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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
John Buchan

published by
Hodder and Stoughton
London 1937

The text is in the public domain.

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Book I
Chapter I

 p7  Preface

This book is an attempt to understand a little part of the mind of a great man. In my youth I was fascinated by Julius Caesar, and was ready to believe, with Mommsen and his school, that the constructive ideas commonly attributed to his great-nephew were born of his genius. As my studies continued I felt this view to be untenable, and not less that other which seems to be taking its place to‑day, and which would make Agrippa the true architect of the Roman empire. I came to see that Augustus, while he had able colleagues — and one of his gifts was his power to choose collaborators — was always the master designer and the chief executant. I seemed to find in his work a profound practical intelligence which is even rarer in history than a seminal idealism. Consequently since my undergraduate days Augustus has inspired me with a lively interest, which has been sustained by such experience as I have had, under varied conditions, of those problems of government which are much the same in every age. Two Canadian winters have enabled me to complete a task begun many years ago.

Gibbon complained that he had to "collect the actions of Trajan from the glimmerings of an abridgment or the doubtful light of a panegyric." The authorities for Augustus are scarcely more satisfactory. The chief contemporary sources are lost: the thirteen books of Augustus's own autobiography; the three books of the correspondence between him and Cicero; the memoirs of Agrippina; the works of Asinius Pollio and Messalla Corvinus; the thirty books of Livy which covered the period from 44 to 9 B.C.; the pamphlets of men like Damascus. Much of our material, too, for the understanding of Roman thought and society is gone: nearly Oppius and Julius Saturninus, and most of Nicolaus of  p8 all the minor poets; a good deal of Cicero; the plays which were not paraphrases from the Greek, after Plautus or Terence, but true transcripts of Roman life. Some of these lost sources are no doubt embodied in the work of later chroniclers, but it is impossible to know what is an authentic borrowing and what is the author's gloss. Apart from minor contemporaries like Strabo and Velleius, we are chiefly dependent on authors who lived from half a century to two centuries later — Plutarch, Appian, Suetonius, the two Plinys, and Dio Cassius, and these were moralists or gossip-writers, with little historical conscience. The one man of genius, Tacitus, also wrote long after the event, and, as was said of Carlyle, he "preferred seriousness to truth."

Happily the imperfect literary sources can be supplemented by important archaeological and epigraphical matter. Since consequent envoys of the Emperor Ferdinand II first copied the Monumentum Ancyranum in 1555, every century has brought new discoveries. Papyri have made clear many points in the administration of Egypt, and inscriptions containing laws, edicts and senatusconsults have extended our knowledge of provincial government. The brilliant work of the excavators has shed new light upon Augustan sculpture and architecture. But, when all has been said, we have still scanty materials to estimate the man and his work. A principal guide must still be tradition; we know that succeeding ages believed certain things about him, and a long-continued belief cannot be without warrant.

A great scholar has written of the fallibility of all historical reconstruction: "The tradition yields us only ruins. The more closely we test and examine them, the more clearly we see how ruinous they are, and out of ruins no whole can be built. Tradition is dead; our task is to revivify life that has passed away. We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood, and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts. We give it to them gladly, and if they then abide our question something from us has entered into them."1 I am conscious that my interpretation of Augustus is a  p9 personal thing, coloured insensibly by my own beliefs. But, since the historian is most at home in an age which resembles his own, I hope that the convulsions of our time may give an insight into the problems of the early Roman empire which was perhaps unattainable by scholars who lived in easier days.

I have been compelled to make large drafts on the kindness of my friends in Europe, and would especially thank for their generous assistance Professor Hugh Last of Oxford and Count Roberto Weiss.

J. B.

Government House, Ottawa

The Author's Note:

1 Wilamowitz, Greek Historical Writing and Apollo, 25.º

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