The Birth of Augustus’ Roman Empire

Graham Land

3 mins

16 Jan 2018

The victory of Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian over Antony in 31 BC meant that Rome was unified under one leader and larger than ever before. Octavian took the name ‘Augustus’ and began a clever plan of setting himself up as Rome’s first Emperor in all but name.

From Republic to Empire

Although we refer to Republican and Imperial periods of the Rome, Republican values were still paid lip service during Augustus’ reign and beyond. A semblance of democracy, although more of a façade, was reverentially upheld under Augustus and subsequent Emperors.

emperor augustus

The Republic came to a practical end with Julius Caesar, but it was actually more a process of wearing away than an outright switch from patrician semi-democracy to wholesale monarchy. It seems that instability and war were suitable reasons or excuses for entering an authoritative political phase, but admitting to the end of the Republic was an idea that the people and senate would need getting used to.

Augustus’ solution was to create a system of government often referred to as the ‘principate’. He was Princeps, meaning ‘first citizen’ or ‘first among equals’, an idea that was in fact incongruous with the reality of the situation.

Despite the facts that Augustus had turned down offers of life consulship — although taking it up again when naming his heirs — and dictatorship, during his term, he consolidated the powers of the military and tribunal, became head of the state religion and gained the power of veto of the magistrates.

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A lifetime of achievement

I extended the borders of all the provinces of the Roman people which neighboured nations not subject to our rule. I restored peace to the provinces of Gaul and Spain, likewise Germany, which includes the ocean from Cadiz to the mouth of the river Elbe. I brought peace to the Alps from the region which is near the Adriatic Sea to the Tuscan, with no unjust war waged against any nation.

—from Res Gestae Divi Augusti (‘The Deeds of the Divine Augustus’)

roman empire augustus

The Roman Empire under Augustus. Credit: Louis le Grand (Wikimedia Commons).

An intellectual, Augustus instituted reforms within the political, civil and tax systems of the greatly expanding Empire, to which he added Egypt, northern Spain and parts of central Europe. He also enacted an extensive public works program, resulting in achievements including the construction of many architectural monuments.

A 40-year period of peace and growth following 100 years of civil war took place under Augustus. Roman territory also became more integrated in terms of trade and infrastructure.

Augustus inaugurated Rome’s first police force, fire brigade, courier system, a standing imperial army, and the Praetorian Guard, which endured until it was disbanded by Constantine in the early 4th century.

In the eyes of some historians, the political system he established essentially remained constant through the reign of Constantine (Emperor from 306 – 337AD).

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Historical significance

Augustus propagandised these feats in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, which glowingly recounts the Emperor’s political career, charitable acts, military deeds, popularity and personal investment in public works. It was engraved on two bronze pillars and installed in front of Augustus’ mausoleum.

Perhaps Augustus’ main achievements lie in establishing and propagating the myth of Rome as the ‘Eternal City’, a place of mythologised virtue and glory. He carried this out in part by building many impressive architectural monument and other acts of state and personal propaganda.

The self-worship of Rome blended with the state religion, which, thanks to Augustus, incorporated imperial cults. He established a dynasty that achieved mythical significance.

If it were not for Augustus’s longevity, intelligence and shrewd populism, perhaps Rome would not have abandoned republicanism wholesale and returned to its earlier, more democratic system.