Augustus: His Life and Work - Rene Francis

The Development of the Republic

I. Historical

If we would understand and appreciate the full extent and true meaning of the work that fell to Augustus's lot, and that he accomplished so thoroughly, we must, of necessity, know something of the times and conditions that preceded his coming.

We must glance at the beginnings of Rome, at her development into a pan-Italian power, and at her subsequent development into a world-power.

We must also observe her internal conditions, and notice how the Republic came to be, and what it became. We must see how Rome grew great as a republic and as the Mistress of Italy, and why and how it was that, as a republic, she failed when she had to face the problem of being the Mistress of the World.

We must discover and remark upon the causes that led to the failure of her republican constitution, that opened the door to anarchy, to the adventurers, and, finally, to Caesar.

Lastly, we must comprehend what it was that Caesar accomplished, and why it was that his work had to be completed by Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire.

The exact facts of the beginning of Rome cannot be said to be fully known. Whether the Romans came from over the seas, as their own legend has it, or whether they descended from the North, or indeed how they evolved, is not really our concern. It is sufficient for us that there was a city, said to have been founded in 753 B.C., that this city was at first ruled by kings, and then transformed (whether by a sudden revolution or by a slow process of modification does not matter) into a republic about the year 509 B.C.

It is probable that during part of her period of kingship she was under Etruscan rule; for we read of her sudden, and otherwise inexplicable, expansion, and her equally sudden relapse to her former narrow extent—just the city and the land immediately surrounding it.

Her real history commences with the acknowledged beginning of her republic at about the date we have given.

The first hundred and fifty years of her existence from this date represent her attempts to live in the face of the many dangers that beset her from outside, and to stem and repel the tide of invasion.

She had a long and critical struggle with Veii up to 396 B.C.; she was all but annihilated by the Gauls under Brennus in 390 B.C.; and only fifty years later she ended a fierce strife for her existence with the Samnites. These were her greatest and most dangerous foes. Once she had survived their attacks her progress was far easier and swifter. It took her, as a fact, little more than seventy years to become the Mistress of Italy.

In 281 B.C. she had to meet one dangerous enemy, Pyrrhus of Epirus, who had formed the dream of being in the West what Alexander had been in the East, the pioneer of a vast Greater Grecian Empire. But Pyrrhus was checked where he least expected it, and his power and his hopes melted away before the stubborn Republic that refused to treat with him so long as he was on Italian soil.

By 264 B.C. Rome had conquered the whole of the Italian peninsula, and her northern frontier against Cisalpine Gaul was the line from the mouth of the Arno river to that of the Aesis.

Gaul invasion


As we know, she had yet to meet Carthage, perhaps her most formidable enemy and rival. The first Carthaginian war centred in Sicily, and it was the occasion of Rome's first appearance as a sea-power. It left her greater than ever, and in possession of her first provinces. It was in 227 B.C. that she acquired Western Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica; and Eastern Sicily came into her hands twenty years later.

The second Carthaginian war, which was a determined attempt on the part of Hannibal to establish Carthage instead of Rome as the future power of the West, began in 218 B.C., and ended with Hannibal's defeat at Zama in 202 B.C.

The third Carthaginian war was not a further struggle for domination, but simply a campaign resulting in the final destruction of Carthage, and the establishment—at the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C.—of one more province, 'Africa.'

Rome had acquired Spain in 197 B.C. She began her war with—or, rather, her 'liberation' of—Greece in 200 B.C. Macedonia became yet one more province in 146 B.C.

II. Political

We must now examine, as briefly as may be, the constitution of Rome, its beginnings and its changes, up to the date of the commencement of its failure.

Tacitus opens his Annals  with the crude hexameter, Urbem Romam a principio reges habuere. ('Kings held the city of Rome at the commencement.') As we have indicated, there is no need to go beyond this, except to say that these kings seem to have been the absolute masters of Rome in every respect.

They had certainly absolute power, so far as the plebs, or lower classes, were concerned, for life and death, and it was in the first year of the Republic (so we are told) that this was limited by the Lex Valeria de provocatione, which enacted that no free Roman might be condemned by a magistrate until the sentence had been referred to the Comitia Centuriata  (the mass assembly of the people) and confirmed by them.

It is true that this only applied within the city limits; the consuls had power of life and death when on campaign, and of course dictators had absolute power during their term of office.

The successors of the kings were the consuls (or praetores consules), elected annually and by the people. True, the patres  (and at first only a patrician could hold any office in the State) could, by means of augurs, pontiffs, and so forth, impede elections to a very large extent.

The first really important step in the emancipation of the plebs—even more important in the later history of Rome—was the institution of the Tribunate.

The tribunes were at first plebeians, elected by plebeians, to act as protectors and intercessors against individual acts of oppression on the part of magistrates. They had to carry out their intercession in person, and heir persons were therefore declared to be inviolable.

They were also permitted, by the Lex Publilia  in 471 B.C., to discuss and propose, in the meetings of the people, measures desired by and for the people; these were called plebiscite.

Though the Tribunate was a recognized fact, in 471 B.C., it was not until 449 B.C. that it became a real power. In that year the number of tribunes was raised to ten, and it was enacted that the measures they proposed and passed through the council of the plebs could become law and be binding on the whole people if approved by the council of the patres.

This enactment was largely due to the failure of the Decemviri  (or Commission of Ten for the reorganization of the laws) to effect a proper harmony between the plebs  and the patres  by instituting a code of laws which should bind both parties.

Four years later the first effort was made to open the magistracy of the State to the plebs. Tribunes were appointed under the title of 'military tribunes with consular power.'

From this date begins the genuine 'republicanizing' of the constitution, step by step. First one office and then another was thrown open to the people—the consulship in 366 B.C., the dictatorship in 356 B.C., the censorship in 350 B.C., the praetorship in 337 B.C.; and in 300 B.C. even the sacred College of Pontiffs opened its doors to the lower classes.

By the year 287 B.C. the sovereignty of the people was an accomplished fact; and from that date the original sphere or work of the tribunes no longer existed. We shall see later into what the Tribunate developed and to what uses it was put; but, roughly speaking, for the next hundred and fifty years it was practically in abeyance.

We must mention yet another development in the magistracy which played a most vitally important part in later days. This was the proconsulate, a prorogation of the consular office. It was first put into practice in 327 B.C., and its object was 'to allow matters to be carried on for the consul until the war should be fought out.' The primary reason for the institution of this prorogation was the inconvenience of calling back magistrates from an unfinished campaign.

This proconsular power in after-years proved to be the destruction of the Senate; later still it became one of the greatest and most powerful prerogatives of the Emperor.

We must touch upon one or two more points which illustrate the working of the magistracy. The praetors were at first the administrators of the law in Rome: later on, with the development of the colonies throughout Italy, the praetors remained at Rome more or less, but sent out substitutes, named 'prefects' (juris dicendi praefecti)  to administer justice throughout Italy.

When the first provinces were instituted and it was seen that resident magistrates were required, praetors were sent out, as were consuls later on, to fill these posts. The theory was that at the end of his year of office in Rome the consul or praetor should be appointed to his province or foreign command, which he had to resign or lay down before his re-entry into Rome.