“Come and behold thy Rome, that is widowed, lamenting, alone; and day and night exclaims: ‘my Caesar, why hast thou forsaken me?’”
Dante, Purgatorio, Canto VI
When Dante wrote these words in his La Comedia, Julius Caesar had been dead for over 1300 years. It is a testament to the everlasting grandeur of the ideal of Rome that for centuries to follow the fall of the western roman empire the title of Caesar was still synonymous with power. If the senators that had orchestrated his murder had their way his name would have long been reconciled to the back pages of history books. Indeed, if there had been no one to take up the mantle of his name that may have been the case. But Caesar’s young successor turned out to be one of the greatest politicians of all time. One who would carry both their names to the heavens. Was this successor as skilled a general? Stronger? Wiser? If we listen to the annals of history we perhaps would paint him in a divine light – but then, history is written by the victors, and no one has a greater right to that title than Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus.
The Boy who became a God
When Caesar was murdered on the ides of March (15th) 44BC the power vacuum it created threw the Roman world into chaos. This was certainly not the first time, as in the past century the political nature of Rome had shifted away from the Senate and into the hands of power-hungry generals keeping the state in near-constant civil strife and occasionally war. The massacres of Marius and proscriptions of Sulla were still well cemented in the memories of many an old roman. Given the example set by Caesar’s predecessors and even Caesar himself, the violence of the past would not have been far from the mind of the common citizen.
But the dead Caesar had one last card to play. Predicting the return to the chaotic past upon his death Caesar empowered his young nephew Gaius Octavianus with not only two-thirds of his colossal wealth but also something far more valuable: his name. Caesar posthumously adopted Octavian giving him immense political power if he wished to use it. Against many warnings, the 18-year-old Octavian decided to accept his heritage as Caesar’s heir. Even at this young age, Octavian shared Caesar’s ambition. Would this be his fatal flaw just as Caesar before him?
In the fourteen years of turmoil and civil war that followed Octavian comes out as the undisputed master of Rome, defeating Caesar’s assassins and the other claimants for Caesar’s heir. Peace finally came to the Roman world in 30BC at the defeat of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in Alexandria culminating in their joint suicide. Octavian had never had the generalship and mastery of warfare of Caesar, but he had come out on top by relying on the skills of his allies – something that marked him apart from the vanity of Caesar. It was Marcus Agrippa that was likely instrumental in winning many of the battles for Octavian. Octavian knew his childhood friend had far greater skill than he in the art of war and humbly handed over command of his forces to him on a number of occasions. Octavian’s ability to designate, admit where he was lacking, and see value in his friends and allies allowed an inexperienced child to come out victorious against many older more battle-hardened generals.
Statue of Augustus on the Via Dei Fori Imperiali , Rome
On the return to Rome perhaps members of the Senate and populous feared a reprisal of Caesar’s return from Gaul. A new dictator, a new Rex. The fate of Caesar forever in his mind, Octavian made all attempts to restore the illusion of the republic. It was here that Octavian distanced himself from the mistakes that led to Caesar’s downfall. While Caesar had made it all too obvious that his ultimate intention was power, even apparently having Mark Antony present him with a crown at one point to test the public reaction to the idea of a king. Octavian, in contrast, portrayed himself as a defender of the old ways, the “mos maiorum”. Through him, there would be a return to the days before the turmoils of the Gracchi brothers, to the golden age of the republic. Of course, this was all a facade. Behind the scenes, Octavian still retained all his powers and command of all his legions. Subtly he began reworking the archaic laws of the republic to pave the way for the rule by one man. He wisely kept his distance from titles such as Rex or Dictator that conjured up horrors in the average Romans mind, and instead preferred to use the term “Princeps Civitatis” or First Citizen. Throughout the period from 27BC onwards the senate granted the title “Augustus” to Octavian, the name by which he is most well known. It is this date that is also commonly used at the point at which his imperial reign begins.
“If a lie is only printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief, a dogma, and men will die for it.”
Isa Blagden, The Crown of a Life (1869)
The subtlety that distinguished Augustus’ rise to power also marked his style of rule. He far preferred to get things done using his Auctoritas* than by giving any sort of direct orders. A whisper in the ear of a few party guests that a certain senator was out of his favour would soon see the man isolated from the Roman political scene. Thus was the power he wielded from the shadows. All the while he refused the common symbols of power that were the trademark of Caesar: namely the purple toga, golden crown and sceptre. This outward illusion was so important to Augustus that when a former pro-consul was taken to court for declaring an illegal war while in power and declared Augustus (who had no legal power in this region at the time) had instructed him to, Augustus himself appeared at the trial to defend his name. It seems throughout his reign upholding the lie of the republic was far more important to the integrity of his power that the actual truth. He had power over the whole Roman world through his wealth, Patrons, and powers assigned by the senate, but as long as the outward appearance was one of the following tradition then all was well. One may draw parallels here with more modern times and the “great lie” that held together the shaky foundations of many communist states. But we should be careful not to draw to close parallels, as the willingness of the Roman people to believe the lie was most certainly mostly due to the peace and tranquillity Augustus’ rule had brought forth. For the first time in over 100 years the roman world was at peace with itself if all it took to maintain this peace was upholding one little lie, is that not a worthy price? Certainly, the roman people seemed to think so.
What’s in a name?
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2
The power and importance of a good name were never underestimated by Augustus. In Romes extremely hierarchal society many positions were completely off-limits to those that did not decent from a patrician family. Augustus own family were wealthy but of the equestrian order – new money rather than the old money of the senatorial families. After his adoption by Caesar however, he joined one of the purest bloodlines in all Rome. Julius Caesar traced his ancestry back to Aeneas the mythological Trojan prince that settled in the plains of Latium after fleeing the fall of Troy. Aeneas himself was said to have been the son of Venus, the goddess, a fact that Caesar was very eager to flaunt. Caesar himself lent further prestige to this family lineage, and more importantly, a host of loyal legions almost fanatical in their devotion to Caesar.
The Via Labicana statue of Augustus veiled for a sacrificial ritual. Taken in the Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome.
It was no wonder then that after Caesars will was read out, the then Octavian decided to restyle himself as Gaius Julius Caesar. While others added Octavianus to distinguish him from his adoptive father (or perhaps to draw attention to his meagre origins) at this time Augustus went solely by the name of his adoptive father. Julius Caesar’s legions soon flocked to Octavian’s banner, with two of Mark Anthony’s legions even deserting him to join the young heir. He knew the power of a name, and so, soon after claiming his inheritance Augustus proposed to deify Caesar. A comet had appeared in the sky after Caesar’s assassination and Augustus and many other Caesar supporters had seen this a symbol of the mighty general’s soul ascending to the heavens. The motion was passed. And so the new title of “divi filius”** was incorporated into Augustus’ names. And finally, we have the name we all know him by: Augustus, which translates essentially to “the illustrious one”. This last name was presented to him by the senate, but of course was proposed by Augustus himself. The obsession with tradition and lineage inherent within ancient roman traditions allowed one such as Augustus to easily manipulate the sentiment of a large majority of the populous via carefully constructing an image. ‘What is in a name’, Shakespeare once asked? The answer it seems: Power.
The real Augustus may always be a mystery to us, so much of what we know about him is tainted in the character he sought to portray; the son of God, a staunch defender of old traditions, the shepherd of the roman flock, defender of his people, and bearer of the torch of civilisation. Was this who he was? Some argue all these acts were just a ruse to grasp onto more power but if that is the case the common roman would not have cared. Rome and the provinces flourished under his forty-year rule – should we judge the man on his motivations or his actions, because if the latter he holds a rightful position among the greatest rulers of all time. His legacy to the Romans is undeniable, is one form or another the institution he established lasted over a thousand years. On a smaller scale, he established a fire service, police force, standing legions to defend the frontiers, the praetorian guard, reorganised the provincial tax system to better support the people living there and so much more. The borders of the empire expanded to include many new provinces including Egypt – Rome’s breadbasket.
Caesar and Augustus became names shared by all future emperors in the west eventually turning into titles that simply meant leader or emperor. The eastern empire also shared these titles up until Heraclius changed the official legal language into Greek thus changing the Latin Augustus into the Greek title of Basileus. Beyond the roman world, we have the titles of Tsar, Kaisar, kayser etc. Almost every European language has a variation of Caesar used as a title to refer to Kings or leaders of some sort. Augustus also lives on into the ages of the Holy Roman Empire as a title. Then, of course, we have the months of July and August!
The name and story he has carefully constructed comes right out of a Homeric hymn, Augustus as he portrayed himself sits in better company among the heroes of mythology than the Romans of his day. Every aspect of his character was scrutinised, every action carefully considered to portray the roman ideal. The world has likely never produced a better politician, actor, and director. For the world was his stage, but he was also the one writing the script. Even his final words were scripted to perfection:
“Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”***
*Roughly translates to authority – the ability to influence others. Not to be confused with potestas or law given power. For an example, a high ranking Senator may have Potestas but if he is hated and ostracised he may have little Auctoritas, whereas a slave that has the ear of a powerful nobleman or a popular gladiator may have a great deal of auctoritas.
**Son of God
***This quote is a translation of the original Latin attributed to Augustus by the historian Seutonius in Divus Augustus (Life of Augustus) – “Acta est fabula, plaudite.”