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The Augustan Constitution Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History; 46 BC to 54 AD Notes

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Was the Augustan Constitution of 28-27 BC a Republican facade on a monarchical edifice? Was the modification in 23 BC a step forward or backward in term of Augustus' power?
After the final defeat of Antony Octavian had no serious enemies left; he was free to establish himself as sole master at Rome and this he did utilising his supreme political awareness and skill. He did not make the mistakes of his adoptive father in declaring himself absolute ruler for life, a concept despised by the Romans, but rather he took the bold step of actually attempting to step down and making the senate beg him to take up the position he did. In consolidating his position he used all the proper Republican offices so as not to antagonise those who were left to be antagonised by such things, clearly still an influential group in the state if he felt this was necessary. However there can be no doubt that the Augustan constitution was merely a Republican facade on a monarchical edifice. Octavian was, by this time, a master of self presentation and propaganda; the vilification and defeat of Antony and Cleopatra is proof in itself of such things. His first step was to change the way he styled himself; he dropped the title dux, which had served him well while on campaign but carried overbearing military implications, and took on the title princeps, which was traditionally used by leading statesmen of the republic to indicate they had authority rather than direct power. This was a clever ploy because he wanted to distance himself as much as possible from the period immediately prior to this one where, in effect, as triumvir, he had been a powerful military dynast and this was not conducive to a long lasting peaceful settlement. His next move, in 27, was to attempt to resign for the position of incredible power he found himself in after the civil war and it was the senators who begged him to stay, forcing him to grudgingly accept. Dio describes the scene, "They kept shouting out, begging for a monarchical government and urging every argument in its favour, until they forced him, as it was made to appear, to assume monarchical power." There is no doubt in this passage that, in truth, Augustus wanted this supreme power, but it was important that he made it seem like he didn't; that is why he only accepted powers which seemed much less powerful than he currently held but which were, crucially, more in line with the Republican precedent of extra-ordinary commands. These were given to men like Sulla and Pompey when they were needed to solve a crisis threatening the constitution and this is exactly how the settlement of 27 was described, as "res publica reddita." Suetonius tells us that he twice seriously thought about restoring the old republic and that he expressed, from time to time, a desire to reform it, but these were just words cleverly constructed to ease a people obsessed with traditional forms into the new principate; the date for the supposed re-founding was gradually pushed further and further back until it eventually faded away. The power he took was a special commission for ten years which included pro-consular authority over a large province made up of Spain, Gaul and Syria. In theory he would be equal to any other pro-consul (who controlled the other provinces on behalf of the senate) and the senate, people and magistrates would resume their normal Republican functions.

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