How did Augustus become the first Roman Emperor?

by Tim Harding

In 27BCE Gaius Octavius (‘Octavian’) in effect became the first Emperor of Rome, although this was not of one his official titles.  As part of this process, his name was changed by Senate decree to Augustus.  For all practical purposes, the Roman Emperor became a monarch, yet throughout Rome’s republican period, the Senate had resolutely opposed any return to the previous monarchy.  Indeed, this opposition has been given as one of the main reasons for the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BCE (Cicero, III 82-83).  The purpose of this essay is to explore the reasons for this apparent paradox, and to suggest an explanation as to how Augustus was able overcome the Senate’s opposition to monarchy and become a king-like Emperor.

In order to better understand the Roman Senate’s aversion to the return of a monarchy, it is useful to consider the prior relationship between the Senate and the early Roman kings, and in particular the conflict between the Senate and the last king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

According to the Roman historian Titus Livius (known as Livy), the Senate was originally created as an advisory council by the legendary first Roman King Romulus.  He appointed one hundred senators who were called the ‘patres’ in virtue of their rank, and their descendants were called ‘patricians’ (Livy, 1.8).  During the later republican period, the Senate became increasingly powerful – more like a legislature than an advisory body (Cornell 1995, 369-370).

In an important contrast to the Senate, many of the subsequent Roman kings were not of patrician blood, and were regarded as ‘outsiders’ (Cornell 1995, 142).  They adopted tyrannical Greek and near-eastern models of kingship in their search for legitimacy and charismatic authority.  They were essentially anti-aristocratic figures, who ruled in the interests of the plebeians, including by redistributing wealth to them from the patricians (Cornell 1995, 147-148).

The seventh and last Roman King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus began his reign in 535 BCE by executing the leading patricians whom he suspected of being partisans of his predecessor Servius Tullius, whom he had overthrown by violence (Livy, 1.49).  Because Tarquinius reigned without either being elected by the people or confirmed by the Senate, he surrounded himself with guards and maintained his dominion by fear.  He summarily conducted the trials in capital cases without any assessors, and put to death, banished, or fined not only those whom he suspected or disliked, but also those from whom his only object was to extort money (Livy, 1.49).

In his way, Tarquinius not only earned the reputation of an anti-aristocratic tyrant but also as an antagonist of the Senate, as recorded in the following passage by Livy.

‘It was chiefly the senators whose numbers were reduced by this procedure, and Tarquinius determined to make no new appointments to the order, that it might be the more despised for its very paucity, and might chafe less at being ignored in all business of state.  For this king was the first to break with the custom handed down by his predecessors, of consulting the senate on all occasions, and governed the nation without other advice than that of his own household. War, peace, treaties, and alliances were entered upon or broken off by the monarch himself, with whatever states he wished, and without the decree of people or Senate’ (Livy, 1.49).

Cornell (1995, 148) concludes that such tyrannical behaviour is the most likely reason for the almost pathological dislike of monarchy during the subsequent Republican period of Rome.  Indeed, the first acts of the initial praetors (consuls) of the Republic in 509BCE, Brutus and Tarquinius Collatinus, were to make the people swear never to allow anybody to be king, and to legislate against aspiring to monarchy in the future (Cornell 1995, 150, 215).  For the rest of Roman history, ‘king’ or ‘rex’ was a term of loathing in Roman politics (Beard 2015, 125).

The dislike of monarchy was instrumental in shaping the constitution of the Roman Republic.  Two consults were elected by the comitia curiata[1] and held office for only one year.  They took it in turns to hold the fasces, the symbol of power and authority (imperium) in ancient Rome (Livy, 2.1.8).  They also had the power to veto the decisions of each other (Cornell 1995, 226).  As consul, Brutus selected leading men of equestrian rank to fill the vacancies in the Senate caused by Tarquin; by this means Brutus brought it up to the old number of three hundred.  Livy claims that ‘this measure had a wonderful effect in promoting harmony in the State and bringing the patricians and plebeians together’ (Livy, 2.1.8); although later conflicts between these classes contradicted this claim.

An exception to these republican rules was the dictatorship, which has important implications for the status of both Julius Caesar and Augustus that I shall discuss later.  In cases of national emergency, a dictator was appointed by one of the consuls to act as supreme commander and head of state for six months, or the duration of the emergency, whichever was the shorter.  The consuls remained in office during this period, but were subject to the dictator’s authority, against which there was no appeal (Cornell 1995, 226-227).

On the Ides of March in 44BCE, Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Senate by a consortium of over 60 senators, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus.  According to Cicero (III 82-83), Caesar was killed because he was in the process of restoring a monarchy to Rome, and thus destroying the Republic.

‘Our tyrant deserved his death for having made an exception of the one thing that was the blackest crime of all.  Why do we gather instances of petty crime—legacies criminally obtained and fraudulent buying and selling? Behold, here you have a man who was ambitious to be king of the Roman People and master of the whole world; and he achieved it!’ (Cicero, III 82-83).

Evidence in support of Cicero’s claim includes an increasingly powerful list of honours that Caesar was steadily accumulating, culminating in his appointment as dictator for life (Plutarch 9; Dio, 12).  Caesar had amassed wealth and power from his Gallic conquests which offended the sensibilities of the senators (Le Glay et al 2009, 150).  He also accepted certain symbols of divine rulership, such as insignia, purples robes and the gilded chair of a triumphator (Carson, 1957, 51; Ehrenberg 1964, 159).  The solemn procession in which Caesar’s statue had been carried into the temple of the deified Romulus gave him the appearance of a divine person (Ehrenberg 1964, 152; Kershaw 2013, 29).  Cassius Dio claims that a similar statue and its inscription was the trigger for Caesar’s assassination.

‘Another likeness they set up in the temple of Quirinus with the inscription, “To the Invincible God,” and another on the Capitol beside the former kings of Rome.  Now it occurs to me to marvel at the coincidence: there were eight such statues, — seven to the kings, and an eighth to the Brutus who overthrew the Tarquins, — and they set up the statue of Caesar beside the last of these; and it was from this cause chiefly that the other Brutus, Marcus, was roused to plot against him.’ (Dio, Book 43, 45, 3)

The patrician senators also loathed the erection of a temple to Clementia Caesaris (‘Caesar’s Clemency’) because clementia was a kingly virtue (Kershaw 2013, 29).  Further evidence of Caesar’s intention to become king was the appearance of his head on a series of coins during his lifetime, instead of the usual gods and ancient heroes (Carson 1957, 52).

A less reliable piece evidence for Caesar’s monarchical aspirations was that according to Dio (Book 44, 15, 3), there was an unconfirmed report that the priests known as the Quindecemviri were spreading a story that the oracle Sibyl had said the Parthians (with whom a war was looming) would never be defeated in any other way than by a king; and so the priests were consequently going to propose that the title of king be granted to Caesar everywhere in the Roman world with the exception of Italy.

‘The conspirators believed this to be true, and because a vote would be demanded of the magistrates, among whom were Brutus and Cassius, owing to the importance of the measure, and they neither dared to oppose it nor would submit to remain silent, they hastened forward their plot before any business connected with the measure should come up’ (Dio, Book 44, 15, 3).

It is uncertain whether Caesar actually wanted to be king or not (Le Glay et al 2009, 158).  Dio claims that although Julius Caesar pretended to shun the title of monarch, in reality he desired it (Dio, Book 44, 11).  On the other hand, Carson (1957, 52) asks that because Julius Caesar had already achieved all the substance of power that he needed, why should he seek the outward forms of it which might arouse political antagonisms?  An alternative theory is that the Roman patricians were more concerned about the indefinite continuance of Julius Caesar’s substantive threat to their own power than the symbolic restoration of the monarchy; and that the latter explanation was a moral and political justification for the assassination after it was done (Carson 1957, 53).  In support of this theory is the fact that Caesar doubled the number of quaestors, appointed an additional praetor and increased the number of senators to 900.  These changes were regarded by the old nobility as an unpardonable offence because they would result in diluting the Senate and patrician ranks with ‘upstarts’ from the Italian peninsula and the provinces (Marsh and Scullard 1971, 19; Kershaw 2013, 29; Le Glay et al 2009, 157).

Whether Caesar was assassinated to prevent a restoration of the monarchy, or to protect the power of the patrician senators (or both), there is a paradox between the assassination of Caesar for either of these reasons and the subsequent rise of Augustus as the first Roman Emperor.  This is because the Emperor in effect became a monarch and diminished the power of the Senate, as I shall now explain.

After Caesar’s death, Mark Antony took advantage of the ensuing power vacuum and turned Caesar’s funeral into a political opportunity for himself (Le Glay et al 2009, 159).  On the other hand, Octavian had been named in Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir (Suetonius, Augustus, 8).  The Roman aristocracy was then thrown into chaos and civil wars until the Battle of Actium in 31BCE, when Octavian (the later Augustus) emerged victorious over Mark Antony and Cleopatra (Goodman 1997, 9).  From that date, Octavian was the undisputed military ruler of the Roman world (Goodman 1997, 38).  He then skilfully used that military power and respect as his springboard to secure ultimate political power.  He established for himself the image of the military saviour of the Roman Republic.

Returning  to Italy in 30BCE, Octavian disbanded about half of the huge legionary forces under his control, paying for their resettlement with wealth taken from Egypt (Goodman 1997, 39).  By downsizing the military forces and relinquishing command, Octavian was playing on national feeling and war weariness (Le Glay et al 2009, 184).

To boost his civic credentials, Octavian as a Consul embarked on a series of public works in Rome, including linking the Forum with the Campus Martius, and building or repairing various temples (Le Glay et al, 195).  As he was immensely wealthy, he donated some of his money for public benefaction on a grand scale (Le Glay et al 2009, 214).  According to Suetonius (Augustus 28), Octavian proudly boasted of Rome that ‘he had found it of brick, but left it of marble’.

In 28BCE, Octavian performed the role of censor (but without the official title) by reducing the Senate to the ancient 300 in number (Suetonius, Augustus 35).  He did this by expelling new senators he deemed unworthy, which earned the gratitude of the old senators.  The Senate then passed a decree naming him Augustus (Goodman 1997, 39-40), which means ‘Revered One’ (Beard 2015, 354).  Augustus rectified the confusion and disorder by which spectators took their seats at public games.  He arranged that in all public spectacles, the first tier of seats should be left empty for use by senators (Suetonius, Augustus 44). These measures were obviously designed to flatter and curry favour with the senators.

The senator and historian Tacitus later wrote how Augustus’ pervasive control over all levels of Roman society gradually metamorphosed into monarchical power.

‘Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws. He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past’ (Tacitus, 1.2).

After what had happened to Julius Caesar, Augustus was wise enough not to accept the title of dictator, instead choosing to be known by the informal title of princeps, a term meaning the foremost statesman (Barrow 1949, 81; Goodman 1997, 40).  In addition, the Senate voted to give Augustus military command for ten years over the provinces of Spain, Gaul, Syria and Egypt where the vast majority of legions still under arms were stationed (Goodman 1997, 40).  He assumed the religious title of Pontifex Maximus as soon as his colleague Lepidus was dead (Seutonius, Augustus 31).  His title of ‘Father of the Country’ was voted to him by ‘the whole body of the people…in a full theatre’ (Seutonius, Augustus 58).

Augustus himself described his accession to the Emperorship in the following terms.

‘In my sixth and seventh consulates (28-27 B.C.E.), after putting out the civil war, having obtained all things by universal consent, I handed over the state from my power to the dominion of the senate and Roman people. And for this merit of mine, by a senate decree, I was called Augustus and the doors of my temple were publicly clothed with laurel and a civic crown was fixed over my door and a gold shield placed in the Julian senate-house, and the inscription of that shield testified to the virtue, mercy, justice, and piety, for which the senate and Roman people gave it to me. After that time, I exceeded all in influence, but I had no greater power than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy’ (Augustus, 34).

In 23BCE, Augustus was awarded imperium proconsulare maius, which was the legal right to intervene on behalf of the state even in those parts of the Empire not formally under his authority (Barrow 1949, 81).  He was also appointed tribunica potestas for life, which permitted him to exercise a tribune’s veto over all legislation and to propose new legislation (Barrow 1949, 81; Goodman 1997, 41).  In this way, Augustus gradually accumulated personal prestige and power equivalent to that of a monarch, with the Senate as a largely compliant legislature.  He was very careful to do this in such a skilful way that he was not perceived as a tyrannical monarch like Tarquinius.

Augustus’ political genius lay in his grasp of the fact that in order to establish his personal power, he had to outwardly preserve the institutions of the Republic while inwardly emptying them of their content (Le Glay et al. 2009, 214-215).  He made no significant changes to the Roman Constitution – the old offices of state, such as the consulships and magistracies were retained, although their power was in practice diminished by his Emperorship.  The formal privileges of the Senate were enhanced, yet once again were overshadowed by Augustus’ power and influence (Beard 2015, 355).  The Emperor had become the single unifying factor for the 50 or 60 million inhabitants of the entire Empire (Goodman, 1997, 9).  Augustus did not actually need formal constitutional titles – his power derived from his personal authority and influence, somewhat akin to a ‘supreme leader’ above the official positions of state.  So the answer to our original question is that Augustus’ consummate political skills were sufficient to overwhelm the resistance of the Senate to the restoration of the Roman monarchy in the form of the new office of Emperor.

Bibliography

Ancient Sources

Augustus         The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, trans. T. Bushnell, The Internet Classics Archive <http://classics.mit.edu//Augustus/deeds.html>, accessed 9 May 2017.

Cicero              ‘On Duties’ III 82-83, in N. Lewis and M. Reinhold eds., Roman Civilization Sourcebook I: The Republic, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 295-297; reprinted in Andrew Connor ed, ATS3346 Imperial Rome: A Study in Power and Perversion in the Early Empire, Unit Reader, Monash University, Clayton, 2017, 15.

Dio                  Roman History trans. Earnest Cary, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1914 thru 1927, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/cassius_dio/43*.html, accessed 9 May 2017.

Livy                 Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome),  Perseus Digital Library,

http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi0914.phi0011.perseus-eng1:49, accessed 9 May 2017.

Plutarch           Life of Caesar, 57-67 (abridged) reprinted in Andrew Connor ed, ATS3346 Imperial Rome: A Study in Power and Perversion in the Early Empire, Unit Reader, Monash University, Clayton, 2017, 9-10.

Suetonius        The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves, rev. J.B. Rives, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1957.

Tacitus             The Annals of Imperial Rome, Complete Works of Tacitus. Church, A., Brodribb, W., Bryant. S., eds, Perseus, New York.  <http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi1351.phi005.perseus-eng1:1.2&gt;, accessed 11 May 2017.

Modern Sources

Barrow, R. H.,

1949                The Romans, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Beard, M.

2015                SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome, Profile Books, London.

Carson, R.A. G.

1957                ‘Caesar and the Monarchy’ Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 4, No. 1. pp46-53.

Cornell, T. J.

1995                The Beginnings of Rome, Routledge, New York.

Ehrenberg, V.,

1964                ‘Caesar’s Final Aims’ Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 68 pp.149-161.

Goodman, M.,

1997                The Roman World, Routledge, New York.

Kershaw, S.,

2013                A Brief History of the Roman Empire, Robinson, London.

Le Glay, M., Voisin, J., and Bohec, Y.,

2009                A History of Rome, 4th ed. John Wiley & Sons Ltd., Chicester.

Marsh, F.B., and Scullard, H.H.,

1971                ‘The Ides of March,’ in A History of the Roman World from 146 to 30 BC. reprinted in Andrew Connor ed, ATS3346 Imperial Rome: A Study in Power and Perversion in the Early Empire, Unit Reader, Monash University, Clayton, 2017, 19-21.

[1] The comitia curiata was the principal legislative and judicial assembly during the early years of the Roman Republic (Cornell 1995, 115).

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