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|Publisher:||Yale University Press|
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First Emperor of Rome
By Adrian Goldsworthy
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Adrian Goldsworthy
All rights reserved.
'FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY'
'On the day he was born, the question of the Catilinarian conspiracy was before the Senate, and Octavius was late because of his wife's confinement, when as is often told, Publius Nigidius, finding out why he was late and learning the hour of the birth, stated that the master of all the world had been born.' Suetonius, early second century AD.
In 63 BC Rome was by far the largest city in the known world. Its population numbered at least three-quarters of a million and would rise to more than a million by the end of the century. Most lived in squalid, overcrowded tenement blocks or insulae (literally 'islands'), prone to fire and rife with disease. With so many people in one place, inevitably there were many births and deaths every day. So there was nothing especially remarkable when a woman named Atia went into labour and just before dawn on 23 September presented her husband with a son.
Atia was luckier than most mothers, for she was an aristocrat, and her husband Caius Octavius was a senator able to afford the best available care as well as a comfortable house on the eastern side of the Palatine Hill. When her time came, she was attended by female family members, slaves and freedwomen from her household, and an experienced midwife. Custom excluded men from the room chosen for the delivery, and a male doctor would only be summoned if things went badly wrong, although in truth there was little he could do in such circumstances. Atia knew what to expect, for she had already given her husband a daughter several years earlier.
Neither experience nor comfort and care made Atia safe. Childbirth was dangerous both for mother and child, and quite a few of the babies delivered on that day were stillborn or would perish in the days to come. So would quite a few of the mothers. Nine years later Atia's first cousin Julia would die during labour, followed within a few days by her baby – this in spite of the fact that her husband was then the richest and most powerful man in Rome. The childbearing years were probably the most dangerous of a woman's life.
Things went well for Atia. She was unharmed and her son was born healthy. When the midwife laid him down on the floor for inspection there were no signs of deformities or other problems. The child was then taken to his father. Tradition gave the Roman father, the paterfamilias, power of life and death over the entire household, although such strict authority was rarely imposed with rigour by this era. Even so, it was up to Caius Octavius whether or not to accept the new child into the family. He did so readily, showing the boy to the relatives and friends who had gathered to wait with him or who called to visit as soon as the news of the birth spread. Caius Octavius already had two daughters – the older girl being from an earlier marriage. Girls were useful for an ambitious man, since marriage alliances helped to win and hold political friends. Yet only a son could follow a career in public life, matching or surpassing his father and so adding to the glory of the family name.
Fires were lit on the altars in the house, and offerings made to the gods of the household and hearth, the lares and penates, and to any other deities especially revered by the family. When the guests returned to their own homes they performed the same ritual. One of the visitors was no doubt Atia's thirty-seven-year-old uncle, Caius Julius Caesar, an ambitious senator who was already making a name for himself. Recently he had won a fiercely competitive election to become Rome's most senior and prestigious priest, the pontifex maximus. The post was primarily political, and Julius Caesar gave little indication of deep religious beliefs. Even so, like other Romans, he set great store by the traditional rites. Ritual surrounded all Roman aristocrats throughout their lives, and a successful birth was a happy occasion for a senatorial family and their connections.
Otherwise there was no reason for the wider community to pay much attention, for Caius Octavius was a very minor senator. Only much later, long after the child had grown up to become Augustus, did stories begin to circulate of omens and even open predictions of the child's future greatness. Suetonius supplies a long string of these, many of which are improbable and some patently absurd.
Among the latter is a claim that prophecy predicted the birth of a king of Rome, prompting the Senate to decree that no boy born between set dates should be allowed to live. The law was supposedly blocked on a technicality by a group of senators whose wives were pregnant. Not only was this not how legislation worked under the Republic, but it would be surprising if Cicero did not mention such a grim and controversial measure and it can easily be dismissed as romantic invention. The same is true of stories clearly drawn from the myths surrounding Alexander the Great and other heroes, for whom a human father was felt insufficient. Thus it was claimed that Atia had attended a night-time rite in the Temple of Apollo, and had fallen asleep in her litter. A snake appeared and slithered over her, leaving behind a mark like snakeskin on her thigh. She woke, feeling the need to cleanse herself ritually as if she had just had sex, for only the physically purified were fit to enter the precincts of the gods. Unable to remove the mark on her skin, she ceased to attend public baths. Nine months later she gave birth to her son.
Caius Octavius had no need of such mystical experiences to feel happy. Birthdays were important in Roman culture, and were celebrated throughout an individual's life. September was the seventh of the ten named months in Rome's lunar calendar, for in archaic times the year began in March, the month of the war god Mars, when the legions used to set out on campaign. September 23 was for the Romans the ninth day before the Kalends of October, for they used a system based on days before or after three monthly festivals, the Kalends on the 1st, the Nones on the 7th, and the Ides on either the 13th or the 15th depending on the month. Lacking the number zero, the Kalends itself counted as one, and 23 September itself was included, hence the total of nine days.
For the Romans the year was the six-hundred-and-ninety-first since the foundation of the City (ab urbe condita) by Romulus. More immediately it was the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Caius Antonius. The two consuls were Rome's most senior magistrates, with equal authority and holding office for twelve months.
The Republican system was intended to prevent any one man gaining supreme or permanent power, for no one could seek re-election until a decade had passed. The man who was first in the electoral ballot was listed first when the consuls gave their name to each year. Consuls tended to come overwhelmingly from a small number of well-established families, like the Antonii. Cicero was unusual, for he was the first of his family to enter politics at Rome and no other 'new man' (novus homo) had reached the consulship for more than a generation. Caius Octavius was also a new man, and surely hoped to copy Cicero's success.
The consuls took precedence on alternate months, and so it was Cicero who presided over a meeting of the Senate on 23 September. Suetonius claims that Caius Octavius arrived late because of the birth of his son, although since this provides the setting for another story where the birth of the 'ruler of the globe' is predicted, we need to be cautious. Perhaps the incident is wholly invented, although there is nothing inherently improbable in Caius Octavius' late arrival or in the claim that the senators debated the rumours of conspiracy surrounding one of their members, Lucius Sergius Catiline. Whispers of revolution were rife, and many focused on Catiline, who had failed to win the consulship for the next year in the summer's elections. If the Senate did indeed discuss such matters, then no action was taken for the moment and it would be a while before matters came to a head.
In the meantime normal life continued, and on the night of 30 September Caius Octavius and Atia held a night-time vigil in their house. Rituals were performed, culminating in sacrifices and a formal purification ceremony or lustratio on the next day, the Kalends of October and nine days after their son's birth. The purpose was to rid the baby of any malign spirits or other supernatural influences that might have entered him during the birth process. He was given a charm or bulla, usually of gold and worn around the neck, until he formally became a man. Afterwards, the flight of birds was observed by one of the priestly college known as augurs to gain some sense of the child's future. Probably the parents were told that the signs were good.
Only now was the boy formally named, and in due course registered in the list of citizens. In this case he was named after his father, and so became Caius Octavius, son of Caius. Families tended to use the same names generation after generation, although some of the most powerful aristocratic families were starting to break such conventions during these years, setting themselves even further apart from the rest of the senatorial class. The family name or nomen – in this case Octavius – was automatic, and choice only exercised in the first name or praenomen. Most important men possessed the full three names or tria nomina. Therefore Atia's uncle was Caius Julius Caesar. The Julii were an extensive clan, and the third name or cognomen was held only by that particular branch. The system was not universal, even among the great families, in some cases because they were not especially numerous or simply because they were confident in being recognised. The Octavii had not yet seen any need to distinguish specific branches of their family.
Nor did the Romans feel it necessary to identify women so precisely, since they could neither vote nor stand for office. Atia had just this single name, the feminine form of her father Marcus Atius Balbus' nomen. The identity of her father and association with his family was what mattered. Roman women kept their name throughout their lives, and did not change it on marriage. Atia's daughter was called Octavia, as was her stepdaughter, the child from her husband's earlier marriage. If there had been any other daughters then these would also have been named Octavia. In some cases families numbered their girls for official purposes.
Babies required a great deal of care, but Atia's role in this was most likely one of more or less distant supervision. She had much to do in overseeing the household, and supporting her husband in his career. Some voices advocated that a mother should breastfeed her children, but in practice this was rare and instead a slave wet-nurse was provided. This woman, or another slave, served as the child's nurse more generally. (One of the reasons some philosophers argued that a mother should feed her own offspring was the fear that they would otherwise somehow imbibe slavish characteristics along with the milk.) The amount of time either parent spent with their children was no doubt a matter of personal choice. In some cases it was very little, although there were exceptions. In the second century BC we are told that Cato the Elder, famous for his stern, old-fashioned and loudly proclaimed virtue, only let the most important public business prevent him from being present when his infant son was bathed. Cato's wife was one of those women who did breastfeed her own baby, and even sometimes suckled slave children from the household.
Our sources tell us almost nothing about the early years of the young Octavius, although yet another of Suetonius' stories of signs predicting his rise to greatness is less dramatic than most and may just contain a germ of truth. In this, his nurse put him down for the night in a room on the ground floor. The boy, presumably now old enough to crawl, then went missing, prompting an urgent search. He was found at dawn the next morning, watching the rising sun from the highest room in the house.
A TROUBLED WORLD
If this happened at all it was later, but in the closing months of 63 BC there was plenty to worry the boy's parents, for the mood in Rome was nervous. The Roman Republic had dominated the Mediterranean world since the middle of the second century BC. Carthage was destroyed, and the kingdoms of the east either conquered, or so weak and dependent on Roman goodwill that they presented no threat. Mithridates VI of Pontus in Asia Minor had waged war persistently for a generation, but was now soundly crushed by Rome's most successful and popular general, Pompey the Great. The king, finding that repeated doses of antidotes during the course of his life had rendered him immune to poison, ordered one of his own bodyguards to kill him before the year was out. In October Pompey's legions stormed Jerusalem after a three-month siege, backing one side in a civil war between rival members of the Jewish royal family. It seemed no one could match the military might of the Republic.
Rome was far stronger than any of its neighbours and potential enemies, but the immense profits of conquest and empire threatened delicate balances within politics, society and the economy. Competition among the aristocracy for high office and status had always been intense, but in the past was kept within strict confines of convention and law. Now many of the props of this system came under threat as senators spent ever-increasing sums to win popularity, and significant groups emerged within the population who felt their plight was desperate and readily rallied to anyone who championed their cause. There were opportunities for a few men to rise far higher than had ever been possible in the past and their peers resented and resisted this.
In 133 BC an aristocrat named Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus became one of the ten annually elected tribunes of the plebs and introduced a programme of legislation aimed at helping the rural poor. He won considerable acclaim, but was accused of aspiring to the dominance of a monarch and was bludgeoned to death by a gang of other senators led by his own cousin. In 122 BC Tiberius' younger brother Caius was killed along with hundreds of followers after he embarked on an even more radical set of reforms. This time the fighting was clearly premeditated and between organised forces. Political competition had become violent, and such scenes were repeated in 100 BC. A decade later discontent among the peoples of Italy exploded into rebellion when the tribune who proposed granting them Roman citizenship was murdered. The Romans won the war after a hard struggle, to a great extent because they finally and grudgingly gave the Italian communities what they wanted. The number of citizens was greatly expanded, giving politicians new voters to cultivate, and again shifting the political balance.
Almost immediately another dispute revolving around a tribune of the people became so bitter that in 88 BC for the very first time a Roman general led his army against the City of Rome. His name was Sulla, and rivalry between him and an ageing popular hero named Marius lay behind the conflict. Massacre followed massacre in an ever-worsening spiral of atrocity before Sulla won the Civil War and made himself dictator, turning a rarely used and temporary emergency measure into a position of permanent supreme power for himself. After a few years he retired to private life, only to die of natural causes within a matter of months. The Republic was already troubled by a new civil war, when Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, one of the consuls of 78 BC, raised an army and tried to seize control of the state. He was defeated and he and his partisans executed, but many opponents of Sulla fought on for years from bases in Spain.
Excerpted from Augustus by Adrian Goldsworthy. Copyright © 2014 Adrian Goldsworthy. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Maps ix
Part 1 Caius Octavius (Thurinus)63-44 BC
1 'Father of His Country' 19
2 'A Man of Wealth and Good Reputation' 32
3 The Consulship of Julius and Caesar 47
4 A Way Out 63
Part 2 Caius Julius Caesar (Octavianus)44-38 BC
5 Heir 83
6 Praise 98
7 Reward and Discard 115
8 Vengeance and Discord 128
Part 3 Imperator Caesar, Divi Filius 38-27 BC
9 Sons of Gods 151
10 Rivals 170
11 Triumph 195
Part 4 Imperator Caesar Augustus, Divi Filius 27-2 BC
12 Renewal and Restoration 217
13 To Overcome the Proud in War 239
14 The ?Title of Greatest Power' 258
15 The Eagles 284
16 An End and a Beginning 307
17 Family and Colleagues 334
18 Augustan Peace 355
Part 5 Imperator Caesar Augustus, Divi Filius, Pater Patriae 2 BC-AD 14
19 Father 377
20 The 'Sentry Post' 402
21 For the Sake of the Res Publica 426
22 Pax Augusta 446
Conclusion: Hurry Slowly 469
Appendix 1 The Senatorial Career or Cursus Honorum 482
Appendix 2 Date of the Birth of Jesus 487
Key Personalities 503
Family Trees 512