Written by Vladimir Moss



     In the Punic Wars that ended in 146 BC “the Romans became Romans”, acquiring that iron streak that made them the great conquerors of antiquity and the model of would-be world conquerors for all subsequent ages. But success and prosperity had the same corrupting effect on them as it has had on all the conquering nations of history.  For “down to the destruction of Carthage,” wrote the historian Sallust, “the people and senate shared the government peaceably and with restraint… Fear of its enemies preserved the good morals of the state. But when the people were relieved of this fear, the favourite vices of prosperity – licence and pride – appeared as a natural consequence… The nobles started to use their position, and the people their liberty, to gratify their selfish passions, every man snatching and seizing what he could for himself… One small group of oligarchs had everything in its control alike in peace and war – the treasury, the provinces, all distinctions and triumphs. The people were burdened with military service and poverty, while the spoils of war were snatched by the generals and shared with a handful of friends… Thus the possession of power gave unlimited scope to ruthless greed, which violated and plundered everything… till finally it brought about its own downfall….”[1]


     As Rome expanded a major flaw in her character became more prominent: a fanatical love of honour and glory - honestas in Latin – that ruled the hearts of Romans both individually and collectively. The historian Livy called ambition “the ancestral curse” of Rome, going back to Romulus and Remus; and so it was. On the one hand, the individual Roman was fiercely ambitious, seeking the praise and admiration of his fellow-countrymen through the attainment of high political office or military exploits. On the other hand, the Romans as a whole did not tolerate these individual ambitions going too far, to the detriment of the state as a whole. The glory of Rome was the highest value, higher than the glory of any individual Roman; and the constitution was designed to preserve this balance.


     However, as Adrian Galsworthy writes: “The immense profits of conquest and empire threatened delicate balances within politics, society, and the economy. Competition among the aristocracy for high office and status had always been intense, but in the past was kept within strict confines of convention and law. Now many of the props of the system came under threat as senators spent ever-increasing sums to win popularity and significant groups within the population who felt their plight was desperate and readily rallied to anyone who championed their cause. There were opportunities for a few men to rise far higher than had ever been possible in the past and their peers resented and resisted this.”[2]


     In the second half of the second century BC, as the Republic’s conquests multiplied, and more and more people from the conquered lands poured into Rome’s crowded slums, tensions between the rich and the poor increased. The poor were led by two brother-tribunes, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, grandsons of Scipio Africanus. As Tom Holland writes, “First Tiberius, in 133 BC, and then Gaius, ten years later, used their tribunates to push for reform in favour of the poor. They proposed that publicly held land be divided into allotments and handed out to the masses, that corn be sold to them below the market rate; even, shockingly, that the Republic should provide the poorest soldiers with clothes. Radical measures indeed, and the aristocracy, unsurprisingly, was appalled. To most nobleman, there appeared something implacable and sinister about the devotion of the Gracchi to the people. True, Tiberius was not the first of his class to have concerned himself with land reform; but his paternalism, as far as his peers were concerned, went altogether too far and too fast. Gaius, even more alarmingly, had a consciously revolutionary vision, of a republic imbued with the values of Greek democracy, in which the balance of power between the classes would be utterly transformed, and the people, not the aristocracy, would serve as the arbiters of Rome. How, his peers wondered, could any nobleman argue for this, unless he aimed to establish himself as a tyrant? What struck them as particularly ominous was the fact that Tiberius, having finished his year of office, had immediately sought re-election, and that Gaius, in 122 BC, had actually succeeded in obtaining a second successive tribunate. Where might illegalities like these not lead? Sacred as the person of a tribune might be, it was not so sacred as the preservation of the Republic itself. Twice the cry went up to defend the constitution and twice it was answered. Twelve years after Tiberius was clubbed to death with a stool-leg in a violent brawl, Gaius, in 121, was also killed by agents of the aristocracy. His corpse was decapitated, and lead poured into his skull. In the wake of his murder three thousand of his followers were executed without trial.”[3]


     This was the last time that the state was threatened by revolution from below, from the plebs. However, in the first century another, still greater threat appeared in the form of rival aristocrats and war-lords who opposed the authority of the Senate, and manipulated its magistracies, in order to satisfy their own personal ambitions. Men such as Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar profited from the fact that the Republic was now fast becoming an empire, with vast territories in both East and West that the senate could not control directly. So ambitious aristocrats sought to be made proconsul of, for example, Asia or Spain or Gaul, where, in addition to enhancing their reputations through military victories, they could make fortunes through looting and tax farming and recruit armies with which to intimidate the Senate when they returned to Rome.


     The first to do this was Sulla, and it was Sulla’s breaking of the taboo which forbade generals from bringing their troops into the city in 88 that marked the first major break with republican political tradition. After defeating Marius in the first of several civil wars, Sulla became dictator, murdered thousands of his opponents, and in 81 decreed a new, purely political path of advancement for aspiring politicians: he engineered that the major offices of state - quaestor, praetor and consul – should be kept among his supporters, and also muzzled the tribunate…


     The next great warlord was Pompey the Great, who had made his reputation by defeating King Mithridates of Pontus and then conquering Judaea, entering the Holy of Holies and installing Herod the Great. Through his Eastern Settlement of 62, he subdued almost the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean as far as the borders of Parthia. “Pompey had exceptional organizational skills, and his Eastern Settlement of 62 BCE laid the foundations for the later Pax Romana in the region by means of a three-faceted arrangement that involved: creating a virtually continuous ring of provinces from the southern shore of the Black Sea to Syria/Palestine; founding about forty new cities, and organizing and promoting independent ‘client’ states as a kind of firewall outside the ring of provinces. On the whole, the new cities began to flourish, bringing Rome a 70 per cent increase in revenue from the region. The client states, many of whose rulers owed their position to Pompey, were nominally independent and maintained friendly relations with Rome in an arrangement modeled on that between a high-ranking Roman patronus (‘patron’) and his clientes (‘dependents’). Pompey’s administrative talents were indisputable, but what really mattered to Rome was that he was a conqueror. He was now an incredibly powerful man: he received divine cult on Delos; his eye-watering wealth made him the richest man in Rome; kings were in his debt, both literally and figuratively; his client base encompassed individuals, cities, provinces and kingdoms; and he commanded vast military resources.”[4]


       But it was Julius Caesar, Pompey’s son-in-law and an equally formidable general, who really destroyed the Republic, turning it into a military dictatorship. In 59 he formed “the first triumvirate” with Crassus (probably the richest man in Rome) and Pompey that played fast and loose with the constitution, which was defended by such men as the senator Cato and the lawyer Cicero. However, in 53 Crassus was killed by the Parthians at Carrhae, a terrible defeat second only to the similar-sounding defeat at the hands of Hannibal, leaving only Caesar and Pompey controlling the destinies of the Republic... When Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife Julia died in childbirth, the bonds between the two men weakened. Pompey now emerged as the champion of the constitution and the Senate. But Caesar proved stronger than all; and “Caesar” with its cognates (“Kaiser”, “Tsar”, etc.) was to be a byword for one-man, monarchical rule for many centuries to come...




     Having smashed the power of the Celts of Gaul in a series of brilliant campaigns during which he also “came, saw and conquered” the Celts of Southern England, but not getting what he wanted from the senate in Rome, Caesar led his battle-hardened veterans across the river Rubicon into Italy on January 10, 49. This, writes Dominic Sandbrook, “was a treasonable offence, punishable by death. Little wonder, then, that at the water’s edge he hesitated. ‘Even now we can turn back’, he said, ‘but when we pass this little bridge, it means war.’


     “According to the historian Suetonius, it was now that the gods intervened. Suddenly there appeared ‘a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed.’ As some of the soldiers stepped towards him, the apparition grabbed one of their trumpets, ‘rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with a mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank.’ That, Suetonius wrote, was the signal that Caesar wanted. ‘Let us go where the omens of the gods and the crimes of our enemies call us!’ he shouted to his men. ‘Alea iacta est!’ (the die is cast). With that Caesar spurred on his horse. The Rubicon had been crossed. Peace wouldn’t return to Rome for close on two decades…”[5] 


     Cowed and humiliated by Caesar’s swift advance, the Senate evacuated Rome on the orders of Pompey while Pompey and his army crossed over to Greece. At the battle of Pharsalus in 48, Caesar defeated Pompey, who fled to Alexandria, where he was murdered by Pharaoh Ptolemy. Caesar pursued him to Egypt, where he had an affair with Cleopatra, who bore him a son, Caesarion. Having defeated all his opponents, Caesar returned to Rome in triumph (his fifth). In 44 he was proclaimed dictator for life. The Republic was dead: kingship – more precisely: despotism - was back in power….


     Caesar was told that he should beware the Ides of March. Ignoring the warning, he went without a bodyguard to meet the Senate in Pompey’s assembly hall on the Ides of March, 44 BC. “Pompey’s statue,” writes Holland, “still dominated the Senate’s meeting-space. After Pharsalus it had been hurriedly pulled down, but Caesar, with typical generosity, had ordered it restored, along with all of Pompey’s other statues. An investment policy, Cicero had sneered, against his own being removed – but that was malicious and unfair. Caesar had no reason to fear for the future of his statue. Nor, walking into the assembly hall that morning and seeing the senators rise to greet him, for himself. Not even when a crowd of them approached him with a petition, mobbing him as he sat down on his gilded chair, pressing him down with their kisses. Then suddenly he felt his toga being pulled down from his shoulders. ‘Why,’ he cried out, startled, ‘this is violence!’ At the same moment he felt a slashing pain across his throat. Twisting around he saw a dagger, red with his own blood.


     “Some sixty men stood in a press around him. All of them had drawn daggers from under their togas. All of them were well known to Caesar. Many were former enemies who had accepted his pardon – but even more were friends. Some were officers who had served with him in Gaul, among them Decius Brutus, commander of the war fleet that had wiped out the Venetians. The most grievous betrayal, however, the one that finally numbed Caesar and stopped him in his desperate efforts to fight back, came from someone closer still. Caesar glimpsed, flashing through the mêlée, a knife aimed at his groin, held by another Brutus, Marcus, his reputed son. ‘You, my boy!’ he whispered, then fell to the ground. Not wishing to be witnessed in his death agony, he covered his head with the ribbons of his toga. The pool of his blood stained the base of Pompey’s statue. Dead, he lay in his great rival’s shadow…”[6]


     “The rule of the dictator,” writes Adrian Galsworthy, “was far from harsh, his reforms practical and generally for the wider good of the state. Yet no one [in the opinion of the Romans] should have such vast powers at all, let alone in perpetuity. Sulla had been far more brutal, but at least Sulla had resigned his dictatorship after a few years and retired to private life. Julius Caesar called him ‘a political illiterate’ for doing so, and showed no sign of willingness to give up his dominance of the state. He was in his fifty-sixth year and although troubled with epilepsy, it was perfectly possible that he would live on for decades. The planned Parthian War would give him the clean glory of fighting a foreign enemy, and add even more to his prestige when he returned in three years or so.


     “Julius Caesar had regnum, effectively royal power over the state. The honours given to him were extensions to those granted to the great men of the past – most notably Pompey - but far surpassed them all in scale. He sat on a golden chair of office, wore the triumphing general’s toga and laurel wreath on all public occasions, and was given the right to sport the high boots and long-sleeved tunic which he claimed were the garb of his distant ancestors, the kings of Alba Longa – a city near Rome and a rival in its early history. A pediment, like those on a temple, was added to his house. Other honours brought Julius Caesar very close to divine status, although it is harder to say whether or not he was actually deified in his life-time. The idea was anyway less shocking to the Romans with their polytheistic tradition than to us. Stories told of heroes who became gods through their deeds, and it was common enough to praise great achievements as ‘god like’…


     “’I am not King [rex], but Caesar,’ said the dictator in response to a crowd hailing him as king – Rex was a family name of another aristocratic line. The subject was delicate. When tribunes had coronets removed from one of his statues, Julius Caesar responded angrily, claiming that they denied him the chance to refuse himself and wanted to blacken his name by drawing attention to the whole business. The most famous incident came at the Festival of the Lupercalia, celebrated on 15 February 44 BC, with teams of priests clad only in goatskin loincloths running through the heart of the City, gently flicking passers-by with their whips. The dictator presided on a tribunal, and the leader of the priests Mark Antony concluded by running up and offering a crown to him. Julius Caesar refused, to the delight of the crowd, repeating the gesture when Anthony offered it again. The most likely interpretation of the affair is that it was a deliberate pantomime, intended to show once and for all that he did not want the title of king. If so, then it did not work. Soon people were saying that it was a test, and that Julius Caesar would have taken the crown if only the people had responded with enthusiasm. Another story circulated that the Senate would debate making him king everywhere except inside Rome itself.


     “The truth scarcely mattered. Deep in their souls senators knew that this was not how things should be. King or not, god or not, and however kind and efficient personally, Julius Caesar possessed supreme power, effectively regnum, whatever he called himself, and that meant that there could be no res publica – no state. For a Roman aristocrat the true Republic only existed when the senatorial class shared control, guiding magistrates elected through open competition and changing them regularly, so that plenty of people won the chance for high command and profit. This was liberty, and even for quite a few Caesareans it was now clearly dead.”[7]


     But was that real liberty? And does revolution against despotism, even in the name of “liberty” or “democracy”, necessarily bring the real thing? History would prove again and again, beginning in 44 BC, that it does not. Thus Caesar was right when he correctly “predicted renewed civil war if he died suddenly or was killed, and believed others would have the sense to realise this and see that it was for the greater good for him to live… Writing over a century later, Tacitus would characterise the years of civil war and triumvirate as an era when there was ‘neither law nor custom’. Basic institutions had broken down and were replaced with arbitrary power.”[8]




     Until the rise of the military dictators, the real power in Rome had been the rich, landowning aristocracy of the senators, who manipulated the popular elections through a patronage system and disposed of real champions of the poor such as Tiberius Gracchus. They naturally opposed the dictators, who threatened their power. But the dictators were popular because they were also populists who knew how to buy the support of the lower classes. Thus Sulla gave land to his soldiers (who often found themselves displaced from their farms by neighbours on returning from military service). And Caesar not only gave land to his soldiers but also grain to the poor (many of whom had been also displaced from their land by the landowners). So when Caesar was murdered, the people rioted against the Senate and rallied around Caesar’s heirs, especially Mark Antony and Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, a teenager who had been adopted by Caesar and now traded on his name.


     In the first part of the civil war that followed, Mark Antony and Octavian fought against each other. But then the two joined up with Lepidus, Caesar’s deputy, against the Senate, which it terrorized by the murder of several hundreds, if not thousands, of their enemies in the senate and elsewhere. The famous orator Cicero was one of the victims of these “proscriptions”


     The last of the diehard republicans and anti-Caesareans, Brutus and Cassius, who had established themselves in the East, were defeated by Antony at the huge battle of Philippi in 42 and committed suicide. (Octavian was at Philippi, but took little direct part in the battle because of illness, although he claimed otherwise.) As Lepidus faded out of the picture), the two remaining triumvirs decided to divide the world between them, with Antony take the East and Octavian – the West.


     But those brought up in the traditions of warlordism can rarely share power among themselves; it was inevitable that they should come to blows eventually. In the conflict that followed, it seemed that Antony, a seasoned warrior, had many advantages as against the young and inexperienced Octavian. But Octavian was intelligent, sober and calculating, while Antony was defeated both on the battlefield by the Parthians and in the bedchamber by his famous passion for Cleopatra. Under her influence he “soon embraced a Hellenistic eastern vision of kingship, encouraged by Cleopatra, which was very different from the Roman tradition of austere dignity. She was determined to use Roman backing to re-establish the Ptolemaic empire.”[9]


     But this was something the Romans could never accept. As Holland writes, “Antony’s partnership with Cleopatra, formalised in 32 when he divorced Octavia, was instinctively recognised by most Romans for what it was – a betrayal of the Republic’s deepest principles and values. That the Republic was dead did not make it any less mourned, nor its prejudices any less savage. To surrender to what was unworthy of a citizen: this was what the Romans had always most dreaded. It was flattering, therefore, to a people who had become unfree to pillory Antony as unmanly and a slave to a foreign queen. For the last time, the Roman people could gird themselves for war and imagine that the Republic and their own virtue were not, after all, entirely dead.


     “Many years later, Octavian would boast: ‘The whole of Italy, unprompted, swore allegiance to me, and demanded that I lead her into war. The provinces of Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily and Sardinia also swore the same oath.’ Here, in the form of a plebiscite spanning half the world, was something utterly without precedent, a display of universalism consciously designed to put that of Antony and Cleopatra in the shadow, drawn from the traditions not of the East but of the Roman Republic itself. Undisputed autocrat and champion of the city’s most ancient ideals, Octavian sailed to war as both. It was a combination that was to prove irresistible. When, for the third time in less than twenty years, two Roman forces met head to head in the Balkans, it was [Octavian] Caesar, yet again, who emerged triumphant…


    “Throughout the summer of 31 BC, with his fleet rotting in the shallows and his army rotting with disease, Antony was blockaded on the eastern coast of Greece. His camp began to empty… Finally, when the stench of defeat had grown too overpowering for Antony to ignore, he decided to make a desperate throw. On 2 September he ordered his fleet to attempt a break out, past the cape of Actium, into the open sea. For much of the day the two great fleets faced each other, motionless in the silence of the crystalline bay. Then suddenly, in the afternoon, there was movement: Cleopatra’s squadron, darting forwards, smashing its way through a gap in Octavian’s line, slipping free. Antony, abandoning his giant flagship for a swifter vessel, followed, but most of the fleet was left behind, his legions too. They quickly surrendered. With this brief, inglorious battle perished all of Antony’s dreams, and all the hopes of the new Isis [Cleopatra].”[10]


     Antony committed suicide; Cleopatra did the same nine days later. Octavian was now the sole master of the oikoumene, “the inhabited world”; he was to rule from 29 BC to his death in 14 AD. The West appeared to have triumphed over the East, western republican virtue over eastern despotic decadence. But it was a Pyrrhic victory: the decadence and luxuriousness of the East would penetrate the Roman Empire that Octavian was about to inaugurate. Many western and republican forms remained; but the imperial power became in essence eastern and despotic. Julius Caesar had rejected the offer of a crown by Mark Antony; for kingship still remained a dirty word in the political discourse of the proud, freedom-loving Romans. But Octavian, while claiming to restore and renew the republic, in effect buried it; and after so many years of civil war, the people were prepared to submit to what was in effect a revival of the kingdom, choosing peace over freedom…


     The real victor over the Roman republic was the feminine principle incarnate in Cleopatra and Egypt, which had triumphed over the masculine principle incarnate in Caesar and Rome. From now on, the emperors of Rome began to acquire the aura of profane, luxurious divinity that permeated Hellenistic culture, leading in the end to the thoroughly Eastern concept of the god-king that we find in Nero, Domitian and Diocletian. Even Octavian, on his tour of the Eastern Mediterranean after defeating Cleopatra, had given permission to provincials to offer him divine honours, “and major shrines were established at Pergamum the province of Asia and Nicomedia in Bithynia.”[11] And the conduit of this cultural transformation was Cleopatra, the goddess-queen of Egypt, the last successor of the Pharaohs, the new Isis, who in defeat conquered her conquerors. …




     The Senate had been prepared to murder Julius Caesar for the sake of liberty and anti-monarchism. But the years of civil war seem to have persuaded them to value stability and peace over freedom. So there was no opposition when, on January 1, 27, Octavian “announced that he was resigning his powers, and returning control of the provinces, armies and laws to the Senate. In Dio’s version he begins by declaring that what he is about to say will amaze them, since he is at the height of well-earned success and could not be forced to give up power. It is only if they consider his virtuous life, and understand that he had acted out of duty to avenge his father [Julius Caesar] and protect the state, that they will find his action now less surprising and more glorious… Julius Caesar is constantly invoked, for his achievements, his own refusal to accept the crown and title of king and his undeserved murder. His heir now follows in his footsteps, perhaps winning even greater glory by laying down the power he wields. He has done what needed to be done, leaving the commonwealth strong and stable, so that the task of governing it can now safely be left to others.”[12]


     The Senate could do little other than applaud wildly. But then they pleaded with him to remain as consul at the head of the state. Octavian reluctantly agreed, and in the days that followed he agreed to take responsibility “for some provinces, on the basis that these were more in need of protection from foreign enemies or internal disorder. As a result he took control of all of the Spanish Peninsula, where conquest was incomplete, all of Gaul, where the occupation was still fairly recent and stability threatened by the German tribes from across the Rhine, and Syria, so often disturbed in the civil wars and with Parthia as a neighbour. He also retained control of Egypt, perhaps on the basis that it was a very new province. The entire command was voted to him for ten years, although he stressed that he hope to return some of the regions to senatorial control earlier than this, should he succeed in bringing the area under full control more quickly. The remaining provinces were placed under the supervision of the Senate.


     “Caesar’s provinces contained the greater part of the Roman army.  There were legions in Macedonia… Africa also contained several legions. Otherwise the senatorial provinces contained no significant military forces. The soldiers in Macedonia and Africa may well have continued to take an oath to Caesar, as was certainly the case within a few years…


     “No one could have had any doubts about Caesar’s supremacy. His ten-year command mirrored earlier extraordinary commands of the likes of Pompey and Julius Caesar. It helped to create a façade of a public servant, taking on heavy responsibilities for the common good. The wider population are unlikely to have felt any qualms about this. Extraordinary commands had a proven track record of getting things done far more effectively than the traditional pattern of frequent transfer of responsibilities from one ambitious magistrate to another. Some senators may have felt the same way, and even those who did not drew solace from the chance of participating in the system. There was no other realistic alternative for as long as Caesar controlled the overwhelming bulk of the army. Dio notes cynically that one of the first things Caesar did after he was persuaded to accept a major role in the state was to get the Senate to pass a decree awarding a substantial payrise to his praetorian cohorts. The evidence is poor, but these probably received an annual salary of 375 denarii instead of the 225 denarii paid to legionaries. There were nine cohorts of praetorians, so they were kept just below the nominal strength of a ten-cohort legion, and several cohorts were routinely stationed in or near Rome itself. This was in contrast to Julius Caesar, who had dismissed his bodyguard early in 44 BC. Armed forced remained the ultimate guarantee of Caesar’s supremacy.


     “Much of the senators’ time in the meetings on 13 and especially 15 and 16 January were taken up with praising Caesar, and awarding him permanent honours. This may well have been an area where members could exercise genuine independence as regards detail, although no doubt the debate was shaped both by Caesar’s selection of the order of speakers and by contributions made by men who had already been primed. Considerable momentum quickly gathered to grant Caesar an additional cognomen as a mark of his incredible past and future services to the state. Some speakers suggested that he be called Romulus, linking him for ever with the founder of Rome since he had renewed and effectively refounded the City.


     “As well as founder, Romulus was also Rome’s first king, and one tradition maintained that instead of dying he had been raised to the heavens to become a god. Yet some of the associations were less attractive. The foundation of Rome had begun with fratricide, Romulus’ twin brother being killed with a spade, and that was an uncomfortable thought for a generation who had seen so much civil was. An alternative tradition explained the disappearance of Rome’s first king less grandly, claiming that he had been torn in pieces by a mob of senators. After a while, opinion in the Senate shifted away from the idea of giving Caesar the name. Suetonius claims that he and his close advisers were keen, but if so they must have changed their minds at some point. That it was considered so openly and seriously tells us a good deal about the mood of the times. Senators were eager to vote honours to so powerful a man. Whether or not they like him and what he had done, no one doubted the reality of his supremacy.


     “Eventually a vote was taken on a proposal by Munatius Plancus, the same man who had once painted himself blue and donned a fishtail to dance for Antony and Cleopatra, and who had later defected to Caesar, bringing news of his rival’s will. Plancus proposed the name Augustus, and the resolution was passed with a sweeping – perhaps unanimous – vote as senators moved to show their acquiescence by standing beside him. The presiding consul now became formally Imperator Caesar Augustus, divi filius. No Roman had ever had such a name, and it is easy for familiarity to make us forget just how novel it was. Augustus carried heavy religious overtones of the very Roman tradition of seeking divine guidance and approval through augury. Ennius, Rome’s earliest and most revered poet, spoke of the City being founded with ‘august augury’ in a passage as familiar to Romans as the most famous Shakespearean quotes are to us today.


     “Caesar Augustus – sometimes the order was reversed to Augustus Caesar for added emphasis – was special, unlike anyone else, and, unlike the ten-year provincial command, the new name was a permanent honour. It was hard, perhaps impossible, to imagine Imperator Caesar Augustus, the son of a god, ever retiring to private life, or even being approached in glory, auctoritas, and pre-eminence by anyone else. Earlier precedents – for instance, Pompey’s extraordinary commands, and his distant supervision of the Spanish provinces from 54 BC onwards – falls far short of Caesar Augustus’ position. Other men had won grand names in the past – Sulla was Felix (lucky) and Pompey Magnus (great), but none had held so grand and sacred a name as Augustus. The only person to wield comparable power and pre-eminence was Julius Caesar. The convention of referring to his heir as Augustus and not Caesar Augustus can conceal the great similarities between their places in the state…


     “Caesar Augustus held a personal permanent pre-eminence in the state, matched in the past only by his father. Like Julius Caesar he continued to hold the consulship every year. The charade of handing over power to the Senate and being handed it straight back was important… This should not make us focus so much on the few differences in Caesar Augustus’ self-presentation and conduct that we are blind to the overwhelming – and very public – similarities between him and his father. In a sense, he had now fulfilled his teenage announcement of his intention to win the honours and offices of his father. Julius Caesar once dismissed the res publica as a ‘mere name without form or substance’, although we do not know when and in what context he expressed the view. His heir was more tactful, and avoided the abolished title of dictator, but the difference is more apparent than real. He was also divi filius, the ‘son of a god’, and both this and the name Caesar constantly paraded his connection with the murdered Julius Caesar. The monuments adorning Rome and associated with him already far surpassed the ones celebrating the dictator during his lifetime…”[13] 


     The real significance both of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship and of Caesar Augustus’ principate is that, although they were both, as everyone knew, despots wielding essentially absolute power, they both tried to justify their power democratically, by reference to the will of the people – more precisely, of the Senate and the People (SPQR). Of course, republicanism was already in the genes of the Romans since the expulsion of their kings. And that purely Roman republicanism was reinforced by the profound influence that Greek culture and political philosophy exerted on the Romans after Greece had been incorporated into the empire. After all, all educated Romans knew Greek as well as Latin and had been tutored, often by Greek tutors, in the humanist ideals of Classical Athens and the anti-authoritarian rhetoric of Demosthenes - Cicero called his anti-Antonian speeches Philippics in honour of Demosthenes, and Augustus was particularly fond of citing Greek epigrams. For that cultural milieu, dictatorship might be accepted de facto as necessary for the preservation of the state, but it could not be accepted de jure – because it was against the law! The only solution was to sugar the pill of despotism with a thick layer of (pretty outrageous) constitutionalism. So the despot had to pretend to surrender his power to the people, and the people then had to pretend to give it back to him. The upshot was that everyone was (more or less) happy: the despot had preserved his power without the threat of civil war, while the Senate had placed the seal of their constitutional approval on his power. Of course, it was a charade. But it was a very important charade, and a charade with lasting and long-term consequences – nothing less than the preservation of the empire for another three hundred years (at least). Augustus’ great achievement was that he played this game with great skill and supremely successfully. Thereby he created a precedent that was to be repeated right down the centuries of European history. For while despotism did not disappear, neither did democracy, and the despots had to try and provide democratic justifications for their despotism. So Napoleon was elected first consul of the French Republic by a National Assembly – but four years later crowned himself emperor. And Hitler was legally elected Chancellor of Germany by the Reichstag. And even the most powerful despot of all, Stalin, created a constitution and had himself elected by an “elected” Supreme Soviet. They were all, politically speaking, the children of Caesar Augustus, divi filii, “the son of a god”, who first fused the despotic and democratic principles to create the greatest empire the world has ever known…


     Meanwhile, amidst all this display of raw power and political gamesmanship, “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2.1), and the real Son of God and King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was neither a self-willed despot nor a slave of the people’s will, was coming to be born in a simple cave in Bethlehem…


August 9/22, 2020.

Holy Apostle Matthias.


[1] Sallust, The Jugurthine War, in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, 2004, p. 72.

[2] Galsworthy, Augustus. From Revolutionary to Emperor, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014, p. 25.

[3] Holland, Rubicon, London: Abacus, 2003, pp. 28-29.

[4] Stephen P. Kershaw, A Brief History of the Roman Empire, London: Robinson, 2013, p. 6.

[5] Sandbrook, “Caesar Crosses the Rubicon”, BBC History Magazine, January, 2017, p. 8.

[6] Holland, op. cit., pp. 346-347.

[7] Galsworthy, op. cit., pp. 74-76.

[8] Galsworthy, op. cit., pp. 77, 222.

[9] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Titans of History, London: Quercus, 2012, p. 65.

[10] Holland, op. cit., pp. 375-375.

[11] Galsworthy, Augustus, p. 208.

[12]Galsworthy, Augustus, p. 231.

[13]Galsworthy, Augustus, pp. 233-237.

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