Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Augustus: from Republic to Empire

The Prima Porta statue
of Augustus

Augustus wrote in his Res Gestae Divi Augustus (Achievements of the Deified Augustus), 
‘After I had extinguished civil wars, by universal consent, I gained  control  over all affairs'.

The myth of Actium
Actium  (2 September, 31 BC) might not have been a decisive victory for Augustus, but it was a milestone in the history of Rome, its anniversary celebrated as a public holiday. The poets milked it for its propaganda, seeing it as a victory of senate and people (700 senators crossed over to Greece with Octavian in a show of solidarity) over the degenerate East. Antony was vilified as a general who had been unmanned by a woman. Cleopatra was portrayed as a crazed queen, attended by wrinkled eunuchs, the worshipper of a series of monster gods. By contrast, the promontory of Actium housed a temple dedicated to Phoebus Apollo, the god of prophecy, music and poetry, and the avenger of piety and purity, who was credited with routing the Egyptian gods.

The hyperbole of the poets represents the enormous relief felt at the ending of the civil wars - a profound trauma for the Roman people. The fighting dated from Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, but the instability had begun with the Gracchi. No-one alive at the time of Actium had any memory of peace. With Octavian's victory there was a profound sense that a new age had begun. By decree of the Senate, the gates of the temple of Janus were ceremonially closed in token of universal peace.

This coin celebrates victory on
land and sea and shows the closed
double doors of the temple of Janus

With the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, the immense riches of Egypt were brought under Roman domination. Octavian ensured that the new province, known as ‘Alexandria and Egypt’, would never be controlled by the Senate. Senators were banned from visiting Egypt without his permission. It was Octavian who controlled Egypt’s treasures. This gave him great personal wealth and enabled him to give gifts to the Roman people. It was also crucial for Rome’s food supply.

Octavian, aged 32 at the time of Actium, now controlled an army of 280,000 men.  But what type of man was he? He had shown that he could act like a terrorist.  He was an indifferent general – Actium had been won by his admiral, M. Vipsanius Agrippa.  His great gifts lay in his political skills   - his recognition of the universal desire for peace, and his appreciation of the importance of image.  His skills were particularly shown over the next few years. It is unlikely he had a master plan. Like most politicians, he proceeded in an ad hoc fashion, using caution and cunning and carrying opinion along with him. 

He was left with the full emergency powers he had assumed in 43 BC and he was still consul.  However, Actium placed him in a dilemma. His defeat of Antony had raised him to unparalleled power, yet the whole ideology of the republic rested on hatred of kings and fear of one man gaining too much power. As the historian Adrian Wallace-Hadrill writes (Augustan Rome, p. 12),  ‘The dilemma was that the saviour could only save the republic by eliminating himself.' 

But this was a Roman dilemma. In the Hellenised east, cities and individuals had become used to negotiating personally with kings and princes. The constitution of the Roman Republic meant nothing to them, but they were accustomed to offering their rulers godlike status. In places like Ephesus they began to put up temples to ‘Rome and Deified Julius’. Already, though his great-uncle, Caesar, he was being associated with the gods.

The Settlement of  27  BC
In 29 BC he returned to Rome and celebrated a triple triumph (Actium, Illyricum, Egypt), accompanied by gladiatorial shows.   He gradually wound down the state of emergency, but still kept 28 legions  (about 150,000 men).  Potentially, he had the powers of Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar.  How would he use these powers?  The constitutional basis of his powers was his continuous succession of consulships. But could this be a permanent solution?

He soon showed that he was intent on popularity. He made important disbursements from the funds that he had appropriated from the Egyptian treasury. The people of Rome received lavish hand-outs and had magnificent public buildings erected. He turned the plebs of Rome into his clients, feeding them from the corn dole, and entertaining them with games. Throughout 29 and 28 BC he continued to maintain a high profile. He put great effort into the restoration of temples, which had become dilapidated during the civil wars.  In 28, he purged the Senate of 'unworthy' members, and put his own name at the head of the list as 'leader of the senate’. He also declared a general amnesty. He was clearly preparing for some kind of long-term political settlement. 

In a ceremony of the Ides (13th) of January 27 BC, Octavian, now in his seventh consulship, at a carefully staged meeting of the Senate, dramatically offered to renounce all his powers and restore them to the Senate and People of Rome. In return, the Senate offered him the direct administration of the provinces of Spain, Syria and Gaul, in addition to Egypt, for the next ten years. He 'reluctantly' accepted. This was an important constitutional change, marking the acceptance of the fact that the provinces of the empire were divided into two types: those of the senate and people which had their governors appointed by lot, and  'Caesar's provinces' governed by subordinates,  'legates' of his own choice. 

The Roman Empire at the time of Augustus

Three days later, the Senate honoured him with the name of Imperator Caesar Augustus. He now styled himself 'Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus'. Imperator meant 'military pre-eminence'; Caesar meant 'son and heir of Julius'; Divi Filius was a reminder of the divine honours paid to his father.  When he dropped Julius from the name, he became Son of the Divine (Son of God).

‘Augustus’ had religious connotations. 'August' was the word used of temples and sacred things. It was linked with the auguries by which the will of the gods was made known. It also signified increase (augmentation). Unable to describe his power in ordinary legal terms, the Senate and people took refuge in divinity. In addition, he was to be known as ‘princeps’ (first citizen), an honorary title, with Republican precedents that carried enormous prestige. A further sign of his power is the fact that he was able to hold the consulship from 27 to 23 BC. Was this a cynical move by Augustus? A public relations exercise?  The settlement shows his awareness that Republican sentiment was still strong. He could not, as Caesar had appeared to do, treat it with contempt.

Horace wrote c. 27 BC: 
Thundering Jupiter we did believe of old
The King of heaven; a present god on earth
Will be Augustus as his conquests add
Britain and Persia to the imperial fold. (Odes, 3.5.1-4)

The Settlement of 23 BC
In 23 Augustus fell ill and resigned the consulship with its heavy burden of administrative duties. Probably he also saw the need for a reappraisal. His position under the First Settlement gave him no authority outside his own provinces. He also might have recognised that his continued holding of the consulship was giving offence to many of the nobility.  He never resumed the consulship after this date, though when he sat in the Senate, he was given an honorary seat near the consuls. 

(1) His proconsular imperium was changed to make his military authority broader and less specific. It was elevated to being over-riding (maius). This means that, instead of being in charge of three named   provinces, he was directly in control of all provinces that required a military presence. He was given the power of proconsul to intervene over the heads of any provincial governors and also to exercise direct authority over   the whole   army.  This means that he controlled the legions.  The other provinces were referred to as ‘senatorial and continued to be governed in the traditional way. 

(2) He was also given the post of tribune of the people  - this meant that he had the right to summon the senate, and to veto any of its laws. His power was now   legally designated as ‘tribunicia potestatas’.  His tenure of power was henceforth recorded on all public documents and its annual enumeration used to denote the passing of regnal years. Tacitus described the tribunician power as the most important of the powers of the princeps.  (Note that the office of tribune had begun as an elected office.) Augustus particularly valued this post because it gave the illusion that his power rested with the people.

Augustus's position now rested upon a clever combination of his wartime authority and the bundle of political powers granted to him by the senate. In perpetuating his monarchical rule within the framework of the restored republic, he had avoided the charge of kingship or tyranny. Perhaps many Romans were not deceived, but were simply grateful for peace. But his role could not really be defined in legal terms.  He had saved the state, and his job was to keep it safe. However, it did not mean he had the power to do everything. As he wrote in the Res Gestae   'I exceeded all others in weight of authority (auctoritas), but had not power (potestas) greater than those who were my colleagues in any given magistracy.’

Godlike man
Augustus and his family had became royalty. He set up house on the Palatine Hill overlooking the forum and conducted business by the aid of a large staff of servants, whose salaries were paid by the wealth he had accumulated in the east. But even more importantly, they were becoming divine.
Augustus as pontifex maximus

In 12 BC he became pontifex maximus  (religious head of state) and in 2 BC was proclaimed pater patriae (father of the country).  In the east, though not in Rome, he was revered as a god.  People swore by his divinity and it was customary to keep images of him and his family with the family lares. In 8 BC the Senate decreed that the eighth month of the year be named in his honour. All this was very near to deification. As Virgil wrote, c. 20 BC: 

This is the man ...whom you have often heard promised:
Augustus Caesar, descendant of a god, who will again establish
The golden ages which once reigned in the fields of Latium
Under Saturn of old, and who will carry forward empire
Over the Garamantes and Indians (Aeneid 6. 791-5)

A denarius c. 18 BC. Obverse: CAESAR AVGVSTVS; reverse: DIVVS IVLIV[S] (DIVINE JULIUS)