Serapeion Humanitas

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A tribute to Libertas: The life of Asinius Pollio, a forgotten hero of the Republic

In the previous entry I had the opportunity to analyze the institutional decay of the Roman Republic in the last century BC and the emergence of a new order, the Principate. It was a convoluted period that saw the demise of one of the finest generations of Roman statesmen and public servants, and the end of the Free State.

Under the transition towards the new regime (31 BC-14 AD), Rome regained political stability, economic prosperity and expanded towards new territories. Peace brought security of life and property, and with that a generational shift took place. The new generations didn’t have any recollection of life under a Republican system; in exchange for political submission they gained a prosperous and reasonably quiet life. Nonetheless, there was a man whose allegiances and sentiments always stood with the Republic; a public servant who witnessed almost completely the transition from one system to the other. Although he could recognize the social and economic benefits of the new regime, he never forgave his own generation for renouncing freedom in favor of political blindness and autocratic rule. In the midst of a political context marked by the flattery and submission of a defeated nobility to the rule of Augustus, this man stood high among them. His accomplishments weren’t political or military; instead, his elevation to greatness resided in his unbending civic spirit and his contribution to independent thought. As a promoter of culture and a critic thinker, he refused to give up his own Libertas and showed to his peers that even in more autocratic times, submission could be fought by fomenting the arts, culture and erudition.

He never aimed to overthrow or sabotage the new regime; instead his behavior reflects the unique struggle of a man unwilling to betray his republican values. Through irreverence and scholar zeal, he carved his own civic space in which erudites and commoners alike could allow themselves breathing room to think and criticize beyond what was allowed in the political atmosphere of the Principate. This post has the purpose of honoring a man who, ideologically, probably was the last authentic champion of the Free State. At the same time, it serves the purpose to rehabilitate the memory of this forgotten hero of the Republic; his name Gaius Asinius Pollio.

I can trace back my interest in Pollio to the exceptional fictional stories written by Colleen McCullough in her Masters of Rome series. Among the varied cast of characters that appear in her literary work over the course of seven books, one name caught my attention. Though, just a minor character in them, Pollio showed an interesting mix of political neutrality and independence of mind that I didn’t notice in others. That left me wondering about the true nature of the character and how akin it was to the fictional representation presented by McCullough. Afterwards, while I read Ronald Syme’s the Roman Revolution, I was surprised by how well Syme regarded Pollio, being the only one to elude any negative judgement of his actions or criteria during the transition from Republic to Principate.

Nonetheless, writing about Asinius Pollio is a challenge in itself due to the lack of primary and secondary sources. Most of the work written by him disappeared and we know about his reputation through scholars of later periods. Likewise, it seems no modern scholar was interested enough to devote his time to the study of this public servant. The only author that dedicated her PHD dissertation to the life of Pollio was Elizabeth Denny Pierce, a Columbia University student who wrote in 1922, A Roman Man of Letters, Gaius Asinius Pollio. A small booklet in comparison to today’s standards, it is the only piece of academic work I have found that provides more detail about this Roman thinker. It is from Pierce and Syme that I have gathered most of the information to write the next paragraphs honoring this champion of civility and free thought.

Modest backgrounds

Gaius Asinius Pollio was born into the Gens Asinii around the year 75 BC in a town called Teate (modern Chieti). His family was granted the Roman citizenship after the Social War (91-88 BC). His ancestors fought for Rome as allies during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) and also as enemies during the Social War. As such, Pollio was an outsider in Roman politics, lacking lineage or any important connections with the nobility that ruled the Republic. Little is known about his life from his birth to the year 54 BC, when a young Pollio became relevant as a prosecutor in Rome.

A public servant in a tumultuous period

In that year he brought charges against Marcus Porcius Cato without any success. He was young and inexperienced but this situation must have allowed him to become known among the different factions of the Senate. At the same time, by antagonizing Cato, he probably alienated the faction that soon would rally behind Pompeius, making enemies in that party early on.

Soon his republican sentiments were tested. As the political situation between Gaius Julius Caesar, stationed in Cisalpine Gaul, and the Senate deteriorated, Pollio found his loyalties at variance. During the next fifteen years he chose sides; one could dismiss his political allegiances as a proof that his republican values were a farce. His was a tough situation. How should a republican behave in the midst of an ongoing civil war? Pollio was young; by this time he hadn’t held office yet, nor was he part of the Senate. He wanted to preserve the republican system of government; but he blamed the republican faction led by Cato, Bibulus and others, for their role provoking a civil war with Caesar. Even in this complicated context choosing neutrality would have been the equivalent to political suicide for a relative unknown man in Roman politics. It would have also meant to renounce any action to save the Republic; a disservice to the State. Therefore, he acted.

Sometime around the year 53 BC he chose Caesar, despite his reservations regarding the goals or values he defended. He couldn’t have any place in Pompeius’ faction due to his actions against Cato in the year 54 BC. Soon enough he befriended Caesar and became part of his junior staff, perhaps serving as a legati.

At the outset of the Great Roman Civil War (49 BC-45 BC), he served under the propraetorian command of Caius Scribonius Curio in the campaigns in Sicily. Then, the expedition crossed to Africa to confront the Pompeian forces stationed there. The ensuing engagements concluded with a massive defeat for Curio and his death at the Battle of the Bagradas (49 BC). In this dire situation Pollio was able to gather the remaining forces of the army and saved them from utter destruction by transporting them back to Italy. He achieved this by relying on merchant ships and without the support of the Roman admiral assigned to the Caesarian campaign in Africa who, upon hearing about the outcome of the battle, fled the area.

He also fought with Caesar at the decisive battle of Pharsalus (48 BC), where Caesar’s legions crushed Pompeius’ forces. After this victory, and with the republican faction in disarray, Pollio returned to Rome and was elected as a tribune of the plebs in the year 47 BC, holding office for the first time. In the year 45 BC, under almost complete Caesarian control of the Free State, he was elected to the office of praetor. By 44 BC he was sent to Hispania Ulterior as a governor with propraetorian imperium. During that time Caesar was assassinated and, in the ensuing chaos, Pollio remained in his province for the subsequent year awaiting orders from the Senate.

So far the scant details of his campaigns in Africa and Spain offer little evidence to assess Pollio’s military expertise. It seems he wasn’t a distinguished general but his actions in Africa showed courage, consideration and competence on the battlefield. From the evidence available we can assume he was a good and efficient military officer. Likewise, it appears that in the span of ten years, Pollio became a close friend of Caesar, serving him well.

Compromise to bring concord to the Republic

With the death of Caesar, new factions emerged. The defeated republican faction regrouped under the leadership of the Liberators. Meanwhile, Antonius, Lepidus and Octavius joined forces to form a new Caesarian party. Pollio remained neutral during the first months after the death of the dictator because he was effectively isolated from outer communications with Rome; any letter was intercepted by Lepidus who governed Hispania Citerior. After the passing of the Lex Titia of 43 BC to establish the Triumvirate, and the final demise of the Liberators at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, Pollio had to choose allegiances once more.

Even if by this time he was a seasoned politician and military officer, he couldn’t oppose the tyrannical rule of the triumvirs by himself. Additionally, despite the abomination that the Lex Titia represented, it also meant a respite from the ongoing civil strife that had engulfed Rome in the last eight years. In the new political landscape he aligned himself with Marcus Antonius, an old colleague he met while serving Caesar. In any case, soon enough misunderstandings and tensions began to build up between the triumvirs, threatening the precarious peace achieved through the subversion of republican institutions. Pollio, trusting in concord to avoid the shedding of more Roman blood, played a pivotal role bringing the rulers of the Roman world to the negotiating table to vent their grievances through words and not arms.

In 40 BC they met at Brundisium, a port city, to confer. A negotiation team was quickly assembled to act as intermediaries in any agreement that could be brokered between the triumvirs. This task fell to the hands of three persons; Maecenas, an agent of Octavius, Asinius Pollio, on behalf of Marcus Antonius, and Marcus Cocceius Nerva, also on the side of the latter, and the great grandfather of the future emperor Nerva (AD 96-AD 98).

It is interesting to notice that in the composition of this team there were at least two members that belonged formally to Antonius’ faction, but were accepted by Lepidus and especially by Octavius. This speaks at least of a certain degree of impartiality and uncompromising honesty showed by both, that was welcomed in political negotiations. The outcome was peace through marriage alliances between the families of Octavius and Antonius, binding their destinies together. For Pollio it meant averting another civil war, reaffirming his republican convictions of settling matters politically, and seeking compromise to restore concord in the Roman world. His auspices facilitated this political agreement, and by doing so, he played his part for peace and for the preservation of the Republic.

That same year, he reached the pinnacle of Roman political success. He was elected consul with Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus as a colleague. They were elected in absentia and neither of them completed their terms, being replaced by suffect consuls. Pollio reached this magistracy at the age of 35, seven years before the law could have allowed him to stand for office. Nonetheless, these anomalies were manifestations of the decline of Roman institutions under the rule of the triumvirs.

In the year 39 BC, Asinius Pollio went to the Roman province of Dalmatia as governor and with proconsular imperium. There he waged a successful war against a foreign enemy, the Parthini, an Illyrian tribe. This allowed him to return to Rome to celebrate his own triumph. With this last achievement he retired from political life in the year 37 BC, at the age of 39, devoting the rest of his long life to civil and intellectual pursuits.

This doesn’t mean that he withdrew from public life. He retained his status as senator, participating in the meetings of that institution frequently. When civil war finally broke out nine years after the peace he had helped to broker, he refused Octavius’ request to join him in the Battle of Actium against Antonius. In the same way he rejected taking part on Antonius’ side. The reasons were twofold: ties of friendship precluded him from waging war against his old friend and superior; but he also considered that he had served Antonius well in the past and was freed of any debt to him. Finally, having seen how both leaders disdained republican institutions by veering towards supreme power, and how not even peace was able to dissuade Romans from killing each other, he arrived to the conclusion that the Free State was definitely doomed. Having done everything he could politically to save the Republic, he decided not to take part in its dismemberment. He had no use for any party, he knew about them all.

Patron of the Arts

After withdrawing from political life, Pollio became an accomplished poet, historian and orator. He was probably one of the last great orators of his time, belonging to a selected group formed by Caesar, Cicero, Marcus Junius Brutus, Calvus and Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. Syme even claims that during the Augustan period Pollio and Mesalla were reckoned as the greatest orators of the new age.

He also excelled as an historian. It is a shame that none of his works have survived. Nonetheless, we know about his contributions through other authors. He wrote his own Histories documenting the transition from the Republic to the Principate, and addressing the Civil War between Pompeius and Caesar from the point of view of a contemporary and a witness. As a historian he was well regarded among his colleagues as a fair and open minded person, not guided by partisanship. In his analyses of the conflict he was capable of putting aside his own feelings and emotions, and offer a balanced treatment of adversaries such as Pompeius, or even of bitter enemies such as Cato.

He was a relentless critic and always spoke up his mind to criticize the work of the great writers of his day; among them, Caesar, Cicero, Titus Livius (Livy) and Gaius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust). At some point he criticized the accuracy of Caesar’s Commentarii de Bellum Civile, refuting some of the facts and situations narrated by the author. His high esteem among the intellectual elite of Rome stemmed in part from his pursuit for veracity. Later scholars such as Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus (Plutarch AD 46- AD 120) and Appian (AD 95-AD 165), even drew on his works, relying on his statements over those of other contemporary historians and intellectuals. Elizabeth Denny Pierce saw in Pollio’s scholarly criticism of Caesar’s Commentaries the reflection of those essential qualities that any historian should harbor: accuracy and reverence for the truth[1].

He was also a prominent protector and patron of the Arts, supporting and sponsoring poets such as Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil) and Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace). In fact, during the period of proscriptions and confiscations of properties promoted by the triumvirs, Virgil was on the verge of losing his farm when Pollio interceded on his behalf, saving him and forging an unbreakable bond of gratitude and friendship that would last until the poet’s last days. These displays of protection by Asinius Pollio were manifest among other artists and intellectuals of this time as happened with the Greek historian, Timagenes, who had a falling out with Augustus. By constituting a distinctive civic space and sheltering any scholar not necessarily aligned with the new regime, Pollio effectively upheld Libertas and the right to criticize and speak up within the boundaries of scholarly rigor.

Among his other great achievements was the establishment of the institution of Recitationes in Rome. These were public readings by authors of their works before a select group of scholars, and later before the public. This was a way for writers to become known within the intellectual circles of Roman society. The original purpose was for an author to present its work, and gather the impressions and criticisms of its peers in order to improve it. Afterwards, the Recitationes evolved into authentic examinations in which the assessment of the public could determine the success or failure of the work recited.

The last contribution of Pollio to the promotion and diffusion of knowledge among the people of Rome was the creation of the first public library. The Atrium Libertatis (rebuilt in 39 BC) was funded and equipped by him from his spoils of the Dalmatian campaign, boasting of a collection of Greek and Latin works in its interior. Culture meant more to him than war and politics and this was evident throughout his long life. These two last examples are a remarkable proof of his commitment towards the education of Roman men and the spread of values such as tolerance, literacy and independent thought.

In regards to his relationship with Augustus some things can be discerned. They never became enemies nor was any animosity between them. Intellectually, they were opposed and diverged in their perception of politics and power. Despite having political differences, it seems that both shared similar literary tastes. They were not friends but colleagues and Augustus respected Pollio’s intellectual standing. His could be an uncomfortable voice but one that didn’t portend subversion or discord; only a desire to seek knowledge and the truth.

He lived long enough to witness the almost complete dismantling of the Republic he once knew, dying in the year 4 AD, at the age of 79. He sired two sons, being Gaius Asinius Gallus Saloninus (40 BC-33 AD) the most prominent one. Asinius Gallus married Vipsania Agrippina, daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and the first wife of the future emperor Tiberius. They had at least five sons. The father and, at least three of the sons, achieved consular rank in their lives.


Pollio could be accused of doing little to save the Republic considering all the years he lived. I disagree. To begin with, the end of the Free State was a process initiated decades ago. The finest and brightest men of the last century BC weren’t able to revert or control the different forces pushing towards chaos. Instead, in their wake, they left animosity and civil wars that tarnished the idea of a republican system of government. Many tried to confront the situation militarily and failed.

Pollio was never a military man, never aspired to become a warlord. The lack of important military and political distinctions in his life were due to his temperament and his inclination towards peace and the quiet life of a scholar. Recognizing that he was not a man of political or military action is that we can understand and appreciate his contribution to the Republic as an academic and a patron of the Arts.

He was a mediator, an ambassador and a public servant committed to the Republic. But above all he was a scholar. He chose sides during the Civil War. Not doing so would have meant political ostracism for a man of his modest backgrounds; inaction would have been a worst fate. He served leaders that didn’t share his values, but he served them faithfully. Asinius Pollio never felt blind devotion for anyone nor allegiance for any party. He always spoke up his mind, refusing Augustus’ orders to join him against Antonius, and rejecting the latter’s request to serve him again. He sponsored and protected artists and intellectuals, and used his own financial resources to bring culture and knowledge to a mostly illiterate Rome. He chose to fight tyranny from another angle. His legacy was marked by the promotion of the Arts and the encouragement of free thought. The Republic died under his watch, but as long as he lived he kept republican values and Libertas alive through those civic pockets created and protected by him. Pollio’s claim to greatness lies in his unbending civic spirit and his influence on the cultural development of his day. Considering his inclinations, limitations and historical context, he genuinely fought for the Free State. He witnessed the physical demise of that system, but the ideas he cherished and upheld lived on during millennia, shaping our modern democracies until this day. By achieving this, the honest and uncompromising Pollio became the last hero of the Roman Republic.

[1] Pierce, E. (1922). A Roman Man of Letters, Gaius Asinius Pollio, p.37.


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Augustus who?

The tyrant? The statesman? The warlord? The monarchist? These are the questions that pop up in my mind most of the time when in my readings about Rome I confront his presence. I can’t lie; I am a big admirer of the Roman Republic to the point that sometimes I make the mistake of idealizing it too much. When I talk about our Western Civilization I can’t stop thinking about how much it owes to one of its parents: The Greco-Roman Civilization. The roots of our republics lie to a great extent in the institutional legacy and example bequeathed by the Romans to the world. Therefore, the last century BC of the Roman Republic fascinates me at the same time that generates in me some sort of melancholy as that marvelous experience of self-rule comes to an end to be replaced by the most common form of government in human history: monarchy.


Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (63 BC-AD 14)

The Roman example is more astonishing if we consider that no great world power ever considered adopting a similar system of government after many centuries had elapsed. And certainly, humanity had to wait after the tumultuous XIX century and the tragedies of the XX century, to see the principle of self-rule proliferate and emerge victorious from its eternal struggle with autocracy.  To me that speaks of an unparalleled political genius only matched by the Greeks in the 5th century BC when they invented democracy. In consequence, to understand the demise of the Roman Republic I had to confront the man that finally brought it down and why. Two impressive books offered me that opportunity: Ronald Syme’s masterful The Roman Revolution and Adrian Goldsworthy biography Augustus: The First Emperor of Rome. From these readings I had the opportunity to grasp the reasons why the Republic disappeared but more importantly to understand the steps taken to replace it with the Principate. I also had the time to reflect on the man’s character and arrive to a more balanced conclusion of his role in this period. It is not my purpose to argue that what follows are the only reasons explaining the end of the Republic. I am just interested on the institutional decay that led to the Principate, and in understanding more thoroughly the person of Augustus. These are the motives guiding the next lines that seek to inform and open the discussion for other interested readers of the period.

The Dissolution of the Republic

Ambition and recognition were at the core of Roman politics. The Republic was an oligarchic regime controlled by aristocratic families that led the Roman State for generations. It was also democratic in the sense that the citizenry elected their magistrates but could never aspire to office unless they belonged to the senatorial rank and fulfilled certain requirements. For senators upholding Libertas it meant preserving the system that allowed them to share power, guide magistrates elected in open competition and replace them constantly so everyone could have access to high command and profit. This system began to crack at the end of the 2nd century BC for many reasons. The death of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 133 BC heralded the radicalization and polarization of Roman politics to levels never seen before.

To understand the political environment in which Octavius (the original name of Augustus) thrived it is important to notice the institutional decay of the previous decades that made his rise possible.  The disruption of legality, the flouting of laws and the constant usurpation of power follows a trajectory that reveals constant civil wars; in 100 BC a tribune, Lucius Saturninus, was stoned to death by his fellow colleagues; The Social War of 91 BC pitted the Roman State against the communities of Italy that demanded political enfranchisement into the Commonwealth; In 88 BC what followed was the first march of a Roman general against his own city that led to the complete supremacy of Lucius Cornelius Sulla until 78 BC; then more commotion with the rebellion of Lepidus in 78 BC, the Catilinarian Conspiracy of 63 BC to overthrow the State, culminating with the Civil war between Caesar and Pompey (49-45 BC), and Cesar’s dictatorship and assassination in 44 BC (when Augustus became important in Roman politics).

During the span of these decades serious anomalies undermined the Roman constitution. The dictatorships of this period were not inspired by the limited office created by the Romans. Instead, the new version was imposed over the Free State with a strong autocratic zeal. Sulla’s march to Rome set a precedent to be followed in the future by more ambitious generals. The conscription of private and illegal armies by wealthy citizens became more common and what is worse, individuals started to climb up to the top of the political hierarchy ignoring the legal steps required by the cursus honorum to hold office. Finally, constant warfare, proscriptions, exile and murder drained the oligarchy of talent and vigor to redress the malaise that afflicted the political body. Bit by bit all the institutional fabric binding together the Roman Commonwealth and regulating its political life started to fall apart. This process was expedited after Caesar’s assassination by a band of senators that called themselves Liberators.  The year 44 BC marks the period in which Augustus stepped onto the political stage changing everything forever.


Julius Caesar death at the hands of the Liberators

Tresviri rei publicae constituendae

The rise of Augustus is full of irregularities and shows an explicit contempt for the law. Though part of the aristocracy, his background was that of an outsider. From a local community in Italy (Velitrae), his father (Caius Octavius) was the first of the family to enter the Senate and reach the praetorship before dying. In consequence, from the beginning Augustus didn’t have an aristocratic lineage to brag about. Hence, his obsession to associate his name to the royal house of the Julii once the dictator adopted him as a son in his will. He could be considered a homus novus and in other periods it would have been really difficult for him to rise within the nobility. Nonetheless, this “modest” background coupled with the decay of the traditional noble houses and republican institutions, made his appearance on the political stage more fascinating and at the same time more deplorable.

After the death of the dictator different factions of the Senate entered into conflict. In the ensuing chaos the faction led by Marcus Tullius Cicero couldn’t muster the strength necessary to confront Marcus Antonius and restore concord. In an astonishing move they not only sought the support of the nineteen year old Augustus, and the private and illegal army he had raised, but also gave him propraetorian imperium enrolling him in the Senate, and grading him as a quaestor almost ten years before the legal age to hold that office. The next year he became consul (commonly held at the age of 42). Of course there were precedents. Pompey also raised a private army during his youth and became consul without holding any office before. Balbus and Salvidienus are other notorious examples. These were the symptoms of an ailing Republic.

Laws and institutions received an even more devastating blow with the passing of the Lex Titia of 43 BC establishing a triumvirate to set the Roman State in order (Tresviri rei publicae constituendae). This was in effect the creation of a new dictatorship with almost unlimited power excepting the constraints that each partner could put upon the other triumvir. Among the great prerogatives that Antonius, Lepidus and Augustus had was the naming of magistrates for the upcoming years, suspending free competition for office. The result was that all the magistracies, and specially the consulship, never regained their former authority and the Republic came under the control of tyrants.

If the Republic was not dismantled by this date it marks the beginning of the end of the Free State. After the Battle of Phillipi the last cohort of senators fighting to restore their own conception of Libertas lay death on the battlefield. Decades of constant strife and violence took its toll among the aristocracy, draining it completely from experience and leadership. It also brought havoc among the people of Italy and the provinces who witnessed death, proscriptions and banditry.

At least for the moment Augustus showed himself as a cruel tyrant, ordering hundreds of proscriptions and executions, seizing the property of fellow senators, and exhibiting a blatant disregard for republican institutionalism. It is hard to know if he ever truly believed in the system. But again he was born in a period so dysfunctional and full of chaos that it is not a surprise if he thought that the Republic needed “drastic” changes in order to survive. In any case, I must say that it is also admirable to see how an inexperienced kid of nineteen years old of irrelevant background, plunged himself into the vortex of Roman politics with only money, the support of a small and unknown circle of loyal friends (Marcus Agrippa, Maecenas and Salvidienus Rufus among them), and the prestige and auctoritas attached to the name of Julius Cesar.  In that sense he was a complete outsider that rose to challenge the authority of established leaders such as Antonius or Lepidus. On top of that in a world of armies he never displayed military talent. Finally, he had poor health throughout his life. Whit this prognosis what he achieved later is almost unbelievable.

The transition towards a New Order

The years between Phillipi (42 BC) and Actium (31 BC) witnessed a tense peace interrupted by interludes of infighting as the triumvirs veered towards supreme power. Most notable conflicts are the Perusine War (40-41 BC) and the Battle of Naulochus (36 BC) which saw the defeat of Sextus Pompeius (son of Pompey), and the political demise of Lepidus after he was stripped of his triumvir powers and sent into exile. What this interlude explains is that even when the “republican” faction was evicted from power the threat of civil war still lurked over Rome as long as there was rivalry among the leading men of the State. The naval battle of Actium removed the last obstacle in Augustus’s path to supremacy. It is from this date on that he seized complete control of the Republic. During this period he remained in Italy amassing a large following, building coalitions with the remaining aristocratic houses and attending to the needs of the people. His military successes were possible thanks to extremely competent generals such as Agrippa. Also political propaganda was used to persuade the Romans that Augustus was fighting a foreign threat (Queen Cleopatra) and not a fellow Roman, and that the fate of the Roman world rested in his hands. After Actium the transition towards the Principate took place.

People can assume that the transition from the Republic to Empire was immediate. What comes before Augustus is the shared power of the aristocracy and after him the rule of the emperors. To begin with Rome didn’t become an Empire with Augustus. Rome was already an imperial republic at least from the 3rd century BC. That is the reason why the term Principate is more appropriate for the new regime. Augustus could have internally professed support for a monarchic form of government but he never advocated for it explicitly. Throughout his life he cared about republican forms and preferred to be called princeps, or the first citizen among equals. In sum, the Principate displayed an external façade preserving the traditions and names of republican institutions. Internally, it became the rule of a single man more akin to a military dictator than a king.

Institutional changes

If the process towards shaping a new order took years and even decades, what were the specific measures taken to drastically alter the constitution of the Roman State? This is a question that always interested me and deserves attention because its answer points to the effective dismantling of the Republic from 31 BC to AD 14.


Naval Battle of Actium 31BC

From 31 BC on Augustus became consul each year until 23 BC by popular election. But the first important measure wouldn’t come until the year 27 BC. The Roman Empire would be divided in provinces ruled by the Senate and provinces under the care of the princeps. He was given imperium proconsulare or complete authority over his provinces. This was the first measure to curb the ambition of the nobility. Augustus was allotted those provinces in the frontiers in which the bulk of the military was concentrated. He would govern them through legates with delegated imperium. Meanwhile, the remaining provinces handled by the Senate were already pacified with small or irrelevant military garrisons. Governors would be drawn from praetorian ranks not consular, and from new families. This meant that men from the nobility had less access to profit and military glory, deterring anyone from challenging Augustus’ position. Also this is the year when he formally requested to transfer back the powers conferred to him by the Roman Commonwealth. The Senate rejected this motion and instead bequeathed on him more powers. Though this political sham was probably orchestrated by his own supporters, it can be safely assumed that no one wished to go back to the period of free political competition and violence that had consumed so many generations. Finally, 27 BC also marks the year in which Octavius was awarded by the Senate the title of Augustus.

The next significant change came in 23 BC when some particular events made Augustus reconsider his role at the head of the state. By this year he had held the most important offices of the Republic and had triumphed several times. He stepped down from holding any other office for most of the remainder of his life. Nonetheless, he received two formidable powers that would become the foundations of the new regime. The Senate and People of Rome bestowed upon him maius imperium proconsulare and tribunicia potestas. This meant that Augustus had military authority over any territory of the Empire and even within senatorial provinces governed by proconsuls. More important though, he received the prerogatives and authority of the tribunes that were added to the sacrosanctity of his person conferred in 36 BC. This implied that he could convene the Senate whenever he wanted, veto any decision from other magistrates and pass legislation through the Assemblies. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he wasn’t exercising these powers covertly before but now they were officially bestowed for perpetuity upon him and attached to his person not to an office.  Around this time he also received permanent consular powers and from now on he would sit between the two curule chairs belonging to the consuls elected each year.

These changes point towards the centralization of power on him, diminishing the authority and dignity of the Senate and the magistracies. It is important to notice that all of this was done through a thin veil of legality. All powers and distinctions were voted and conceded by the Senate and the People of Rome. Augustus was extremely popular at this period and people were experiencing the beneficial consequences of years of peace. Thus, even if he used his power to bend the rules in his favor, there is little evidence to suggest that the people would have wanted a different outcome. Until his death Augustus also allowed limited competition for office; always vetting and overseeing the election of new magistrates.  In any case of outmost importance to him was the preservation of republican forms at all times.

By 19 BC Rome witnessed the last triumph awarded to an individual not directly linked to Augustus’ family. Balbus the Younger celebrated his campaigns as proconsul of Africa. From now on no other member of the nobility could celebrate a triumph nor could they be hailed as Imperator (victorious general) on the battlefield. Senators were not allowed to visit provinces without previous approval from the princeps. They couldn’t have their own clientela or public buildings erected at private expense. Thus, there was no monument, road, triumph, profit or glory left to the nobility. Augustus effectively tamed and harnessed the power of the nobiles to the service of the Roman People, robbing them of honor and authority in the process.

What kind of government did Augustus conceive for the future? Probably he didn’t know it until the end of his life but the elevation of Agrippa to the same status as him in 18BC suggests the intention of having some sort of collegiate body of principes ruling the Empire sharing powers and responsibilities. Marcellus, Gaius, Julius, Drusus and Tiberius all received similar or equal prerogatives in due course. Another important innovation was the creation of a concilium principis, a board formed by the most experienced men of the State and trusted advisers to guide legislation before bringing any issue to the Senate floor. The membership was temporary and rotated among senators. This body is the precursor of what eventually became the royal court of the emperors.

By 13 BC the Senate commissioned an altar commemorating the peace brought by Augustus to the Roman world (Ara Pacis Augustae). Later in 2 BC another honor was bestowed upon him Pater Patriae. These were symbolic honors but important before the eyes of the Roman People. In any case two other crucial reforms ended the job of abolishing the Republic. In AD 12, an ailing Augustus decided to bolster the powers conferred to the consilium principis. Membership became permanent and decisions now counted as decrees emanating from the whole Senate, reducing this body to something close to impotence. The legal termination of the Republic can be dated to AD 14 when Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, abolished the free election of magistrates by the people and transferred those prerogatives to the Senate.

As it can be seen the abolition of the Republic took several years and it was not until the death of Augustus that the foundations of the new regime were firmly established. After Actium he devoted his energies to tour the provinces and address the many complaints of the communities. Public works under his auspices flourished throughout the Empire as competent men like Agrippa built roads, aqueducts, public baths, restored temples and improved the public services of the State; mainly the water supply and the provision of cheap food.  Artists, led by Maecenas, played an important role buttressing the new regime and guiding public opinion towards the embrace of the New State. There wasn’t any hint of suppression of literature or alternate views of facts[1]. But the official discourse of the government was relentlessly promoted and probably any critic statement was eclipsed by the deluge of opinions supporting Augustus.

In his official account of Rome’s history, he crafted a hegemonic “national” discourse in which he rehabilitated the memory of old enemies as sanitized versions of themselves, expanding the list of summi viri (the greatest men in Roman history) and stripping all negative association to civil war. In this unified and coherent version he turned all of them into his predecessors culminating with the deeds of the greatest of all: himself. That’s the story that could be found inside the Forum of Augustus.


Forum of Augustus

There was also an important generational shift that took place. By the end of his peaceful reign no one could remember how life under the Republic was. And those who could didn’t have many incentives to go back. So much conflict battered the political ideals of the nobility and curbed aristocrat’s instinctive ambition. It can be inferred that the general mood was towards consent of Augustus’ rule even if that meant submission to him. In any case the Principate was not free of threats. Ambitious men tried to plot against Augustus. The most notable ones been the clumsy plot planned in 23 BC by Fabius Caepio and the disturbances fomented by Marcus Egnatius Rufus in 19 BC, the last senator willing and able to use force to get his way. But in overall terms for almost everyone peace had benefited the whole Commonwealth and there was no desire to resurrect Libertas.

The restoration of the Roman Republic had a brief chance of succeeding in the eve of Caligula’s assassination in AD 41. The Senate convened to discuss this possibility but the Praetorian Guard had other ideas and proclaimed Claudius the new emperor. It seems that the Principate couldn’t be completely shielded from the madness and whims of a bad emperor. In any case, it demonstrates that senators who didn’t have any recollection of a life under a republican system were willing, maybe with certain melancholy, to resurrect what it appeared now as an idealized form of government of the past. It didn’t succeed because even if the Senate was still an important political body this was a new Rome in which the military, and specially the Praetorian Guard, had the final saying. There was never any other attempt to go back.


Going back to the main issue of this post who is Augustus then? It is a question that can’t be answered in absolute terms. The task is even more difficult when you try to set aside your own moral standards from interfering with the judgement of the man, especially in an age in which democracy, the rule of law and human rights are the dominant values of the Western Hemisphere.  It is hard not to think about Augustus in negative terms; as the destroyer of the Republic and the legacy upon which part of our own political systems stand. But at the same time, what worth did that system of government had in the last century BC amid war, poverty, violence and proscriptions? Those were the final symptoms of the dying Free State. Who could uphold Libertas if no one was left alive to defend it? In that light my perception of Augustus becomes more reasonable.

I would divide Augustus life in two parts. One part encompasses his rise to power as a triumvir until the battle of Actium. The last part would go from that final struggle to end “all civil wars” to the last days of his life.

The young Augustus shows the worst traits of his character. He was treacherous, cruel, prone to outbursts of anger and disrespectful of Roman institutions and the law. He was a warlord and a murderer no better than his colleagues in the triumvirate. Probably those qualities were the right ones to navigate war and politics in such perilous times. But other tyrants before him showed more leniency, sparing innocent lives. If this period exposes the darkest side of his personality what he did later in his life elevates his character.

After Actium Augustus, supreme ruler of the world, became a more moderate person. He devoted his existence to serve the necessities of the Roman people and worked tirelessly to secure the Empire from internal and external threats, and bring peace and prosperity to most of the population. His popularity wasn’t a façade either. He exhibited moderation in his lifestyle, eating habits and courtesy in his dealings with others. He showed clemency, and after the proscriptions and executions of the Triumviral period , seldom someone ever suffered the same fate. In the final analysis he used all the powers bestowed upon him for the greater good of Rome.

As all human lives his was a complex one, nuanced and full of gray dots. His Empire didn’t allow any display of civic virtue at home or abroad, abolishing politics and Libertas. But he could do so because the Free State had lost something more fundamental than political liberty and that was security of life and property. Hence, everyone was ready to surrender freedom and submit to peace if that implied enjoying a quiet and prosperous life. In sum, he was a military dictator who seized the power of the state; but he also became a great statesman and, despite his autocratic tendencies, he was in overall terms a benevolent ruler.

Finally, what lessons can we draw from this period? What the transition from Republic to Principate shows is that when a system of government can’t guarantee the life and essential needs of its population, no matter how free it is it runs the risk of losing legitimacy and collapse under new alternatives. Western democracy is under assault in many parts of the world and it seems that its “universal” appeal is crumbling. It is imperative to look at the deficiencies and failures of our republics and redress them. Otherwise we could be setting the stage for the emergence of a new Augustus and a new Principate. Maybe the current “populist” waves sweeping across parts of the Americas and Europe can teach us the right lessons for the future or condemn us to submission.

[1] Augustus: The First Emperor of Rome. P. 413