I finished A.H.M. Jones' worthwhile short biography of Augustus Caesar back in 2018. I posted this on FB, but decided it was worth importing to the blog.
At the end of this excellent survey, Jones attempts to assess the character of the sphinx-like man who was startled to learn at age 18 that the great-uncle he hero-worshipped, Julius Caesar, had adopted him as his son in his will--and named him his heir.
No pressure there. And never mind the target on your back.
That he was intelligent, capable and sometimes ruthless is not in doubt. The primary sources are good, showing a man who managed to dodge the falling rubble of the Roman Republic, survive the efforts of more experienced intriguers and better generals than he and rallied battle-hardened legions to his banner. In the space of 14 years, he went from a young man slightly famous for being Caesar's relative to the apex of the Roman world.
And he stayed on top of it for more than forty years, dying of old age.
Jones evaluated the evidence and noted what the record showed a man who was shrewd, conniving, sometimes harsh but more often generous, eager for power but a stickler for legalism, quite willing to kill to cement his authority but also capable of shame for it, a servant of the public but determined to get credit for it.
Keeping in mind the public nature of the sources, Jones notes that all of this can be credibly read in multiple ways, positive and negative, leaving us with the enigma: who was this man, really?
It was at this point that Jones pointed out one salient fact that the historical records agreed upon: Augustus had friends. Good friends--men who stuck by him for life, and he by them. Men who were themselves capable, intelligent and had advice worth taking. And Augustus grieved their loss.
I think this insight into Augustus is a handy key for looking at historical figures across the centuries. Did X have friends? What kind of people were they? How did he treat them, and they him?
In fact, it's probably not a bad way to evaluate people in general, as Frank Capra wisely pointed out about sixty years ago.