Rome. The year is 44 BCE, and the greatest city on earth has experienced a torrid hundred years with conquests, war, failed dictatorships, civil wars, political shifting and power struggles between major generals of the time. At this time, the great general and statesman, Gaius Julius Caesar had been declared dictator for life, and Rome seemed to be slowly losing its status of a republic. Thus, it was decided by a small group within the senate that for the sake of Rome, that Caesar must die. And so it was, on the 15 March 44 BCE, Caesar was assassinated by this group led by Brutus and Cassius. It was for the good of Rome, or so they believed.
Unfortunately, this action did not restore Rome to its former glory, and in time was plunged back into civil war. Mark Antony, ally of Caesar rivaled a young general named Octavian, who was the nephew and adopted son of Caesar. The conflict between the two would last around ten years, after which Antony was finally defeated. Octavian now stood supreme with Rome effectively at his mercy.
Would Octavian follow the mistakes of Caesar, or would he learn by history and succeed where so many others had failed to become a successful ruler of Rome? And how did he turn Rome from a republic to an empire and why was he successful?
To answer these questions, it is necessary to look at various historical documents in order to understand and gain a picture of how Octavian (who would be later known as Augustus, meaning “the revered one”, and hereafter known in this essay as Augustus) perceived himself and how he was perceived by others. History is rarely absolute and a truth for one person is not necessarily the truth for another, so an understanding of various sources is required in order to come to a reasonable conclusion.
When Julius Caesar embarked on his personal quest to become sole ruler of Rome, his methods and desires were quite direct and in conflict to what Rome stood for, and this of course would have riled a lot of people, especially those whose family tradition went back to beginnings of Rome. It was only a matter of time before important people would get together and rebel against Caesar, and of course, the rest is history.
The transformation for what would become Augustus’ empire was very slow, he was clever in that he made no major changes, only gradually taking over each office himself and he managed this by making these changes actually in accordance with the constitution. He had this ability, this knack of getting his peers to award him these privileges and slowly and surely he took everything over, this in stark contrast to his predecessor, Julius Caesar. For example, he was appointed imperator and pontifex maximus, (the two big roles in Rome) by the senate, and yet, he had not demanded either role.
By analyzing various historical data and documents, we can gain further insight to his success and how his peers regarded him. In the primary document of a Decree issued by Emperor Augustus in 4 BCE which deals with extortion, we can see a leader who is firstly concerned about the subjects of Rome and is attempting to make their lives more just and easier.
For example, the law speaks about the “established legal process for extortion so that the allies might more easily be able to take action for any wrongs done them and recover moneys extorted from them, and whereas this type of process is sometimes very expensive and troublesome for those in whose interest the law was enacted, because poor people or persons weak with illness or age are dragged from far-distant provinces as witnesses, the senate decrees as follows:” The new law basically follows on to describe that any person wishing to recover extorted money will be assigned an advocate to bring the matter before the senate. This makes the process for all much easier and trouble free, as they will not have to travel potentially great distances in order to state their complaint.
Although this is a minor law in the grand scheme of things, from it, it can be seen that Augustus does seem to be looking after his subjects. It also shows that Augustus and the senate are operating as a unit, in agreement with one another by comparing the first line to the closing line of the decree. It states in its opening line “The Emperor Augustus, pontifex maximus, holding the tribunician power for the nineteenth year, declares…” and the closing line states “The senate likewise decrees that the judges who are selected in accordance with this decree of the senate shall pronounce in open court each his several findings, and what the majority pronounces shall be verdict.”
And even within the body of the document, Augustus states “…it will be evident to all the inhabitants of the provinces how much both I and the senate are concerned that none of our subjects should suffer…”
This is a small step into making a successful empire, the attention to detail, rather than just looking at the bigger picture. Any successful politician throughout history is one that deems the smaller matters of state as important as the larger ones.
In an inscription from the city of Narbonne in 11 CE, it orders three Roman equities and three freedmen to sacrifice animals for supplication to Augustus on various dates. This shows another positive aspect of the reign of Augustus that a conquered people (Narbonne is a city in Gaul, what is now known as France), are to supplicate to Augustus and he is perhaps viewed as godlike by them. This could be because Narbo (as it was known back in those days) was the wealthiest city in Gaul, so the people are thus very happy with their prosperity and supplication to Augustus would be something they would be happy to do.
More support for a successful reign comes in the Odes by Horace, a well renowned poet of Augustus’ day. He suggests that Augustus is responsible for bringing back fertile crops, restored great military pride, revived ancient virtues and great majesty. “As long as Caesar [Augustus] is the guardian of the state, neither civil dissension nor violence shall banish peace, nor wrath that forges swords and brings discord and misery to cities.” Great praise indeed and it is clear that Augustus has been placed on a pedestal.
The secondary source material from Suetonius’ “Life of Augustus” is again indicative of a successful reign. It shows Augustus’ cleverness in appearing humble when offered the title “father of his country” in 13 CE, a year before his death. Originally he refused the title, but when a certain Valerius Messala, on behalf of the body of the senate said “Good fortune and divine favor attend thee and thy house, Caesar Augustus; for thus we feel that we are praying for lasting prosperity for our country and happiness for our city. The senate in accord with the Roman people hails thee ‘Father of thy Country’.”
At this, Augustus broke with tears in his eyes and replies “Having attained my highest hopes, members of the senate, what more have I to ask of the immortal gods than that I may retain this same unanimous approval of yours to the very end of my life?”
In Augustus’ own words in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, (meaning The Deeds of the Divine Augustus), he speaks of this too, as his final deed.
So far, the documents appear favorable to the reign of Augustus. It seems his people and his peers support him and worship him. He had been granted great honors and had bestowed upon him great offices of responsibility. Did everyone feel the same way? Were all the people happy with his reign and view it as being successful?
The following two sources available are both secondary, Roman History from Dio Cassius was written some two hundred years after the death of Augustus. The other, Annals from Tacitus was slightly closer to the time Augustus, written within forty years.
Both form a more cynical view of his reign, but it has to be remembered these are secondary accounts and so are subject to interpretation of the authors based on primary documents they would have studied. However, they do have the advantage of hindsight and also more time to reflect on what the reign of Augustus did at the time, and how it had affected the empire since.
Dio Cassius’ view of events were that he felt Augustus had manipulated the senate by hand picking and nominating supporting peers into positions of power. Although elections were held to keep in with the ancient traditions, Dio Cassius feels that Augustus took care that no persons should hold office that he felt were unfit for or if they were susceptible to bribery etc.
Tacitus backs up this thinking by suggesting that Augustus greatly took advantage of the fact that he was the sole strong power after dispatching Antony as his main rival. There was really no one else to challenge him. He also suggests that Augustus bought a lot of his power. Augustus himself does admit to in his writings by stating that he had “transferred out of my own patrimony 170,000,000 sesterces to the soldier’s bonus fund...” It can be argued that he bought support; but it could also be argued that Augustus loved Rome so much he would do anything to build it up and make it great. Augustus also stated in his own writings that he made up various tributes by money or grain when the provinces taxes fell short. Not to mention the various games, shows and exhibitions he also put on for the people out of his own pocket. Had he bought the people, or did he love Rome so much he would do all he could to protect her?
Tacitus continues by declaring that the nobles were made wealthier and they preferred the safety of the new regime compared to the perils of the old. And of course, as time went by, a younger generation was coming through, one that had never experienced the old republic, so the transformation from republic to empire slowly came to fruition. And remember, all this was done without any direct confrontation to the constitution by Augustus; he had played it all to his advantage.
Dio Cassius makes note that Augustus had absolute power, including all finances. He also notes that Augustus paved the way for future rulers of Rome by the fact “at all events, when his ten year period came to an end, there was voted him another five years, then five more, after that ten, and again another ten, and then ten for the fifth time, so that by succession of ten year periods he continued to be sole ruler for life.”
Even though these two secondary documents are more negative towards the reign of Augustus, they do clearly show that he had successfully transformed Rome from a republic to an empire. In their opinion, it was via more foul means. The result is still the same though; Augustus generally had a successful reign.
Rome as a whole was happy, coins issued in 2 BCE show the prominent head of Augustus, and coins issued around 20-16 BCE showed Augustus triumphant on a chariot pulled by elephants with a slave holding a laurel above his head. The Arch of Augustus built in the north eastern town of Rimini is indeed a splendid reflection of his rule, once again showing the support of him by those in the provinces away from Rome. Maps show how he established the foundations for a road network throughout the empire that would grow and expand to be at their peak some two hundred years later.
The means by which Augustus changed the Republic of Rome to an empire are most likely a mixture of the facts mentioned in the sources. He was very patient and understood that the way to success was not by direct confrontation as per Julius Caesar, or by any triumvirate (he had even been part of the second one along with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus), nor by a dictatorship like Sulla’s in the early part of the first century before Christ. His success in transforming to an empire was by working with the system, rather than against it. He knew his history, he knew about those who before had tried and failed and then he applied this knowledge to great effect.
The cynic in me wants to suggest that he did it by use of manipulation, money, use of the circumstances to his advantage and the use of his supporters in key roles, but the general consensus of all the documents is that Rome was a much more vibrant, happier and healthier place to be than under the old regime. Where were the wars? The civil unrest? The Roman armies marching on Rome herself as before? It is quite clear that Rome was better off at this time than certainly the previous hundred years.
The optimist in me sees a man who truly loved his country with a passion, and he did everything he could in his power to control it in order to make it more prosperous, successful and beneficial for all, Romans and provincials alike.
In reality, perhaps it was a mixture of the two, because certainly one does need an ego to have the self confidence and belief in oneself to rule and so each method most likely fed into the next and this in turn brought a momentum that slowly but surely changed Rome forever.