Augustus: His Life and Work - Rene Francis


To those who have no more than a general idea of the history of Rome, the name Augustus, or even Octavian, conveys little more than the memory of a man who followed Julius Caesar, who won the battle of Actium against Mark Antony, and who was the first Emperor of Rome.

And indeed Roman history itself, without some degree of study, does not seem to present more than the rise of a big republic from a small town on the hills, then a general confusion of wars and horrors, then one great luminous figure, Julius Caesar, and after him a long succession of emperors, some good and many bad, and, at the last, a general overthrow, an inrush of savage Northern tribes and the beginning of the Dark Ages.

But when we look more closely into the history of Rome we begin to see that one thing seems to lead into another, that there is a certain chain of events and consequences, almost inevitable in their occurrence and development, and that certain changes that came about were essential to Rome's development.

We then see that Julius Caesar was not in reality the Maker of the Roman Empire, great as were his deeds, and that the long line of emperors did not commence automatically or by chance, but that there was a definite sequence of facts and modifications that led from the Republic to Julius Caesar, and from Julius Caesar to the emperors. And we see that this definite sequence was due to an equally definite influence that brought to pass or at least made use of those facts that contrived those modifications in a certain way, and made it possible for the emperors to have their empire.

And when we look for that influence, we see one man, Augustus. And the more we study Augustus, his work, and his life, the more clearly do we see how, without him and all he did, the Roman Republic might have been forgotten, Julius's work would have been undone, and the long line of Caesars never would have existed.

Roman Empire


The life of Augustus is not the personal life and the doings, political, historical, or otherwise, of a great individual: it is the embodiment of a series of political changes, from autocracy to Imperialized Republicanism, in and due to the person of one man, whose great distinction is that he realized what changes were necessary and how he must bring them about. Though we cannot see in him the glory, the genius, the wonder, and the charm of his great ancestor, we can see that it was his personality, his ability, and his special genius that really made Rome great and kept her great through the centuries during which she ruled the world.

The biography of Augustus is then in reality a political even more than a personal history, and we must not be surprised when we find that a study of him involves a study of many things and people before and even after him. Our concern will be not so much what he was and what he did, as how and why he: did all that is recorded of him.

When we glance at Roman history we see that Rome, after a brief period of early kingship, settled down to republicanism, strong, solid, and self-confident. She had all the elements of conquest latent within her; she beat off every invader, she defeated every opponent, she crushed every rival.

Even when annihilation seemed to threaten her she was undismayed; she faced the danger and overcame it: after a reverse she rose again, all the stronger.

We see that she possessed the gift of assimilation. The Latins and then the Italians, and at last the whole of the Italian peninsula, became practically Roman, one united whole against the world.

She seemed to have the gift of world conquest: Africa, Greece, Asia, partly by conquest, partly by alliance and friendship, came under her influence.

Then suddenly she seemed to fail. A series of adventurers wasted her lands, her money, and her men. At last a leader greater than all the rest arose, and for a brief space she held the world and was at peace.

Again she failed: her great man was killed, and anarchy arose and raged once more. At length came, after thirteen long years, peace in the person and influence of one other man. Under him she regained all that she had once had, and yet farther extended her borders. And after him she widened her influence still farther: but her republic had given place to an empire.

These are the facts. And it is in the life of the one man, Augustus, with whom the present work is concerned, that we shall find the key to them.

Every step and every stage of the life and work of Augustus deserve study. For he did not invent new material for the great imperial framework which he built up; he used the old material, the elements of Rome. And he did not invent any totally new spirit that should, so to speak, inhabit this framework; he used and revived the ancient spirit of Rome. But he used both materials and spirit in a new manner: where they had meant limitation he gave them expansion; where they had meant rigidity he gave them elasticity. He renovated what was old, and he gave the sanction of tradition, the illusion of age, to what was new.

However clear it may be that, after his death, Rome was no longer a republic but an empire, totally changed, totally different from anything she had ever been or had even promised to be, it was impossible for any one to say, either during Augustus's life or after his death: 'Here is Revolution, here is Novelty, here is Creation.' For what he had achieved was all one gradual but most incomparably thorough and efficient reshaping and remodeling of the ancient framework, of which no single fragment was wholly rejected or lost, although no element remained exactly what it had been or occupied exactly its original position or influence.

Tu regere imperio, 'Thou shalt reign with command.' Even if Virgil was not thinking of empire  as we know the word, yet he chose the right word. We shall see during the course of this book how impossible it was for Rome as a republic to attempt what she achieved as an empire; and we shall see, still more clearly, how impossible it would have been for her to be an empire had she not had Augustus.

Without Augustus surely the epitaph of Rome would have speedily been written; and that epitaph would have been, like that of her legendary mother-city, Roma fuit:  'Rome has been and now is not.'

In conclusion we must remember not only that Augustus made an empire and made it out of the fragments of a republic, but also that he gave that empire stability. Even though it changed, tottered, staggered, was divided, became Christian instead of pagan—and that was indeed a pouring of new wine into old bottles—it was never overthrown from within.

The one force which could and which did conquer Rome was the force from without, the resistless inrush of those wild tribes who are the civilized nations of to-day. And who shall say how much they learnt from Rome, how much they would have lost had there been no Rome, had their inrush been a mere migration to new lands instead of the conquest of the world's greatest power?

When we think of what Rome was and of all we owe to her, not only in lessons of civilization but in lessons of empire, we must remember that, without Augustus, her civilization would have been lost and her empire would never have been.