The age of chivalry is gone.—That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded. — Edmund Burke

Augustus: His Life and Work - Rene Francis

The Principate

On his return from Egypt Octavian was received by Italy and Rome not as the victor in a civil war, but as the saviour of the Republic and of his fellow-citizens, the restorer of peace to the world.

Whether this was due to fear or to his prestige and the admiration for it matters not; it was perfectly logical. Antony, when Octavian met and defeated him at Actium, was no longer a Roman rival for Roman power: he represented Cleopatra, and an Eastern, probably an Egyptian, empire.

Octavian, too, behaved entirely as flee guardian of Roman power and Roman interests. His first duty was to complete the rewarding of his victorious soldiers, past and present. He was even more careful than before in his allotments of the land they wanted. He purchased what was required from the Italian municipalities, instead of annexing it as had been done in the early days of the Triumvirate. He gave land not only to his own men, but also to those who had surrendered to him from Antony's command. Last of all, he set himself to place these veterans where they could really be of use in cultivating and redeveloping waste areas in Italy and in strengthening doubtful frontiers.

Octavian founded—at least he claims (on the Monument of Ancyra) to have founded—twenty-four military colonies; and of these several were placed near the Alps and the Illyrian borders, where their presence was of the greatest effect in restraining the raids that did so much harm to the farmers of the rich plains just below the mountain-lands.

This is one illustration among many of what was the leading feature of Octavian's life policy from the day of his acquiring the sole power until the day of his death: even the least of his actions was so planned and carried out as to have an influence upon and a relation to his work as a whole. This land-allotment was no longer a mere reward or bribe; it was now a part of the whole scheme for imperial consolidation.

Two other actions at once signalized for the people at large his beneficence and forgiveness on his return from strife and conquest. Carrinas, whom he allowed to share his great three days' triumph, was a son of one of those whom Sulla had proscribed; and proscription under Sulla meant that the descendants of the victims were for ever debarred from having any part in official life.

Marcus Licinius Crassus, whom be chose as his fellow-consul for 30 B.C., had been a follower of Sextus Pompeius and then of Antony. Octavian promoted him to be legate of Moesia, and now associated him with himself in the highest magistracy of the State. Financially, Octavian was in quite a different position now that he had conquered Egypt. He had all the money he could desire, and was able to remit arrears of taxes and to give munificent largess to the populace. Such was the general feeling of security in business circles (and these, after all, are, as it were, the barometer of the State) that the rate of interest in Rome fell from 12 to 4 per cent.

But Octavian had now to face the greatest of all his tasks—a task before which even his rise to power and his struggles with his various rivals recede into the background: he had to legalize his position and to reconcile it to Republican traditions.

The events of the last hundred years had made it clear, in the first place, that the old mechanism of the State was quite unfitted for the work that fell to its lot; and, secondly, that authority, firm and central, was a necessity.

Irresponsible authority had shown what it could bring forth, and how even its few good actions could be reversed or neutralized at the next change of regime.

Responsible authority, such as had been assumed by Julius Caesar, involved the perpetual danger of death.

Therefore authority must be made constitutional, and—here was the counterpart of the problem—the constitution must be made authoritative. Autocracy, responsible or irresponsible, was not possible.

It was equally evident that no one save Octavian had the slightest claim to possess authority or the slightest chance of establishing it. We shall see how he established it in the one manner possible under the conditions with which he had to deal. It was, of course, obvious that the Republic, by itself, without a guiding hand, would have at once meant complete anarchy; and yet the Republican forms at least had to be maintained.

In one respect Octavian had unique qualifications for his task. He had not the dazzling personality of Julius Caesar, nor could he claim, as did Julius, to be wholly and directly descended from the very founders of Rome. He could claim this descent on his mother's side, and this materially aided his imperial prestige; but on the other side he simply came of a good family of Italian municipal aristocracy—the class of which Cicero had been the great representative and chief upholder. He was the grandson of a burgher of Velitrae who had been 'content with municipal magistracies'; he was an Italian rather than a Roman noble—and thereby he avoided another dangerous extreme, the narrow-minded pride of the Roman nobility, who had jeered at Cicero for a foreigner of Arpinum, and who had brought on the Social War by their refusal of the franchise to Italy.

Thus by his descent Octavian appealed to all parties of Rome, Italy, and the Empire.

His ideals, too, were equally apt in their appeal. Julius Caesar had had a dream of a union of all Rome and Italy, allies, provinces, and dependencies united in one vast State, governed by the same laws, and directly under the same central authority. Octavian, on the other hand, insisted on maintaining the distinctions between Rome, Italy, and the allied dependencies. Julius had planned the municipalization of Italy, possibly as a convenient method of administration; Octavian carried this out by a species of vast Local Government Act, and thereby encouraged a spontaneous and independent growth of spirit and feeling throughout the Italian peninsula. The excellence of this policy is shown by the fact that it spread by degrees through the provinces and even into Spain; but it must be remembered that Spain was the one particular part of the Empire which be came, before any other, 'more Roman than Rome.'

In personal character Octavian was not unlike Louis XI of France, homely in many ways, with a vein (but a far slighter vein) of superstition; cautious, yet shrewd and far-seeing; using all classes and valuing them at their exact worth in themselves and for the State. Also, like Louis XI, he knew bow to choose men and how to keep their affection and fidelity. Lastly, he had a complete and unchanging indifference to all the external signs of power.

Octavian commenced his 'restoration' with the purification of the Senate. That, body, as was to be expected after so many years of trouble and anarchy, was in sore need of purging and reorganization. He associated Agrippa with himself for this work; and, following his usual practice, he did not actually constitute himself and Agrippa censors: he took the 'power of censorship' for a period of five years, thus having the authority to do whatever he chose, without needing to monopolize for himself and his colleague the office of censorship, which was in its way a definite magistracy.

There had always been a definite qualification—the possession of a certain sum of money—required for senatorial rank. Octavian raised this qualification, and thereby excluded from the Senate those who had not an adequate fortune. He wished to have men who had a distinct stake in the country.

This principle was made even more definite under the later emperors, who insisted that their senators should not only possess a certain fortune, but should be owners of a certain amount of land in Italy itself.

Octavian insisted on this monetary qualification; but where he found men whom he wished, for one reason or another, to pro mote he supplied the funds or grants required to make up their qualification, thereby binding them closely to himself and his interests.

To occupy a seat in the Senate it was not merely necessary to be of the proper rank—to be a noble; a candidate must also have held at least the office of quaestor, the lowest senatorial magistracy. As Octavian, by his nominations and recommendations, had, in fact if not in name, the entire control of all elections to all the magistracies, he of course controlled the elections to the quaestorship. But he took a further step. He ensured control not only of the actual seats in the Senate House, but also of admission to the senatorial order or class.

In the old days all nobles, patricians or wealthy and prominent plebeians, were, by virtue of their social position, eligible for the rank and for the seats; or, rather, they were senators by right; of birth, and the seats in the Senate House and the senatorial magistracies were filled from their numbers: nobility of birth implied senatorial rank.

Under Octavian all this was changed. He began not only to fill the seats in the Senate, but also the senatorial class, with his nominees. He left the old nobility to enjoy their former privileges and prestige, but he added to their numbers. The old nobles had become officials; the new officials became nobles.

In order to control admission to the senatorial class, Octavian acquired the right of bestowing the laticlavium, or broad purple band, for the toga. Hitherto this had been a sign of noble birth and had meant senatorial rank; now it was a sign of senatorship and meant nobility, though it did not carry with it the right to a seat in the Senate: that had to be gained by holding some definite office, at lowest the quaestorship, as we have said above.

Octavian had his own special reason for raising the monetary qualification for the senatorial rank, or 'class,' which is really by far the better word. That class must be exclusive and it must be wealthy; but the real reason for its exclusiveness and its wealth was that senators should have greater social distinction than any others in the State. They could no longer be powerful: the Senate, as a body, was practically superseded, as were the magistrates as individuals; the ancient control of the army and the provinces and of the commonwealth in general was no longer theirs. Only one resource was left to them, that of a dignified and noble display, an aristocratic social splendour. And it was this that Octavian encouraged in his reorganization of senatorial order.

Octavian devoted much attention to the material and spiritual sides of Roman life. He restored the old temples and built others, and he prohibited foreign rites and cults. It was his object to restore the ancient; traditions of Rome and the memory of the favour she had always enjoyed from heaven—her own heaven peopled by her own gods; and he wished it to be felt that foreign gods and their cults were of and for the foreign nations who were now the subjects of Rome. Moreover, it was not for Romans to ape the manners or fantasies of inferior aliens.

Among other ceremonies, Octavian conducted one which had been neglected for the past forty years, namely, a solemn purification of the people in the Campus Martins. This again was a sign, first, that Rome was at peace, freed from wars foreign and civil; secondly, that she was returning to her ancient custom and ritual.

In 28 B.C. Octavian, now consul for the sixth time, issued an edict cancelling the irregular enactments of the Triumvirate; he also announced that in the following year he would lay down the especial and extraordinary authority that he held and restore the commonwealth to the Senate and people. He fulfilled his promise on the 1st of January, 27 B.C., when consul for the seventh time.


Naturally, and as he had calculated, he regained the essentials of the power he had resigned. He was given, first, the imperium  for ten years and the exclusive control of certain provinces; secondly, the position of commander-in-chief of all the forces of the Empire, and, with this, the sole right of levying and discharging troops and of declaring war and peace and of making treaties. He thus had supreme control outside Rome. He held this power as consul and with consular authority, and this gave him the chief magistracy in Rome, as well as precedence over all magistrates outside the city. Thirdly, he was given the title of Augustus, i. e.  sacrosanct, which implied that in him was vested the sacrosanct power of Rome itself.

By the people and the provinces Octavian, whom we must now call Augustus, but, whom they called Caesar, was recognized as the guardian of the Roman Empire and the governor of the whole world. Rome and the higher classes were content, with the polite fiction that he was Princeps Civitatis, or 'First Citizen of the State,' primus inter pares, or 'first among his peers.'

The old magisterial functions were in active use. Augustus was neither king nor dictator, nor did he hold any office of which Rome could say, 'This is contrary to the usage of our forefathers.' He simply had, in principle, a position similar to that of Pompeius in 67 B.C., or Julius in 57 B.C. It was quite according to precedent that a consul should have both legions and provinces under his control. Even Cicero, the great authority on forms and precedents, had advocated such a Principatus. Augustus simply held the primacy in a free commonwealth.

Of course, in reality he was the ruler of the Empire. He had the prestige of having crushed Antony, and of being the heir of Julius; he was the generalissimo of the whole army and the direct ruler of Hither Spain, Gaul, Syria, and Egypt; he was consul and therefore head of the executive; incidentally he held the tribunicia potestas. What rival could he have?

On June 27, 23 B.C., Augustus took the decisive step that was to crystallize the constitution as he had planned it: he resigned the consulship that he had held since 31 B.C. He retained his imperium, but only as proconsul—i.e.  abroad, and not within Rome. Proconsul ad portam urbis deponit imperium:  ('The proconsul must lay down his command at the gate of Rome.') this deprived him of his right of precedence over all other magistrates and of his power to convene the Senate and the assembly of the people.

This step caused general anxiety. Augustus was offered one honour after another—the dictatorship, the consulship for life, the 'care of laws and morals' (the word mores includes morality and customs and the ordering of life in general); but he refused all these as being unconstitutional.' He reassured Rome, and also secured what he really needed, by three enactments: first, he was to retain his imperium  to use it in Rome; secondly, his imperium, was to be consular, thus giving him precedence of all others at home or abroad; thirdly, he was to have the same rights as the consuls for convening the Senate, introducing business, nominating candidates for election, and issuing edicts.

Outwardly, he was placed on a, level with the consuls; he had a seat between them, in the Senate, and he was allowed twelve lictors.

This arrangement may be said to have regularized the Principate for the next three hundred years. But one point was incomplete. It was not right that a proconsul, who held command over camps and in provinces, should rule in Rome over the heads of the elected magistrates: the proconsular authority was essentially military and provincial. Augustus overcame this difficulty by means of the tribunicia potestas, which he now used in the one manner most exactly suited to his own needs and those of the constitution.

He did not pose as perpetual tribune; he, as a patrician, and with an imperium, was not eligible; he simply adopted the tribunes' powers, and thus acquired the ideal title for the expression of his position. It fell in with urban necessities and with democratic tradition; it gave him the right (thus legalizing what he had in fact) to convene the Senate or the assembly, to propose laws, to veto the proposals of other magistrates. He used this right constantly as a means of carrying out for Rome and Italy social reforms demanded by the Senate. It also gave him the right to receive appeals, and, more than all, the inviolability, or majestas, which was so powerful an instrument later on against treason or the suspicion of it. We have to-day the phrase lese-majeste  to express insult or treason to the person of the sovereign.

This inviolability had its own special meaning, in that it invested Augustus, or whoever else held the tribunician power, with the inviolability of the sovereign People. Thus not only did it in a sense invest him with a sacrosanct position of his own: it also represented him as the personification  of the people. He could not be called an autocrat!

Incidentally it signified that he was the especial protector and patron of the populace. Thus he bound to his person all that section of the community.

We have so far attempted to outline the methods by which Augustus converted the State machinery to his own use and the needs of the Empire. Without superseding any single factor in the State, he, so to speak, amalgamated himself with every factor and made himself superior to and the controller of every factor. The Republic could not exist without an imperator; yet it did not cease, in law and in name, to be the Republic. It is curious but true that these arrangements did not provide for any sort of hereditary or other transmission. All the powers given to Augustus had to be voted over again to each of his successors. The Principate died with the death of each princeps. The various powers were always voted, with occasional slight modifications. The choice of the candidate varied: at first it was a question of more or less direct descent, then of kinship or adoption, then of military ability or popularity. But the candidate was always found, and, when found, was always given his special powers.

Empire, at first a craving, became with Rome a habit.

We will now attempt to outline the actual work, apart from its constitutional aspect, that Augustus did, and to show what was and what became the procedure of government under his auspices. And the last word perhaps expresses the whole situation: Rome ruled herself and the world auspice Augusta.