Augustus.    Source: Ded Pixto / Adobe Stock.

Understanding Augustus: A Historical Detective Story


The first subject of our enquiry must be Caesar Augustus himself. He is often described as the first Roman emperor, but that is a wholly misleading description. What causes the misunderstanding is the simple-minded idea that the Roman republic came to a sudden end in the civil wars of the forties BC, and that what followed was the imperial monarchy. That was not what happened.

To understand Augustus, we need to understand the late republic. Τo understand the late republic, we need to take seriously what the ancient sources say about it. Those sources are uniquely authoritative and well informed, consisting as they do of the writings of contemporary participants whose understanding of the political culture of their time is, I think, beyond challenge. So the argument in this chapter will depend entirely on primary evidence, presenting a picture of Augustus’ life and times through the words of contemporaries—including, of course, Augustus himself.

The Oligarchy

Our first witness is Cicero, in the famous description of republican politics that he stitched into the text of his speech in defence of Sestius in 56 BC:

In this state there have always been two sorts of people who have been ambitious to engage in politics and distinguish themselves there. They have chosen to be, respectively, by name and by nature either populares or optimates. Those who wanted their words and deeds to be welcome to the multitude were considered populares, and those who acted so as to justify their policies to all the best people were considered optimates. (Cicero Pro Sestio 96)

Of course Cicero was not going to say in a public speech that the term optimates was a euphemism for oligarchy, but he was perfectly well aware of the fact, and in a philosophical dialogue a couple of years later he was even prepared to admit it:

But when certain people control the republic by reason of their wealth or noble birth or resources, that is a faction, but they are called optimates. (Cicero De republica 3.23)

What these abstract definitions conceal is the violence with which, on the one hand, ‘all the best people’ defended their oligarchic privilege, and on the other, ‘the multitude’ supported their elected champions in trying to abolish it. The most effective of those champions were Gaius Julius Caesar, as consul in 59 BC, and Publius Clodius, as tribune in 58.

The climax came in 52, with the cold-blooded murder of Clodius on the Via Appia, and the symbolic burning of the Senate-house by the Roman People at his funeral. Caesar, the People’s chosen commander, was away in Gaul, and the optimates were determined to prevent him from coming straight back to another consulship.

Gaius Julius Caesar was Augustus’ great-uncle. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)

Gaius Julius Caesar was Augustus’ great-uncle. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain )

Our next witness is Aulus Hirtius, narrating Caesar’s support in 50 BC for Marcus Antonius’ election as augur:

He was glad to make the effort, both readily to help a close friend whom he had earlier sent on ahead to begin canvassing, and keenly to oppose the powerful faction of a few men who were eager to see Antony defeated and thus undermine the influence of Caesar on his return. (Hirtius De bello Gallico 8.50.2)

That faction of a powerful few were the optimates, as described by their opponents. A similar phrase appears in a text of great historical importance, Caesar’s own self-reported speech at Corfinium in February of 49 BC:

“I left my province not for any criminal purpose, but to defend myself against the slanders of my enemies, to restore to their proper place the tribunes of the plebs who had been expelled from the city for that reason, and to bring about the freedom of myself and the Roman People from oppression by the faction of a few men.” (Caesar De bello ciuili 1.22.5)

The Roman People, in a special law sponsored by all of the ten tribunes, had given Caesar the right to stand for his second consulship in absence, but the oligarchs frustrated that by getting the Senate to declare him a public enemy, and then driving out the two tribunes who tried to veto it. So there is no reason at all to reject Caesar’s presentation of the crossing of the Rubicon as an episode in the ongoing ideological struggle. Certainly he had the enthusiastic support of the People, as even Cicero privately conceded at the time.

Our next witness is Gaius Sallustius Crispus, who had been tribune at the time of the riots after Clodius’ murder in 52. Writing his historical works ten to fifteen years later, and insisting on the claims of truth over partisanship, Sallust too saw the politics of the late republic as a struggle between the many and the few. The Roman People and a powerful aristocratic oligarchy had been at odds ever since the murderous events of 133 BC:

After Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, whose ancestors had contributed much to the republic in the Punic and other wars, began to bring about the freedom of the plebs and expose the crimes of the few, the aristocracy, guilty and therefore on the defensive . . . opposed the actions of the Gracchi. (Sallust Bellum Iugurthinum 42.1)

The pursuit of Gaius Gracchus, Roman officers were ordered to detain him because he went to Rome to appeal the Senate’s decision regarding supplies for the troops. (Baddu676 / Public Domain)

The pursuit of Gaius Gracchus, Roman officers were ordered to detain him because he went to Rome to appeal the Senate’s decision regarding supplies for the troops. (Baddu676 / Public Domain )

The same phraseology is used of events seventy years later:

After Gnaeus Pompeius was sent to the wars against the pirates and Mithridates [66–65 BC], the resources of the plebs were diminished, and the power of the few increased. (Sallust Bellum Catilinae 39.1)

Note that both these passages are in the author’s own voice; many more such statements could be added from the speeches Sallust put into the mouths of the People’s champions, Gaius Memmius in 111 BC, Gaius Marius in 108, Licinius Macer in 73, and Catiline in 63. Moreover, at the start of his monograph on the Jugurthine war Sallust made it explicit that this ideological struggle had led seamlessly into the civil wars of his own time:

I propose to write the history of the war the Roman People waged with Jugurtha, king of the Numidians . . . because that was the first time a challenge was offered to the arrogance of the aristocracy. The conflict threw everything human and divine into confusion, and reached such a level of madness that the hostility between citizens ended in war and the devastation of Italy. (Sallust Bellum Iugurthinum 5.1)

That was evidently written in 41 BC, during the civil war that saw the destruction of Perusia and the sacking of other Italian cities.

When Sallust wrote of ‘the crimes of the few’ and the ‘guilty’ aristocracy, he was no doubt referring to the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters by a group of senators led by Scipio Nasica, whom the optimates regarded as a national hero. But we can be sure that his readers would think also of more recent murders, equally celebrated by the optimates—those of Clodius and of Caesar himself.

Similarly, Sallust’s identification of arrogance as the defining characteristic of the aristocracy will have made perfect sense to anyone who had been in Rome in the months after the Ides of March 44 BC. The key witness here is Gaius Matius, replying to a letter in which Cicero had expressed the opinion that Caesar had been a tyrant ( rex):

I’m well aware of what they’ve said against me since Caesar’s death. They consider it an offence that I find it hard to bear the death of a friend, and that I’m angry that someone I loved has died. They say patriotism should be put before friendship—as if they’ve already proved that his death was of benefit to the republic. “You’ll suffer for it, then,” they say, “for daring to disapprove of what we did”. What unheard-of arrogance! ([Cicero] Ad familiares 11.28.2–3)

Not unheard-of, in fact, but familiar: it was the arrogance of men who claimed the right to decide who should or should not be allowed to live, without reference to the laws that bound the rest of the Roman People.

At this point we can recall our first witness, Cicero, and this time not as a theorist of the republic but as a suspect for the crime of helping to destroy it. Here he is as praetor in 66 BC, explaining to a jury the nature of the rule of law:

This is the constraint of the status I enjoy in public life, this is the foundation of liberty, this is the fountain-head of justice: the mind and heart and judgement and verdict of the citizen body is placed in the laws. As our bodies cannot employ their parts—their sinews, blood, and limbs—without a mind, so the citizen body cannot do so without law. The magistrates administer the laws, the jurors interpret the laws, all of us in fact for that reason are slaves of the laws so that we can be free men. (Cicero Pro Cluentio 146)

Cicero, seizing the opportunity offered by optimate fear of reform, was elected consul, during his year in office, he effectively crushed the reform program and thwarted a conspiracy centered to assassinate him. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)

Cicero, seizing the opportunity offered by optimate fear of reform, was elected consul, during his year in office, he effectively crushed the reform program and thwarted a conspiracy centered to assassinate him. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain )

By contrast, here he is in 44 BC, writing to one of the assassins, Decimus Brutus:

So you of all people don’t need encouragement, if you didn’t require it for that deed you carried out, the greatest in human history You liberated the republic without any public authority, which makes the deed even greater and more glorious. (Cicero Ad familiares 11.5.1, 11.7.2)

For both men, and for all optimates, it was self-evident that Caesar had been a ‘tyrant’, and his murder therefore both legitimate and heroic. But what criterion of ‘tyranny’ were they applying?

All Caesar’s powers and honours had been voted to him by the Roman People, usually in his absence; and despite what Cicero later claimed, the People were not coerced by military force. Caesar’s rule was not tyrannical: on the contrary, it was conspicuously humane, as Cicero himself knew better than anyone. He had made the point explicitly in a letter to his fellow-optimate Aulus Caecina in the autumn of 46:

I’m constantly surprised by Caesar’s seriousness, fairness, and wisdom. He never refers to Pompey except in the most honorific terms. You’ll say he did him a lot of harm—but those were the acts of warfare and victory, not of Caesar himself. And how he has embraced us! He’s made Cassius his legate; he’s put Brutus in charge of Gaul, and Sulpicius of Greece; he’s recalled Marcellus, who especially angered him, with all possible respect. (Cicero Ad familiares 6.6.10)

But clemency and generosity were soon forgotten. The only thing that mattered to the optimates was that Caesar’s authority was something they didn’t like. As with Tiberius Gracchus, it was enough to say “He wants to be king”, and the murder of an unarmed man, in defiance of religion as well as law (for both Gracchus and Caesar were protected by sacrosanctitas), could be defined as the liberation of the republic.

That was not how the Roman People saw it. When the assassins eventually held a public meeting in the Forum on the Ides of March, they needed an armed escort of professional gladiators. But if the many were angry, the arrogant few were exultant. Six months later Cicero could casually refer to Caesar’s victory in the civil war as ‘fouler than Sulla’s’, and feel no need to justify the judgement.

The Young Caesar

Why does all this matter for Augustus? It matters because it was happening while he was growing up.

Young Gaius Octavius lost his father when he was four years old, and thereafter he was brought up by his mother Atia, who was Caesar’s niece. He was ten years old when the Roman People burned down the Senate-house for Clodius’ funeral pyre. He was thirteen years old when his great-uncle crossed the Rubicon to reinstate the People’s tribunes.

He was sixteen years old when Caesar put him in charge of the Greek theatre at the great triumphal games of 46 BC. And he was eighteen years old, studying the arts of war and oratory in Epirus, when the news came that Caesar had been murdered, and that he himself had been adopted as Caesar’s son.

Six months later, not long after his nineteenth birthday, the young Caesar addressed the Roman People from the temple of Castor, next to the place where the People had burned Caesar’s body and demanded vengeance on his murderers. Cicero was away at Arpinum, but he heard all about it:

Although for the moment that boy’s doing a fine job of blocking Antony, still, we ought to wait and see what happens. But what a speech! (A copy was sent to me.) He swears “So may I be allowed to attain my father’s honours” as he holds out his right hand to the statue! I’d rather not have the help of that sort of person. (Cicero Ad Atticum 16.15.3)

Mark Antony's oration at Caesar's funeral. (Mharrsch / Public Domain)

Mark Antony's oration at Caesar's funeral. (Mharrsch / Public Domain )

Six months later again, after Cicero had indeed used the boy’s help to get Antony defeated at Mutina, he got a warning letter from Decimus Brutus:

Here’s something I’ve often been told, and I think it’s worth taking seriously. Just now Segulius Labeo, a very reliable person, tells me he’s been with Caesar and talked much with him about you. Caesar himself didn’t actually complain about you—except for something he says you said, that the young man ought to be praised, honoured, and got rid of. He said he didn’t intend to make it possible to get rid of him. ([Cicero] Ad familiares 11.20.1)

Given the long-standing optimate tradition of killing politicians they disapproved of, no one could have been in any doubt what Cicero had meant.

Decimus Brutus wrote that letter on 24 May, 43 BC. On 19 August the young Caesar was elected consul. On 27 November, along with Antony and Lepidus, he was elected Triumvir ‘for the establishment of the republic’ ( triumuir rei publicae constituendae ). On 7 December, Cicero was killed at their order. However much we admire Cicero, and however brutal we know the proscriptions were, it is still hard to disagree with the verdict of Augustus’ friend the historian Titus Livius:

On an honest estimate his death might seem less undeserved, in that he had suffered at the hands of his victorious enemy nothing more cruel than he himself would have inflicted if he had had the same chance. (Livy fr. 50 (Seneca Suasoriae 6.22)

And it is important, if uncomfortable, to remember that Cicero was killed legally. The Roman People set up the Triumvirate, by a tribunician law. The Roman People elected the Triumvirs, and their remit was to re-establish the res publica . Only the People were competent to legislate and empower. They had empowered Caesar, and the optimates had killed him on the arrogant claim that they had the right to determine what was good for the republic. Now the young Caesar and his colleagues were the People’s agents in restoring the People’s authority, and they acted with a ruthlessness that reflected the People’s anger.

As always, proper understanding requires contemporary evidence, and here our witnesses are the Triumvirs themselves:

“Edict of Marcus Lepidus, Marcus Antonius, and Octavius Caesar, elected to regulate the republic and set it right: if evil men had not, by treachery, begged for mercy when they needed it, and when they obtained it become enemies of their benefactors, and then conspirators, Gaius Caesar would not have been killed by those to whom he showed compassion when they were his prisoners of war, whom he made his friends, and whom he favoured collectively with magistracies, honours and personal gifts.” (Appian Civil Wars 4.8.31–2)

The optimates had had their chance. Caesar’s clemency and generosity had been abused, and would not be repeated.

The People’s vengeance was carried out at Philippi (42 BC), and completed by the war in Sicily (36 BC). To describe the Triumvirs’ opponents in those campaigns as ‘the republicans’, as modern historians often do, seems to me a gross distortion of the truth. Brutus and Cassius and the men who fled to Sextus Pompey were fighting not for the republic, a body of equal citizens under the rule of law, but for the continued power of the optimates and the right of the few to dictate to the many.

The Greek historian Appian was surely right to end his history of the civil wars in 36 BC. The war against Cleopatra and Antony (31–30 BC) was much more like a traditional campaign against a foreign enemy, supposedly defensive and leading to conquest; Antony was regarded not as the leader of a political faction but as a renegade in alliance with a foreign ruler. Since the Triumvirs’ powers lapsed at the end of 33, Commander ( Imperator) Caesar, as he now called himself, needed an ad hoc ‘oath of all Italy’ to justify his command of the People’s forces, but the outcome shows clearly enough that his ideological position was the same as it had always been.

The Battle of Actium in the war against Cleopatra and Antony. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)

The Battle of Actium in the war against Cleopatra and Antony. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain )

It was the Roman People who established by a law that conquered Egypt was to be governed by an equestrian Prefect; that must be the origin of the remarkable rule prohibiting any senator from setting foot in Egypt without permission. A similar point was made by the cistophoroi coins that were minted in Asia after the victorious Commander Caesar had completed his reorganisation of the eastern provinces in 28 BC. The legends announced:

[obverse] Imperator Caesar Divi filius, consul for the sixth time, champion of the liberty of the Roman People. [ reverse] Peace. (Sutherland 1984.79 (no. 476))

The phraseology is precisely what Sallust had used of Tiberius Gracchus and the elder Caesar had used of himself. Also in 28 BC, an issue of aurei reminded the users of gold coins that now the Roman People had got their republic back:

[obverse] Imperator Caesar Divi filius, consul for the sixth time, [reverse] has re-stored laws and justice to the Roman People. (British Museum CM 1995-4-1-1)

On 13 January of the following year, the restoration of their powers to the sovereign People was formally completed, and Commander Caesar was honoured with a new name. His house too received a mark of honour:

Oak Crown: the Senate decreed that it be placed above the door of Imperator Caesar Augustus because he restored the republic to the Roman People. (Degrassi 1963.113 ( Fasti Praenestini , 13 Jan.)

The sovereign People entrusted their champion with military command over a large but limited prouincia, for a long but limited period. He then left, as Julius Caesar would have left if he had lived, to fight their wars and secure their empire, and in his absence the proper business of the republic resumed.

One example of that was the conduct of elections in the traditional way, as we know from a contemporary poet’s observations:

Of the candidates coming down to compete in the Campus, A is more aristocratic, B has a better character and reputation, C’s crowd of clients is more numerous. (Horace Odes 3.1.10–14)

If appearance and influence make a man fortunate, then let’s buy a slave as a name-prompter—his dig in the ribs will get us crossing the cobbles with hand outstretched. “This chap’s big in the Fabia tribe, that one in the Velina. This one will give the fasces and curule chair to whoever he likes, and deny them to whoever he likes if he wants to be awkward.” (Horace Epistles 1.6.49–54)

The elections were working as usual—and if Caesar Augustus and his trusted allies were regularly elected as consuls, that was by the will of the People, as we can infer from their riotous indignation when Augustus refused to stand for the consulship after 23 BC. In the traditional Roman republic, as a Greek observer noted, “the People bestow office on the deserving”, and that is what was now happening again.

A more unexpected indication of the way things were comes from a neglected fragment of Livy, which happens to be preserved in a fifth-century biblical commentary:

Caesar Augustus, as Livy relates, on his return from the island of Britain, reported to the Roman People at the spectacles that the whole world had been subdued to the Roman empire in the abundance of peace, either by war or by treaties. (Livy fr. 55 (Apponius In Canticum canticorum 12.53, CCL 19.291–2)

The reference to Britain is garbled (Augustus never went there in person), but otherwise this is a recognisable description of something Livy must have witnessed himself, Augustus’ return in 24 BC from his Cantabrian campaigns. He had also settled affairs in Gaul and re-established the tribute from Britain, so ‘peace either by war or by treaties’ was a precisely accurate phrase.

What matters for our enquiry is ‘at the spectacles’ ( in spectaculis ): Caesar Augustus was in the theatre, or perhaps the Circus Maximus, addressing the Roman People en masse . He had received his command from them, and it was to them that he chose to report.

Copper engraving of Augustus. (Diego Gasperotti / Public Domain)

Copper engraving of Augustus. (Diego Gasperotti / Public Domain )

In the light of all this, it is not surprising that after Augustus refused to accept election to the consulship he used the tribunician power, granted in 23 BC by a law of the People and conspicuously numbered year by year. Its purpose, as always, was ‘to protect the common people’, and once again Horace provides contemporary confirmation:

While Caesar is the guardian of our affairs, no civil madness or violence will drive out peace, nor anger that forges swords and brings wretched cities to enmity. (Horace Odes 4.15.17–20)

Because Augustus, in the People’s name, had tamed the arrogant aristocrats, there would be no more of the faction-fighting that had led to armed conflict and the sacking of cities. It was the optimates who had corrupted the republic, but now that their arbitrary power was held in check by tribunician authority, the conditions that had developed into civil war no longer applied.

Top image: Augustus.    Source: Ded Pixto / Adobe Stock.

By T.P. Wiseman

Excerpted from THE HOUSE OF AUGUSTUS: A Historical Detective Story by T.P. Wiseman. Copyright © 2019 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission


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