Friday, July 12, 2013

Imperator Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Divi Filius Augustus

At the beginning of June I wrote of Doppelgangers and Mana Personalities, saying that figuring out with which characters - historical, literary, within your own stories - you identify can help clarify your (I should say "my") sense of identity.

To that end, I recently read a biography of Augustus Caesar (full name above). This is going to be one of those self-indulgent personal posts, but if you read on you get to find out about one of history's bamfs. So that's something.

All quotes/information from Anthony Everitt's Augustus.


I identify more with "Octavian" than "Augustus" - by Octavian I mean Augustus in his early adulthood, between Julius Caesar's assassination and his defeat (spoilers!) of Antony and Cleopatra. Thoughts loosely chronological.

Assassination of Julius Caesar
(Apologies: I could not find the name of the artist who created this painting.)

Octavian was not a boss soldier like Julius, or Marc Antony, or even his closest friend Agrippa. In fact, in his first few battles he gained a reputation for cowardly behavior and in the early years of the Second Triumvirate was clearly less powerful/more junior than Antony. He had been sickly as a child and in times of stress - such as before battles - often fell ill.

"For [Octavian], bravery was not an assertion of collective defiance and solidarity among colleagues but a solitary, obstinate act of will" (140). I see from this quote why people have classified Augustus as an INTJ. While I acknowledge the usefulness of esprit de corps, personal will to power is more striking. See: conservation of ninjutsu.

Complacency = eklusis, the unstringing of a bow - Marc Antony losing focus after his big victory over the republicans who slew Julius Caesar. Contrast Octavian’s “slow, undeviating pursuit of mastery” (206) - take your time, focus, succeed. He was not as ambitious as Julius; yet he was the one who attained and, more importantly, kept power.

Roman Forum
To gain popularity back in Rome, Octavian updated infrastructure and put in place systems that kept the populace happy.

Octavian surrounded himself with good people, such as Agrippa (boss soldier, see above; see also Battle of Actium) and Maecenas (PR guy). He recognized what his strengths and weaknesses were, and had other people around who could make up for the latter.

When he wanted something, he would get it in the end with persistence; Marc Antony underestimated him, did not treat him as a worthy opponent until he was. He got what he wanted thanks to himself; he knew how to take what was his, or what might be his.

Sunken Ruins of Alexandria
Octavian’s victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra made me really, ridiculously happy. I don’t even know why, though I feel the Apollo v. Dionysus dichotomy had something to do with it. Apollo v. Dionysus: Octavian v. Marc Antony. Reason v. emotion; the logical power-hungry ambitious upstart v. the hedonistic successful confident general.

Were this blog big enough to generate controversy I’d probably have to fend off arguments that Octavian represented masculinity/yang/the West beating down on femininity/yin/the Orient. I’m not sure how I’d respond to such accusations, except to say that reason is not the province solely of males and that Marc Antony was, I’m pretty sure, a man. Though in the end, it was Octavian dealing with Cleopatra.

Octavius Caesar and Cleopatra, by Anton Raphael Mengs
After beating Antony + Cleopatra, Octavian became Augustus. His political reforms, which included creating a bureaucracy, were oddly enough awesome. Goal: to “improve the honesty and efficiency of imperial administration” (231) - censuses so taxes would be fair, improving roads/relay stations so communications would be faster, establishing firefighter and police systems; “streamlining the legislative and decision-making process” (234).

Delegate! Give more people more responsibilities - people will do something well if they feel that it’s important, that it matters somehow (contrast: busy work). Even a bureaucracy is good if the alternative is inefficiency and corruption.

Phrase describing his wife Livia: simplex munditiis, or “simple in her elegance”

Suetonius on Augustus’s study, as quoted by Everitt:
“Whenever he wanted to be alone and free of interruptions, he could retreat to a study at the top of the house, which he nicknamed ‘Syracuse’ [perhaps alluding to the workroom of Archimedes, the great Syracusan mathematician and experimental scientist] or ‘my little workshop’” (245).
Every good study should be a retreat (declares the introvert).

Palatine Hill
“[Augustus] was always afraid of saying too much, or too little. So he not only carefully drafted his speeches to the Senate…but he also wrote down in advance any important statement he planned to make to an individual, and even to Livia (it says something of her own clerical tidy-mindedness that she kept and filed all Augustus’ written communications with her)” (250).
I do the same thing, if I can. I’d rather email or message someone than talk to them in person, partly because I don’t like the sound of my voice (I mumble) and partly because in writing my message down the meaning becomes clearer to me. Calling people on phones is one of my least favorite activities in the world. I’d rather eat a pepper (I loathe peppers) than call someone.

Moderate living in food and exercise lets a man with fragile health outlive more physically fit peers. Careful planning of your rise to power helps too.

Augustus’s palace at Pandateria: small valley with fountains and “a colonnaded portico with seats [which] created a pleasant spot for conversation” (256), stairs up to the main house “shaped like a horseshoe with a garden in the middle; it contained dining rooms, a bathing complex, and other living spaces. At the tip of the promontory, a viewing platform offered an uninterrupted panorama of sky and sea” (256-7).
A refuge of the highest order. Simple living is probably made easier knowing that when you need it, you can go somewhere beautiful and look at the sea.

Island in Tyrrhenian Sea
Towards the end of his life Augustus started to lose his touch, in my opinion. Thinking too much of his dynasty, wanting too much to keep power in the family…manipulating his children and stepchildren and grandchildren and basically everyone with whom he shared even a drop of blood. Denying other people their will to power, especially when the situation is basically that of a parent trying to force his children to follow his footsteps, leaves a terrible taste in my mouth.

I have never fully embraced the phrase “blood is thicker than water”. Nepotism deliberately undermines meritocracy and, worse yet, sounds almost legitimate because only a horrible person doesn’t care more about their family than other people, right? “Bloom where you’re planted” likewise makes me gnash my teeth. However, I am digressing. Reroute.

Roman Aqueducts
As Octavian, the underdog, our man commends himself through his focus, determination, and hard work. As Augustus the princeps (first citizen), his public life turned Rome, as the saying goes, from clay to marble. As Augustus the paterfamilias, he slipped up - but I’m guessing that a lot of people have messed up judgment when the subject is the people close to them.

It seems, then, that when he was working toward personal glory or the good of the state, all was well, but when he turned clannish things started to fall apart. That is indeed a lesson for me: champion individuals because of who they are, not what they are, and keep an eye on the big picture. “Big” meaning, in this case, empires.

Ara Pacis


  1. this was such a beautiful post, thank you for the history lesson and your input. Of course i'm on your side of the dichotomy.

    p.s. calling Maecenas the PR guy just cracked me up

    1. Hurrah, I'm glad you liked it. :) I think the author of the book actually called him that somewhere (probably in more academic language), but I couldn't find it when I went back.