|The Nature of Augustus and his Regime
“Augustus would have gloated over the frustration of…scholars…
[who cannot categorise] his enigmatic personality,
and …[who find] him ‘puzzling, elusive, baffling and inscrutable’
like the sphinx upon his signet ring”
“He [Augustus] did not invent stories…but he shamelessly
embroidered them…like a modern spin doctor”
(Holland2, writing of the period of ‘cold war’
between Antony and Octavian in the late 30s BCE)
What do students need to know of the man known to history as the first emperor of Rome, Augustus?
Often it’s easiest for students if we can give an easy categorisation of the ‘great figures’ of history. These typifications are usually simplifications; Augustus is an example of where, if we believe Yavetz (above), easy typification of his personality and period in power remains elusive.
However, I believe this confusion can be resolved if we see Augustus as an arch propagandist, a ruler who ‘managed the message’ very thoroughly indeed.
There was much to manage. Octavian/Augustus seems replete with contradictions. A conservative revolutionary, Octavian reached the consulship, the summit of power, in his 20th year, in a society where that role was restricted, by law, to men over the age of 42.
Octavian was triumvir and participant in the butchery of the proscriptions (after Caesar’s assassination), the man who would seemingly stop at nothing to achieve lasting political primacy. And yet, we have the seemingly benevolent monarch of the later part of his reign, hailed as pater patriae (father of the fatherland) in 2 BCE. We have the man from a very provincial Italian background who rose to control Rome, who passed a range of conservative laws on marriage and the procreation of the governing classes, yet who was also the man whom, as Suetonius reports “Not even his friends could deny that he often committed adultery”3. These dichotomies pivot around the 27 BCE. Octavian the ‘evil’ triumvir was replaced by Augustus, the benevolent leader of the (restored) Republic who ruled with “universal consent”4.
Overview of the Augustan Regime
It is possible to identify several phases in the career of Augustus. These are:
44-30/27 BCE: Pietas5 and the pursuit of power.
30/27-2 BCE: Power achieved and modified.
2 BCE: The seminal year.
2 BCE-14CE: A dynasty destroyed? The disappointments of age.
In 44, at the age of only 19, Octavius (soon to become Octavian and later Augustus) accepted the political inheritance of Julius Caesar.
The period of 27 – 2 BCE was the ‘bedding down’ of the regime. Sustained by propaganda, and by careful and thoughtful modifications to the system, Augustus achieved a position equivalent to that of a hereditary monarch. Against the odds, Augustus had established himself in power to such a degree that he could start making dynastic plans for the future of Rome. His grandchildren, Gaius and Lucius, sons of his only child Julia and his childhood friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, were adopted and designated as successors.
2 BCE was to be a climatic year. In that year, Augustus was given the honorific of pater patriae6 – a title with no power, but recognition of his unassailable position within Rome. His grandson Lucius (the ‘spare’ successor) was introduced into public life and given the title princeps iuventutis (prince of youth)7; the great temple to Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger), vowed after the Battle of Philippi8, was dedicated. This was a year deliberately designed to celebrate the regime – reflecting on past achievements and laying out future glories.
And then…catastrophe. Augustus’ only child, Julia, was caught out in a public scandal. It seems that she indulged in public orgies. When the news finally reached Augustus9, it was a profound shock, and, even worse, an embarrassment. Augustus was positioning himself as the man who was restoring the state to the ways of its forefathers (and the conservative moral imperatives that suggested). Thanks to his new honorific, Augustus stood in the same relationship to the state as a father to his children. He was the author of several laws10 designed to promote marriage and the bearing of (legitimate) children among the upper classes. Julia’s actions were a slap in the face which he could not, and did not, ignore. She was banished for life, and never saw her father again (although she did outlive him).
Augustus’ dynastic plans were ruined by the early deaths of Lucius (2 CE) and Gaius (4 CE)11. His third grandson, Agrippa Postumus was deemed to be unsuitable. In 6 CE there was a major revolt in Dalmatia. Thought to be pacified, this area of what is now largely Croatia, was a significant threat to Rome, to the extent that freedmen were enlisted in the army –something only done in times of stress12.
In 7 or 8 CE further scandal infected the imperial family – Julia’s daughter, also called Julia, was, like her mother, banished for immorality. The events are confused, and the sources scanty13. While the banishment was for immorality, it may have been the suppression of a political conspiracy14.
Worse was to come. Hard on the heels of the revolt in Dalmatia was the Varus disaster. For a prolonged period, since the teens BCE, Augustus had been gradually pushing the boundaries of the empire eastward into Germany. This was building on the success of Caesar in Gaul. However, in 9 CE, a remote cousin of Augustus, Quinctilius Varus and his three Roman legions were ambushed, and massacred, almost to a man.
“Varus’ [defeat] nearly wrecked the empire…Augustus ordered patrols of the city at night…he would often beat his head on a door, shouting ‘Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions’” 15. Everritt16 suggests that Augustus’ response was ‘over the top’, not least because it revealed that the regime really did rely, ultimately, on its control of the military situation. Certainly, Rome was in no immediate danger – Germany was a long way away, and the German tribes showed no propensity to organise themselves in the aftermath of the massacre of three Roman legions. More importantly, the Varus disaster was a propaganda failure. The man of virtus who had reintroduced peace to the Roman world (even while extending its borders), was proved to be wrong. Such was the impact of the defeat that Augustus revised his plans, and decided that ‘free’ Germany was to be left free, and that the Danube-Rhine line was the ‘natural’ boundary for the Roman Empire in the north.
Of the last years of the regime, one has the impression that, post-Varus, Augustus was largely marking time. Probably against Augustus’ desires, Tiberius was the only viable successor17. In his mid 70s, Augustus was left contemplating only the inevitability of death.
The Nature of the Augustan Regime
In January 27 BCE, Octavian, former triumvir and victor of Actium, entered the Senate house, and dramatically announced that he was laying down all those powers he had accreted over the previous 17 years. After all, he was pre-eminent in the Roman world. Since his victory over Egypt (and, of course, Marc Antony) three years earlier, no man could claim to be his equal. He had the almost limitless resources of Ptolemaic Egypt as his disposal, to use as he would (and use them he did, primarily to settle his veterans on farms).
According to our sources, Octavian’s announcement in January 27 was met by surprise and gratitude by the assembled throng. It can only have been a surprise to those who didn’t matter politically; this was a carefully stage-managed event. In return for him laying down his powers, he was granted the title Augustus18. He also retained proconsular imperium (the right to command (an army)), over large parts of the empire – particularly those where significant numbers of troops were stationed, and could (and did) continue to be elected to the notionally highest position of political power in Rome, the consulship.
In his official autobiography, Augustus emphasised four main virtues19: virtus (manly virtue – almost courage), clementia (clemency), pietas (piety or duty) and iustitia (justice). Here, we see the image manipulation of the regime at work. Octavian the triumvir was the man who ‘went missing’ in several important battles – this is countered by virtus (and also, not least, ultimately by the dedication of a new temple of Mars, the god of war). Similarly, the triumvir had displayed neither justice nor clemency in his proscriptions of the rich. Peace had ‘broken out’ not only with the defeat of Cleopatra (and Antony), but was also symbolised by the closing of the gates of the Temple of Janus in 29 BCE. In 27, Octavian the triumvir is replaced by Augustus the revered and beneficent princeps (first citizen).
In truth, Augustus’ power relied to a great extent on his auctoritas (influence), sustained by his masterful control of propaganda. Instead of ‘monarchy’ the title given to the new system is ‘the principate’ (based on Augustus’ semi-formal position in the Senate as princeps – a little like the ‘father of the house’ in Westminster-style parliaments). Based on careful manipulation of image, and evolved by trial and error over a substantial period of time, the principate had three pillars of power: Augustus’ personal influence (auctoritas), his role as Tribune – or ‘Protector of the People’ (tribunicia potestas - including the right to veto any other politician and including a form of sacrosanctity), and various styles of military power (imperium). Strict but semi-formal control was kept over those sources of power – particularly military commands – that had so undermined the Republic, and had been so ably manipulated by his adoptive father. Similarly, information was controlled, as the minutes of meetings of the Senate were no longer published20.
However, unlike his adoptive father, Augustus was able to survive the reality of power achieved. Once predominance was achieved, a new system of government (incorporating Italians, the middle class and the formation of a sort of ‘privy council’) was established. Once power was achieved, it was not relinquished, only carefully adjusted, and the appearance of power was manipulated.
Augustus died peacefully in his bed21 in 14 CE. In one sense, Augustus had the perfect example of what not to do – the arrogance and indifference of Julius Caesar to the political beliefs of the aristocracy cost Caesar his life. Augustus was also lucky in that the almost unceasing period of internecine civil war between the assassination of Caesar and the Battle of Actium (44-31 BCE) had considerably thinned the ranks of the established nobility (those that were left from the previous periods of civil conflict!). Like Caesar before him, Augustus incorporated large numbers of ‘new men’ into the Senate, men whose loyalty was not to the Republic, or at least, not to the traditional mores suggested by that title. And in 27 BCE (and later), the remaining nobility was no longer minded to risk civil war again for the Republic.
At the last, Augustus was able to ask on his deathbed “Have I played my part in the farce of life creditably?”22. Prima facie, this looks like a much-loved ruler poking fun at himself at the last, yet maybe this is, once again, the great propagandist managing the last message at the end of his life.
The (Semi Official) Written Record
The regime is well known for its patronage of the arts, particularly writers. The two most famous examples are the ‘court’ poets Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace) and Publius Virgilius Maro (Virgil). Amongst other things, Horace made a fine effort of excoriating Cleopatra, and Virgil wrote Rome’s own epic, The Aeneid. “It was Virgil, above all, who [encapsulated]…the attitudes to both past and present which Octavian was in the process of launching…Aeneas is not a typical Roman aristocrat…competing with his peers for personal supremacy and glory. The honour he is chiefly concerned with is the honour of his nation”23. Augustus (once he had got power) wanted to look like he was concerned not for himself, but for his race.
Virgil also composed as a series of pastoral poems, The Eclogues and The Georgics, which celebrate the rural life so prized nostalgically by the Roman aristocracy in general, and the regime in particular. It is no coincidence that amongst the figures celebrated on the Ara Pacis (the Altar of Peace, see below) is a figure variously described either as Tellus (a female Earth/agricultural goddess) or Italia (the goddess/genius of Italy).
The other major writer of the period, the Italian historian of Rome, Livy (Titus Livius) was noted for his celebration of Rome’s glory, fitting in well with the traditionalist motifs of the regime. Indeed, the regime’s positive ‘spin’ is largely reflected in the sources from and about the period, so much so that the period does indeed look like something of a ‘golden age’.
And yet, traces of other traditions survive. Tacitus’ treatment of Augustus24, although exceedingly brief, is openly hostile. There are examples retained in Suetonius’ Life, for example, which surely reflect anti-Octavian propaganda put around by Antony. Most curiously, there is the passage in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, where the author is discussing misfortunes that men suffer. Augustus’ misfortunes, in a moderately long passage, are listed, and provide something of a ‘reality check’ for the image of the man that we are left with by other sources25.
The ultimate source of written Augustan propaganda is the Res Gestae divi Augusti (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus). Written late in the reign, this short autobiography is very accessible for senior students. It is the prime example of how Augustus wanted to be remembered. As noted above, the work is important for the virtues that it emphasises, particularly as a counterpoint to the acts of Augustus’ early political career. It is a classic case of having the truth lurking in plain view, right behind the spin - in one place Augustus claims “I would not accept any office against tradition” – and yet this is the man who was the first monarch of Rome for five centuries! It is also interesting for whom it precludes – neither of the other triumvirs (Antony and Lepidus) are mentioned by name – the closest allusion we get is “I would not be made Chief Priest in place of my colleague [Lepidus] during his life time”26.
The best summing up of Augustus’ constitutional position is also provided by Res Gestae: “After that time [27 BC] I excelled all in personal influence [auctoritas], however I had no more power than any [other]…magistrates”. When one is so preeminent in the state, one can afford to look like one is on a par with one’s colleagues!
Other Forms of Propaganda
Unsurprisingly for a semi-literate society, Augustan propaganda was not confined to the written (or spoken) word. Coins, building programs, sculpture and events were manipulated to serve the needs of the regime.
A prime example can be found in the Ara Pacis Augustae – the Altar of Augustan Peace, dedicated in 9 BC, which emphasises the Italian and pacific nature of the regime (another example of the truth being overwhelmed by the spin). The celebration of the Secular Games in 17 BC27 was another deliberate piece of ‘media management’. The Games were supposed to mark a renewal for the city – the ending of one period and the beginning of the next. The propaganda appeal is obvious.
The Augustan Forum, complete with the Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) celebrated the past28 and also the military successes of the regime. As a coin of the period shows, the legionary standards lost to the Parthians (by Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE and Antony in 40 and 34 BCE) were dedicated as part of the foundation of the Temple. The recovery of the legionary standards was also celebrated on the cuirass of the Primaporta statue29. Here, Augustus is responsible for something that neither Caesar nor Antony could achieve – the return from the Parthians of Roman standards.
Any long-term ruler who establishes a new system of government must manage the image of his rule as part of his long-term strategy for success.
Augustus must be one of the single most successful manipulators of his own image – he stands comparison to the spin-doctors of the modern political scene. He was the conservative father figure, shepherding the nation (now both Rome and Italy) into a new golden age.
Yet he was also creating, by design, and by trial and error, a new system of government, as well as a new governing regime.
Power was established through the brutal use of force (including expanding the empire - not that the Romans had a problem with that!), yet Augustus could claim to rule with universal consent (of those who mattered).
The longevity of his personal rule, and more particularly the system of government he established – the principate – is testament to several things: long life (against the odds, not least in the face of ill health), a shrewd sense of the possible, and a willingness to experiment and change – the fact of power was more important than its titles. Most importantly, it was Augustus’ sustained and skilful ability to ‘manage the message’ that kept power in his hands.
Appian The Civil Wars trans Carter, Penguin, Middlesex, 1996
Long-winded, occasionally useful.
Augustus Res Gestae divi Augusti (The Achievements of the Divine Augustus)
trans Brunt & Moore, OUP, London, 1981
The essential reading for this topic. Introduction and commentary very useful.
Pliny the Elder Natural History: a selection trans Healy, Penguin, Middlesex, 1991
Very useful as a summary of the vicissitudes of Augustus’ life.
Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars trans Graves, Penguin, Middlesex, 1976
Riveting, useful and entertaining. Well researched but sensationalist.
Everitt, Anthony Augustus: the Life of Rome’s First Emperor, Random House, New York, 2006
Very readable. Everitt claims that he is going to present a biography of the man, rather than a narrative of events, but ends up doing this any way. Detailed, but with irritatingly sparse endnotes. Some divergent interpretations. Well worth the read.
Holland, Richard Augustus: Godfather of Europe, Sutton Publishers, Gloucestershire, 2006
Detailed – spends over 100 pages on Octavian’s first 18 months in power. Largely following Appian, the level of detail drops the further into the book one proceeds. Useful analysis at the end. Excellent on the early period.
Hughes-Hallett, Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions, Pimlico, London, 1990
Lucy Provocative and interesting post-modern analysis of Cleopatra and her image over the centuries. Worth the purchase price solely for the two chapters ‘The Story According to Octavius’ and ‘Cleopatra’s Version’. Highly recommended as an antidote for the pro- Augustan version of the fight with Antony etc.
Kearsley, RA “The Imperial Image of Augustus and his Auctoritas in Rome”, Macquarie University Ancient History Teachers’ Conference,1995.
A watershed seminar in my teaching on Augustus, gave me the unifying theme of ‘Augustus the great propagandist’.
Millar, Fergus and Caesar Augustus seven aspects, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984
Segal, Erich (eds) A very useful collection of seven papers. Particularly useful for this area is Zvi Yavetz’s paper “The Res Gestae and Augustus’ Public Image”.