Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Victory of Augustus

Steve Muhlberger
Why is Julius Caesar one of the most famous men of all time?

Julius Caesar was an interesting political figure, colorful, well-documented, of considerable historical significance.  But there are hundreds like him, in dozens of empires and cultures around the world.  His extraordinary fame results not from what he did, but from what happened after his death.  A new man emerged who used Caesar's name and the party he had built up to create a long-lived Roman monarchy.

The new man I refer to was known in his youth as Gaius Octavius.  He was Julius Caesar's greatnephew, and was 18 years old in 44 B.C.  Despite his blood relationship to the dictator, he was of no significance before the assassination.  Then it was discovered that young Gaius Octavius was Caesar's designated heir.  Octavius changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, Caesar for short, and presented himself as the new Caesar who would finish the work of the old one.  After some years he succeeded.  No longer a young squirt, he was able to pose as the statesman who had saved the Roman state.  For this work he was rewarded with the appellation Augustus, which means "venerable," "majestic," even "sacred."

It was Augustus and his success that has made the name Caesar ring down the ages, and retrospectively given such crushing significance to the career and death of Julius Caesar, who might otherwise be of no more note than Marius or Sulla.  Today's lecture is on the more important of the two men.

There are two parts to the lecture.  The first part will discuss how Augustus gained his victory over his various rivals.  The second will show how he turned his victory into a lasting personal predominance over Rome and its empire.

We'll begin today with March 15, 44 B.C., the famous Ides of March when Caesar was assassinated by Brutus, Cassius, and a number of other senators.

It was the hope and expectation of these senators that the death of Caesar would free Rome and allow it to be restored as the aristocratically-led republic that it once had been.  But they were disappointed.  The republic, which had languished so long and been given some heavy blows during the previous Civil War, did not spring to life.  Even Cicero, a man for whom republicanism was a philosophical ideal, did little.

The general paralysis among the senatorial class was probably a result of the purges of the
recent past, and a fear of the still-existing Caesarian party, which commanded much sympathy from the middle and lower ranks of Roman society, and from the urban population.

Into this vacuum stepped one of Caesar's chief henchmen, Marcus Antonius, who we all think of, thanks to Shakespeare, as Mark Antony.  Antony, you will recall, was the one who had offered Caesar a golden crown just a little while ago.  Now Antony was the chief magistrate, or one of them, and he thought that as Caesar's political heir, he might gain supreme power himself.  His first action was to give the famous funeral speech for Caesar ("Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him;" the last said ironically).

Antony  reminded the urban citizens of all the benefits they and Rome had received from the fallen leader.  He whipped up such passion that Brutus and Cassius and others of their friends had to
leave the city.

It was soon evident that a struggle between senators who favored a return to republican institutions and the Caesarians was inevitable.  The Caesarians had more fighting men, but the republicans had a chance because the Caesarians were divided.  Marc Antony had been discomfited to find that
Caesar had named his obscure relative Octavius his heir.  Octavius, who had been in Greece at the time of the assassination, was now in Rome calling himself Julius Caesar Octavianus. In English we usually call him Octavian but he called himself Caesar.  He was a possible tool for the senatorial
opposition to Antony.  Cicero, whose spirits had revived and was engaged in a pamphlet campaign to discredit Antony as a lush and a profligate, also encouraged the Senate to use this boy to advance its own cause.

But the boy would not be used, except when it suited him.  By 43, he had established himself as a creditable focus of Caesarian sentiment, and had himself elected consul at an age far younger than allowed by law.  He had also reconciled himself with Antony.  In the same year, 43, Antony,
Octavian, and a less important Caesarian named Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate.

This triumvirate had more clout than the first one of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus:

Hundreds of senators and thousands of lesser men were murdered in a few months, and
their property confiscated.  Among those who died in this purge was Cicero.

 In the next year, the Triumvirs overcame the last major opposition to dictatorship.  This was Brutus and Cassius, who had been raising troops and money in the eastern provinces.  In 42, they were defeated at Philippi, in a hard fought battle.  They committed suicide rather than be captured.

After 42 B.C., the Triumvirs still had some business to clean up.  But in the aftermath of the proscriptions and Philippi, the big question was how long would the two main members of the Triumvirate, Octavian and Antony, both extremely ambitious men, be able to work together.

 Although neither of them, I'm sure, had any desire to make their arrangement permanent, they did for a while exert themselves to maintain concord.  Antony married Octavian's sister, Julia, to create a family tie, and they assumed military commands in widely separated areas, where they could advance their interests without immediately tripping over each other.  Octavian got the west, where there was the challenge of Sextus Pompey, a son of Pompey the Great,  to deal with.  Antony took the east.  His assignment was to shore up Roman domination in Asia, to protect the fairly new province in Syria from Parthian attack, and if possible, to revenge the defeat of Crassus by the Parthians a decade or so earlier.

 Of course, once these two men were at a distance from each other, their separate interests began to diverge.  Eventually an issue or at least a pretext came up to divide them: Cleopatra, and Antony's
relationship to her.

Antony had to work with Cleopatra.  Rome's  predominance in the east was based on client
kings and chiefs.  These were convenient thugs or compliant front men who traded on a certain amount of local prestige and Roman support to control a given area or people.

Of these client realms, Cleopatra's Egypt was by far the most important.  Antony knew Cleopatra
from when she was Julius Caesar's mistress -- in fact she was in Rome in 44.  Antony would try to use her and her wealth in his projects.  In turn, Cleopatra, who had gained her throne through Roman support, would want to keep on the good side whoever was ruling Rome.  And since seducing Caesar had worked so well, it is not surprising that she tried it again, and succeeded.

What is interesting is that the affair turned into a real partnership with a strong emotional component.  Cleopatra stuck with Antony and was generous in supporting him when his wars with Parthia went badly.  She also bore him three children, twins named Alexander Helios (the Sun)  and Cleopatra Selene (the Moon) and another son named Ptolemy.  (Earlier she had had a son by Julius
Caesar, named Caesarion.)  In 36 B.C. Antony married Cleopatra in a Greek ceremony, endangering the marriage alliance with Octavian through Julia, to whom Antony was still married.

Cleopatra became more and more important in Antony's policy, until in 34, he staged an elaborate ceremony in Alexandria in which she and her children were showered with honors.  First, Cleopatra
was given Cyprus.  She was proclaimed Queen of Kings, and her son Caesarion was proclaimed King of Kings.  Under them, Antony's infants were allotted Syria, Cyrenaica, Libya, Armenia, Parthia and Media (the last two were still unconquered).   Some of these areas were Roman provinces, and
perhaps beyond Antony's legal power to give.   Antony was setting up a royal dynasty in the East.

Whether all of this was any more sinister than the proscriptions of ten years earlier, which was mass murder for profit, Octavian that old proscriber, was able to act like it was all very unRoman and dangerous.  In blackening the reputation of Antony, he was able to appeal to some old prejudices.

One of course was the traditional Roman hatred of kings.  Another was the suspicion of specifically Eastern luxury, licentiousness, and corruption, whether those traits were associated with Greeks or older non-Greek civilizations.  Octavian's propaganda campaign was actually quite useful in mobilizing Italy for the inevitable war between the former allies.  It could now be seen as a war between the virtuous West and the wicked East -- imagery that has been used more than once since.

In 32, Octavian's agents encouraged communities in Italy and even overseas to pass motions of confidence in Octavian and swear oaths of allegiance to him, thus becoming tied to him as clients to a patron.

In 31, Antony and Octavian faced each other in Greece, in a major sea-battle at Actium.   At least there were enough ships and troops to make it a major sea-battle.  When it came to the clash, some of Antony's squadrons began to retire.  Were they suborned?  Antony signaled to Cleopatra to
retreat, and then he fled himself.  His forces, abandoned, collapsed.  There was nothing left for Antony but to kill himself, which he did.  Cleopatra, when she found out that Octavian meant to parade her through Rome and disinherit her children, allowed herself to be bit by an asp which
the Egyptians believed deified its victims.

Octavian was now undisputed master of Rome and its empire.  He remained so until his death
in A.D. 14, forty-five years later.

How did Octavian rule once he was victorious?  Several men had grasped supreme power in Rome
for a short while.  None had lasted very long.  What is it that Octavian did that made him different, and made the name of Caesar symbolic of absolute power, even in our own century?  (Think of Tsar or Kaiser, both forms of "Caesar.")

The answer to this question has two parts, because in later years Octavian presented two different aspects to the world.

In one aspect he was the restorer and maintainer of peace and order.

In the other, he was a mighty warlord, and a conqueror who added many provinces to the Roman

Octavian was anxious to avoid the mistakes made by his great-uncle.  Like Julius Caesar, Octavian had acquired power by force.   He was a super-patron, which is to say, the holder of an unconstitutional power hard to separate from monarchy.

When Julius Caesar had been in the same position in the 40s, he had flaunted his power, instituting many sweeping reforms on his own say so, treating the Senate and the Assemblies with contempt, and acting much like a Hellenistic divine-right monarch.  For this, he died.

Octavian acted quite differently, and lived.  While holding fast to the real levers of power, he did his best to disguise his unconstitutional position.  Indeed, he presented himself as the champion of legitimate, traditional government.

The tone of Octavian's government was set in 27 B.C., four years after Actium.  On January 13 of that year he rose in the Senate and announced that he was surrendering all his special powers and his control of the provinces.  The Republic, that is the Senate and the People gathered in the
Assemblies, was now free to run its own affairs and arrange things to its own liking.

The senators were aghast, and protested at this abdication -- and we need not imagine that this protest was entirely a put up job.

Octavian was convinced to take over a very large province (or provincia, sphere of authority) including Gaul, Spain and Syria, areas that included the vast bulk of the Roman armies.

The Senate heaped him with honors in recognition of all that Octavian had accomplished in the previous seventeen years:

The sum of these measures was that the Republic, or at least constitutional government, was restored.  More exactly, the facade of constitutional government was restored.  There was
no question about who was boss.  For instance, in 24 B.C., the governor of Macedonia waged war in Thrace without Augustus's permission.  It merely required Augustus to tell a court that he had issued no order to this effect to get the governor executed for high treason.

In the 20s B.C. Augustus gave up the consulate to allow more senators a chance to serve, and even absented himself from Rome for long periods to tour his provinces.  Augustus' personal authority was the highest law, but this was disguised as much as possible by expressing all of his powers in old
legal language.

The two keys to his position after 23 B.C. were the civil authority at Rome itself of a tribune and the military authority in the provinces of a proconsul.

Tribunes in the past had had the power to bring proposed laws before the Roman assembly, and the right to veto actions of the Senate.  With permanent possession of these powers, Augustus was able
to do legally anything he wished to do at Rome.

A permanent grant of proconsular authority in his provincia -- which grew to include any
province that had any significant military force -- gave him what he needed elsewhere.

All these rested, of course, on extra-legal sanctions.  The armies were in fact his armies, led and staffed by his men.  And Augustus owned, as a personal property, the rich kingdom he had taken from Cleopatra.  Egypt had not been turned over to the Roman people.

The charade of constitutional government was a roaring success at Rome.  Even the class most likely to resent Augustus's power put up little or no fuss about the new regime.  The fact was that this regime was not so new.  For a generation, military strongmen had really run the republic and
empire.  The heroes who had found this fact intolerable were all dead.  They had been replaced by more accommodating men, many of them long-time clients of Julius or Augustus Caesar.  In any case, few could have remembered personally how things had worked in the years before 60 B.C.
when elections were reasonably free and meaningful.  Even for senators, the Augustan principate, as the restored republic is called, was an increase in their power and status in the state.

Other important groups were even more receptive to the principate.  Under Augustus, office and seats in the senate were far more accessible than they had been in the last days of the republic.  The knights or equites, especially the men from outside Rome, the leading men of the various Italian towns, now counted for something.  They served as legates of the great man, commanding armies and provinces and ruling Egypt in his name.  An expanded senate threw open its doors to these municipal aristocrats.  For the first time Italians were really the equals of men from Rome and the oldest parts of Rome's territory.  One reason for this is that Octavius, that ambitious young man quickly being forgotten by those who knew only the great Augustus, had been a municipal aristocrat himself.

The urban citizenry, who had been so important in elections and riots, and who Julius had
appealed to so successfully at times, also were rewarded.  The city of Rome was better administrated under him than ever before.  Aqueducts, temples, and other public buildings were put up, on a more magnificent scale than ever before.  The distribution of grain, which went back in one form or another to the Gracchi, was made permanent and free for those citizens at
Rome who qualified -- a large number.

The citizens who had fought for the Caesarian cause were also well-rewarded.  Many colonies were set up, in which veterans got land and their officers became the local big-wigs.  In the earliest days of his regime, when he was still scrambling, Octavian had confiscated land in Italy and planted colonies there.  The secure Augustus followed the policy of the victorious Julius in putting colonies overseas.  This was practically a necessity, since the Roman army at the end of the Civil Wars had included 60 legions, in theory 300,000 men; Augustus cut this total down in stages to 28, so there were many men who had to be paid off.  Settlement outside of Italy solidified Roman control and influence in the provinces while preserving peace in the homeland.  It also filled those provinces with clients of the

Augustus was quite popular in the provinces, too.  Under him, the savage, carefree exploitation of the days of senatorial government came to an end.  Taxes were now collected in a more regular way by a standing government, not by a constant parade of individuals, each of whom was trying to make
a maximum profit in a very short time.  This alone improved the lives of many provincials.

Also, Augustus, like Julius, was freer with citizenship overseas than the old regime would have tolerated, though not, perhaps, as free as his great-uncle had been.

The protection he gave these subjects was very important to them, considering their dependent political position.   Thus Augustus was given divine honors all over the provinces.  This reflected
long-standing treatment of monarchs in the Hellenistic provinces.  Elsewhere, in places like Gaul, the cult of the emperor was introduced by Augustus as a further prop to his personal ascendancy.

Augustus's popularity is based on a reallocation of power in the Roman empire.  Before the wars, one very small privileged class, the senators and especially the optimate families among them, had been immensely rich and powerful.  The wars and the actions of the warlords, Augustus among them, had destroyed many of these families, and reduced the influence of the rest -- without entirely impoverishing them or eliminating their power.  They had had so much to begin with.

This gave Augustus plenty of booty to redistribute to other groups, who quite naturally saw him as their benefactor.  And everyone blessed him for the peace he gave them, once he had destroyed all possible sources of opposition.

The last key to Augustus's success was his longevity -- 45 years on his non-existent throne after Actium.  The murderous boy he had once been receded from the public consciousness until no one remembered Gaius Octavius at all.  There was only the eternal Augustus, the man who symbolized order and virtue, in much the way Queen Victoria symbolized them for another empire in another era.  Only Augustus was far more important.

Yet Augustus the peace-giver, the restorer of the republic and of public order is not the whole story.  At the same time he was creating his peaceful regime in the core areas, Augustus was waging war on the frontiers -- huge wars that added vast regions to Roman rule.  For much of the reign of Augustus, the cycle of conquest we have described before continued, and perhaps at a higher pitch than ever before.

Under Augustus, these areas were annexed:

This means, by area conquered, that Augustus was the greatest of Roman conquerors, or at least the man who presided over the greatest conquests (Augustus was not a great battlefield general; he was a political general).

Much of the motivation of these wars of conquest was security of the empire's boundaries; these areas were not especially rich.  But the wars also continued because it was impossible to bring the great Roman war machine, which had been rolling continuously for two centuries now, to a sudden halt.  It was especially difficult to do this for a man who was a military dictator, whose role as leader and patron of the army, of defender and extender of the frontier, justified his power.  The huge frontier district was the domain  par excellence  of the warlord (in Latin, imperator, the word that eventually became the English "emperor").  It was on the frontier that Augustus, like his predecessors Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, had to make and maintain his name, and where he could acquire and exercise the kind of power only a conqueror can wield.

Thus we cannot classify his reign as a time of peace.  His wars were big and savage.  They destroyed, plundered, and rearranged the native societies of entire countries.  They only came to an end in Augustus's very last years, when a great revolt in Illyricum, unsuccessful but dangerous, and another in Germany, successful and even more dangerous, showed that the military resources of the empire were under a terrible strain.  Only then did Augustus call for an end of expansion.

The long career of Augustus marks the end of a period of civil conflict  in the Roman state.

A century before Actium, in the time of Tiberius Gracchus, Rome had been a republic based in central Italy, a medium-sized state that had acquired, through its belligerence, a large confederacy in Italy and an even larger ring of overseas provinces, which it exploited ruthlessly.  The Roman Republic was a profitable enterprise almost entirely owned by a few specifically Roman families (families from the city and its immediate neighborhood).

A century later, under Augustus, Rome had become a state that included all of Italy and even Cisalpine Gaul, in which men from all over the peninsula had a share in running the overseas empire, which was now much larger than it had been in 133 B.C.

But these men were no longer citizens in the old sense, no longer their own bosses.   They worked under the patronage of an uncrowned monarch..  For the moment, this patronage stilled conflict within the Roman citizen body, and enhanced their control over the Mediterranean world.

Under Augustus, Rome was also coming to the end of its expansion -- all the easy and profitable targets had already been acquired.  We have a different Rome now.  Instead of an aggressive
republic, we have monarchy, one that will be forced to seek stability rather than expansion.  The elusive search for stability will be the story of most of the rest of our course.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.