The Reign of Augustus

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The First Roman Emperor

Following the Battle of Actium, Octavian’s position as sole ruler of the Roman Republic was assured.

In order to legally gain control of the Roman Republic, Octavian would have to do so in incremental steps, slowly courting the Senate and the Roman people, while appearing to uphold traditional Roman values in order to ease suspicions that he was aiming for a monarchy or dictatorship. After marching on Rome, Octavian and Agrippa were elected consul by the Senate. Despite years of civil war and near lawlessness, the Roman people were not willing to accept a king or a dictator.

Octavian Becomes Consul

At the same time, Octavian could not simply step aside without triggering another civil war. Octavian’s aim was to return stability to Rome by lifting the overt political pressure that had existed during the period of the Second Triumvirate and to ensure elections that appeared to be free.

In 27 BC, Octavian returned full control of Rome to the Senate. Even though he no longer had direct control of the provinces or the Roman Legions, Octavian retained the loyalty of many Roman soldiers.

The careers of many Roman politicians also depended on Octavian’s patronage, thanks to his unrivalled financial power. The public was well aware of this, as Octavian gave large sums of money for the construction of roads throughout the emerging Roman Empire.

The Senate proposed that Octavian once again assume command of the Roman provinces. Octavian put on a show of reluctance, but accepted command of the provinces still in a state of chaos in the wake of his conflict with Antony for a period of ten years. Command of these provinces gave him control of most of the Roman Army as well. The few provinces that were not under Octavian’s direct control were ruled by governors appointed by the Senate. These governors were of little concern to Octavian, as he commanded more than 20 Roman Legions.

Octavian Becomes Augustus

In January 27 BC, Octavian was awarded the titles of Augustus and Princeps. These titles were religious rather than political in nature. According to Roman religious beliefs, these titles signified a stamp of authority that went beyond the constitutional definition of Augustus’s role in the Roman government. The title Augustus was also considered to be more favourable than Romulus, which had been Augustus’s first choice. Romulus had been rejected by the Senate because it was seen as having undesired connections to Rome’s early history, as well as fratricide. The title Princeps was derived from the term Primum Caput, which meant the First Head and was usually applied to the oldest Senator. A change of name served as a kind of demarcation between the brutality of Octavian and the benign dictatorship of Augustus. Under Augustus these became royal titles.

Augustus was also granted the right to wear the civic crown, which was made of oak leaves and to drape his doorposts with laurels. Oak leaves and laurels were important symbols in Roman religion and statecraft. To allow Augustus to display the civic crown and laurels was tantamount to declaring his home to be the capitol.

In 23 BC, Augustus’s Co-Consul, Terentius Varro Murena was stripped of his consular powers on charges of conspiracy. Towards the end of that spring Augustus was struck with a severe illness and many of his supporters feared that he was dying. Augustus made arrangements for his powers to pass to Agrippa, his favourite general and the mastermind behind many of Augustus’s wars. He also handed an account of the public treasury and military authority over to his new Co-Consul, Calpurnius Piso.

Soon afterward, Augustus’s illness abated. He resigned as Consul, but kept his consular authority. This allowed greater opportunities for aspiring senators to become Consul. In order to do so, the senators had to become clients of Augustus. This allowed him to maintain a position of dominance over the Senate. Augustus was also given the powers of a Tribune, along with sole imperium over all the armed forces within the city. As a result, Augustus was the only person in Rome who could be given the honour of a Triumph.

Many of the subtleties of these political manoeuvres and constitutional concessions were beyond comprehension of Rome’s lower classes. In 22 BC, a food shortage prompted calls for Augustus to take dictatorial powers and end the crisis. In 19 BC, the Senate voted to allow Augustus to wear consular robes and insignia before the Senate. As with the granting of Tribunal authority, this was another instance of granting Augustus the power of an office that he did not hold.

The Legacy of Augustus

Later Roman Emperors generally limited themselves to the titles and powers that had been granted to Augustus, though they often refused them at first, as a display of humility. They also took to wearing the civic crown and the robes of a Triumphant general, which became the Roman imperial regalia and lasted well into the Byzantine era.

Sources

Chisholm, Kitty and John Ferguson. (1981). Rome: The Augustan Age; A Source Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, in association with the Open University Press.

Dio, Cassius (1987) The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. London: Penguin Books.

Everitt, Anthony (2006) Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor. Random House Books.

Mackay, Christopher S. (2004). Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. Cambridge University Press

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