Friday, November 20, 2009

Augustus’ Problem


The emperor Augustus who grew up with the name Octavian was undoubtedly one of the most important men who ever lived. A man whose influence on our present day world is massive.

Now Octavian, who was born in 63 B.C.E. and died in 14 C.E.1 did not do it all by himself he had lots of help and a great deal of good luck. To make it very simple he had the extraordinary good fortune to be born in the Julii family and to be the nephew of Julius Caesar. Even more extraordinary Julius managed to have, by Roman standards, no legitimate children alive by the time he was assassinated.2

Shortly before Caesar was murdered, 44 B.C.E., he changed his will making Octavian, at the time of the assassination 18 years old, his heir.3

Now Caesar is in many respects a truly extraordinary individual, a brilliant general and a great writer and an in all respects a dazzling personage. He is also in my opinion overrated has a politician. Although certainly capable he owed his success to the trump card of his military ability and his ability to hold onto the loyalty of his men. As a politician he had numerous deficiencies, despite all his skills and brilliance he lacked any real ability to solve Rome’s severe century old crisis.4

Julius Caesar

For over a century before Caesar’s murder Rome had been racked by a series of steadily escalating crises that sapped the foundations of the Roman state. Basically what happened was that Rome’s Republican city Government, admirably suited to conquest and expansion and promoting a certain degree of internal stability was breaking down under the impact of empire and conquest. Rome’s government was a city state government that was best suited for a city state and not for an empire.5

The fact that this government was very unusual in terms of usual sort of city state government in the ancient world in its ability to absorb and integrate conquered territories including the steady expansion of its citizen base. This was combined with a remarkably effective military machine that by 150 B.C.E., made Rome the greatest power in the Mediterranean. Frankly the other great powers of the day simply could not cope with Roman military power. These other powers were steadily disposed or conquered so that by the lifetime of Julius Caesar Rome had no other power to fear.6

Rome did however have to fear its own internal divisions.

The tensions produced by the dichotomy between the centralization of authority in Rome and the essentially provincial nature of government resulted in a steady increase in tension. The vast wealth pouring into Rome had massively increased the wealth of the Roman Aristocracy at the same time tensions in the countryside between the aristocracy and the ordinary Roman citizen had increased massively. Further the massive wealth that Rome now had had spurred output of all sorts and given rise to the creation of a large new moneyed class whose wealth was formed on their ability to lend money. This also created a very large class of debtors who could not pay their debts.7

The simple fact was that Rome was tearing it self apart in civil discord. It was likely that the empire would fly apart into several pieces. In fact in the late 90’s early 80’s B.C.E., the empire had in fact come close to terminal collapse when the Italian allies of Rome succeeded from the empire and thus ignited the Social War. The war was terminated by giving the remaining Italian allies what they had long wanted Roman citizenship. But it had been a close call.8

Further the Republic was riddled with corruption and ruthless exploitation, notably by the governors and their lackeys sent to govern the conquered provinces. This corruption was also sapping the political strength of the state.9

The decline of the old Roman Aristocracy and the rise of soldier politicians like Sulla and Marius also were precursors to the death of the Republic. Another ominous development was the practice of violent purges and proscriptions. Starting with the Gracchi c. 130-115 B.C.E., the scale of these proscriptions escalated until during the rule of Sulla thousands were killed in a reign of terror.10

The solution to this problem was clear the imposition of one man rule and the supporting bureaucracy to support that rule. Here was the crunch. This solution was in effect no solution at all. The very beliefs and political practices that had made Rome strong and powerful enough to create an empire without precedent in the Mediterranean world also made this an apparent non-solution. The Roman Aristocracy was deeply, almost pathologically anti-monarchical. Any rule by one man offended their deepest political instincts and was considered almost completely unacceptable. Further the only system that promised long term stability was a type of hereditary monarchy, which by Roman tradition was considered totally unacceptable. The term for King in Latin “Rex” was considered a curse and insult. Given this any man who attempted to impose one man rule or a monarchy risked virtually certain assassination attempts and was not likely to live long.11

Caesar attempted to get around this by making himself Dictator for life. Dictator was a well established Roman practice for emergencies, however traditionally it was only for periods of 6 months. Caesar’s perpetual Dictatorship was offensive and considered clearly extra-legal. Further rather than stay behind and continue the long difficult process of restoring and reforming the empire Caesar was about to embark on an eastern campaign leaving his staff to govern most of empire. This was too much for the pride of the Roman aristocracy. It was bad enough to be governed by one man, even one as capable as Caesar, but to be governed by his secretaries and thus left out of the main sources of power was too much. Not surprisingly Caesar was assassinated.12 Caesar failed and why he failed is not surprising:
For all his immeasurable abilities as a general and administrator, he had failed, and would have continued to fail, to rescue Rome from its major dilemma. It was this. The Republic, obviously, had become impotent, and, that being so, there was no practical alternative to one-man rule. Yet one-man rule was just what the nobles, although incapable of ruling any more, categorically refused to accept; and so they put him to death. It seemed an insoluble problem. Yet there now came another sort of man altogether, who preformed the seemingly impossible task of finding a solution after all: he was the 19-year-old Octavian, grand nephew of Julius Caesar who had adopted him in his will as his son.13
That was Augustus’ problem; later in another posting I will discuss Augustus’ solution.

1. Wells, Colin, The Roman Empire, 2nd Edition, Fontana Books, London, 1992, p. 286.

2. IBID. pp. 11-14, Julius Caesar had a daughter Julia who died young and by Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt a son nicknamed Caesarian, actual name Ptolemy. Under Roman rules Caesar could not name Caesarian his heir. See Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, 2nd Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1979, Julius Caesar, s, 1, Dio, Cassius, The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus, Penguin Books, London, 1987, Book 50, s. 1.

3. Suetonius, Augustus, s. 4.

4. Grant Michael, History of Rome, Faber and Faber, London, 1979, pp. 192-198, Crawford, Michael, The Roman Republic, 2nd Edition, Fontana books, London, 1978, pp. 182-186.

5. Dudley, Donald, Roman Society, Penguin Books, London, 1970, p. 115.

6. Crawford, pp. 94-106.

7. Grant, pp. 168-169.

8. The actual succession was an act of desperation and the war which is very poorly documented was apparently extremely ferocious and bloody. It was also inconclusive and only ended by Rome conceding citizenship. See Crawford, pp. 138-144, Grant, pp. 156-158, Dudley, pp. 99-100.

9. Grant, pp. 161-174.

10. Syme, Ronald, The Roman Revolution, Oxford University Press, London, 1939, pp. 16-17, Crawford, pp. 150-151, Grant, pp. 161-162.

11. Grant, pp. 196-198, Dudley, pp. 115-116, Crawford, pp. 184-186.

12. IBID, Grant, Dudley, pp. 113-116, Crawford, pp. 182-186.

13. Grant, p. 198.

Pierre Cloutier

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