Augustus [10/21/14 Revision]

After the battle of Actium and the death of Cleopatra, Octavian (or, as we will soon call him, Augustus) was the only surviving player of our great game.  He had won the grand prize.  But what now?  He had a difficult, near impossible task before him: to rebuild a people torn apart by 100 years of sporadic civil war. What Rome needed at the time was a great hero, a Superman.  But, since Superman wasn't available, the task of rebuilding Rome fell on Augustus's shoulders and the shoulders of his successors, the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome. In some ways, these men were rather successful.  But the stories of each of these leaders have elements of tragedy: not least for the rulers themselves.

Augustus himself is a great example both of the success of the Julio-Claudians and the hints of tragedy.  He was not the obvious man for the job ahead of him--and he knew it. He didn't have the great speaking skills one would hope for in a great unifying leader.  He didn’t have the commanding physical presence one might expect: in fact, he was weak and rather sickly.  His conduct during the period of the 2nd triumvirate was anything but admirable.  He had once noticed an equestrian taking notes on one of his speeches and, for no reason at all, ordered him killed on the spot. In terms of military and administrative experience, he was hardly the equal of the great Roman leaders before him. It was Antony whose leadership had secured victory over the conspirators at Phillipi, and Agrippa who had secured the victories against Sextus Pompey and against Antony and Cleopatra. On top of that, he had a miserable family life.  He divorced his 2nd wife Scribonia because he couldn't stand her constant nagging.  He wanted a wife more supportive, and he looked (enviously) at a man named Drusus who had just such a wife: Livia.  If only, thought Augustus, I could have a wife like Livia.  That would make me happy.

Well, Augustus found a way to get a wife *exactly* like Livia.  He forced Livia to divorce her husband (she wa pregnant at the time, by the way) and now Augustus has exactly the kind of supportive wife he wants.  Well, no. Not surprisingly, this marriage wasn't completely happy either. Augustus only had one daughter (Julia), a girl he loved but who (eventually) he had to exile for adultery and treason.  And, adding to Augustus' personal sorrows, the untimely death of his grandsons.

But Augustus was one of those people who make up for an unhappy personal life by absolutely throwing himself into his work.  He clearly wanted to do a good job, saying that he wanted when he died to be known for having established the best possible government for his people, a system that would stand the test of time:

May I be privileged to build firma nd lasting foundations for the government of the state.  May I also achieve the reward to which I aspire: that of being known as the author of the best possible constitution and of carrying with me when I die, the hope that these foundations which I have established for the state will abide secure (Suetonius, 12 Caesars). 

And he succeeded: the empire period of Roman history lasts in the West until AD 476 and in the East until 1453.  Not too shabby.

What was it that Augustus did? 

Augustus first task was a restructuring of the government.  We generally talk about the reign of Augustus as the beginning of the imperial period of Roman history, and, from out point of view, that's right.  But that's not exactly the way Augustus himself thought of what he was doing.  "Rex" (king) was a hated title in Rome, and that "Imperator" title, the Latin word we get "emperor" from, didn't yet refer to an autocrat.  It was just a kind of military authority.

Augustus dream was (most probably) not to be a king, but to be a kind of extra-special princeps, first man of the Roman senate.  Historians often call Augustus' system the "principate," and that's a very good way of thinking about his restructing of government. Augustus simply holds multiple offices already existing in the Roman system.  He is consul, proconsul, and censor.  He's the pontifex maximus and hailed as imperator.  He exercises tribunician power.  The only real addition is a kind of honorary title: Augustus.

Augustus cemented support for himself by (more or less) stealing a page from the pharaohs.  He supported the idea that Gaius Julius Caesar was now a god. This made him, if not quite a god, half-way there: he was the heir of a god, and deserving of the same kind of reverence.  His nickname, Augustus, means “the revered one.”  Loyalty to the emperor (and soon worship of the emperor) become the key to Roman unity.

But Augustus knew he couldn't govern the empire by himself.  He refused the title dictator when it was offered him, and, in 27 BC when civil war conditions had died away, he even offered to surrender his extra powers.  But the senate itself insisted he was essential--and Augustus, more or less, returned the compliments.

Somtimes historians refer to the rule of Augustus as a "dyarchy," a kind of join rule.  Augustus splits responsibility for the 20 provinces of Rome between himself and the senators.  He runs the provinces where it's necessary to have troops, while the senate runs the others.  And Augustus continues to use the senators as his administrators and he is careful to let the traditional procedures of republican government continue.

Augustus put a temporary end to the Roman armies marching on Rome situation.  He reduced the number of legions from 60 to 28 and adopted a non-expansionist policy.  The Rhine and the Danube marked Rome's borders.  No need to push beyond that.

Under Augustus, the military was reduced in size to about 300,000 total legionaries and auxiliaries: not a terribley great burden to support!

Also helpful in ensuring stablility was Augustus’ creation of the praetorian guard, 3000 elite soldiers given the task of protecting the emperor and keeping order in the city of Rome itself.  Augustus restored order elsewhere too, sending out his forces to end robbery/brigandage in Italy and sending out his navy (under Agrippa) to end piracy in the Mediterranean.

Augustus contined the "bread and circuses" policy, but made some important reforms.  He cut down the number of people getting subsidized grain, but made sure of supplies.  He sponsored lots of specacular entertainmens as well--and created a fire department to help avert potential disaster from fire.

Augustus tried (not terribly successfully) to address Roman ethical breakdown as well.  He tried to encourage marriage, to discourage divorce, and to increase the number of children people were willing to raise.  While his “family law” measures didn’t succeed, he was somewhat more successful in his attempts to clean up ethical lapses in financial dealings.  Augustus had indecent performers flogged and exiled.  He offered rewards to those having large families, and put limits on legal divorces.  Strangely, many elite Romans ducked the impact of Augustus' family-creation laws.  Bachelors would get themselves engaged to very young girls so that any marriage could be delayed. 

Augustus was considerably more successful in restoring a sense of emotional fulfillment.  He sponsored poets and historians who would remind people of Rome’s great heritage, and point optimistically to better days to come.  He made a big deal of the idea that, with his reign, a new age had begun in Roman history, a new age of peace and prosperity. He sponsored artists who would create things like the ara pacis, the altar of peace, decorated with great scenes from Roman history, reminding Romans of their great heritage, but also of the new age of peace that had arrived.  Augustus also sponsored many new public buildings, boasting that he found Rome “a city of  bricks” and left it “a city of marble.”  These kind of things often do work in restoring a sense that your country is on the right track.

And Augustus was convinced he had done well by his people.  Toward the end of us his life, he put together the "Res Gestae Divi Augusti," a list of all his accomplishments.  It's an impressive list, and it's clear that, under Augustus, Rome had a good start toward a new age of peace and prosperity.

Well begun: half done, but only half done.  In order for Augustus’ work to be truly successful, he had to find someone to carry on when he was gone.  He had no surviving sons or grandsons, so the task of finding as successor was a bit tricky—especially so since the system he had created worked best of the emperor was closely tied to Julius Caesar and to Augustus himself: being related to a god was a big help in getting people to accept you in a job that meant you were on the way to godhead yourself.

Augustus’ first choice was his nephew Marcellus.  Marcellus was already related to Augustus, but Augustus wanted the tie to himself to be even closer, so he arranged a marriage between Marcellus and Julia, Augustus’s daughter.  All good—except Marcellus dies before Augustus, and Augustus was back at square one.  

Next, Augustus chooses Agrippa—another fine choice.  Agrippa was a great general and administrator, but he had the disadvantage of not being directly related to Augustus.  Not to worry.  Augustus had a daughter—Julia—who was available, having been recently widowed.  All good—except Agrippa dies before Augustus, and Augustus is back at square one.

Now Augustus chooses his stepson Tiberius: not a bad choice, but, again, a man not as clearly connected to the “divine” family as he might be, and Augustus wants the tied to be closer.  Not to worry.  Augustus has a daughter—Julia—who was available, having been recently widowed.  Tiberius is forced to divorce his own wife so he can marry Julia.  And, this time, the designated successor does eventually take over.