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 "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 produced."

   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 struggle.

   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.




Scan of original review



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