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Augustus' Continuity

Date of news: 14 March 2022

Figure 1: The Mausoleum of Augustus, where the original inscription of the Res Gestae was placed.
MumblerJamie, Mausoleum of Augustus.

In the first century BC, the Roman Republic experienced violent political struggle and civil wars that had proven the old form of government to be unstable and outdated. It was around this time that Octavian, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, emerged as the most powerful person in the Roman world after defeating his political rival Mark Antony in the year 30 BC.

Octavianus Augustus

To justify his new position, Octavian sought to emphasize continuity and restoration and distance himself from the civil wars. He did this, for example, in 27 BC by conceding the dictatorial powers that he had obtained during the more turbulent times. In return, the Senate bestowed upon him the title of Augustus, meaning illustrious, and they gave him authority over three provinces with a large presence of troops. The Roman people were willing to accept him as the sole ruler of Rome, if that meant bringing an end to the civil wars that had plagued Rome for the last decades.

Res Gestae Divi Augusti

A source that shows Augustus' desire to portray his rule as a continuation of the old ways quite well, is the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The deeds of the divine Augustus). This was a listing of the achievements of Augustus, composed by himself. This text was engraved into bronze and displayed on Augustus’ mausoleum after his death, as he intended it to be. The original, sadly, did not survive. Though we cannot unquestioningly accept these self-reported accomplishments as objective truths, it does reveal how Augustus wanted people to remember him.

Firstly, among his feats was the restoration of buildings: the Capitol and the theatre of Pompey, as well as some aqueducts (Res Gestae 20). In a far more abstract way, he also claimed to have restored laws and customs of the past:

"By new laws passed on my proposal I brought back into use many exemplary practices of our ancestors which were disappearing in our time, and in many ways I myself transmitted exemplary practices to posterity for their imitation." (Res Gestae 8)

Finally, he emphasized the role of the Senate. For example: he does not fail to mention how many positions, powers and honours were offered to him "by decree of the Senate" (Res Gestae 10, 22, 34, 35). He thus portrayed the Senate as very influential, as it had historically been, but makes very little mention of his own new and unique position.

While the ascension to power of Augustus did bring about a radical change in government, he put great effort in to emphasizing continuity. It was perhaps this clever policy that allowed him to stay in power so long, from 30 BC to his death in 14 AD.

By: Jules Havenith and Lennart Hermans
(students of the course Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World)


Primary source

Secondary literature

  • kennismakingoudewereldL. de Blois, & R.J. van der Spek, Een kennismaking met de oude wereld (Bussum 2017).

    CB311 - .B58 2017
    De oude wereld van het Middellandse-Zeegebied is in veel opzichten de bakermat van zowel de Europese als de islamitische beschavingen. Veel zaken die tot op de dag van vandaag bepalend zijn voor de westerse cultuur, zijn in de periode van 3500 voor Christus tot 500 na Christus ontstaan. Hierbij kan gedacht worden aan moderne rechtstelsels en aan de wijsbegeerte, die zonder het Romeinse recht en de Griekse filosofie ondenkbaar zouden zijn geweest. Het jodendom en het christendom zijn in de Oudheid ontstaan en ook de islam is door de Oudheid beïnvloed.

  • J. Edmondson red., Augustus (Edinburgh 2014).

    Augustus (63 BC - AD 14), the first Roman emperor, brought peace and stability to Rome after decades of strife and uncertainty. He put in place a new institutional framework for the Roman Empire and inspired the ideology that sustained it for the next three hundred years. This book presents a selection of the most important scholarship on Augustus and the contribution he made to the development of the Roman state in the early imperial period.

  • W.C. McDermott, ‘Augustus’, The Classical Weekly 32:4 (1938) 41-46.

  • D. Slootjes, ‘Augustus and His Presentation of the People in the Res Gestae’, Classical World Review 113:3 (2020) 279-298. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/755531