In 31BC Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian had emerged victorious from the cival wars unmatched in auctoritas and dignitas. By laying down his quasi-legal triumviral powers, he sought to establish his dominance over Rome under the pretext of restoring the Republic and in a manner which respected mos mairum, ancestoral customs. The mistakes of his father would not be repeated and he ensured the range of powers gradually bestowed upon him that provided his constitutional legality, were those offered by the Senate and People of Rome.
In 27BC, shortly after his return back to Rome, Octavian laid aside his unprecedented and extraordinary triumvirate powers and as Bradely states wanted to “have his powers granted to him constitutionally”. In what must have been a staged political play, the Senate denied Octavian’s resignation into private life and instead referred upon him numerous powers. Continues civil war had rid pro-republican support within the Senate, and as Octavian was left without a rival, the Senate had no other course of action but to extend his powers.
As Tacitus says “they [the Senate] preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past”. Known as the first settlement he was awarded the name ‘Augustus’ and the title of princeps inter pares, the first man amongst equals in the new Republic. Additionally, by senatorial degree, his consulship was renewed yearly, but more importantly he was given imperium proconsulare over the provinces of Gual, Spain, Egypt and Syria, controlling the bulk of Rome’s legions, all under the auspice of his legates comprising of his friends and family. This, in essence was Augustus’ true source of power.
He may have claimed to be equal to the other Senators, however this was only to maintain the ‘forma’ of the Republic while changing its ‘anima’, spirit. By keeping the Senate unarmed there was no possibility for new rivals to appear allowing him to constitutionally define his power without recourse for other despotic actions. Like Solon had when reforming the constitution of Athens, Augustus left Rome to allow his position and the new power status quo to settle. In 23BC the conspiracy of Murena and Caepio, prompted Augustus to rethink his constitutional position within the ancestral customs he wanted to observe.
The monopolisation of the consulship angered many of the nobiles who were denied access to what was still the highest position within the state. His resignation of the consulship, which he held successively since 33, led to the second settlement. The Senate, of course, compensated for his loss of powers. They decreed his proconsular imperium as ‘maius’, greater, meaning he “had the first word in his provinces and the last in others”. Additionally he was granted tribunicia potestas, and despite the discrepancies by ancient historians, it seems by 23 it was annual and perpetual.
However the seniority of a tribune within senatorial ranking, as Brunt and Moore state, was “very low” and as a subsidiary right Augustus was granted ‘ius primae relationis’, so to place first motions in Senate meetings. Not that by now it mattered, his ultimate and unmatched auctoritas was enough to weild his powers over Roman politics. Instead, Augustus provided the perception of legality….. in order to avoid the rank of despotism Julius Caesar flagrantly displayed. And legality was essential to the thinking of Roman nobiles so to avoid the perception of tyrant Rome so despised.
By 19BC his constitutional powers were complete. However in truth, by 23BC, the powers granted to Augustus were superfluous to his true position in the State, that is they were not reflective of the power that he yielded over Rome. His unmatched actoritas, ultimate patronage of Italy after the ‘oath of allegiance’, and unrivaled military monopoly over the legions, provided the necessary power to define his constitutional position, which was, unquestionably, complete domination over the Roman State.