Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1995 R. James Ferguson

Background Briefing:

Octavian: Saviour of the Roman Republic?



- Octavian's Preparations for War

- Actium and the Decline of Antony

- Octavian as the Leader of the State- Saviour of the Republic?

- Bibliography and Further Reading


1. Octavian's Preparations for War

A new round of civil wars would emergence from the growing tensions between Antony and Octavian (later to honoured with the name of Augustus). The war of words was well under way by 33 B.C. In early 32 B.C., Sosius, one of the new consuls, delivered a speech in praise of Antony, and attempted to pass a motion to censure Octavian, a move which was blocked by a tribune of the plebeians (Syme 1974, p278). At this stage words had moved into action. Octavian had already begun mustering troops and political supporters among his personal adherents and the veterans of Julius Caesar. He returned and convened the Senate, defending his actions and strongly attacking both Sosius and Antony. At this stage both consuls, Sosius and Ahenobarbus, found it expedient to leave Rome and travel to Antony (Cassius Dio 50.2.6-7), where they would be joined by some 300 Senators (inferred from Augustus Res Gestae 25). In Suetonius' account, this was part of Octavian's graciousness in sending all his friends and connections to join him (Suetonius Augustus 17), perhaps a tactic to unmask and separate Antony's supporters from their connections at Rome. Many of these were the direct sympathisers of Antony, or were the remnants of those who had previously supported Pompey or the Liberators (Syme 1974, p278), along with independent thinkers such as Plancus.

It was not long after this that Octavian managed to force the surrender of Antony's will from the Vestal Virgins, and read out selected portions, no doubt the most damaging, to the Senate. Using this will, the earlier donations of territory to Cleopatra and her family, as well as gossip from Alexandria, Antony would be portrayed as a besotted hanger-on of Cleopatra, a legend which has become firmly established in the western literary tradition. It must be remembered that Antony had already recognised his children by Cleopatra, and in 34 B.C. declared that Caesarion was indeed the legitimate son of Julius Caesar (Scullard 1966, p173). Strangely enough, if indeed Antony was seeking to choose non-citizen heirs, then it was unlikely that such a will could easily be upheld in total by Roman courts, adding some support to the idea that some clauses were at least a 'partial forgery' being used as propaganda (Crook 1957, pp37-38). These claims could now be used against Antony, since he seemed to be trying to set up a grand eastern dynasty. When Octavian declared war, it was formally against a foreign queen and a foreign nation, though Antony was to be stripped of all Roman powers and offices (Plutarch Mark Antony 60; Syme 1974, p291). Furthermore, if Antony now supported Cleopatra, he would be making himself a public enemy (Cassius Dio 50.6.1). Octavian was therefore able to disguise the civil nature of this war, and to generate greater support in Italy.

Octavian knew that Romans and Italians would not welcome yet another major war. He therefore took the unusual step of having the armies swear an oath of personal allegiance to him (Cassius Dio 50.6.6), something which Sulla had also done (Plutarch Sulla 27). Octavian also had this oath administered to communities throughout the length and breadth of Italy (later it was also taken in parts of the Western provinces). This innovative move was designed to secure stronger support for the present and the future than could be achieved by merely dominating the Senate. In the Res Gestae Augustus describes this as: -

There swore to my words the whole of Italy by its own free will, and me for the war in which I won at Actium as leader did it demand. There swore to the same words the provinces of the Gauls, the Spains, Africa, Sicily, Sardinia. (Augustus Res Gestae 25.2)

Octavian could now argue that all of Italy, and substantially all of the western provinces, were behind him in consensus against Cleopatra and Antony. This was an important counter-balance to the authority of the two consuls that Antony had on his side. Once again, Octavian was taking action against the highest officers of the Roman government, but claiming this action was required by the wider public interests, i.e. a reversal of legitimation (Judge 1979, p7, p31). This oath, though extra-legal and perhaps unconstitutional (Syme 1974, p284-5), would be one of Augustus' later claims for having exceptional support and auctoritas. Indeed, as argued by Ronald Syme: -

The oath embraced all orders of society and attached a whole people to the clientela of a party-leader, as clients to a patron, as soldiers to an imperator. (Syme 1974, p288)

Nonetheless, Octavian also ensured that loyal commanders were in control of the Western provinces, while Maecenas was left in charge of Rome and Italy (Cassius Dio 51.3.5; Syme 1974, p292). Furthermore, most of the remaining 700 Senators (Augustus Res Gestae 25) and many equites ('knight') would follow Octavian into war. They had after all, taken an oath, and their interests were involved, whether they wanted war or not.

The oath would also have helped support the raising of the unusual and heavy taxes which Octavian had to levy for the war effort; a 25% income tax on free men, with specially heavy levies on rich freedmen (Huzar 1986, p211), though Plutarch records that disturbances immediately throughout Italy (Plutarch Mark Antony 58). Nonetheless, Octavian's administration in Rome and Italy seems to have been generally efficient, and included building programs, the provision of clean water and cheap food, as well as the promotion of traditional Roman values through the expulsion of astrologers and the repairing of old shrines and temples (Scullard 1966, p168, p235, p241).

2. Actium and the Decline of Antony

Antony had originally mustered his forces at Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor. He had a total of some 30 legions plus auxiliary forces available to him (Syme 1974, p280), though in the end he would move only 19 legions plus auxiliary forces (Huzar 1986, p212) into western Greece. He also had a sizeable fleet of 500 ships, many of them larger than Italian craft, with hulls bound with iron to resist ramming (Huzar 1986, p212). One major problem was the presence of Cleopatra; Ahenobarbus asked that she be sent back to Egypt as she was a great propaganda bonus for Octavian. The commander Canidius disagreed, and reminded Antony of the considerable naval and material support she provided. Cleopatra apparently had with her a reserve treasury worth some 20,000 talents (Huzar 1986, p215), a huge sum. Indeed, it seemed likely that the wealth of Egypt was funding most of this war effort. Antony moved to Samos, and then Athens, where he formally divorced Octavia (Octavian's sister), publicly breaking any remaining amicitia (political and family friendship) with Octavian (Syme 1974, p280; Scullard 1966, p174).

Despite the strength of Antony's forces, even at this early stage his main weaknesses emerged. Desertions began, perhaps brought on by a lack of faith in the ability Antony and Cleopatra to successfully wage the war against Octavian. Plancus, along with a nephew called Titius, deserted (Plutarch Mark Antony 58; Syme 1974, p281). Octavian's propaganda campaign was already taking effect.

One major area of strategic debate was whether Antony and his forces should attempt to invade Italy, or remain in Greece and draw Octavian across to them. The strong fortifications of Brundisium, with few other decent harbours in south-east Italy, the fact that Cleopatra on no account could be seen to be invading Italy (Huzar 1986, p215; Syme 1974, p294), and that Antony did not have outright dominance at sea, seem to have decided him on a strong defensive position in north-west Greece. Their dispositions in fact seem quite strong: Canidius commanded 19 legions, while Antony commanded large naval forces. He also had covering forces right along the west coast of the Peloponnese, ensuring that he could keep his supply line to Egypt open.

Octavian moved south along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, taking up a position on the peninsula of Actium, on the north side of the gulf of Ambracia. He may have had as many as 80,000 infantry with him for this campaign (Huzar 1986, p211). His fleet meanwhile, under the command of Agrippa, moved south and destroyed Antony's line of communications and supply (Huzar 1986, p216-7). This was a vital tactic, which would ensure that Antony's legions would in turn be 'besieged' by a want of supplies.

Our sources, however, remain unclear on a number of points. Months of indecisive operations continued, though Sosius was defeated in a naval battle by Agrippa (Cassius Dio 50.12.1) and Antonius failed to cut off the land access and water sources to Octavian's camp ((Huzar 1986, p217; Syme 1974, p295). Desertions now began to seriously weaken Antony's position; client princes such as Amyntas and his 2,000 Galatian cavalry deserted (Huzar 1986, p217), along with prominent men such as M. Junius Silanus and the historian Dellius (Plutarch Mark Antony 59), as well as M. Licinius Crassus (Syme 1974, p296) and even the sick consul Ahenobarbus (Plutarch Mark Antony 63). Disease and desertion of his sailors also weakened his navy; he would be able to launch a mere 230 against Octavian's 400 ships when the decisive encounter came (Huzar 1986, p218).

The denouement was a major naval encounter in which Antony may have either decided to try and break Octavian once and for all, pinning his ships in against the shore, or he may have merely been seeking to break the blockade so that his naval forces could escape while his army withdrew into Macedonia (Huzar 1986, p219). This latter plan was recommended by his army commander Canidius (Plutarch Mark Antony 63; Syme 1974, p296). It has been argued that Antony ordered sails to be loaded onto his ships, therefore inferring his intention to flee, and that he weakened his centre to allow Cleopatra and her Egyptian squadron to escape (Huzar 1986, p219). In any case, the treasury of the army was loaded on board, indicating that Antony considered that he would probably be abandoning his position at Actium. This in itself was a wise tactical move, but he had not counted on the major morale and propaganda victory this would give Octavian. Soon entire legions would go over to his enemy or melt away (Plutarch Mark Antony 71), not believing that Antony had the will to fight, nor the ability to achieve a final victory.

In any case, regardless of later propaganda, the battle itself was a limited military encounter (Huzar 1986, p220), though it remained a major political victory. At some stage Cleopatra along with 60 ships broke formation and retreated southwards, followed by Antony (Plutarch Mark Antony 66). Antony's ships fought on for a time (Plutarch Mark Antony 68), but many surrendered, perhaps due to the duplicity of Sosius, who was spared execution (Syme 1974, p297). Meanwhile, Antony's land army marched a short distance away, then entered into negotiations for terms with Octavian. They had no wish to die for the glory of Antony, nor for his dreams of a great eastern empire. Instead, they were granted the same retirement terms as Octavian' own troops; only a few commanders would fail to receive Octavian's clemency (Huzar 1986, p221).

Octavian would then make a leisurely sweep through the east, after attending to the resettlement of some of his veterans back in Italy. He entered Egypt in 30 B.C., having easily pushed aside the garrison at Pelusium, guarding the eastern approaches to the Nile delta. Antony made one last attempt to resist him, in which his naval and infantry forces were ineffective, though the cavalry under Antony's direct command defeated their opponents (Huzar 1986, p225). The situation was now hopeless, and Antony committed suicide, dying at last in Cleopatra's arms on August 1, 30 B.C. (Huzar 1986, p226). This was followed sometime after by the suicide of Cleopatra, perhaps under the dire hints of Octavian's supporter Dolabella (Huzar 1986, p227) that she would be led in chains through Rome at Octavian's triumph (Syme 1974, p299; Octavian's keenness to have her in his triumph may be exaggerated in Suetonius Augustus 17). The chosen method of death has been described by Plutarch: -

Meanwhile, Cleopatra collected together many kinds of deadly poisons, and tested these on prisoners who had been condemned to death, to discover which was the most painless. When she found that the drugs which acted most quickly caused the victims to die in agony, while the milder poisons were slow to take effect, she went on the examine the lethal qualities of various venomous creatures which were made to attack one another in front of her. . . . she discovered that it was the bite of the asp alone which brought on a kind of drowsy lethargy and numbness. (Plutarch Mark Antony 71)

Regardless of the romantic details that cluster around a figure such as Cleopatra, Plutarch records that in Octavian"s triumph a figure of Cleopatra with an 'asp clinging to her' were carried in the procession through the streets of Rome (Plutarch Mark Antony 86). Given the political realities of the time, neither Cleopatra nor her son Caesarion, could be allowed to live (Plutarch Mark Antony 81-82; Suetonius Augustus 17), though her daughter was married to a Numidian prince (Syme 1974, p300). Of Antony's other children, only the eldest, Antyllus was killed; the rest were taken into Octavia's household (Plutarch Mark Antony 87). Egypt from this time was ruled by an eques under direct control of Octavian, and no members of the Senatorial class were allowed to visit without his express permission (Cassius Dio 51.17.1). Antony's general arrangements for the east were only changed in minor details, with some enhancement of Herod the Great's position, and the use of diplomacy to threaten and then 'pacify' Parthia (Augustus Res Gestae 29). The 'great conquest' of Parthia, hoped for in the literature of the period, and recorded in the Res Gestae of Augustus (Augustus Res Gestae, 27) was little more than that an expectation that was turned into propaganda (see Judge 1987, p37; Syme 1974, p301-2).

3. Octavian as the Leader of the State

From 32 B.C. to 23 B.C. Octavian held the consulship consecutively with a colleague. Furthermore, he ensured control of Rome while he was away through the use of powerful ministers such as Agrippa and Maecenas. One of the sons of Lepidus and his wife, Servilia, were apparently involved in treason and were executed by Maecenas (Syme 1974, p298).

The style of this new leadership can be clearly seen in two issues: the treatment of M. Licinius Crassus and Cornelius Gallus.

M. Licinius Crassus, the proconsul in command of the Macedonian frontier, had won victories in the pacification of Thrace and the defeat of the Bastarnae tribe (Syme 1974, p308; Cassius Dio 51.23.2). He was the grandson of Crassus the millionaire, and he had managed to defeat the enemy commander in single combat, thereby claiming not only a triumph, but the title of imperator and the ancient honour of the spolia opima. Now this would have given Licinius Crassus exceptional prestige, and as a proconsular commander of armies, he could have posed a serious threat to Octavianus' settlement of affairs. Such an honour had only been won twice in Roman history since the time of Romulus. Both E.A. Judge and F.E. Adcock argue that this sparked a crisis, in which Octavian took special control of affairs until the threat of renewed civil war was past (see Adcock 1951; Judge 1979, p41; Judge 1974). The so-called transfer back of the commonwealth of 27 B.C., would then be the remission of this exceptional and emergency powers once the danger had passed (for a different view, see Scullard 1966, p217).

The resolution of this difficulty was settled on a technical point. Octavian claimed that Licinius Crassus was fighting under his (Octavian's) auspices as commander-in-chief, not under his own as a proconsul. Octavian even argued that one of the few men in the past who had earned such an honour, a certain Cossius, had only been granted it as commander-in-chief, not as a military tribune, an observation which may have done damage to the facts, though it was taken up by loyal historians such as Livy, and was accepted by later writers (Cassius Dio 51.24.4; Livy 4.19-20). In any case, after a delay of over a year, Crassus was only allowed to celebrate a triumph in July 27 B.C. (recorded in the Fasti triumphales Capitolini, see Ehrenberg & Jones 1949, p35; Syme 1974, p303, pp308-9). He was not granted the spolia opima. He was also denied the formal use of the title imperator in Rome (Cassius Dio 51. 25.1-3; Syme 1974, p310; though an insciprion from Athens suggests he was given the equivalent Greek honour of the title autocrator, see Ehrenberg & Jones, 1949, 190), a term which might encroach on Octavian's particular use of that title as almost a person name. Thereafter Crassus disappears from the historical record, perhaps to a safe retirement - he certainly never commanded armies or took up a governorship again.

The second affair was brought on by the actions of C. Cornelius Gallus, a Roman knight appointed to govern the new province of Egypt. Gallus apparently became too ambitious, allowing statues and honours to be accorded to him throughout Egypt (Suetonius Augustus 66; Cassius Dio 53.23.5). One such example can be found in an inscription at Philae in southern Egypt, dated to 29 B.C., which records that: -

Gaius Cornelius Gallus, son of Gnaeus, Roman eques, first prefect of Alexandria and Egypt following the overthrow of the kings by Caesar, son of a god, having been victorious in two pitched battles in the fifteen days within which he suppressed the revolt of the Thebiad, capturing five cities - Boresis, Coptus, Ceramice, Diospolis Magna, and Ophieum - and seizing the leaders of these revolts; having led the army beyond the Nile cataract, a region into which arms had not previously been carried either by the Roman people or by the kings of Egypt; having subjugated the Thebiad, the common terror of all the kings; and having given audience at Philae to the envoys of the king of the Ethiopians, received that king under [Roman] protection, and install a prince over the Triacontaschoenus, a district of Ethiopia - dedicated this thank offering to his ancestral gods and to the Nile his helpmate. (CIL iii no. 14,147 (5), in Lewis and Reinhold 1990, p66)

Such honours might regularly be granted to Hellenistic kings or their generals; they were dangerous honours for a Roman knight, even for a prefect of Augustus Caesar's. Perhaps under the instigation of this and other rumours, Octavian broke off his amicitia with Gallus, and then allowed an indictment for high treason to be passed. The account in Cassius Dio seems to suggest that Gallus was unanimously condemned by the Senate as well (Cassius Dio 53.23.5-7). Gallus committed suicide in 27 B.C. rather than be brought back to Rome in disgrace.

It must remembered that Antony had developed a powerful support base in Egypt and it seemed that Octavian feared that even a mere knight could dream of imperial power from such a position. The 'sensitivity' of the Egyptian command is shown in Cassius Dio: -

After this he [Octavian] imposed a tribute upon Egypt and entrusted it to Cornelius Gallus to govern. Because of the great size of the population both in the cities and in the country, and of the impressionable and fickle nature of the inhabitants, the quantity of the grain supply, and the wealth of the whole country, so far from venturing to entrust the territory to any senator, he would not even allow one to live there, unless he personally gave permission to the individual by name. Nor, on the other hand, did he allow Egyptians to become members of the Roman Senate (Cassius Dio 51.17)

Augustus might regret the loss of a friend, but he also praised the loyalty of those who acted on his own behalf in prosecuting him (Suetonius Augustus 66). Gallus, who had himself been a poet, and was praised by Ovid (Amores I.15.25-30), but would be surpassed by the growing support for Octavian that matured in the writing Virgil (see Starr 1955).

These actions indicate the minimum level of control which Octavian felt that he needed to maintain control of the empire and protect his own position and his ordering of political life. This was not just a constitutional position or office: the issue here was maintaining the pre-eminent auctoritas through which he could lead the Senate, command the majority of the legions, and retain the general support from the populace while retaining recognisable 'Republican' institutions.

4. Saviour of the Republic?

After the end of this war Octavian found himself with a total of some 70 legions (Syme 1974, p304), of which only 26, (up to a maximum of 29), would normally be needed to maintain the security of the empire. The disbandment of these veterans required enormous wealth, derived in large measure from the East, especially Egypt, which was perhaps one of the considerations for not allowing it to continue as a client kingdom. Land was also confiscated from Antony's supporters in Italy, or purchased outright (Syme 1974, p304), once again involving Octavian in enormous public and personal costs. It is estimated that Augustus had to pay some 600 million sesterces from his private fortune into the public chest, to the plebeians, and the veterans (Scullard 1966, pp227-8). It was perhaps under the impact of these enormous economic burdens that Octavian would later on (in 5 A.D.) set up a special military treasury, the Aerarium Militare, designed to cover the maintenance and retirement of legionnaires via sales tax and death duties (Res Gestae 17.2; Judge 1979, p25; Evans 1986, p1; Scullard 1966, pp228-9).

In 28 B.C. Octavian was consul for the 6th time, with Agrippa as his colleague; his actions had included augmenting the depleted patrician families, using censorial powers to purge the Senate, and the adoption of the title princeps senatus, the foremost man and speaker among the Senators (Syme 1974, p307). In fact, Augustus would reduce the Senate from its inflated 1,000, down to 800 and then 600 members, though always trying to treat that bodily, collectively, with respect (Scullard 1966, pp226-7). Although there were other leading men in the state, Horace would go one higher to call him maxime principum (Horace Odes 4.14.6, in Syme 1974, p311), a use of the term which would evolve into the notion of a personal regime called the Principate (Tacitus Annals I.1). Following the events of 27 B.C. Octavian was able to claim that: -

In my sixth and seventh consulships, after I had extinguished the civil wars, through the consent of the totality (of citizens) [having been placed in control of] all [things] the res publica from my control into the discretion of the senate and people of Rome did I transfer. (Augustus Res Gestae 34.1)

The question asked by Ronald Syme is by what right was he able to control the state in the first place, and argues that the unusual oath of 32 B.C., combined with his victory over Actium and resettlement of the east, entitled him to have had control of the entire Roman people and the state (Syme 1974, p307). Octavian also needed the support of the oligarchy, and the help of a competent if not too independent Senate. He could gain such support by allowing these aristocrats to hold office alongside him, and commands beneath him. But at all costs he had to avoid the invidious title of Dictator, or even the implications of being a past member of the triumvirate (Octavian had dropped the title in 33 B.C., though Antony kept on using it, see Scullard 1966, p174), notions which might generate too much envy or even inspire a new crop of 'liberators'. One common modern view is that he did this by seeming to hand back the republic, i.e. to restore the earlier constitution to its normal operations. This was the well-known 'resignation of powers' on January 13th, 27 B.C. (Syme 1974, p313). Scullard summarises this viewpoint: -

It appeared to be true: the Republican machinery of government was working again after the civil wars, with Augustus holding successive consulships, which in fact gave him civil control in Rome and Italy; if this imperium was limited to Italy, then he enjoyed a proconsular authority in a group of provinces. But there was little trace of autocracy, and none of dictatorship or tyranny. Yet when a phrase such as 'rem publicam restituit' appears in an official document (such as the Fasti from Praeneste) it would be better to say that he restored 'constitutional government; rather than 'the Republic'. Few men could doubt that they were overshadowed by a new master, who was in fact to develop into a constitutional monarch. (1966, pp219-20)

This is a moderate view of the 'facade' theory; that Augustus pretended to re-establish 'an older form of government, (the "Republic") when in fact he was surreptitiously establishing another (the "Principate")', a view outlined and attacked by Prof. Judge (1974, p279).

We need to look more closely at the meaning of the terms used, or presumed to be used, that is 'res publica reddita' or 'res publica restituta' (Syme 1974, p323), and to ask whether these phrases were actually ever used in antiquity. As noted by E.A. Judge, the translation of the term res publica as 'Republic', and the association of the word imperium with the 'Empire' are both tendentious and largely anachronistic uses for this period. They are based, in fact, on Greek theories of historical cycles of constitutional change (following Plato, Aristotle, Panaetius and Polybius). The assumption that the 'Republic', after its corruption, must have passed into a monarchy of some sort fits in with these views, especially since the Greek commentators sometimes use the word demokratia to describe the constitution of the Roman state before Augustus. Thus, speaking of Octavian's actions in 27 B.C., Cassius Dio has him returning 'liberty and the republic', i.e. demokratia (Cassius Dio 53.5.4), a term which is at best misleading. Furthermore, the term res publica is sometimes used to simply refer to 'the country' (Syme 1974, p195), at other times implying a social order where proper public life can be pursued.

Furthermore, these phrases themselves, meaning that Octavian 'restored the republic', are based mainly on two restored gaps in damaged inscriptions (CIL I, p231; CIL VI, 1527, d & e 25), as noted by Prof. E.A. Judge. Octavian in fact saw himself as preserving or rescuing the Roman people as a whole, and their proper public life (as in the case of the CIL VI 1527 where an exile seems to have been restored to public life). However, there is no strong evidence that he sought to restore a 'Republican constitution' as such. We find however the notion of preservation on an inscription on a triumphal arch in the Roman Forum, dated to 29 B.C.: -

The senate and people of Rome to Imperator Caesar, son of deified Julius, consul for the fifth time, upon preservation [= conservata] of the res publica. (Ehrenburg & Jones, 1949, 17)

This trend of thought is also preserved in an account of a Senatus Consultum of 30 B.C, which has been preserved in the Fasti Amiternini (as noted by E.A. Judge; Ehrenberg & Jones 1949, p49) and upon a triumphal arch in the Forum, dated to 29 B.C. (Ehrenberg & Jones 1949, 17). Furthermore, the first inscription under question can be restored and translated without the contentious use of the notion of 'restoring the republic'. E.A. Judge argues that the gaps in the Fasti Praenestini, a record of public affairs made by Verrius Flaccus (Mommsen, CIL I, p231; Ehrenburg & Jones, p45) can be restored to support the following translation, which would correct Mommsen's restoration: -

"[The same decree of the senate provided] that an oak [or civic] crown should be placed [above the door of] Augustus [on the grounds that, the citizens having been saved by him], the Roman people [itself was seen to be] restored [to itself.]" (Judge 1974, p298).

As noted by Judge, this would allow the reconstruction of the Senatus Consultum of 13 January 27 B.C. as: -

Since M. Vipsanius Agrippa raised the question of the senate's wishes in the matter of conferring upon Imperator Caesar, son of the deified, decorations appropriate to the service he has rendered, it was resolved in this matter that the door-post of his house should be publicly wreathed with bay-leaves and that a civic crown should be fixed over his door, in view of the fact that, the citizens having been saved by his clemency, the Roman people itself was seen to be restored to liberty. (translation in Judge 1974, p191)

Put simply, Octavian could never admit, that either as a triumvir or imperator, he had ever done any damage to the mos maiorum, to the traditional customs and usages of the Roman community and state (Judge 1974, p305). To admit that he had to restore the Republic in a constitutional sense would have been an admission that his earlier career had been the illegal domination of a faction. Modern notions of restoration are not only influenced by Greek constitutional theory, but also by a confused use of Ciceronian political ideals (see Cicero Ad Atticum XVI.11.6; De domo 145-6), and a failure to notice the very strong differences between the methods (and propaganda) employed by Julius Caesar and by Octavian. Indeed, the entire propaganda message developed by Augustus, and expressed in the Res Gestae, was that he 'avoided exceptional honours' (Judge 1987, p11), using normal offices wherever possible. Octavian could then be praised as a protector and preserver of the state, as E.A. Judge noted in the obverse of a Roman coin, a denarius of 16 B.C.(see Mattingly & Sydenham Coins, p75), and as implied in the general statements of Velleius Paterculus: -

The civil wars had been brought to an end in their twentieth year, foreign wars were laid to rest, peace recalled, and the din of arms everywhere silenced, validity was restored to the laws, authority to the courts, precedence to the senate, while the powers of the magistrates were reduced to their ancient limits; except that to the eight praetors were added two more. With the recalling of the old, time honoured pattern of the commonwealth, the land was once more cultivated, religion honoured, men given security, and guaranteed possession of their property. (Velleius Paterculus II.89.3)

Here we see unusual arrangements due to the war, not due to the abrogation and restoration of the Republican constitution as such. However, it is true that this conception soon emerges in later Roman writers, e.g. in Tacitus we find the argument that most of Augustus' peers had been born during the civil war and had not in fact even seen the free workings of the Res Publica (Tacitus Annals I.3). It is in this context that we should read the account provided by Suetonius, himself writing when the Principate was well and truly established in the early 2nd century A.D. He notes that: -

Twice Augustus seriously thought of restoring the republican system: immediately after the fall of Antony, when he remembered that Antony had often accused him of being the one obstacle to such a change; and again when he could not shake off an exhausting illness. . . . On reconsideration, however, he decided that to divide the responsibilities of government among several hands would be to jeopardize not only his own life, but national security; so he did not do so. (Suetonius Augustus 28)

Suetonius is correct in his underlying reasoning, but is using the term Republic as opposed to Principate in a way that only evolved during the Empire itself. Control of affairs was in the hands of one man, but there could be no public admission that any constitutional damage or change had occurred between 43 and 27 B.C. In this light then, we do not see a restoration of any Republican constitution, but rather, a restoration of normal practises by the Senate and people, though still under the control, direct and indirect, of Octavian. This handing back of control may refer to the leadership exercised by Octavian from the time of administering the oath in the West (following Syme), or may refer to more special arrangements made after the victory of Crassus in Macedonia (following Adcock & Judge).

The Senate appeared to be jubilant with this settlement, shortly after conferring honours upon him as the saviour of the state (Syme 1974, p313), including that a laurel wreath and civic crown should be placed above his door as the saviour of Roman citizens (Augustus Res Gestae 34), and that a shield inscribing his virtues of clemency, valour, justice and piety should be placed in the Senate. Furthermore, a special name was granted to Octavian: L. Munatius Plancus would suggest the title which from now on which would be used as his cognomen - Augustus (Cassius Dio 53.16.8; Suetonius Augustus 7). This was translated into Greek as Sebastos, a word with overtones such as 'reverent', which is thereafter routinely used as a title in Greek inscriptions concerning the Emperors and the Roman Imperial Cult (see Price 1984, citing ILS 8794; IGR iv 201; IGR iii 137; IGR iv 251; TAM, ii 760c; SEG ii 718; SEG xviii 578).

This political 'stage management' has been summarised by Lacey in the following terms: -

To sum up our tentative results: after a period of careful preparation, staring in 29 and accelerating through 28 B.C., on 13th January, 27, Octavian summoned a meeting of the Senate to discuss the res publica. There he read a speech which recapitulated the events of 28, and claimed that the rule of law was now restored. He added that all the provinces were peaceful too, since the Roman armies under his auspicia had been uniformly victorious, and then bade the Senate decide which were to be the consular provinces for the present consuls (himself and Agrippa). The senators reacted by giving them all to him, together with an award symbolic of victory, and another for saving the lives of citizens. When the Senate met again two days later, Octavian said he would undertake responsibility for three provinces only, Spain, Gaul and Syria, and the client kings and foreign peoples adjacent to their boundaries; it would be for the Senate to control the selection by lot (or sortitio) of the governors for the others. (Lacey 1974, p183)

From this time Augustus would argue that his power was based on the magistracies he held with colleagues and on his unique and well deserved prestige and influence: -

After that time I was in influence superior to all, while of power I possessed no greater measure than the rest of my colleagues in each magistracy. (Augustus Res Gestae 34)

We cannot say that any constitution was restored, nor in fact, than any new constitution or major legal re-arrangement was brought into play during the early period of Augustus' principate. The grant of an extraordinary provincial control to Augustus was under proconsular powers, and had precedents in the special commands of both Pompey and Julius Caesar. Nothing in fact was clearly resigned or recovered (except perhaps consensual informal emergency authority which could be mobilised again at any time). Put another way: -

We find that no resignation was necessary because, after all his careful planning, Octavian was able to use a traditional formula - that of putting the question of the consular provinces to the Senate - to make the Senate appear to have recovered its constitutional prerogatives in the res publica. He thus avoided having to admit that he himself was more than consul, the only title by which he is known to have styled himself since 32 B.C. (Lacey 1974, p184).

This in no way mitigates the fact that there was a new order in Rome, based upon the real control of power by Augustus, using his supra-legal authority, extra-legal resources and a new domination of social relations in the state (Judge 1979, pp40-43). As noted by Ronald Syme: -

Beyond all legal and written prescription stands auctoritas; it was in virtue of auctoritas that Augustus claimed pre-eminence for himself. Auctoritas denotes the influence that belonged, not by law but by custom of the Roman constitution, to the whole Senate as a body and to the individual senior statesmen as principes viri. Augustus was the greatest of the principes. It was therefore both appropriate and inevitable that the unofficial title by which he chose to be designated was 'principes'. Auctoritas has a venerable and imposing sound: unfriendly critics would call it 'potentia' [unrestrained power]. Yet the combination of auctoritas does not exhaust the count. His rule was personal - and based ultimately upon a personal oath of allegiance rendered by Rome, Italy and the West in 32 B.C., subsequently by other regions of the Empire. Caesar Augustus possessed indefinite and tremendous resources, open or secret - all that the principes in the last generation held . . . The plebs of Rome was Caesar's inherited clientela. He fed them with doles, amused them with games and claimed to be their protector against oppression. Free elections returned - that is to say, a grateful people would unfailingly elect the candidates whom Caesar in his wisdom had chosen, with or without formal commendation. He controlled all the armies of the Roman People, in fact though not in law, and provided from his own pocket the bounty for the legionaries when they retired from service. . . . A citizen and a magistrate to the senators, he was imperator to the legions, a king and a god to the subject populations. Above all, he stood at the head of a large and well organized political party as the source and font of patronage and advancement. (Syme 1974, pp322-3)

Augustus' financial generosity and largesse to both citizens and soldiers is well recorded in the Res Gestae 15-18. The scale of the games he gave to the People are indicated by the fact that in a total of 8 games some 10,000 gladiators fought to the death (Augustus Res Gestae 22), while 3,000 would engaged in a 'mock' naval battle and some 3,500 beasts were killed in various games (Augustus Res Gestae 22-23). As noted by Suetonius, 'none of Augustus' predecessors had ever provided so many, so different, or such splendid public shows' (Suetonius Augustus 43).

In 23 B.C. Augustus gives up the consulship, but retains special powers; it was probably at this time that he was given tribunicia potestas, i.e. sacrosanctity and veto powers as if a tribune, as well as maius imperium proconsulare, i.e. greater imperium than any others to command armies (Suetonius Augustus 27; Scullard 1966, p221). He also has the right to put motions before the Senate and the people, and this combination of institutions means that effective power remained in his hands.

Subsequently, his proconsular imperium would be renewed for another 5 years in 18 B.C., and again in 13 B.C., with his minister Agrippa also being given extensive powers (Scullard 1966, p223). This new relationship with all orders was confirmed in 2 B.C. when 'the senate and equestrian order and people of Rome in their totality named me father of the fatherland', (Augustus Res Gestae 35; Judge 1979, p1), a title which Augustus had greatly coveted (it had previously been used of Cicero; see Suetonius Augustus 58). This was a suitable title for the real basis of his power. As noted by E. A. Judge: -

Above all, the new title subjects everyone to a form of dependence, and elevates Augustus to a form of control, that is more simple, fundamental and universal than any of the bonds that hold together the organs of the state. In the last resort the position of Augustus is paternal, and founded upon personal and community relations rather than legal ones. (1987, p43).

These constitutional and social relations were quite enough for him to dominate affairs until his death in 14 A.D., and to ensure that his arrangements in large measure were passed on to his adopted son, Tiberius, though this was far from an 'automatic succession'. The Principate, which evolved between 27 and 2 B.C., would use the political and legal structure which we call the Republic, and these institutions would survive as a major component of European political symbolism for several centuries. But Augustus was not yet a monarch, and the question of a successor upon his death had not been securely settled (contra Scullard 1966, p226).


5. Bibliography and Further Reading


AUGUSTUS Res Gestae, trans. with commentary by E.A. Judge, in Judge, E.A. (ed.) Augustus and Roman History: Documents and Papers for Student Use, North Ryde, Macquarie University, 1987, pp3-43

CASSIUS DIO The Roman History: the Reign of Augustus, trans. by Scott-Kilvert, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987

EHRENBURG, Victor & JONES, A.H.M. Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1949

JUDGE, E.A. "Augustus in the Res Gestae", in MASLAKOV, G. (Convenor) The Teaching of the HSC Syllabus in Ancient History: A Professional Development Conference for Secondary Teachers, 12-14 July 1978 - Conference Papers, North Ryde, Macquarie University, 1979, pp1-43

JUDGE, E.A. (ed.) Augustus and Roman History: Documents and Papers for Student Use, North Ryde, Macquarie University, 1987

LEWIS, Naphtali & REINHOLD, Meyer Roman Civilization, Selected Readings: I, The Republic and the Augustan Age, N.Y., Columbia University Press, 1990

MASLAKOV, G. (Convenor) The Teaching of the HSC Syllabus in Ancient History: A Professional Development Conference for Secondary Teachers, 12-14 July 1978 - Conference Papers, North Ryde, Macquarie University, 1979

PLUTARCH Fall of the Roman Republic, trans. Rex Warner, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958

PLUTARCH The Makers of Rome, trans. I. Scott-Kilvert, Harmondsworth,Penguin, 1965

SUETONIUS The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979

TACITUS The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. M. Grant, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971

VELLEIUS PATERCULLUS, Compendium of Roman History, trans F. Shipley, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1967


ADCOCK, F.E. "The Interpretation of Res Gestae Divi Augusti 34.1", Classical Quarterly, 1, 1951, pp130-135

BICKNELL, P.J. "Caesar, Antony, Cleopatra and Cyprus", Latomus, 36, 1977, pp325-42

COOK, S.A. et al. (ed.) The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol X: The Augustan Empire 44 B.C. - A.D. 70, Cambridge, CUP, 1989

CROOK, John "A Legal Point about Mark Antony's Will", The Journal of Roman Studies, 47 no. 1/2, 1957, pp36-38

EVANS, Robert F. Soldiers of Rome: Praetorians and Legionnaires, Cabin John, Seven Locks Press, 1986

GRANT, Michael From Imperium to Auctoritas: A Historical Study of AES Coinage in the Roman Empire 49 B.C. - A.D. 14, Cambridge, CUP, 1978

GRIMAL, Pierre (ed.) Hellenism and the Rise of Rome, Delacorte Press, 1969

HAMMOND, Mason The Augustan Principate, 2nd. ed., N.Y. 1968

HUZAR, Eleanor G. Mark Antony: A Biography, London, Croom Helm, 1986

JONES, A.H.M. Augustus, London, Chatto & Windus, 1970

JONES, A.H.M. "The Imperium of Augustus", JRS, 1951, pp112-119

JUDGE, E.A. (ed.) Augustus and Roman History: Documents and Papers for Student Use, North Ryde, Macquarie University, 1987

JUDGE, E.A. On Judging the Merits of Augustus, Berkeley, Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, 1985

JUDGE, E.A. "Res Publica Restituta. A Modern illusion?", in Evans, J (ed.) Polis and Imperium: Studies in Honour of E.T. Salmon, Toronto, 1974, pp279-311

KAGAN, Donald Problems in Ancient History: Volume 2, The Roman World, N.Y., Macmillan, 1966

LACEY, W.K. "Octavian in the Senate, January 27 B.C.", The Journal of Roman Studies, 64, 1974, pp176-184

MASLAKOV, G. (Convenor) The Teaching of the HSC Syllabus in Ancient History: A Professional Development Conference for Secondary Teachers, 12-14 July 1978 - Conference Papers, North Ryde, Macquarie University, 1979

MILLAR, Fergus "Triumvirate and Principate", JRS, 63,1973, pp50-67

MILLAR, Fergus & SEGAL, Erich Caesar Augustus: Seven Aspects, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1984

PRICE, S.R.F. "Gods and Emperors: The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult", The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 104, 1984, pp79-95

SAMUEL, Alan E. "To Rule the Nations: The Augustan Accomplishment and the Ideology of the Age", in The Promise of the West, London, Routledge, 1988, pp303-318

SCULLARD, H.H. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 B.C. - A.D. 68, London, Methuen, 1966

STARR, Chester G. "Virgil's Acceptance of Octavian", The American Journal of Philology, 76 no. 1, 1955, pp34-46

SYME, Ronald The Roman Revolution, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974

YAVETZ, Z. Plebs and Princeps, Oxford, Clarendon, 1969


Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1995 R. James Ferguson