Augustus caesar and the roman republic

            How Augustus Did Not Restore The Roman Republic

The Roman Republic was a form of government designed around the idea of separation of powers. This was implemented by a system of checks and balances whereby no one institution or single figure would have too great of an authority in government. The system was made to be a representative form of government where not every citizen voted on decisions of law, but instead the people voted on representatives who would make these decisions for them. As the Roman army began to build up strength and conquer new lands, military generals were granted more power and the authority of the senate was lessened. Soon after this, civil war and disarray broke out in Rome and the Republic became lost while dictators ruled over the empire. When Augustus Caesar took control of Rome and ended the civil wars, he claimed that he was also restoring the republic. Despite this claim, he held multiple positions of power and manipulated the laws in such a way that he was really creating a dictatorship while only maintaining the illusion of a Republic.

The original reason behind the creation of the Republic in Rome, was to establish a system where no one man would be above the law. The people of Rome despised the idea of a king or dictatorship and these feelings came directly from the leadership that they had endured at the start of the cities creation. When Rome had first been developed, it was ruled over by Etruscan Kings. There were seven of these kings, and in 509 B.C., the last one of them was vicious and cruel to the people. The Romans revolted, and after defeating the Etruscans in 474 B.C., they setup a government for themselves that would allow for elected representatives to govern. These representatives would make the laws under the government system that became known as a Republic.

During the next couple of centuries, the power of Rome grew tremendously and the empire expanded through warfare and the conquering of new territories. After the last Punic War against the city of Carthage ended in 146 B.C., the Roman military began to build up its power. There were new borders to defend and the military generals were given more authority in order to ensure their protection.  As this happened, the Republic lost its power and control. “The more powerful military commanders became, the less willing they were to take orders from the senate,” (Judge,192).

With confusion over where the true authority to create and maintain laws was resting, revolts and civil wars began to break out. When they were put down by a general named Sulla, in 79 B.C., he took his military power and declared himself a dictator. The Republic was now lost. Other dictators followed Sulla, and one of these was Julius Caesar who made himself a position that he referred to as dictator for life.

Julius Caesar made no attempts to hide that fact that he wanted to be dictator of Rome. He took it upon himself to increase the positions in the senate from 300 to 600. He then put his own people, many of them Kelts, who were seen as barbarians, into the new spots. The senators who had been holding their positions for some time, were shocked and appalled by what Caesar was doing. By putting whoever he chose into these government positions, Caesar was taking away the right of the people to vote. When he took the position of dictator for life in 45 B.C., the power of the senate was severely weakened. They now felt him growing too powerful and feared that he wanted to be a king. This led to his murder in 44 B.C., where he was stabbed 35 times.

Augustus was very careful to not make the same mistakes and anger the senate the way that Caesar had. The Roman people asked Augustus to take on the dictatorship, and yet he refused. Augustus disliked the idea of a dictatorship and preferred to maintain the institutions of a Republic. He also never referred to himself as “emperor.” He knew the title of king or dictator would anger the senate, and so instead, Augustus called himself “Princeps,” which meant first citizen. He wanted to show the people of Rome that he was a just a citizen like them. He lived with modest surroundings and dressed very modestly as well.

While Julius Caesar had ignored voting, Augustus let the voting assemblies continue. He did this in such a way, however, where he would maintain the control of who had the potential to be voted in. Any candidate who wanted to run for office had to present himself to Augustus. He then created a select list of people from these candidates, of whom he wanted to run. The Romans thought they were looking at a list of everyone who wanted to run for the position, but they did not know the truth. They were not aware that Augustus had manipulated the list and tailored it to his liking. He was restoring the Republic superficially, but secretly he was behind the curtain pulling all the strings. Part of the reason why Augustus was able to manipulate the government without causing the senate to worry, was because they were tired of all of the civil wars. After defeating Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Augustus returned to Rome, and was “hailed as the man who had ended decades of civil war,” (Judge,194). At this time, he changed his name from Octavian to Augustus and then took Egypt into the Roman Empire.

Augustus had been called Imperator while in the army, but the boundaries of what this position could do in the government were not defined. As a result, Augustus held several different positions in the government. The senate granted him all the powers of a tribune. This meant that he had the ability to summon the senate and make proposals to them. It also gave him the authority to veto decisions and to exercise capital punishment. 

After the deaths of the two consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, Augustus seized one of the consul positions for himself. He then held the position for year after year instead of following the one year rule. By serving consecutive terms as consul, he was not following the established rules of the Republic. “As a consul, Augustus spoke to the people on behalf of the government, but as tribune, he spoke to the government on behalf of the people,” (Judge,194). Despite holding these multiple positions in government, on his coin, Augustus put only that he was a tribune and by doing this he tried to show that he was a representative of the people. He was holding all real positions of the Republic, but they were never meant to all be held by a single person.

As he continued his rule and carefully slid himself into as many positions of authority as he could, Augustus became more greedy and power-hungry. He created his own council, called the Concilium Princeps. This council would make decisions about the government and laws, and then pass them off to the senate. At this point, the senate became merely a group of rubber-stampers. “Although Augustus tried to reinvigorate republican institutions, especially the senate, most of his political innovations enhanced his own authority,” (Judge,194).

Augustus was able to manipulate the senate and reduce their power because of the control he held over the soldiers of Rome. These soldiers swore loyalty to him and represented an armed threat of his power. Augustus used his individual wealth to pay the salaries of the legions and he let them know that he would also personally be responsible for paying them after their retirement. In this way, everything the soldiers had was dependent on Augustus, and he was able to maintain an army of 500,000 men under his control. By paying the soldiers out of his own pocket, Augustus had created a situation where anyone who opposed him and tried to get the soldiers to revolt was turned away simply because they were not the ones paying the soldiers’ salaries.

Augustus claimed to be restoring the Republic when he took power in Rome, but he was only creating the illusion of a Republic while really manipulating the system for himself. He kept all the republican positions of government, but he held most of them himself, and at the same time reduced the power of the senate. Augustus was able to maintain what was essentially a dictatorship, because his rule represented a time of relative peace in Rome, known as Pax Romana. There were still battles being fought on the frontiers, but he put an end to the exhausting civil wars that had ravaged the empire. He also used his authority over the army and the threat of military arms to coerce the decisions of the senate. Augustus created the image of a republic for all to see on the outside, while breaking and redefining the rules from on the inside. In this way, he was able to hold the position of emperor without ever referring to himself by this title, and create the image of republic while really establishing a dictatorship.



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Vango Books, Pearson Education Inc, New Jersey

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