Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2019, 432 pages
Book Review published on: October 2, 2020
Dr. Barry Strauss, professor of history at Cornell University, captivates his readers in his most recent book, Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine. Through the use of ten biographies presented in chronological order, Strauss portrays the fall of the Roman Republic, the establishment of the empire by Augustus, and the founding of its successor in the east by Constantine. His tenth book on ancient history, he exploits his expertise and experience and offers the reader a stellar volume to learn more about the Roman Empire.
The author illuminates 377 years of the Roman Empire in ten chapters, which examine Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine. To facilitate the novice in Roman history, he deftly distinguishes these emperors. Each chapter title commences with that emperor’s name followed by a descriptive noun; for example, the first three chapters are “Augustus, the Founder,” “Tiberius, the Tyrant,” and “Nero, the Entertainer.” He follows his chapters with an epilogue, cast of characters, and diagrams of family trees. Those interested in sources for further learning will appreciate that he concludes with fifty pages containing endnotes plus a bibliography and then provides a twenty-page index.
The Roman Empire experienced sixty-five “Caesars” from Augustus’s defeat of his rivals until the death of Constantine. They performed the duties either as the sole emperor, “co” or “junior” ruler, or as the emperor designate. Strauss leverages these ten biographies to introduce the reader to the Roman Empire. The reader encounters other rulers but only as necessary to provide background and context for the subject of the chapter. Tiberius’s successor Gaius Julius Germanicus lacks a specific chapter. Instead, the great-great-grandson of Julius Caesar and better known as Caligula (Latin for little boots), he appears interspersed across the first three chapters as family dynamics eradicate candidates as heirs to the throne. Likewise, Commodious, the antagonist from the movie Gladiator, lacks a chapter. The reader finds this son of Marcus Aurelius mentioned across five chapters.
Strauss mines primary sources to provide accomplishments, background, gossip, and scandal; noting either could contain some truth or be propaganda or “fake news.” He avoids comparisons to modern-day officials and passing judgment; this permits readers to make their own decisions. Strauss argues that the emperors considered the empire a “family enterprise” with a goal of longevity and prosperity. That model permits him to offer their perceptions of the operational environment, consider the challenges they faced, and examine their decisions.
Emperors ascended to the throne via adoption, acclamation, assassination, conspiracy, civil war, and birth. Julius Caesar adopted his nephew Augustus. Augustus adopted Tiberius, the son of his second wife Livia. The Praetorian Guard and Senate acclaimed Caligula emperor; the Guard later assassinated him and selected Nero as successor. Nero’s suicide resulted in a civil war. In the year AD 69, there were four emperors as the legions in Egypt, Germania, and Hispania each proclaimed their general as caesar. Strauss uses chapter 4, “Vespasian, the Commoner,” to reveal the diminishing power of the old Roman nobility, the rise of meritocracy, the power of the army, and the impact of the provinces on decisions in Rome. After Nero’s reign, it would be over two hundred years before another member of the nobility would serve as emperor.
Throughout his chapters, Strauss portrays the importance of women. Through access and placement, they welded considerable influence and authority. Two ladies provide examples. Livia came from the noble Claudii family that had opposed the dissolution of the Republic. After her exile and later receipt of amnesty, she returned to Rome, quickly became the second wife of Emperor Augustus, and ensured that he adopted her son Tiberius from a prior marriage. Breaking the tradition to remain at home, Livia accompanied the emperor when he traveled, controlled wealth, managed estates, and sponsored public buildings. She had considerable impact on politics and imperial successions. In contrast, Antonia Caenis started life as a slave and personal secretary to the influential and well-connected Antonia the Younger. Later freed but retained in court, Antonia Caenis had an affair with Vespasian. She introduced him to powerbrokers, one of whom worked for the Antonia the Younger's son Emperor Claudius, who ensured Vespasian received command of a legion. After their affair, she continued to advise him after Emperor Nero appointed him commander of three legions to subdue the revolt in Judea. Upon the death of his wife, Vespasian renewed his affair with Antonia Caenis, leveraged her knowledge of how Rome worked, and brought her to the palace to live as the defacto empress. Allegations exist that beyond advising, she accepted money for appointments to the offices of governorships, military positions, and priesthoods. Amassing considerable wealth, her estate upon her death became a public bath.
The Roman Empire's extensive impact on Western civilization obliges those who choose to consider themselves informed to know more about it. Ten Caesars more than satisfies that requirement. This book appeals to a wide variety of readers. Strauss’s book of mini biographies offers a delightful and enlightening first foray into the history of Rome from Augustus to Constantine. For those who focus on military history and politics, Strauss provides a strategic- and operational-level narrative that subtly challenges theoretical concepts that rely on impersonal processes and systems. Rather, he recognizes that actors have agency. His narrative relates how their emotions of ambition, duty, fear, hate, love, pride, and shame influence their decisions; the biographies he presents reveal their consequences.
Book Review written by: Robert Spessert, Fort Gordon, Georgia