Augustus Returns

Gossip must have been at fever pitch in Rome in 27BC, the year Augustus’ reign is generally held to have started. Whenever somebody new takes over, there is always a lot of speculation ahead of their arrival. But there can’t have been many situations where quite so many people had quite so little clue about what was going to happen next.


Augustus returned in victory to Rome after 20 years of civil war. With 44 legions behind him he could do whatever he chose. He could have declared himself a king, or a dictator or even a God. But publicly he was modest in his ambitions. An account has survived of his speech to the Senate. “He was now at liberty to satisfy his duty and his inclination. He solemnly restored the senate and people to all their ancient rights; and wished only to mingle with the crowd of his fellow-citizens, and to share the blessings which he had obtained for his country.”

He went on to explain that he was simply the unfortunate victim of circumstances. The grave situation had forced him to act out of character.

I doubt that many people were fooled. Augustus was in fact, as everyone knew, Rome’s absolute ruler even if he chose to hide it. But he did put considerable effort into maintaining the outward appearance of the ancient Roman constitution. He preserved its forms, offices and institutions in name while in reality subverting them to his own control.

Augustus and the Senate

The Senate was still nominally the body that was in charge. But its prestige was at an all time low. It didn’t much resemble the sober faced men of grit who had defeated Hannibal and conquered the world. Following the chaos of the civil war there were 900 senators many of who would have been a disgrace to any organisation they were associated with. Augustus purged it.  He reduced it to 300 in number and packed it with his own supporters. The assembly that could have posed a serious threat to his authority. It was transformed into a useful prop to maintain his power.

The Senate was to become the accomplice of Augustus and his successors in undermining the constitution that it once represented. For the rest of the history of the Empire, the Senate continued to sit.  It even had some powers over the provinces close to Rome – the ones that did not have legions located in them. But only once did it try to re-establish the reality of the power that it was supposed wield. In the 48 hours after the killing of Caligula it briefly attempted to reassert its old authority. But it was useless. The army had selected Claudius and it became immediately plain that it was not the respectable looking men in togas who wielded the true power. It was the soldiers.

Augustus and the Constitution

The original republic had a constitution much like modern day America.  Checks and balances prevented too much power falling into the hands of one person. The top job in the republic had been the consuls. Two were elected every year and they did all the active things like acting as the final judge in the legal system, fighting wars and negotiating with other states. The idea was that they would keep each other in check.

Augustus, in control of the army and with his personal guard in the capital itself was in effective control whatever the constitutional niceties. But he preferred not to rub this in, though everybody must have fully understood it. Instead he humbly submitted himself to election for the role of consul by the people as if he were an ordinary candidate.

The outward forms of a popular democracy were maintained. Votes were cast. The consuls were elected annually, including Augustus himself when he stood. Consul was not the only title he took. In the republic twelve tribunes had been elected with powers designed to limit the authority of the consuls. They protected the rights of the ordinary citizen and had extensive veto powers to prevent the elite oppressing the less fortunate. Augustus became the sole tribune himself. The tribune charged with preventing the abuses of the powerful was none other than the most powerful citizen.

The Princeps was an honorary title bestowed by the Senate on the most worthy of the citizens – literally the first amongst them. It didn’t carry any particular powers it was just a mark of esteem. This is where we get our modern word Prince from, but to Roman ears it probably sounded comfortable and un-threatening, and this was the title that Augustus himself liked to be known by.

Augustus the Emperor

He would probably be quite surprised to learn that we remember him as Emperor. Our word Emperor comes from the latin imperator, but to the Romans it had a bit of a different meaning to what it means to us. An imperator was simply a military commander. Augustus had been appointed imperator by his tame Senate. The cover for this was that it was a temporary military expedient. The senate begged him to accept the burden of control of the army, including the hitherto unprecedented stationing of guards in the capital in a time of peace.

Theatrically, he insisted on accepting that role with reluctance and then only for ten years. Needless to say, come the ten years the pantomime was repeated. This sham must have been obvious to everyone at the time and fittingly history barely remembers the details.

As the commander of the army, a consul and the tribune one might have supposed that Augustus had accumulated enough power in his hands. But that wasn’t the way he worked. He also had himself elected censor. The censor was intended to guard the morals of the citizens. Augustus had strong ideas about morals and family values – though these were meant for other people: he didn’t follow them himself. It also came with the handy power of entitling him to get rid of any inconvenient senator.
He also picked up the role of Pontifex Maximus. Nowadays this is one of the Pope’s many titles, but it originated as the official in charge of Rome’s state religion. Within a few years all the levers of power of the old republican constitution were firmly in the hands of Augustus. But if you listened to the man himself, he portrayed himself simply as another citizen.

The Power of Augustus

Why did Augustus shy away from the naked exercise of the power that everyone knew he had? Gibbon’s opinion was that he feared the fate of his uncle, Julius Caesar. His assassination may well have been provoked as much by the ostentatious way he was starting to wield power, as by the power itself and Augustus was trying to avoid giving the same offence. There is probably a lot of truth in this. As Gibbon notably puts it, ‘he put on the mask of hypocrisy at an early age and never took it off. His virtues and even his vices were synthetic.’

But I think it might actually run a bit deeper. Unlike Gibbon, in the Twentieth Century we have seen up close how totalitarian regimes work. Hitlers, Stalins and Saddam Husseins don’t just rule by force. Citizens are coerced not just into obedience, but into complicity. It isn’t enough just to do what you are told – you also have to join the Communist Party or go to a torch-lit rally as well. Like it or not, you end up becoming associated with the regime.

I think that this was part of what Augustus was doing. He was creating not just an empire, but an ideology to go with it. The senate met and deliberated on the matters of the day, handed down some judgments and generally gave a cover of respectability. But like the meetings of the Russian Communist Party or the Ba’ath Party the real aim was to give a spurious legitimacy to the dictatorship and draw a wide section of the society into the sway of the ruler.

Or perhaps deep down he felt the need for legitimacy. He was, after all, a Roman. Roman culture exalted freedom and deplored the tyranny of kings. Perhaps he play acted what he really desired but didn’t know how to make reality. Perhaps he yearned to actually recreate the republic but knew that any attempt to restore it would simply hand an opportunity to some other less congenial tyrant than himself. But the mask that Augustus wore will never be removed, so all we can do is speculate.

Concentrating power in the hands of one individual rarely has a good outcome. But not everyone uses absolute power badly, and for all his ruthlessness and hypocrisy it is not difficult to make a case that Augustus used his enormous power wisely. His immediate successors were not quite of the same mould, but they at least largely maintained this fiction created by Augustus. Rome remained a republic in name and a dictatorship in practice. To the very end the legions marched under the initials SPQR – The Senate and the People of Rome.

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The next post in the series covers Nerva and Trajan


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