On Augustus

Augustus Adrian Goldsworthy

If you go into google and start typing “Augustus whe..” the search engine helpfully prompts with “Augustus where are my legions”. Indeed the online world of Roman memes is littered mainly with two major types of Augustan memes- one centered around Augustus’ claim of having found Rome a city of bricks and having left it a city of marble and the other about the infamous legions. Very late in his life and reign, a serious military catastrophe occurred for Rome in Germany with a group of Germanic tribes under the leadership of Arminius destroying three Roman legions through some amount of treachery and subterfuge. The German disturbance, although the most severe, did not happen alone but was preceded by other such military skirmishes on the borderlands of the Roman territory as it stood at that point of time. Understandably enough, Augustus, now a man in his 70s – a senior age in any time – was upset. He is described to have banged his head against the door in his room yelling “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions”. The general in question had committed suicide during the battle.

One of Augustus’ main claims during his long governance of Rome was that he had ushered in an era of peace- the ‘Pax Augusta’. The long decades of his reign had seen increasing prosperity and military victories in governed territories. Augustus’ frustration and anger can be well understood against this backdrop. How would you feel if your legacy of peace and prosperity was blemished by one huge irredeemable mistake right towards the end of your life?

Augustus Gameshow meme
One of the memes on Augustus and the legions

In his book, Adrian Goldsworthy traces the life of Augustus from his comparatively non-illustrious beginnings to his end as the ‘Pater Patriae’ (father of the nation). It is quite remarkable that although we refer to Augustus as Emperor in hindsight (and he was indeed declared ‘Imperator’ a number of times because of military victories though the term does not have the same connotation as ‘Emperor’ as we understand it) he himself was referred to as ‘Princeps’- a sort of ‘first among equals’ amongst senators. Although he was the unchallenged authority with unrivalled ‘auctoritas’, Augustus himself would have been horrified if referred to as ‘Rex’ (King) or indeed even a dictator (in line with his adoptive father Julius Caesar). Goldsworthy describes a number of events where senators voted to offer increasing honours to Augustus, much of which he would refuse (and a lot of which he would choose to accept anyway- politics as ever was a big show). Augustus went out of his way to show everyone that he was just another senator- except one with a lot of responsibilities (and a lot more army than anybody else).

It is fascinating to think of the long list of unique circumstances that could give rise to a situation where a young man could effectively become a warlord and then eventually become a respectable ruler reigning for four decades. Augustus was born into the perfect political storm- Rome had been suffering from increasing civil strife over the decades which in itself was caused by a number of other factors. Rome was growing bigger and the traditional republican governing system was teetering with the pressures of having to cope with large territory and associated responsibilities. These circumstances themselves gave rise to a number of ambitious and politically disruptive characters including Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and last but not the least Julius Caesar- all of whom added to the maelstrom that was Roman politics.

Julius Caesar was dictator for life when he was so spectacularly murdered in 44BC. The prime reason for his murder was because it was felt that he had usurped the traditional Roman system of government and was trying to establish a monarchy. Romans were deeply attached to their republican government- an earlier monarchy in Rome was overthrown around 509BC and the republican model was considered supreme as it gave prominence to no one person but a class of individuals.

At the time of his death Julius Caesar did not have any biological male heirs and Caius Octavius, his great nephew through his sister Julia was adopted as his son. As a nineteen year old, Octavian thrust himself into the front line of politics. Goldsworthy portrays him as a bold and ruthless opportunist who flouted rules and would stop at nothing including proscribing numerous people (if your name was on a proscription list your life was forfeit) to rid himself of opponents. His own justification was that he was avenging the murder of his father.

If he was a firebrand in his wrestling for power, he mellowed down immeasurably once he had ultimate authority. I wonder if Augustus himself would have been surprised at his own fate. Nobody including Augustus could have imagined at the death of Caesar that the republican system of decision making could have ever been so completely subsumed into a principiate governance which later morphed into the imperial system. Augustus may have wanted to be top dog but even he would have had trouble imagining the kind of supremacy that he managed to actually achieve.

It was the beginning of the times having the loyalty of the majority of the troops in the army would dictate who held the reigns of power. The earlier republican Rome had aimed to prevent this by only enlisting soldiers who had property as against free recruitment (their logic was if you hired someone who had nothing into the army his loyalty was with whoever paid him money). Gaius Marius effectively overthrew this rule with his reforms (Colleen McCullough in her excellent ‘The Grass Crown’ describes this episode) and going forward the general who rewarded his troops had a leg up in governance. Many many years down the line rulers would continue (both in imperial Rome and elsewhere) to be toppled because of troop loyalty. The year 69 AD saw three emperors thrown out in succession until Vespasian arrived to calm the storm.

Augustus, as Goldsworthy summarises in his book was effectively a warlord first and foremost with his armies and his capable general Marcus Agrippa. However, what set apart his reign was what he did after he got power. It was almost as if, surprised at the amount of power he achieved, Augustus believed that he was genuinely destined to protect and govern Rome in the best possible way. He described himself as a ‘custodian’ at many opportunities. After the battle of Actium and the defeat of Mark Antony, the Roman people were so tired of the endless civil war that had ripped their society apart that they were almost overeager to just have Augustus at the top and ensure that a stable regime was in place. Although there may have been plots early on to assassinate Augustus (and he was more prudent than his father in having bodyguards), the majority were reluctant to upset the balance and see civil war all over again. People preferred a ‘monarch-like’ figure sitting at the top overseeing a peaceful reign rather than having two or three factions constantly fighting with each other and killing everybody else in the process.

It was pure self preservation that led the Roman people to trip over themselves in awarding Augusts honours once they realised he was the most powerful guy around. And Augustus in his wisdom realised that the best way to maintain and consolidate his own grasp on power was to maintain an illusion that the republican system had never gone and to not stir up the hornets nest by flouting established norms of the republic and calling himself dictator even if he was dictator in all but name. Nobody wants to be stabbed 24 times.

Fate (or luck if you wanted to call it that) gave Augustus an extremely long life by contemporary standards. He had not been the healthiest young man and historical sources describe him as having contracted serious illness at least twice (at one point early on in his reign he was so severely ill that some sources say he gave his signet ring to Marcus Agrippa). However, he did not die for many more years. That could not be said for almost everybody around him- particularly those people whom Augustus considered potential heirs. Augustus and his wife Livia were childless though each had children from previous marriages. Marcellus (his nephew and later son-in-law), Agrippa (his general/ friend and later son-in-law), Caius Caesar and Lucius Caesar (grandsons through his daughter Julia and Agrippa, later adopted sons) all died before they could ever properly step into their roles as shared rulers.

Livia was blamed by malicious gossip for having caused the death of so many people (including Augustus in the end) because it was ultimately her son Tiberius (through her previous marriage) that became the successor. Of course even the modern world has problems with an assertive woman who holds power so this is not surprising.

In fact nobody in the line reigned as long as Augustus and the timeline of the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty can be likened to a performance in a cricket match where you have the opening batsman putting up a stellar innings and everything after that just collapsing in fairly quick session with Tiberius, Claudius (of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius) and Nero putting up some decent runs. To put things into perspective Augustus was top from about 30BC (though the principiate officially begins at 27BC) to 14AD. Nero, the last of the Julio Claudians was disposed off in 68AD- an average of slightly more than 13 years per emperor compared to the massive 40+ years of Augustus.

Adrian Goldsworthy does justice to a lot of interesting facets of Augustus’ life and the book runs into nearly 500 pages (which explains why I have been reading this book for over 5 weeks now- also not helped by my re-reading forays into everything from Harry Potter to Colleen McCullough). A casual reader may find the book hard going but it’s definitely worth the effort.

I hope you enjoyed the post. It’s been a while since I wrote 1500+ words on anything but nothing less would do for the Pater Patriae.

Another cool meme from the internet (from http://www.quickmeme.com/Hipster-Emperor-Augustus)

Some of my other posts that may be of interest if you liked this

On Livia, wife of Augustus

On the Ara Pacis of Augustus



4 Comments Add yours

  1. Lav says:

    Very thoughtful post!
    It is a peerless match of person and circumstance…that lends history it’s most interesting chapters…

  2. Dave Powers says:

    Thanks Sukanya – a well-written post, that makes me want to read the book (if I weren’t so damned busy)

  3. Nirmala says:


  4. sjc2714 says:

    Thank you Sukanya, I have just signed into your blog having found it while scrolling the internet. You have displayed some fascinating information specially on Rome. Next Sunday i will be there for 10 days, my last of 5 previous visits.
    I look forward to reading more from your experiences. My last blog entry was cut short before completion.

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