Politics and society in the late roman republic


23 Mar 2015

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Politics and Society in the Late Roman Republic

“Augustus' restoration of the res publica was all a sham, a facade behind which lurked monarchy.” Discuss

The restoration of the res publica occurred in 27 BC when Gaius Octavius returned his powers to the senate and people of Rome. This restoration is a much debated topic in modern literature with particular emphasis placed on the word ‘restoration', as much of the res publica appears to have been changed, albeit behind a number of traditional institutions.

A number of scholars support the above statement suggesting the res publica from this point onwards was a monarchy in all but name (Eck, Jones and Wiseman). This essay will however take the alternate view along with a number of contemporary scholars, most notably Millar, Segal and Severy; the idea that Augustus wished to restore the res publica, but also needed to react to the events of the period so as to defend the traditional values of the Roman people. Augustus did however slide towards monarchy during this period, but various authors offer differing dates at which the facade begins to occur.

The first point to be discussed is that of Augustus and his links with the Roman military, which can be viewed at first in purely monarchical terms, this reading however can also imply a much more traditional approach towards republican values. The introduction of the Trojan games or Ludi Troiani for example is a return to a much older tradition based within the early sixth century BC (Virgil Aeneid V.596-601, Suet. Aug. 43.2, Severy 2003: 82-3, Taylor 1924: 161). This and the reintroduction of other public events such as the Secular games can be seen as a return to res publica in its earliest form and thus infers an attempt to restore it. Scholars such as Rostovtzeff however think of the Ludi Troiani as an attempt to convince the younger patrician generation that a singular leader would not harm their interests in terms of military glorification (Jones 1960: 16). The return of such military games also reinforced military discipline, reducing the chance of further civil wars and defection in the next generation (Vel. Pat. 2.64). This does not however have to suggest an idea of Imperial rule; as disciplinewas an important part of the Roman military throughout its history (Goldsworthy 2003: 33).

The major controversy surrounding the army is that of Augustus' use of his extended family in the major military roles from the 10s BC onwards (Eck 2007: 80). This however is at least 10 years into the ‘new' res publica, suggesting that this idea was reactionary rather than an early attempt to introduce monarchy. One event in particular could be linked to this; Cornelius Gallus in Egypt, the prefect placed here due to his friendship with Augustus was later accused of treachery and ended his life after disobeying the senate (Eck 2007: 60, Eck 1984: 131, Dio Cass. 53.23). This episode in the early stages of the res publica must have shaken both the senate and Augustus himself; primarily due to the fact that three legions were accessible in this province (Shotter 2007: 100, Strabo Geog. 17.12, Syme 1933: 25).

The senate reformations are also a much discussed topic as a change in Augustus' powers (Wiseman 1971: 10-12). The first, genuine reduction in the senate occurred in 29 BC and appears to have removed senators on a voluntary basis (Dio Cass. 52.42, Wiseman 1971: 10); allowing a majority of princeps italiae to remain. This group is viewed as Augustus' powerbase in this period, featuring prominently in his elevation to Pontifex Maximus. The appointment however had previously been offered by the Roman people (RG 10, Suet. Aug. 31.1), suggesting that Augustus was respecting tradition by waiting for both the death of the previous Pontifex and approval from the senate.

The next of the lectiones, 19 and 11 BC appear to have forced senators to leave, replacing them with Augustus' own supporters (Eck 2007: 80, Wiseman 1971: 10-11, RG 8, Dio Cass. 54.13). This reformation appears to mark a turn towards monarchy, as Augustus gains the majority within the senate. Prior to this point Augustus had only used his auctoritas and financial advantages to keep the res publica stable (Eck 2007: 53-4, RG 34).

The first settlement of 27BC is the point at which Augustus returned the republic to the senate and people of Rome (res publica restituta) by relinquishing his triumviral powers and abolishing any of the enactments not legally ratified by the senate during the triumvirate (RG 34, Ov. Fast. 1.589, Severy 2003: 45-6). Dio however argues that the caretakership given to Augustus at the senates' suggestion was merely a front to the monarchical intentions of the princeps senatus (Dio Cass. 52.1, 53.11.4, Vitruvius preface, Hor. Odes 3.14.15, Wallace-Hadrill 1993: 14-15, Eck 2007: 52). As a source, Dio is not a contemporary, writing around 200 years later. This relates his thoughts to a period in which contemporaries such as Ovid and Velleius Paterculus were writing (Vell. Pat. 2.89, Ov. Fast. 1.589). Augustus retained his consulship until the second settlement of 23BC, meaning that Augustus was still in charge as a traditional magistrate minus the limitation of one consulship per 10 years (Jones 1960: 4-5).

It was however during the first settlement that Augustus received control of a number of provinces including Spain, Gaul and Egypt; rather than the senate, due to the rebellious nature of these provinces as proven by later campaigns (Vel. Pat. 2.90, Suet. Aug. 21). The other provinces were returned to senatorial control using the old system of governorship. This would also suggest the reason for the large military presence in these areas. As well as this Augustus is stated to have returned the provinces of Gallia Narbonensis and Cyprus in 22BC (Brunt & Moore 1988: 9). Other modern sources infer that the high numbers of legions in these areas were due to Augustus' wish to maintain military supremacy (RG 16, Dio Cass. 55.25.1-3, Severy 2003: 85-7, Eck 2007: 51-2). This reduced the chances of further Civil wars by associating the military with one key group of people rather than the original rotational system prior to the Civil wars as by rooting the military to a set number of trusted individuals the army itself was permanently tied to Rome itself rather than its generals.

The title of Augustus itself, given by the senate in 27BC conveys much meaning about his relative power. The name is taken from August, associated with the sacred and auguries (Wallace-Hadrill 1993: 16, Ov. Fast. 1.596-616). This relationship gives Augustus an implicit link to the divine power of Rome and also suggests monarchical intentions. The name Augustus can also be seen as a legal title conferred upon him by the senate at the end of the triumvirate and the beginning of his guardianship of the state. Augustus and contemporary sources however do not refer to the name as an implication of power, but utilise it as a new image to that of Octavian; primarily due to its association with the triumvirate. This change of image is illustrated particularly after the first settlement, when Augustus melted down 80 silver statues of Octavian, then dedicated the value in golden tripods to Apollo (RG 24, Severy 2003: 59). This infers that that his image, previously that of a dictator was changed to the man who restored the res publica(Eck 1984: 136, Severy 2003: 47).

Augustus also received a number of honours from the senate and people of Rome, the first of which is the corona civis (Severy 2003: 46, Wallace-Hadrill 1993: 17). This was a laurel of oak given to one who has saved the life of a roman citizen and is portrayed on a number of coins (RG 34,Mattingly 1923: 3.14, 18.6). It has also been used to represent the saving of Rome during history. Cicero for example is reputed to have received the same honour for his acts during the Catiline conspiracy (Moralee 2004:67). This honour is therefore defined within the traditions of the res publica (Severy 2003: 46), suggesting that the senate was restored to its former constitutional form. The corona civis however also implies a permanent debt to those who gave it (Wallace-Hadrill 1993: 17); in this case the senate and people of Rome, inferring that these groups will forever remain clients to Augustus.

The second of the awards attributed to Augustus was that of a golden shield displaying the major virtues of courage, clemency, justice and piety which was awarded to Augustus as defender of the res publica (Hor. Odes 3.2-6, RG 34, Severy 2003: 46, Wallace-Hadrill 1993: 17, Yavetz 1984: 4-5). This suggests that the senate required Augustus to act in such a way as to control the army and subsequently the state. The riots in 22BC illustrate this as when Augustus denies the consulship the people fear for the state (Dio Cass. 54.1, Brunt & Moore 1988: 44). These honours form part of Augustus' image, primarily in that they respect the tradition of previous magistrates, as the honours are left outside of the domus. This infers a return to early divisions of public and private, portrayed by Augustus himself (Severy 2003: 47, Dio Cass. 53.16.4).

The second settlement of 23BC is a further point at which Augustus appears to take control of the empire, and to some marks the maturity of the Imperial system (Severy 2003: 49, Shotter 2007: 100). This was however defined again with magisterial terms, suggesting a role above others in the senate, yet limited to a set number of 5 years (Severy 2003: 49). Augustus relinquished the consulship which he had held since 27 BC due to ‘universal consent' (RG 34). He instead received the tribunitia potestas and imperium proconsulare maius. These powers gave Augustus the authority to manipulate but not control the senate, as the right to veto and call emergency senate meetings meant that the body was effectively under his control (Shotter 2007: 100, Wallace-Hadrill 1993: 14). This period appears to mark the beginning of the facade of singular rule. Complete control however is not gained until the title of pater patriae is acquired.

The major turning point from res publica to facade appears to occur in the third settlement, a new notion attributed to 19, 18 and 11BC with the introduction of a number of laws (leges) that completely change republican ideals (Severy 2003: 50, 56). The laws relating to marriage named lex Julia de martinandins ordinibus, for example were designed to encourage reproduction amongst the orders particularly within the patrician order (Lintott 2010: 117). This led to a drastic cut in terms of senatorial potential for those of the next generation, instead needing to rely on the generosity of Augustus and later rulers to make up the required property allowance. The law also had another important aspect in that it caused a break from traditional patronage values as freedmen were forced to break their oaths of marital chastity to their patrons(Digest, 23.2.19, Severy 2003: 56). This law therefore decreased the noble's relationship between patron and client, whilst further increasing Augustus' own association with the people (Shotter 2007: 100, Eck 2007: 51).

Another law that greatly affected traditional republican values was that which regarded adultery, known as the lex Julia de adulteriis. This law reduced the power of the pater familias while increasing Augustus' own, as prior to the introduction of this law issues regarding adultery were under the control of the pater familias (Severy 2003: 51, 56, Yavetz 1984: 13). The introduction of such laws infer that Augustus was tending towards monarchical rule, and by placing family within the legal status of Roman citizenship, completely changed the values of the res publica (Eck 1984: 131, Severy 2003: 52). This allowed the placing of himself as pater of all Romans; suggesting a monarchical threat to the original constitution of the res publica.

The use of Augustus' family from 24BC appears to indicate a change of direction towards monarchy. The first of the members, Marcellus was allowed to run for consulship in 24BC, Syme sees this as an attempt to establish an heir (Syme 1939: 342-3, Jones 1960: 6-7 Dio Cass. 53.31.1). Others however disagree, especially as contemporary sources cannot be certain of the apparent heir as a successor (Jones 1960: 6-7). This infers that none knew of Marcellus as heir, and some secondary sources appear to believe that the mention of Marcellus in the Aeneid (Virgil Aeneid 8.860-85, Dio Cass. 53.30.5-6) suggests his apparent role in Augustus' life; mentioning him as a good Roman and with no mention of a formal relationship between the two characters.

The Secular Games (Ludi Saeculares) however appear to contradict the idea of the establishment of a royal family, as the games although heavily linked to the idea of the family, have little mention of any of Augustus' relatives (Severy 2003: 57, Beard, North & Price 1998: 71-2, Suet. Aug. 91.2). This infers that Augustus did not wish to portray his family during the games for this reason; by 9BC however the family appears to have become heavily involved in political terms illustrated through the building of the ara pacis and their portrayal on the monument (Syme 1939: 389, Wallace-Hadrill 1993: 70-75). The Games themselves still suggest a return to the Res Publica as they are a traditional event held every 100-110 years to coincide with the complete renewal of the previous attending population (Beard, North & Price 1998: 201-6). This infers that Augustus was attempting to keep important events associated with the original Res Publica but also gives the proceedings a new direction in comparison to that of the traditional through its increased association with the family unit (Wallace-Hadrill 1993: 70-1).

To conclude Augustus did not begin with the sole intention of becoming a monarch, or creating a facade behind which he ruled. Augustus instead reacted to the events of the period; realising throughout his prolonged guardianship of the state that a single governmental position is required to maintain the Pax Romana. This was indeed achieved during his reign, but still within the definitions of the older constitution of the res publica. It was Tiberius, successor to Augustus that first officially began sole rule. The supposed sham of the restoration of the res publica is therefore similar to a constitutional shift; which had been occurring since the beginning of the government itself. If a point at which Augustus began to obviously affect the constitution needed to be chosen, it would be that of the law changes in of 19-11BC; as this radically affected the people and their associated rights rather than the senate alone. These law changes caused a complete shift in the roles of both Augustus and that of a traditional Roman father figure. On the surface this change in the pater potestas appears minimal, but in reality caused the downfall of some of the overlying ideas of the res publica in relation to the family unit, incorporating Augustus within every aspect of life.


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