Biographies

I can’t imagine writing a biography. After all, a person’s whole life is such a large, amorphous body of information, data, events, influences, and ambitions, only by focusing on a few selected items can the author create a theme or a firm impression of an individual. Sometimes, the author throws away parts of his subject’s life which would seem central to any outside observer.


The most aggregious example from recent memory is American Prometheus, the biography of Robert Oppenheimer. By ignoring virtually anything associated with science or research, Martin Sherwin was able to concentrate only on the political and personal issues of Oppenheimer’s life, emphasizing his role as a martyr to McCarthy-era machinations. It’s not to say that Oppenheimer was not a martyr for 1950’s scare politics, but I sorely missed any reference to the science that Oppenheimer himself would undoubtedly want his life associated with.

Martin Sherwin spent 25 years working on this opus, and interviewed a vast range of people from Oppenheimer’s life. I believe he was simply deluged with data, and had to have a central thesis to wrap his book around. It is certainly clearly written, painstakingly researched and the heart of the author is there for all to see. Nonetheless, it is not a book to recommend to anyone with an interest in Oppenheimer as a scientist.



Anthony Everitt has written two biographies where the quantity and quality of data simply would not lead him to the same problem. There is not enough information about the lives of Cicero or Augustus to cherry-pick the data in the way that Sherwin does with Oppenheimer. Cicero was the best book I read in 2003, in large part because Everitt used his time and space to paint a more full picture of life in first century BCE Rome than any I have even seen before. He had to, in light of the paucity of real data about his subject.


With Augustus, Everitt has significantly more data to work with and uses most of the length of the book filling in details of his subject. There is less general information about the historical setting, and it makes this book somewhat less interesting than Cicero. Everitt’s central thesis is that Augustus was a great politicial personality, ingratiating himself to the Roman people and Senate in a time of Civil War in order to gain their voluntary acceptance as the first Emperor of Rome. Even Everitt points out, in the last chapter of the book, that this might not be an accurate summation. It’s hard to know, since most sources on his life are not contemporary, but written 50 to 100 years after his death and it would be difficult to separate the “spin” from facts.

The book simply shines broadly in one particular area. In most of the history that I have studied or read, the time from the death of Casear in 44 BCE to the battle of Actium in 31 BCE is glossed over, with some general reference made to the confusing time of Civil War. Everitt’s Augustus attacks this era head-on, devoting more than half of the length of the book to a detailed description of a wide range of ever-changing events as Augustus sees them.

It is a tribute to Everitt that he is able to make this work. He walks the reader through each of the treacheries, back-stabs and revolts in vivid detail; giving each of the individuals understandable motiviations and reasons for doing the things that they do. And he does this without needlessly confusing the reader–I only caught myself re-reading passages once or twice to make sure I understood the double- and triple-crossing going on.

After the whirlwind of intense political intrigue carefully presented in those 150 or 200 pages, the remainder of Augustus’ life is a poor tale of family trouble with wives and nephews and stepsons that seems lackluster.

Its a massive and heroic work, by any measure. It only falls flat in that the intensity of the Civil War discourse simply can’t be continued into Augustus’ later life.


Reviews:
Cicero, by Anthony Everitt
Augustus, by Anthony Everitt
American Prometheus, by Martin Sherwin

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