Interview with Professor Heidi Weber
Professor Heidi Weber, of Kent University; she has done many studies about the Romanization and integration of Italy in a sole nation, particularly during Augustan age.
An "Interview the Expert" interview.
Is the title, "Emperor" a title which Romans of Augustus' day would have recognized and honored? Would a Roman citizen in the year 15 BCE, attending the games, have regarded Octavian as, "the Emperor Augustus" or a despot? Was such a view colored, in any way, by Octavian's assumption of the imperium majus and tribunicia potestas?
To the Roman people, the term king as a means to designate their leader was one that denoted negative connotations. The title "rex" served as a reminder of the reign of the Tarquins where tyranny had created a hostile society. With the emergence of Gaius Julius Caesar coupled with his triumphant return to Rome, Caesar capitalized on the unpopularity of all the previous forms of government and created his own. His mere presence seemed to promote an air of security that seemed to have been lacking for generations. Through political savvy and military might, Caesar made himself appear to be what Rome had been deficient. Appealing to the masses as well as the Senate, he was bestowed with the title of Dictator, which was given a lifetime extension, effectively turning Rome into a military despotism. His rule proved relatively brief, for Caesar's inability to persecute his enemies brought his ultimate demise. His successor would not repeat these errors.
Gaius Octavius, after a struggle to claim his rightful place as Caesar's heir, would bring a new component to the realm of power in the Roman Empire. With his glorious victory at Actium and measures that hinted he was working towards the restoration of the Republic, the Senate bestowed great honors upon him. In sure political ingenuity, Octavian claimed, after the institution of measures to stabilize Rome, that his mission was complete and that the job too great for one to maintain. Technically ruling as a rex but allowing the people to maintain the sensation that they were part of the government, the concept of res publica was embedded into the heritage and civilization of Rome. In a means to prevent thei rleader from abandoning his position, a new title was conferred upon Caesar's heir, that of Augustus, which provided religious undertones to the power of the position of princeps. This was initial instance of this title being granted to a living ruler and provided him with "…the power to begin everything auspiciously." Augustus stood as the first emperor of Rome. An astute individual,
he was fully aware of the great challenges that lay before him, for the people had lived through tumultuous decades and numerous changes in government. They were anxious for peace and stability. As emperor, Augustus was fully aware of his own inadequacies, though protective enough of his own power as to not reveal them. He created a false sense of security among the Roman populace by granting an assurance that they still all held on to the traditional rights and freedoms that had been generated under the Republic.
Augustus helped devise the illusion that his government served the interests of the population's civil liberties and served as a civil government. In actuality, an autocracy had been created. Augustus was well aware of the diversity of people and cultures found within his empire. The ability to maintain the loyalty and acceptance of the general populace was a daunting task. Incorporating divi Julii filus, he brought emphasis on the divinity of his family, which he in turn used in attempt to solidify the people. In creating a need of worship, both of the state and of the ruler, the people were unified as Romans.
Though in actuality a despot, Augustus appealed to the desires of the populace to live under a Republic. At public events, Emperor Augustus tried to promote that sense of unity with his people, especially at The Games. Here he was able to generate support of both himself and his government by communing with the public.Commencing the games with measures of reaffirmation of his power via religious and military processions, Augustus joined his citizens in the excitement and violence of the day's events. Yet he upheld his superiority by being seated in a place of supremacy, holding the fate of all participants in his hands.
Though holding himself above the common man, Augustus was a clever politician. Well aware that his fate could be guided by the will of the people, he created a false sense of security by maintaining the illusion of the existence of a Republic. The people of his day had lived through eras of strife and turmoil. The stability generated under Augustus's reign brought a sense of growing satisfaction, the start of the "Pax Romana." Though perhaps leery of the term emperor, it was better than king. The greater good promoted by Augustus shrouded the public from the more detrimental imperial actions taking place. In time, the title emperor would become commonplace, but it was one that came with gradual acceptance. The people were ready for the promise of a prosperous and secure future, something that the Emperor Augustus seemed to create. With that came recognition and acquiescence to the title.
How did Augustus build up his cortina of grandiosity around? Which were his weapons for the creation of his public relations that gave him the shape of a winner, almost a god?
Gaining great popularity with his assertive victory over Marcus Antonius at Actium, Octavian stood poised to return to Rome as the triumphant hero, ready to take his rightful place as leader. The anxieties of the chaotic previous era had been put to rest with the great promises made by Caesar's heir. However, Octavian needed to work at gaining the favor of the people, and the Senate. In so doing, he could rise to the ranks of untold power. Soon after the death of Julius Caesar, accompanied with his learning that he was the man's designated heir, Octavian began his work towards gaining the favor of the people of Rome. Modifying his name to incorporate that of his fallen relative, he took new honors when he became Gaius Julius Caesar. He called out to the will of the people to recognize him in a similar light as they had heralded Caesar. Quickly at odds with Marcus Antonius over accession of power, Octavian rationalized that he had to earn the support of the populace through various measures. As Caesar before him had distributed coins and grain at his speeches, he too followed suit. Through Antonius hindered Octavian's access to Caesar's personal property and prevented him from using that money to foster the backing of the public, he cultivated other means to gain financial support elsewhere. This he used in attempt to draw the crowds to his side.
As Marcus Antonius worked diligently against the rising Octavian, he in turn continued to work on strengthening his character and his presence. As a means of fostering good will among the populace, he held a grand celebration in honor of the Games of the Victory of Caesar. Through these events, he heralded an image pleasing to the Romans.
Octavian wisely sought the support of the veterans as well. Their concerns over land compensation was a troubling issue, since the promised lands had already been sold off and there were no finances available to make great purchases. However attempts made to confiscate other lands led to further disturbances. As war emerged with Egypt and Octavian proved the victor, he determined that the Ptolemaic resources would help make provisions for the veterans, thus gaining him many allies.
Octavian continued to build his cortina of grandiosity around his image and status of a war hero as well. As a perpetual reminder, a statue of Victory was set forth in the Senate. In addition, many trophies of war, like the rostra the Romans had taken from the doomed Egyptian fleet, were displayed for all to relish in the Roman might. He cautiously worked the Senate, recognizing the need for their support. Many different positions and honors were bestowed upon Octavian, even that of tribunicia potestas. The greatest of these titles, however, came with new power.
In 27 B.C., in a pretentious display, Octavian announced that the Republic had been restored. Among the pomp and circumstance of the great pronouncement, he further added that he was relinquishing his authority and going into retirement. Having just liquidated the Senate during the course of the previous year and filling the ranks with men of large holdings, his allies in the Senate remonstrated against this action, proclaiming the need of his leadership, his presence, his magnanimous character. Deftly handling the situation, he was given the grant of imperium for a decade along with the greatest of honors, that of the title of Augustus. Placing divine honors upon him further enhanced his original status as the offspring of a deity. The title Augustus was granted to a man for the first time when it was given to Octavian. He fostered this image to the public to place himself as one who should not suffer the ill fates of men like Caesar before him.
Also, the worship of the emperor that would be employed here and followed thereafter was a measure used to unify the entire population as well. Augustus employed the power of the great poets and writers to heighten his status. Though he preferred to remain associated with the gods through his own persona, many like Vergil and Horace penned him as a divine figure in their poetic words. Other forms of literature too helped bring an emphasis on the realm of sanctity to both August and his power.
Having taken the title of Pontifex Maximus, placing him as the leader of the Roman religion, Augustus worked continuously at both reviving religion and placing himself at its core. The Senate also added his name to the list of gods, deeming him divus Augustus. Augustus was a shrewd politician. He gained support for his power by courting support from various groups who could help foster his rise. The addition of divine powers brought his status to unfounded levels and ensured that his place as the emperor of Rome go relatively undisturbed.
Why didn't he resign after having healed the illness of the State, like Sulla did? Why did he choose a successor, definitely killing the Republic?
With the passing of Augustus in 14 AD, few remained who had lived in the Roman world of the old Republic. The Republic had been created at a time when it was needed for it grew out of the need for stability in a age of tumultuous conflict and insecurity. However, its demise resulted from power being concentrated into the hands of a single individual, which went against its very nature. Also, there was an inability of the system to function effectively. At various points, the Roman state began to crumble and needed to be healed. The solutions frequently proved to be temporary and not always binding.
When Sulla brought his army into Rome, he met with minimal favor. However when his actions turned violent and he began a mass campaign of burning homes, the public tepidly accepted him. His struggle to attain power was a bitter one, but he became dictator with the passage of the lex Valeria. Sulla then proceeded to create his type of government wherein his power was to end only with his death or resignation. He modified the courts, the laws and the Senate to help foster the grand changes he hoped to instill. One of the major aspirations in his reforms was a means to minimize the ability of the "wrong" people to move into office.
Sulla believed he had created the ideal government for the burgeoning Rome. Attaining satisfaction with the system, he felt his work done and retired from office to live his few remaining days at peace. The government that had been established was based on Senatorial supremacy, members whom he had personally selected. Having abandoned popular assemblies, the lack of representation of their interests left a large void in the state, one that would backfire. Great animosities toward the government that had been generated promptly emerged within a relatively brief time after Sulla's resignation. Overall, Sulla's allegiances had lain with himself and no other, which did not create a stable government. Almost instantly, the government began to crumble and with his demise, it rapidly buckled. His mending of the wounds of the state technically had only received temporary bandages. Those who came after Sulla in leadership positions were faced with the problems associated with these failures and had great difficulty in trying to repair Rome.
Augustus was aware of the inadequacies of the government instituted by Sulla. He also recognized that that government functioned under Sulla's authority and none other. The emperor knew he needed to see his changes and institutions followed through as long as he was able. Augustus did not want to abandon the state that he had created, for he felt in the times in which they lived, his guidance was necessary for its success. Though he was well aware he would not live forever, he would see to it that his ideals and beliefs were followed cautiously. Though in a measure to ease the ill fears of the people, Augustus vowed to restore the Republic and then step down. The res republica was loosely defined and he was aware that he could mold it to conform to the government he had established. Augustus had no intention of removing himself from office yet sought the Senate's reaffirmation of his leadership when he proclaimed both the rebirth of the Republic as well as his resignation. Since he chose not to step down after the Senate conferred numerous honors and powers upon him, he in turn created an oligarchy. The res republica would truly not be reinstated in fact. In actuality, it existed really only in the minds of the people. The Roman Republic ceased to exist with the conference of the title Augustus to Octavian.
Augustus had created an imperial monarchy or at least set the basis for its existence in Rome. The Republic's death knell had been a long process and not one individual is completely responsible for its demise. Augustus' maintenance of power did not abolish the Republic, but it did take the government further away from those institutions embodied in its very existence. What Augustus brought to Rome was peace, something that had been missing in the lives of the citizens. Under the mask of being the Republic, his option to remain in power was one that helped sustain the empire, which was still recovering from the decades of chaos that had proceeded.