‘Quick as boiled asparagus’

This month marks the bimillennial of the death of Augustus. David Barchard pays tribute to Rome’s sunny first emperor

By David Barchard | August 8, 2014

The Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The Works of the Divine Augustus) in the sadly neglected Temple of Augustus in Ankara (photographed by John Henry Haynes in 1884).


There are two classic images of Augustus from later ages. You may remember him as the grey, calculating, uncharismatic but inexorably successful young politician of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, or perhaps as the huge, dominating, slightly terrifying but still avuncular figure in the early episodes of the BBC’s classic 1970s TV serialisation of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. Brian Blessed, the actor who played him, brought Augustus to life as an urbane but dangerous, deliberately unfathomable, yet somehow ultimately benign. patriarch. I am inclined to think that it was Robert Graves and Brian Blessed, who both drew on Suetonius’s portrait of Augustus, even down to his daily expressions such as ‘Quick as boiled asparagus’, that came closest to the truth.

Either way Rome’s first emperor was a colossus and this month sees the 2000th anniversary of his death. One might think Augustus is a largely remote and irrelevant figure, but he is deeply etched into the software of Western civilisation: the very name of this month still commemorates him.

Augustus was the first Roman emperor, though he called himself ‘Princeps’ or ‘first citizen’ and was in reality a military dictator, using control of the army to bend the institutions of the Roman Republic, notably the Senate, to his will. Born Octavius, growing later to be Octavian, he was the great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. When Caesar was murdered in 44BC Octavian was propelled  into a frontline position in politics. After a decade and a half of internecine civil wars, Octavian was sole ruler of the empire by 27BC, and reigned peacefully for 41 years until his death in 14AD on August 19. As sole ruler he took on the name 'Augustus' we know him by today.

During that time he enlarged the Roman Empire massively, taking in countries such as Egypt (after his defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra) and pushing up the frontier from the Adriatic coast to the interior of Austria and Hungary. He would probably have ensured that most of Germany became Roman, too, if his legions had not been destroyed by Arminius in the Teutoberg Forest in 9AD. The Roman cities that were growing up north and east of the Rhine died for ever. The defeat cost Rome three legions and perhaps set the stage for the eventual destruction of the Western Roman Empire four and a half centuries later by Germanic tribes. Augustus is said to have cried out frequently 'Publius Quinctilius Varus, give me back my three legions!' – Varus being the general who had led the Roman armies into a German ambush.

But by most standards Augustus’s reign was a golden age for the Western world, the one in which Classical civilisation flowered and spread from end to end of Europe. Augustus said that he had found Rome brick and left it marble, and the architectural splendour of the early empire is largely his work. He claimed to have spent 600 million silver denarii on public works during his reign. His work reached its zenith in Rome but spread by osmosis across the empire whose cities put up buildings similar to those of the capital.

The arts also flourished. The  poets of his age, Virgil and Horace and Ovid, ensured that Roman literature was never forgotten. 

Augustus was conscious of his achievements and wrote an account of his works in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The Works of the Divine Augustus), which was set on a bronze wall plate in the Senate in Rome but copied across the Empire in Latin and sometimes Greek. The best surviving texts are in that sadly neglected monument, the Temple of August in Ankara, and temples in Pisidian Antioch and Apollonia. Was the Res Gestae boastfulness or intimidation? Or public relations, helping make people in distant provinces aware of their Roman identity? 

Like many great rulers, however, there was one problem which Augustus did not master. He married three times producing daughters but no sons. He had grandsons but the succession passed to Tiberius, the surviving son of his third wife, Livia, by a previous marriage. What happened? Writers from Suetonius to Robert Graves have portrayed Livia as a wicked woman, adept at eliminating rivals and obsessed with ensuring the succession of her morose and unpleasant son. Several ancient writers, including Tacitus, the greatest historian Rome produced, suggest that Augustus was killed by Livia using poison. We don’t have the evidence but several of the earlier heirs-apparent who predeceased their grandfather look as if they might have made better emperors than Tiberius did. For the cruelty and streak of insanity which we associate with late Roman Emperors from that family seems to have been lacking in the sunnily self-assured Augustus and perhaps would have been missing in his direct line too.

Despite the shortcomings and horrific qualities of  Augustus’s successors, the empire survived and grew for four more centuries and was the template for all subsequent European civilisation. In the 18th century, Gibbon believed it had been the zenith of humanity and even from the perspective of our technological civilisation, it  still seems marvelous in many ways.

Poisoned or not, the last few weeks of Augustus’s life seem to have been happy ones. And he remained pleased with his achievements. His last words on his deathbed are said to have been: 'Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit!' Even after 2000 years, perhaps we should.

David Barchard's book of Ottoman biographies, Ottoman Lives, is to be published in 2015.


From the pages of John Henry Haynes, A Photographer and Archaeologist in the Ottoman Empire 1881–1900, by Rober G Ousterhout

John Henry Haynes' 1884 view shows the entrance to the first-century BC Temple of Augustus in Ankara, with the 15th-century Hacı Bayram Mosque built against its flank. 

The lateral façade of the temple is inscribed with the text of the ‘Res Gestae Divi Augusti’, added after his death on 14AD. The inscription has greatly deteriorated since Haynes’s day

For Robert G Ousterhout's account of Haynes’s career, with images that include the earliest photographs of Cappadocia, see John Henry Haynes, Photographer and Archaeologist in the Ottoman Empire, available from cornucopia.net, price £19.50, post-free to subscribers

Cornucopia 47 included a special 26-page report on historic Ankara: Fly in the Face of Fashion, by Patricia Daunt, with photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

Travel notes The Divan Çukurhan is Cornucopia's recommended hotel in Ankara and can be booked through Cornucopia Hotel Collection

Posted in History, Travel
More Reading
Good places to stay
Current Events