The Achievements of Augustus - The Transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire
How did Augustus transform the Roman republic into an empire? Why was he successful where Julius Caesar had not been? What was the process and what were the results of the changes Augustus introduced? In this essay, various sources about the first emperor of the Roman Empire will be examined, such as those of Augustus himself, of contemporary or later historians, and archaeological evidence.
Generally, it can be stated that Augustus rather used the Republican system including all its traditional positions and regulations to gain power, whereas Caesar opposed the traditional ways of political life and therewith made himself the enemy of the state. Augustus achieved his position as the mightiest man in the empire through several strategies, e.g. by clever political/military strategies such as the acquisition of various Republican offices/titles, by using his “extremely effective network of supporters and advisers, including Rome’s most important men of letters” (Wiesner et al. 180), by building up his status and attractiveness through the establishment of a cult of ruler worship, the holding of games and festivals, extensive building programs and the expansion and securing of Roman territory.
The first source, a decree issued by the emperor in 4 B.C.E, makes Augustus appear as a caring and generous emperor who is obedient to the traditional regulations of political life in the Republic. It is stated that the decree has been passed by the senate and its consuls, “with me as one of those present at the writing” (Source 1, Wiesner et al. 165), which seems as if Augustus himself did not actively take part in the decision-making. He states that his reason to issue the decree in the provinces would be for “the welfare of the allies of the Roman people” (ibid.). He refers to the Roman people and state as being “under our care”, meaning under the care of the consuls and him, which again appears as if he is not the sole ruler and decision maker in the empire.In the decree itself it is mentioned that the issue itself had been brought into the senate by “the recommendation of the council which [Augustus] had drawn by lot among the senate” (ibid.). As will be shown in the sources that will be discussed later1, Augustus could have had more to do with the decree than he wanted the people to perceive:he had drawn the council and therewith chose the people who presented that issue into the senate. So, it can be inferred that the decree could have been his own wish. The decree gives evidence of a power shift and gain on Augustus’ side: it deals with allowing the provinces to have their own local jurisdictions, arguing that not all cases need to be brought to the senate in Rome because of the far distance. Vice versa this meant that the senate’s power over the provinces was minimized, and - as Augustus was in power of the army - it can be inferred that he had power over the generals or governors that ruled in the provinces and therewith could exert his power more openly (cf. Wiesner et al. 161). However, what can regarded as most striking about the edict is that Augustus had appended his own prefatory edict. Firstly, the decree could probably have been issued without his edict, and secondly, edicts were usually issued by the consuls themselves. The edict shows that there could have been more behind this whole issue than it appears to be. Through the edict, Augustus can represent himself as an important man in the government; even though the consuls were the highest men in the state, he is the one who issues it and writes the edict. However, he acts as if he was merely present when the decree was passed and as if he only issues it “since it affects the welfare of the allies of the Roman people” which are his and the senate’s concern (Source 1, Wiesner et al. 165). By distributing the decree with his edict, every province will hear about Augustus’ care and concern for “his people”, a man who seems to closely work together with the senate. Below the surface, it rather could have been his plan to get the decree accepted in the senate and gain more power over the provinces himself, one of the several small steps he took on his way to the (over the) top position in the Roman government.
Source 2, the Inscription from the City of Narbonne from 11 C.E., can be regarded as an example of ruler worship, where the emperor is praised and his titles, and therewith his power is acknowledged. The emperor is referred to as the “divine spirit”, the “son of a god, father of his country, pontifex maximus, holding the tribunician power [...]” (Source 2, Wiesner et al. 166), important and powerful titles which will be explained in greater detail below (cf. Source 5, Wiesner et al. 169).. The inscription says that an altar had been erected for Augustus, on which on several days during the year sacrifices shall be made and feasts given in honor of the emperor. The sacred days were e.g. Augustus’ birthday, or dates when he made great achievements, such as when he “first entered upon command of the world”, or when “reconciled the populace to the decurions” (Source 2, Wiesner et al. 167).
Horace’s extract of the Odes is another example of praise of the emperor’s accomplishments, such as that he “brought back fertile crops to the fields”, “restored [...] the military standards stripped from the proud columns of the Parthians”, “wiped away our sins” (which could allude to the defeat of Caesar’s assassins and the ending of the civil war), and him bringing “fame and majesty of our empire were spread from the sun’s bed in the west to the east” ( Source 3, Wiesner et al. 167). In general, Augustus is presented as Rome’s guardian who protects the state from civic quarrels and war, and who brings wealth and virtues (back) to the city. Again, the narrator asks to worship the emperor and celebrate him each day (cf. ibid.). However, there are points that Horace omitted in his praise, for example that Augustus was actually able to bring back the military standards from the Parthians, but it is omitted that he did not really defeat them in battle (cf. ibid.). Of course, Horace was not supposed to write realistically in that sense. As he was a poet who lived at court of Augustus, he might have got the order to write about the emperor’s achievements in a way it would make him appear in a good light and make him be memorized as a flawless ruler.
1 cf. analysis of Source 5 and Source 6 below; Wiesner et al. 169-170.