Augustus - Allan Massie

Allan Massie
Sceptre Publishers
ISBN: 0340412240 (Amazon link)

It's been a while since I read something which treated the magnificently rich history of the Roman Empire as anything other than a backdrop, and although I prefer my detectives in togas, I was looking out for something meatier, something more like Robert Graves' I, Claudius, or Gore Vidal's Julian, both of which are favourites of mine. I found something almost, but not quite, as good - Allan Massie's Augustus is the fictional biography of one of the more interesting figures in Roman history, but one who gets neglected in fiction simply because much of what he accomplished in stabilising Rome was without fuss or massive military effort, but due rather to solid civil administration ... hardly riveting stuff despite its historic importance. However, as usual with history, a quick dig into the personal lives reveals enough colour to satisfy anyone. Augustus is very much about Augustus the man, rather than the history as such, and this lends the book much of its strength. It is written in two halves, each introduced in a mock-serious tone by a modern scholar - an unnecessary flourish in my opinion - with book one being an optimistic account of his rise to power following the civil wars and the death of Casear. Book two is much darker and cynical, and involves not the fall of Augustus, but the fall rather of the succession he desperately tried to put in place for his beloved empire. Often painful to read, this is by far the better half of the book, with the aged Augustus trying to come to terms with the disparity between what he has achieved for his country, and his own familial disappointments and tragedies. "No man has been more fortunate than I. I have often thought that. Yet I have never forgotten the proverb: "Call no man fortunate until he is dead". And in the years since my day of Triumph on which I ended the first volume of these memoirs, I have known bitter misfortunes, cruel disappointment. I have learned that Fate never smiles with constant benignity on any man. We must pay for our fortune, and often the price is such as to make achievement taste like cold ashes and sour wine. O Varus, give me back my legions! " Augustus is a wonderful book, despite some jarring anachronisms in phrasing, and I'm off to order the sequels, Caesar and Tiberius , now.

Posted: Sun - July 20, 2003 at 09:38 PM