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Republic or empire? – how Octavian Augustus changed system without changing it

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Octavian Augustus
Octavian Augustus

Which version of Rome is more interesting to you: the republic or the empire? On the one hand, the severity of customs, and on the other, the debauchery and decadence of the emperors. Here the military genius of Scipio Africanus, the morality of Cato and the brilliant speeches of Cicero, and there – Caligula, Nero and a galaxy of other emperors with more or less twisted psyche.

Nevertheless, the choice is not easy… The Republic (especially the so-called “late republic”) is a chaos of political struggles for power, warring clans, the actual power of the oligarchy powdering the facade of decaying “democracy”. The late republic means the increasingly weaker effectiveness of the state bogged down in political disputes. Despite all the problems of the republic, the power of the emperors appeared to be an element stabilizing the state and improving its effectiveness. But this advantage of the empire also turned out to be only temporary – history has shown that, in fact, the fights for the purple were a factor that weakened the state and ultimately contributed to its fall.

The Romans knew that the republic was experiencing a political crisis. Civil wars, in which armies showed greater loyalty to their commanders than to the state, left no illusions that the formula of government based on the senate and people’s assemblies controlled by an oligarch composed of a dozen, perhaps several dozen, largest families was already exhausting its potential. Political competition required the involvement of more and more assets and incurring more and more debts – the stakes in the game were getting higher, so it is not surprising that the methods of political struggle were less and less sophisticated. And yet everyone seemed to be attached to the ancient Roman political institutions: the senate, consuls, popular assemblies, tribunes, censors, etc. Resentment of royal forms of government was as widespread as pride in the “democratic” aspects of Roman rule, in which there were “subjects” only “citizens”.

The founder of the Roman Empire, Octavian Augustus, did something extraordinary – without any interference in the traditional political institutions of the Roman state, he created a system that was an actual monarchical military dictatorship. He gave people the illusion that he was restoring the republic in a new, better form. He showed that the state under his enlightened rule had all the advantages of Cato’s republic – hence the emphasis on purity of customs and attachment to ancient morality, as well as ostentatious modesty and religiosity. At the same time, he showed that the state under his leadership would put an end to the devastating political struggles and civil wars plaguing the republic. He did this without abolishing any old state institutions: popular assemblies continued to function, the senate continued to function, the traditional cursus honorum and the career path from the lowest quaestor, through aedile, to praetor and consul continued. Formally, nothing changed… Formally, the republic continued…

But only formally. The secret of the creator of the empire, and at the same time the darker side of the political transformations he authored, was that all important institutions were subordinated to him through more or less informal dependency systems. Huge authority in the army (it was of colossal importance that after a series of civil wars, ultimately only Octavian could claim to be Julius Caesar’s heir) gave him power over key provinces and the greatest wealth of the state. The electoral system functioned under the dictation of the emperor – the consuls were still the highest state officials, but their nomination became only a formality – approval of the actual choice made by Augustus. Systematically purged of opposition elements, the senate slowly turned into a consultative body without real power. The vigilance of the inhabitants of Rome, who during the times of the republic made sure that no one diminished their rights, was lulled into sleep by the famous “bread and circuses” – the distribution of grain and the state’s activity in the field of entertainment became a key element of the authorities’ program, as well as assurances that Augustus was protecting the plebs from the oppression of the powerful. .

It is fascinating that Augustus gained such an unprecedented position of power without any significant political changes. At most, he gathered in his hands some offices and dignities that gave him control over public life in Rome. But even these offices were not necessary for him to wield full power – after all, Augustus was only one of the consuls, and not even all the time. Each of the additional powers he took over could be justified by some political precedent from the past. The transformation of the republic into an empire did not take place on one specific day – it was a continuous process of consolidating power and tying subsequent informal threads of dependency on the fingers of Octavian Augustus’s hand – so that in the end each institution of the state moved in accordance with his will. At the end of this process, Augustus’s influence on the state was so great that he did not even have to take any steps to force state officials to behave in a certain way. It was enough for him to say what his opinion was on a given issue. As historian Ronald Syme wrote, Augustus did not have to break the law. He simply made the entire system submissive to him.

One might ask, what’s wrong with that if the state was functioning perfectly well? Let us remember that the system created by Augustus hid dark secrets. Although the state flourished economically, in practice only people with family or social ties to Augustus had access to any offices and dignities. And since in those times power was a source of wealth, it is not surprising that during the entire period of Augustus’s reign, there was an actual replacement of the state elite. The emperor’s closest relatives gained influence and unimaginable wealth, and the Julio-Claudian clan probably aspires to be the most powerful family of all time. Augustus jealously guarded his informal power and made sure it did not slip out of his hands. To guarantee his family’s support after his death, he did not hesitate to use his relatives as puppets in dynastic politics. The entire apparatus of power was subordinated to guarding the emperor’s position. It was during his reign that the crime of “lese majesty” (so-called crimen laesae maiestatis) was transformed, and from then on every subsequent ruler could use it against his opponents practically at will. It was during Augustus’s reign that art was subordinated to the state: using intermediaries (e.g. Maecenas), Augustus sponsored artists who praised the greatness of the state under his rule – for example Virgil or Horace, and at the same time condemned “rebellious” artists – for example Ovid, whose “Seeking Love ” is filled with subtle political allusions. State propaganda blurred the memory of the uncomfortable, bloody circumstances of Octavian Augustus’s rise to power so that no shadow would disturb the image of the “restorer of Rome”.

The most important thing, however, is that the system created by Augustus was tailored exclusively to him – to his talent and political skills. When Augustus died after over 40 years of rule, his successors were not up to the task, and all the dysfunctions of the imperial system intensified: a dictatorship covered with the mask of an “enlightened monarchy” began to drift dangerously towards a brutal despoty. It wasn’t long before power struggles revealed the ugly truth that absolute power in Rome was held by a military junta imposing subsequent emperors. Sometimes the rulers were appointed by the praetorian guard, and sometimes by the legions. The ruler increasingly often became the one who promised the military a higher political bribe from public money. Any conflicts began to be resolved by civil wars. The basic advantage of imperial power – a stabilizing element – ceased to play any role.

When successive principles of the republican system of power fell and Octavian Augustus gained more and more power, the Romans did not yet see that the Rome they knew was finally becoming a thing of the past. They were constantly under the illusion that everything would stay the same and only someone would finally restore order. But when Augustus died, they already understood that the country had been irreversibly transformed. And not always in the direction they want. They found out how much only many years later, when the power designed under Augustus was taken over by depraved individuals.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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