Before Augustus: The Collapse of the Roman Republic

Image of Before Augustus: The Collapse of the Roman Republic
Release Date: 
June 22, 2023
Reviewed by: 

If you have ever wondered if public corruption, scandal, family political scheming, and unbounded ambition are recent phenomena in affairs of state, then look no further than this new volume on the end of the Roman Republic by Natale Barca. Written from the perspective of the rise of Julius Caesar and the fall of the Roman Republic, it is a tale worthy of a Netflix melodrama, but is the true story of how one man changed the course of history, yet was ultimately undone by his own hubris.

The author uses an astonishing number of primary sources to cover a crucial 33 years in the history of Rome that saw the final loss of the Roman Republic ruled by a fairly well balanced state that tried to represent to interests of all its citizens into a burgeoning monarchy that would become one of the longest lasting empires in history.

Although Caesar is clearly the main actor in this descent to tyranny, there is a huge cast of characters drawn from the political and social elite of Rome, all seeking to advance their interests at the expense of the other family groups, ultimately leading to their own fall from power. Many of these names will be familiar to students of Ancient Rome—Pompey, Mark Antony, Cleopatra—but there will be others that may not be as familiar that are just as critical to Caesar’s eventual rise such as Cicero and Clodius. The author presents an almost dizzying number of stakeholders and participants in the Roman political system, stirred by arranged marriages, divorces, and other moves to either cement or change alliances as the Republic starts to wane.

But Caesar is clearly the center of this political universe as he slowly lets his ambition and sometimes fear of rival families drive his plans and decisions. The author provides a succinct account of Caesar’s two major military campaigns—the conquests of Gaul and Britannia—as well as his numerous other military actions, offering some unique perspective and analysis of his military career within his overall rise to power. The road to fame, position, and ultimately power in Rome for ambitious men was military conquest mixed with personal glory in battle, as well as gathering booty from subjugated lands to build personal wealth.

Caesar was exceptionally good at spinning the narrative to suit his purposes, mostly his own advancement, and as the author notes, he used this ability to make what were minor border incidents in Gaul into a major threat that required him to embark on a long campaign to subjugate the entire region, destroying numerous towns and villages and killing or enslaving nearly 25% of the population. As the author narrates, not all of the Roman hierarchy were satisfied with his reasons for launching his campaign, and more than a few considered the action an unjust and unnecessary aggrandizement by the eager general.

Caesar used the same strategy to launch his invasion of Britannia, an impressive military feat for the time and a near disaster on more than once occasion. But ultimately both of these campaigns brought Caesar great notoriety, even if it wasn’t all positive, and both tremendous wealth and the loyalty of the legions he commanded.

This loyalty would be needed as Caesar then crossed the famous Rubicon, launching Rome into what would be the first of many internal wars that would plague the Roman political system until its eventual downfall almost 500 years later. Although Caesar eventually vanquished his foes and was essentially appointed Imperator for life, the Ides of March soon caught up with him as the author describes his rather gruesome assassination, which launched a war of succession between his great nephew Caius Octavius Thurinus and the famous duo of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

This war was concluded with the defeat of the lovers at the Battle of Actium and their eventual deaths, leaving the man who history would call Caesar Augustus the new Emperor of Rome, a title and position he would hold until his death nearly four decades later.

This is a very detailed book with comprehensive backstories and biographies of the numerous contributors to the end of the Roman Republic. The amount of detail can be a bit overwhelming, and of course, Roman names and patronyms often add to the confusion of who’s who. But the author does an admirable job of showing just how complicated and interconnected all the great patrician families were and how their jealousies and rivalries ultimately led to their undoing and the end of the great Roman Republic.