Augustus Caesar First Emperor of Rome: Despot or Good Leader?
Augustus Julius Caesar the First Emperor of Rome has a mythological presence in the history of Western Civilization. This paper discusses two contrasting views of his leadership qualities. Was Caesar a despot or was he a great leader? His legacy and the mark he left on history leaves no room for a moderate stand on this Caesar. Two articles will be used to help judge whether he was a positive force or a negative force. Both were written after the death of the First Emperor. The Deeds of the Divine Augustus by Augustus was published in 14 A.C.E. takes a favorable look at the legacy of the emperor by listing his accomplishments and the successes of the Roman Empire under his rule. The other article was written by P. Cornelius Tacitus and titled the Annals Book 1 A.D. 14, 15. Tacitus discusses the legacy of slaughter and chaos that constituted the formation of the Roman Empire by Augustus Caesar. The paper compares and contrasts the two conflicting views to attempt to better understand the legacy of the first Roman Emperor. In this paper he is referred to as Augustus Caesar as do the writers of his time so as not to confuse him with the name of his great uncle, Julius Caesar.
Accession to the Throne
Augustus Caesar’s given name at his birth was Gaius Octavius. Julius Caesar was his great uncle. After Julius Caesar was murdered in the Senate his will was read. Then it became public knowledge that Julius Caesar had adopted Gaius Octavius which made the young man the heir to the highest seat of leadership in Rome. Octavian had no power, no position until the will was read and he took the position left by his great uncle. (Augustus, Lucidcafe.com)
Tacitus (14ADE) reported one of the first acts done after Augustus Caesar took power was done with no one taking responsibility. Many excuses were made and secrets whispered but no trial in the Senate had taken place and the event was shrouded in mystery. “The first crime of the new reign was the murder of Posthumus Agrippa. Though he was surprised and unarmed, a centurion of the firmest resolution dispatched him with difficulty” (p. 47). Thisexample given by Tacitus seems to be an appropriate example of the intrigue and back stabbing (literally) that was the symbol of the first emperor’s leadership style. Julius Caesar had successfully argued for the banishment of Agrippa in the Senate. But Augustus (14 ADE) quickly explained that although.
Beyond a doubt, Augustus (Julius Caesar) had often complained of the young man’s character, and had thus succeeded in obtaining the sanction of a decree of the Senate for his banishment. But he never was hard-hearted enough to destroy any of his kinsfolk, nor was it credible that death was to be the sentence of a grandson in order that the stepson might feel secure. (p. 47)
Here was one of the first signs of the tragedy to come after Julius Caesar’s death in the mind of Tacitus. Chaos would rule the elite class as they all vied for power or for the power of their sons. Tacitus shared his theory that Agrippa had been murdered due to the fear of Tiberius and the envy of his stepmother, Livia. The son of Livia, Tiberius, immediately denied any part in the murder knowing that he would be suspect because of the ‘competition’ for rule in which the two boys found themselves. Tacitus spends a lot of time discussing the secrecy and the various motives surrounding the murder of Agrippa. He also described the whole family drama that took place regarding Agrippa and Tiberius before Julius Caesar died. From this account the type of family Augustus Caesar was born into was petty and competitive. Perhaps this could explain his ambition and his deceptive nature as he gained more and more power.
On the other hand the Deed of the Divine Augustus by Augustus are written as positive list of good deeds done by a great ruler wanting only the best for the Roman Empire. It is interesting how the words for killing and violence have a very different context in each of the writings. For example, Augustus (14 A.C.E.) wrote that.
I drove the men who slaughtered my father into exile with a legal order, punishing their crime, and afterwards, when they waged war on the state, I conquered them in two battles. (p. 51)
Here the word slaughter is used with great pride as something a good man would do given the power to do it. Tacitus has little to no patience with any type or romanticizing of the history. For example when explaining the people’s distrust of the Senate leadership he writes
They distrusted the government of the Senate and the people, because of the rivalries between the leading men and the rapacity of the officials, while the protection of the laws was unavailing, as they were continually deranged by violence, intrigue and finally by corruption (Tacitus, 14 A.C.E., p. 46)
This passage also demonstrates Tacitus’ alarm of the loss of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
Republic versus Empire
As mentioned earlier the “Deeds of the Divine Augustus” contain more or less the great accomplishments of a great leader, the first emperor of Rome, Augustus Caesar. Some of those accomplishments will be discussed below but here the concern of Tacitus over the loss of the republic will be addressed. Tacitus wrote bitterly of the loss of freedom. He begins by describing the first ruling kings which were replaced by the “freedom and the consulship” by Lucius Brutus (p. 45). Tacitus explained that only in times of great strife for only temporary periods of time, maybe up to two years, had dictatorships ever been allowed. And although Tacitus claimed he wanted to write the history of the first reign of the empire with objectivity but after reading only a few pages of the Annals that does not seem to be clearly proved. On the other hand losing the freedoms of a republic to come under the power of a dictator or despot as Tacitus viewed Augustus Caesar must have been incredibly disappointing.
Tacitus was not impressed by the great burden of unending war for spite or to increase the territories of the empire. He used the word “slaves” to describe the real position that the nobles took when they did whatever the Caesar wanted in exchange for power or bribes. While the words of Augustus may look like the same words the context is much different.
Augustus sees the increase in the territory of the Roman Empire as a great accomplishment because by having the large amount of land ruled by one person the battles and wars between neighbors subsided. This expansion of the Roman borders did bring peace to the Empire for one hundred years. (Augustus, lucidcafe.com) Interestingly though Augustus does not write that he was made ruler of the lands that were conquered but for example that, “I added Egypt to the rule of the Roman people” (p. 54). He has written of his generous appointment of leaders to the lands that were conquered because for example. . . the same nation after revolting and rebelling, and subdued through my son Gaius, I handed over to be ruled by King Ariobarzanes son of Artabazux, King of the Medes, and after his death, to his son Artavasedes and when he was killed, I sent Tigranes, who came from the royal clan of the Armenians, into that rule. (Augustus, 14 A.C.E., p. 54)
He is making the point that although, because he is the supreme ruler, he could have given the kingdom to his son as a reward; instead he took the high road and let the royal linage remain intact.
Augustus described how in 28-27 B.C.E. he “after putting out the civil war, having obtained all things by universal consent, I handed over the state from my power to the dominion of the Senate and the Roman people” (p. 55). Here again ‘humbly’ or as Tacitus would see it – deceptively- he kept total control by claiming that everything happened exactly like everyone wanted it to happen. And certainly the title the Divine Augustus does not indicate that many political decisions were made by the universal consent of the people of Rome or of the Roman Senate.
In the “Deed of the Divine Rome” Augustus also describes ruling as only one of a great Triumvirate and of ruling with his son to indicate his dedication to democracy. When offered the dictatorship he adamantly claims not accepting any such role. Augustus also discussed the inclusion of more people into the elite political arena of the time. But included later in the article are lists of the peoples (such as from India) and the Kings from around the world who came to pay tribute to him. His words say one thing but when the text is read as a whole the humbleness he has tried to claim is not very obvious.
This theme of the better days under the rule of a vibrant Senate in a Roman republic was the theme running through the writing by Tacitus. Tacitus made his disgust with the actions of obedience in order to gain favor and riches of the former noble class in Rome. Whereas Augustus wrote of a much different world, because he wrote of a great and humble ruler who lived through the hardship of war to offer his people the best lives possible. The appendix on “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus” written after his death listed the large number of temples he built to the Roman gods. The amount he spent for the entertainment of the people for “theatrical spectacles and gladiatorial games” (p. 56). Some idea of the extravagance of his spending for public entertainments can be understood by the movies about the Roman Empire. At the time the spectacle must have been fantastic. Yet Tacitus would not have been cheered up by the money spent like this to please people and win their loyalty. Tacitus demonstrated in his writings that his loyalty could only be respectfully won by leader who wins favor by being a great leader. Tacitus longed for a leader who would build a great republic again and leave the petty, nastiness of imperial politics to die out.
“Augustus First Roman Emperor, 63 B.C. – 14 C.E.” (2012 September 8) Lucidcafé: Library. Blog post. Retrieved from http://www.lucidcafe.com/%E2%80%8Clibrary/95sep/augustus.html
Augustus. 14 A.D.E. “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.” Thomas Bushnell, Translator, Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html
Tacitus, P. Cornelius. 1832. (14, 15 A.D.) Annals Book 1. Alfred J. Church & Wm. J. Brodribb, Translators. Philadelphia, PA: L. Johnson.