Completion of the Augustan Settlement Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The completion of the Augustan settlement marks a transition from the traditional res publica to a new form of government, the principate.

Summary of Event

For years, Julius Caesar outmaneuvered and outfought his enemies in war and politics but was never able to achieve permanent supremacy. Each victory on the battlefield and each new political office and honor produced more enemies. On March 15, 44 b.c.e., Julius Caesar was struck down in the name of liberty by a conspiracy led by men whom he had pardoned, trusted, and promoted. Caesar’s plans are unknown. In 44 b.c.e., he was consul for the fifth time, dictator perpetuo (for life), and pontifex maximus (head of the state religion). Caesar had also received a number of honors deriving from Rome’s kings in the sixth century b.c.e. Whether he wanted to be king is uncertain and irrelevant: Although he had publicly rejected a crown, his whole position was regal and incompatible with Roman political opinion. To the conspirators, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, it was patriotism, not murder, to kill the tyrant. Augustus

Julius Caesar’s assassins restored neither libertas nor the res publica. For months, senators who dreaded the renewal of civil war sought to work out a compromise. Marc Antony abolished the offensive dictatorship, but Cicero assailed him as a tyrannical threat to freedom and drove Rome to war. In November, 43 b.c.e., Caesarians came together in the Second Triumvirate: Antony, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and young Gaius Octavius, who had just been made consul and insisted on being called Caesar. Everyone misjudged Octavian. Cicero dismissed him as “the boy,” and Antony once remarked that he owed everything to his name (Caesar). The triumvirs eliminated their domestic enemies, most conspicuously Cicero, through massive proscriptions. In 42 b.c.e., they deified Julius Caesar (permitting Octavian to style himself divi filius, son of the god), and then destroyed the conspirators’ army at Philippi.

The triumvirate gradually failed, in good part because of the ruthless Octavian. He removed Lepidus from power in 36 b.c.e. but allowed him to live because Lepidus was pontifex maximus. Octavian turned public opinion against Antony, claiming that in 32 b.c.e. “all Italy” and the western provinces took an oath of loyalty to him as leader (dux, not a magistracy). As consul in 31 b.c.e., he destroyed Antony’s forces at the Battle of Actium and drove Antony and his consort, Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt, to suicide the next year. The young Caesar had won supremacy. He had more power than the elder Caesar had ever had but had yet to win acceptance.

Octavian wisely did not revive the dictatorship and kept clear of kingship. Yet it was not enough to avoid Caesar’s errors. He had to devise a new position in the state and a new image for himself. The triumvir who had risen to power as divi filius moved away from his bloody Caesarian past. For a time after 31 b.c.e., he relied on consecutive consulships. Octavian returned to Rome in 29 b.c.e., celebrated a huge triumph, proclaimed the return of peace, and spent the following year in Rome to symbolize the end of the civil wars.

Years later, he wrote that in 28-27 b.c.e., he restored the res publica from his control to the judgment of the senate and Roman people. Outwardly he did. On January 13, 27 b.c.e., Octavian went before the senate and renounced all extraordinary powers given him during the period of the triumvirate. The senate promptly asked him to stay on as consul and undertake the governorship of Spain, Gaul, and Syria for ten years, together with his dominion over Egypt as a kind of private possession. Octavian allowed himself to be persuaded to accede to the senate’s wishes. He was a model of Roman duty: He did not grasp unprecedented powers or titles, but rather, having saved the state from its enemies, he offered to resign and then accepted a specific assignment that the senate asked him to undertake. It was a carefully scripted maneuver that he had worked out with a group of advisers. The lands given him contained about two-thirds of Rome’s army and came to be designated the imperial (or armed) provinces. He governed them through legates. (A legatus was someone holding imperium, the right to command troops, delegated to him by a superior.) The senate governed all other provinces.

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Three days later, the senate conferred on him a number of singular honors. The most important of them was a new name, “Augustus,” chosen after rejection of an alternative, Romulus, the founder of the city. Romulus cannot have been seriously considered: A king who had supposedly been murdered by the senators and then declared a god was uncomfortably like Caesar, whose statue had stood in the Temple of Quirinus (the deified Romulus). The month Sextilis was changed to August because Augustus’s greatest achievements had occurred in that month.

From then on, Augustus was widely known as princeps, a word long used in Roman politics but raised to a new level of meaning. Leading senators were loosely designated principes, the “first men” in the state; and the most distinguished member of that body was formally designated princeps senatus, an honor that allowed him to speak first in debate. Augustus, however, was the princeps, “First Man,” in a way that no one had ever been. Although scholars have debated this point, the title princeps may have been emphasized to recall the princeps of Cicero’s essay De republica (51 b.c.e.; On the State, 1817). The Ciceronian princeps was a distinguished and patriotic senator who guided the state by wisdom, not love of power, and on death won deification at the acclamation of his grateful citizens. This “settlement of 27” is generally taken as the opening of the imperial period in Roman history.

Following a long absence from Rome, suppression of a conspiracy, and recovery from a serious illness, Augustus adjusted his position on July 1, 23 b.c.e., when he resigned the consulship. This act was good propaganda: He had been consul consecutively since 31 b.c.e., which both made him appear monarchical and monopolized the office. In practical politics, however, it left Augustus without the power to control the government. The senate gave him twofold compensation: proconsular imperium and tribunicia potestas. Proconsular power enabled him to intervene and correct abuses in all provinces, for it was specified as maius, “greater” than of any provincial governor. Tribunician power (granted for ten years and periodically renewed) conferred the all-important right to initiate or veto measures (which he had done as consul), and made him a protector and champion of the ordinary people. Largely because of its popularis traditions, the tribunician power was renewed annually. Augustus emphasized this purely civilian power and downplayed his imperium.

Subsequent modifications in his position are minor, but two are noteworthy. After the death of Lepidus, Augustus was elected pontifex maximus in 12 b.c.e. In 2 b.c.e., he was hailed as pater patriae, “father of his country.” The fundamental imperial powers thereafter were those he held, because Augustus was the first emperor: imperium proconsulare maius, tribunicia potestas, and pontifex maximus. (Pater patriae was standard but not essential.) From the late first century c.e., emperors also held the powers of the old censors, which Augustus had avoided.

Significance

Scholars debate whether Augustus actually hoped to “restore the Republic.” In reality there is no question. To Romans, the res publica was not the “Republic” in the modern sense but “the traditional state”—lawful government with the familiar magistracies and senatorial preeminence. Res publica was incompatible with kingship, dictatorship, or any obvious domination by a single individual. The conservative Italian upper classes and the senatorial aristocracy were emotionally attached to the ancient institutions. Julius Caesar had scorned them as outmoded and had moved to establish some type of personal rule. His failure to appreciate the widespread devotion to the old ways and how grievously his lifelong dictatorship and quasi-royal trappings had offended the political classes put him on the wrong end of numerous daggers on the Ides of March. Augustus’s genius was his ability to retain the control of the state he had won in civil war by devising a new position based on tradition. Every element of his ultimate status had “republican” antecedents, but cumulatively they were new. His position was no charade. It was the principate, and he was princeps. His wiser successors modeled themselves on him.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, G. P. Augustus: The Golden Age of Rome. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000. An examination of the life and times of Augustus Caesar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lacey, W. K. Augustus and the Principate: The Evolution of the System. Leeds, Great Britain: Francis Cairns, 1996. An examination of Augustus and his role in developing the principate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millar, F., and E. Segal. Caesar Augustus: Seven Aspects. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. A collection of scholarly essays by experts on Augustus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raaflaub, K. A., and M. Toher. Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Essays by experts interpret the political strength and legacy of Augustus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Southern, Pat. Augustus. New York: Routledge, 1998. A biography of Augustus that covers his rise to power. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zanker, Paul. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Translated by Alan Shapiro. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988. Explores the intriguing thesis that conservatism in Roman art during the Augustan period matched that in politics.
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