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August not so perfect

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Octavian Augustus
Octavian Augustus

Suetonius mentions that one of the most powerful people in the ancient world – Octavian Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE) did not impress with height and had crooked teeth. He was prone to hypochondria. He was afraid of the storm, avoided the sun and rarely bathed because he thought it was healthier. He also had a problem getting up in the morning. 

This is how his appearance is described by Suetonius:

He was unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life, though he cared nothing for personal adornment. He was so far from being particular about the dressing of his hair, that he would have several barbers working in a hurry at the same time, and as for his beard he now had it clipped and now shaved, while at the very same time he would either be reading or writing something. […]

His teeth were wide apart, small, and ill-kept; his hair was slightly curly and inclining to golden; his eyebrows met. His ears were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little at the top and then bent slightly inward. His complexion was between dark and fair. He was short of stature, but this was concealed by the fine proportion and symmetry of his figure, and was noticeable only by comparison with some taller person standing beside him. […]

It is said that his body was covered with spots and that he had birthmarks scattered over his breast and belly, corresponding in form, order and number with the stars of the Bear in the heavens; also numerous callous places resembling ringworm, caused by a constant itching of his body and a vigorous use of the strigil. He was not very strong in his left hip, thigh, and leg, and even limped slightly at times; but he strengthened them by treatment with sand and reeds.

Suetonius, Augustus, 79-80

The writer, however, emphasizes the beating strength from Octavian’s eyes. Among other things, he describes the story of Gaul, who planned to kill the emperor. This is how Suetonius describes the situation:

[…] one of the leading men of the Gallic provinces admitted to his countrymen that it had softened his heart, and kept him from carrying out his design of pushing the emperor over a cliff, when he had been allowed to approach him under the pretence of a conference, as he was crossing the Alps. He had clear, bright eyes, in which he liked to have it thought that there was a kind of divine power, and it greatly pleased him, whenever he looked keenly at anyone, if he let his face fall as if before the radiance of the sun.

Suetonius, Augustus, 79

Next Suetonius describes his health problems:

He sometimes found the forefinger of his right hand so weak, when it was numb and shrunken with the cold, that he could hardly use it for writing even with the aid of a finger-stall of horn. He complained of his bladder too, and was relieved of the pain only after passing stones in his urine.

In the course of his life he suffered from several severe and dangerous illnesses, especially after the subjugation of Cantabria, when he was in such a desperate plight from abscesses of the liver, that he was forced to submit to an unprecedented and hazardous course of treatment. Since hot fomentations gave him no relief, he was led by the advice of his physician Antonius Musa to try cold ones.

He experienced also some disorders which recurred every year at definite times; for he was commonly ailing just before his birthday; and at the beginning of spring he was troubled with an enlargement of the diaphragm, and when the wind was in the south, with catarrh. Hence his constitution was so weakened that he could not readily endure either cold or heat.

Suetonius, Augustus, 80-81

From the description of Suetonius, a not perfect man emerges; about a rather morbid organism, which he tried to make up for his physical deficiencies with confidence.

Sources
  • Chełminiak Wiesław, Polityk prawie doskonały, "Rzeczpospolita", 19-20 July 2014
  • Suetoniusz, Augustus

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