Mary Kaye Schilling
October 11, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

If only Anthony Everitt’s recounting of Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian (who became Augustus) lived up to its promise of bringing the man to ”magnificent life.” Dogged life is more like it. I must be missing the gene that makes tactical maneuvers comprehensible, for I spent half of Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor in a veritable fog of war. In a nutshell: It took a lot of skirmishes with various unwashed masses (including Gauls, the regular and long-haired variety) to keep the Roman empire percolating. The wily and wildly contradictory Augustus — who managed to stay on top of one helluva bloodthirsy heap for an astonishing 40 years — is nearly defeated by the scholarly Everitt’s lumbering, repetitive prose. So thank Jupiter for the inhererent bawdiness of the times: In a scene straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Octavian’s army is attacked by yet another enemy, this time with lead balls, ”many with brief, rude messages like ‘Loose Octavius, sit on this”’ and, rather more feebly, ”Lucius is bald.”

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