Interview Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy1Hereditas Nexus was able to interview Adrian Goldsworthy in the Embassy Hotel in Amsterdam, because his latest book Augustus is coming out in a Dutch translation this week. Earlier this week we published the first part of this interview about Goldsworthy’s fascination with the Romans and his upcoming book Pax Romana. In this follow-up we focus on his book of Augustus. As a cherry on top of the cake, Goldsworthy also tells about his next project about Philip II of Macedonia and Alexander the Great.

Q Now let’s talk about your book about Augustus. In your introduction you state that there wasn’t a good complete biography of Augustus. What new insights does your book present on the life and times of emperor Augustus as opposed to the already existing literature?For example the books by John Williams and Anthony Everitt.
A They are fine, but with Everitt in particular you get the impression that Augustus lives up to about 30 BC and beats Antony and then suddenly is an old man, wondering who is going to succeed him. The thirty, forty years in between is just gone. There are good books, I’m not trying to say that everything that is written before is terrible and that my book is better. I think it’s very useful to go back and a sort of traditional, old fashioned way writing history and that’s biography, where you stick very closely to the chronology and it’s presented as a narrative. So that you emphasize where a person is at each stage of his life and what they’re doing. You can read biographies about Julius Caesar and because the author isn’t really interested in the military side, skip over Gaul and yet the last third of his life was spend with the army on campaign. That experience is very different than being in Rome, in the politics. It is bound to affect the way someone behaves. What they’re capable of doing as well. With Augustus that’s important. One of the things that surprised me the most about it… When I was a student, I was taught about Augustus, I taught courses about Augustus and I’ve read a lot. It had not really come home to me how much he has travelled. I always think of Hadrian as the emperor traveller, but Augustus after Actium spends more time away from Italy than actually there, let alone in Rome. He visits every province of the Empire, usually more than once. That sense of someone who even when they’re into their sixties and early seventies and has never been that healthy a man, never been that robust, spends all that time traveling, going from place to place. That means that people who want to see him, have to travel to where he is. You hear about an embassy from India arriving when he is in Tarragona, in Spain, in the twenties BC. You start to get a very different sense of the world. In a curious way which I didn’t push too far in the book, but there’s almost a sense like the emperors of the later third and fourth centuries AD, constantly on the move without really a capital or such. Even to the sense when he has someone like Agrippa or Tiberius and Drusus doing the same thing somewhere else. Someone who is more senior than governors, who has given the power to go on this constantly. That I didn’t expect, it made me realise how much of what we think that is the normal rule of an emperor really is set by Tiberius, who is old and doesn’t want to travel and who eventually goes to Capri and retreats all together. You tend when you’re teaching students, you tend to love everything together. You start with the Principate, Augustus comes along and then everything is the same up to Septimus Severus. The differences are considerable.  That sort of thing was useful. You don’t necessarily see it, unless you’re looking at what he’s doing and where he is. So I think that’s worth doing.

Q And what, in your opinion, was the key to his success?
A There are a lot. The first one the Romans would admit is that Julius Caesar is responsible for his luck. Augustus is lucky. Things don’t always work for him, but he managed to survive, he learns from them and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. But again, you have to remember how long of a career he has. When I was teaching, even when I was teaching first year students at university, you had to look at them and say that Augustus is younger than you when Caesar was murdered. Can you possibly imagine going off, raising an army and plunging yourself into a civil war and saying ‘I’m going to be the supreme man of the state’ on your nineteenth birthday. Again, it’s hard to remember. We usually just see him as one of this great people from Antiquity and he just did this things. The confidence, the belief in himself and that he just could get away with it, you can understand no one took him seriously first. Cicero: ‘just a kid’, Mark Antony: ‘a boy who owes everything to a name’. it is staggering that enough people believed in him and believed in the money he had to pay them. They rallied to him as soldiers, they fought for him and he kept winning. Rome is, even more than the modern world, a society structured around age. You can’t start for the consulship till you’re forty-two. He hasn’t done anything, he has no experience. He doesn’t know how to lead an army, he doesn’t know how to conduct himself into politics, he’s still pretty much at school. The behaviour then is different of the behaviour of the middle-aged, the older Augustus. The situation is different. At that first stage, that murderous rise to power, because he does kill a lot of people. He is ruthless, no more or no less ruthless than all the others out there, but it still doesn’t justify what he’s doing. So I think there is the incredible self-belief. He considers himself special: ‘I’m going to do this’. A part of it, is his instinct to gamble: I throw the dice and will come up in my favour or I’ll do it again. The belief that I’m bound to win. He’s very good in taking an opportunity. When you think that this is the man who fights against Mark Antony and a few months later makes an alliance with him when it’s convenient and fights the people he has just been allied with. In later life of course you have the final confrontation with Antony. His opportunism, he seizes the moment which is good for him now, OK then he does it and it gets him a bit further along. But even so before he’s twenty he belongs to the three most important men of the Roman world. That adds to the confidence that he thinks he’s destined to do this. There’s a story that a comet appears in the sky and publicly he explains it as Caesar rising up to heaven and becoming a god. Privately he thinks it’s a sign of his destiny. The one thing that we probably can all remember from when we were young, is that sense that the world revolves around us, that we can’t get hurt, that it will all work out and I can do anything. When we get older and things don’t necessarily work out, this changes. But even with those standards, it’s remarkable. He clearly has a skill in politics. He makes mistakes. His first visit to Rome when he turns up with a few hundreds of soldiers, declares he’s going to be Caesars’ heir. Nobody rallies to join him, the  soldiers start deserting and he gets it wrong, makes a mistake and tries something else. There is an unfortunate contrast, a sort of Shakespearian courage, it’s there in Plutarchs life on Mark Antony. We see Antony as the hard drinking, the womanizer, the colourful and lively, but basically as a bit simple. The young Augustus, Octavianus, Caesar, call him what you would like, he’s the dull one, the quiet one, the one who’s always plotting. In Hollywood, whether it’s the old Cleopatra movie, it’s the HBO Rome series he’s a coldly, calculating and disturbing child. When you look at what he’s been doing at this time and how he’s behaving, actually he behaves far more like you expect a twenty-year old that has suddenly become one of the top men in the world. The marriage to Livia is very strange. To make her husband divorce her while she’s pregnant, wait for her to give birth and then within days marries her and make the former husband stand in as the father and he ends up giving her away. It’s what you would expect from a Nero, a Mark Antony, not from the supposedly cold and calculating Augustus. He’s only in his twenties and Livia is only nineteen. Again, they seem like a few kids who think ‘we’re so special that we can do anything. The rules don’t apply to us’. They gave a feast where they and their friends dressed up like gods and goddesses in a time of famine. Again, there are lot of stories from these years that just don’t fit that nice stereotype of the dull, quiet, but very clever one. He’s passionate, he’s irrational, he’s reckless. We’ve got a quote from Martial, the poet later on, that he wrote obscene poetry and published it. This is not what you expect. So the young Augustus, like many of us when we’re young, is not quite the same as the one who’s a bit older. If we force it all into one, we lose this, we don’t get a sense of what he was really like. It explains more why many people didn’t like him. It’s not because he’s seen as cold and calculating, but actually because he was seen as reckless, irrational and ruthless. Prone to temper, prone to all these things. That period is very interesting, but then it changes.
The Augustus of after Actium, after 27 BC, is more restrained, but is still a very young man by Roman standards. He controls the state, because he’s got a much bigger army than anyone else, he kills his way to power. The fact that he stops from time to time, doesn’t mean he can’t start again. Decades go by before you have the elder statesman, the father of Italy. In the beginning a lot of people probably didn’t like him, but you only have to read the poets you see people were just desperate for peace, stability. You had decades of civil war, you had revolution, you had Sulla, no one could really remember a time that things were properly, when there wasn’t a risk that politics could become violently. It might been that you were caught up by it, because you needed to fight for some cause. While there weren’t really causes. Brutus and Cassius proclaim liberty, but they’re bribing their soldiers and confiscating property. The rest of the time there were civil wars purely about power. There’s not any ideology involved, no official commitment to a cause. People just wanted peace. They wanted to know if they owned a farm, if they still owned it the next year and it won’t be confiscated by some soldiers. They don’t want their city sacked, they don’t want their wife killed, they just want stability. They want to return to the world of law and that’s something he provides. I think that as long as anybody provided that Rome would have been supportive, because the alternative was worse. There isn’t the same spirit as in 44 BC with Julius Caesars’ assignation. People see that when you kill one dictator all that you end up with is civil war. You don’t want to go back to that. The Augustus of those years is, again, different. I thought there was room to look at each stage of his life in more detail, rather than do a bit and then jump on. I didn’t want to do this too thematically, although there are some sections of the chapters where I look at how Augustus did a particular thing. Often, because the information of Suetonius isn’t dated, you hear a lot about how he conducted business, how he lived, what he ate, that sort of thing, but you don’t know from which year any of these stories come from. I think it needed this sense of detail, in order to fill in those decades as well. Just what was going on and how much changes. The changes to his position, the changes in the wa