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How did Octavian Augustus introduce rule of military dictatorship under form of republic?

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Octavian Augustus, heir and principal heir of the dictator Julius Caesar, led to another civil war in the result of which removed all rivals to full power. The year 27 BCE is officially recognized as the beginning of the existence of a new type of government (Empire) in the Roman state, which, however, was still officially called the Republic. As it turned out, it was a brilliant idea of ​​Augustus, who established full power in his and his family’s hands, appointing the closest and most loyal people to key positions.

Destabilization of the political scene in Rome

Bust of Gaius Marius.

The beginning of Rome’s political changes can be traced back to the end of the 2nd century BCE, when the legionaries began to be more attached to their leader than to their homeland. Why such a change? It was mainly due to the fact that legions began to recruit not only citizens with a specific property census, but also proletarians (proletaria), i.e. citizens without land and property. It was the result of so-called Marius’s military reform (107-101 BCE). Such people saw in the Roman army the last possibility for survival and possibly spoils of war and income. Military service ceased to be only a duty to the country. The victories of the chiefs guaranteed material benefits, and loyalty was generously rewarded. A self-propelled machine was created, where Roman politicians and generals sought ways to raise their position on the political scene of Rome through conquests, and soldiers were faithful to him because he was the guarantor of their rights and profits. In exchange for loyal service, ambitious leaders promised their charges after serving, which became a significant problem for Rome in the middle of the first century BCE. Pompey or Caesar demanded that their leaders fulfill their promises, which sometimes led to revolts.

With the support of the army, ambitious politicians carried out bold actions that were often against the accepted legal order. For example, Gaius Marius held the post of consul six times (107-106, 104-100 BCE), which was a violation of the basic rules of political life. The fierce rivalry between the resulting groupings: optimists (supporters of maintaining a strong aristocracy position) and popular (supporters of improving the situation of the Roman people) led to the decision of Lucius Cornelius Sulla to take the six most loyal legions in the East and marched to Rome. It was a precedent in the history of Rome. No general has ever crossed the city limits before – pomerium – with his army. Sulla argued for his actions as a bland Senate and a violation of mos maiorum (“ancestral custom” – a Roman unwritten constitution, from which the Romans drew their social models).

Bust Lucius Cornelius Sulla without a nose.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

In 87 BCE there was a real destabilization of the political scene. In the absence of Sulla – who fought in the east with Mithridates VI – there was a purge in Rome performed by the popular (led by Cynna and Marius). In return, after returning to Rome and defeating the popular in the civil war in 82 BCE, Sulla carried out bloody proscriptions of politicians associated with the popular camp. The Senate appointed Sulla dictator legibus faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa (“dictator for the enacting of laws and for the setting of the constitution”) – giving him unique powers. The resolution was approved by the people’s assembly, and Sulla took office for an indefinite period. Sulla possessed full power over the city and Republican Rome, as the first Roman since the fall of the Monarchy in 509 BCE During his reign he introduced numerous reforms that were to prevent a similar coup he himself made and consisting in strengthening aristocracy. After three years of dictatorship (for reasons that are not entirely clear), in 79 BCE, Sulla resigned and settled on his estate in Campania to stay with his family.

Sulla has proved what an ambitious character on the political scene can lead to when he has a loyal army and supporters on the political scene. Similarly, Pompey the Great did, and thanks to the fame and wealth he gained in the east, in 66-62 BCE he became the actual lord of the Roman Empire.
After settling matters in the East, in 62 BCE he returned to Rome, where he triumphed. Pompey’s authority and position were indisputable.

Gaius Julius Caesar – perpetual dictator

Caesar’s marble bust dated from 49 to 46 BCE, found in Rhone near Arles, France. It is one of the three surviving busts of the dictator that were made during his lifetime. This bust is the oldest image of Caesar.

Julius Caesar decided to follow Pompey’s footsteps, who was looking for a chance to expand Rome. This brilliant politician decided to form a political, informal alliance with Marcus Crassus and Pompey in 60 BCE (so-called first triumvirate), as a result of which Caesar received governorship in Pre-Alpine Gaul and Illyria with the border on the river Rubikon and Gaul Narbonne. Especially the latter land tempted Caesar with the possibility of conducting war campaigns and obtaining money he needed so much. It was already known in Rome that there were three politicians ruled by whom no one would dare to oppose. Caesar, thanks to the command given over the legions and the starting point, was able to take military action in Gaul. As a result of almost 8 years of fighting, he gained enormous wealth, liquidated his debts, had disciplined and faithful legions, and above all he joined the Republic with land with a great population and economic potential – Gaul, from which barbarians who plundered in the 4th century BCE Rome. It was full propaganda, economic and military victory.

The power Caesar gained disturbed everyone, even Pompey. Pompey, who no longer had any connections and interests with Caesar (the daughter of Caesar and Pompey’s wife – Julia, who died; also Crassus died in the Party), decided to establish closer cooperation with the optimist camp under the leadership of Cato the Younger, descendent of the famous censor Cato the Elder.

In 49 BCE Caesar was placed against the wall – he had to take command of his legions; moreover, his governor’s term ended, which meant that as an ordinary citizen he could be accused in Rome by his political opponents of, among others Belgian war crimes. Caesar had many enemies in the senate and did not want to let his career end. Following the example of Sulla, he set out at the head of his troops and crossed the Rubicon River on January 10, 49 BCE, the Italian border. Another civil war broke out, which ended in practice only in 45 BCE the battle of Caesar, which was victorious for Munda. Optimus camp suffered a total defeat, and its main leaders Cato the Younger, Titus Labienus, Scipio Metellus, and Pompey fell.

Caesar, using generosity, decided to pardon many of his enemies. After the victory over Pompey, Caesar could finally afford a triumph in Rome himself in the summer of 46 BCE. It was a huge celebration celebrating his victories in Gaul, Egypt, Ponta and Africa. Caesar himself, to gain the favour of the people, gave generously to all the spoils of war for several days, feasts, games and tournaments.

However, Caesar was quickly hated by the old aristocracy for showing almost total contempt for Republican institutions. The Senate proclaimed him perpetual dictator (dictator in perpetuum), what’s more, the situation with Mark Antony, who wanted to crown Caesar as king of Rome in front of the people, caused a big shock. Although Caesar was formally trying to pretend to be legitimate, his actual decisions led to almost complete decay of the former system of government. Caesar gave office according to his own decisions and had unlimited power.

The opposition to Caesar was headed by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus. They led other conspirators to assassinate Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE in Pompey’s theater. It was the end of a man who did not first accumulate full power in his hands, but certainly remembered in Rome’s history was best.

Death of Caesar, Jean-Léon Gérôme
On March 15, 44 BCE, Octavian’s adoptive father, Julius Caesar was assassinated by conspirators under the leadership of Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus.

Gaius Octavian

Young Gaius Octavian.

Gaius Octavian was born on September 29, 63 BCE. He was the son of Gaius Octavius, former praetor and governor of Macedonia and Atia the Elder, niece Gaius Julius Caesar. He had a foster sister – Octavia the Elder, daughter of Octavius ​​from his first marriage to Ancharia, and a birth sister – Octavia the Younger .

From an early age, young Octavian was assured of good education and protection. He was taught Latin and Greek as well as good spoken in both languages. At the age of four, he lost his father, who died on his way to Rome to take over the consulate. The mother remarried to Lucius Marcius Philippus in 57 BCE, when Octavian was 6 years old. Both parents treated the young man very harshly while being a great support for him. They took care of its proper development by choosing outstanding teachers. At the age of 12, his grandmother, Julia – Caesar’s sister died. During her funeral, young Octavian praised her virtues and merits at the Forum, which was met with an admiration for his oration.

When the civil war broke out in 49 BCE between Caesar and Pompey, Octavian left on the parents’ orders from Rome to the former paternal home in Velitrae. There was a fear that Caesar’s enemies might want to take revenge on his family members. He returned to Rome after a few months of civil war, when Italia was already under the influence of Caesar’s people.

Immediately after arriving in the capital, at the age of 15, on October 18, at the Forum, he put on a white male gown, which meant his joining the group of adults. As during the the battle of Farsalos, Lucius Domicjus Ahenobarbus, a member of the priesthood college, was killed and replaced in his place young Octavian in 47 BCE
In 46 BCE, during Caesar’s triumph, young Octavian received military decorations. At that time, the great leader drew attention to his relative, seeing him as a talented young man.

Unexpectedly, Caesar entrusted Octavian with the honourable task of organizing the Greek Games. The young man devoted himself immensely, wanting to do his uncle’s request in the best way possible. His extraordinary dedication, however, led to weakness of the body and illness. During this time, Caesar constantly looked after his pet, holding the best doctors of Rome by his bed. When Octavian was still sick, Caesar went to Spain, where he planned to deal with Pompey’s sons gathering forces against him. The chief planned to take Octavian with him, knowing that military service was an important career level in Rome. Finally, despite serious illness, Octavian joined Caesar in Spain immediately after recovery. Suetonius states that:

[…] although Augustus had hardly yet recovered his strength after a severe illness, he followed over roads beset by the enemy with only a very few companions, and that too after suffering shipwreck and thereby greatly endeared himself to Caesar, who soon formed a high opinion of his character over and above the energy with which he had made the journey.

Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 8

Reconstruction of the image of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.

He set out on a journey in the company of servants and best friends, including Mark Vipsanius Agrippa, whom he knew from an early age. It turned out that the road was not straight and safe, as their ship sank on the shores of Spain. When he successfully stood in Terrakon, he set off towards his uncle, who was near the city of Kulpia. Caesar could not get overwhelmed by Octavian, who, along with a handful of friends, reached him through dangerous lands full of bandits and hostile troops.

Then they went together to New Cartagena, where 18-year-old Octavian learned to manage the province. Both remained on the Iberian Peninsula until June 45 BCE, then returned to Rome. Immediately after arriving in the capital, in September, Caesar was supposedly decided to approve Octavian and recognize him as his heir.
Octavian, after arriving home, was included in the Senate as patricians and continued his studies, previously interrupted by his trip to Spain. In the late autumn of 45 BCE, Caesar ordered Octavian and his friends, including Agrippa, to move to the Greek city of Apollonia and continue their education together, and above all learn military and political aspects.

In the meantime, Caesar decided to appoint Octavian as magister equitum, an official replacing the dictator during his absence, and his closest associate in 43 BCE

Murder of Caesar – “birth” of the new Caesar

A print depicting Octavian Augustus.

When Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BCE, Octavian dropped out of college and went to Rome to find out his political and military support; he did this despite the advice of officers who suggested shelter in Macedonia with a troop accompanying them. Octavian left the ship at Lupiae, near Brundisium. When he learned that he had been sonified by Caesar and recognized as the main heir (2/3 of the estate) by will, he adopted a new name, Gaius Julius Caesar, adding a family member Octavianus. From now on, Octavian functioned in political life as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, son of the great commander Julius Caesar.

The unexpected appearance on the political scene of 19-year-old Octavian was viewed dismissively by all political parties. A great example are Cicero’s letters in which he views Octavian as a potentially effective tool to weaken Antony. He supports a young man who, as he passed on, turned to him very warmly and respected him as an outstanding politician.

Octavian began his campaign for power in the aforementioned Brundisium, where he won the support of Caesar’s troops stationed there, previously intended to take part in the war with the Party. In addition, he demanded that some of the money accumulated in the city be spent for him during the war. With their help, he was able to win the favour of many other veterans of Caesar’s legions. During the march on Rome, in Campania, many other soldiers came to his side. Under his command, the young and inexperienced Octavian already had 3,000 loyal veterans, for whom he paid 500 denarii.

Reconstruction of the image of Octavian Augustus; author Cesares de Roma.

Suetonius gives us a great picture of Octavian after the assassination of Caesar:

The initial reason for all these wars was this: since he considered nothing more incumbent on him than to avenge his uncle’s death and maintain the validity of his enactments, immediately on returning from Apollonia he resolved to surprise Brutus and Cassius by taking up arms against them; and when they foresaw the danger and fled, to resort to law and prosecute them for murder in their absence. Furthermore, since those who had been appointed to celebrate Caesar’s victory by games did not dare to do so, he gave them himself.

Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 10

Octavian stood out, despite his young age, determination to avenge his father and punish the conspirators, and courage, because he could not be sure that his father’s former legions would support him. The “Caesarian” camp was originally centred around Mark Antony, who, thanks to the excitement of the people during Caesar’s funeral, saddled Mark Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the main initiators of the assassination attempt to escape to the East.

In Rome, Octavian appeared on May 6, 44 BCE and started scuffling with Antony for the title of Caesar’s main successor. He was supported by Cicero by making fiery speeches against Antony. At first, Antony was reluctant to Octavian, causing him various difficulties. The spectre of civil war in Rome was again real.

With time, however, Octavian began to attract more and more Caesar fans to his side. With the help of money from the estate and collected from the treasury in Brundisium, he managed to bribe Antony’s two legions. In this way, under his orders, he had a huge, private army, ready to fight. Antony, seeing the danger in Rome from the young step-son Caesar, left the capital and went to war in Pre-Alpine Gaul. Antony besieged Brutus’s forces at Mutina, and despite calling on the Senate to withdraw from the siege, he did not change his mind. The Roman Senate, having no army, began to look for an ally. The choice fell on young Octavian, who already had considerable strength under his command. As for Caesar’s supporter, he had good opinions among senators, especially Cicero. So the Senate decided to entrust Octavian with imperium, which gave him the legal right to command his soldiers and send to Gaul, together with the consuls for 43 BCE: Aulus Hircius and Gaius Vibius Panza, to break the siege. In April 43 BCE Antony’s forces were defeated in the battles of the Gallorum Forum and Mutina and forced to retreat to Gaul Narbonne. During the clashes, both consuls died, as a result of which their armies came under Octavian’s orders.

Despite the victories and requests of the Senate for further offensive actions, Octavian gave up further fighting. In June, he demanded that the Senate take the position of consul in place of Hiratius and Pansa and withdraw the decision to recognize Antony as a public enemy. Upon hearing of the disagreement of the senate, the young leader headed eight legions entered Rome. There, on Augustus 19, 43 BCE, he received the office of consul together with Quintus Pedius. In the meantime, Antony entered into an agreement with another Caesar supporter, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.

Common interests and good contacts between three “Caesarions” led to the conclusion of the so-called II triumvirate November 27, 43 BCE in Bononia. The difference between the first triumvirate of 60 BCE and the second was that Octavian’s covenant was accepted by the Senate. The most important decision of the triumvirs was the division of the empire. And so, Mark Antony gained power over Pre-Alpine and Zaalpean Gaul, Marcus Emilius Lepidus over Spain and Gaul Narbonne, and Octavian over Africa, Sardinia and Sicily. Each of them also obtained equal consular authority for a period of 5 years. Octavian, for the sake of balance, renounced the recently obtained office of consul. In addition, a list of subscribers was announced, including 300 senators and 2,000 equites, political opponents, among whom was Cicero (he died despite Octavian’s initial support).

Since February 1, 42 BCE, Caesar was counted among the gods as Divus Iulius, the young Octavian could have been entitled Divi filiis, or “Son of God”. At the beginning of the same year, Antony and Octavian sent 28 legions by sea to Greece, the “fortress” of Brutus and Cassius. There, in two battles of Philippi in Macedonia, in October 42 BCE the combined forces of Antony and Octavian they won. Their rivals, seeing no chance to defeat their opponents in the war, decided to commit suicide. Their fate was shared by most of Caesar’s opponents; only a few managed to escape to Sicily, finding shelter with Sextus Pompey.

Unexpected news from Rome that Lepidus had an alliance with Sextus led to the establishment of a new division of the empire, to the detriment of Lepidus. Spain, taken from him, was assigned to Octavian, while he himself could stop Africa if he could get rid of the charges of betrayal, which he did. in 36 BCE, Octavian drew Lepidus’ army to his side, who was deprived of all influence, and who lost all offices except for the position of the high priest (Pontifex Maximus). Only two triumvirs remained on the stage.

Initially, the accounts of Octavian and Antony – after the conclusion of the triumvirate – looked promising. Octavian married Clodia Pulchra – Stepdaughter of Antony – with whom he divorced two years later in 41 BCE. At that time, Antony’s wife – Fulvia also died – which led to his marriage with Octavia the Younger, Octavian’s sister.

Over time, however, conflicts began to appear. In the east, Mark Antony led an unsuccessful invasion of the Parthia. The failed struggles in the east were fully compensated, however, by the successes of Octavian, who conquered Panonia in 35 BCE to successfully complete the mission in Dalmatia the following year. In addition, Antony married the queen of Egypt Cleopatra VII and divorced Octavian’s sister, Octavia, who had opinion of a perfect mother and wife – Roman model. From then on, the triumvirs broke off relations and began to pursue increasingly aggressive politics.

Octavian, having enormous influence in Rome, persuaded the vestals to give him the will of Antony, which showed that he wrote some eastern provinces to his children and Cleopatra, including Caesarion, the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. In addition, the Senate officially deprived Antony of consular power at the end of 32 BCE and declared war on the regime of Cleopatra. These facts led to the outbreak of another civil war.

The decisive decision between the chiefs was on September 2, 31 BCE, in the naval battle of Actium. Octavian’s forces were led by Marcus Agrippa. Ultimately, Octavian won, despite the enemy’s advantage. Antony and Cleopatra fled to Alexandria immediately after the battle, where they planned to continue their military operations. However, when Octavian’s army appeared under Alexandria and Antony’s forces began to give up, Marcus and Cleopatra committed suicide, seeing no chance of escape.

Battle of Akcjum, Lorenzo A. Castro

The question was what about the young son of Caesar – Caesarion. Octavian asked the philosopher Arejos if he had the right to kill Caesarion. The philosopher paraphrasing Homer said: “It’s not good to have too many Caesars”. He ordered him to strangle him at the end of Augustus 30 BCE He gave the other children of Antony and Cleopatra to Octavia. That same year, Egypt became a Roman province, and Octavian assumed all power over the Roman Empire.

Independent governments

Statue Via Labicana Augustus depicting Octavian as Pontifex Maximus.
Creative Commons license Attribution - On the same terms 3.0.

Octavian returned to the capital with Agrippa in 29 BCE, making a wonderful triumphal entry. A difficult choice now stood before the winner of the civil war and the strongest man in the state. He had to choose either a republic and hand over his actual power to the inept Senate, or take power himself, which would, however, be clearly opposed by the people. Octavian still remembered Caesar, who over-trusted his opponents and officially violated Roman laws began to be compared to a king. To this end, maintaining all appearances of the republic, Octavian began to transform the state and introduce reforms that gradually and quietly transferred him ever greater powers.

In the state, everything functioned as it did in the times of the republic, i.e. the Senate met and officials were elected, with the only difference that Octavian had to accept all the candidates. Octavian introduced a new political census, under which only his supporters sat in the senate. The Senate entrusted him with ten years of management in provinces, which were enveloped in the chaos after the civil war, namely: Spain, Egypt, Gaul, Syria, Cyprus and Cilicia. In addition, under his orders were all the legions located in these regions.

The landmark year was 27 BCE, when on 16 January the Roman Senate granted Octavian the title Augustus and Princeps. The event may have seemed insignificant at the time, but it was a clear elevation of Augustus above all citizens because in his hands the most important offices were accumulated. The title Augustus cannot be translated in one word, but we can describe it as “exalted by divine power,” which emphasized his religious legitimacy to lead the country. Princeps (actually princeps senatus), in turn, was the title from which the form of government adopted by Octavian was adopted, i.e. principate. As the “first (most important) senator” he had the greatest respect in the Senate and was the first to speak.

Basalt bust showing Liwia Druzylla. The wife of Emperor Augustus had a great influence on decisions in the state and the partner himself.

The essence of the new system was that Octavian did not outlaw any offices, he merely accumulated them in his hands. He received the powers of the emperor (he could command the army), Senate princeps (the most important member of the Senate), proconsul managing together many provinces (the most important from his point of view, which gave him human and material resources), People’s Tribune (vetoed Senate resolutions, represented the people and was inviolable) and a censor (who decided who could sit in Senate). These titles were given to him by the Senate, which only legitimized his position. Octavian was also given the right to wear the corona civica, which was only on the heads of the victorious generals in triumph. In 23 BCE, Octavian obtained the so-called imperium maius proconsulare, or power over all proconsuls; to take office in pontifexa maximusa in 12 BCE (after Lepidus’s death) – an important religious function that allowed him to influence the sacred sphere public life. To all the honours of Augustus should be added the one given to him by the Senate on February 5, 2 BCE, when he was “father of the homeland” (pater patriae).

Trusted collaborators accompanied Augustus. The most important person next to Octavian was his childhood friend and faithful companion during the civil war – Marcus Agrippa, who was the actual co-ordinator. The high rank was also Gaius Patron, an excellent diplomat and also an unofficial minister of culture. Augustus surrounded himself only with faithful allies who performed the designated functions. Offices included friends, family members and trusted people who were directly accountable to Augustus. The main decisions were made by Octavian Augustus, whose orders were carried out by persons associated with him. The Julian-Claudian dynasty, initiated by Octavian and his wife Livia, took over the Roman Empire for nearly 100 years, accumulating full power and wealth.


The question probably everyone is asking – has no one seen that Octavian has accumulated in his hands unnaturally great power, comparable only to royal? We must put ourselves in the position of simple Romans living in the 1st century BCE. The entire century was interwoven with numerous civil wars, political rivalry and fratricidal fighting in the streets, which led the Romans to a situation when public authority was associated with chaos and exploitation. Corruption at the height of power was universal and nepotism natural. The seizure of power by a man who was “marked” as the heir and son of the divine Caesar, who ended the war period and brought pax romana (“Roman peace”) was something salutary. In practice, the Romans did not change anything in practice. Elections continued, officials were appointed, a senate or assembly functioned. The lack of wars and internal conflicts meant that food supplies were regular and trade developed smoothly.

Tiberius in 6 BCE he retired from public activity and went into voluntary exile to the island of Rhodes. It was a period of disgrace on the part of Augustus, who later opposed the return of his stepson from the island. Tiberius returned to favour after a few years when Augustus decided to appoint him as a successor after the death of Gaius and Lucius (sons Marcus Agrippa). He adopted him (Tiberius henceforth called Tiberius Iulius Caesar), at the same time obliging him to adopt his nephew Germanicus.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

How should Augustus be perceived? He was certainly a man of extremely strong will, determination and intelligent; moreover, a skilful politician characterized by great courage. Certainly, he also had to have a strong influence on others and confidence. Suetonius conveyed this situation:

[…] one of the leading men of the Gallic provinces admitted to his countrymen that it had softened his heart, and kept him from carrying out his design of pushing the emperor over a cliff, when he had been allowed to approach him under the pretence of a conference, as he was crossing the Alps. He had clear, bright eyes, in which he liked to have it thought that there was a kind of divine power, and it greatly pleased him, whenever he looked keenly at anyone, if he let his face fall as if before the radiance of the sun.

Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 79

Depending on the situation, Octavian was able to establish the alliance he needed at the moment. In 43 BCE he appeared as a defender of the Senate and Rome against Antony, obtaining, despite his young age, a legitimacy to command the army (propraetor empire), then to establish an alliance with Antony and Lepidus and defeat the murderers of his adopted father.

Many Roman historians were favourable to Augustus and his changes. However, there were also those who saw that the real Republic ended when Augustus took power. Roman lawyer and writer Marcus Antistius Labeo openly disliked the princeps, describing his rule as dictatorial and deliberately made the emperor angry during senate meetings. Labeo’s comments were not without reaction, however – Augustus omitted, among others his candidacy in filling one of the consul’s posts. In turn, the Roman historian, Tacitus, openly stated in his “Annales” that Octavian enslaved the Romans, who, accepting Tiberius as his successor, simply changed their master.

  • Richard Holland, Oktawian August. Ojciec chrzestny Europy, Warszawa 2019
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Cesarz August, Warszawa 1973
  • Ronald Syme, Rewolucja rzymska, Poznań 2009

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