Book Review: Augustus: The Biography


by Jochen Bleicken

London: Penguin Random House UK / Chicago: Trafalgar Square, 2016. Pp. vi, 778. Maps, chron., stemma, notes, append., biblio., index. $26.95 paper. ISBN: 0140294821

Rome’s First and Greatest Emperor

Originally published in Germany in 1998, the late Prof. Bleicken’s life of Augustus was widely hailed as an outstanding achievement, but has only recently been rendered into English, they only one of his many notable works in ancient history to have been translated. As much a “life and times” as a true biography – if only because much of Augustus’ life shaped the times – Bleicken provides an enormous amount of information on the man and the events which shaped his career and which he helped shape.

Bleicken opens with a quick look at events leading up to Caesar’s dictatorship, and his assassination. He devoted about a third of the work to the rise of Augustus – or Octavian as we have come to know him during this period– from relative obscurity to overlord of the Roman world, during which he competed with some of the most able men in Roman history. Although he does try to put Octavian in the best light, Bleicken doesn’t shy away from his often extraordinary brutality during his climb to sole power.

The balance of the book deals with Octavian’s construction of the principate, which earned him the honorific “Augustus,” during which he grew from a highly successful thug to a rather brilliant organizer and ruler. Bleiken covers Augustus’ expansion of the empire, bringing more territory under Roman rule than anyone else ever, and does a particularly good job of sorting through the complexities of the succession through to the death of Augustus. Throughout the book, Bleicken often offers very detailed accounts of military operations, such as in his look at the campaign of Actium, in which he carefully analyses the course of events, and discusses some of Antony’s “missed opportunities.”

This is an excellent work, well worth reading for anyone seriously interested in Roman history.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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