Augustus by Anthony Everitt

The book is Augustus by Anthony Everitt. I read the 2007 Random House trade paperback edition. 

I read it because Augustus was the Emperor of Rome when Christ was born, and I’m fascinated by the origins of things. We have a tendency to displace the Bible from history. There was a whole world going on around the events of the Bible and I want to put it in historical context. It’s a good reminder that the Bible isn’t just a book of stories but an actual historical account. 

What I enjoyed most about this book is the history of ancient Rome. Customs and traditions were explained and it’s a good peek into the everyday life of the past. For example, Everitt explains how the gladiator games started as a form of human sacrifice. That’s interesting in light of what I heard Douglas Wilson talking about recently where he said that civilizations need a scapegoat, someone or something they can form a mob against. That explains our fervor for things like Super Bowls or UFC fights today, and ritualistic human sacrifices of ancient times. 

It was kind of confusing because Augustus’ name was actually Octavian and that’s how he’s referred to for most of the book. I didn’t catch that at first and it was confusing. 

The actual ascendency of Augustus was kind of confusing too because for a long time there was a triumvirate of three rulers, Augustus (Octavian), Marc Antony, and a general named Lepidus. The three of them ruled Rome in the end days of the Roman republic before it became an empire. Augustus removed Lepidus or he stepped down (?). So then it was just Augustus and Marc Antony. But Marc Antony was all caught up with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Augustus defeated him in a civil war. 

Augustus was the first emperor of Rome and started the Rome as we think of it today with the colosseum and aquifers and technology and all that. I guess it was still pretty stone-agey before Augustus. 

There was a cool chapter called Life At Court where Everitt goes through a typical day for the emperor, like how he brushed his teeth, what he had for lunch, what sort of “meetings” he would have, and then dinner and bedtime. It’s interesting because you have to think these ancient figures were people and they must have had some sort of routine to their life like we do. 

Everitt explained the life of Augustus well. Any confusion or misunderstanding came from me not paying attention well enough. I don’t read much history nor biography. I hope to read more in the future and will definitely read more Everitt. 

I’d recommend it to anyone interested in history, especially ancient Roman history. It’s very accessible and not too stuffy or “academic.” 

Notable quotables;

“By tradition, the paterfamilias held the power of life and death over his household, both his relatives and his slaves. When a child was born, the midwife took the infant and placed it on the floor in front of the father. Should the father wish to acknowledge his paternity, he would lift the baby into his arms if it was a boy; if a girl, he would simply instruct that she be fed. Only after this ritual had taken place did the child receive his or her first nourishment.” (p.9)

“People killed themselves in many different ways and for many different reasons as they have always done throughout history. But there was, at least among the upper class and in military circles, what could be called a culture of suicide. In certain circumstances itw as the honorable thing to do, and had about it a certain gloomy glamour.” (p.37)

“After making a speech and presenting military awards and decorations, Caesar reviewed the troops. These were then marshaled in column of route, and Caesar mounted a gilded chariot. A slave stood on the chariot with him, to hold a golden crown above his head and say in his ear that he was mortal.” (p.40)

“Rome’s imperial success rested on a culture of military prowess. War was glorious. Young men were trained to inflict and to endure violent death and to value personal heroism above most other virtues.” (p.41)

“The gladiator shows had originated centuries before, as human sacrifices, conducted in the community’s most sacred space, the Forum. Before it became a public square, the Forum was a marshy area where the villagers who lived on the surrounding hills buried their dead.” (p.41)

“The worst penalty, for mutiny or collective cowardice before the enemy by a group of troops (usually a cohort), was decimation. One in ten men was chosen at random and the remainder clubbed them to death.” (p.70)

“Every century carried its standard (a pole with insignia or emblems at its top), and a legion was represented by a silver eagle, carried by the aquilifer, a special standard-bearer in a lion skin headdress. These standards embodied a collective pride and honor, and the loss of a legionary eagle was an irretrievable disgrace. In the concussion of battle the standard helped to orient soldiers by showing them where their military unit was.” (p.70)

“Octavian [Augustus] still found it hard to cope with the experience of battle, but when stung by opposition to him personally he did not hesitate to place his life at risk. For him, bravery was not an assertion of collective defiance and solidarity among colleagues, but a solitary, obstinate act of will.” (p.140) 

“A girl was considered ready for wedlock at about twelve, a boy at fourteen. Husband and wife must both have reached puberty. Children could be betrothed provided that they were old enough to understand what was being put to them–say, from seven upward.” (p.107)

“A Roman man, almost invariably locked into a marriage of convenience (although second or later unions often permitted a freer choice), did not suffer feelings of moral guild about sex, nor did he feel necessarily bound to any particular sexual object. He would not have understood modern terms such as ‘heterosexuality’ and ‘homosexuality,’ which categorize people as secual types. What he did was the issue, not what he was.” (p.149)

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