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13 January 2021

How Augustus rebuilt Rome

Why the age of Augustus still transfixes us.

By Tom Holland

The collapse of the Roman republic, and the establishment amid its rubble of the rule of the Caesars, constitutes the primal political narrative of the West. In 49 BC, a system of government founded on the conviction that the only conceivable alternative to liberty was death spectacularly imploded. The claim of Julius Caesar, the greatest general of his day, to a primacy over his fellow citizens resulted first in civil war, and then – after he had crushed his ­domestic foes as he had previously crushed the various tribes of Gaul – in his assassination. Two more murderous bouts of civil war followed. Assorted warlords struggled for supremacy.

By 31 BC, only one was left standing: Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son, Octavian. Four years later, by the unanimous vote of the Senate, he was granted a new name, one which served to distinguish him both from his past as a youthful ­terrorist, and as someone halfway to becoming a god: “Augustus is what our fathers call anything holy.” For more than four decades, he ruled supreme over the Roman world. It was an age of peace and plenitude. By AD 14, when Augustus finally died, few could remember the days of the free republic. The model of autocracy that he had constructed with such subtlety, patience and care had come to be taken for granted by almost everyone.

Augustus never ceased to be commemorated by the Romans as the first and greatest of their emperors: a ruler who had laid the vast edifice of Roman power on such solid and splendid foundations that still, long after its collapse in western Europe, it served barbarian kings as the great exemplar of an earthly dominion. The dream of restoring it – an empire transfigured into a form not merely Roman but holy – was one that haunted medieval Christendom.

Increasingly, however, the revival of civic self-government in Europe enabled people to view the Caesars through a different, more radical lens. The English, American and French revolutions were all consciously inspired by the example of the Roman republic. The opposites delineated by the narrative of its collapse – liberty and despotism, anarchy and order, republic and autocracy – came to provide the modern West with its political poles. No surprise, then, that perspectives on Augustus – in liberal democracies, at any rate – should have taken a progressively more sceptical turn. Writing in the late 1930s, the great ancient historian Ronald Syme saw in the rise to power of the Caesars a “Roman revolution”, a prefiguring of the age of the fascist and communist dictatorships. Mussolini and Hitler would not have disagreed. Both were obsessed by the example of Augustus. Nazi educationalists enshrined Rome’s first emperor as the very model of a Führer.

[See also: “What does it mean to be a black man in Britain?”: Courttia Newland on his latest novel and the struggle to get published]

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Today – although the classics may no longer boast the pre-eminence they once did – the events of the “Roman revolution” still enjoy a certain cut-through. One event in particular remains what it has been for more than two millennia now: the most famous assassination in Western history. We probably know more about the Ides of March, 44 BC, than any other day in Roman history. The details of Julius Caesar’s murder are vivid as only those that have been rehearsed in endless plays, films, cartoons and knife-racks can be vivid. Caesar himself – despite competition from John F Kennedy – still serves as the archetype of a murdered leader.

Even today, the issue of whether, as the Roman biographer Suetonius put it, “he abused his position of power and deserved to be slain” remains a live issue. Were his assassins defenders of republican liberty or were they, as the political scientist Michael Parenti argued in 2003, plutocrats conspiring against a man whose only crime had been to promote the interests of the people? More recently, in the summer of 2017, a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park riffed on an altogether more contemporary political figure. “A New York City play appears to depict President Trump being brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities,” screamed Fox News. Not at all, insisted a spokesperson for the production. “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.”

Peter Stothard’s new book on Caesar’s murder and its aftermath, The Last Assassin, eschews such direct parallels or allusions. There is no attempt to frame the conspiracy in terms of contemporary ideologies or concerns; no mention of Donald Trump. The world Stothard gives us is one that exists, not on our terms, but on its own. Does this render it antiquarian or remote? Not at all. The Last Assassin is the most immediate account of Caesar’s murder I have ever read.

Even though the outcome of the Ides of March is one everybody knows, Stothard manages to endow it with something of the urgency and tension of a thriller. He achieves this by placing the focus not on Caesar himself; nor on Brutus and Cassius, the two most celebrated assassins; nor on Antony, the henchman of Caesar who brought the tyrannicides to defeat in a great and terrible battle but ended up dead in Egypt beside a foreign queen; nor on Octavian, the youthful avenger who became Augustus; but on a man even classicists might struggle to identify. Cassius Parmensis was one of the more obscure assassins. He wrote poetry, none of which – barring, perhaps, a single line – has survived. He took to the seas after Caesar’s murder, and served under a succession of more celebrated warlords as the commander of a naval squadron, half freedom fighter, half pirate. Finally, after 14 years on the run, he was cornered in Athens. His killer stole one of his tragedies, and passed it off as his own. The erasure suffered by Cassius Parmensis was more than usually comprehensive.

Which is precisely what renders his story, in Stothard’s account of it, so unsettling. Cassius Parmensis was the last of Caesar’s assassins to perish, and the dread that stalks him, deepening as each one of his fellow plotters is successively dispatched, is brilliantly rendered. “Gaius Trebonius, commander for Caesar, publisher for Cicero, plotter on the Ides of March, was the first assassin to die.” Trebonius’s death – which came after two days of agonising torture on a rack – was a peculiarly revolting one; but all those that follow, all the various suicides, the deaths in battle, the executions, serve to generate their own cumulative horror.

[See also: The fall of the Roman republic is a warning about today’s degenerate populists]

If there is something of the drumbeat of a Tarantino movie about Stothard’s narrative, then so also is it hard to read it and not be reminded of today’s headlines: the dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi in an Istanbul consulate, the smearing of nerve agent on a Salisbury door handle. Stothard does not need to compare Octavian to Mohammed bin Salman or Vladimir Putin for his readers to glimpse in the distant and alien world of ancient Rome reflections of the 21st century. This is the distinctive quality of Roman history: it has, for so long, served as a mirror held up to the concerns and convulsions of subsequent ages, that it is almost impossible to read it and not discover paradigms in it.

“The future was not for him an enemy or a mirror of the past.” So Stothard writes about the man who would become Augustus. “It was an opportunity, it almost seemed his friend.” As astutely as any ruler who has ever lived, he knew how to channel the flux of things to his own ends. Finessing a reform to the calendar begun by Caesar, he named the month of July after his adoptive father, and had the month of August named after himself. There was more, however, to his bending and refashioning of time than this. He perfectly understood, two millennia before Orwell, that who controls the past controls the future, and that who controls the present controls the past. Roman tradition under his rule was streamlined, rewritten and, on occasion, fabricated. The Roman people themselves, by and large, did not object to this. Augustus’s claim to be restoring to them a moral greatness that had been left broken and bloodied by the brutal decades of civil war stirred in them deep sensibilities and imaginings.

These, at their profoundest, proved capable of inspiring writers whose poetry still, 2,000 years on, continues to be read and loved. Some of these poets appear in Stothard’s narrative: Horace, who fought with the tyrannicides and fled the battlefield; Propertius, who wrote of bones left scattered on Etruscan hills; Virgil, who evoked the misery of farmers deprived of their fields by Octavian’s land agents. All were reconciled in time to the new master of Rome; all wrote in praise of him; all, in their poetry, bore witness to the tensions, ambivalences and paradoxes of the age.

The most celebrated of these literary monuments to the pax Augusta was also the most complex. Virgil, like Augustus, knew how to make play with time. The Aeneid, the great epic of the Roman people, was an exploration both of their primordial origins and of their recent history. Aeneas, a refugee from the sack of Troy, sails the seas in the rootless manner of Cassius Parmensis. Shipwrecked off the African coast, he neglects his god-given duties to the future of Rome by dallying with Dido, the queen of Carthage – just as Antony had done with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. Descending into the underworld, he is shown famous figures out of Rome’s future. Among them, inevitably, is “Augustus Caesar, born of gods”. What is gone and what is to come both cast their shadows, one on the other, meeting, merging, separating again.

The eeriness of the Aeneid has never ceased to haunt its readers. By the second century AD, emperors were convinced they could glimpse the future in its lines. Dante cast Virgil as his guide through the underworld. Hermann Broch, writing his great novel The Death of Virgil in the shadow of the Second World War, fashioned an extended meditation on the relationship of art to power out of the ancient report that Virgil, as he lay dying, had ordered his great epic be burned. The Aeneid is a poem that, ever since it was written, has been continuously read, reinterpreted, reworked. That, too, is part of its magic – a magic that has seemed to many something literal.


To translate it, then, is to contribute to a 2,000-year-old tradition. The best translations are true simultaneously to both Virgil’s age and to the translator’s own; they echo Virgil himself by fashioning a dialogue between past and present. Shadi Bartsch’s new version of the poem is a demonstration of just how brilliantly this can be done. She is alert to the alien in Virgil’s text as only a scholar in the 21st century could be. Her gaze is that of a feminist, a post-modernist, a student of post-colonialism. At the same time, however, her translation is free of any hint of condescension.

We became like wolves,/prowling in night fog, mere bellies driven by/harsh hunger, our pups with parched throats/waiting in their dens.

So Aeneas describes his passage through Troy as the city burns. Bartsch’s rendering of the Latin is vivid and haunting exactly as the original is vivid and haunting. The compact quality of Roman poetry is almost impossible to replicate in English, but this would be hard to guess from Bartsch’s translation. Consistently, she tracks Virgil’s lines with a quite astonishing degree of precision. “Num capti potuere capi?” an angry Juno demands at one point. “Be kept in captivity when they’d been captured?” is Cecil Day-Lewis’s translation. “So, couldn’t they stay/defeated in defeat?” is how Robert Fagles renders the line. “Why won’t these losers lose?” With that, Bartsch wins hands down. Not only witty, her version actually contains fewer syllables than the original Latin phrase. It is a feat of concision that she succeeds in replicating throughout her rendering of the epic. There is nothing in her version of the flab and verbosity that Virgil so often seems to foster in his translators. Spare, clear and always true to the text, Bartsch’s Aeneid provides a model of how to render Latin poetry in English.

[See also: Why George Orwell would be more sympathetic to vegetarianism today]

It is a happy accident of the publishing schedule that a formidable translation of Virgil should coincide with a masterly introduction to the second great epic poet of the Augustan age. “Ovid’s relationship with Virgil’s poetry,” writes Llewelyn Morgan in his short but eye opening book, “was one of rivalry as well as respect” – and if the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s longest and most influential poem, ranks less obviously as an epic than does the Aeneid, then that is because, as one Roman critic disapprovingly sniffed, he was “mischievous even when writing poetry about heroes”. Mischievous, too, when it came to tweaking the tail of autocracy.

Ovid, who was born one year after Caesar’s assassination and lived his entire adult life under Augustus’s rule, was witty, urbane and sophisticated as perhaps only someone enjoying the fruits of peace in a flourishing imperial metropolis ever can be. The great dramas of Augustus’s youth – the murder of Caesar, the collapse of the Roman world into civil war, the struggle to set it on secure foundations – were so much ancient history to Ovid. He viewed the traditional values promoted by the emperor not merely as unfashionable but as faintly comical. In the end, though, Augustus had the last laugh. Ovid was dispatched into exile. Not only that, but his place of banishment was located in a warzone. Augustus, as Morgan points out, had his own sense of humour.

“There can only be true originality in the presence of established rules.” Morgan’s apophthegm brilliantly sums up the entire achievement of the Augustan age. Augustus, Virgil, Ovid: all of them, in their very different ways, achieved radical effects by making play with the standards of a highly conservative culture. These radical effects then, by a further paradox, served to provide the standards for centuries to come. “If Ovid can seem at times to us in the 21st century a compellingly modern and contemporary voice,” Morgan writes, “so he did in the 16th, 12th, and back in the first.” Conversely, the measure of his enduring influence is that much that was distinctive and original in the Metamorphoses has been so taken for granted over the course of the millennia that Ovid’s epic today defines what we tend to think of as “Greek mythology”.

This interplay between conservatism and radicalism, between tradition and originality, between ancient and modern – fundamental as it always was to Augustan culture – has been fundamental as well to the enduring fascination that the period has exerted over posterity. The evidence of the three books reviewed here – a history, a translation, and a work of literary criticism – suggests it will be as well served in the 21st century as it has ever been. l

Tom Holland’s books include “Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar” (Abacus)

The Last Assassin: The Hunt  for the Killers of Julius Caesar
By Peter Stothard
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 288pp, £20

The Aeneid
Translated by Shadi Bartsch
Profile, 464pp, £16.99

Ovid: A Very Short Introduction 
by Llewelyn Morgan
Oxford University Press, 144pp, £8.99

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war