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Augustus: The Biography

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Born to a plebeian family in 63 BC, Octavian was a young solder training abroad when he heard news of Julius Caesar's brutal assassination - and discovered that he was the dictator's sole political heir. With the opportunism and instinct for propaganda that were to characterize his rule, Octavian rallied huge financial, military and political backing to eliminate his oppon Born to a plebeian family in 63 BC, Octavian was a young solder training abroad when he heard news of Julius Caesar's brutal assassination - and discovered that he was the dictator's sole political heir. With the opportunism and instinct for propaganda that were to characterize his rule, Octavian rallied huge financial, military and political backing to eliminate his opponents, end the bloody turmoil that had so long wracked Rome and, finally, take autocratic control of a state devoted to republicanism. He became Augustus - Rome's first Emperor, and the founder of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. In this monumental biography, translated into English for the first time by Anthea Bell, Jochen Bleicken tells the story of a man who found himself a demi-god in his own lifetime and paints a portrait of one of the most dramatic periods of Roman history.


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Born to a plebeian family in 63 BC, Octavian was a young solder training abroad when he heard news of Julius Caesar's brutal assassination - and discovered that he was the dictator's sole political heir. With the opportunism and instinct for propaganda that were to characterize his rule, Octavian rallied huge financial, military and political backing to eliminate his oppon Born to a plebeian family in 63 BC, Octavian was a young solder training abroad when he heard news of Julius Caesar's brutal assassination - and discovered that he was the dictator's sole political heir. With the opportunism and instinct for propaganda that were to characterize his rule, Octavian rallied huge financial, military and political backing to eliminate his opponents, end the bloody turmoil that had so long wracked Rome and, finally, take autocratic control of a state devoted to republicanism. He became Augustus - Rome's first Emperor, and the founder of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. In this monumental biography, translated into English for the first time by Anthea Bell, Jochen Bleicken tells the story of a man who found himself a demi-god in his own lifetime and paints a portrait of one of the most dramatic periods of Roman history.

30 review for Augustus: The Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ada

    I was sorely tempted to give 'Augustus: The Biography' three stars. I would have commented that it would have been a four-star book had it been titled 'The History of Rome under Augustus'. But in the end, I couldn't do it ... The last few chapters are too gripping and the entire book is excellently researched. Be warned, however - there are many sections of Jochen Bleicken's biography of Octavian that are far from being an easy read. I am not a trained historian, so perhaps that's why I was surp I was sorely tempted to give 'Augustus: The Biography' three stars. I would have commented that it would have been a four-star book had it been titled 'The History of Rome under Augustus'. But in the end, I couldn't do it ... The last few chapters are too gripping and the entire book is excellently researched. Be warned, however - there are many sections of Jochen Bleicken's biography of Octavian that are far from being an easy read. I am not a trained historian, so perhaps that's why I was surprised at how few historical quotations are actually used in the text (they are all hidden away in the notes to the text, and even there they are often simply numerical references to the original sources). There are not many anecdotes and there's precious little told of Augustus's personal life. Yet, all the same, I would heartily recommend sections of the book to those who are interested in learning more about the life of the first emperor. The notes section alone will prove invaluable and a chronology, genealogical trees, and further reading are also provided. This book is clearly targeted at people who are serious about wanting to learn more of ancient Rome. The chapter on 'Cicero and Octavian against Antony' outlines a section of Octavian's life that few people are aware of - his alliance with Cicero and the senate against Mark Anthony. Bleicken is clear to underline that Octavian's success was not due to any particular military prowess, but was mainly a question of luck. Indeed, in the section on the triumvirate which describes Octavian's involvement in the proscription lists as well as his responsibility for the resettlements which meant that hundreds of thousands of people were left dispossessed of their property in a time of famine, Augustus comes across as a military tyrant with no consideration other than the security of his rule. He does not come across much better in his encouragement of the marriage law which forced childless couples to divorce and made it very difficult for men without at least three children to achieve senatorial rank. It was a particularly hypocritical law given that Augustus's own marriage was childless. Nevertheless, Bleicken makes it clear in the last few chapters that Augustus is to be honoured for the creation of a political system that made ancient Rome what it was, for better or for worse. Some of the most interesting chapters of the book (at least for me) are those in which Bleicken allowed himself to tell the scandalous bits of Augustus's story- for example when Augustus married Livia she was pregnant with her previous husband's child and his own previous wife was pregnant with his own. Bleicken is quick to dismiss the allegations of Livia and Tiberius's political assassinations, but he does judge Augustus's conduct in his exile of both his daughter and his granddaughter and grandson (both Julias were accused of adultery and dismissed from the emperor's presence, whereas Agrippa Postumus was probably only guilty of being too young to succeed the princeps and was disposed of very quickly by Tiberius after his succession). It is telling, however, that some of the books most enjoyable chapters are not really concerned with Augustus himself. Bleicken seems very fond of Augustus's close friend and loyal follower Agrippa, who was a talented military man as well as an excellent manager. Agrippa was the person responsible for the construction of a great many roads, aqueducts and the enlargening and cleansing of the Cloaca Maxima. Another fascinating character in the life of Augustus is the son of Livia from a previous marriage, Drusus (Tiberius's younger brother). He is the man responsible for exploring and conquering Germania in the name of Rome. He died, aged 29, of the consequences of a broken ankle. His son, Claudius (his mother was the child of Augustus's sister, Octavia) would become one of the Rome's most capable emperors. I reached for the biography of Augustus because I had read histories from Cleopatra's perspective and Octavian had always come across as rather dull. When I was visiting Rome I saw the remnants of the house of Augustus on the Palatine and I was impressed by the Apollinic motifs that he chose to represent himself with (as opposed to his enemy's Bacchus). I was equally fascinated by his insistence on keeping a simple lifestyle despite his enormous powers. After reading Bleicken's biography I had to admit I was rather disappointed with Octavian - he felt more like a 20th-century totalitarian dictator than the noble Roman I thought I had encountered. Even Mark Antony had gained more importance, at least Bleichen portrays him as an able general. Mark Antony's wife and Augustus's sister, Octavia became even more of a subject of admiration: she tried to reconcile her husband and her brother and after the war with Cleopatra she brought up Alexandros Helios, Ptolemaios and Cleopatra Selene. Octavian Augustus, in my assessment, was a lucky man and a good judge of character with an insatiable hunger for power and a good propaganda machine. As such, he is perhaps not as inspiring as we would like a leader to be. But perhaps that's the point. He was capable, not inspiring. The Roman citizens appreciated the fact that he brought stability into a highly dangerous world. His successors found it hard to repeat that achievement.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Tomas Riklius

    The word ‘biography’ in the title is a bit misleading. Bleicken presents Augustus in the first and very last chapters but otherwise the book is concerned about Rome in the times of Augustus. Of course, in the defense to the author, it should be taken into consideration that political context is extremely important when outlining the biography of Augustus. All in all, I personally find this book a pure joy of 770 pages, a masterful rendition of the early principate

  3. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Dockrill

    "You owe everything to your name boy" Mark Antony Echoing what most reviewers have already said about this book on Augustus - it is in fact not a biography. This book is more along the lines as already mentioned more like "Rome Under the reign of Augustus". That would have irritated me if it had not been for how good this book was. The book starts out with the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March and describes what Gaius Octavian did after that point and how he eventually came to outsmart "You owe everything to your name boy" Mark Antony Echoing what most reviewers have already said about this book on Augustus - it is in fact not a biography. This book is more along the lines as already mentioned more like "Rome Under the reign of Augustus". That would have irritated me if it had not been for how good this book was. The book starts out with the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March and describes what Gaius Octavian did after that point and how he eventually came to outsmart Mark Antony and his admiral Marcus Vipsania Agrippa defeated him at Actium and eventually drove Antony to kill himself along with Cleopatra. Bleicken very clearly is an expert in his topic and writes in a very engaging manner while remaining very matter of fact about his style. The book covers everything from peeling back the layers of Augustus government and had brilliant he was as a politician and a military despot which is essentially all he was. But it also showed just how intelligent Augustus was with finding the balance between controlling Rome and putting laws with the help of his close group called the consilium while keeping the Senate still believing that they had any real say in the matter and ensuring they believed this farce. Lots of this book also brought back fond memories of my Roman classes at University when I learned how he had such control over the army as an administrator that he made sure all of the coins he had made and his face on them so when the soldiers were given their pay, they knew exactly who they had to thank. All in all the book was very good, it is likely in the running for one of the best biographies I have read this year or have in my collection but I can certainly appreciate why someone would not like it as much as I did as the book really doesn't even talk about Augustus in a biographical sense- instead, spends its time focusing more on how he ran the government and how Rome as a result came to control much of the West and parts of the East.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sam Eccleston

    This book is difficult to review. It has many fascinating passages; Bleicken is clearly a master historian. The problem with it is it's length; one feels that most of the chapters could be made significantly shorter without any of their import being lost. The author's style is like that of many German stylists: curiously ponderous, with a lot of seemingly pointless repetition. Additionally, while you get a real sense of what it was that Augustus did, you get very little sense of how or why. In ot This book is difficult to review. It has many fascinating passages; Bleicken is clearly a master historian. The problem with it is it's length; one feels that most of the chapters could be made significantly shorter without any of their import being lost. The author's style is like that of many German stylists: curiously ponderous, with a lot of seemingly pointless repetition. Additionally, while you get a real sense of what it was that Augustus did, you get very little sense of how or why. In other words, the man himself is obscured by his deeds; what was it about him that allowed him to exercise such influence? Was he charming or intimidating? Was he a master of back-room deals, blackmail, or was he just lucky? We are given very little sense of what the answers to these questions might be in most of the book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Emilia Bennett

    An overall very informative and balanced overview of the life of Augustus. Though the language is almost definitely too heavy for the casual reader, I would 100% recommend it for any classicist who wants to delve a little deeper into the subject (or simply refresh their memory).

  6. 4 out of 5

    Peter Briggs

    Extremely informative and clear.

  7. 5 out of 5

    William Southwell-Wright

    4.5

  8. 5 out of 5

    Joshua Jacobs

    Excellent book. First and foremost, it should be noted that this is not a biography, whatever the title says. It starts during the Ides of March so, as one commenter has said, is just 'A History of Rome Under Augustus'. Nevertheless the book is excellently researched, and just as well-written (though somewhat bizarrely all the notes are unnumbered in the actual body of the text, which I've never come across before). Highly recommend. Excellent book. First and foremost, it should be noted that this is not a biography, whatever the title says. It starts during the Ides of March so, as one commenter has said, is just 'A History of Rome Under Augustus'. Nevertheless the book is excellently researched, and just as well-written (though somewhat bizarrely all the notes are unnumbered in the actual body of the text, which I've never come across before). Highly recommend.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Tadej Tuma

    The book is very well researched. The writing is sober and matter-of-fact. No stories, no fiction. There is lots of small details about life in roman times under the emperor Augustus. Some things were not interesting to me personally so I skipped some chapters, but then again other chapters were highly interesting.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tom Bennett

    With a translation by Anthea Bell, I was expecting a well-written book and I certainly wasn't disappointed. This is a fascinating, detailed, look at the life and achievements of Augustus. I have learned an awful lot and am glad that I persevered through some of the heavier sections of the book. With a translation by Anthea Bell, I was expecting a well-written book and I certainly wasn't disappointed. This is a fascinating, detailed, look at the life and achievements of Augustus. I have learned an awful lot and am glad that I persevered through some of the heavier sections of the book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Henry Evans

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kay Park

  13. 5 out of 5

    Marshall

  14. 4 out of 5

    Seb Clarke

  15. 5 out of 5

    James

  16. 5 out of 5

    James

  17. 4 out of 5

    Joe Schneider

  18. 5 out of 5

    Roisin

  19. 5 out of 5

    Andy

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

  21. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin King

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sidney Powell

  23. 4 out of 5

    Oscar Osorio

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lee Hall

  25. 4 out of 5

    Zaldarie

  26. 5 out of 5

    Britt

  27. 5 out of 5

    CITI

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bernd Mustermann

  29. 4 out of 5

    Declan Burke

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jack Reid

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