How Rome Became an Empire

Previously, I mentioned that perhaps something more powerful than law is tradition, well now, we will see how the desire of peace might become more powerful than tradition. We will use the story of Augustus to prove this statement.

Rome had gone through lots of chaos and its citizens were tired of too much blood shedding. They were sick of emperors, triumvirates, senators, conspiracies and what not. They longed for peace. After the first triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Cassus, and Pompey) conflict had passed, soon came the murdering of Caesar by Brutus and Cassius. Caesars will fell directly upon his grand-nephew, Octavian. However, the surviving consul and close associate of Caesar, Marc Antony, with a little knack managed to get hold of much of Caesar’s great wealth.

As Marc Antony grew in power, the Senate began to concern about him, just as they had done with every other man before him. Cicero, the man who had exposed the catiline conspiracy, again was warning the senate that Antony was aiming at dictatorship and should be controlled. Therefore, the senate planned to use Octavian against Marc Antony. Cicero said that Octavian was to be “praised, honored, and removed” Nevertheless, they were underestimating the capacity of Caesar’s grand-nephew.

Now Octavian was also getting quite suspicious about Antony and even before arriving to Rome, he used some of the great wealth he was to inherit to lure some of Caesar’s veterans from their boring lives as farmers to seek adventure and financial gain under his leadership. By doing so, he raised two legions mighty enough to defeat Marc Antony sufficiently to obtain greater support from the senate and demand and receive the consulship of Rome plus the death of Caesar’s assassins.

Octavian then realized that Cicero and the Senate were just temporarily using him, thus he chose to ally with Marc Antony and this is how a second triumvirate was formed, composed of Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus. The three gain overwhelming power and win wars both together and by themselves. Then, like all alliances formed of very powerful members, Antony and Octavian begin to become envious of each other. Confirming suspicions, Marc Anthony winds up marrying Cleopatra the queen of Egypt and having children with her.

Octavian described Antony to the senate as an incopetent drunkard who would sell Rome to Egypt. To prove his “theory”, he demonstarted how Antony was giving Cleopatra their most tribute-yeilding provinces, the great inheritance he desired to give his children, and how he wanted to move the capital of the Roman Republic to Alexandria. Hence, in a shocking move, Octavian declares war to Cleopatra and in 31 BC at the Battle of Actium Octavian becomes the decisive victor. Seeing this, Antony and Cleopatra desperately flee to Egypt and commit suicide there.

The Senate had made Octavian tribune for life and after this whole war waging, he was left with a tremendous problem to fix. He understood that he couldn’t retire from his position of authority or else a civil war would potentially arise. He couldn’t allow provincial commanders to have too much authority but needed to maintain the military unified at his command and that one person had to exercise full power without the risk of making it seem like despotism and arouse hatred. Octavian had the necessity to balance all concerns, but he didn’t exactly know how to do it, so he did it through trial and error until he found an effective path.

By 29 BC he was back in Rome after his triumph against Cleopatra. Here he spent the wealth of Egyptians on Romans, forgave property owners their tax arrears and reduced his 60 legions to 28. In the month of January 27 BC, when order was established in Rome, he went to the Senate and relinquished his powers. Notwithstanding, the Senate gave the powers back to Octavian, because they were afraid of someone worst than him could take them. This is how the Augustan Settlement was born.

Octavian continued to be consul, violating the tradition of reelection and took administration of Syria, Spain, and Gaul, the places where the bulk of the remaining Roman legions were left. That automatically made Octavian the supreme military commander. Later, he was given the “revered” title of Augustus, even though he preferred the title of “princeps” (first citizen) to not look like an impudent ruler. Finally, in the year 23 BC Augustus resigned consulship and was granted permanent imperium that could override any provincial governor and was given “tribunicia potestas” which meant he could bring measures before the people and exercise veto.

Augustus became an emperor and Rome became an empire, but why did the people of Rome permit such occurrence, we saw how the people of Rome went nuts just because Tiberius Gracchus violated a few traditions? Well, Augustus was very tactic as he kept the forms of the old republic of Rome while changing its inner workings. All powers took the form of the traditional Roman practices but they were enforced by one man. He was prudent and didn’t encourage the cult of his person, but rather the patriotic cult of “Roma et Augustus” which was aimed at Rome but involved him indirectly.

Discretely Propagating Augustus

The Aeneid is the central epic poem of Roman history written by Virgil. This man desired peace and believed that through the reign of Augustus there was a wide possibility of acquiring it. Virgil thought the Aeneid would be a perfect gift for the Roman people, and Octavian/Augustus encouraged the idea for he thought that it would honor Romans. After listening to the Georgics, also by Virgil, Augustus was convinced that Virgil was the indicated poet to carry out the job.

Of course, the question of “what will the poem be about” would arise. Would it be utterly about the great emperor Augustus and his great achievements? Actually, Virgil would choose the legend of the Trojan Aeneas and would strategically aim the epic at Augustus as the culmination of everything that Rome is, he was the great hero and descendant of the founder of Rome Aeneas. The Aeneid would open the way for the empire of Augustus to be established easier as it would make him as the great personification of the virtues of Rome.


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