Octavian’s Rise to Power and the Institution of the ‘Principate’


The move from Republic to empire has no clear destination. It is a continual, gradual process.

Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of the emperor...

            Octavian, against all the rules of the Republic and not yet 20 year of age is given the position of Propraetor with Imperium. He uses Caesar inheritance of money and connections to build his armies. Caesar veterans were placed in strategic points in Italy therefore when Octavian took up the name of Caesar, raising his late adopted-father legions was relatively simple. Because of his army, his ability to gain a political career was also simple.  Once the triumvirs (Octavian, Mark Antony &Lepidus) had all the power in Rome, Lepidus was thrown aside and the empire split in two. Octavian controlled the west and Marcus the east.

The Second Triumvirate and Octavian

            Octavian stipulates how his position in the triumvirate was legal and sanctioned. At the end of the second phase of the triumvirate in 31 B.C.E. both players (Octavian, Marcus Antonius) fought for supremacy. Although they are not emperors, the triumviri have supreme power and demanded oaths of fealty. Once Mark Antony was gone there was no legal institution of the triumvirate. Octavian was in an unprecedented position.

            The message that Octavian wanted to convey was that he had restored the Republic after decades of unrest. He had coins struck with his victories at Actium and the capture of Egypt in 30 B.C.E. People voted many honours and dedications to Octavian even while he is out of the state (Epigraphic Habit). This shows how Octavian is looked at in the political system and it seems impossible to go back to an old republican system of government. In his Res Gestae it is clear that Octavian was aware of the significance of the honours bestowed upon him.

            Communities across Italy wanted part of the commemoration. There is an epigraphic boom in the cities across Italy setting up commemorations to Augustus and eventually to all the future emperors.  People were excited at the success story of Augustus and wanted part of the senatorial commemoration. Autocracy is seen in Roman history as the catalyst of epigraphic commemoration. These commemorations create an imperial and dynastic identity for the later emperors and they were looked at as ‘First Men’ in the context of the Roman res publica.

The Princeps: Monarch or Republican 

Augustus of via Labicana

             The Res Gestae is an elaborate and brilliantly written document of propaganda which is full of exaggerations and lies. Augustus stipulates that although he had surpassed his contemporaries in authority (auctoritas) he did not surpass them in power (potestas). He wanted to make himself appear to be a traditional republican and give an air of clemency, piety and humility.

            Augustus refuses triumphs (RG 4), the dictatorship offered in 24 BCE, and consulship for life (RG 5), the office of pontifex maximus while Lepidus was still alive (RG 10), as such honours and powers would be against tradition (mos maiorum) and the traditions of the res publica

            He even discharged his soldiers, as a symbolic action. However he settled them in lands inhabited by families which then had to be evicted from their homes. The mausoleum of Augustus (mausoleum being a monarchical symbol), was a dynastic building however, it was flanked by the pillars which were inscribed with the Res Gestae to portray him as a good republican in death.

            Augustus invests heavily in the land of the Campus Martius (traditionally important venue of aristocratic self-display) where he wanted to build monuments to ensure that people know that he had more auctoritas but not more power (auctoritas is Augustus’ position in the senate rather than a constitutional or legal position). Elections were also held in the Campus Martius. The Temple of Mars, under Augustus, was built within the city walls, which, during the Republican period, would have been unthinkable. The first dynasty was looked at not as a group of monarchs, however, in the second and third century the mind of the people shifted and they looked at the empire as a monarchy ruled by one man.

The Augustan Settlement(s) 

            The Roman system with all its juxtapositions, both with republican and monarchical positions, was a system that evolved slowly over a long period of time. The emperors of the 3rd and 4th century changed this view of retaining the republican ideal. Until then the idea of the Republic remained and can be seen in the situations of the Senators with the rise of Vespasian. There is a division of power between Augustus and the senate that reflects the realization of the life in Rome. It is not a restoration of the republic.

“After twenty years the civil wars were concluded, external affairs were settled, peace returned… the power of the laws, the authority of judges, the majesty of the senate was restored, the imperium of the magistrates was returned to its original condition; only two praetors were added to the eight that existed, and so the original and old form of the res publica was summoned back.” – Res Gestae

Mark Antony and Octavian. 41 BC. AV Aureus (7....

            January 13, 27 B.C.E all the powers were ‘returned’ by Augustus  to the senate. It was an Augustan senate with Augustan ideals. The enemies of Augustus (Cicero, Pompey and Antonius) and their followers were no longer in the senate. He is given the title of Augustus (meaning ‘venerable’ in religious/pious context).

            In 23 he is no longer consul but he stills holds onto Imperium, because the power of commanding the armies was still in his hands and he wanted to keep this power. He also became the idealized Tribune of the people. With Augustus having both Imperium and tribunicia potestas (power of the tribunes) he defines his position. He can introduce laws at his will and he has command over the armies. And his Imperium is greater than other magistracies who hold imperium.

            Augustus likes to display his tribunicia potestas but not his imperium. He wants the image of being the only champion of the people. Augustus worked against the public perception of a one-man rule; but he also expected his powers to endure.

             The Augustan ‘settlementscreated a legalized position for Augustus in the res publica.

Continued in the next part: ‘Propaganda, Laws, Religion and ‘Morals in Augustan Rome’

By: Steven Umbrello

Enhanced by Zemanta

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s