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Augustus who?

The tyrant? The statesman? The warlord? The monarchist? These are the questions that pop up in my mind most of the time when in my readings about Rome I confront his presence. I cannot lie; I am a big admirer of the Roman Republic to the point that sometimes I make the mistake of idealizing it too much. When I think about the Western Civilization I cannot stop thinking about how much it owes to one of its parents: The Greco-Roman Civilization. The roots of our republics lie to a great extent in the institutional legacy and example bequeathed by the Romans to the world. Therefore, the last century BC of the Roman Republic fascinates me at the same time that generates in me some sort of melancholy as that marvelous experience of self-rule comes to an end to be replaced by the most common form of government in human history: monarchy.


Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (63 BC-14 CE)

The Roman example is more astonishing if we consider that no great world power ever considered adopting a similar system of government after many centuries had elapsed. And certainly, humanity had to wait to the tumultuous 19th century and the tragedies of the 20th century to see the principle of self-rule proliferate and emerge victorious from its eternal struggle with autocracy.  To me that speaks of an unparalleled political genius only matched by the Greeks in the 5th century BC when they invented democracy. In consequence, to understand the demise of the Roman Republic I had to confront the man that finally brought it down and why. Two fascinating books offered me that opportunity: Ronald Syme’s masterful The Roman Revolution, and Adrian Goldsworthy biography Augustus: The First Emperor of Rome. From these readings I delved into the reasons why the Republic disappeared and what were the steps taken to replace it with the Principate. I also had the time to reflect on Augustus’ character and arrive to a more balanced conclusion of his role in this period. It is not my purpose to argue that what follows are the only explanations to the end of the Republic. I am just interested in the institutional decay that led to the Principate, and in understanding more thoroughly the person of Augustus. These are the motives guiding the next lines that seek to open the discussion for other interested readers of the period.

Note: for the sake of simplicity I chose the name of Augustus throughout the text to make reference to the Roman statesman and first emperor of Rome. However, bear in mind that he adopted that name after it was conferred to him by the Senate in 27 BC. His original name was Gaius Octavius, also known as Octavian or Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (after his adoption by Julius Caesar).

The Dissolution of the Republic

Ambition and recognition were at the core of Roman politics. The Republic was an oligarchic regime controlled by aristocratic families that led the Roman State for generations. It was also democratic in the sense that the citizenry elected their magistrates but could never aspire to office unless they belonged to the senatorial rank and fulfilled certain requirements. For senators upholding libertas it meant preserving the system that allowed them to share power, guide magistrates elected in open competition, and replace them constantly so everyone could have access to political office and profit. This system began to crack at the end of the 2nd century BC for many reasons. The assassination of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 133 BC heralded the radicalization and polarization of Roman politics to levels never seen before.

To understand the political environment in which Octavius (the original name of Augustus) thrived it is important to notice the institutional decay of the previous decades that made his rise possible.  The disruption of legality, the flouting of laws and the constant usurpation of power, follow a trajectory that reveals constant civil wars; in 100 BC a tribune, Lucius Saturninus, was stoned to death by his fellow colleagues; The Social War of 91 BC pitted the Roman State against the communities of Italy that demanded political enfranchisement into the Commonwealth; In 88 BC what followed was the first march of a Roman general against his own city that led to the complete supremacy of Lucius Cornelius Sulla until 78 BC; then more commotion with the rebellion of Lepidus in 78 BC, the Catilinarian Conspiracy of 63 BC to overthrow the State, culminating with the Civil war between Caesar and Pompey (49-45 BC), and Cesar’s dictatorship and assassination in 44 BC (when Augustus became important in Roman politics).

During the span of these decades serious anomalies undermined the Roman constitution. The dictatorships of this period were not inspired by the limited office created by the Romans. Instead, the new version was imposed over the Free State with a strong autocratic zeal. Sulla’s march to Rome set a precedent to be followed in the future by more ambitious generals. The conscription of private and illegal armies by wealthy citizens became more common and what is worse, individuals started to climb up to the top of the political hierarchy ignoring the legal steps required by the cursus honorum to hold office. Finally, constant warfare, proscriptions, exile and murder drained the oligarchy of talent and vigor to redress the malaise that afflicted the political body. Bit by bit all the institutional fabric binding together the Roman Commonwealth and regulating its political life started to fall apart. This process was expedited after Caesar’s assassination by a band of senators that called themselves Liberators.  The year 44 BC marks the period in which Augustus stepped onto the political stage changing everything forever.


Julius Caesar death at the hands of the Liberators

Tresviri rei publicae constituendae

Augustus’ rise is full of irregularities and shows an explicit contempt for the law. Though a member of the formal aristocracy, his background was that of an outsider. From a local community in Italy (Velitrae), his father (Caius Octavius) was the first of the family to enter the Senate and reach the praetorship before dying. In consequence, from the beginning, Augustus did not have an aristocratic lineage to brag about. Hence, his obsession to associate his name to the royal house of the Julii once the dictator adopted him as a son in his will. He could be considered a homus novus, and in other periods it would have been really difficult for him to rise within the nobility. Nonetheless, this “modest” background coupled with the decay of the traditional noble houses and republican institutions, made his appearance on the political stage more fascinating.

After the death of the dictator different factions of the Senate entered into conflict. In the ensuing chaos the faction led by Marcus Tullius Cicero could not muster the strength necessary to confront Marcus Antonius and restore concord. In an astonishing move they not only sought the support of the nineteen year old Augustus, and the private and illegal army he had raised, but also gave him propraetorian imperium enrolling him in the Senate, and grading him as a quaestor almost ten years before the legal age to hold that office. The next year he became consul (commonly held at the age of 42). Of course, there were precedents for this. Pompey also raised a private army during his youth and became consul without holding any office before. Balbus and Salvidienus are other notorious examples. These were the symptoms of an ailing Republic.

Laws and institutions received an even more devastating blow with the passing of the Lex Titia of 43 BC establishing a triumvirate to set the Roman State in order (Tresviri rei publicae constituendae). This was in effect the creation of a new dictatorship with almost unlimited power excepting the constraints that each partner could put upon the other triumvir. Among the great prerogatives that Antonius, Lepidus and Augustus had was the naming of magistrates for the upcoming years in effect suspending free competition for office. The result was that all the magistracies, and specially the consulship, never regained their former autonomy and authority, and the Republic came under the control of tyrants.

If the Republic was not dismantled by this date it marks the beginning of the end of the Free State. After the Battle of Phillipi the last cohort of senators fighting to restore their own conception of libertas lay death on the battlefield. Decades of constant strife and violence took its toll among the aristocracy, draining it completely from experience and leadership. It also brought havoc among the people of Italy and the provinces who witnessed death, proscriptions and banditry.

At least for the moment Augustus showed himself as an effective tyrant, ordering hundreds of proscriptions and executions, seizing the property of fellow senators, and exhibiting a discrete disregard for republican institutions. It is hard to know if he ever truly believed in the system. But again, he was born in a period so dysfunctional and full of chaos that it is not a surprise if he thought that the Republic needed “drastic” changes in order to survive. In any case, I must say that it is also admirable to see how an inexperienced kid of nineteen years old of irrelevant background, plunged himself into the vortex of Roman politics with only money, the support of a small and unknown circle of loyal friends (Marcus Agrippa, Maecenas and Salvidienus Rufus among them), and the prestige and auctoritas attached to the name of Julius Cesar.  In that sense he was a complete outsider that rose to challenge the authority of established leaders such as Antonius or Lepidus. On top of that in a world of armies, he never displayed military talent. Finally, he had poor health throughout his life. Whit this prognosis what he achieved later is almost unbelievable.

The transition towards a New Order

The years between Phillipi (42 BC) and Actium (31 BC) witnessed a tense peace interrupted by interludes of infighting as the triumvirs veered towards supreme power. Most notable conflicts are the Perusine War (40-41 BC) and the Battle of Naulochus (36 BC) which saw the defeat of Sextus Pompeius (son of Pompey), and the political demise of Lepidus after he was stripped off his triumvir powers and sent into exile. What this interlude explains is that even when the “republican” faction was defeated the threat of civil war still lurked over Rome as long as there was rivalry among the leading men of the State. The naval battle of Actium (that saw the end of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra) removed the last obstacle in Augustus’s path to supremacy. It is from this date on that he seized complete control of the Republic. During this period he remained in Italy amassing a large following, building coalitions with the remaining aristocratic houses, and attending to the needs of the people. His military successes were possible thanks to extremely competent generals such as Agrippa. Also political propaganda was used to persuade the Romans that Augustus was fighting a foreign threat (Queen Cleopatra) and not a fellow Roman, and that the fate of the Roman world rested in his hands. After Actium the transition towards the Principate took place.

People can often think that the transition from Republic to Empire was immediate. What comes before Augustus is the shared power of the aristocracy and after him the rule of the emperors. To begin with, Rome did not become an Empire with Augustus. Rome was already an imperial republic at least from the 3rd century BC. That is the reason why the term Principate is more appropriate for the new regime. Augustus could have internally professed support for a monarchic form of government but he never advocated for it explicitly. Throughout his life he cared about republican forms and preferred to be called princeps, or the first citizen among equals. In sum, the Principate displayed an external façade preserving the traditions and names of republican institutions. Internally, it became the rule of a single man more akin to a military dictator than a king.

Institutional changes

If the process towards shaping a new order took years and even decades, what were the specific measures taken to drastically alter the constitution of the Roman State? This is a question that always interested me and deserves attention because its answer points to the effective dismantling of the Republic from 31 BC to 14 CE.


Naval Battle of Actium 31BC

From 31 BC on Augustus became consul each year until 23 BC by popular election. But the first important measure would not come until the year 27 BC. The Roman Empire would be divided in provinces ruled by the Senate and provinces under the care of the princeps. He was given imperium proconsulare or complete authority over his provinces. This was the first measure to curb the ambition of the nobility. Augustus was allotted those provinces in the frontiers in which the bulk of the military was concentrated. He would govern them through legates with delegated imperium. Meanwhile, the remaining provinces handled by the Senate were already pacified with small or irrelevant military garrisons. Governors would be drawn from praetorian ranks not consular, and from new families. This meant that men from the nobility had less access to profit and military glory, deterring anyone from challenging Augustus’ position. Also this is the year when he formally requested to transfer back the powers conferred to him by the Roman Commonwealth. The Senate rejected this motion and instead bequeathed on him more powers. Though this political sham was probably orchestrated by his own supporters, it can be safely assumed that no one wished to go back to the period of free political competition and violence that had consumed so many generations. Finally, 27 BC also marks the year in which Octavius was awarded by the Senate the title of Augustus and referred as such from there on.

The next significant change came in 23 BC when some particular events made Augustus reconsider his role at the head of the state. By this year he had held the most important offices of the Republic and had triumphed several times. He stepped down from holding any other office for most of the remainder of his life. Nonetheless, he received two formidable powers that would become the foundations of the new regime. The Senate and People of Rome bestowed upon him maius imperium proconsulare and tribunicia potestas. This meant that Augustus had military authority over any territory of the Empire including senatorial provinces governed by proconsuls. More important though, he received the prerogatives and authority of the tribunes that were added to the sacrosanctity of his person conferred in 36 BC. This implied that he could convene the Senate whenever he wanted, veto any decision from other magistrates and pass legislation through the Assemblies. Of course, this does not mean that he was not exercising these powers covertly before but now they were officially bestowed for perpetuity upon him and attached to his person not to an office.  Around this time he also received permanent consular powers, and from now on he would sit between the two curule chairs belonging to the consuls elected each year.

These changes point towards the centralization of power under him, diminishing the authority and dignity of the Senate and the magistracies. It is important to notice that all of this was done through a thin veil of legality. All powers and distinctions were voted and conceded by the Senate and the People of Rome. Augustus was extremely popular at this period and people were experiencing the beneficial consequences of years of peace. Thus, even if he used his power to bend the rules in his favor, there is little evidence to suggest that the people would have wanted a different outcome. Until his death Augustus also allowed limited competition for office; always vetting and overseeing the election of new magistrates.  In any case, of outmost importance to him was the preservation of republican forms at all times.

By 19 BC Rome witnessed the last triumph awarded to an individual not directly linked to Augustus’ family. Balbus the Younger celebrated his campaigns as proconsul of Africa. From now on no other member of the nobility could celebrate a triumph nor could they be hailed as Imperator (victorious general) on the battlefield. Senators were not allowed to visit provinces without previous approval from the princeps. They could not have their own clientela or public buildings erected at private expense. Thus, there was no monument, road, triumph, profit or glory left to the nobility. Augustus effectively tamed and harnessed the power of the nobiles to the service of the Roman People, robbing them of honor and authority in the process.

What kind of government did Augustus conceive for the future? Probably he did not know that until the end of his life but the elevation of Agrippa to the same status as him in 18 BC suggests the intention of having some sort of collegiate body of principes ruling the Empire and sharing powers and responsibilities. Marcellus, Gaius, Julius, Drusus and Tiberius, all received similar or equal prerogatives in due course. Another important innovation was the creation of a concilium principis, a board formed by the most experienced men of the State and trusted advisers to guide legislation before bringing any issue to the Senate floor. The membership was temporary and rotated among senators. This body is the precursor of what eventually became the royal court of the emperors.

By 13 BC the Senate commissioned an altar commemorating the peace brought by Augustus to the Roman world (Ara Pacis Augustae). Later in 2 BC another honor was bestowed upon him Pater Patriae. These were symbolic honors but important before the eyes of the Roman People. Two other crucial reforms ended the job of abolishing the Republic. In 12 CE, an ailing Augustus decided to bolster the powers conferred to the consilium principis. Membership became permanent and decisions now counted as decrees emanating from the whole Senate, reducing this body to something close to impotence. The legal termination of the Republic can be dated to 14 CE when Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, abolished the free election of magistrates by the people and transferred those prerogatives to the Senate.

The abolition of the Republic took several years and it was not until the death of Augustus (on 14 CE)  that the foundations of the new regime were firmly established. After Actium he devoted his energies to tour the provinces and address the many grievances of the communities. Public works under his auspices flourished throughout the Empire as competent men like Agrippa built roads, aqueducts, public baths, restored temples and improved the public services of the State; specifically water supply and the provision of cheap food.  Artists, led by Maecenas, played an important role buttressing the new regime and guiding public opinion towards the embrace of the New State. There was no hint of suppression of literature or of alternate views of facts[1]. But the official discourse of the government was relentlessly promoted and probably any criticism was eclipsed by the deluge of opinions supporting Augustus.

In his official account of Rome’s history, he crafted a hegemonic “national” discourse in which he rehabilitated the memory of old enemies as sanitized versions of themselves, expanding the list of summi viri (the greatest men in Roman history), and removing all negative association to civil war. In this unified and coherent version he turned all of them into his predecessors culminating with the deeds of the greatest of all: himself. That is the master narrative that could have be found inside the Forum of Augustus.


Forum of Augustus

There was also an important generational shift that took place. By the end of his peaceful reign (or forty one years in power) no one could remember how life under the Republic was. And those who could did not have many incentives to go back. So much conflict had battered the political ideals of the nobility and curbed the aristocracy’s instinctive ambition. It can be inferred that the public consensus leaned towards consent of Augustus’ rule even if that meant submission to him. However, the Principate was not free of threats. Ambitious men tried to plot against Augustus. The most notable occasions being the clumsy plot planned in 23 BC by Fabius Caepio and the disturbances fomented by Marcus Egnatius Rufus in 19 BC, the last senator willing and able to use force to get his way. But in overall terms for almost everyone peace had benefited the whole Commonwealth and there was no desire to resurrect libertas.

The restoration of the Roman Republic had a brief chance of succeeding in the eve of Caligula’s assassination in 41 CE. The Senate convened to discuss this possibility but the Praetorian Guard had other ideas in mind and proclaimed Claudius the new emperor. This episode demonstrates that senators who did not have any recollection of a life under a republican system were willing, maybe with certain melancholy, to resurrect what now appeared as an idealized form of government of the past. It did not succeed because even if the Senate was still an important political body this was a new Rome in which the military, and specially the Praetorian Guard, had the final saying. There was never any other attempt to go back.


Going back to the main issue of this post who is Augustus then? It is a question that cannot be answered in absolute terms. The task is even more difficult when you try to set aside your own moral standards from interfering with the judgement of the man, especially in an age in which democracy, the rule of law, and human rights are the dominant values of the Western Hemisphere.  It is hard not to think of Augustus in negative terms; as the destroyer of the Republic and the legacy upon which part of our own political systems stand. But at the same time, what worth did that system of government had in the last century BC amid war, poverty, violence and proscriptions? Those were the final symptoms of the dying Free State. Who could uphold libertas if no one was left alive to defend it? In that light my perception of Augustus becomes more reasonable.

I would divide Augustus life in two parts. One part encompasses his rise to power as a triumvir until the battle of Actium. The last part would go from that final struggle to end “all civil wars” to the last days of his life.

The young Augustus shows the worst traits of his character. He was treacherous, cruel, prone to outbursts of anger and disrespectful of Roman institutions and the law. He was a warlord and a murderer no better than his colleagues in the triumvirate. However, it seems those qualities were the required ones to navigate war and politics in such perilous times and prevail. But other tyrants before him had shown more leniency, sparing innocent lives. If this period exposes the darkest side of his personality what he did later elevates his character.

After Actium Augustus, supreme ruler of the world, became a more moderate person. He devoted his existence to serve the necessities of the Roman people and worked tirelessly to secure the Empire from internal and external threats, bringing peace and prosperity to most of the population. His popularity was not a façade either. He exhibited moderation in his lifestyle, eating habits and courtesy in his dealings with others. He showed clemency, and after the proscriptions and executions of the Triumviral period , seldom someone ever suffered the same fate. He used all the powers bestowed upon him for the greater good of Rome.

As all human lives his was a complex and nuanced one. His Empire did not allow any display of civic virtue in public, abolishing politics and libertas. But he did so because the Free State had lost something more fundamental than political freedoms and that was security of life and property. Everyone was ready to surrender freedom if that implied enjoying a quiet and prosperous life. In sum, he was a military dictator who seized the power of the state; but he also became a great statesman and, despite his autocratic tendencies, he was in overall terms a benevolent ruler.

Finally, what lessons can we draw from this period? What the transition from Republic to Principate shows is that when a system of government cannot guarantee the life and essential needs of its population, no matter how free it is it runs the risk of losing legitimacy and collapse under new alternatives. Western democracy is under assault in many parts of the world and it seems that its “universal” appeal is crumbling. It is imperative to look at the deficiencies and failures of our republics and redress them. Otherwise, we could be setting the stage for the emergence of a new Augustus and a new Principate.

[1] Augustus: The First Emperor of Rome. P. 413

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