Allan Massie



Nothing in recent years has aroused more intense speculation and interest than the discovery of the lost Autobiography of the Emperor Augustus in the Macedonian monastery of St Cyril Methodius in 1984, for this book, mentioned by Suetonius and other ancient writers, had been believed irretrievably lost for all eternity. The copy, found during restoration work being performed in the monastery, appears to have been made in the early thirteenth century, possibly for a Frankish lord during the brief and shameful Latin Empire which was established after the Fourth Crusade of 1204. Certainly the circumstances of its discovery substantiate this theory for the copy exists in the original Latin, not in the Greek into which one might have expected it to have been translated; moreover it was found in what has been construed as a prison cell, or even execution chamber (for there was also discovered there the skeleton of a man in early middle age) bricked up from the outer world. It has been suggested that the copy was made then to justify the Latin/ Frankish occupation, and that there was a malign humour, of the type we recognize as Byzantine, in the Greek decision to incarcerate, indeed immure, it with the lord who had procured it. All this cannot however be more than speculation such as is irrelevant both to my present purpose and to the content of the manuscript.

First, however, it was necessary to substantiate its authenticity. This was done by a team of international scholars with, * For a thorough examination of the provenance and significance of the manuscript, see A. Fraser- Graham: 'Augustus: An Essay in Late Byzantine Detection' in Journal of the Institute of Classical Strategies Vol. VII. remarkably, no dissentient voice. The British representative was the distinguished historian who is Master of Michaelhouse College, Cambridge. His assurance was categorical: 'Even the briefest examination of the photocopy of the manuscript must remove any doubts of its authenticity. It is assuredly the work of the Emperor Augustus and, as such, a unique contribution to our knowledge of the Ancient World.' The Master's international reputation is such that no one can dispute his authority. The reader may therefore rest assured. These are indeed the authentic memoirs of Augustus, now translated into English at the request of the Editorial Committee by the novelist and historian Allan Massie, author of a deft, if derivative, study of The Caesars (Seeker amp; Warburg, 1983).

Some questioned the choice of a novelist as translator, and with reason that fell only just short of cogency. The decision was however based on the nature of the Memoirs themselves which are full of dialogue, dramatic scenes and dramatic presentation of the characters. Some may also feel that Mr Massie's version is indeed, in the event, too racy, too full of contemporary slang (or perhaps the slang of two or three decades ago), and that it suffers from the novelistic determination to make the Emperor's language consistently lively. I am bound to confess that I am sympathetic to these strictures; in our translator's defence I can only say that Augustus's Latin is itself full of expressions never previously encountered in classical prose, and that the style of the Memoirs veers from the extremes of colloquiality to a serene and formal beauty.

Those wishing for a more sober, scholarly and (I fear) accurate rendering must abide the completion of the great annotated edition now being prepared, also under my direction, by the scholars of thirteen American universities, or the even more ambitious quadrilingual edition (with annotations in the same four languages: Latin, Greek, German and English) being undertaken by the team under the direction of Professor Otto Friedrichstrasse, both of which editions, crowning peaks of contemporary scholarship, have been ambitiously and courageously scheduled for publication before the end of the century. Meanwhile the English-speaking reader unable to read Latin (and, alas, how few can do so in these degenerate days!) must content himself with Mr Massie's version, whatever its deficiencies.

That the Memoirs are of uncommon interest goes without saying. My purpose here is merely to guide the reader ignorant of the labyrinth of Roman History, or whose knowledge of it is derived only from inadequate and frequently ridiculous representations of the Grandeur that was Rome offered by the Kinema and the BBC.

The Memoirs exist in two Books written at different periods of Augustus's life. Together they offer a reasonably coherent chronology, inasmuch as Book II takes up approximately at the point where Book I terminated. Their mood however, it is fair to warn the reader, is different. Book I is self-confident, exhilarating, a story of triumph, Book II much darker. It can hardly be denied that Book I offers livelier entertainment, for it is full of colour and excitement. Yet I must confess that, for me, it is the second part of the Memoirs where the Emperor broods reflectively over the course of his life, seeks out its meaning and attempts to marshal his philosophy, which offers the more intense attraction. We know from Suetonius that on his deathbed Augustus asked, 'How have I played my part in this comedy of life?' We can see now that this was no final whim, but that the same question tormented his last years, and it must be a solemn warning to us all that this greatest of Romans felt himself to be in so many respects unfulfilled, even a failure. All who are interested in the meaning and effect of power on character will read these subtle and disillusioned pages avidly!

The First Book is addressed to the Emperor's grandsons Gaius and Lucius, children of his daughter Julia and the great marshal M. Vipsanius Agrippa. These boys he himself adopted and created Principes Iuventutis (Princes of the Youth Movement'); he intended they should succeed him. The Book is therefore tailored to this choice audience. It cannot be exactly dated, but it seems reasonable to suppose, from tone and content, that it was written (in fact, dictated to slaves or perhaps freedmen) around 7 or 6 BC: Gaius, the elder of the boys by three years, would have been thirteen in that earlier year. It does however include a few pages – those dealing with his reception of the news of the murder of Julius Caesar – which appear to have been written at an earlier date. It is known too – and he confirms this in the text – that Augustus composed a fragment of autobiography while campaigning in Spain in 24 BC, and parts of this earlier book seem to have been incorporated in the text of the later memoirs written for his grandsons. Certainly there are passages where he seems less conscious that they constitute his audience. It seems unlikely too that either part of his Memoirs was fully revised by Augustus himself. The form in which we possess them doubtless owes something to his secretaries or literary executors.

Book I begins with Caesar's murder and ends with the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra fourteen years later. It tells the story therefore of the rise of the boy Gaius Octavius Thurinus (as he was still called in 44) to the position of supreme authority in the Roman world. It is a story of glittering achievement. Even two millennia later it remains astonishing, for at the time of his uncle's murder he was only nineteen, Rome was torn by faction and civil war, and no one could predict, none indeed predicted, that this slim youth could imprint his personality on the Republic, and succeed where Caesar, Pompey, Sulla and Marius had failed in restoring peace and order to a distracted world. That he did so is still remarkable, and his own account is gripping and, within the limits of political language, surprisingly honest: he does not shrink from confessing the cruelties and deceits unavoidable in his rise to power: in particular, his accounts of the Proscriptions of 43 and of the manner in which he wrested Antony's Will from the safe-keeping of the Vestal Virgins in order to publish it to his own political advantage are amazingly candid. His delight in his own intelligence, political skill and success is infectious; one cannot help wondering if the grandsons in whom he so delighted ever in fact experienced the pleasure of reading this book written for their edification.

Perhaps not, for it breaks off abruptly, though there was no good reason for ending Book I with the defeat of Antony. It would indeed have seemed more suitable to end it with the celebration of his Triumph in 29, but that awaits description till the second chapter of Book II. One surmises therefore that it was discontinued on account of the onslaught of the family disasters which befell Augustus from 5 BC and which are movingly chronicled in the final chapters of Book II. It seems therefore appropriate to limit my observations here, and resume them with an editorial preface to that second Book when the reader has had the chance to enjoy the happy buoyancy of the Emperor's letter to his beloved grandsons; for Book I essentially offers us just that: the chance of hearing Augustus address these two boys; accordingly it offers also an invitation to intimacy rare, well-nigh unique, in our reading of the Ancient World.

One final note: dates are given, in this introduction and in the text, according to our modern system of dating.

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