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Octavian Builds an Empire

Mike Anderson By Mike Anderson Published on December 20, 2015

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Octavian, who would later become Caesar Augustus, was perhaps Rome’s greatest ruler and statesman. He rose to power, after the creation of the second triumvirate, by defeating rivals Lepidus, and Anthony. But Octavian’s superior skill lay in politics, not warfare, so he had to rely on military leaders like Agrippa to win the battles. Once his rivals were defeated, Octavian moved on to the building of a Principate, which was more difficult than all the battles he had fought. Many revolutionaries, throughout history, have attested to the difficulty of ruling once the battle is over. Indeed, the skillset is much different between tearing down and ruling. In Octavian’s case, he had to maintain the veneer of the Republic while building an authoritarian state. The fact that he was successful puts him near the top of the list of great politicians of all time.

Octavian had the savvy to build a political system that could operate successfully, the temperament to rule fairly, and strength of will to fight off threats which could have weakened or destroyed Rome. Sadly, as so often happens in human society, the attributes of a great ruler don’t often get carried forward to his successors. But that’s another story.

Remembering the intolerance of the ruling class for the flaunting of naked power, Octavian sought to disguise his rule under accepted Republican traditions. For the first eight years after Actium (31-23 B.C.), he served as consul using that office as a constitutional basis for power. Then, half way through that period, he returned control of the state to the Senate and people of Rome -- a brilliant political move which gave the appearance of restoring the ancestral system. At the same time, he was given authority to rule certain provinces, through governors, and the rest of the Roman territory was put under the authority of proconsuls nominated by the Senate. In both cases, the provincial authorities were professional administrators under tight control of Rome rather than greedy political climbers looking to line their pockets.

Still, Octavian made sure to influence the appointment of those governors and see that “new men” were mixed in with the patricians so that the ancient families would not be able to gain too much influence. He reduced the size of the Senate to 600 and enlarged its powers to include some judicial responsibility. Moreover he transformed the Senate from a political body to an administrative body to assist with the management of the new government.

Once these changes were put in place, Octavian renamed himself “Augustus” to strengthen his myth and avoid any name or title that would imply a quest for authoritarian power. The association of his new name with the word augurium went to the heart of Roman tradition.

During these years the Roman Empire continued to expand both in the east and west. Galatia was developed in Asia Minor and western North Africa became a client kingdom. In 23 B.C, Augustus visited Gaul and was helping to direct a campaign in Spain when his weak constitution failed him, he fell ill, and nearly died. Now believing he had to reorganize the governmental structure further, Augustus resigned from his consular posts. But he retained authority over his provinces and had himself granted imperium maius, which placed him above all provincial governors. He was also designated as tribune of the people that same year.

Both of these titles carried authority without office – novel in the history of Roman governance.

During the teens B.C, we see Augustus establishing a civil service for the first time in Roman history. The beneficiaries of this expansion of government were the knights who occupied the position of a middle class – professionals who were willing to do work patricians saw as beneath them but more educated and capable than the plebs. As Max Weber has told us, bureaucracy is a dangerous thing; too structured to be efficient and fundamentally wasteful. Still, bureaucracies are stabilizing forces in society that operate separately from the politics around them. Augustus’ bureaucracy would manage the business of Rome for hundreds of years.

Augustus’ careful state building took about fifteen years to accomplish and the end result was stability in Rome. Still, the difficult problem of succession remained. Augustus had created such a unique title and span of authority that there was no other single person who could fill his position. No one had the qualifications. And on a practical level, he had extreme difficulty lining up an heir. The first candidate, Marcellus, husband of Augustus’ daughter Julia, died in 23 B.C. Nero Drusus, son of Livia, who was probably preferred over his brother Tiberius, died in Germania in 9 B.C. Then after Julia married Agrippa and they had two sons Gaius and Lucius, those boys were seen as successors. But by extraordinary chance, Gaius died in 4 B.C. and Lucius two years later. Now there was no question that Tiberius remained the sole successor so Augustus threw up his hands, adopted him, and made him heir.

Tiberius would succeed Augustus upon the latter’s death in 14 A.D. and fail to carry out his legacy. He was a sullen personality who would not get on with the Senate and so his years were marked by regression of the Roman political system and a steady march to tyranny. Tiberius indifference to governing coupled with the ruthless methods of his associate Sejanus undid much of what Augustus had accomplished. Should we be surprised?

I have a PhD in Information Science and work in the technology industry, although I have also done academic work in history and philosophy. My avocation and true passion is the study of the ... Show More

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