It had taken nearly 15 years of blood, sweat and sleepless nights but now Octavian, like Caesar before him, had finally clawed his way to the top and made himself master of the Roman world. However, his work was far from finished, and the question Octavian now had to answer was more important than any he ever had before: now that he had absolute control of Rome, what would he call himself?
At first glance such a question certainly seems unimportant, even petty. So long as Octavian held absolute power over Rome why should it have mattered what titles or honorary offices he granted to himself? But as trivial as it may sound this question, and Octavian’s answer to it, were hugely important not only for his own future but the future of imperial Rome itself.
The son of Caesar recognized that if he wanted to create a lasting foundation of stability for Rome’s future, he would need to make changes to the system that would outlive him. It wasn’t enough to just seize control of the state by force and rule as an absolute despot without reforming the system itself. Julius Caesar had done that. Then Caesar had died, and without his leadership Rome had immediately lapsed right back into civil war.
Octavian couldn’t allow the possibility of another Mark Antony. If anyone else in the Roman world had power equal to his they might use it to try and overthrow him, leading Rome into civil war yet again. However, even if he retained supreme power over Rome for the rest of his life, it still wouldn’t matter in the end. Eventually, he would die and once that happened it would lead to the exact same result: ambitious Romans fighting each other to take his place.
To avoid this, Octavian would have to create something greater than himself. He would have to legalize his extralegal authority by finding a way to grant constitutional legitimacy to the extra-constitutional position of supreme power that he held.
The simplest way to do this would be to declare himself King of Rome, but Octavian knew that that would be a suicidal error of judgment. The Roman people hated kings, just as they had for four hundred years. The very idea of anyone claiming to be King of Rome would be seen by the Roman people as an attack on all the liberties and privileges they were entitled to as Roman citizens. In their eyes, being subjects of a king was no different than being slaves.
Still, the position Octavian now held gave him sole and total control of the state; absolute power was not just an entitlement but a necessity if Octavian was to prevent further chaos and civil strife. In short, the son of Caesar had to somehow find a legal, constitutional way to hold all the unlimited powers of a king without actually looking like a king.
A King By Any Other Name
Julius Caesar had never found a solution to this riddle. Most likely, he’d never cared enough to try. Once he’d won his civil war and installed himself as Rome’s dictator, he hadn’t really cared much whether his fellow Romans saw him as a king so long as they all did what he told them to. In the end, this arrogance had become the main cause of his violent death.
Octavian, on the other hand, proved himself a more cunning politician than Caesar. His carefully-cultivated public image of humility and regard for Roman convention now proved invaluable, because it allowed Octavian to paint himself exactly as he wanted to be seen: a paragon of Roman virtue, a defender of Roman tradition, and a selfless public servant who would protect the rights and freedoms of ordinary Romans. He would not elevate himself high above the Roman people as their king; he would merely be the leading citizen among them. He would not be lord and master over the Roman Senate; instead, he would stand among them as simply the first among equals.
Another problem Octavian solved was eliminating the need to hold an office himself to possess the authority of that office. Again, Caesar had never addressed this issue; as dictator he’d simply assigned himself the consulship, the Roman Republic’s highest political office, and planned to continue holding it year after year. But there was a downside to this arrangement: the limited number of offices to be held. Rome could only have two consuls each year. With Caesar perpetually being one of them year after year, that left only one consulship a year open to anyone else. This caused resentment among the proud senatorial class by limiting opportunities for them to win themselves prestige by being elected to high office.
Wanting to avoid the same mistake, Octavian decided not to continuously reserve one of a limited number of offices for himself year after year. He did hold the consulship some years, since he was eligible to run for it like any other Roman, but he did not need to fill the office in perpetuity. Instead he merely granted himself the powers of every Roman political office, leaving the office itself open to anyone who wanted to run for it. Whenever there were two other consuls, Octavian was the unofficial third consul. Whenever there were ten Tribunes of the Plebs, Octavian was the unofficial eleventh tribune.
With this innovation, Octavian could cleverly delegate the honours and responsibilities of running the state to other Roman politicians while using his authority to override theirs only when necessary. He could also avoid being accused of creating new powers for himself by pointing out that he was simply exercising a combination of the powers of offices that had all existed before him.
The Augustan Settlements
Octavian’s solution to his core dilemma, how to hold supreme power over the state without looking like a monarch, was not completed overnight. Many of the finer details of the Augustan settlements, as historians call these constitutional reforms, took years to fully resolve. Ultimately, though, the Augustan settlements were a great success. For finally replacing a century of chaos and civil strife with peace, order and good government Octavian was granted a number of exalted titles and honorifics by the Roman Senate, including the one by which he would become best known to history.
On 16 January, 27 BC Octavian addressed a meeting of the Senate. During his speech, he expressed his desire to relinquish all of his civil and military powers to the Senate and retire from public life. Now that the civil wars were over, and peace and stable government were restored, Octavian claimed that Rome no longer needed his guidance. His work was done, and he could return to living as a private citizen; from now on, the wise and venerable Senate of Rome could manage without him.
It was a carefully-constructed episode of political theater; Octavian did not intend to retire, but he also didn’t want to be accused of tyranny by showing reluctance to give up his authority. He knew that he was too indispensable to Rome for the Senate to let him walk away without protest, and he predicted that they would simply renew all of his powers voluntarily.
Octavian was right. The senators listened to him announce his retirement in disbelief. Most were loyal supporters of Octavian (a few may have even known in advance about the speech he planned to deliver), and even the few senators who weren’t already in his camp were not willing to risk the possibility of another civil war without Octavian firmly in control. Just as he’d expected, no sooner had Octavian given up his powers than the Senate immediately voted to renew them all.
Alongside these powers, the Senate also granted Octavian a new honorary title: Augustus, meaning “majestic” or “venerable” in Latin. From that point on, this was the title by which Octavian Caesar would become best known. Not only that but, since every subsequent Roman emperor took this title upon their accession to the throne, the date on which it was first awarded to Octavian is regarded by many historians as the birth of the Roman Empire. Even so, Augustus himself, clever as always, would have continued to call it the Republic.
Even with all this achieved by 27 BC, Augustus was still just 35 years old. In the many years he had left before his death in 14 AD, the first Roman emperor would continue adding to his list of grand accomplishments, guiding Rome’s journey into a new golden age.
Augustus reformed and reorganized the Roman army, created the Praetorian Guard to serve as a force of elite bodyguards for the emperor and his family, and made great territorial expansions to the young empire through conquest (with the help of a number of loyal and capable generals, several of whom were members of his own family). He rebuilt areas of the city of Rome that had fallen into disrepair, gave the city an official force of urban police and fire fighters, and funded the construction and maintenance of vital public works like sewers and aqueducts. He made vast improvements to provincial administration, enriched the empire by promoting pan-Mediterranean trade, and regulated and simplified Rome’s currency.
Through all of this and more, Augustus restored confidence, stability and unity to a Roman world that had been on the brink of tearing itself apart when his career began.
Historians remember Augustus as one of Rome’s greatest emperors not because he was the first, but because so much of what he accomplished during his lifetime endured as important fixtures of Roman society long after his death. The Julio-Claudian dynasty, the imperial family founded by Augustus, would rule the Roman Empire until 68 AD. The Augustan Principate, the imperial system of government created by him, would survive until the third century AD. Finally, the Pax Romana, the period of prosperity and relative peace that was begun and made possible by the reign of Augustus would outlive him by two hundred years.
When one considers that the old, expansionist Roman Republic was almost always at war with someone (or during its final decades, itself), and ancient Roman society itself had so long been jaded towards violence, anyone who could bring a moment of peace to Rome deserves, for that accomplishment alone, to hold a special place of honour in the great story of the Eternal City.