Nature of the Sources

Emilio Gabba begins his survey of the reception of Augustus among ancient historians ["The Historians and Augustus" = pages 61-88 in F. Millar & E. Segal, eds., Caesar Augustus : seven aspects (Clarendon Press, 1984)] with several contemporary and near-contemporary figures from the fringes of the empire: Nicolaus of Damascus (the court historian of King Herod the Great and author of a Universal History up to 4 BC), Philo of Alexandria (a philosopher and leading Jewish politician) and Aelius Aristides (2nd AD; a sophist, rhetorician, and devotee of Asclepius). All of these reproduce a vision of Roman empire centered on its inclusivity and universalizing power, and they celebrate the stability and peace brought by Augustus to the provinces. None is the least bit vexed over the idea that some degree of political freedom may have been lost with the introduction of the Principate. Why should they be? As subjects in relatively remote corners of the empire, they cared not at all whether the powers of the tribunate had withered and died; security was all. Liberty meant the chance of becoming a Roman citizen.

With Appian, things become only slightly more complex. A confirmed monarchist writing in the mid 2nd century AD, he too disseminates the universalizing interpretation of the Roman empire. Roughly he adheres to a division in the life of Octavian / Augustus between the years before 36 BC and those subsequent; before 36 Octavian is the last warlord of the crumbling and corrupt Republic, after 36 he is the benevolent autocrat. For Appian, the civil wars are an evil, but the solution is a strong monarch, not a return to the Republic. In Gabba's reading, Appian had bias neither for or against Augustus, but used some pro- and some anti-Augustan sources; for Appian being pro- or anti- Augustan was without political significance.

Cassius Dio, a senator who held the consulship in 205 and 229 AD, on whom we must rely for the only connected narrative account of the Augustan principate, likewise reproduces some material hostile to Augustus (as for example when he maintains that the occasions on which Augustus publicly renounced his powers were staged charades), but basically he approves, as Gabba rightly infers from Dio's version (his own composition) of Tiberius' funeral oration over Augustus (56. 35-41). Here we find strains of the Augustan defense against the critics of his early years, e.g. at 56. 37:

He first attached himself to the powerful leaders who were menacing the very existence of the city, and with them he fought the others until he had made an end of them; and when these were out of the way, he in turn freed us from the former. He chose, though against his will, to surrender a few to their wrath so that he might save the majority ...

This is problematic, in so far as Dio was composing a speech which would have been appropriate to the occasion, and the occasion called for praise of Augustus. But Dio like Appian was a committed monarchist, and the echoes of senatorial nostalgia for the Republic in his work (such as Agrippa's attempt to dissuade Augustus from establishing the principate in Book 52) are purely formulaic. For Dio, himself a Roman senator from Bithynia, the proper role of the upper classes was to mediate between the princeps and the people, not to challenge the latter for power; in Gabba's view, Dio conflates the senatorial class of the early Principate with the same men of his own age (late second and early third century AD).

Meyer Reinhold and P. Michael Swan ["Cassius Dio's Assessment of Augustus" = pages 155-173 in K. Raaflaub & M. Toher, eds., Between Republic and Empire (California 1990)] agree with Gabba that Dio saw a crisis in the principate of his own time, especially with Commodus and Septimius Severus. Tyrannical emperors, foolish military adventurism, and the shrinking role of the senatorial aristocracy in imperial administration all worried him. Also like Gabba, Reinhold and Swan find in Dio the standard separation between Octavian the warlord and Augustus the princeps; the former is treated from the perspective of Thucydidean realpolitik, but for the latter they also see Dio's true feelings expressed in Tiberius' eulogy. For them, if Dio plays up the military achievements of Augustus' general Agrippa, who was married to Augustus' daughter Julia and became his adopted son in 19 BC and who until his death in 12 BC appeared headed for the succession) that has less to do with denigrating Augustus as a military leader than with finding a morally uplifting example of the proper application of military discipline. This commitment to the search for exempla, the bane of ancient biographers and historians, leads Dio to distortion; desiring to make the point that a good emperor resists expansionism, Dio suppresses the very real longings for an expanded empire manifested by Augustus. Along the same lines, Dio's antipathy for frivolous public expenditures blinded him to the essential role of the congiaria (distributions of money or free grain) and other forms of largess (such as gladiatorial contests) in confirming Augustus' standing with the plebs, and Dio's ideal of an exclusive cooperation between princeps and senate led him to overlook the extent of Augustus' courting of the ordo equester (the equestrian order).

A much greater historian than either Appian or Dio, the senator and consular P. Cornelius Tacitus, chose in his Annals not to give a full treatment of the Augustan principate. But Tacitus does include a few paragraphs about Augustus:

He seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. Indeed, he attracted everybody's good will by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law. Opposition did not exist. War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit. Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially. They had profited from the revolution, and so now they liked the security of the existing arrangement better than the dangerous uncertainties of the old ré gime. Besides, the new order was popular in the provinces. (1. 2)

A little later Tacitus, now narrating the beginning of Tiberius' reign, recounts how Augustus was remembered on the occasion of his funeral.

Intelligent people praised or criticized him in varying terms. One opinion was as follows. Filial duty and a national emergency, in which there was no place for law-abiding conduct, had driven him to civil war - and this can be neither initiated nor maintained by decent methods ... When Lepidus grew old and lazy, and Antony's self-indulgence got the better of him, the only possible cure for the distracted country had been government by one man. However, Augustus had put the State in order by not making himself king or dictator, but by creating the Principate.

The opposite view went like this. Filial duty and national crisis had been merely pretexts. In actual fact, the motive of Octavian, the future Augustus, was lust for power. (1. 9-10).

In comparison to Tacitus, whose true view of Augustus is the second of the two alternatives he presents at Annals 1. 9-10, Dio's much fuller narrative, in which Augustus has a tendency to become an idealization of the good princeps, must appear to suffer from a lack of critical perspective.

From Actium to the First Settlement

As noted in the last lecture, the triumvirs had held power as the result of a law, the Lex Titia, which was passed by the popular assembly, initially for five years, from January 1, 43, to December 31, 38. The triumvirate was renewed in the fall of 37 for another five years, but this was retroactive to the beginning of 37, and thus the formal powers of the triumvirs ended with the year 33 (taking the evidence of the consular Fasti over Appian, Ill. 28). However, although Octavian held no formal office in the year 32 (except for being consul-elect for the following year), it seems likely that he continued to exercise the powers reserved to the triumvirs by virtue of never having abdicated the office, regarding himself in effect as prorogued. The power of the triumvirs had in any case been very much like that of a consul, and when in 32 we find Octavian summoning and addressing meetings of the senate, after both of the recalcitrant consuls have declared for Antony and fled the city, he is presumably doing so by virtue of his continuing status as a triumvir. Notice, however, that this fact is fudged if not directly falsified at RG 7.1, where Augustus says he was triumvir for ten consecutive years.

From 31 to 27 Octavian held the consulship every year. His power, which from this point forward Dio describes as monarchical, rested on his tenure of the consulship and also on the oath of allegiance, which (as he says in the Res Gestae, 3.3) he extracted from more than five hundred thousand soldiers. Interestingly, he acknowledged in some measure that many of the acts of the triumvirs had been illegal when, in 28 BC, he formally declared that such measures were to become null and void by the end of his sixth consulship (Dio 53.2.5). In other ways too the Republican system appeared still to be functioning. For example, although the appointment of proconsular governors for the provinces had been taken out of the hands of the senate and arrogated to the triumvirs (a necessary measure since provincial governors were the commanders of armies), nonetheless the proconsuls continued to celebrate triumphs. And, also in 28, Octavian took the significant step of allowing his colleague in the consulship, M. Vipsanius Agrippa, to have the fasces (in previous years his preeminence in the office had been signaled by his sole possession of the fasces).

The Settlement of 27 BC

In January of 27 BC Octavian rose in the senate and announced that he was giving up the consulship and transferring control of the state, including the armies and the provinces, back to the Senate and People of Rome. The senators responded by refusing this noble gesture, and a bargain was struck, which amounted to a confirmation of his supremacy. Octavian, now renamed with the honorific title Augustus (he had considered and rejected the name of Romulus as having unpleasantly regal associations) was made governor en absentia of Spain, Gaul, Cilicia, Cyprus and Syria for ten years with proconsular authority, the provinces to be governed in actuality by his appointees, who had the title of legatus Augusti. He continued to administer Egypt in his own name through the equestrian Cornelius Gallus, as a special case. This arrangement ensured that most of the troops were directly or indirectly under the command of Augustus. As Dio says:

The purpose of this decision, as he explained it, was that the senate should enjoy without anxiety the fairest territories in the empire, while he should confront the hardships and dangers. But the real object of this arrangement was that the senators should be unarmed and unprepared for war, while he possessed arms and controlled the troops. (53.12)

Given that this was the reality, it is instructive to consider how the settlement of 27 was portrayed by other sources. The standard line holds that it was presented as a full restoration of the Republican system. Velleius Paterculus, a Roman who reached the praetorship in AD 15, wrote:

In the twentieth year civil wars were brought to an end, foreign wars buried, peace recalled; the frenzy of arms was everywhere lulled to sleep, the laws recovered their vigor, the courts their authority, the senate its majesty, the imperium of the magistrates was restored to its ancient extent .... the pristine form of the republic was recalled as of old.

Augustus himself describes this event in the Res Gestae, 34.1, as follows:

In my sixth and seventh consulships, after I had extinguished civil wars, and at a time when with universal consent I was in complete control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my power to the dominion of the senate and people of Rome.

Thus it is tempting to think in terms of a propaganda campaign which falsely claimed that the old Republican system had returned. However, Fergus Millar ("Triumvirate and Principate") has offered a powerful corrective to the standard line. He points out that although proconsuls were now appointed by lot, as of old, rather than by Augustus, and a few of them continued to be allowed to celebrate triumphs, the legates of Augustus could not; Augustus' power to appoint them and govern through them was thus openly un-Republican, and everybody knew it. Moreover, although elections by the tribal assembly resumed, they were now constrained by the practice of commendatio (the official stamp of approval by the princeps), and in some cases we hear of Augustus flat out granting consulships and other offices. Again, un-Republican.

Millar argues that although in Tacitus the term "res publica" refers unambiguously to the Republican system of government as opposed to the principate, there is little if any evidence to support that in the 20's BC it meant anything other than "the commonwealth". The phrase "res publica restituta" is actually surprisingly rare in the period, and when they it does appear it can plausibly be argued that it means "the state was restored to health" rather than "the system of republican government was restored" (as e.g. in the legend of the coin). In a number of passages (including Suet. Aug 28) we hear that Augustus was thinking about reinstituting the Republican system; but the wording in these cases is always "res publica reddita" or "rem publicam reddere". Millar also notes that Tacitus, in referring to the event, simply says (3.28) that Augustus "when consul for the sixth time felt sure enough of his position to cancel all that he had decreed as triumvir in favor of a new order: peace and the Principate." Would Tacitus have missed the chance to debunk such a specious claim as that the old system of government had been restored in 28/27, had such a claim really been made? Likewise, Millar points to a number of published texts of the 20's which openly acknowledge the extent of Augustus' power, and argues that they would be very undiplomatic if indeed Augustus had been trying to convince everyone that he had restored the Republic.

The Settlement of 23 BC and the Tribunicia Potestas

Augustus spent the years 27-24 abroad in his provinces. In the year 23, with Augustus back at Rome, there was a serious crisis involving a conspiracy against his life, led by Fannius Caepio and the consul of 23, a Murena. There is a conflict in the sources about his identity, and Dio puts the whole affair in 22, but the Fasti support the date of 23, and the consequence, that the adjustment made by Augustus to his constitutional position in that year was a reaction to the crisis of the conspiracy. In 23 Augustus thought better of his decision to hold successive consulships, as this cut the number available to the members of the senate by half. In later years a solution was evolved whereby men held the office for only a part of the year and then allowed themselves to be replaced; but in 23 Augustus needed a quicker fix.

On July 1 of that year he resigned the consulship. Thereafter he would hold it again only for ceremonial purposes, as e.g. in 5 and 3 BC to honor the entry of his grandsons Gaius and Lucius into public life. The centerpiece of the settlement of 23 was the adoption by Augustus of the office of tribune of the people, the tribunicia potestas, which he held thereafter continuously until his death in 14 AD. This is a bit tricky in so far as we hear on two previous occasions of Augustus taking the tribunician power, first in 36 BC (Appian, BC 5.132; Orosius, 6.18.34), and then again in 30 (Dio 51.19.6). However, Augustus clearly states in the Res Gestae (4.4) that his tribunician power began in 23. The likeliest explanation is that on the previous occasions he had been interested only in acquiring the tribunician inviolability ( sacrosanctitas ). In practical terms the tribunician power did not amount to much, except insofar as it allowed him to veto any public act and to propose measures directly to the popular assembly. But in symbolic terms its importance cannot be overstated. The tribunician power came to be identified completely with the office of the princeps, and Augustus and his successors, on their coins and public documents, date the years of their reigns by it. When Augustus sought to identify someone as his designated successor (a delicate business inasmuch as he had to avoid the appearance of creating a dynasty) he did so by taking that person as a colleague in the tribunician power.

Tribunes of the people do not command armies. Augustus' command of the armies was not, however, jeopardized by the settlement of 23. He was granted proconsular imperium (extended in 19 BC to a life term), and this was to be imperium maius quam proconsulare, which meant that he could overrule the authority of other provincial governors in their own provinces (Dio 53.32). Although there were (dubious) Republican precedents for the holding of maius imperium (Pompey had had it in the 60's), Augustus' was unique in that it did not stop at the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city.

The Augustan Principate As Binding Link

In conclusion, I will examine the recent characterization of the principate by W. Eder ["The Augustan Principate as Binding Link" = pages 71-122 in K. Raaflaub & M. Toher, eds., Between Republic and Empire (California 1990). Eder begins by attempting to define the saeculum Augustum, the age of Augustus, in chronological terms. At his death, some senators had proposed to apply that designation to the entire span of his life (Suet. Aug. 100), and he himself had with the aid of Horace and the late Virgil proclaimed the inauguration of a new age in 17 BC. But for moderns there are only two possible dates for the start of the age of Augustus: 44 BC and 31 BC; the choice between them only calls our attention to the extent to which Augustus would have wanted us to choose the latter. Eder suggests that neither date was seen as a turning point in Augustus' own time, and that a conception of the principate as an institution never sank in before the succession of Tiberius; the central question, then, is whether Augustus is the last in the series of Republican warlords or the first Roman emperor ( princeps ).

Eder goes at the question by way of a survey of the modern search for the arcanum imperii -- the secret of Augustus' power. Conceding that Syme had given too little weight to the military, Eder nonetheless insists that despite the legions in the imperial provinces which Augustus commanded by virtue of his imperium maius quam proconsulare, military might cannot explain Augustus' domestic success after 27 BC. And here Eder hints at his true thesis, that the strength of the principate, the arcanum imperii, is revealed precisely by its inability to be categorized to the satisfaction of all as either a monarchy or a form of the Republic. In his view we cannot understand the Augustan principate by classifying it either as a monarchy or as the republic, but only by seeing it as a transitional phase between the two.

Clearly this premiss depends upon a further one; we cannot rightly say whether Augustus restored the Republic unless we know what we mean by the Republic. Syme's perspective is delightfully suspicious, cynical in the modern sense, that in every state, no matter what constitutional form it has, real power is in the hands of a few people, that every government is essentially an oligarchy ( RR 7). On this reading, in some respects the metaphor of a binding link (which indeed Eder has borrowed from Syme) makes sense; the form of the government, legal and constitutional niceties mattered little. Facts, not words. The faces changed, and the oligarchy was narrower and more heavily weighted in favor of one person, but in terms both of the social structure and the real distribution of power there was continuity. Tempting though this approach is, is it fully alive to the power of images and symbols (both visual and verbal) in forging a sense of national identity? Does it admit that in some ways the illusions of a nation may be more real and thus more historically significant than the reality?

On the other hand, what if Polybius' verdict on the democratic element in the Roman Republic needs to be taken more seriously? Where would we turn to seek the elusive power of the Roman plebs: to the assemblies as electoral and judicial bodies? Granting the point that these venues, where bribery and influence peddling created a complex interdependence between mass and elites, were a locus of popular power in the Republic, it would follow that we need to look much more closely at the procedure and the reality of elections and trials during the early Principate to determine whether continuity or change prevailed. If we did so, we would find that to a large extent the electoral system continued to function, as it had under the Triumvirate. Granted also that the plebs, increasingly politicized since the Gracchi, had exercised political power by playing off the optimates against the populares. Augustus inherited the leadership of the populares from his adoptive father J. Caesar, and proceeded to coopt the optimates to such an extent that these labels became meaningless; those who refused to cooperate were purged. Meanwhile, Augustus bound the people to himself so closely that, when he left to tour the East in 22 BC, the attempt to hold elections in his absence brought about popular unrest and threatening demagogic figures (Dio 54.6). When he did not return, but continued his quest to regain the standards Crassus had lost to the Parthians, the result was predictable: more electoral violence in 19 BC, centered around the figure of Egnatius Rufus (whom Augustus eventually executed, cf. Tac. Ann. 1.10). Of this Syme says:

For a time the capital city was relieved of the burdensome presence of both her rulers. There followed a certain relaxation in the control of the elections -- from accident or from design. Augustus' intentions may have been laudable and sincere -- more likely the Princeps wished to teach the Nobiles a sharp lesson by conjuring up the perils of popular election and unrestricted competition. ( RR 371)

Does it follow that Eder's continuity between Republic and Principate breaks down over the issue of popular power? Or is it more that the Republic which Augustus restored was presented as the Republic as it had been, not at the time of Augustus' own birth in 63 BC, but a hundred and fifty years earlier than that, before the Gracchi themselves were even born, before the "mob" truly became politicized? In this vein, note that as a result of Julius' and Augustus' vigorous settlement policies, the urban mob had been not only pacified and appeased but also reduced in number, and the 3rd century BC ideal of the citizen-soldier farming his plot of land in peacetime had been recreated (see RG 16 and 28). Again, if we take this line, Eder's notion of continuity, the Principate as binding link, needs to be reformulated to express the presence of a temporal gulf between the time of the Principate and the Republic it proposed to restore.

© 1996 David L. Silverman. All rights reserved.

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