Tuesday, 01 June 2021 08:35

Episode 12 - Octavian becomes Augustus

When Octavian returned to Rome in 29, laden with the riches of Egypt, he was the undisputed master of the State. His victory was total and not only on a military level: he had won in the minds of the Romans too. In fact, after decades of civil wars, proscriptions, massacres, plots, dangers and confiscations, many were genuinely convinced that all this was the inevitable consequence of the Republican order. Peace under the power of one seemed preferable to the chaos of war and destruction, a result of the endless disputes among political factions led by individuals who used republican offices and legions as instruments of their power struggle.

Romans demanded order, peace, security, good administration, a healthy currency, and their goods' protection. And Octavian set out to guarantee them. He won the favour of the soldiers with cash, the support of the populace with abundant food, and the backing of all Romans with the sweetness of peace. And so he gradually began to impose himself, to merge the functions of the Senate, the magistrates and the laws in one person, himself. And no one opposed to it.

Using the Egyptian gold, he dismissed most soldiers (the army had risen to a total of 500,000 men), giving veterans some land he bought on purpose to turn them into peasants. He kept 200,000 in service, and he proclaimed himself emperor, a purely military title; and he started great public works. Now, he faced a much more difficult task: how to consolidate this immense power and, on the other hand, how to avoid the tragic end of great political figures such as Pompey, Caesar, Anthony, the victims of their greatness.

First of all, he should avoid a mistake that had been fatal to all of them: the history of the Roman Republic, and the same deadly accusation made by the enemies to Julius Caesar, taught that he should never pronounce words as “king” and “kingdom”. For over five centuries, that is, since the monarchy had been abolished and the Republic established, for a Roman politician, the only suspicion of aspiring to a kingdom led to political and often even physical death, the very murder of Julius Caesar taught him so. But how was it possible? This was the big problem: things needed to be changed because it was clear that the old Republic was now exhausted, worn out, but how was it possible to change things without switching to a fully declared monarchical regime?

The path followed by Octavian is a subtle and brilliant game with words: change everything, making people believe that nothing changes. The Roman ideology was the opposite of the modern one, contrary to change, to new things. A politician who made novelty his slogan would have committed suicide, and not just politically. The best of history was behind them; it was on the side of the ancestors, it was “mos maiorum”, the customs of the ancient heroes, the golden age.

Even counting on the desire for peace, Octavian could not simply proclaim himself king or dictator: the story of Caesar, who had been murdered on the charge of having aspired to the kingdom, was a clear sign that Romans would not accept a real monarchy. Octavian understood this, and he presented himself not as a ruler but as the one who restored legality and gave the power back to the Senate and to the popular assemblies after the chaos of the civil wars.

He had the extraordinary ability to carry out a revolution giving the impression of restoring tradition. As Octavian himself recalls in the “Res Gestae”, his political autobiography, 27 BC was the decisive year. At the Senate session on January 13th, Caesar's son declared that he wanted to return all his powers to the Senate; he proclaimed the restoration of the Republic and announced that he wanted to retire to private life. The Senate responded, in turn, by begging him to assume all the powers and giving him that name of Augustus, which literally meant "the enhancer". And Octavian agreed to it, whimsically. It was a scene perfectly recited by both sides, and it showed that the conservative and Republican obstruction was over: even proud senators preferred a master to chaos.

Augustus, a fateful word, an exceptional idea. The title of Augustus, worthy of reverence, had no real effects, but it was not just a symbolic homage; it had an almost sacred value: Octavian, although formally a magistrate like the others, was put on a level of higher authority.

The title of Augustus became an integral part of Octavian’s name, from which it passed to the following emperors. But Augustus' title was only a step in the construction of absolute power, always complying formally with the law. He also became "princeps Senatus", prince of the Senate, the first, once again a subtle masking of reality. Thanks to this perfectly legal position, Octavian was the first to cast his vote, influencing the vote of all other senators. The term, which had no legal value, suggested that “Augustus princeps” was only the most authoritative of the citizens of a republic officially still alive, not the lord of a mass of subjects without rights, as he was in reality.

Octavian himself states that from that moment, that is from 27, he had a “potestas”, we can translate a little inaccurately a “power”, equal to all those who were his colleagues in each judiciary office. He acknowledges, however, that he had a superior “auctoritas”, a prestige deriving from his exceptional merits, from having extinguished civil wars and saved the Republic. In other words, he acknowledged that he had only a “charismatic” superiority, a very skilled statement to which countless essays have been dedicated.

To celebrate the peace and concord he brought to the state, Octavian Augustus even invented a goddess, Peace. He dedicated to her a temple, which was also a self-celebration of his own role as peacemaker and defender of the faith. It is the Ara Pacis, the altar of Peace, which we can still admire today on the banks of the river Tevere, next to the Mausoleum of Augustus.

The Ara Pacis was built between 13 and 9 BC, and it was initially placed right in Campus Martius, the area traditionally dedicated to the god of war, where the rites propitious for military campaigns were celebrated. The monument consists of an almost square marble enclosure surrounding a monumental altar, accessible through some steps, and is decorated with plastic reliefs. In the enclosure, there are two entrances, which allow you to enter, turn around the altar and exit from the opposite side.

Augustus' political and cultural message is carved onto the outer upper band of the monument. Here are a dedicatory procession and two scenes that refer to the foundation of Rome (Romulus and Remus lactated by the wolf, Aenea sacrificing to the gods) and two symbolic representations, the goddess Rome sitting above a pile of weapons and the goddess Tellus holding the twins, flanked by the personification of air and water. The characteristics attributed to Tellus – animals and fruits – indicate the birth of a new golden age for the earth. This relief, therefore, is intended to reinforce the idea of happiness associated with fertility and prosperity.  

The scene of the wolf recalls the divine origin of the founder, Romulus: the twins fed by the she-wolf are, in fact, according to tradition, children of the god Mars and the vestal priestess Rea Silvia. The presence of Aeneas is a clear reference to Gens Julia, the "family" of Octavian; Aeneas, like Augustus, is a pious man, respectful of his ancestors, and he presents himself with a veiled head. The allegorical figures of Rome and Tellus allude to the fate of the Empire: Rome founded its power on military force, but now it is time to govern with justice and peace over all other peoples and above the elements of nature.     

In the procession, together with the most important priests of the Roman state religion, all members of the imperial family, including women and children, even the acquired members of the family are depicted. The characters could be easily recognized by the Romans, who saw their portraits in statues and coins. In the lead is Augustus; then Marcus Agrippa with his son Caius Caesar, Julia (Augustus’ daughter, the wife of Agrippa), Tiberius, Antonia Minor (the daughter of Mark Anthony and Octavia, Augustus’ sister) followed by her son Germanicus and facing her husband Drusus (Tiberius’ brother). The proportions of the draperies are strictly classic, although the way in which the figures are grouped is more naturalistic than the one of the procession on the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens, from which the one of this altar derives.

The Ara Pacis is truly the monument that most exemplifies the role that Augustus is building for himself: Father of the Fatherland, second founder of Rome, the one who carries out Rome's mission to unify the known world, according to the model of Roman civilization. From the Ara Pacis, an idea spreads across the Roman world: Augustus is destined to be welcomed among the gods, and he and the emperors after him must be revered as gods.

For several years, from 31 to 23 BC, Octavian retained power by being repeatedly elected consul; at the same time, he maintained control over numerous provinces and the legions stationed there. But he was aware that it was a temporary accommodation. The solution was found in 23 BC: Augustus ceased to hold the annual office of consul and was given for life, directly, the two powers that would allow him to manage the state, untying them from the offices connected with them.

The first was the “tribunicia potestas”, the power of the tribune; thanks to it, he had all the powers of the tribunes of the plebs: he could convene the Senate and the people's assembly, present bills, above all he could veto any decision of the Senate and other magistrates and had the right to force anyone to obey his orders and to punish those who did not comply. So, all in all, nothing could be approved without his consent. The second was the proconsular command, with powers greater than the other proconsuls’ and no time limit; by this, Augustus retained the title of “imperator” and thus the army's control.

Formally the Republic, with its magistrates, the Senate and the popular assemblies, remained alive. Still, everything was designed so that the supreme power was in the hands of an individual to whom the Senate and the people themselves had formally attributed a series of prerogatives. Senators and members of senatorial families still occupied the offices of the Republican tradition: questura, pretura, consulate, but these offices were increasingly devoid of real powers, because their administrations were run by officers nominated by the emperor. The popular assemblies were utterly deprived of effective power: and though they were not eliminated, they were reduced to formally approving decisions already taken elsewhere. The election of magistrates by the rallies followed the emperor's directions, and only the laws proposed by him could be passed.

In foreign policy, Augustus pointed not so much to the mere conquest of new territories to attain military glory or loot, but instead, he aimed at stabilizing the regions already subject to the Romans and bring the frontier forward to coincide with easily defensible natural borders, such as the Rhine and the Danube rivers. The Alpine valleys were conquered, both south of the Alps (the Aosta Valley) and north (the Noric, present-day Carinthia in Austria, and Rhaetia, the Swiss valleys). Pannonia (eastern Austria and Western Hungary) was also conquered; looking at a map, we can see that the goal here was to secure the Danube River as a stable border of the empire. To protect the Danube border, he ordered to move forward into Germany to the Elbe River. Thus, the empire's northern boundary would be on the Elbe -Danube rivers line. Between 12 and 9 BC, Germany was submitted by Drusus, Augustus’ stepson: it seemed it would become Roman; apparently, the Germans accepted Roman rule, as it had happened in Gallia.

The situation in the region was relatively peaceful; Romans were already founding new cities there, as they had done elsewhere in the Empire; Germans and Romans were beginning to mix up in markets and fora. But the fire was smouldering under the ashes. In 9 AD, a revolt of the Germans broke out, led by the head of the tribe of the Cheruscans, Armin: he had fought in the Roman army in previous campaigns, he had even obtained Roman citizenship, and his full Roman name was Gaius Julius Arminius.

Armin, presumably an officer in the Roman army, had plotted against the Roman governor Publius Varus. Varus was informed of the plot but refused to give credit to it and set out to put down a revolt of which the conspirators had warned him.

The Roman army led by Publius Varus recklessly entered the deep forest of Teutoburg, and three legions were massacred there. The historian Dionis Cassius recounts that, when Augustus knew what had happened to Varus, he tore his clothes and kept on shouting: "Varus, give me my legions back". He expected the barbarians to march against Italy and against Rome itself, but it did not happen; the Germans of those times did not have any desire to defy the Roman power outside their territory.

Varus' defeat marked a turning point in the history of Europe: Germany was never conquered again by the Romans, and the Rhine became the border between a Latin Europe and the lands where the German language is still spoken today. The Germanic populations will never be submitted and will remain over the centuries a constant threat to the empire until its collapse under the pressure of barbarian invasions.

In the East, Augustus pursued a different policy, aiming to gain Roman supremacy through diplomacy. He entered into negotiations with the Parthian king, and he succeeded in placing a friendly king on the Armenian throne. Still, above all, he obtained the return of the Roman military insignia captured by the Parthians in the wars against Crassus and Anthony. Rome obtained the control of several small regions of the East through allied kings, such as Herod of Judea, under whose reign Jesus of Nazareth was born. These small kings were totally submissive to the Roman will: Augustus even decided their family policies and their succession.

Augustus is one of the greatest political myths in the West. But, despite his fantastic fortune, the figure of Augustus does not arouse the same emotions, the same passions, the same involvement of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Why?

Basically, Augustus’ life was an extraordinary human and political adventure but poor in events that can be translated into literature, theatre, cinema. Usually, Augustus enters the movies or the books obliquely, either because of the evocative story of Anthony and Cleopatra or because of the murder of Caesar, often drawing inspiration from Shakespeare. Then, the great losers, the unfortunate heroes, appear to us more fascinating than the great winners. There is a lot of charm in the sudden death of Alexander the Great, eliminated at the age of 33 by a sudden fever when he had conquered most of the world known to the people of his times, or in the assassination of Julius Caesar, pierced by daggers in a conspiracy that hundreds of people in Rome knew but of which he was unaware. In short, the winners who die old in their bed, like Augustus, who died at the age of 77 after more than 40 years of reign, do not have the same charm.

Notwithstanding this, the age of Augustus is undoubtedly one of the happiest times in Roman history, thanks to his smart choices, his incredible ability to choose the times of political action and to gather consensus around his figure. Caesar’s life and death may be more intriguing, more dramatic, but Caesar did not survive his creature. Octavian did, and made it stronger and more alive. Thanks to him, Rome will be the beacon of the western world for another 400 years, and its influence will extend well beyond the end of its Empire.

Published in Podcast