In 31 BC Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus), grand-nephew and posthumously adopted son of Julius Caesar, defeated Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra VII at the battle of Actium, ending the Roman Republic’s period of civil war. Most of the people on the planet have likely heard of Antony and Cleopatra, but who has ever heard of Octavian? The irony is that the romantic and celebrated couple are relatively unimportant figures when compared to the colorless Octavian. They were simply another set of leading players during the last century of the Republic, while Octavian might be considered the most important individual in the entire sweep of Roman history.
By the middle of the second century BC the Roman Empire had been established, at least in the sense that there remained no power in the Mediterranean world that could seriously challenge Roman authority. At the same time, however, the pressing need for reform in the state and military ran up against an all-powerful Senatorial class that had become corrupted and self-interested and resistant to even the smallest changes in the status quo. The result was the Roman Revolution, which in the period from 133 to 30 BC saw the almost four hundred year old Republic gradually collapse into civil war and military dictatorship. Ironically, the Republic was already dead when the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla restored and strengthened the traditional Senatorial government in 83-81 BC and then retired from politics. Putting the pieces back together again was no longer possible, and Sulla himself provided a role model for future ambitious men. The second fifty years of the Revolution was dominated not by the Senate but by powerful men and their armies, resulting in two full blown civil wars: Caesar against Pompeius Magnus (49-48 BC), and Octavian against Antony and Cleopatra (32-30 BC).
When the 33 year old Octavian returned to Rome in 29 BC, he faced a task that might make the battle against the happy couple seem easy. The Republic was dead, and as the immediately failure of the Sullan Restoration had demonstrated, it could not be revived. With some small alterations the machinery of the Republican government was essentially that of the 5th century BC city-state fighting for its life in central Italy, and in the long run it was politically and administratively incapable of running an empire. Enjoying the complete support of the military, Octavian could establish a blatant dictatorship, as his grand-uncle did, and allow Rome to face a return to civil strife when he died. As one of Rome’s greatest statesmen, however, what he wanted was to manage the inevitable transition from oligarchic republic to autocracy in a way that would create a stable and lasting governmental structure. In doing this he would become a second Romulus, virtually re-founding Rome.
While he almost certainly began with a basic idea of what he wanted to do, the realization of that conception would involve much trial and error, and the process would be accompanied by the first real national propaganda campaign in history. He realized, unlike any before him, that in the public and political sphere image was everything, that the reality could be more easily ignored and accepted if it looked like something else. The reality was to be a military autocracy; the image was to be the Republic restored. And it actually worked. His creation, the Principate, would maintain a stable and prosperous empire for the next two hundred and fifty years and allow a declining Rome to stagger on for another century or so.
The basic problem was to maintain control of the military (which was finally fully professionalized), without looking like a military dictator, and he needed to find Republican precedents for all his arrangements. He also needed to give the hitherto ruling elites, the Senatorial class, a real role to play in the new government without surrendering the ultimate power in the state. This was tricky business.
The campaign began in January of 27 BC when with great fanfare he gave up all his illegal powers, declaring the restoration of the Republic. The Senate, in part cowed by the obvious loyalty of the army to the son of Caesar, in part grateful and supportive of establishing a stable government, then proceeded in the following years to vote all those powers back to him. He realized early on that continually holding one of the two annual consulships – the supreme office that provided imperium, the power to command troops – would not work. Not only was this contrary to old Republican tradition and reminiscent of the years of the Revolution, but it also limited the ultimate political prize and administrative training ground that the consulship provided to the Senate. Instead, by votes of the citizen assembly and the Senate he accumulated and exercised all the powers associated with the consulship and other state offices without actually having to hold any of them, thus being freed from the limited tenure of the actual office. He subsequently held the consulship only on special occasions. There was no office of emperor. He was ostensibly a private citizen, but one possessing a vast amount of power.
The major support of his authority was a special grant of proconsular imperium over certain provinces designated as “imperial”: initially the Gauls, the Spains and Syria. These would be governed by legates chosen by him, while the remaining provinces, designated as “senatorial,” would be governed as they were in the Republic, by Senators who had just completed their terms as consuls or praetors (the imperium-granting office just below the consulship). He also had the authority to interfere in the senatorial provinces if necessary and to move provinces from one category to the other.
This arrangement provided a way to control the army without actually being a supreme commander, which would be very un-Republican and redolent of the civil wars. The imperial provinces were precisely those where the bulk of the military was stationed, thus providing Octavian with indirect command of the legions. Grants of proconsular authority dated back to the early days of the Republic, but the only precedents for proconsular power on this scale were found in the Revolution and thus not very good. But it could not be avoided: he absolutely required “legal” control of the military or Rome would slide back into civil strife. Consequently, the confirmation of this power, first for ten years and then for life, was done quietly. Incidentally, governance of the imperial provinces was generally of a higher quality than in the senatorial.
The other significant power granted him for life was the tribunician authority, which provided him all the powers wielded by the tribunes of the people. These powers were really not that important to him, but the grant was very significant in terms of image. The tribunate was an ancient office, created back in the fifth century BC, during the political struggles between the commoners, Plebians, and the aristocrats, Patricians. The original mandate of the ten tribunes was to defend Plebians from hostile actions of the Patricians, and consequently Octavian could showcase this authority to demonstrate his position as a defender of the Roman people.
Supplementing his legal powers was his unmatchable auctoritas. Auctoritas, “influence,” came with dignitas, “prestige,” the quality associated with an individual who had served Rome in some capacity. In the grand days of the early and middle Republic it was dignitas that Senators competed for, rather than wealth and power, though dignitas did bring a form of power with its accompanying auctoritas. (Yes, for almost four hundred years the majority of the Roman Senate actually thought first of Rome rather than themselves.) The man (or men) recognized to be covered with the most dignitas would be styled princeps senatus, the First or Dean of the Senate. Prestige of course brings political influence in any system, but for the Romans it was a much more real and compelling power. And Octavian, who had literally saved the Roman state and restored order and prosperity, had a measure of dignitas unparalleled in Roman history. He had become the princeps romani, the First Citizen of Rome. Romans would listen to his advice.
Rome had become a military based autocracy, but there was no actual office of autocrat, no emperor, inasmuch as that would hardly look republican. There was instead a Princeps and thus the early empire (27 BC – 235 AD) is known as the Principate. Octavian took the more impressive name of Augustus and became in effect the second founder of Rome and its first emperor. To the Roman people he was Princeps, to the army he was Imperator and to the provincials he was king and the center of the imperial cult of Roma et Augustus. In the year 2 BC, acting on the proposal of Valerius Messalla, who had fought against him at Philippi, the Senate named Augustus pater patriae, the father of his country.
The Roman people were delighted with the Principate. There was peace and growing prosperity, and in any case libertas, the Roman concept of freedom, had for them never meant any political participation beyond attending assemblies and voting according to Senatorial advice. The Equestrians, the traditionally apolitical business interests, were of course more concerned with stability and prosperity than forms of government.
It was the Senatorial families, the former ruling elite, that were Augustus’ real concern as a potential source of trouble. So he made them partners in the new order, both to give them something to do and to reconcile them to the Principate. He actual had no choice: he could not govern the empire without the pool of administrative talent that was the Senate. They were of course junior partners, but while the Princeps was the ultimate power, the Senate administered the state and through its ex-officials the empire. They could still compete for offices and honors, for dignitas, but now in the shadow of the Princeps, who worked to keep that shadow as small as possible. He showed the Senate respect and listened to its advice, and with imperial patronage he aided the political careers of members of the old families, especially those who had been against him. And the whole thing looked like the Republic. In fact, Rome was still in theory a constitutional state, inasmuch as it was the Senate, representing the Roman people, that voted the Princeps his power. Image is everything.
Augustus succeeded in his establishment of a military dictatorship for a number of reasons. The Roman world was tired of instability and war; they had just emerged from a century of struggle and two recent civil wars. There was no one left alive who knew the Republic as anything but disorder and strife. There were no rivals left. The Senatorial oligarchy had been drained, and all the powerful men were now loyal to Augustus. And there was the Principate. Anyone with any intelligence knew the restoration of the Republic was a sham and that Augustus was the absolute ruler of Rome, but the Senate had no choice but to accept it. The legions were completely devoted to the son of the now divine Julius Caesar, so that while there might be conspiracies, there could be no real threat to the Princeps. Besides, he gave them a real role in the governance of the state and left them with all the trappings of power, while he maintained a low profile. He made it as easy as he could for the former rulers of Rome to swallow the bitter pill of autocracy.
Finally, he lived long enough, dying on 19 August 14 AD at the age of 76. Some forty years of power had allowed him not only to construct the Principate but also to wean it from dependency on his guiding hand. Power passed more or less smoothly to his adopted son Tiberius.
There were of course weaknesses in the structure of the Principate. It was after all an autocracy and thus faced the age old problem: what do you do when you get a bad autocrat? Augustus hoped that each Princeps would select and train the best candidate and gradually associate him in power, but autocracies almost inevitably become dynastic, even in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This was virtually guaranteed in the case of the Principate since for the foreseeable future the Princps must be a Julian in order to secure the loyalty of the army.
The other problem was that the autocracy was based on the military, thus presenting the danger that the army would sooner or later involve itself in the making and breaking of emperors. The remarkable thing about the Principate is that it took so long for the legions to actually do this. When Nero, the last Julio-Claudian, died in 68 AD, several army commanders converged on Rome, and after a brief and limited conflict Titus Flavius Vespasianus became Princeps in 69 AD, establishing a new dynasty, the Flavians. The legions then retired to their camps and did not get directly involved in the political arena again until the death of Lucius Aurelius Commodus in 192 AD. There was another brief but more widespread civil war to select the next ruler, Lucius Septimius Severus, in 193 AD. The army was subsequently favored but not pampered by the Severans and remained loyal to the empire. It is only with the outbreak of the Anarchy (235-285 AD) that the military loses that sense of duty and becomes corrupted and interested only in itself and thus a major force in the ultimate collapse of the empire.
Augustus probably foresaw these problems, but what else could he do? In the last century before Christ the Roman Republic was irretrievably dead, and the only option was an autocracy. And the only real base of power for that autocracy was the military. Given the circumstances and the evolution of Rome in the last century of the Republic, a military dictatorship had become unavoidable. But it is hard to see anyone else who could have come even close to facilitating that transition and preserving Rome’s future as well as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Few men have made history on that scale.