Augusto emperor

Octavian Augustus: the work of an emperor

23 September is the anniversary of the birth of Emperor Augustus in 63 BC. Together with his adversary Mark Antony, he was the protagonist of the tumultuous events that burnt Rome after the Ides of March. He ended up marking the city's destiny and writing its future history, becoming absolute ruler of the leading power in the ancient world and demonstrating a precocious political and military talent.

These great strategic skills were not matched, however, by any particular literary ability (as he himself would ironically admit), but this did not prevent him from leaving a paper trail of his exploits in what is - still today - his true self-portrait.

Res Gestae Divi Augusti: a brief outline

Of extreme historical and ideological interest, the work reveals its author's skill in elaborating - with exemplary density and persuasion - an effective synthesis of his entire cursus, while maintaining a medium, dry, calculated register, far from literary complacency.

Concluded shortly before his death (19 September 14 AD), it is divided into 35 chapters, which can be divided into three macro-sections enclosed by a short introduction and an appendix of four chapters, both certainly posthumous (the incipit reads Divi Augusti, with the appellation that was given to the emperor only after his death when he was deified; in the Appendix, however, the third person appears, as opposed to the first person used throughout the text).

Roman Emperor Augustus, Bronze Statue

From the death of Caesar to the rise of Octavian (first part, chapter 1-14)

At the age of 19, on my own initiative and at private expense, I assembled an army, with which I restored freedom to the oppressed freedom to the Republic oppressed by the domination of one faction.

The young Gaius Octavius was not yet twenty years old when he arrived in Rome on 21 May 44 B.C. to take possession of his adoptive father's inheritance. He gathered around him the military forces of veterans loyal to Caesar with the aim of facing the threat of Antony who, intending to take control of Rome, had called back to Italy the troops stationed in Macedonia. Unscrupulously supporting Brutus, he clashed with him at Modena between 44 and 43, emerging victorious.

Disappointed, however, by his alliance with Caesar's assassins and frightened by the growth of Caesar's military forces, he sought the consent of his initial enemy, forming the second triumvirate (27 November 43 BC) and putting an end to Caesar's assassins by defeating Cassius and Brutus at Philippi (42 BC) and eliminating the remaining opponents by proscription (chapters 1-2).

💡 Did you know? Proscriptions were originally, in Ancient Rome, criminal measures against debtors, whose property was confiscated and put up for sale. Later, confiscation was accompanied by exile and the death sentence. A tool for the easy elimination of political opponents, it was already used by Cornelius Sulla during his dictatorship (82-79 BC).

I often fought civil and foreign wars throughout the world on land and sea; and as the victor I left alive all those citizens who begged for mercy.

The clashes in Modena and Philippi were accompanied by other warlike occasions (chap. 3). In Perugia (41-40 BC), for instance, Octavian faced the attempted uprising of the peninsula by Lucio Antony (brother of Mark) and Fulvia (wife of Antony himself). And again in Sicily (36 BC) he crushed the offensive of Sextus Pompey (son of Pompey the Great) who had blocked the grain supplies to Rome. But the most important conflict remains that fought at Azio (2 September 31 BC). Antony's dream, which had been Caesar's, of creating a great Hellenistic-Oriental kingdom together with Cleopatra was ruined by Octavian's success against the Egyptian queen's fleet and against the triumvir's army, which retreated without a fight at the sight of the Roman forces that had arrived in Alexandria (3 August 30 BC).

[...] I had a triumphal ovation [...] and was acclaimed twenty-one times emperor, although the senate decided on a greater number of triumphs, all of which I declined.

Returning to Rome to celebrate his triumph in the East, Octavian laid down his extraordinary powers and formally handed over the Republic to the Senate (28-27 BC), which gave it back to him, together with almost absolute powers to reorganise it, in the consultation of 13 January 27 BC.

From that moment on Augustus was princeps senatus for forty years, thus beginning the imperial regime. Although he intervened in many state sectors, and not always with orthodoxy, he was careful to refuse dictatorship, preferring if anything to take on individual competences from time to time (for example between 22 and 20 BC he took on the cura annonae to deal with the ongoing famine - chapters 4-8).

Moreover, the Roman knights, all of them, wanted both [their sons] to have the title of princes of the youth [...].

After a long review of the honours he received from the people and the Senate and some of his significant symbolic gestures (such as the closing of the Temple of Janus - chapters 9-13), the Pars Prima concludes with a note on his nephews Gaius and Lucius Caesars. Both adopted as sons and immediately initiated into public life, with the intention of training them as future governors, they died prematurely (Gaius in 2 A.D. of a battle wound, Lucius of malaria in 4 A.D.) reopening the problem of succession.

roman money with the Caesar's head

Panem et circenses: ludi, constructions and restorations (second part, chapter 15-24)

[…] I made donations of wheat and money, now to a hundred thousand people and now to many more, drawing from my granary and my estate.

The urgent need to satisfy the basic needs of the citizens (food and water supply, urban and domestic security) was addressed by means of private donations (chapters 15-18) consisting of distributions to the community of wheat (23 BC) and money (between 29 and 12 BC), amounting to six hundred million sesterces (Appendix I).

[…] I made donations of wheat and money, now to a hundred thousand people and now to many more, drawing from my own my granary and my heritage.

The main urban interventions (chapters 19-21) consisted in the restoration of existing infrastructures and the construction of new facilities (including aqueducts, baths, markets, bridges, roads), but there was also a focus on the artistic and monumental embellishment of the city, which was also and above all functional in terms of political and ideological publicity: together with the Curia, Augustus recalls the construction and maintenance of numerous temples (such as the Lupercale in honour of Romulus and Remus) and secular buildings (the portico of Octavius, the basilique dedicated to Gaius and Lucius). A summary list of the works installed is given in Appendix II and III.

I organised games in my name [...]. In the name of the College of the Fifteen, [...], I celebrated the Secular Ludi.

Augustus did not forget to supplement the panem with circenses, periodically setting up games and shows of all kinds (from gladiatorial fights to exhibitions of athletes, hunting shows and naval battles) on behalf of himself, his children and grandchildren (chapters 22-23). The most important celebration of the Augustan principate, however, was that of the Ludi saeculares (chap. 22), a wish for the new Rome and new life.

💡 Did you know? The Ludi saeculares, so called because they were supposed to take place every century, took place for the first time in 17 B.C. and more precisely from 3 May to 17 June, the harvest period. For that occasion, the poet Horace composed the famous Carmen Saeculare, an invocation to the gods (especially Apollo and Diana) to ensure prosperity for Rome and the Augustan regime.

The money invested in such installations remains incalculable (Appendix IV reads 'innumerabilis').

War and Peace: Foreign Policy and Honours (third part, chapter 25-35)

I enlarged the borders of all the provinces of the Roman people, with which were bordering populations that were not subject to our power.

After recalling once again the clashes with Sextus Pompey in Sicily and with Antony and Cleopatra at Actium (chap. 25), Augustus dwells on pacification and enlargement of the provinces of Spain (with the creation of new provinces between 27 and 19 BC. ), Africa (with Egypt becoming a province with a special statute and the extension of the southern territories towards the conquest of the Eastern trade routes) and Gaul (where successes - such as the subjugation of the populations beyond the Danube - were followed by serious defeats - such as the famous defeat at Teutoburg in 9 AD) (chapters 26-30).

Often ambassadors of kings from India were sent to me, not seen before by any Roman commander. They asked for our friendship [...].

Augustus then reports (chapters 31-33) that he received ambassadorships from India (25 B.C.) and Ethiopia (20 B.C.), from the Germanic peoples of the Bastarni and from the Iranian peoples of the Scythians and the Sarmatians. To these must be added the Parthians, whose relations during the principate were entrusted to diplomacy.

[…], in gratitude, I was given the title August.
[…], the senate, the equestrian order and all the Roman people called me father of the country […].

At the end of the work, the emperor, as if to seal his 'verbal self-celebration' with the memory of the highest moments of his office, dedicates the last two chapters to the consultation of 13 January 27 BC, when the Senate called him Augustus; and to the year of his thirteenth consulship, 2 BC, when he was acclaimed pater patriae, his last honour.

💡 Did you know? The name Augustus, taken by Octavian as a cognomen, well embodies the new power and state represented by the emerging figure of the emperor. Declaring himself (RG 34) superior to the others not for 'power' (potestas) but for 'authority' (auctoritas), he showed how his office was still based on the republican magistracies (all of which he held, including the religious ones) but increased with respect to them.

By Vincenzo Canto