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Augustus - The first Roman Emperor

Gaius Julius Caesar ‘Augustus’, born in 63BC, was a Roman statesman and Rome’s first emperor from his victory over Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31BC until his death in 14AD.[1] Contemporary and ancient scholars undisputedly credit Augustus with the restoration of Roman peace (pax romana) after years of civil war and the creation of the Roman Empire which held great influence over the provinces across the Mediterranean world, affording Augustus with the title ‘father of the country.’[2] The ancient texts that document Augustus’ life and reign over the course of the ‘Augustan Age’ allow for a greater understanding into the leader himself and how he was able to create the Roman Empire and consolidate his power so effectively.

Image: The statue of Gaius Julius Ceasar Augustus stands in Rome to this day.


This essay will consult the works and critiques of Tacitus and Suetonius compared to Augustus’ res gestae to justify how Augustus’ success was a result of a balance of effective political leadership and good fortune.[3] This essay will elaborate on the idea that while Augustus’ natural ability, political and economic reforms and military prowess allowed him to reign supreme for 45 years, “the longest period in power of any princeps in Roman history”, it was the already chaotic period of dissention that had emerged within the Republic prior to and during the civil wars that allowed Augustus to take power.[4] It is important to note within this essay that Augustus’ name changes throughout the important milestones in his life and career and ‘Augusti’, the name given upon his ascension to Rome’s emperor status, means ‘majestic’ or ‘venerable’ in its original Latin. He will henceforth be referred to as Augustus in this essay.[5]

Image: An artists rendition of Ancient Rome during the height of Augustus' reign.


Augustus, as the first Roman emperor, was astutely aware of his achievements and influence, and his final years were dedicated to recording his most successful career and life accomplishments.[6] The Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Book of Augustus), which “he ordered be inscribed on bronze pillars following his death,” is the first-person documentation that records Augustus’ career.[7] While it has been noted that “everything he states is technically true”, it is, by its very nature, bias and a piece of propaganda for his own principate and avoids mention of external factors that also contributed to his success such as the decaying state of the Republic and tumultuous atmosphere created by the civil wars.[8] As a result, while it is substantially reliable in its portrayal of Augustus’ own ambition and desire to be viewed favourably by the Roman people, it does “colour the facts” and omits details that would reflect poorly on the emperor.[9] His works document many obscure and finite details about his military campaigns, but it should be noted that “he conveniently leaves out failures and defeats.”[10] This is evidenced as one of the greatest disasters in Roman military history, the battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9AD, was never mentioned by Augustus.[11] The battle was an “almost fatal defeat” at the hands of an alliance of Germanic tribes which subsequently ended Roman expansion across the Rhine and brought despair to Augustus who “observed the day of the disaster each year as one of sorrow and mourning,” according to Suetonius.[12] Despite this defeat, Augustus’ many successful military campaigns earned him the title of Imperator, a title given to Roman commanders following significant victories.[13] Ironically, notwithstanding this title and the many others that Augustus adorned, he is quick to mention that he “refused to accept any office offered me which was contrary to the traditions of our ancestors,” which included the refusal to accept certain positions of political power and any titles that could potentially lead him to be viewed as an autocratic ruler.[14]


The former fact was of great importance to Augustus, who recognised that it was his adoptive father, Julius Caesar’s mistake to understand that popular support from the Senate was vital in maintaining a safe position of influence and authority within the Republic and his disrespect and disregard towards the Senate was ultimately what led to his assassination on March 15th, 44BC (Ides of March).[15] Augustus thus declared that he would be restoring “many traditions of our ancestors which were falling into desuetude” including transferring “the state from my own power to the control of the Roman Senate and people.”[16] This allowed him to consolidate his own power while maintaining the image that he was “liberating the Republic, which was oppressed by the tyranny of a faction.”[17] While power seemingly remained in the hands of the Senate, particularly over the governance of newly subjugated provinces, Augustus still maintained the power to intervene and he controlled the election of consuls who oversaw this governance.[18] In essence, what Augustus created wasn’t a Republic, it was more a “monarchy which came to coexist alongside the traditional Republican organs of government.”[19] His power was still absolute, and he was a king in all but name, which he believed was what the people wanted, that he “should be elected sole guardian of the laws and morals with supreme authority,” a fact which is greatly condemned by ancient historian Tacitus.[20]

Image: A marble statue, depicting the ancient roman historian, Tacitus, c. 56AD.


Tacitus is considered Augustus’ “harshest critic”, having documented the life and career of Augustus in his Annals.[21] Tacitus himself was born circa. 56AD, 42 years after the death of Augustus, which lends a sense of authority and reliability to his works as he was able to live through the legacy of the Augustan Age and witness the Empire in its prime.[22] Tacitus, however, is one of the few ancient historians who attempts to critique the works of others in their analysis of Augustus, favouring the critics who condemn Augustus’ creation of the “despotism of the empire,” with which he thoroughly disapproved of.[23] This is apparent through Tacitus’ lengthy and multiple mentions of Augustus’ critics as opposed to his mention of the critics who favoured the emperor.[24] While modern scholars and historians debate over whether this proves Tacitus was in favour of the Augustan critics more than the admirers, it is important to note that Tacitus’ purpose was primarily to accentuate the discussion that took place “without either bitterness or partiality.”[25] This is evident in chapters 1 and 2 of Annals, where Tacitus makes note of his wariness of the accusatory tone of other critics, referring to them as a “contemptuous twisting” of Augustus’ leadership.[26] Despite this, Tacitus often refers to Augustus’ “sickly frame” and the “unconstitutional way in which he raised his army.”[27]


However, Augustus’ “unconstitutional” military campaigns were of vital importance to the expansion of Rome’s Empire as it brought to command many regions that had remained outside Roman influence, particularly in Spain, Germany and the Alpine region.[28] Of considerable personal importance to Augustus was gaining supremacy over regions in Egypt and Arabia, which had been in support of his political rivals during the civil war and was instrumental in consolidating his autocracy.[29] As Commander in Chief, the successes of Augustus’ campaigns were attributed to him and earned him glory and honour with which he was quick to record in his Res gestae, “I extended the frontiers of all the provinces of the Roman people…I added Egypt to the empire of the Roman people.”[30] It is important to recognise however, that Augustus’ ability to maintain his autocracy unchallenged was a direct result of the conditions and atmosphere with which the Republic had emerged from the years of social discontent and chaos of the civil war.[31]


Image: Ancient Rome was mighty, not only in it's power and influence over the Mediterraean world, but in its economic prosperity and beautification projects.


The Republic was a system that was inefficient with governing such a vast Empire and was primarily suited to governing a “smaller city state.”[32] The cracks that began to reveal themselves upon the onset of civil war were inevitable as the accumulated wealth from overseas conquests widened the gap between the rich and the poor, thus social and economic discontent began to rise.[33] In addition, the wealthy elite dominated the political landscape as consulships and membership to the Senate was an unpaid career path and primarily left to the males of the elite who could afford to hold office.[34] With political positions coveted by ambitious leaders, bribery and militant force was often utilised to solidify power and repel opposition.[35] It cannot be denied that many other factors were responsible for the fall of the Roman Republic, however, the seeds of dissention had been sowed long before a young Augustus emerged onto the political scene to avenge the death of Julius Caesar.[36]


The fall of the Republic has also been associated with a decline in morality and “neglect of religion” as a result of the chaos and disorder that emerged during the years of civil war.[37] Religious traditions and worship were substantially important to Augustus and one with which he focused many of his economic policies towards as he believed worship of the gods and deities influenced morality among the Roman people.[38] Tacitus implies in Annals chapter 10 that Augustus encouraged the worship of himself, “No honour was left for the Gods, when Augustus chose to be himself worshipped with temples and statues.”[39] While we know this to be somewhat false, as many of the building projects Augustus decreed were for the construction of temples to honour the gods themselves, Augustus did believe that he was divinely blessed, evident through his acceptance of the name ‘Augusti’, as formerly stipulated.[40] Despite this, Augustus did encourage the worship of the Gods and took upon himself the position of pontifex maximus (greatest priest) after the death of Marcus Lepidus who held that position during the civil war, to solidify his commitment to the religious sanctity of the Roman Empire.[41] This further included the restoration and construction of temples including the Pantheon and the New Forum, which not only beautified the city but signified Rome’s wealth and superiority across all of Rome’s provinces.[42] Augustus further doubled the water capacity of the Aqua Marcia and 3 new aqueducts were added, the Julia, Virgo and Alsietina, which vastly improved living conditions.[43] Through Augustus’ economic and social reforms, he refurbished a city which had fallen into disarray upon his ascension to power, allowing himself to claim that he had “found Rome a city of brick, and left it a city of marble,” thus contributing to the pax romana and Augustus’ popularity among the Roman people, an ideal that was supported within the works of Suetonius.[44]

Image: Ancient Rome was plagued by civil unrest and infighting within the political landscape of the senate and republic - this was the atmosphere in which Augustus rose to power.


Unlike Tacitus, ancient historian Suetonius provides a more generous discussion of Augustus’ achievements in his De vita Caesarum (About the life of the Caesars) and is reliable in its accuracy of depicting Augustus’ immense popularity and influence among Rome’s citizens.[45] Suetonius was born circa. 69AD and, like Tacitus, is privy to political hindsight through his witness of Augustus’ legacy and successes for the good of the empire, thus increasing his authority.[46] Suetonius was not ignorant to Augustus’ ambition as he believed “it would be hazardous to trust the State to the control of more than one…he continued to keep it in his hands,” and was astutely aware that Augustus’ success was also the result of the time in which he rose to prominence and the people’s desperation for peace ensured his lengthy reign, “he made it safe too for the future.”[47] Like Tacitus, Suetonius accentuates that Augustus enjoyed the admiration from the Roman people and accepted the idea that he was somehow divinely blessed, “he liked to have it thought that there was a kind of divine power, and it greatly pleased him.”[48] However, Suetonius’ comments are at times subject to flights of literary flair, “Augustus with tears in his eyes replied,” when in fact Suetonius was not a first-hand witness, nor can be assured that Augustus reacted the way he did.[49] This is further demonstrated as Suetonius comments that upon hearing of the Roman defeat at the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Augustus repeatedly banged his head against the wall and cried out “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions.”[50]

Image: A marble bust of the ancient historian and Roman commentator, Suetonius.


Augustus’ res gestae provides a descriptive, albeit bias compilation of his achievements from the time of his ascension as emperor following his victory at the battle of Actium in 31BC, through to his death in 14AD.[51] The res gestae he posthumously had inscribed on bronze pillars represents a somewhat conceited piece of propaganda that is substantially reliable in understanding the way in which Augustus was able to maintain power and transform the res publica to an Empire.[52] This hypothesis is supported through the analysis of Tacitus’ Annals and Suetonius’ de vita Caesarum which provide an understanding of both Augustus’ reign and the times in which he ascended to power.[53] Ultimately, Augustus’ ambition and understanding of the requirements of political leadership coupled with his economic and military progressions in the beautification of Rome, ensured his lengthy reign as well as prosperity and peace for Rome.[54] However, while these factors were considerable, it was also the chaotic and tumultuous years during and preceding the civil wars that created the ideal atmosphere for Augustus to seize power and transform the res publica to an Empire.[55]


Written by Megan Adler.

BA/BCMS (DS), MTeach (Sec)


References

-‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’ taken from Res Gestae by Augustus Caesar, in Don Nardo (ed.), Classical Greece and Rome, vo. 2 (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002), pp. 122-129.

-Brice, Lee L. Warfare in the Roman Republic: From the Etruscan Wars to the Battle of Actium. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014.

-Chrisp, Peter. ‘Rome’. In Dominic Rathbone (ed.). Civilisations of the Ancient World. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009, pp. 200-271.

-Crofton, Ian. Word History: 50 key milestones you really need to know. London: Quercus Publishing, 2011.

-Edmondson, Jonathan. ‘Approaching the Life of Augustus’. In Augustus. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014, pp. 1-30.

-Grant, Michael. ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’. In Don Nardo (ed.). Classical Greece and Rome. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002, pp. 114-121.

-Hardy, W.G. ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’. In Don Nardo (ed.). Classical Greece and Rome. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002, pp. 130-135.

-Rupke, Jorg. On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome. United States: Cornell University Press, 2016, pp. 1-42.

-Shotter, D.C.A. ‘The Debate on Augustus: Tacitus, ANNALS I, 9-10’. Mnemosyne, vol. 20, no. 2 (1967), pp. 171-174.

-Thom, Sjarlene. ‘What’s in a Name? Tacitus on Augustus’. Acta Classica, no. 51 (2008), pp. 145-161.


[1] Michael Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’, in Don Nardo (ed.), Classical Greece and Rome (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002), p. 114. [2] W.G. Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, in Don Nardo (ed.), Classical Greece and Rome (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002), p. 131. [3] ibid. [4] Peter Chrisp, ‘Rome’, in Dominic Rathbone (ed.), Civilisations of the Ancient World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), p. 204. [5] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’ taken from Res Gestae by Augustus Caesar, in Don Nardo (ed.), Classical Greece and Rome, vol. 2 (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002), p. 125. [6] D.C.A. Shotter, ‘The Debate on Augustus: Tacitus, Annals I, 9-10’, in Mnemosyne, vol. 20, no. 2 (1967), p. 175. [7] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’, Classical Greece and Rome, p. 122. [8] ibid. [9] ibid. [10] ibid, p. 123. [11] Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire,’ p. 117. [12] C. Suetonius Tranquillus, ‘‘The Life of Augustus’ taken from, The Lives of the Twelves Caesars (Accessed: May 23rd, 2020) URL: https://bit.ly/36Q0mBu [13] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’, Classical Greece and Rome, p. 127. [14] ibid, p. 128. [15] Hardy, ‘Pax Romana’, p. 137. [16] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’, Classical Greece and Rome, p. 124. [17] ibid. [18] Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’, pp. 118-119. [19] Jonathan Edmondson, ‘Approaching the Life of Augustus,’ in Augustus (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 4. [20] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’, Classical Greece and Rome, p. 128. [21] Sjarlene Thom, ‘What’s in a Name? Tacitus on Augustus’, Acta Classica, no. 51 (2008), p. 147. [22] Ian Crofton, World History: 50 key milestones you really need to know (London: Quercus Publishing, 2011), p. 101. [23] Shotter, ‘The Debate on Augustus,’ p. 173. [24] ibid. [25] Thom, ‘What’s in a Name?’, p. 148. [26] ibid. [27] ibid, p. 151. [28] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements,’ Classical Greece and Rome, p. 127. [29] Hardy, ‘Pax Romana,’ p. 131. [30] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements,’ Classical Greece and Rome, p. 128. [31] Edmondson, ‘Approaching the Life of Augustus,’ p. 8. [32] ibid, p. 5. [33] Lee L. Brice, Warfare in the Roman Republic: From the Etruscan Wars to the Battle of Actium (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014), p. 45. [34] ibid. [35] Grant, ‘Creation of the Empire,’ p. 119. [36] Brice, Warfare in the Roman Republic, p. 14. [37] ibid. [38] Jorg, Rupke, On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome (United Kingdom: Cornell University Press, 2016), p. 11. [39] Shotter, ‘The Debate on Augustus,’ p. 173. [40] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements,’ Classical Greece and Rome, p. 128. [41] ibid, p. 129. [42] Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire,’ p. 120. [43] ibid. [44] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements,’ Classical Greece and Rome, p. 127. [45] Suetonius, ‘The Life of Augustus.’ [46] Thom, ‘What’s in a name?’ p. 155. [47] Suetonius, ‘The Life of Augustus.’ [48] ibid. [49] ibid. [50] Thom, ‘What’s in a name?’ p. 155. [51] Edmondson, ‘Approaching the Life of Augustus,’ p. 16. [52] ibid. [53] Thom, ‘What’s in a Name?’ p. 159. [54] Chrisp, ‘Rome,’ p. 212. [55] Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire,’ p. 118.

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