Augustus: His Life and Work - Rene Francis

The Meaning of Empire

We have seen how Julius Caesar made the Republic impossible. Others had begun the task, for their own ends; he achieved it—well, it, is difficult to say whether he achieved it for Rome or for himself. As we have said, he worked imperially; he could not do otherwise, from his very nature. He could not but see to the very end of the problems with which he dealt, and he could not but, deal with them; it was instinctive in him.

Those others who preceded him worked consciously for themselves; they simply wanted as much power and wealth and destruction of rivals as they could possibly effect. Caesar was certainly free from such ideals, if self-seeking can be called an ideal. But, unconsciously, he was working for himself, even as great men will. They identify their ideals with themselves and think of little or nothing but them. They may realize that they are leaving much to posterity, but it is for posterity to make what it can of the legacy. Nor do they think of the past. If their ideal means that the past must be neglected or even overthrown, they neglect it or overthrow it. Reconciliation and compromise are not for them. If they die before their work is finished, so much the worse for the work and the world in general: 'Art is long and life is short'!

Such was surely Julius Caesar, not selfish in character or in his behaviour to others, but selfish, without knowing it, in his ideals, which he achieved for his own personal satisfaction. It is because they were good and great ideals that they did Rome good and brought her greatness.

We can say that had it not been for Julius and his work Augustus could never have made such an empire as he did; but we must also say that the work that lay before Augustus was all the harder by reason of all that Julius had done.

Augustus was not selfish, consciously or unconsciously. He worked both for the past and for the future, not only seeing what he was doing in its full extent, but also seeing how it fitted in with the past and how it could fit in with the future.

And his was not a case of a task too long for a life. Even though, through one mischance after another, he did not and could not designate his actual successor until within a very few years of his death, a successor would certainly have been found to take over his work as he left it at any time after, say, 23 B.C.

Now what, after all, was the meaning of all these changes, and, still more, what is their meaning for us?

We have seen the obvious explanation of obvious facts. Rome had fallen into confusion; her machinery was obsolete for her increasing needs; she had been a prey to various adventurers, and circumstances had made her a possible prey to any adventurer.

One supreme Head was a necessity; and, for the work of that Head to continue, a permanent system had to be devised. It had also to be a system remodeled in some degree on the old system, at least in name, otherwise there was still enough feeling in Rome to overthrow it. One of the most significant facts in the career of Augustus is that, just at the time when it was being discussed what title he should have, or, rather, what surname (he was still Octavian then), some flatterer had proposed 'Romulus,' the name of the first king. Octavian, with unerring instinct, had at once rejected the name; it meant kingship, and kingship, in Rome, meant the complete overthrow of all traditions. We know how Octavian made it half of his life's work to respect, revive, and glorify traditions; his choice of his name, 'Augustus,' was the crowning achievement of that part of his work, in that it, so to speak, sanctified his deeds and also his person as the means chosen by the gods for the furtherance of Rome's greatness.

His work was necessary to Rome, and the divine sanction was necessary to his work.

But the real meaning of his work, its meaning for us as well as for Rome, is wider and deeper.

Rome was destined, we may say, to expand, not to remain a self-contained State, to civilize the whole world, 'sparing those thrown under her feet and beating down the proud.' She had inherent in her the qualities of solidity, of conquest, of assimilation. She had proved this from her first years, when she 'Romanized' first the Latin tribes close to her city walls, then the Italians, then the Greek colonies in the south—in a word, the whole Italian peninsula.

Had Rome confined her power to the Italian peninsula she need never have changed her Republic. Apart from the fact that it was—it always is so in this world—the deeds of individual adventurers that gave her her great oversea possessions, and that it was the conduct of these adventurers (and the precedent they set of defying the Republic and magnifying themselves) that forced empire upon her—apart from these things, empire was unavoidable when once Rome adventured outside Italy. For she could not, under any but the Imperial system, have governed her foreign possessions. She might have kept them in order by constant harshness of rule and continual fighting, but she would never have transformed them into 'Greater Rome.'

'Quite so,' will be the answer; 'you have told us how bad was the senatorial provincial Government and how good was the administration of the Imperial provinces; you have also, for that matter, shown how the Republic could not even police Rome or keep up a proper fire-brigade.'

Yes, these are 'obvious facts.' The Roman Republic did degenerate; the average proprietor or proconsul was arrogant, ignorant, avaricious, and generally detestable when once he found himself let loose for a year on some luckless province. And he had nothing much to fear; he had, as one Roman saying has it, three fortunes to make, one to pay off his old debts, one for his future, and one to buy off the court, Equestrian or senatorial, that would almost inevitably try him at the end of his year's command.

Again, it is quite true that the Emperor's men were well chosen, ambitious, hard-working, not unduly avaricious or self-seeking. And they had a great deal to fear! Any one in the province might find means of conveying a complaint to Caesar's ear, and then the judgment on the unfortunate governor was summary and exemplary!

The obvious facts of Roman history and experience were against Republican and for Imperial government.

A republic cannot govern an empire. It cannot even govern a country, unless that country is reasonably self-contained and accessible.

When it is possible for all the affairs of the country to be presented clearly, and without the likelihood of too many opinions being needed, before the Central Board of Authority—that is perhaps the best way to describe the administrative part of the republic—then it is possible, and even reasonable, to expect that, clear lines can be laid down and clear directions given to the executive. It is equally possible for affairs to be dealt with and for hue country to be maintained in a fairly efficient and orderly state if there is a really effective system of municipal or other local government. That ensures that each town and each village shall be able to attend to its own business. We can even conceive oversea local government, and that supplies an argument to supporters of the republican regime.

But in practice it is then a case either of the State, at home and abroad, resting stationary, or else of able men being sent out to control the oversea possessions. And when this is so there is always the possible danger that some crisis from within or without may upset the state of affairs, or else that (as we saw in the case of Rome) one or other of the foreign governors may become too powerful. Either way, the 'empire' risks overthrow.

The reason for this is that a republic, from its very nature, is the most centralized form of government that exists. Everything has to be referred to the people, or at least to those who represent the people, their Parliament or their Cabinet. There is no one single mind or single will. Questions must be discussed, and cannot be settled quickly. Routine work, of course, goes through automatically; but routine work hardly means 'empire,' or anything, indeed, beyond the everyday practice of ordinary life.

Then, again, when the people hold the power—and the more genuine the power of the people, and not of a few, the stronger is the argument—they are naturally interested in the use of the power. They do not suffer omissions; everything of any importance must be referred to them and settled by them.

Now it is obvious, first of all, that the people are concerned chiefly with home and local affairs; these are nearest to their interests, and therefore appear to be far more important than anything farther afield. Secondly, the people are not in a position, even if they cared to do so, to acquire the experience necessary for affairs outside their local ken. For one thing, we cannot send a whole nation, man by man, to live and work in each several colony or foreign. province or dependency until one and all have a thorough knowledge of everything to do with all their foreign possessions! Thirdly, we have to think of the mind, the ability and insight of the people. We know the proverb that the strength of a chain is its weakest link!

A people, as a people, cannot possibly rise to the height necessary for a real grasp of great external questions of which they have no intimate national knowledge; nor can they follow the minute and intricate details a full knowledge of which is vitally necessary for the arrangement of certain, and especially foreign, affairs.

Specialists are always required, and specialists always arise, expert at their work but almost completely out of touch with the 'man in the street.' Even in modern times the task of keeping the whole people fully acquainted with all that goes on and all that is needed outside the mother country is not easy, nor can it be done thoroughly, nor can it be so done that one opinion and one decision alone may prevail.

And so, from the very fact that a republic is so centralized, everything beyond the immediate control, we may say beyond the immediate borders, of the metropolis has to become highly decentralized.

An empire, controlled by one supreme head, is exactly the reverse. We have, naturally, the impression of entire centralization, inasmuch as we see one man laying down the law for everything. But when once everything is organized that one man simply becomes the head of a hierarchy in which each member has his own special department. The emperor may investigate many minute details and listen to many personal appeals; but he does not need to undertake the entire work or even supervision throughout every corner of his empire. His experts see to that, and they are responsible to him. He himself, as a rule, has the ability and the experience required for a sufficient, grasp of the main issues, and he can leave the details to his subordinates, who keep entirely in touch with him, and never lose that touch as they would if responsible to a body of men most of whom would be ignorant of or indifferent to the special issues, and all of whom would be liable to differ in opinion, the one from the other, over any one issue.

The emperor can, of course, be entirely responsible to the nation for the general good conduct of affairs; but, so long as he ensures that, the nation leaves him largely to his own plans and actions, and busies itself with its own affairs.

As a rule, we may say (though this is hardly essential to the argument) that under an emperor such branches of life as literature, art, science, etc., are more highly and effectively developed than they are under a republic; it is not an absolute rule, but there is at least a tendency that way. An emperor can patronize and encourage such things, and the people, less concerned with the cares of State, have more leisure to devote to them.

But, however that may be, an empire can decentralize safely; a republic cannot. The fact is that a more or less absolute ruler is to an empire what a business manager is to a business. And, just as a good business manager organizes and establishes a system under which the business may continue and expand, so does a good emperor organize and establish his system for his empire.

And this is exactly what a republic cannot really do. There are too many heads, and they are not all experts! Also, one has as much power as the other, and this provides the elements of disagreement and indecision.

Lastly, once the system is well established the actual personality of the head is of less importance in the sense that time system can continue even though he may show less energy or ability than his predecessor, let us say. And this is unquestionably the case with an empire in which there is no absolute certainly of 'getting the best man.'

To sum up the whole argument, a republic cannot govern an empire—first of all because a republican regime, which entails the practical rule of many, cannot have the breadth of view or the grasp and knowledge of varied and special detail required by the task; and, secondly, because the 'many' are predisposed to think of their own local and individual needs (they have little interest or experience beyond these) and to neglect the greater issues which exist outside.

This was the case with Rome when the age of the Adventurers began, and before Rome had the burden of the civilized world fully thrust upon her. That responsibility was of Julius Caesar's making; but he bore the burden himself.

And the work of Augustus is that he systematized that burden and made it bearable, not for the old Republic nor for a declared emperor, but for an Imperialized Commonwealth, republican in name, but imperial, and therefore world-powerful, in fact.