"Historic Series Begins",
A review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star,
June 7, 1970,
of a book.
THE BATTLE OF ACTIUM: The Rize and Triumph of Augustus Caesar,
By John M. Carter.
"Historic Series Begins"
THE BATTLE OF ACTIUM: The Rize and Triumph of Augustus Caesar.
By John M. Carter.
Weybright & Talley. 271 pages. $7.50.
The market is now flooded with
historical books in series, many of them potboilers designed to be
purchased almost automatically by libraries with adequate budgets. This
volume is one of a new series called "Turning Points in History," with
Sir Denis Brogan as general editor. Sir Denis is be to be congratulated
on getting his series off to a good start, for this book, by a rather
young and relatively unknown historian, is excellent.
It deals with a well-known story, but gives it a vivid reality
which it has seldom had before. This story begins with the assassination
of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C.: it ends with the triumph of
Augustus Caesar over all his enemies in the summer of 31 B.C. To us
looking back on these events and fully aware of how they came out, the
full drama of these 13 years is largely lost. But, for the greater part
of that period, contemporaries could hardly have expected that a
sickly-looking 18-year-old youth, the son of Caesar's niece, would
achieve power in Rome such as the great Julius had never possessed and
would hold it for 45 years.
In the early weeks after the murder, Augustus had few assets to
support any ambitions he may have felt. Julius, in his will, left to
Augustus much of his fortune and his name, providing a posthumous
adoption which raised the young man's status from that of grand-nephew
to that of foster son. This was enough to give him the opportunity to
win support from Julius' loyal legions. The drama of the story arises
from the fact that Augustus succeeded in doing this, despite the fact
that he was, according to Carter, a mediocre military leader. But on the
other hand, he was "the most consumate politician was able Rome ever
Carter's version of how this consumate politician was able to
overcome his other weaknesses to rise to supreme power and keep it makes
an exciting tale. I am not sure if it is convincing, but it shows a deep
awareness of the complexities of the period, an unusually intelligent
grasp of the realities of power, of economic life, and of military and
naval tactics under those ancient conditions. Much of this version has
an immediacy to it which is rarely found in writing on ancient subjects.
Moreover, Carter has an unusual ability to cut through ancient
propagandist writings and to discriminate between the public relations
works and the more likely realities.
This appears most successful in his evaluation of the relations
between Antony and Cleopatra and the equally important relations between
Augustus and his loyal supporters, such as Agrippa and Maecenas. These
parallel relationships, the one greatly weakening Antony among his
earlier supporters, the other absolutely essential to Augustus' success,
form the core of Carter's explanation of the outcome of this long
On the whole this explanation is convincing, but the chief weakness
of the book lies in this situation. Carter clearly does not either like
or admire Augustus. He sees him as a coldblooded and almost inhumanly
ambitious person, whose whole life worked along lines of calculated
egoism. This seems to be a correct estimate, except, perhaps, for the
Emperor's emotional attachment to his own family. But the question
remains unanswered how a person like this could have obtained and
generally held the almost self-effacing loyalty of those lieutenants who
made his rise to supreme power possible.