Sunday, April 3, 2011


Werner Dahlheim, Augustus: Aufrührer - Herrscher - Heiland. Eine Biographie. München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2010. Pp. 447. ISBN 9783406605932. €26.95.

Reviewed by M. Weiskopf (

Version at BMCR home site

Although it has become the practice to note the number and frequency of the biographies of the emperor Augustus and although the work under consideration follows the traditional chronological order, by stations in the emperor's life, it is most proper that I focus on those aspects of the work that set it apart from others. Dahlheim has written in an engaging style, one that causes the reader, whether member of the educated public or student, to continue onward with the book.1 His work is devoid of legalistic terminology (look in vain for "dyarchy") and the empty-headed jargon which weighs down so many recent histories. Unlike some of his contemporaries Dalheim is cognizant that biography is not a roman-a-clef by which to criticize modern political figures.

Two characteristics of Dahlheim's work deserve greater consideration: moral character and Rezeption. Dahlheim permits Augustus, a political leader, to function as an individual, displaying obstinacy, uncertainty, determination, regret and a softening of the heart. Augustus' early career (pp. 14-100) was one of lawlessness, of Hochverrat (p. 42), born of desire to avenge Caesar (e.g. pp. 47-50), thus properly fulfilling his duty as a son, an action for which he bore regret to the end of his life (e.g. p. 43; note the Tacitean phrase on p. 61, top; pp. 181 and 388-389). The removal of Sextus Pompeius permitted a softening of Augustus' heart (p. 93ff.), an acceptance that he should stand for stability and peace within Italy, or, as Dahlheim puts it (p. 98): "In der Brust des kaltschnauzigen neuen Caesar began in seinem 28 Lebensjahr ein Herz zu schlagen, das sich fuer das Wohlergehen seiner Mitbuerger erwaermt." Although Antonius and Cleopatra (pp. 101-143) seemed unable to distinguish dreams from reality, Augustus—and his supporters—knew that the legions, wherever stationed, look towards Rome and hopes of some social advancement upon discharge (e.g. pp. 123, 149). Dog-head Anubis held no attraction (pp. 130-132).2 Moderation developed into an Augustan virtue, illustrated by the welcoming treatment of the 'losers' of Actium (p. 173) and the increasing administrative moderation and concern for the provinces (pp. 323, 340-343).

Obstinacy marked Augustus' attempt to reshape the Romans: his attempts to legislate morality faltered (pp. 222-225). Uncertainty plagued his attempts to leave Romans without the fear of a new civil war. His own family, for the most part, predeceased him (tables on pp. 172, 232). His own health—physical and political—often was subject to question (pp. 205-206, 209-222). Only a careful massaging of the mos maiorum (pp. 180-186) permitted the avoidance of an inheritable office but allowed a member of the Julian family to be held in readiness (pp. 350-354, 360-361). Augustus' determination (Entschlossenheit)—and acceptance of reality—gave shape to the Empire. He held tight the army's wolf-ears (p. 312) and turned aside from dreams of a Roman Britain and a Roman Parthia (cf. pp. 290-294). In spite of setbacks like the Varusschlacht Augustus persisted and set a Roman face on Mitteleuropa (pp. 295-311). The ordinary Roman, chosen by the gods and promised empire without end, could not discern the limits of Roman power at the time of Augustus' death.3

The breadth of Dahlheim's knowledge permits him track the Rezeption of Augustus (beyond that held by the Emperor's contemporaries, esp. pp. 235-285) in both image and word. Abbildungen placed throughout the text inform and not just illustrate. Thus Richard Westhall's 1802 penny dreadful-like picture of Caesar's ghost give shape to Shakespeare's understanding of Plutarch (Abb. 2, p. 24). Antoine Caron's 1566 piece on massacres under the Triumvirate uses events in Augustus' life to depict the bloodshed in Caron's (Abb. 5, p. 62). Louis de Silvestre (Abb. 14, p. 164) makes the face of his now-crestfallen patron that of Augustus (1757). Dahlheim prepares his readers throughout for Augustus' remarkable Rezeption by Christianity, which treats him as if he was part of the divine plan (p. 13). Augustus (pp. 161-166) cast his eyes back to a past golden age; it was he who was chosen to effect that golden age during his own time (pp. 268-271). But for Christians (pp. 366-384) this was not the true paradise, but a preparation, so Orosius 6.20.5: Christi gratia praeparatum Caesaris imperium (p. 378). Dahlheim explains how Augustus' life was "Christianized" beginning with Vergil Eclogue 4. By 1150 it was accepted that a Sibyl had shown Augustus a vision of Mary and her child (cf. Abb. 31, p. 383, a painting by Caron).

If I were to assign an impetus behind Dahlheim's exemplary work it would be his granddaughter Antonia, a beginner in reading to whom he dedicates the book: "Sie liest gerne . . ." (p. 14). As she goes through the present German educational system she will be told again and again that there is nothing worthy of admiration in her nation's past. Her grandfather's work about Augustus will give evidence that political leaders can change their character for the better over time and be remembered for their good. Thus Dahlheim, in years close to Augustus, has undertaken this task 'for the education of our youth'.


1.   Proper academic characteristics are found as the (moderate number of) footnotes, most to primary sources, some notes containing material of interest only to the specialist (pp. 408-428) and as a bibliography designed to guide further investigation (pp. 432-436). If there is one item to add it is Nikolaos von Damascus Leben des Kaisers Augustus, Juergen Malitz, ed. WBG, 2006 since a German audience will be able to read this account of Augustus' earlier years.
2.   The treatment of Antonius and Cleopatra leaves aside any modern delusions about the queen. The Nachrufen for both figures (pp. 138-143) are well-measured; Cleopatra died like a Roman.
3.   Two things to note in Dahlheim's discussion here. Henry Kissinger (p.292) is the only modern political figure mentioned by name (although elsewhere traces of the sinister emerge: "dankt ab", p. 15—as in "Kaiser dankt ab!"; "Freikorps", p. 43 bottom; Maecenas as "Minister fuer Agitation und Werbung", p. 318). Second, an observation which has inspired a number of fiction-writers to overturn it (p. 288): "Augustus und seinen Nachfahren felten die Schiffe, nicht der Wille, nach den neuen Welten zu suchen."

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