Why August (not September) is called August

What's that fat little bugger doing to my leg?

The month of July gets its name from the birthday of Gaius Julius Caesar. Fair enough. But what about August?

This one always baffled me. Octavian, who was Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son (as everybody discovered to great surprise when reading Caesar’s will), and who would be the future Emperor Augustus was born in September, not August.

September was also when, in 31 BC, Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the sea battle of Actium, thus ending the long civil wars and, in effect, the Roman republic, and installing himself as princeps. Before long he would be “Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus”, or “Commander Caesar, son of god, the Illustrious.” I have asked my wife to address me in this fashion and eagerly await her reply.

So why the month before September?

Well, I just found out, while still reading about Cleopatra, whom I have just made a minor character in one chapter of my book. As it turns out, it had everything to do with Cleopatra. It took Octavian a good year to consolidate his gains after Actium, and he only showed up at Cleo’s capital of Alexandria–you guessed it by now–on August 1 of the following year.

A few icy gestures later, and Antony had shoved a sword into his abdomen, while Cleopatra injected herself with the venom of a snake–Virgil says “two asps”–or perhaps a comb. That was not yet all, however. Cleopatra had had a son with Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion (“little Caesar”) and he was the one man alive who might compete with Octavian in claiming to be Caesar’s heir. Cleo had sent him running as soon as Octavian was approaching, but Octavian’s thugs caught up with him. No more Caesarion.

So August was a big month for Octavian, which is why, when he became Augustus, he named it after himself. Now that I know how these things work, I’m going to try to do something, oh, next November or so. Kluthy. Kluthust. Kluthember. Details to be announced.

Goldsworthy on The Punic Wars

And back again to the bibliography for my book.

We’re still in the “history” section, as opposed to the “biography” section, but we’ve mostly dealth with the ancient sources (Polybius, Livy and Plutarch). So now I’ll move into the modern writers.

Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy

If I had to choose just one book to give you a fun but thorough overview of Hannibal, it would be Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars.

It’s actually a good idea to read the story of all three Punic Wars in one, because you can’t understand Hannibal’s war (the Second Punic War) without the other two. It would be as though a history student two-thousand years from now were trying to understand World War II without knowing anything about World War I or the Cold War.

Goldsworthy does a good job of minimizing the clutter (footnotes, parenthetical interruptions aimed at other academics and such) that usually makes academic books unreadable. He gives you great context. For instance, it’s probably not immediately obvious why sieges almost never worked in the ancient world (which is important, since Hannibal, at the crucial moment, decided not to lay siege to Rome). So Goldsworthy describes what it was like to attack and defend a city–all the tunneling and ramming and laddering and sulphur-smeared-javelin-hurling and so forth.

Being British, Goldsworthy also lets his sense of irony peek through on occasion, which brings relief. (Asked what his philosophy of life is, he tells his interlocutor here that “I’m English, so obviously do not have a philosophy.” That’s the sort of thing I mean.)

His more recent book is a biography of Julius Caesar, which I’ve also read and loved. But I’m forcing myself to leave Caesar out of my book because, as my wife has informed me, there are enough ancient dudes in it as it is.

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The father of biography



Let’s get back to the bibliography for my book.

Right now–while we’re still dealing with the ancient sources–I’m going through the texts in chronological order. And after Polybius and Livy, that brings me to Plutarch.

You recall that Herodotus was the father of history. Well, Plutarch must be the father of biography. Like Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius, he was Greek. But Plutarch lived much later, in the first and second century AD–three centuries after Hannibal and Scipio. So I don’t use Plutarch because I think he has any scoops over Polybius, or more accurate information. Why, then, do I use (and love) Plutarch?

Because he was the first to take an interest in character. That’s what he wanted to capture: the characters of the great Greeks and Romans. For that he used the big events and deeds in their lives and, just as much, the tiniest but telling details. Occasionally, he may have stretched the facts a bit, but, hey, let’s relax about that and just enjoy.

In that respect, of course, Plutarch does exactly what I aspire to do in my book. I too want to capture how characters respond to success and failure, ups and downs.

Plutarch’s main work was his Parallel Lives (which we usually read in the John Dryden translation), in which he paired one great Greek with one great Roman. Alexander the Great, for instance, is paired with Julius Caesar, and so on.

Hannibal was neither Greek nor Roman, so we don’t have a Life with his name as title. But Hannibal, who is my main character, features prominently in several of Plutarch’s Lives: Fabius (who also plays a big role in my book), Marcellus (a Roman consul killed by Hannibal), Cato the Elder, Flamininus (conqueror/liberator of the Greeks and the man who finally hounded Hannibal into suicide).

Plutarch’s life of Pyrrhus, which I’ve quoted from, is one of my favorites, by the way.

The tragedy is that many of his lives are lost. And the loss that hurts most is, of course, the Life of Scipio, my other main character.

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