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Why was Augustus so successful in creating the Roman Empire?

‘In my sixth and seventh consulships [28-27 BC], after I had extinguished civil wars, and at a time when with universal consent I was in complete control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my power to the dominion of the senate and people of Rome…After this time I excelled all in influence [auctoritas], although I possessed no more official power [potestas] than others who were my colleagues in the several magistracies.’ (Res Gestae Divi Augusti 34.1-3)[[1]]

It is with these words that Augustus not only describes, but also justifies his unique political position. Although it is easy to see through his transparent veil, it is also easy to see how the above statement embodies both the subtly and political delicacy used by Rome’s first emperor. His political power is masqueraded as personal ‘auctoritas’; his power achieved through his military supremacy passed off as rule by ‘universal consent’ – to use a historical cliché, Augustus was the archetypal ‘master of spin’.

With the gift of hindsight, even the staunchest of revisionists can acknowledge that the reign of Augustus was a clear turning point in European History – whether or not this change was a steady evolutionary measure or a rapid revolutionary one is subject to much scrutiny. Certainly when looking at the Senate, the sheer tact of Augustus made the transition from oligarchy to autocracy seem almost seamless to his political contemporaries.[[2]] This was not to say that senators were none the wiser; the position of Augustus during the early principate developed much more organically than one could have expected. Consider the situation as thus: after the war against Antony came to a close, Augustus (or as he was known then, Octavian) was at the head of Rome’s empire: he had, at his disposal, over five hundred thousand legionaries [[3]] (many of whom defected from Antony to Octavian after Actium) as well as a recently seized Ptolemaic treasury – as Tacitus puts it, ‘Opposition did not exist’.[[4]]

With this in mind, it seems strange that Octavian developed his power base in such a piecemeal manner. Why was there such a need for subtly? If being brought up during the time of the Late Republic had taught Octavian anything, it was that overt displays of autocracy generally fed the resentment of the Senate – one only has to examine the fate of Caesar to be aware of this. However, if Octavian followed the mould of Sulla and retired directly after the civil wars, Rome would most definitely become re-enveloped by hostilities.[[5]] In the eyes of Octavian, the only way to acquire a stable, but autocratic Rome was to employ a piecemeal strategy.

This desire for subtle, gradual change is mirrored in the fact that he spent the following eight years after Actium acquiring the powers associated with the Principate. As soon as the Actium campaign came to a close, his powers of a triumvir were replaced with consecutive consulships up until 23 BC. While in this position, Octavian was voted censorial powers in 29 BC, and set about restoring order.[[6]] For a time, this worked well for Octavian. It was a flawed agreement however – rivals in the military could still be a potential threat. This was ultimately proven through the military successes of M. Lincinius Crassus, who, during a campaign in Thrace in 31 BC, won a pretext for the spolia opima.[[7]] Although awarded a triumph, Crassus was not granted the award as it overshadowed the achievements of Octavian. Realising the need to keep individuals in check, Octavian set about reforming his position; this was achieved in 27 BC through the medium of the so-called First Settlement.

According to Suetonius the build-up to the settlement happened as thus:

‘He then actually summoned…the Senate to his house and gave them a faithful account of the military and financial state of the Empire.’[[8]]
And then, in a great display of political tact, he resigned. Naturally the Senate implored Octavian to stay in office by offering him a new set of powers. With apparent reluctance, Octavian accepted the following: Proconsulular imperium (the legitimate right to command legions) in most militarised provinces – Gaul, Spain and Syria – which was to be reviewed every ten years; a continuation of his consecutive consulships – thus placing himself in a position similar to that of Pompey during 59-48 BC; and he was also awarded the honorific title of Augustus – a title held by all Augustus’ successors.[[9]]

The powers Augustus acquired at the First Settlement seemed to be a permanent arrangement in the creation of Imperial Rome. However, as with his previous political arrangements, there were still flaws to be found. In 24 BC for instance, the acting governor of Macedonia, Marcus Primus, illegally went to war against the neighbouring kingdom of Thrace – a clear indication that Augustus lacked legitimate authority in certain provinces, and thus unable to stop maverick generals.[[10]] There was an attempt on Augustus’ life by the Republican senators, Fannius Caepio and Varro Murena as a result of various Senators’ disgruntlement with his consecutive consulships; the power only made one consulship available per annum.[[11]] In accordance with these apparent flaws, Augustus sought a second settlement in 23 BC.

Augustus gave up the consulship and instead was awarded tribunicia potestas (tribunician powers) for life by the senate – a position that gave him civil authority, but at the same time freed up one of the consulships. To maintain authority in all militarised provinces, Augustus was awarded imperium maius.[[12]] This enabled him to override the imperium of any provincial governor and potentially have military authority in any province; however, Augustus only really intervened with senatorial provinces on a few occasions.[[13]]

With such care and effort put in this acquisition of power, it seems that Augustus had reached state of political perfection; not only would he hold these powers until his long life came to an end, but his successor would also. Thus in 23 BC, Augustus made the principate a permanent establishment – the rule of the autocrat ended only at death.

At this point, it seems only necessary to ask why was there such little resistance from the Senatorial body? Under Augustan Rome, politically active senators were presented with two options: open resistance or becoming obsequious in manner.[[14]] Those assigned to the former became political nonentities, or, as we saw with Caepio and Murena, were executed. The fact of the matter was thus: the main body of the senate owed their careers to Augustus, and there was nothing that could be done about it – as Tacitus would want us to believe, Augustus’ grip on the senate was too strong. For instance, when Octavian returned to Rome after the civil wars had been extinguished, his censorial powers made it possible for him to purge the Senate of any potential resistance in his regime.[[15]] The reason for such a rash act was due to the number of senators appointed by Octavian’s rival triumvir; the presence of senators that did not side with him during the Actium campaigns was also an adequate reason for an assessment. Thus in 29 BC, Octavian removed 190 potential threats to his administration – in later years three more efforts were made to rid the senate of undesirables: in 18 BC, 11 BC and AD 4.[[16]] Furthermore, senators were also powerless militarily; the nature of the First and Second Settlements took all forms of military authority away from them. It would seem that open resistance was not an option in the Senate.

If assigned to the second option, political advancement was almost guaranteed – although it was Augustus’ policy to allow the senate to, within reason, speak freely about their grievances, most senators acknowledged the fact that there was a direct correlation between an elevated currsus honourum and being on the same wave length as the emperor. Senators were indebted to Augustus in other ways: namely financially. In 12 BC, the property qualification for the Senate was raised from 400, 000 sesterces to one million.[[17]] Those whose fell below this property qualification were either propped up by Augustus’ vast treasury, or, if deemed undesirable, ejected from the Senate. This less-than-subtle capping of the Senate’s power had its limitations: there were many indirect ways in which Senators still held the trappings of power.

As with most ancient states, religion within the Roman sphere was heavily entwined with her political institutions; this was, as we shall see, particularly the case during the Late Republican era, for although Rome’s temples had long since been emptied of all religious fervour, religion was rarely far from the dealings of this far from secular state. Rome, at this time, had few full-time priests; most were important people, namely senators, for whom a priesthood was one of many duties. The result of this monopoly on both the government and the state religion was simple: religion could be manipulated (normally in the form of poor omens) to suit the ambitious careers of senators. A classic, and almost typical, example of this religious manipulation occurred in 59 BC, when Julius Caesar’s co-consul, M Calpurnius tried to block his colleague’s legislation under the premise of an unfavourable religious environment – in this case, in the form of inauspicious omens, of which he found many.[[18]] Keeping in mind that this was just one of many (seemingly easy) ways in which religion could be manipulated, it is no surprise that there was much competition for membership of Rome’s four main priesthoods.[[19]]

Under Augustus, the theological influence that the Senate held was capped in another subtle, but home-hitting way. As early as 29 BC Augustus, or Octavian as was then known, initiated a program of religious renewal. As well as famously restoring ’82 temples’[[20]] among other buildings, this also entailed reviewing the membership of various priesthoods and re-establishing cults and priesthoods that had long since been lost to the sands of time.[[21]] This meant that under Augustus, the various priesthoods ‘acted more in conjunction, creating an impressive outward appearance’ but obscuring the fact that responsibilities and influence now only existed in prayer alone.[[22]] It was this control of the Senate that created sufficient conditions for Augustus’ unopposed political freedom in the capital – the diminished power of the Senate acted as a springboard for the excesses of his successors.

Although diminished in power, Augustus did still respect the Senate, and regularly consulted the body: in administration the Senate had still had authority over non-military provinces; in jurisdiction law courts were manned by both the Princeps and Senate; and in legislation, the Senate’s consuls had the right to propose laws.[[23]] Although the partnership between Princeps and Senate was clearly an unequal one, the respect mustered up by Augustus’ advisory body was great enough for him to be awarded the honorific title of pater patriaein (Father of the Fatherland) in 2 BC[[24]] – a clear indication that there was some truth behind Augustus’ boast of excelling ‘…all in authority…’[[25]]

I have, however, not mentioned the most definitive reason for the senatorial indifference: the Roman military machine. The fact that throughout the duration of his reign Augustus had complete military authority made any form of senatorial resistance impossible. How did Augustus keep control of such a large body of troops? After Actium, it was Octavian’s main priority to reduce the size of the Roman army from 500, 000 (over fifty legions) to 300, 000 (28 legions – the standard number of legions for much of Augustus’ reign)[[26]]. This would enable two things: legionaries of dubious loyalties would now be disarmed, and fewer inactive troops with a pretext for mutiny. Those dismissed settled in veteran colonies – which were, of course, funded by Augustus'’ vast Ptolemaic treasure.[[27]] The Emperor also dictated the pay of the legions: once again, Augustus’ personal fortune paved the way for this.[[28]]

Discipline was another issue addressed. Suetonius for example, speaks of many harsh punitive measured introduced Augustus.[[29]] In order to secure further loyalty, the princeps changed the oath military allegiance to refer to himself rather than the previous practice of referring to Rome. Although not an expansionist in nature, Augustus created an army stable and disciplined enough for his successors to expand the Empire. One must also keep in mind that due to the nature of the 23 BC settlement, this elite fighting force was controlled by Augustus and/or his subordinates, and there was virtually no chance of his opponents commanding this force.

There was however, another element of military force that allowed Augustus to stay in power: the Praetorian Guard. These were an elite unit of imperial soldier whose work was dedicated to protecting the Emperor and his immediate family. Divided into nine cohorts - composed of 9000 men - and under the command of an equestrian prefect (chosen by Augustus himself), these were the only military units that could be stationed below the Rubicon.[[30]] Unlike their legionary counterparts, the Guard rarely took to the field, and their pay was superior. With the Guard under his control, Augustus had the ability to emit authority over both the urban populace, and the Senate.[[31]]

Keeping control of the masses was rarely carried out through oppressive military action; in the words of Juvenal, control mainly kept with the use of ‘bread and races’.[[32]] The nature of Augustus’ vast treasury and centralised government enabled him provide the population with Annona rations (corn dole)[[33]] : during a particularly bad famine in 22 BC grain was supplied at a ‘...very cheap rate; sometimes he provided it for free...’[[34]] Augustus was also able to fund games and largesse: ‘None of Augustus’ predecessors had provided such splendid shows…His awards of largesse to the people were frequent...’[[35]]

Augustus’ centralised government initiated various building programs designed to appease the urban poor; most notable of which were the three aqueducts built under the supervision of Marcus Agrippa, and after his death, under the eyes of three curators of the water supply (all of which were well established patricians at the height of their careers). Once built, the aqueducts were thoroughly maintained and monitored: according to Dio, Agrippa had a troop of 240 trained slaves to repair them and to cut off people who have tapped the water supply illegally.[[36]] Because water was now so readily available, Augustus was in a position to order the construction of the Baths of Agrippa: Rome's first large-scale public baths. Appeasing the masses in Rome eventually became another mandate for power; it became an Imperial modus operandi of gaining popularity, and it was often improved upon by the excesses of Augustus’ successors.

Clearly Augustus was as successful a politician as anybody could get: he created long lasting institutions; maintained complete control of the Roman army; held dominance order, but at the same time respected, the Senate; and with centralised government and excessive wealth, he was able to extract loyalty from the people and establish an institution that would be fundamentally altered only with the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine.

...this article was written by forum member Wotwotius

back to Augustus

Crawford, M. 1992 The Roman Republic: Second Edition. Fontana Press.
Hardy, E.G. 1920 ‘Augustus and His Legionaries’ The Classical Quarterly. Vol. 14, No. 3/4, pp.187-194.
Goldsworthy, A. 2003 In the Name of Rome: the men who won the empire. Phoenix.
Levivk, B. 1985 ‘The Politics of the Early Principate’ in Wiseman, T.P. eds. Roman Political life 90 BC-AD 69. Exeter.
Shotter, D. 1991 Augustus, Emperor of Rome. London & New York: Routledge.
Scullard, H. H. 1982 From the Gracchi to Nero. Methuen.
Zanker, P. 1990 The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Trans. Shapiro, A. University of Michigan Press. Ancient Sources Dio Cassius, Roman History in the Reign of Augustus, trans. Scott-Kilvent, I. Penguin Classics: London, 1987. Juvenal, The Satires, trans. Bar, W. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1991. Res Gestae Divi Augustus. The Achievments of the Divine Augustus, eds. Brant, P.A. & Moore, J.M. Oxford & New York: Oxford UP, 1967. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. Graves, R. revised Grant, M. Penguin Classics: London, 1989.

[[1]] Translated by P. A. Brunt and J. M. Moore, 1967
[[2]] Scullard, 1982, 209
[[3]] Res Gestae, 3.2; Hardy, 1920, 187
[[4]] Res Gestae, Tacitus, Annals, 1.2.
[[5]] When Sulla retired in 79BC, the renegade general Lepidus was quick launch a failed march on Rome soon afterwards. Scullard,1982,85
[[6]] Shotter, 1991, 26
[[7]] A honour granted to generals who kill enemy leaders with their bare hands – an honour granted to only two individuals since Romulus; Dio Cassius, LI, 24.4.
[[8]] Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 28
[[9]] Scullard, 1982, 210
[[10]] Dio Cassius, LIV, 3.2
[[11]] Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 19
[[12]] Overriding superior imperium; Levick, 1985, 46
[[13]] Edicts from the province of Cyrene indicate that Augustus sacked a governor for mismanagement; Shotter, 1991, 28.
[[14]] Levick, 1985, 46
[[15]] Levick, 1985, 46
[[16]] Levick, 1985, 47
[[17]] Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 41; Dio Cassius, LIV, 17. 3
[[18]] Crawford, 1992, 165.
[[19]] Namely the pontifices, augures, septemviri and decemviri: Crawford, 1992, 165
[[20]] Res Gestae, 20
[[21]] Res Gestae, 20; Zanker, 1990, 103
[[22]] Zanker, 1990, 121
[[23]] Scullard, 1982, 220
[[24]] Res Gestae, 35.1
[[25]] Res Gestae, 34.3
[[26]] Hardy, 1920, 187; Res Gestae, 3.3
[[27]] Hardy, 129, 190
[[28]] Goldsworthy, 2003, 268.
[[29]] Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 24 – the passage speaks of cohorts of legionaries being decimated for cowardice.
[[30]] Scullard, 1982, 244
[[31]] Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 23 – after the so-called Varus disaster of AD 9, Augustus sent out patrols of Praetorians to quell the unruly masses
[[32]] Juvenal, Satires, 10.81
[[33]] Res Gestae, 18
[[34]] Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 42
[[35]] Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 43
[[36]] Dio Cassius, XLIX, 42.3

Did you know?

The meaning in English is "Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of the deified one"


Why was Augustus so successful in creating the Roman Empire? - Related Topic: Roman Emperors


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