Monday, December 30, 2013

Ian Knight - Zulu Rising

I suspect that most people's knowledge of the Anglo-Zulu wars consists of watching the film Zulu. In that movie, a heroic band of white-British soldiers hold off the Zulu hordes at Rorke's Drift and prove, through their valiant winning of multiple Victoria Crosses, that they were made of British pluck.

Ian Knight's book fills a enormous gap in the literature of military writings on the Victorian era. Unlike many celebration's of British colonialism, he retells the appalling story of the Anglo-Zulu war through the eyes of both sides in the conflict. There are many military histories of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. Few of them are sympathetic with the Zulus. Fewer still locate the root of the enormous defeat the British had at Isandlwana in the personal ambitions of British colonial leaders, isolated from London, who thought they could win a quick victory over a backward people.

Knight begins with a history of the Zulu people. Their origins lie in the Nguni people of eastern Africa and Knight tells us fascinating details of the development of their culture. In this difficult terrain, the Zulu's developed an economy centred on cattle, with a complex network of different tribes that paid homage to a central king.

By the 18th century, these tribes were beginning to encounter white Europeans, often shipwrecked on the dangerous coasts. As the 18th century became the 19th, European interest in East Africa increased, particularly with the discovery of resources such as diamonds.

The Anglo-Zulu war has its origin in colonial incursions into Zulu land. Knight makes it clear that local authorities, desperate to create the basis for a quick war against the Zulu, convinced those back in London to build up their military forces. But not enough. Acting with little more than their own authority, men like Anthony Durnford and Lord Chelmsford invaded the Zulu nation and incurred the wrath of Cetshwayo the Zulu King.

Knight is no romantic. He is completely aware that in the long run, the Zulus stood little chance against the might of the British industrial economy. But this first military campaign suffered from many colonial prejudices. Not for the first time did British red-coats pay with their lives, because General's assumed that the natives would run away in the face of British guns and bayonets.

The actions of the British commander Lord Chelmsford read like a text-book example of how not to invade hostile territory. He split his forces, and badly under-estimated the scale of his opponent. With columns scattered country-wide, few experienced soldiers, long-supply chains over inhospitable terrain, and racist attitudes to the enemy a military defeat of some sort was inevitable. But the scale of the disaster had more to do with the enormous size of Cethswayo's kingdom and the number of Zulu troops prepared to muster to defend their land and people. So skilled were these troops, and so over-confident the British that the Zulus were able to bring 28,000 troops within 8 kilometres of the poorly defended British camp at Isandlwana.

Knight's book is partly social history, hence his emphasis on the history of the Zulu nation and the background of the British troops and officers. Yet it is also military history. Unusually his detailed explanations of, for instance, how a soldier actually fired a Martini-Henri rifle only serve to detail the true horror of the British defeat. Knowing exactly how hot the gun's barrel got after a few shots, and how this could cause the weapon to jam, means that the reader understands how quickly the British got themselves into trouble in the face of such over-whelming odds. Knight has dug out large numbers of eyewitness accounts, from British and Zulu veterans and the stories of the last moments of the massacre, with red-coats fighting with pocket-knives against heavily armed Zulu warriors, are very hard to read.

But Isandlwana was a unique set of circumstances. The entirely different outcome at Rorke's Drift demonstrated that British tactics, in a heavily defended area, with disciplined troops, could defeat enormous odds. The Zulu people just didn't have the weapons to defeat British guns. That said though one does have to wonder at the intelligence of any commander who took rockets out into the plains of Natal to try and defeat a mobile force.

Knight captures the prejudices and mistakes made by the colonial authorities, lays to rest many of the forgotten aspects of the conflicts (the central role played by native forces in the British armies) and demonstrates how British policies (particularly after the defeat) helped lay the basis for many of the problems that came after. This is no sanitised account of military action, but a bloodily realistic description of the front line of Empire.

Sadly the book is slightly over-written, I felt a decent editor could have cut 50 to 100 of the 700 pages. That sad though, the work is immensely readable and recommended.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried; A People's History of the British Empire
Gott - Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A S Jasper - A Hoxton Childhood

A S Jasper's memories of life in Hoxton in East London, in the first two decades of the twentieth century portray a life of poverty and suffering. Jasper's working class family suffered doubly; from the limits of East London's economy and a father who's semi-legal income mostly made its way behind the bars of the myriad of local pubs.

So this is a autobiography of a childhood blighted by poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and violence. The violence of individuals who took out their suffering on those around them, together with the violence of a system that turned people on the street for falling behind on their rent, or because their labour was no longer needed.

Unfortunately while Jasper's tale is illuminating in the reality of life for the majority of those living in East London, unlike other similar accounts, we learn little about social life. There certainly is no sense of the collective acts of resistance that marked out East London life, or the workers' organisations such as their left parties and trade unions. Perhaps this is because Jasper is remembering the earliest years of his life, but East London did have its share of struggles in the years described.

The arrival of World War One brings with it death and destruction. The fear of German Zeppelin raids and friends and family who joined up. Some, like Jasper's brother-in-law couldn't stand the army and got out as soon as they could desert. Others never returned. Leaving young families to fend for themselves.

Those interested in the lives of ordinary people will find this book interesting, but lacking in substance. Certainly nobody could believe that Eastenders between 1900 and 1920 lived a happy, but poor existence. In a postscript written in the 1960s, Jasper hopes that his readers will be thankful that these times of poverty are past. Sadly, as the economic crisis continues, and British governments pursue their austerity programmes, the safety net helping those in poverty, low pay and unemployment is getting thin. We can hope we avoid such times again, but its not automatic. Let's hope for some resistance before following generations have to live like Jasper's friends and family.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hilary Mantel - Bring up the Bodies

The second volume of Hilary Mantel's novelisation of the life of Thomas Cromwell carries on the dramatic story of the reign of Henry VIII. The first novel describes Cromwell's rise, from humble origins to the heights of power in the English court. Henry VIII is of course known for his wives, and Cromwell's role in securing the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn is a masterpiece of intrigue and political manoeuvring. At the heart of this volume is the dramatic change that occurs as Henry loses interest in Anne as a result of her failure to produce a male heir, and his growing interest in her successor, Jane Seymour.

Thomas Cromwell's role, balancing the forces ranged behind each of the women in this epic tale, is in reality the balance of some of the most powerful families in England. One struggling to hold on to power and remaining linked to the King, but terrified of being dragged down by the fallen angel; the others scheming to use the new found interest of the King to increase their power and wealth. As with the first volume, Mantel skilfully demonstrates the way that women in the Tudor aristocracy were merely pawns in a game of power. Few male aristocrats love their wives, preferring to sleep with prostitutes or other men's wives and hoping their own will produce a heir as quickly as possible. Cromwell himself is at the height of his powers, but the cracks are beginning to show.

Mantel's prose is sharp and to the point. Bring up the Bodies is a novel of dialogue and impressions, but ever so often the raw emotion of events breaks through. In her postscript, Mantel points out, that much of the story of Anne Boleyn's trial and her execution remains obscure. The impotence of Henry's victims in the face of the power of his court is tragic, so is their violent end. Mantel is not trying to write history through fiction. She's telling a story that links to the past, powered by real events, but driven by our ability to emphasis with characters from the past. Oddly, given the subject matter, this story of the Tudor Court, grabs the reader and doesn't let go.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ronald Syme - The Roman Revolution

First published in 1939 this classic study of the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome still contains a wealth of scholarship for contemporary readers. The central thesis for Syme's is that a political revolution occurred which transformed the Roman city state into a Imperial nation, capable of fully developing its Empire and utilising the resources of the subjugated nations.

Like a more recent biographer of the first emperor, Syme's considers Augustus a revolutionary, helping to drive through the changes needed in Rome's political structures (notably the Senate) to allow the new Rome to prosper. As Syme's explains, the old order was unsuited to running the new Empire;

"The constitution served the purposes of generals or of demagogues well enough. When Pompeius returned from the East, he lacked the desire as well as the pretext to march on Rome; and Caesar did not conquer Gaul in the design of invading Italy with a great army to establish a military autocracy. Their ambitions and their rivalries might have been tolerated in a small city-state or in a Rome that was merely the head of an Italian confederation. In the capital of the world they were anachronistic and ruinous. To the bloodless but violent usurpations of 70 and 59 BC the logical end was armed conflict and despotism. As the soldiers were the proletariat of Italy, the revolution became social as well as political."

Caesar's victory began as "the triumph of a faction in civil war" but he was no social revolutionary. Despite wanting to curb some of the interests of the aristocracy, he was unable or unwilling to drive through the changes that many wanted to see. Augustus then, can in part be seen as a Bonapartist figure who, in the chaos following Caesar's death, was able to defeat all comers and then drive through the political changes needed to cement the regime in place. These changes began with a war on the old aristocracy, a "regular vendetta against the rich, whether dim, inactive senators or pacific knights". Thus the "foundations of the new order were cemented with the blood of citizens and buttressed with a despotism that made men recall the Dictatorship of Caesar as an age of gold." This may have been a revolution, but it was not one that radically transformed the social structure of Rome, nor that emancipated anyone from the lower echelons of Roman society. In fact, Augustus like those who preceded and followed him, claimed to be restoring things to an earlier Utopia. Those who fell at the battle of Philippi; the confrontation that ended the hopes of Caesar's assassins and ensured that Augustus and Antonious would be the sole figures vying for power, was "fought for a principle, a tradition and a class - narrow, imperfect and out-worn, but for all that, the soul and spirit of Rome."

Syme's analysis has much going for it. His book though suffers in part from the sheer scale of his material. With hundreds of references, quotes from original Latin sources, and enormous detail of the interlocking political alliances, this is almost impossible for the lay-person to follow. Syme's is more interested in the 100s of different senators and the long family trees of those in Augustus' circles, than with the lives of the majority of the population. Those more familiar with Roman history of the period might be surprised at how little mention there is of significant events (such as the death of Cleopatra).

Bigger problems are caused by Syme's refusal to translate any Latin quotes, which are sprinkled liberally through the text. One can only hope that modern readers have new editions which editors have not assumed that those interested have had a classical education.

Finally, Syme's is very much of his time. References to "Marches on Rome" and the importance of Rome having a strong leader to restore social stability smack very much of the late 1930s. That said, this doesn't read as an apology for dictatorship or contemporary fascism, but a scholarly attempt to grapple with enormous social change. A clearer understanding of the period can come from reading it, but those interested would be well advised to develop their knowledge of Roman history somewhat before attempting it.

Related Reading

Holland - Rubicon
Everitt - The First Emperor
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christian Høgsbjerg - Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade & Castaway

Subtitled Seamen's Organiser, Socialist and Militant Pan-Africanist this short new biography of Chris Braithwaite (known as Chris Jones) rescues a forgotten hero of the working class movement from relative obscurity. It is also a useful introduction to the politics of a period that saw the international Communist movement move from being a tribune of the oppressed peoples of the world, to an apologist for Stalin's Russia.

Braithwaite was born in Barbados. A seaman, he was widely travelled and after a time in New York he ended up, as so many inhabitants of British colonies did, in East London. There he rapidly became involved in the emerging movements that sought to organise seamen and the docks. In particular, Braithwaite tried to organise black seamen, who not only suffered the racism of the employers, but also that of their colleagues and on occasion, the Natonal Union of Seamen. His writings continually try to both organise workers, and build unity. In the appendices to this book, Høgsbjerg has collected a few of Jones' writings aimed at seamen, which give a flavour of this work. Here is Braithwaite/Jones writing in 1938:

"In the last issue of International African Opinion I appealed to ever colonial seaman to get into touch with the International African Service Bureau, which is willing to take up their grievances... I again repeat this appeal, and at the same time urge coloured seamen to take a greater interest in their union activities. For only through their organised might will they be able to mobilise the support of the white workers on their behalf."

Braithwaite, like many other radicals, became attracted to the Communist Party because of its principled anti-imperialism. Once the abandoned that position, Braithwaite, like many others, broke with Communism. But unlike many, Braithwaite didn't lose his radical socialism, speaking on platforms of the ILP and continuing to write for various journals. One memorable part of this book is a description of a meeting hosted to highlight the abuses in French Colonial Africa. This was the period of the "Popular Front" and Communist members at the time were being instructed to stop criticism of a government that their French party supported. As Communists heckled and accused the speaker who represented nationalist movements of Algeria, Tunisia and other French colonies, Braithwaite's powerful voice roared above the noise, "I'm with you, Boy" he encouraged the speaker.

The decline of maritime industry in Britain has no doubt helped lead to activists like Chris Braithwaite being forgotten. Alongside other recent works, such as the republishing of Madge Dresser's book on the Bristol Bus Boycott, Hassan Mahamdallie's pamphlet on Black British Rebels and the excellent, Say it Loud!, this book rescues those black activists who were often at the heart of working class struggles in Britain, fighting racism and winning workers to united action.

Related Reviews

Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism
Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Dresser - Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Marcus Rediker - Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Two events occurred while reading this book made me ruminate on the endless fascination that we have for pirates. The first was the coincidence of reading  Treasure Island at the same time. A book that perhaps invented many of the cliches, yet is so much part of popular consciousness that I felt I knew it by heart despite never having read it. Secondly was being asked by a fellow train passenger for this book's ISBN because in his words, he loved sea novels and wanted to know the real history.

Oddly the real history is very different to that portrayed by R. L. Stevenson, or countless other pirate films, books and plays. As Rediker himself points out,

"Traditional explanations of why people turned to piracy have emphasized greed, and there is certainly truth to this. Many who worked the pirate ship wanted money, which as dispossessed proletarians they desperately needed to live. But the struggle for money is more complex than simple greed, as pirates themselves made clear. Money meant simply getting a living... It meant subsistence for poor families... It meant escaping the brutalities of life at sea 'as long as they lived'... They were now 'Gentlemen of ffortune'."

Pirate ships were, in the main, organised very differently to naval or merchant vessels. By and large instead of a near dictatorial, violent hierarchy, pirates organised more democratically. They elected their captains and unelected them if they behaved incorrectly (perhaps by displaying cowardice in the face of the enemy). They redistributed wealth, and frequently displayed kindness and honour towards captives. They were brutal in battle, but this is no surprise, they were treated violently by their previous captains and were unlikely to escape death if captured. Indeed the violence on non-pirate ships is a singularly important factor leading many to rebel, or join pirate crews.

The new social order on-board pirate ships that Rediker describes has its roots in necessity. A new crew in open rebellion requires self organisation. But Rediker suggests that the closeness of the radical events of the English Civil War meant that "when sailors encountered the deadly conditions of life at sea in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they had an alternative social order within living memory."

This acute understanding of the realities of life was never far from the minds of the buccaneers. Pirate captain Charles Bellamy lectured a captured captain thus:

"damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security, for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery; but damn ye altogether: Damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numskuls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when their is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage."

Pirates organised themselves in egalitarian and democratic ways. They saw themselves as "honest men" trying to win justice for ordinary sailors. But this could not be left to stand. There were significant numbers of pirates and the various nation states organised to stop the destruction of commerce. This "cleansing of the ocean" meant the destruction of the pirates, but their popular acclaim inspired many tales and legends. Some of those have come down to us today, but the truth is far more inspiring and Marcus Rediker's fine history rescues it from Davy Jones' Locker.

Related Reviews

Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker & Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra

Friday, December 13, 2013

Richard Levins & Richard Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist

At first glance, some might think this is an extremely odd title for a book. After all, dialectics is essentially a philosophical term and biology is, well, science. But the author's purpose in bringing together these essays is more to argue that a dialectical approach to science, both in terms of scientific research and practice, as well as understanding the position of science in society, benefits immensely from a dialectical method. Indeed, science, they argue, is better when practiced dialectically.

So what does that mean? Firstly the authors begin from a radical position. "We believe that science, in all its sense, is a social process that both causes and is caused by social organisation." This is very different to the majority of other scientists, who often, as the authors argue, separate out specific points of science from wider contexts, social and indeed scientific. Some of the problems with this approach are outlined in this quote from the authors, pointing out the dangers in looking at only on aspect of an organisms biology:

"The mammalian ear is obviously an organ of hearing, but it has other properties as well. For acoustic reasons it is a thin organ with a large surface area, the blood vessels cannot be deep, so heat is very readily lost. In fact, desert mammals often have extraordinarily large ears that serve as organs of temperature regulation. In this case a physical by-product of the evolution of an organ had properties that themselves became the objects of [evolutionary] selection under the special conditions of the desert."

By only looking at one aspect of a scientific question, one can miss wider questions. A similar problem can occur when trying to understand organisms outside of wider environments. While this approach can be useful, isolating particular aspects of behaviour or biology to illuminate others,

"it eventually becomes an obstacle to further understanding; the division of the world into mutually exclusive categories may be logically satisfying, but in scientific activity no nontrivial classifications seem to be really mutually exclusive. Eventually their interpenetration becomes a primary concern of further research."

So, in terms of understanding organisms in the wider world;

"'Environment' cannot be understood merely as surroundings, not matter how dynamically. It is also way of life; the activity of the organism sets the stage for its own evolution."

The benefit of this book is the authors root such statements in clear examples, so,

"To understand the evolution of the sea lion from a primitive carnivore ancestor, we must support that at first the water was only a marginal habitat... A slight evolution of the animal to meet these demands made the aquatic environment a more significant part of the energetic expenditure of the proto-sea lion, so a shift in selective forces operated instantaneously on the shape of its limbs. Each change in the animal made the environment more aquatic, and each induced change in the environment led to further evolution of the animal."

The dialectical interaction between different aspects of the natural world here is merely one aspect of the book. Other sections look at the way that science within capitalist society is shaped by and shapes wider economic questions which in turn shape scientific and research needs. There is a particularly useful chapter here on agriculture.

Though is book is dated in parts, due to the data for some chapters stemming from the 1970s or 80s. The general political arguments hold sway and it should remain required reading for those interested in science and society. Interestingly the authors display an excellent sense of humour and the inclusion of work by Isidore Nabi, a fake scientist created to expose problems of mechanical scientific approaches are a welcome break from the more difficult chapters.

Related Reviews

Molyneux - The Point Is To Change It
Carson - Silent Spring

Monday, December 09, 2013

Jim Crace - Harvest

The enclosures that took place in England were part of a process of the development of productive forces in the countryside. In medieval times, they were often about local lords consolidating wealth. From the English Civil War onward, the destruction of common land and its associated rights, and the enclosure of farmland was explicitly about constructing capitalistic economic relationships in the countryside.

But writing something like the above paragraph hides so much. It ignores the violence used against those who formerly worked the land. It does not include the displacement of families, or the way that former labourers were pushed into new jobs in dirty, dangerous factories. It misses out the pain and anguish of turning land from grain to sheep.

Jim Crace's brilliant novel Harvest does. Telescoping the changes that take place in a small, remote English farm into a short week, Crace captures the transformation that enclosure imposed upon the poorest in England.

One morning, at the end of harvest, the village awakes to fire. The signal fire set by new arrivals in the area, and a fire in the Master's dove cote. The impact of both these events forms a backdrop to the wider changes, initially represented by Mr. Quill who is engaged in drawing maps of the village. The villagers cannot comprehend the way the land is transformed into coloured boxes on a piece of paper.

Few can understand the radical transformation that is about to take place. The kindly local Master wants none of it. But it turns out that he is not the real owner. By dint of the laws of inheritance his brother in law arrives, desperate to transform the village's economic outlook. Turning the families into shepherds, and the others? Well he'll build a church to preach charity. The outlook of this proto-capitalist is epitomized by his disbelief that the Master won't turn a beloved horse that has died into grease. Any opportunity for profit seems to be his mantra.

Jim Crace's village is timeless. But it is no pre-capitalist Utopia. The villagers struggle hard in the fields, finding relief in alcohol and sex. They dream of stopping work, but love and know their lands better than anyone else. They fear illness and injury and are sharply aware that even a small cut can prevent them contributing to the collective labour. While suffering is well known here, violence isn't, which makes the shock of the new even harder to deal with.

Brilliantly written, in clear, sharp prose, this is a wonderful novel of life in a changing countryside. It feels like a small glimpse into what happened in a thousand different villages, in a hundred different areas of the British Isles. The appalling reality of "primitive accumulation" brought to life.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Anthony Everitt - The First Emperor: Caesar Augustus and the Triumph of Rome

The fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome remains the central story that underpins all attempts to understand later-day Roman history.

Anthony Everitt's biography has at its heart the individual who personifies the historical transformation. Octavian, the man who became Caesar Augustus, was adopted posthumously by his great uncle, Julius Caesar. His adopted name gave him enormous gravitas in the years immediately following Caesar's murder, as did the enormous wealth that came with it. But Octavian was not an outsider to wealth and privileged. This was no upstart from the fields, or slave made good, Octavian was a Roman, and he fought to ensure the continuation of Rome.

The story of Octavian and his transformation into Augustus brings into play many of the great figures of Roman history. There is of course Julius Caesar, and Augustus' great rival, Mark Anthony. There is also Cleopatra, and to a lesser extent other wives and mistresses. Everitt also introduces many of the poets who were part of Augustus' circle. Though occasionally I felt lack of material meant that Everitt strays a little from his topic, delighting, on occasion, in salubrious detail. (Did we really need that Horace poem on his wet dream)?

That aside this is a useful and readable account of the period. A nice summary of Anthony and Cleopatra; the stories of Augustus' limitations as a military commander and the genius of those (Agrippa in particular) who laid the basis for Rome's Empire.

Whether named Octavian or Augustus, the subject of this biography is far from the fair minded ruler that some later Emperors claimed to wish to emulate. He was ruthless and violent. Whether or not he had Cleopatra murdered as some suggest, he certainly made sure her heirs were killed. Octavian was given "a personality makeover" even while alive. Stories were spread to convince the rest of the world that "the young revolutionary whose career had been founded on illegality and violence a respectable, conservative pedigree."

At the core of this book is this notion of revolution. To what extent did Augustus revolutionise Rome? There is no doubt that both Augustus and the other two members of his Triumvir engaged in a vicious, brutal fight to ensure they gained power. The destruction of much of the old Roman ruling class and the absorption of their wealth and land into the new Roman state seems, on the surface, revolutionary. Yet there seems more continuity in other respects. Roman remained a society based on slavery, and its political institutions, at least at a senate and regional level seemed very similar. And there was little between Augustus and his main rival Anthony, as Everitt comments, the "choice was simply between two kinds of autocracy: tidy and efficient, or laid-back and rowdy."

The Marxist historian of Rome, Neil Faulkner, has a different analysis. Rather than the revolutionary Augustus, he sees a stabilising force:

"Caesar’s brief rule in 45 to 44 BC was also ‘absolutist’-it was, in effect, that of a military dictator governing against the opposition of much of the ruling class but with strong popular backing. Caesarism was a form of what Marxists call ‘Bonapartism’. It arises when a clash of class forces produces chronic instability but no clear outcome-when there is no revolutionary class able to seize power for itself and remodel society in its own image. In such circumstances, revolutionary leadership can be ‘deflected’-it may devolve on ‘strongmen’ who lift themselves above the warring factions, building support by promising popular reform and a restoration of order, and maintaining power by balancing between evenly matched class forces. Caesar, the imperialist warlord and popular reformer, provided ‘deflected’ leadership to the Roman Revolution, and, once in power, ‘Bonapartist’ leadership to the fractured Roman state. His immediate successor, Octavian-Augustus (30 BC to AD 14), who became the first emperor, led a conservative reaction which largely restored the unity of a Roman ruling class that was now purged, enlarged and more open to recruitment from below. It was this that distinguished Caesar from Augustus, not that one was a democrat and the other an absolutist."

The "Roman Revolution" had begun some years earlier and Augustus was, in large part, consolidating earlier change. But it was less a revolution and more, in Faulkner's words, of "a struggle between aristocratic factions over the future of empire". By strengthening the Roman state, expanding and developing it, Augustus was making it into the system that could govern most of the known world. In this context Augustus was less of a revolutionary and more the figure who ensured that change became permanent.

It might be suggested that this is a minor part of Everitt's book. But it does get to the heart of who Augustus was. While much of the biography is readable and fascinating and an excellent introduction to Roman history, I felt the core argument lacked strength and undermined the viability of the whole work. That said, this is a complicated period that has challenged all those who have tried to understand those turbulent Roman years. While I don't agree with all of Everitt's conclusions, his book is an excellent introduction and will give readers a useful over-view of the subject.

Related Reviews

Symes - The Roman Revolution
Parenti - The Assassination of Julius Caesar 
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Holland - Rubicon