We’ve just completed studying the rise of the Roman Empire, no small feat indeed. Like him or not, one must concede that Augustus was an amazing man. After Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of Senators, the Roman republic was cast into civil dispute. Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavian, raised an army and skillfully manipulated and intimidated the Senate into accepting him as their leader. Though the Republic was already weakened by decades of senatorial power struggles and civil war, Octavian was the key executioner of this system of governance, and his rule signified the end of the representative political structure and the birth of an empire.
Octavian, later dubbed ‘Augustus’ by the Senate, was an enigmatic, clever and energetic leader. He assumed power at a time when the Senate was embroiled in conflict and the Republic largely demoralized by recent military losses. Like his predecessor, he utilized his skill in raising an army to assume political clout. Even more importantly, he inspired the loyalty of the military, thereby assuring he retained this power indefinitely. During his several decades of rule, he gradually transformed the political landscape by first eliminating his political enemies and limiting political dissention, then manipulating the Senate into granting him more power.
But Augustus was an intelligent man; he understood that Romans were fearful of autocrats. He undertook to sway public and Senate opinion in his favor. Only by working to change the established social and political structures from within did Augustus ensure that he could maintain power and expand Rome’s influence.
Augustus won this approval by several means, including erecting new and repairing old public structures at his own expense, improving infrastructure, expanding Rome’s territory through military conquest, and providing public entertainments such as gladiator shows. A brilliant publicist, Augustus’ treasury minted coins stamped with his image in various heroic poses, and he did not hesitate to proclaim his his accomplishments. He tempered these brags with the mythology that the Senate maintained the ultimate power, and stated that he served at the will of this body. And, significantly, the Senate members were able to maintain the appearance of being in power without the requisite responsibilities; they were not humiliated into powerlessness but rather flattered into complacency.
Each of these acts conspired to create an environment in which Augustus appeared confident, capable, and benevolent. By introducing small changes over time, Augustus’ power, and that of future Emperors, increased while the influence of the Senate waned. In this manner, Augustus eliminated the last vestiges of the Republic, and brought the Empire to life.
A note: watched the film Night at the Museum and our friend Octavian was a featured player. An inaccuracy was that in one scene he cried ‘Long live the Roman Empire!’ which is something he would never have uttered. As the august leader, Octavian-turned-Augustus took great pains to create the illusion that he was the savior and protector of the Republic.