The end of my blog post #1 pondered on the essential question of what makes a ruler great. To put matters into perspective, history is inherently biased and there may be many differing opinions to any object, event or individual at any one time. In this blog post #2, I will touch upon the same underlying theme, with the exception that it will be less descriptive. I will be zooming in on the achievements of Augustus Caesar (63 BCE – 14 CE) by arguing upon the positive influences of his rule - which will be illustrated through his policies and the resultant social, religious and cultural impacts on Roman society.
learning from history
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” - Aldous Huxley, collected essays
Augustus Caesar's leadership qualities were evident from the get-go when he assumed power following the Battle of Actium. He refrained from the same mistake that his great-uncle Julius Caesar committed which was the concentrating of power to himself; yet was still able to hold sizable authority as seen by the Roman army being under his command.
Such was Augustus's reluctance to be seen as a power hoarder (at least in public) that he had initially given up his authority to the Senate, only for them to confer power back as exemplified by the Republican titles given to him - Tribune of the People and Proconsul. Further prove of his politicking skills were due to the fact that Augustus never referred to himself as an Emperor; instead calling himself "Princeps" (First Citizen).
The single greatest achievement of Augustus would perhaps be the period of Pax Romana (Roman peace). Going against traditions of fighting as a mean of gaining honor and armed with skillful propaganda, Augustus was able to espouse the idea of peace and prosperity to his people which eventually brought about 206 years of peace (27 BCE - 180 CE).
In the midst of peace within the Roman Empire, Augustus needed to draw clear boundaries of Roman territories in order to consolidate his rule. To this end, he did expand some territories, such as setting up client states to the east of the Roman Empire. However, these were done less for a want of bloodshed but more to having strategic buffer regions to protect the scaled down Roman army of having to defend a larger area. When fighting was not an option, the diplomatic skills of Augustus shone through as evident by the peace accord that was struck out with the Parthian Empire.
The legacy of peace brought by Augustus is further exemplified by the replications of his methodologies by subsequent Roman Emperors: expensive ceremonies to close the Gates of Janus, patronizing of Pax Romana literature and issuance of coins with "Pax" on the reverse of it.
The reforms carried out by Augustus were religious and social in nature. The former was carried out with the aim of harking back to the roots of traditional Roman religion. This was done by restoration and construction of old and new monuments respectively. Furthermore, he appointed himself to the religious leadership role of pontifex maximus and used his authority to establish the Imperial Cult for worship of the Emperor as a god. In all, the religious reforms elevated Augustus’s status by subjecting increased adherence from his people.
According to Coppolino (1998), the social reforms were carried out with the short term purpose of bringing back moral authority to the Roman society and the long purpose of achieving long term stability within the state. This can be seen most prominently in the realm of family life, as marriage and procreation was much encouraged, while adultery was made to be a civil crime. In addition, an austere way of living was legislated in response to the lavishness of the upper class, with the imposing of a cap on the amount spent on excesses such as food.
Augustus was a firm patron of the arts scene in the Roman Empire. A famous architectural art piece during the era would be the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), which acted as a symbol of the peacetime period. The reason for the commissioning of the art piece - to honor peace established by Augustus - is further testament of Augustus's profound influence towards absence of war and the subsequent prosperity that ensured.
"I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble." - Augustus Caesar
The literary scene, despite being state controlled, was equally vibrant with the emerging of the state's most notable writers such as Horace, Vergil and Livy. For example, Fagan (1999) reported that the writer Vergil came up with a new national epic for the Romans in the Aeneid and had such profound influence that every schoolchildren needed to learn it by heart. All these resulted in the ideas of Augustus permeating throughout society, with the perception that some of the literature were genuinely supporting of Augustus's reign.
As a reiteration, the most important quality which set Augustus up for his many achievements was the impeccable ability to win the heart of the people and Roman senate. It was with this that he was able to consolidate his power and use it as the foundation for the many reforms carried out. All these led to a stable Roman Empire - having previously been plunged into utter chaos following the assassination of Julius Caesar - until its capture by Germanic barbarians.