On Augustus

The Augustan Principate was characterized by a paradoxical balance between military dictatorship on the one hand and the professed restitution of the Republic on the other. Augustus’s great accomplishment was to exploit Rome’s past in a successful attempt to install himself as an autocrat. The traumatic experience of civil war made his path easier.

The authoritarian nature of Augustus’s reign is indisputable. In his biography of the first princeps, Professor Galinsky coyly envisions a contemporary reporter alluding to the true basis of his power, viz. control of the provincial armies. Hypotheses aside, Augustus’ first step after defeating Antony was to secure his hold upon the military. Left with half a million soldiers after his victory at Actium, Augustus disbanded 300,000 of them, using the wealth he had captured from the Egyptian treasury to settle them back in Italy. Fears of yet another descent into civil war impelled the Senate to cede control of the Roman military to Augustus after he laid down his powers in 27 BCE. Thereafter the emperor erected a system of military administration whereby he retained control of armies that occupied unruly provinces through legates (Pompey the Great had employed a similar mechanism in order to govern Spain in 55 BCE), assigning the remaining provinces to senatorial proconsuls. It is abundantly clear that they retained little more than a symbolic hold upon power. Theodore Mommsen’s conception of a ‘diarchy’ between Augustus and the Senate notwithstanding, an elliptically worded ‘request’ from the emperor inscribed in the senatorial province of Cyrene indicates who called the shots. The princeps also established the Praetorian Guard, Rome’s first standing police force and a major player in Roman politics during and after the first century CE (After the emperor Tiberius’ withdrawal to the island of Capri in 26 BCE, his praetorian prefect Sejanus assumed effective control of the Roman government. 15 years later his successor Gaius [Caligula] was assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard, who installed the dead emperor’s uncle Claudius in the imperial palace).

Rome acceded to the imposition of such a system for two reasons. Firstly, Augustus counterbalanced his acquisition of military authority with a campaign of persuasion that made abundant use of Republican conventions. It should be noted that, according to Book I of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, the Republic was founded upon the expulsion of the Etruscan king Tarquinius Superbus and the explicit disavowal of monarchy, making Augustus’ accomplishment all the more impressive. Having left the consulship to ambitious senators after 23 BCE, Augustus retained permanent tribunician and consular power, both of which were quintessentially Republican. Foremost in his persuasive effort was his public building program and his lavish distribution of wealth on behalf of the state. The Forum Augustum embodied the balance between monarchy and republicanism that he continually sought. Lining the aisles of the monumental structure was the Republican ‘Hall of Fame,’ a series of statues and eulogies honoring heroes from Rome’s Republican past. They led up to representations of Rome’s mythological founders, Romulus and Aeneas, which were in turn separated by the Temple of Mars Ultor. Augustus had vowed to erect a temple to the ‘Avenger’ Mars after triumphing over Cassius and Brutus at Philippi, thus recognizing the retribution he exacted from Caesar’s assassins. Built about two decades after Augustus acquired from the Parthians Crassus’s standards from the disastrous defeat at Carrhae (53 BCE), the temple attested to Augustus’s fulfillment of personal and public vendettas.

Equally prominent was the Augustan Campus Martius. The Ara Pacis Augustae  (9 BCE) vividly captured the collective desire for peace and stability that followed the Triumviral years. It encompasses the religious trichotomy that the statesman Varro had noted during the downfall of the Republic. Mythological images of Tellus, goddess of the Earth, connoted abundance and a new birth of civilization. A senatorial procession on the north frieze, offset as it was by a procession of Augustus’s own household, testified to the cult of civic religion that had grown up around the emperor. Acanthus leaves bound the Augustan regime in with the natural process of growth and expansion. His Res Gestae, displayed on two bronze pillars next to Augustus’s Mausoleum, trod a methodical path between exalting the princeps and disabusing concerns that he would devolve into a dictator like his adopted father. It begins by witnessing to Augustus’s triumph over the Republicans at Philippi before unfurling a litany of titles-‘dictator’ and ‘consul for life’ foremost among them-that he refused. The repetition of the phrase non recepi is abundant (cf. Galinsky’s note on Augustus’s bashfulness over the term dominus). It also focused heavily on Augustus’s accumulation of symbolic offices that transcended the traditional magisterial positions of the Republic without eradicating them. In the final chapters (34-35), Augustus points to his assumption of the title pater patriae in 2 BCE, buttressing the paternal nature of Chapter 14, which details the honors accorded to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, the princeps’ adopted sons. Significant in both the Res Gestae and in the period spanning 27 BCE-14 CE was the contrast Augustus established between auctoritas and potestas. Galinsky has noted the etymological connotations of the former, derived as it is from the verb augeo, augere (to make bigger), as well as its further relationship to the title Augustus itself. His insistence that he possessed more auctoritas than any other official without exceeding them in magisterial potestas signified that Augustus’s reign would depend upon his intrinsic qualities as a leader.

Secondly, the harrowing nature of the Triumviral Period predisposed the populace to a leader who could guarantee peace and stability. Ironically, Augustus was at least partly responsible for some of the most galling episodes. After the triumviral proscriptions that culminated with Cicero’s head being nailed to the Rostra, Augustus (then Octavian) returned from Philippi to settle his veterans on Italian land. Stymying his efforts to do so was Lucius Antonius, who incited opposition to the young commander, ultimately withdrawing the Perusia, to which Augustus laid siege. Some measure of the devastation involved in the operation is found in Propertius’s first book of elegiac poetry, which refers powerfully to the bones that are buried beneath his native soil. The Laudatio Turiae suggests this sentiment was not limited to the uppermost echelons of Roman society. In this funerary monument erected in honor of his wife, a man praises the return of peace and prosperity that accompanied Augustus’s assumption of power. In this he echoes the character of Tityrus in Vergil’s first Eclogue, who credits ‘a god’ with the salvation of his estate amid what can only be construed as the post-Philippi settlement of veterans. Much like Clement Atlee, Romans of the 20s BCE possessed a ‘lust for peace’ to which Augustus catered.

Ultimately, then, we have an image of Augustus as the masterful politician. He recognized that the Roman heart was prepared for autocracy and went about convincing its mind. His subsequent campaign of persuasion is notable for its cooption of rather than its opposition to Republican conventions and institutions. Sic parta victoriis pax.

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2 thoughts on “On Augustus

  1. Pingback: Octavian’s Rise to Power and the Institution of the ‘Principate’ | The Leather Library

  2. Pingback: Propaganda, Laws, Religion and ‘Morals in Augustan Rome | The Leather Library

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