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The many guises of the emperor Augustus
The many guises of the emperor Augustus

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4 The many guises of Augustus

As outlined in the Introduction to this course, Augustus became sole ruler of Rome after a series of bloody civil wars that ended in him defeating all his rivals. These civil wars were characterised by a fundamental battle not only between different powerful figures, but also between the political principles of Republicanism on the one hand, and the realities of personal ambition and the need to control an empire and colossal army on the other. As a result, Augustus’ position at the start of his rule was very precarious. In the way that he presented himself to the people of Rome and the empire, he managed to tread a very fine line between two seemingly contradictory principles – ones that represented the conflicting sides of Rome’s civil wars.

  1. On the one hand, monarchy was a taboo concept in Rome. Kings hadn’t ruled Rome since they were chased out 500 years earlier and The (Roman) Republic was established. Rome prided itself on its constitution based on a collective duty to be politically involved and saw monarchy as barbaric and immoral. Consequently, and because his adoptive father Julius Caesar had been assassinated for his monarchic ambitions, Augustus had to present himself as the ‘first among equals’, returning Rome to its republican roots, restoring peace and stability, and fostering the so-called mos maiorum, or ‘custom/ways of one’s ancestors’ of the old days of the Republic. Instead of calling himself king, Augustus assumed political offices that had already existed in the Republic. However, instead of sharing them out, his power stemmed from the fact that he held most of the key positions at once!
  2. On the other hand, the exceptional extent of Augustus’ power couldn’t be completely hidden. As a result, this power had to be justified to the people. Augustus did this by portraying himself as extraordinarily virtuous and capable person, possessing in abundance the qualities expected by the Roman people of one of their leaders, such as piety and modesty. In this way, he could assert that the exceptional power he held was down to his exceptional personal qualities.