was deeply conservative, had far too much respect for tradition ever to think of having such a venerable memorial removed from the Forum. Nevertheless, the statue of Marsyas was troubling to him on a number of levels. At Philippi, where his own watchword had been ‘Apollo’, that of his opponents had been ‘liberty’. Not only that, but Marsyas was believed by his devotees to have been sprung from his would-be flayer’s clutches by a rival god named Liber, an anarchic deity who had taught humanity to enjoy wine and sexual abandon, whose very name meant ‘Freedom’, and who – capping it all – had been worshipped by Antony as his particular patron. The clash between the erstwhile Triumvirs had been patterned in the heavens. Antony, riding in procession through Cleopatra’s capital, had done so dressed as Liber, ‘his head wreathed in ivy, his body draped in a robe of saffron gold’.89 Visiting Asia Minor, where in ancient times the contest between Apollo and Marsyas had been staged, he had been greeted by revellers dressed as satyrs. The night before his suicide, ghostly sounds of music and laughter had filled the Egyptian air; ‘and men said that the god to whom Antony had always compared himself, and been most devoted, was abandoning him at last’.90

Meanwhile, back in Rome, the victory of Antony’s conqueror had been Apollo’s triumph as well. The patching-up of Jupiter’s ancient temple on the Capitol had been as nothing compared to the stupefying redevelopment of the hill on the facing side of the Forum. In 36 BC, shortly after the defeat of Sextus Pompey, lightning had struck the Palatine. A god had spoken – but which god? Augurers sponsored by Rome’s most eminent devotee of Apollo had dutifully served up the answer. For almost a decade, in obedience to their ruling, cranes and scaffolding had crowded the summit of the Palatine. Only by October 28 had the work finally been completed. The Roman people, just as they were meant to do, had gawped at it in awe. Planted on the hill above the Lupercal, next to where the hut once built by Romulus out of humble wood and thatch still stood in a state of improbable conservation, there now gleamed a monument built to the most advanced international standards. Raised on a massive marble pediment, adorned with doors of ivory, and crowned by a four-horse chariot made of bronze, ‘the snow-white temple of brilliant Apollo’91 made a literally dazzling addition to the Roman skyline. On one side of the Palatine it loomed over the Forum; on the other over the charred remains of an ancient temple of Liber.92 That this had burned down in the same year as Antony’s defeat at Actium only rammed the message home. Augustus, triumphant in all his enterprises, had backed a heavenly winner.

Nevertheless, he had not forgotten how easily the poor and starving had once been roused to curse him for impersonating Apollo. Even though the Princeps had never stinted in his devotion to the god of light, he knew better now than to parade his sense of identification at drunken dinner parties. Behaviour like that smacked altogether too much of Antony. Augustus preferred a perpetual play of radiance and shadow to be evident across his face. His image was as tightly controlled as it was charged with ambivalence. The portrait of him fashioned by sculptors offered to the Roman people a fitting reflection of the infinite subtleties and paradoxes of the man himself. In the jug ears of his statues it was possible to catch the glimpse of a thoroughly human Princeps: one whose eyebrows met above his nose, whose teeth were bad, and whose anxieties about his height were such that he wore platform heels. Yet he was a handsome man for all that; and it was his conceit, one that plenty were willing to flatter, that he had only to fix people with ‘his clear and brilliant gaze’93 for them to lower their eyes, as though before the sun. In his statues, the jug-eared Princeps appeared as beauteous as Apollo. Suspended midway between youth and maturity, between melancholy and triumph, between the mortal and divine, he was a Roman in every sense Augustus.

There was certainly to be no place in his portraits for the thinning hair and sagging jowls that once, in the heyday of the Republic, had served as the markers of high-achieving statesmen. What need for Augustus to emphasise his experience? All stood in awe of his achievements. He had accomplished more than any number of senators scored with wrinkles. The close association between ugliness and virtus, always cherished by conservatives, was hardly one to appeal to Augustus. The Princeps, rather than reining in his taste for self-promotion, aimed instead to mould tastes to the contours of his own. Never before in history had so many portraits of a single man been manufactured, disseminated and put on public display. A new orthodoxy was being marketed to the Roman people: that power should be good-looking. Evident to all those who gazed upon the statues of Augustus, it could increasingly be read as well in an even more prominent sphere: the fabric of the city.

Rome, although ‘the seat of empire and of the gods’,94 had long presented a face woefully inadequate to her status as the capital of the world. Brown smoke from thousands upon thousands of workshops and hearth-fires hung in a pall over cramped shanty towns. Steepling apartment blocks shored up by brace-work clung precariously to the slopes of the city’s hills. Blackened temples crumbled amid labyrinths of twisting and filthy streets. Compared to the gleaming cities of the East, where kings descended from the generals of Alexander the Great had burnished their capitals in swaggering fashion, Rome was a shabby and monochrome sprawl. So drab were its mud bricks and blotchy tufas that ambassadors from eastern monarchies, when they first began to arrive in the city, had found it hard to stifle their sniffs of disdain. Yet the lack of grands projets, which to Greeks appeared the symptom of a comical backwardness, had traditionally served the Roman people themselves as evidence of their liberty. Coloured marble, pompous avenues, urban planning: what were these, if not the prerogatives of kings? No one, in a free republic, could be permitted such sinister grandstanding. This was why, in the last feverish decade before the crossing of the Rubicon, the sudden appearance in Rome of a rash of grandiose monuments had served as portents of the Republic’s ruin. Just as Julius Caesar had funded his own forum, complete with marble temple and statue of his horse, so had Pompey the Great put his name to the city’s first theatre built of stone. These rival developments, set as they were against the squalor and decay general in the rest of the city, had glittered like gold fillings amid a mouthful of bleeding gums. Both had served the glory, less of the Roman people, than of their respective sponsors – and unsurprisingly so. To fashion out of an urban agglomeration as chaotic and ramshackle as Rome a capital worthy of a global empire was a project of renewal beyond anything that anyone had ever before attempted. Only a citizen possessed of limitless resources, infinite auctoritas and plenty of time could even think to embark upon it. Only a citizen, in short, like Augustus.

Naturally, the attentions lavished by the Princeps upon the city were hardly selfless. Nothing that he did ever was. His aim, as it had always been, was to wipe the floor with any hint of competition. Even the dead were fair game. The heirs of Scipio Africanus, for instance, looking to remind the Roman people of their pedigree, had surmounted the processional way that wound up the side of the Capitol with a novel form of architectural showmanship: a colossal arch. Augustus, as only he could, now went decisively one better. Dominating the road that led from the Forum up to the Palatine, his own version was a perfectly judged exercise in putting even the most distinguished dynasties in the shade. Ostensibly dedicated to his birth father, who had died when the infant Octavius was only four, the monument nevertheless strongly hinted at an altogether more glamorous lineage. Rather than portraits of his mortal ancestors, the arch featured an astonishing statue of Apollo, complete with chariot and four horses, all carved out of a single block of stone. Subtly yet decisively, Augustus had cast the sniggering jokes about his parentage on their head. While the arch did not explicitly confirm the rumour reported of his mother, that nine months before his birth she had been visited while asleep in the temple of Apollo by a serpent, who had left on her body a miraculous ‘mark in colours like a snake’,95 it did nothing to deny it. Such was the dimension of ambivalence in which Augustus always preferred to operate. Reluctant to offend Roman sensibilities by claiming Apollo as his father, yet perfectly content to make play with it, he was, as ever, having his cake and eating it.

The tightrope he walked in achieving this was necessarily precarious. It took a peculiar genius to pose as a being almost at one with the gods and simultaneously as a man of the people. Spectacular pretension was fused in Augustus with almost unearthly reserves of patience and self-discipline. The gleaming new temple of Apollo, even as it shed its lustre upon the Princeps’s adjacent house, also opened up to ordinary citizens what had previously been the preserve of oligarchs. Libraries, courtyards and porticoes, annexed to the main body of the temple, now dominated the summit of the Palatine. Against such a backdrop, the private residence of the Princeps himself could not help but seem modest to the point of frugality. Even though Hortensius, its original owner, had been notorious in his own lifetime for the effeminate character of his extravagance, trends had long since moved on. New markers of luxury now adorned the homes of the super-rich. At a time when Maecenas, that celebrated arbiter of taste, was busy introducing the heated swimming pool to Rome, the Princeps’s house struck those familiar with top-end properties as ‘notable neither for scale nor style’.96 Not for him a tower of the kind that Maecenas had built as the centrepiece of his exquisite palazzo, a folly so steepling that it afforded its owner views of the distant Apennines. Augustus, a man wealthier than the Republic itself, did not need to demonstrate to anyone just how well endowed he was.

And in this, as he well knew, he was at one with the sentiments of the mass of the Roman people. ‘While they may approve of beautifying public monuments, they have no time for private luxury.’97 The self-made followers of Augustus, gorged as they were on the plunder of civil war, did not serve their leader’s purposes by flaunting their appropriations. Maecenas, by virtue of his devotion to fashion, stood at risk of becoming unfashionable. His sprawling gardens next to one of the city gates had been built over a paupers’ cemetery; his achingly modish topiary was fertilised by ‘the bleached bones’98 of the poor. Infinitely better qualified to serve as the public face of the new regime was the dour and hard-faced Agrippa. Despite himself having come from nowhere into possession of Antony’s splendid mansion on the Palatine and entire territories overseas, he retained the crowd-pleasing image of a bluff peasant. Not hesitating to bait the nobility, he pressed for the nationalisation of privately owned works of art. Such treasures, he argued, were properly the Roman people’s to enjoy. The Princeps himself, who had laboured so hard to seduce and reassure the aristocracy, was hardly the man to put such a proposal into action; but nothing that Agrippa ever said or did was without his master’s sanction. Augustus, with his unparalleled nose for sniffing out advantage, had distinguished in the attitude of the upper classes to the masses a yet further source of profit. On the one hand, it was a point of principle among those committed to the noblest traditions of the Republic that it was ‘for the Roman people to grant all powers, all commissions, all commands’;99 on the other, that these same Roman people were ‘the bilge-water of the city’.100 Here, amid the murk of such contradictory opinions, was ample opportunity for Augustus to consolidate his position yet further. Who better qualified than the Restorer of the Republic, after all, to realise the full potential of hypocrisy?

That it was indeed the Princeps, with his healing hands, who had salved the bleeding state back to health was a conceit that few, in the wake of the civil wars, had any great interest in disputing. When a golden shield listing Augustus’s cardinal virtues was hung inside the Senate House, the inscription recorded that it had been placed there by Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘The Senate and the Roman People’. Yet this fine-sounding slogan, even as it proclaimed harmony between the city’s elite and its masses, hinted as well at division. The commitment of Rome’s citizens to the common good, so precious to them as an ideal, had been accompanied right from the beginnings of their city by a rival drumbeat. When Romulus, standing on the Palatine, witnessed twelve eagles passing overhead, he had been in competition with his twin. Remus, from his own vantage point just south of the Palatine on a summit named the Aventine, had seen a paltry six birds; and from that moment on, the rival destinies of the twin hills had been fixed. Just as the Palatine had always provided the city with its most exclusive hub of power, so did the Aventine serve as the stronghold of the disadvantaged, of the poor – of the plebs. Always, behind the civic unity which was the proudest boast of the Republic, there had throbbed the pulse of class resentments. The poor, sneered at by the upper classes as plebs sordida – ‘the great unwashed’ – had a long and proud tradition of standing up for their rights. Repeated attempts to crush their freedoms had been heroically resisted.

The most venerable monument to such resistance, built on the lower slope of the Aventine centuries before Antony had thought to co-opt it, was none other than the shrine of Liber. It commemorated an occasion way back in 494 BC when the plebs, oppressed by debt and the exactions of the rich, had staged a mass walk-out. Heading upriver from Rome, the strikers had camped on a hill overlooking the Tiber. Here, in a pointed retort to the institution of the consulship, they had elected two officials of their own – ‘tribunes’101 – to serve as guardians of their interests. The tribunes, the plebs had agreed, were to be regarded as sacrosanct. The life of anyone who laid so much as a finger on them was to be forfeit. Blood-curdling compacts to that effect had been sworn. The Roman upper classes, with great reluctance, had been brought to swallow these terms. Centuries on, and the tribunate had emerged to become one of the most potent offices in the entire Republic. It remained sacrilege to assault any citizen who held it. A tribune could impose the death penalty on those who challenged his authority; veto legislation of which he did not approve; summon the Senate and introduce measures of his own. Privileges of this order, freighted as they were by tradition and potentially awesome in their scope, could hardly help but pique the interest of the Princeps.

And sure enough, in due course, he had made his move. Laying down his consulship, he had reaped momentous compensation. Many of the most formidable powers ceded to him by the Senate in 23 BC, and which had served to buttress his primacy to such decisive effect, were those of a tribune: the tribunicia potestas. The plebs themselves, far from resenting this appropriation of their hard-won prerogatives by Rome’s richest man, were instead confirmed in their view of him as their champion. It certainly came as no novelty to them that a man of high-class pedigree might wish to exercise the tribunicia potestas. A hundred years before, two grandsons of Scipio Africanus, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, had served as tribunes; more recently, the rumbustious career of Clodius Pulcher had been launched on the back of a tribunate. A palpable flavour of class warfare clung to the memories of all three men. Hostile elements in the Senate had been provoked to open violence by their agitating. Blood had flowed in the streets of Rome. Both the Gracchi brothers had been assassinated: Tiberius clubbed to death with a stool-leg and Gaius decapitated. As for Clodius, it was the riots following his murder by a political adversary that had led to the immolation of the original Senate House. Perhaps, then, among the ranks of the senators, there was a flutter of nervousness that Augustus, in laying down the powers of a consul, should have taken up those of a tribune.

If so, then they mistook their man. An operator as consummately sphinx-like as the Princeps had no interest in playing the demagogue. No matter that he had been endowed with the tribunicia potestas, he was not a tribune. The people’s favourite, he offered himself as well to the Senate as their protector. Just how combustible the plebs might still be, and just how dependent the rich were upon Augustus to keep secure for them their swimming pools, their works of art and their exquisite topiary, had been made unsettlingly apparent to them in the wake of his departure from Rome. Between 23 and 19 BC, with the Princeps absent in the eastern Mediterranean, the city had seethed with factionalism and street fighting. Riots had flared. Murders had spiked. A consul had nervously requested extra bodyguards. Order had been restored only when the Princeps finally returned from the East, bringing with him in triumph the standards won back from the Parthians. The lesson had been well and truly rubbed home. ‘When Augustus was absent from Rome, the people were fractious – and when he was present, they behaved themselves.’102

Guardian of the Senate and champion of the plebs: the Princeps was both of these, and more. For too long, the Republic had been its own worst enemy. Together, the greed of the mighty and the brutishness of the masses had brought it to the verge of ruin. Had the gods not sent Augustus to redeem Rome from the misery of the civil wars, then city and empire alike would surely have perished. The duty of the Princeps was clear: to stand guard over the Republic and protect it from itself. Revolution could not have been further from his mind. His heaven-sent responsibility it was to remind Senate and people alike of what they had originally been. Restore to them their ancient birthright of virtus and discipline, and his mission would be complete. ‘The good man,’ he once ringingly declared, ‘is the one who has no intention of altering the traditional way of doing things.’103 All that Augustus had ever done, all the changes that he had ever made, all the manifold breaks with recent custom for which he had pushed, had aimed, not at novelty, but rather at the opposite: the return to the Roman people of their ancestral inheritance of greatness.

Once, the gods had graced Rome with their favours and their protection. Incense had perfumed the flames of sacrifice and veiled the sun with smoke; the blood of white oxen had spilled from axe-blows onto the earth; festivals of primordial antiquity had given order to the city’s year. But then, over time, as the processions had come to be abandoned, so the rituals had been forgotten and the stones of the shrines grown mute. Horace had been only one of many to shudder at the sight of temples sharing in the general dilapidation of the city. ‘The sanctuaries with their dark images stand ruined, befouled with smoke.’104 Struggling to keep afloat during the difficult years that had followed his return from Philippi, haunted by his memories of citizen slaughtering citizen and impoverished by the loss of his lands, the poet had drawn the obvious conclusion. ‘The gods, because neglected, have brought a whole multitude of evils on sorrowing Italy.’105Augustus, charged as he was by the heavens with purging the Republic of its sickness, fully concurred with this diagnosis. His repairs to the ancient shrine on the Palatine in which the ‘spoils of honour’ were kept had been only a start. Crumbling and roofless temples were an affront both to the gods and to the dignity of the Roman people: pustules upon the face of the city. Augustus, with the wealth of the world his to command, could well afford the necessary medicine. What had been decayed was to become pristine; what had been black was to become white; what had been mud-brick was to become marble. As the scaffolding came down from the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, so it went up across the rest of Rome. Even Livia, who sponsored the sprucing-up of a sanctuary on the Aventine much favoured by respectable matrons, got in on the act. As for the Princeps himself, he would end up funding the restoration of no fewer than eighty-two temples. If some were only given a lick of paint or a layering of stucco, then most were endowed with as handsome a makeover as the world’s finest architects could provide. Entire mountains were levelled to provide them with the necessary supplies of stone. So, at any rate, ran the joke. It was beauty, not antiquity, that counted now. ‘The temples of our ancestors were all well and good – but golden ones are more delightful. Majesty, after all, is what becomes a god.’106

And the gods themselves clearly concurred. By 17 BC, a decade on from the settlement that had seen Imperator Caesar named Augustus, it was evident that Rome had once again become a place hallowed by the favour of the heavens. ‘The world was pacified. The rightful political order was restored. All stood easy and prosperous.’107 As May turned to June, the Roman people were invited to celebrate a profound mystery: the turning of the centuries and the dawning of a new cycle of time. Entertainments were staged; chariot races held; lavish banquets thrown. First, though, for three days in succession, the gods were given their due of sustenance and blood; and by night, illumined by the torches which had been handed out free to the entire population of the city, the Princeps himself led the celebrations. To the Moerae, the three white-robed Fates who directed the city’s destiny, he offered a sacrifice of lambs and goats; and then, to the goddess of childbirth, a gift of cakes. A golden age was being born – and just in case there was still anyone who had failed to take in the message, a poem composed specially for the occasion by Horace was sung on both the Capitol and the Palatine, with the aim of ramming it home. ‘Grant riches, and progeny, and every kind of glory to the people of Romulus.’108 Many who heard this prayer sounding out across the Forum, hymned by a choir of girls and boys of spotless probity, and framed by a skyline edged with gold and gleaming marble, would doubtless have reflected that the gods had already obliged. ‘Truth, and Peace, and Honour, and our venerable tradition of Probity, and Virtus, long neglected, all venture back among us. Blessed Plenty too – why, here she is with her horn of abundance!’109

And still, over the course of the years that followed, it overflowed. Rome was fast becoming beautiful. The gods were not alone in being graced with home improvements. The Roman people, as they watched their native city grow ever less shabby, ever more resplendent, began to take for granted the apparently limitless coffers of their Princeps. His generosity seemed to know no bounds. When, for instance, the heirs of Pompey the Great found themselves too poverty-stricken to maintain the upkeep of their ancestor’s great stone theatre, who should step in but Augustus? Other noble families too, knowing that they could not hope to compete in such stakes, had long since withdrawn from the fray. Whether it was building bath complexes on a scale vaster than any seen before, or renovating in an eye-poppingly sumptuous manner the hall in which the Roman people cast their votes, or else improving the city’s roads, Augustus and his ever-loyal henchman Agrippa were the only show in town.

So selfless was the Princeps’s concern for the good of his fellow citizens that even the memory of his own friends might be sacrificed to it. One such was Vedius Pollio, a financier who had done much to boost the tax efficiency of Rome’s provinces in Asia Minor, and grown obscenely rich on the back of it. When he died in 15 BC, and left the Princeps the vast property that he had built on a spur above the Forum, Augustus had it ostentatiously flattened. The site was then given to his wife. Livia, no less conscious than her husband of her responsibilities towards the Roman people, had it rebuilt in splendid fashion, complete with colonnades and fountains, and presented to the delighted public. So, in the new age presided over by Caesar Augustus, was the selfish greed of plutocrats justly treated. ‘An example had been well and truly made.’110

The death of Vedius, a one-time nobody who had profited from the carnage and upheavals of the civil wars to emerge as one of the wealthiest men in Rome, spoke of the passage of the years. Those who could remember a time before the crossing of the Rubicon, when citizens had contended with one another in a free Republic, were growing old. Late in 13 BC, when Lepidus passed away, many were surprised to discover that the former triumvir had not died years before. Formally stripped of his powers back in 36, and exiled to an obscure corner of Italy, he had spent two decades and more in wraith-like retirement. Only a single honour had been left to him: the office of Pontifex Maximus, the High Priest of Rome. Naturally, there was never any doubt as to his successor. The Roman people had long been pressing Augustus to strip Lepidus of the post; but the Princeps, sternly set against sacrilege, had refused. Now, in 12 BC, men and women from across Italy flocked to Rome to hail his election.

The new Pontifex, meanwhile, was moving with his customary eye for the main chance to turn the office to his own advantage. Tradition prescribed that he move into an official mansion in the heart of the Forum, where he could serve as guardian to the virgins who tended the eternal hearth-flame of the city. Augustus, who had not the slightest intention of abandoning the Palatine, instead settled upon a compromise as pious as it was self-serving: he had part of his house dedicated to the goddess Vesta. His private residence, connected as it already was to the great temple of Apollo, took on a new sheen of sanctity. Augustus himself moved one step closer to heaven.

The man who had once scandalised the guardians of Roman tradition by making himself consul at the tender age of nineteen was now in his fifties. Even as his statues continued to portray him as preternaturally fresh-faced, his wrinkles were growing deeper. Already, some of the closest partners of his youth were succumbing to age. Agrippa, exhausted by his labours, died only a few months after the election of Augustus as Pontifex; four years later, Maecenas was consigned to his grave. In his will, he requested his old friend to ‘remember Horace as you do myself’111 – and sure enough, when the poet too died fifty-nine days later, Augustus had him laid to rest near Maecenas’s tomb.

Here, to a man notorious for his bouts of ill health, were ominous reminders of his own mortality; and yet, for all that, the Princeps did not die. Quite the opposite. Miraculously, as the decades slipped by, he seemed to be growing haler. Age, it turned out, agreed with him. Far from sapping his auctoritas, grey hair only burnished it. A veteran grown old in the service of his city: here was the kind of authority figure with whom the Roman people were instinctively familiar. In 3BC, Augustus turned sixty. A few months later, he was elected consul for the first time in many years. Still, though, his fellow citizens were not done with paying him honour. In January, a delegation of plebeians travelled to his coastal retreat and begged him to accept a new title: ‘Father of his Country’. Augustus refused. Then, on 5 February, all ranks of society came together to press the honour on him. When the Princeps, back in Rome, arrived at a theatre, everyone in the audience hailed him with the title. Shortly afterwards, at a meeting of the Senate, the assembled senators added their own voices. ‘We join with the Roman people,’ declared their spokesman, ‘in saluting you as Father of our Country.’ This time Augustus did not turn down the title. ‘All that I ever hoped for,’ he declared in a choked voice, ‘I have now achieved.’ And as he spoke, his eyes began to fill with tears.112

Imperator Caesar Augustus had embarked on his rise to power as the avenger of his deified father. ‘That was his task, his duty, his priority.’113 Now, forty years and more on, it was he who had become the father. Early that summer, on 12 May, the Princeps formally dedicated a building that, more than all the many others he had bestowed upon the Roman people, served as the monument to his extraordinary career. His temple to Mars the Avenger, vowed long before on the eve of Philippi, had been completed only after an inordinate length of time. Reluctant to stir up memories of his youthful confiscations of land, Augustus had shrunk from forcing through compulsory purchases. As a result, his agents had found themselves embroiled in any number of property disputes. Some owners had refused point-blank to sell. Strange angles, forced on the architect by this obduracy, had begun to appear in the outline of the development. Redesign had followed redesign. The delays had lasted years. In the end, Augustus’s patience had snapped. He had ordered the temple finished, come what may. Even as the day of its dedication drew near, building materials were still being gathered up and paint slapped on. Yet no amount of last-minute hurry could impair its jaw-dropping impact. Augustus’s great programme of renewal had achieved its supreme masterpiece. To a people whose descent from Mars was evident in the emergence of their city from backwoods obscurity to the rule of the world, he had paid his most splendid tribute: ‘an achievement on a scale worthy of the god’.114

War had been the making of Augustus as it had been of Rome, and the Princeps did not shrink from acknowledging the fact. The duty he had owed his deified father was inscribed on the face of a gleaming new forum. Statues of the Julians, with Aeneas himself resplendent in the centre, stood positioned in a semicircle to one side of the temple of Mars the Avenger. Yet the drenching of Philippi in Roman blood was not the only vengeance commemorated in the great complex. So too was an altogether happier triumph. The standards lost by Crassus to the Parthians at last had a setting worthy of Augustus’s feat in winning them back. Transferred from their makeshift home on the Capitol, they now adorned the inner sanctum of Mars’s towering temple. No matter that it was Augustus who had redeemed them – the victory was one in which all the Roman people could share. Outside, gazing down from the front of the temple across the coloured flagstones of the Forum, a semi-naked Mars was portrayed with sword and spear in hand, his foot placed on the world. Augustus was not so vainglorious as to pretend that Rome’s global sway was entirely down to himself.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Facing the statues of the Julians, on the far side of the Forum, was another half-ring of statues. In their centre stood Romulus, complete with the ‘spoils of honour’; around him, forming a veritable hall of fame, all the many other heroes who had contributed to Roman greatness.115 These, so Augustus declared, were the models who had served to inspire him in his service to Rome. His line of descent from them was quite as clear as that from the family of Julius Caesar. He embodied nothing alien, nothing remotely out of accord with the best of Roman practice. The same would doubtless be true of those ‘who might follow him as Princeps’.116 There had been no revolution. Rome past and Rome future: they met, and were reconciled, in the figure of a single man.

Imperator, Augustus, Father of his Country: the one-time Gaius Octavius was entitled to feel, as he presided over the dedication of his splendid new temple complex, that he had very little left to prove. Who now could reasonably doubt that he was, as he had always believed, the favourite of the heavens? ‘You are the greatest ever Princeps.’117 So Horace had written shortly before his death. This verdict had not been flattery – merely a statement of obvious fact. Augustus had given peace to his fellow citizens, reconciled them to the gods, and restored to them their hope.

Surely now nothing could go wrong?

*1 Levana derived from the Latin for ‘to lift’, levare, and presided over the raising of a child by the midwife immediately after birth.

*2 Although, as the Romans themselves were graciously prepared to acknowledge, the Galatians ran them a close second.

*3 A boy, for reasons that even the Romans found mysterious, would be given his name after nine days.

*4 The great orator Cicero records a five-word put-down delivered to him by Servilia, who was both the former mistress of Julius Caesar and the mother of Marcus Brutus, Caesar’s most eminent assassin. ‘I bit my tongue,’ Cicero records.

*5 The enemy was Antony. In reality, the family was old and wealthy, but had only recently attained a degree of political prominence. Octavius’s father was the first of his line to enter the Senate, and would have run for the consulship after serving a term of office in Macedonia had he not died while returning to Rome.

*6 The room which had served the young Octavius as his nursery was subsequently left with such a charge of the supernatural that anyone who tried to sleep in it would be hurled out through the doorway by invisible forces.

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