Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus Caesar (63 BC – 14 AD) ruled for over 40 years; expanding territory and establishing many institutions, systems and customs that would endure for many hundreds of years.
Expanding on the dictatorial ambitions of his adopted father, Gaius Julius Caesar, Augustus deftly facilitated the transformation of Rome from a patrician republic to an empire led by a single powerful monarch.
But was Augustus’ prosperous reign a boon for Rome or a massive leap backwards into despotism?
Answering such a question is of course never simple.
‘Democracy’ vs. monarchy
Those who value any form of democracy or republicanism — no matter how limited and corrupt — over autocratic systems like the Roman Empire are for the most part making an ideological argument. While ideological points indeed have merit, they are often trumped by practical realities.
That is not to say that the erosion and end of the Republic did not have a real effect on Rome’s democratic mechanisms, however lean and faulty — it snuffed them out forever.
Here we take the position that democracy is inherently something favourable over autocracy. We are not arguing between the merits of the two, but rather asking — with hindsight — if the actions of Augustus were positive or negative for Rome.
Rome was primed for monarchy
After the shaky First Triumvirate, support was thrown behind Julius Caesar precisely because it was believed he would bring back the political system as it was during the Republic. Instead, in 44 BC, he was made life-long dictator, which turned out to be a very short time, as he was murdered by his peers on the Senate floor only a couple of months later.
Augustus (then Octavian) gained favour in much the same way. He garnered support by referring to himself as princeps (‘first among equals’) and paying lip service to republican ideals like libertas or ‘freedom’.
Rome needed a strong leader
40 years of stability and prosperity should be considered a good thing. Augustus reformed the tax system, greatly expanded the Empire and protected and integrated trade, which brought wealth back to Rome. He also founded enduring institutions such as a fire brigade, police force and a standing army.
Due to Augustus’ cultural efforts, Rome became more beautiful, with stunning temples and other architectural monuments that would impress any visitor. He was also a patron of the arts, especially poetry.
Augustus’ cult of personality was partly based on the conservative traditional Roman values of virtue and social order. While his propaganda was not always accurate, it could be argued that he gave hope to the people of Rome and instilled in them a measure of almost spiritual civic pride.
Once the Republic was gone it was never coming back
History demonstrates that the presence of any level of democracy makes additional progress more likely. Although Roman democracy was dominated by the patrician (gentry) class, certain events during the Republic marked a move towards a more egalitarian system of power sharing with the plebeians, or commoners.
Yet, it should be noted that while Rome seemed to be travelling in a democratic direction, only citizens (patrician and plebeian) could hold any political power. Women were considered property, while slaves — one third of Italy’s population by 28 BC — had no voice.
With the establishment of an emperor as autocratic ruler, Rome’s main political tension of patricians vs. commoners — known as the ‘Struggle of the Orders’ — was forever changed. The patrician Senate was put on a path toward irrelevance, ultimately achieved by the reforms of Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century AD.
Furthermore, the powers of the plebeian assemblies, the Roman legislative branch that was operated on the principle of direct democracy, ended with the death of the Republic. Therefore Augustus’ reign signalled the death of nearly all vestiges of Roman democracy.
Myth and glory vs. people power
In summary, Augustus did bring prosperity, grandeur and pride to Rome, but he effectively killed a 750-year experiment of democracy, beginning with the Kingdom and developing in the years of the Republic. Importantly, archaeological evidence suggests that the wealth and extravagance of the Empire was not experienced by the common residents of Rome, who suffered greatly from poverty and disease.
While Roman democracy was never perfect and far from universal, it at least gave some power to the citizenry and promoted democratic ideals. And though Julius Caesar started hundreds of years of dictatorial despotism, it was Augustus who solidified autocracy into an imperial institution.