“I transferred the Republic from my power to the dominion of the senate and people of Rome” Did Augustus Restore The Republic?
Augustus clearly made an impression in European history achieving much, conquering many and controlling the majority, he did not restore the republic. Adopting a piecemeal strategy, Augustus gradually silenced potential threats to his ambitions to control the Roman Empire under the semblance of restoring the Republic. Deceitful in masking his intent, Augustus acted as if he was reconstituting the Republic, using this as a device to conceal his intent, creating a model of covert dictatorship, birthing the age of the Roman Emperor, coercing and manipulating the people and senate, revolutionising the underlying power structure of the Roman government.
“I transferred the Republic from my power to the dominion of the senate and people of Rome” Did Augustus Restore The Republic?
The reign of Augustus was a clear turning point in European history with Augustus systematically creating a model of covert dictatorship that was to be followed by subsequent Roman Emperors. Through manipulation, coercion and militaristic strength, Augustus employed a piecemeal strategy that revolutionised the underlying power structure of the Roman government. Under the façade of restoring the republic, Augustus increased his power, wealth and influence, stabilising and establishing a Rome of greater equality, efficiency and profitability than ever before.
However, such improvements came at the expense of many civil liberties. Although claimed in the Res Gestae1 Augustus did not restore the republic. He did however; incorporate proven and currently functioning aspects of the old republic, replacing those which had failed and improving upon the historical inadequacies of previous Roman governance. Augustus established the clandestine dictatorial rule that would mark the beginning of the age of the Emperor.
Rome at the outset was a city state under the government of kings2 with dictatorships always a temporary expedient.3 As such, the political climate in which Augustus (then Octavian) entered was one of uncertainty, instability, corruption and discontent. A political structure that required a certain aspect of political delicacy, coercion and in certain areas, an autocratic style of governance for which Octavian was well suited. Although suggested by Cassius, Octavian did not have absolute control4 nor did he require or necessarily aspire for such.
Octavian understood the importance of correcting past failures. In order to efficiently and effectively restore faith in the Roman state he would require power and influence far exceeding that of a position available under the old republican structure. Absolute power was required however; this could not be achieved with public or senatorial awareness. A more deceitful, manipulative method must be adopted in order to achieve such an outcome as overt displays of autocracy traditionally lead to senate resentment in Rome.
Hence, control of the senate would initially be required. More importantly, if Octavian was in fact attempting to correct flaws of his predecessors, did he ever consider restoring the republic to its original state? Suetonius claimed he twice thought of restoring the republic5 however, it must be considered that Octavian’s idea of restoring the republic in thought and in planning, differed considerably from that of the old republic. The traditional structure of the republic had worked for a time in the past however, ultimately failed. A new and improved structure was required.
The political delicacy for which Rome’s first Emperor (although never referred as this in his lifetime) was renowned for made the transition from oligarchy to autocracy appear almost seamless to his political contemporaries. However, this is not to say the Roman senate were not aware of this; the position of Octavian during the early principate developed much more organically than anyone could ever have expected. The desire for subtle, gradual change is mirrored in the fact that Octavian spent considerable time acquiring the powers associated with the principate. Upon being voted censorial powers in 29BC Octavian attended to all business of the empire with more zeal than ever.6 However, this agreement was flawed; military rivals remained a threat. More power was required.
Octavian required a solution to silence these threats. He achieved this in 27BC when he went so far as to summon the magistrate and the senate to his house, and submit an account of the general condition of the empire7, and then through a great display of political tact, resigned. The senate implored Octavian to stay in office by offering him a new set of powers, and a new title, the senate in accord with the people of Rome hails thee Father of thy Country.8 Octavian reluctantly and humbly accepted; ‘Having attained my highest hopes, Fathers of the Senate, what more have I to ask of the immortal gods than that I may retain the same unanimous approval of your to the very end of my life.’ 9 Augustus was born.
The threat from military rivals was silenced however, several flaws still existed. More power was required. Power far exceeding that of any role available under that of the republic. In 23BC he was awarded tribunicia potestas and imperium maius. He had now reached a state of political perfection. A state he arguably and narcissistically deemed necessary to establish a Rome of greater equality, efficiency and profitability, a state in which he could covertly dictate. The Principate was made a permanent establishment; his rule would only end in death. Changes were still required, past mistakes must be corrected, time was poor. His mission was nearing completion. Rome was now under the autocratic rule of Augustus, the senate and the people were none the wiser. The republic was far from restored, the republic could not be restored, the republic was flawed. The people and the senate must not know.
Rome required further improvements. Augustus, on several occasions persisted in his attempts to allow institutions and magistrates to correct their failures. However, it was evident the unspecific guidelines to which these inefficient areas operated under impeded attempts to rectify deficiencies which ultimately lead to their demise. Restructuring was required. Traditional pathways under the republican structure were exhausted and inadequate. Therefore, swift and efficient action was necessary and subsequently administered. Control of the corn supply failed. Augustus intervened and administered it in such a way that within a few days freed the entire community from pressing fears and dangers.10An equestrian prefect was appointed; detailed and specific guidelines were defined. The problem was resolved swiftly and efficiently. The republican process had failed, Augustus had succeeded.
Augustus similarly intervened with the Roman fire service. Institutions and magistrates were afforded multiple opportunities to address their inefficiencies and failures. Once again, lack of clearly defined responsibilities and poor management forced the intervention of Augustus. An equestrian prefect was appointed; specific and detailed frameworks were established. A pattern emerges contrary to Cassius’ suggestion that Augustus had absolute control of all matters.11 Yes, Augustus possessed the necessary power required to control the aforementioned areas of concern however; chose initially to follow the political procedure of the republic encouraging and possibly hoping these areas did not require his administration.
Thus, we bear witness to Augustus affording processes of the old republic ample opportunity to prove adequate and capable however, consequent autocratic actions are implemented as deemed necessary to address the inadequacies and deficiencies of the old republic. Past mistakes were corrected; the traditional republican framework was improved, it was not restored, Augustus possessed power far greater than any other man, more power than any one man could possibly possess in a republic.
Support of the senate proved essential in aiding the gradual acquisition of power that Augustus would require in order to found the Roman Empire, this would not be an easy task. Augustus possessed all required traits, power and finances for such a task however, displayed restraint in tackling such a massive undertaking.
Why, if he already possessed the tools required to complete this task was such restraint implemented? Augustus was intelligent, Augustus realised the bigger picture, Augustus believed he was the solution. His gradual political ascension did raise suspicions in the senate; they would contradict Augustus if they had the opportunity.12 Senators were a very real threat. Upon acquiring military governance in all provinces and control vast aspects of the treasury this was all that could potentially threaten his intent of absolute control. The senate must not only support Augustus, they must be under his control.
Retention of the electoral process it is true, continued to sit in judgement as before,13 facilitating the appearance Augustus was restoring the republic. However, this process was susceptible to corruption due to pressure in competition for important magistrates and consulships. Augustus intervened in 18BC electing a law of ambition preventing those found guilty of electoral corruption from holding office for a period of five years. The system was still flawed, corruption was still evident, modifications were required, but how and by what method should they be implemented? Maecenas in his address to Caesar recommends certain positions retain the electoral process out of regard for the institutions of our fathers and to avoid the appearance of making a complete change in the constitution.
However, continues suggesting he but make all of the appointments15 himself as the plebs and people will quarrel over them16 and the senators will use them to further their own private ambitions.17 Could these suggestions be adopted? There are certain similarities in the resulting electoral process post AD5 when a law (possibly inspired by Augustus) demanding the procedure for the comitia be renewed with several other favourable outcomes included for Augustus came into effect.
The comitia would now vote first, elections would continue, the institutions are still in place however, now worked in practical terms affecting election outcomes. The ideals of popular sovereignty and elections remained however, are tailored in such a way Augustus can make known his preferences. As a result Augustus was able to influence outcomes of the elections through publicly endorsing and petitioning on behalf of preferred candidates. Control of the electoral process was now in the hands of Augustus.
Toward the end of his life, Augustus’ influence was insurmountable. Policies were formulated in private by the Consilium principis prior to being put before the senate who now remained in name only, the most important administration of the Roman republic consequently reduced to no more than a second tier legislative body. Cassius suggests however, such power and influence was achieved when he was awarded the name Augustus, in this way the power of both people and senate passed entirely into the hands of Augustus.18 As previously discussed this was not correct and far too early in Augustus’ illustrious career. Flaws still existed at this time and were not eliminated until he was awarded tribunicia potestas and imperium maius in 23BC which afforded Augustus the ability to establish the Consilium principis.
His influence was now insurmountable and according to Cassius strictly speaking, a monarch.19 However, such suggestion fails to adequately describe the framework of this time. The Romans called their emperors neither dictators nor kings nor anything of the sort.20 According to Augustus the republic was restored and transferred to the dominion of the senate and people of Rome21 however, based on the above we can confidently conclude this was far from true. Augustus had played his cards well. If the people and senate of this time had believed as such they were mistaken, they had been deceived.
After the wars against Caesars assassins had reached an end, it was evident Rome yearned for change, inequalities restored, flaws corrected, leadership democratically attained. Augustus understood what was required; Augustus narcissistically believed he was the answer. Throughout his illustrious career, Augustus subtly and delicately built the foundations of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, giving birth to a covert framework of dictatorship known as the Roman Emperor.
Rome however, detested referring to their leaders as kings or dictators therefore, political delicacy would be required, a façade established, the appearance of restoring the republic would be such a suitable guise. The mission was clear; Augustus must learn from the past, flaws could not be repeated, only he could repair Rome, Rome must become his. The militaristic strength and the financial resources necessary for such a task were already at his disposal, he would begin by gaining the support of the senate for they were to be instrumental in facilitating his ascension into leadership.
The position of Augustus during the early principate developed much more organically than anyone could ever have expected. Through great displays of political tact under the façade of restoring the republic, Augustus revolutionised the underlying power structure of the Roman government and created a framework similar to that of the old republic. However, this structure would not suffice, improvements must be made and the people and senate must not know his true intent. Old aspects of the republic received ample opportunity to prove adequate, they were not, Augustus intervened, the problems corrected, the people and the senate were content.
The people and senate, blind in their content allowed Augustus complete control of Rome, a Rome that would soon become and Empire. The republic had not been restored, it could not be restored, it was flawed and in great hindsight Augustus realised this, it would not be adequate, Rome must change, Rome did change and Rome prospered. Augustus had succeeded, civil liberties had been lost, the senate was reduced in both influence and power, Rome would now rest in the hands of the Emperor.
Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, trans. Alison Cooley, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009
Cassius, Dio, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/53*.h tml, accessed 14th April 2012 at 11.03am
Suetonius, Tranquillus, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesa rs/Augustus*.html, accessed 16th April 2012 at 9.03am
Tacitus, Annals http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus/Annals/1A *.html, accessed 12th April 2012 at 9.15am
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