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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

Portrait Of A Warlord

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor - Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of the first Roman emperor has been hailed as a triumph by many but to me it feels like a rather cautious affair. He is, understandably, reluctant to engage in speculation about reasons for Augustus’s decisions unless they are clearly supported by the evidence. As a result, there is nothing remarkable here. What we get instead is a comprehensive assemblage of everything that is known about the princeps, his family, and the powerful individuals and institutions with whom he interacted, all set within the context of recorded events.


At times the author’s desire to focus on the known rather than the unknown leads him to concentrate a little too much on the background. The beginning of the book, in particular, feels more like a biography of Julius Caesar than of his nephew. However, once he gets past the triumvirate the narrative gathers momentum.


Goldsworthy’s style is sometimes a little clunky. He is too fond of a dangling modifier and I had to read certain passage several times to make sure I understood him. But, in his favour, it should be said that he is never tempted to colour up the narrative. What you get is only what can reasonably be concluded about his subject.


Most importantly for me, Goldsworthy underlines Augustus’s  dependence on the army throughout his time in power. He did a great job in fashioning his image and later ages have colluded with him. But Goldsworthy reminds us that, first and foremost, he was a ruthless military dictator, albeit one whose conduct improved as he grew older. He gave the Romans forty years of relative peace and the senate declared him Father of the Nation but everything he achieved was based on his status as a warlord and that should not be forgotten.