Augustus. The life and times of the founder of the Roman Empire (B.C. 63-A.D. 14)/Preface

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Augustus has been much less attractive to biographers than Iulius[1]; perhaps because the soldier is more interesting than the statesman ; perhaps because the note of genius conspicuous in the Uncle was wanting in the Nephew. Yet Augustus was the most successful ruler known to us. He found his world, as it seemed, on the verge of complete collapse. He evoked order out of chaos ; got rid one after the other of every element of opposition ; established what was practically a new form of government without too violent a breach with the past ; breathed fresh meaning into old names and institutions, and could stand forth as a reformer rather than an innovator, while even those who lost most by the change were soothed into submission without glaring loss of self-respect. He worked ceaselessly to maintain the order thus established, and nearly every part of his great empire had reason to be grateful for increased security, expanding prosperity, and added amenity of life. Nor can it be said that he reaped the credit due in truth to ministers. He had excellent ministers and agents, with abilities in this or that direction superior to his own ; but none who could take his place as a whole. He was the centre from which their activities radiated : he was the inspirer, the careful organiser, the unwearied manipulator of details, to whom all looked, and seldom in vain, for support and guidance. We may add this to a dignity never forgotten, enhanced by a physical beauty and grace which helped to secure reverence for his person and office, and established a sentiment which the unworthiness of some of his successors could not wholly destroy. He and not Iulius was the founder of the Empire, and it was to him that succeeding emperors looked back as the origin of their power.

Yet his achievements have interested men less than the conquest of Gaul and the victories in the civil war won by the marvellous rapidity and splendid boldness of lulius. Consequently modern estimates of the character and aims of Augustus have been comparatively few. An exhaustive treatise is now appearing in Germany by V. Gardthausen, which will be a most complete storehouse of facts. Without any pretence to such elaboration of detail, I have tried in these pages to do something to correct the balance, and to give a picture of the man as I have formed it in my own mind. The only modest merit which I would claim for my book is that it is founded on a study as complete as I could make it of the ancient authorities and sources of information without conscious imitation of any modern writer. These authorities are better for the earlier period to about B.C. 24, while they had the Emperor's own Memoirs on which to rely. The multiform activities of his later life are chiefly to be gathered from inscriptions and monuments, which record the care which neglected no part however remote of the Empire. In these later years such histories as we have are more concerned with wars and military movements than with administration. Suetonius is full of good things, but is without chronological or systematic order, and is wanting in the critical spirit to discriminate between irresponsible rumours and historical facts. Dio Cassius, plain and honest always, grows less and less full as the reign goes on. Velleius, who might at least have given us full details of the later German wars, is seldom definite or precise, and is tiresome from devotion to a single hero in Tiberius, and by an irritating style.

It has been my object to illustrate the policy of Augustus by constant reference to the Court view as represented by the poets. But in his later years Ovid is a poor substitute for Horace in this point of view. The Emperor's own catalogue of his achievements, preserved on the walls of the temple at Ancyra, is the best possible summary ; but a summary it is after all, and requires to be made to live by careful study and comparison.

The constitutional history of the reign is that which has generally engaged most attention. I have striven to state the facts clearly. Of their exact significance opinions will differ. I have given my own for what it is worth, and can only say that it has been formed independently by study of our authorities.

I have not tried to represent my hero as faultless or to make black white. Nothing can clear Augustus of the charge of cruelty up to B.C. 31. But in judging him regard must be had to his age and circumstances. We must not, at any rate, allow our judgment of his later statesmanship to be controlled by the memory of his conduct in a time of civil war and confusion. He succeeded in re-constituting a society shaken to its centre. We must acknowledge that and accept the bad with the good. But it is false criticism to deny or blink the one from admiration of the other.

I have to thank the authorities of the British Museum for casts of coins reproduced in this book : also the Syndics of the Pitt Press, Cambridge, for the loan of certain other casts.

  1. Iulius is used throughout this book to refer to Julius Caesar (Gaius Iulius Caesar).