Analyzing How Augustus (Gaius Octavius) Dominated and Consolidated His Power Over Ancient Rome

Updated on August 20, 2018
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Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Asteriaa writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

Who was Augustus?

Augustus was the founder of the Roman Empire and its first Emperor, ruling from 27 BC until his death in AD 14. He was born as Gaius Octavius into an old and wealthy equestrian branch of the plebeian Octavii family. Augustus rose to power through several means, including the benefits that he gained from his victory at The Battle of Actium. Furthermore, the emperor was able to maintain his power through establishing settlements such as The First and Second Settlements that were under his control.

The Prima Porta

A statue of Augustus
A statue of Augustus | Source

The Battle of Actium was a fundamental moment in history that determined the course of Octavian’s autocratic career. The battle provided Octavian with the opportunity to glorify himself and consolidate his power. The aftermath of the battle allowed Octavian to expand the Roman Empire to Egypt. The effect of his victory allowed him to support the Roman Empire’s socio-economic position stability significantly. Ultimately, the battle of Actium was a paramount moment in history which shaped the course of Roman history.

The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC, oil on canvas by Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672. National Maritime Museum, London.
The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC, oil on canvas by Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672. National Maritime Museum, London. | Source

The Impact of The Battle of Actium on Augustus' Career

Essentially, the immediate consequence of the war contributed to Augustus’ opportunistic consolidation of power. The defeat of Marc Antony eliminated political opposition and rectified him as triumvir and consul. Augustus transformed the anticlimactic affair of Actium into a national crusade in which Augustus had fought for Rome’s integrity against Oriental corruption and emerged victoriously. For instance, contemporary historian Suetonius explained that to glorify his achievement, Octavian founded a city nearby the battleground and named it Nicopolis, ‘City of Victory.’ Suetonius extrapolated the idea that Octavian arranged for the celebration of Games there to be held every 5 years to create a legacy of his achievement.

Hence, the consequence of Actium was how Augustus was meticulously enabled to apply his victory in order to glorify himself and gain populous support. Due to this, Octavian was hailed as imperator and gained control of all the Roman legions as proconsular imperium. Further political outcomes from Actium was exhibited through how Augustus publicly indicated that ‘peace was restored.’ This followed with the symbolic closure of the ‘Temple of Janus’ and the more practical action of settling 120,000 veterans, reducing his legions from 60 to 28. Therefore, the battle of Actium was manipulated into a political ploy that advanced Octavian’s political career.

The Aftermath of The Battle of Actium

The aftermath of the Battle of Actium resulted in the expansion of the Roman Empire and supported it’s economic functionality. Cleopatra’s suicide aided Octavian's ambitions since Egypt was annexed to Rome. For example, historian Shotter explained how this marked the application of Egypt to Rome as, “a turning point in the history of Rome.” Shotter further synthesised that Octavian turned the kingdom of Egypt into a Roman province. Octavian now established authority over the eastern provinces and marked the end of the 300-year old Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt.

Furthermore, Octavian increased its fertility and its yield of grain for the Roman market by making troops clean out irrigation canals of the Nile. This contributed towards Rome’s financial stability. This was also demonstrated through the vast treasures of the Ptolemies that was used to pay for campaigns, triumph and the adornment of Rome. Henceforth, the acquirement of Egypt aided the Rome’s financial stability.

Augustus: First Roman Emperor

The prime significance the Battle of Actium offered was the way it consolidated Octavian’s position. He needed to return confidence, peace and stability to the state and consolidate his power, which was what the battle of Actium offered him to do. The battle’s victory contributed to his reputability, affording him the respect needed to develop a new central government and political system known as the principate. Contemporary historian Weber explained that the significance and consequence of Actium allowed society to devout patriotism his leadership, creating a halo effect over his flaws.

Hence, Augustus was able to construct the facade that his government served the interests of the population’s civil liberties. Under this guise was able to create an autocracy instead which wasn’t depicted as tyranny. Hence, the battle allowed citizens to find stability with Octavian. Consequently, there was peace in the empire for the first time in two-hundred-years as there was no more political upheaval, civil wars and proscriptions.

Map of The Battle of Actium

Source

The Battle of Actium was a vital moment in history that drastically moulded Roman history. The consequence of the battle glorified Octavian in the eyes of his citizens, consolidating his position. This allowed him to expand the Roman empire to Egypt and financially stabilised his empire. Essentially, the battle of Actium was the event that shaped the course of Roman and Egyptian history.

The Significance of the First and Second Settlements

The First and Second settlements played a vital role in successfully consolidating Augustus’ political, military and provincial dominance over Rome. The ‘First Settlement’ of 27BC was the product of Octavian’s consolidating his sole dominance of Rome, as accentuated by the provincial benefits he received. The Second Settlement of 23BC assisted in Augustus’s attempt to consolidate his political stability whilst through utilising discretion to address political unrest. Ultimately, the settlements were products of Augustus’ attempts to consolidate his authority

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The First Settlement

The ‘First Settlement’ of 27BC was the product of Octavian’s sole dominance within Rome. The settlement marked his first major constitutional actions to consolidate his position. For example, in order to gain the support of the Roman populous he renounced all his constitutional powers and provinces to the senate and Roman people. However, this was contradicted by his actions as explained by Dio Cassius who stated that the power of the people and senate was transferred in Octavian’s hands. Cassius explained that the democratic ideal that Octavian proposed was merely a symbolic gesture.

This was accentuated through how he revoked his leadership from Rome and Egypt on the 17th of January, 27BC. This was a calculated tactic in manipulating the Roman Empire into believing they needed his leadership. This was since it sparked plebeian riots and public outcry, resulting in Rome's proclamation that they needed his leadership. Henceforth, the First Settlement’s consolidated Augustus’ public control over Roman as reminded the populous on their dependency on leadership.

Bust of Augustus

Bust of Augustus in Musei Capitolini, Rome
Bust of Augustus in Musei Capitolini, Rome | Source

The provincial benefits that Augustus required from the “First Settlement’ highlighted its function in consolidating his authority. This was accentuated through the Roman populous’ reaction to how Augustus revoked his control over Roman and Egypt. Subsequently, three days later the Senate bestowed additional honours upon Augustus. This was a driving tool in consolidating his power as he was given the role of proconsul over the senate. This also extended to provincial areas of Spain, Syria and Gaul. These new honours ensured Augustus’ singular control over 70% of the Roman legions.

Contemporary Historian, David Shotter explained that these powers had given him the control he needed to consolidate his position. Furthermore, Augustus has conferred the title of ‘Pontifex Maximus’, marking him as the revered leader of Roman religion. Augustus was now firmly established as the ‘Princeps’ and given his high profile between 29-28BC the timing was ideal. Hence, the ‘First Settlements’ afforded Augustus the role of Pontifex Maximus, delineating its significance in consolidating his power.

A denarius coin minted at Rome in 17 BC. Caesar Augustus (left) and Julius Caesar (right). Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group
A denarius coin minted at Rome in 17 BC. Caesar Augustus (left) and Julius Caesar (right). Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group | Source

The Second Settlement

The Second Settlement of 23BC played a critical role in consolidating Augustus’ through assuring political stability. The assassination conspiracies of Caepio and Murena and of Augustus’ ill health transpired within the Roman Empire. Due to the social unrest, this perpetuated, the Roman empire demanded a tighter formula of government to consolidate the security and stability of the empire. Additionally, the Roman senate also pushed for the administrative change, ensuing from resentment over Augustus’ overbearing political influence. In response, Augustus resigned the consulship on July 1, 23BC.

According to the Contemporary Historian, Howard Scullard explained that the authority of Augustus was re-established on two foundations. This consisted of the tribunicia potestas that afforded him civil authority in Rome. Furthermore, Scullard stated that the creation of the Second Settlement granted Augustus with proconsular imperium maius. This gave Augustus control of the armies and provinces. Therefore, the Second Settlement’s creation was a tool that assisted Augustus to discretely maintain control over Roman politics and armies.

Roman Emperor Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, BC 12. Palazzo Massimo, Rome

Source

Consolidating authority through utilising discretion was the main function of the Second Settlement. This discussion was ultimately viewed through Augustus revoking his position to the office of Princeps. Augustus was unable to maintain a prominent position in politics as his illness made him vulnerable. Hence, due to his resignation, he was granted a ‘Tribunicia Potestas’, which empowered Augustus to legislate in the assembly, summon the Senate, veto proposals and speak first at meetings. Augustus’ tribunician authority provided the basis of his legal power as described by Tacitus as “the most important feature of the power of the Princeps.

Hence, The tribunician power came to be identified completely with the office of the Princeps, and Augustus and his successors, on their coins and public documents, date the years of their reigns by it. Furthermore, Augustus had manipulated public feeling through the symbolic ‘surrender’ of his powers. This relieved tension from the Roman populous feeling constricted from his leadership, affording Augustus respect and further consolidated his authority. Thus, the construction of the Second Settlement pacified tensions regarding Augustus’ control in politics, consolidating his position.

The Meroë Head of Augustus, Bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus, likely made in Africa, Egypt, C.27BC - 25BC. Excavated, Africa, Sudan, 1910. © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Meroë Head of Augustus, Bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus, likely made in Africa, Egypt, C.27BC - 25BC. Excavated, Africa, Sudan, 1910. © The Trustees of the British Museum | Source

The First and Second settlements played an active role in successfully consolidating Augustus’ position. The settlements afforded Augustus the opportunity to make the Roman Empire reliant on his leadership. This was highlighted through how he renounced all his constitutional powers and provinces to the senate and Roman people. Furthermore, this was shown through the benefits he gained from the title of ‘Pontifex Maximus’, marking him as the revered leader of Roman religion. These opportunities allowed Augustus to diminish assassination conspiracies of Caepio and Murena. Without the creation of these settlements it is debatable that Augustus would not have been able to sustain his leadership, nor shape Roman history to the extent that he had.

© 2016 Simran Singh

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