Augustus and the Republic

The Principate

Augustus as pontifex maximus (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

Augustus as pontifex maximus (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

After emerging triumphant from the Civil War, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus created a system of government known as the Principate. It was based on the well-known Republican offices and institutions. The younger Caesar did not become dictator for life (dictator perpetuo), like his adoptive father – the Divine Julius – did. From a formal point of view, he merely restored the Roman Republic. Consuls and other magistrates were once again elected annually, magistrates cooperated closely with the Senate, the Senate appointed proconsuls to govern some of the provinces and laws were passed in the popular assemblies.

But it was not really back to normalcy. Caesar received the honorific ‘Augustus’ from the Senate and People of Rome on 16 January 27 BCE. He was by far the most powerful politician in Rome, wielding huge authority (auctoritas). Augustus had immense estates, was fabulously wealthy and had the largest clientele (clientela) in the Empire. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people were directly dependent on him. Caesar Augustus was consul 13 times and could effectively nominate all the other consuls, even though these still had to be formally elected by the comitia centuriata. Augustus was granted the powers of a people’s tribune (tribunicia potestas) for life in 23 BCE. That meant that his person was sacrosanct, that he could initiate legislation in the concilium plebis and that he could veto any decision by any other magistrate. The Senate and People gave Augustus ten year commands (provinciae) in the most important provinces. These were governed by imperial legates (legati pro praetore), appointed by Augustus personally. Since it was in these provinces that the vast majority of the Roman legions and auxiliary forces were stationed, Augustus effectively controlled the Roman army. Back in Rome, he could rely on his Praetorian Guard. And in spite of all his achievements, Augustus’ power ultimately depended on control of Rome’s armed forces.

The Augustus of Prima Porta (Vatican Museums)

The Senate was still allowed to nominate former consuls as governors of generally peaceful and prosperous provinces like Asia proconsularis and Africa proconsularis. These were not unimportant provinces, but their governors did not command many troops. Furthermore, Augustus was granted maius imperium proconsulare (‘greater imperium’) in 23 BCE, which meant that he could effectively overrule any decision by a senatorial provincial governor. The all important province of Egypt was governed by a prefect from the equites, the order of the knights, which was just below the senatorial order. Again, it was effectively Augustus who was in overall command of this province, and he was certainly the first to profit from its riches.

Caesar Augustus was pontifex maximus from 12 BCE until his death in 14 (see the picture above). He thus also held the most important religious position in Rome. Augustus took the title imperator – which originally meant ‘victorious commander’ – and used it as his first name. He was the princeps civitatis, the first citizen of the state, and was later granted the title pater patriae, ‘father of the country’. Although the Romans did not have a word for ’emperor’ – the terms Caesar, Augustus, imperator and princeps do no fully cover the concept, although all of Augustus’ successors used these titles or most of them – the Principate was effectively a monarchy. The only truly Republican element of Augustus’ position was that it was not permanent and not hereditary. His mandate had to be renewed every five or ten years, and new ’emperors’ had to be accepted by the Senate and People of Rome, and most importantly: by the army and the praetorians.

Restoring the Republic

Remains of the Temple of Mars Ultor on the Forum of Augustus.

According to the Roman historian Suetonius (ca. 70-130), Augustus twice considered restoring the Republic (Life of Augustus 28). The first time was immediately after having defeated Anthony in 31-30 BCE, the second time when he was very ill and depressed. Suetonius gives two, somewhat vague, reasons why Augustus ultimately decided to keep his power: on the one hand, he feared that he himself would not be entirely safe should he retire, and on the other he thought it would not be wise to trust the control of the State to more than one man. Of course it is hard to assess what really drove the man. He could have tasted power and could have been unwilling to give it away again. He could also have genuinely believed that his new Constitution was the future for Rome. And it could easily have been a combination of the two. In any case, I think it is fair to say that his decision was understandable, given the rotten state of the Republic in its final 70 years.

That crazy first century BCE

The first century BCE had been a century of violence and civil strife for the Roman Republic. Not just violence in foreign wars – although there was plenty of that as well – but also much violence at home. The century started with the murder of a senator who was one of the candidates for the consulship of that year. A tribune of the plebs, Saturninus, was involved in the murder and was subsequently lynched by an angry mob. In 91 BCE another tribune was killed, Marcus Livius Drusus. Drusus had wanted to introduce a bill to the popular assembly to grant citizenship to many of Rome’s Italian allies, something which many Romans from all social classes resented. After the murder, many of the allies revolted in what would be known as the Social War (91-88 BCE). This was basically a civil war, as many of the allies had become Romans in all but name and status. The “state” they proclaimed had a constitution that was a direct copy of Rome’s own.

Bust of Gaius Marius (Glyptothek, Munich; photo: Bibi Saint-Pol).

Bust of Gaius Marius (Glyptothek, Munich; photo: Bibi Saint-Pol).

When the Social War had ended, Marius and Sulla fought for command of a lucrative expedition against Mithridates, the King of Pontus. The Senate gave the province to Sulla, but was overruled by the popular assembly, which gave the job to Marius. Sulla then took Rome by force, something which had never been done before by a Roman commander. When Sulla had gone east to fight Mithridates, Marius collected some of his veterans from Africa, marched on the Eternal City and took it back. His reign was short and brutal. Sulla returned to Italy in 83 BCE, captured Rome a year later and started his infamous proscriptions in which dozens of Romans died. He was nominated dictator, strengthened the Senate, stripped the popular assemblies of much of their power and severely limited the powers of the tribunes of the plebs. He called all this “the restoration of the Republic”.

After Sulla’s death in 78 BCE, another coup was staged by Lepidus, father to the Marcus Aemilius Lepidus who would one day ally himself with the future Augustus. The coup failed miserably and both Lepidus and Brutus the Elder (he was the father of Marcus Junius Brutus, one of Caesar’s murderers) were killed. In the mean time, the Senate’s forces were still busy fighting Marian supporters in Spain, where one Quintus Sertorius had carved out a virtually independent state in which both Romans and natives lived a very Roman life. Sertorius was never defeated in battle, but was murdered in 72 BCE. At that time, there was another serious war in Italy, the Servile War, started by the slave Spartacus (73-71 BC).

The slave rebellion was ultimately put down, but not before several Roman armies had been smashed and many Roman consuls had shown their ineptitude. A lowly praetor by the name of Marcus Licinius Crassus had to save them. But the Social War and the slave rebellion had devastated much of the Italian countryside. Italy needed peace and quiet now, but more trouble was to come. Cicero managed to nip the Catilinarian conspiracy in the bud in 63 BCE (in a somewhat controversial way), but the fifties were marked by street violence, often of a political nature. The gangs of the demagogue tribune Publius Clodius Pulcher fought those of Milo, an ally of Cicero. Rome had no police force at that time and there was only so much the lictors of the magistrates could do, so eventually soldiers had to intervene. The Senate had to beg Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey Magnus), the then-consul and a ‘member’ of the First Triumvirate, to send in his troops. A mob had by that time already burned down the Senate House.

From bad to worse to reasonable

Of course, things got even worse when Gaius Julius Caesar returned from his Gallic campaign. Knowing full well that he would lose everything should he lay down his command – Cato even wanted to extradite him to the Gauls – Caesar crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome in 49 BCE. This again led to a Civil War and many bloody battles until finally the last armies of the Optimates were defeated in Spain in 45 BCE. Caesar returned to Rome, only to be murdered a year later by a group of senators led by Brutus and Cassius.

The Forum Romanum today. In the centre are the remains of the Temple of the Divine Julius.

The Forum Romanum today. In the centre are the remains of the Temple of the Divine Julius.

This certainly did not end all problems. A Senate army clashed with and defeated Caesar’s right hand Marcus Antonius (Marc Anthony) in 43 BCE at Mutina in Italy. Gaius Octavius, who was Caesar’s adoptive son and could therefore call himself Gaius Julius Caesar, had been one of the commanders of the Senate army (at least nominally; he stayed in camp during the battle). However, under the political circumstances of the time, he reconciled with Anthony and formed the Second Triumvirate. The young Caesar called himself divi filius, son of the Divine Julius (the elder Caesar had been declared a god, and a temple was dedicated to him on the Forum Romanum, see the picture on the right). Together with the weak but very rich Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, they defeated the murderers of Caesar at Philippi in Greece in 42 BCE and Rome enjoyed a few years of relative peace, before the young Caesar and Anthony ditched Lepidus and started fighting each other.

In 30 BCE, only Caesar was left. Three years later, he was Caesar Augustus. By this time, few ordinary Romans would have still cared for the Republican Constitution. Their number was even less when Augustus died in 14 CE. Many who lived then either could not remember a Republic or could only remember its state of rottenness, the staggering corruption among its elite and the violence of its dying days. A monarchy – or a “Republic Light” – seemed like a reasonable alternative. Staunch republicans were still to be found among Rome’s elite senatorial class, but although these members of the nobility were certainly influential, they could not control the state like Augustus could. Augustus’ decision not to lay down his power and to create the Principate instead was certainly understandable. We have hindsight. Augustus did not.

Part of this essay is based on a post I wrote back in 2007 on this forum. I slightly revised the original text here.


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