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Augustus (Caesar)

See also Augustus

AUGUSTUS (CAESAR). Augustus was the honorific title conferred in 27 b.c. on Octavian, the adoptive heir of Julius Caesar, who, by the hindsight of history, is called the first of the Rom. “emperors.” Constitutional crisis and recurrent civil war, the beginning of which may be arbitrarily dated at 133 b.c., had over a full cent. destroyed the Rom. republic. Chronic strife and political breakdown had demonstrated to Rome, to Italy still to be integrated with Rome, and to a Mediterranean world which had fallen under Rom. control, the bankruptcy of the once powerful Senate and the group of noble families which constituted it, and which by the right of ancient tradition and possession governed Rome. A political system which had been adequate to govern a city proved, as Rome expanded in her quest for a stable frontier, ill-equipped to govern an empire. An empire, in the geographic sense of that word, Rome had acquired in the long irregular rectangle of lands which lay round the Mediterranean Sea.

The Senate and Rome’s central government had proved repeatedly unable to control the power of the commanders of the frontier armies, and frontier armies, with able generals to control and deploy them, were an unavoidable necessity of expanding military responsibility. The imposition of military solutions for constitutional problems, with the rivalries and conflict arising from the confrontation of armed groups, had long menaced law and order, and had accustomed Rome and the harrassed Rom. world to look for the intervention of the dynast and the “strong man.” The Senate itself, within the framework of constitutional law, had long accustomed the world to the legal subterfuge and expediency of emergency autocracy. Precedents of absolute power, designed to meet recurrent situations of tension and peril, strew the history of Rome in the last pre-Christian cent.

Last of the line of commanders, who used military strength to promote their own interests or impose their own constitutional solutions on a politically moribund system, was Julius Caesar. Emerging as victor from the Civil War against Pompey, the champion of the Senate which had sought to depose him, Caesar turned his great abilities of administration to restoring order and justice in a tormented land. Had subtlety and patience been a part of his genius, had he known how to appease and manage the senatorial oligarchy and maintain a fiction of republican rule, history might have recorded Julius, and not Gaius Octavius who became Octavianus Caesar, and by senatorial decree, Augustus, as the first of the emperors of Rome.

As it was, Caesar’s roughshod drive for efficient government, strong leadership, and political stability cost him his life. On March 15, 44 b.c., he fell to the daggers of senatorial opponents who resented his contempt for outmoded forms. It was one of the most senseless political murders in history. The murderers had no program save a vague archaism to which the eloquence of Cicero, Rome’s great orator and patriot, gave brief dignity.

Nor had the reactionaries reckoned on the forces which they had loosed, and no one had thought of Octavian, recently adopted by Caesar, his legal son and heir, who at the moment was studying in Greece. With cool audacity, the nineteen-year-old boy came to Italy, claimed his inheritance, and found the land behind him. He had a flair for diplomacy and a genius for picking and using sound men, but he could not have won his astounding success had not immense moral and material forces, which he quickly learned to channel and manipulate, flowed in his direction.

Civil war broke out again, and it was at Philippi in 42 b.c. that Octavian and Antony, Caesar’s one-time lieutenant, broke the remaining strength of the senatorial oligarchy. Cannily, Octavian remained in Italy. Antony moved E to secure the Parthian frontier which had broken amid Rome’s preoccupations. It was a task for which he proved unequal, and the eastern Mediterranean survived the next few years only by the ineptitude and division of Rome’s enemies.

It was here that Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemies, intervened to illustrate again the role of personality in history. The famous liaison of the Egyp. queen with Antony almost anticipated history and divided the empire. It was Octavian’s opportunity. He held the true strength of Rome, for he held Italy and the W. War for the unity of Rome was inevitable, and at Actium, in 31 b.c., Octavian broke the naval might of Egypt and the E. He and his generals brought final order to the sadly tormented world and in 27 b.c., after a semblance of “restoring the republic,” Octavian received the title of Augustus. The world longed for peace, and Augustus had given it the gift it needed so sorely. He succeeded where Julius failed, because he knew how to clothe autocracy in the semblance of republican forms. He called himself “princeps” or “first citizen.” “Emperor” was a title held because he commanded all the military forces of the state. Augustus ruled by virtue of a concentration of old republican magistracies in his hands. He held little more than that which others, by the Senate’s vote and the people’s gift, had held before, but he held all together. He gave a form of power to the Senate and entrusted it with the provinces. In short, those who lived to bless the peace that Augustus gave were not aware of the sharp change which history chooses, looking back, to mark. Only the farseeing knew that the republic was gone, and they, if they held this view, knew also that it had been long in virtual abeyance.


J. Buchan, Augustus Caesar; Cambridge Ancient History X (1930); R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939).

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