During the 1st century BCE, Rome was experiencing difficulties within the Republican government. In the later half of the century, one man rose to power and completely changed Rome. By using the army and republican institutions, he turned Rome from a declining republic into an empire that would last for centuries. This man was Octavian Augustus Caesar.
Octavian was able to be a part of the political scene in Rome because he came from a Patrician family who had connections within the Senate of Rome. Octavian was born on September 23, 63 BC, to Atia, the niece of Julius Caesar.(1) As the great-nephew and adoptive son of Julius Caesar, Octavian was able to gain entry into the political sphere of Rome. In 48, at the age of fifteen, Octavian, through Caesar's influence, was elected to the priestly college of the pontifices, and in 45, he went to Apollina, in Illyria to round out and complete his education.(2) His education was interrupted in 46 B.C., when he went to Spain with his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar. While he was in Spain he and his uncle fought against the sons of Pompey the Great.(3)
It was during his time in Apollina that he learned of the death of his beloved great-uncle, Julius Caesar. When Atia wrote to him with the news of Caesar's death, she included these words of wisdom for the young soldier, " The time has come when you must play the man, decide, and act, for no one can tell the things that may come forth."(4) He made arrangements to return to Rome, and after landing at an obscure port a short distance from Brundisium, he learned that he had been named the adoptive son of Caesar, and had inherited three-fourths of a vast estate and a name that was a title to power.(5)
Upon arriving in Rome, Octavian learned that Marc Antony was holding large amounts of Caesar's wealth, given to him by Caesar's widow, and was using it to further his own means.(6) In 43, after defeating Marc Antony at Mutina, Octavian was elected consul at the age of nineteen. He then formed the Second Triumvirate with Marc Antony and Marcus A. Lepidus. The three then split the Roman lands into three territories with one of the three in control of each territory. Marc Antony received Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul, Lepidus was given Spain, and Octavian recieved Africa, Sardinia and Sicily.(7) Together these men went after the conspirators and proscribed one hundred and twenty men, among them Cicero, who had undermined Octavian and attacked Antony. In Res Gestae, Octavian later wrote, "I drove the men who slaughtered my father into exile with a legal order, punishing their crime, and afterwards, when they waged war on the state, I conquered them in two battles."(8) It was soon apparent however, that the three men could not remain allies and began to fight each other. It was during this time that Octavian began to amass much of his political power.
Before he defeated Lepidus and Antony, Octavian first defeated Brutus and Cassius in 42, in two battles at Philippi in Macedonia. Since Octavian was ill during the fighting, the credit went to Antony.(9)
After the defeat of the Republicans, the Second Triumvirate slowly began to fall apart and Octavian began to gain more and more power. He first defeated Lepidus for trying to take over Sicily after the defeat of Sextus Pompey in 36 B.C. In 31, at the battle of Actium, Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and annexed Egypt as a province. Also in 31, Octavian received the consulship at Rome for the the third time and held the position until 23.(10)
By 31 B.C. Octavian had reached the very height of his powers. He was now in control of over sixty legions of the Roman army, and by defeating Antony and Cleopatra, he was able to bring enormous amounts of wealth to Rome from Egypt.(11) It was at this time that Octavian began to ensure that his power would last a lifetime.
Upon arriving back in Rome after the defeat of Antony, Octavian organized large victory parades and festivals to celebrate the "restoration of the Republic." He closed the Temple of Janus for the first time in two hundred years as a sign that the peace had finally returned to the empire.(12) Octavian realized that the key to his power was the army. To this end he downsized the army from over sixty legions to twenty-eight. These "retired" veterans of the Roman army were now receiving what had been promised to them since the time of Julius Caesar - land and other benefits. "I paid to the Roman plebs, HS 300 per man from my father's will and in my own name gave HS 400 from the spoils of war."(13) These veterans were settled in the colonies to help insure that peace would continue, and that the veterans would remain loyal to Octavian. He knew that if he gave any control of the army to another, then he would be reducing his own power and issuing an invitation for future civil wars.
Octavian also realized that in order to keep his power, he must not look like he wanted to keep his power. To that end, he declared that his only intention was to restore the Republic and share the leadership duties with the Senate. In 28 B.C he took the title Princeps Senatus, which means leader of the Senate. This title, which was based on an old Senate office, gave him the authority to organize the government to his own benefit.
By declaring that his job was to restore the Republic, he made a very brilliant move in 27 B.C. He declared that the Republic had been restored and that he was stepping down from power. "I pronounced that each war had been fulfilled." To this announcement, the Senate sent up much protest and pleaded with him to stay in control.(14) This he did very reluctantly on the surface but was actually incredibly willing. It was at this time that he was given the title, Augustus.(15)
To help cement any leftover cracks in the Senate, Augustus made the Senate into a court of law, with power to try cases where senators where involved in political crimes. He also gave legislative power to the Senate, which further strengthened his position within the Senate.(16) His influence in the Senate was such that even though the Senate appeared to be in power, it was actually Augustus, with the Senate merely doing his bidding.
During the last century of the republic, the civil wars of Rome left many public buildings in disrepair. To further the image that peace had returned to Rome, Augustus began building and rebuilding Rome(17). This public works program gave citizens jobs and helped to increase Augustus' popularity among the people of Rome. Since access to the provinces was essential for control, he made sure that the roads were kept in repair, and in some cases built new roads. He replaced the facades of many temples and state buildings with marble(18), completed many buildings that had been started by Caesar, and built many new buildings himself. Among these was the Forum of Augustus, including the temple of Mars Ultor.(19) It was said that Augustus felt his city should tower over the rest of the world. This was evident in many of his public buildings.(20)
Even though Augustus greatly impacted the building of Rome, his goal was not to design a new city plan. His interests lay in the administration and management areas of government. To this end, he revised the layout of the city by dividing the metropolis into fourteen regiones, or wards, with over two hundred and fifty precincts, and extended the limits of the pomerium, or the sacred boundary of the city.(21) He also established a corps of professional firemen, or vigiles. These men had the power to make arrests. He appointed a board of curatores to help oversee the maintenance of public buildings, roads, and of the water supply.(22)
An element that was key to his administration, as well as that of future emperors, was the development of the Praetorian Guard. This was the elite military unit of the Roman Empire. It was the only legion allowed into Rome, and served not only as the police force for the city of Rome, but the police force for the country of Italy as well. It was from this unit that Augustus chose his own personal bodyguards.(23) The Praetorian Guard would be an important feature of each emperor after Augustus, because it was this unit that did the bidding of emperor. In later years, he would remove those that were viewed to incompetent, and replace them with someone better suited to the position.
Augustus remained in control of Rome because he was able to put forth an attitude that said he was only in power because the people of Rome wanted him to be. The persona that was seen by the citizens of Rome was one of a very moderate man, who was not ostentatious. However, under the surface, his actions were all for show, just to gain the support of the Roman people, and it worked very well.(24)
To this end, Augustus put forth a series of moral legislation that was designed to improve the morals and restore republican virtue.(25) To the public Augustus appeared very moral and upstanding, but in reality, he was anything but. In the guise of finding out secrets from enemies, he would often have sex with women who were related to these "enemies."(26)
Like many emperors after him, Augustus felt the need to keep expanding the empire. He did this for several reasons, such as it kept the army employed and out of Rome, and the wealth of these new provinces would flow into Rome as was the cases of Spain and Gaul. However, after a while, it became clear that instead of conquering new land and wealth, the legions stationed on the very edges of the empire were fighting simply to keep what they had already gained. Such was the case with the Germans and the Roman legions in 9 AD.
The one thing that Augustus did not plan well for was his successor. He realized that since his only child was Julia, the successor would come from a son of hers. To this end, after the death of Maecenas, son of Octavia, Augustus had Agrippa, his best friend and comrade, married Julia.(27) Moreover, Agrippa was given the title proconsular imperium and had tribunican authority.(28) This made him almost equal to Augustus in power, and was in fact the second most powerful man in Rome. Agrippa and Julia had two sons, Gaius, and Lucius, whom Augustus adopted, but both were dead by 4 AD. "At fourteen, my sons Gaius and Lucius Caesar, fortune stole them away from me."(29) To that end, his stepson, Tiberius, son of Livia, was appointed coregent in 13 AD, when Augustus' health began to fail, and the emperorship was passed on to him a year later when Augustus died. This established a hereditary system of succession that would last for centuries.(30)
There were two key factors to Augustus' success as a ruler. They were his use of the army, which was under his complete control, and the Republican institutions, which he never did away with. When Augustus came to power, he had a completely loyal army supporting him and any actions he chose to take. Learning from the last one hundred years of history, he decided not to take the route that others before him, such as Sulla, and even that of Julius Caesar had taken. Instead, he chose to create the illusion that peace had been restored to the Republic and that the Republic was once again intact. That fact alone is why the institutions of the Republic were never done away with, but made superficial to the actual running of the government.
Under the rule of Augustus, many facets of the government ran very smoothly, thus indicating that Rome was at peace. War was a distant thing, confined only to the most rugged frontiers. Thanks to the huge amounts of wealth from Egypt that were kept by Augustus after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus was able to throw elaborate feasts, festivals and celebrations for the people of Rome, to further the notion that peace had well and truly been achieved.
The most accurate description of Augustus was that he was a very shrewd man. He did indeed learn from the mistakes made in the past by leaders like Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar. He knew that if he wanted to keep what power he had obtained at the age of 19, and expand upon it, he would have to be very clever. To this end, he made sure that he had complete control of the army and never let that control go, because if someone else ever had any control of the army, then it would again be cause for a civil war. He also knew that if he appeared to be interested in the total control of Rome, as his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, had been, it could also be death for him as well. Therefore, he continued to outwardly act as though he had Rome's best interest at a heart, and by always being a hero against people such as Antony, who was declared an enemy of Rome, the Senate and citizens alike adored him. He realized that he would have to make the Senate of Rome give him the power that he wanted instead of merely taking it. To this end, he never pushed for more power, keeping all the establishments of a Republican government as well as giving the Senate more "authority" than it had before.
Augustus left nothing to chance, and over time, was involved in every facet of Roman life. To that end, he was able to pass legislation that would ensure his rule of the people for a long time. The Pax Romana , or Roman Peace has been said to be almost a "miracle." He set up a government that was able to maintain a peace for many centuries. That had not yet been done in human history. The significance of this peace was that through the cunning actions of one man, who took steps to ensure his own power would remain, a system of imperialism was put forth that lasted for centuries.
Did Augustus really know what his actions would bring when he set them in motion? Was he simply ensuring his own power or was he taking steps to ensure the power of his position for those who would come after him? These questions are still up for debate, but one thing is very clear: his actions, whether intentional or not, brought about a change in the Roman government that was to last until the fall of Western Rome in 476.
1. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the
Twelve Caesars, trans. Alexander Thompson, M.D. (Williamstown, Mass.:
Corner House Publishers, 1978), 74-77.
His father was a banker who dealt in exchanging money and was a person of consideration in Rome.
2. John Buchan, Augustus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947), 19.
3. Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 78.
4. Buchan, Augustus 46.
5. Robert Payne, Ancient Rome (New York: American Heritage Press, 1970), 154.
6. Plutarch. Antony, http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/antony.html.
7. Payne, Ancient Rome 158.
8. Augustus. The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html.
9. Plutarch, Antony.
10. Nina C. Coppolino, Augustus, http://orb.rohodes.edu/encyclop/early/De_Imp/auggie.htm.
11. Colin Wells. The Roman Empire. 2nd ed., (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992) 50, 133.
12. Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.
In his Deeds, Augustus writes that the Senate decreed the closing of the temples and such, but it is believed by some historians today, Octavian did so himself, in order to boost his position within Rome.
13. Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.
14. Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.
15. Payne, Ancient Rome 168.
16. Buchan, Augustus 147.
17. Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.
18. Payne, Ancient Rome 177.
19. Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.
20. Payne, Ancient Rome 184.
21. Henry Stuart Jones, The Roman Empire, B.C. 29-A.D. 476. (New York: G.P. Putnamís Sons, n.d), 26.
22. Payne, Ancient Rome 183.
23. Wells, The Roman Empire 124.
24. Payne, Ancient Rome 183.
25. Wells, The Roman Empire 56.
26. Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars 136.
27. Jones, The Roman Empire 262.
28. Jones, The Roman Empire 262.
29. Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.
30. Coppolino, Augustus.
Augustus. The Deeds of the Divine Augustus. trans. Thomas Bushnell, BSG. http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html.
Plutarch. Antony. trans. John Dryden. http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/antony.html.
Tranquillus, Suetonius C. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. trans.
Alexander Thompson, M.D, Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House Publishers,
Buchan, John. Augustus. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947.
Coppolino, Nina C. Augustus. http://www.salve.edu/~romanemp/auggiex.htm.
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---. "The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, 200-151 B.C." The Journal of Roman Studies. 74 (1984):1-19.
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