Bereft of historical sensitivity and untutored in the milestones of world history, Americans let slip by, all but unnoticed, the bimillennium of the death of one of the truly towering figures in Western history. While the works of Alexander the Great and Napoleon disappeared with their exit from the stage of history, and where George Washington and Winston Churchill worked on a smaller canvas, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus created and dominated a political system that set the Western world on its path for the succeeding two thousand years. In forgetting the death of Rome’s first emperor and ignoring his legacy, Americans continue to impoverish their understanding of the world they now bestride.
On August 19, 14 A.D. , Augustus died peacefully at the age of seventy-seven, after ruling the Roman Empire and much of the civilized world for forty years. History continues to be fascinated with his uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, but it was Augustus who succeeded where the brilliant Caesar had failed; it was Octavian (as he was then known) who emerged triumphant from the decades of civil war that consumed Republican Rome; it was a frail boy in his teens who first challenged, and then vanquished, some of the greatest names in history: Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony. His chief political creation, the principate, survived in the western half of the empire for nearly 500 years after his death, and in an altered state for another full millennium in Constantinople, where the eastern Byzantine Empire kept alive many of the forms, cultural patterns, and laws of Rome.
Two thousand years after his death, the Rome that Augustus built is perhaps more popular than ever. A new generation of historians is publishing gripping histories and biographies of Rome and her greatest figures, including Augustus himself. Mystery novels set in both Republican and imperial Rome fill shelves in bookstores, while, only a few years ago, the lavishly produced Gladiator won the Academy Award for Best Picture. When President George W. Bush launched America into war with Iraq in 2003, a blizzard of opinion pieces, articles, and books questioned whether the United States had become an empire like Rome. Likewise, some see the European Union as only the latest manifestation of a dream to reunite a Europe that has been unnaturally divided since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D.
None of that would have happened, and indeed the West itself would not exist as we know it, without Augustus’s extraordinary achievement. Few today know much about his deeds. Perhaps that is due to the fact that his life and actions have been the source of disagreement among classicists for generations. The pre-war British historian Ronald Syme saw Augustus as little more than the thuggish leader of a faction, summing up the sanguinary record of the princeps in his classic The Roman Revolution (1939) thusly: “When a party has triumphed in violence and seized control of the State, it would be plain folly to regard the new government as a collection of amiable and virtuous characters.” On a contrary view, H. H. Scullard, in his survey From the Gracchi to Nero (1959, 1982), saw Augustus as a savior: “the ruthlessness of youth was replaced by an unshakeable sense of duty . . . ; proceeding by trial and error, he succeeded where a more doctrinaire approach would have led to disaster.” More recently, Anthony Everitt lauded the first emperor as a cautious, moderate, and simple-living man who brought peace and stability to a world wracked by internecine fighting (Augustus, 2006). As happens so often in the case of great figures of history, all these interpreters are right in their assessments of his character.
What is indisputable is that Augustus created an enduring concept of political stability: a devil’s bargain between security and freedom, where real power was disguised by the trappings of shared authority (in his case, a “restored” republic with a dyarchy between princeps and Senate), and where the interests of state demanded a seriousness and probity of character that remained the ideal long after the reality of imperial licentiousness provided a focus for all subsequent anti-monarchist sensibilities.
The magnitude of Augustus’s accomplishment is hard to overstate. By the time young Octavian threw himself into the civil wars, Rome had been wracked for nearly a century by ever-worsening cycles of political conflict. The first political violence that had spilled blood inside Rome in hundreds of years—the killing of the populist tribune Tiberius Gracchus by his political opponents in 133 B.C.—fatally upset the delicate balance among patricians, plebians, the military, Romans, and non-Romans, drawing in ever more groups of antagonists to use public power for personal ends and twist the organs of state to factional use. Many, at the time and after, have decried as a cause of the erosion of republican morals the wealth that poured into Rome from conquest in the East and from the domination of the Mediterranean world that Rome achieved with the destruction of Carthage in the final Punic War that ended in 146 B.C.
When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49, it seemed as though disorder had become the natural way of things. The Senate had long ceased to be an effective body, and violent factions had taken over public business and corrupted Rome’s actions abroad. The dictator Sulla had foreshadowed Rome’s fate by marching his troops into the city in 88 B.C., thereby legitimizing the use of what were now essentially private armies to settle political disputes. The decline of the citizen army and its transformation into bands loyal to their commander had itself taken shape under the influence of Sulla’s great enemy, Marius, in the previous decades. Thus, in just half a century, from roughly 100–50, Republican Rome’s domestic consensus, political effectiveness, and security structure had degraded beyond repair. A crisis was inevitable.
After the Ides of March, the teenaged Octavian figured in no one’s political calculations. Mark Antony was the dominant figure, and Brutus and Cassius retained significant forces. Yet within just a few years, it would be Antony and Octavian fighting for the ultimate supremacy of the Western world. To read of Octavian’s cautious, calculating, and sure moves during the two decades of civil war, leading to his victory at Actium in 31 B.C., is to encounter political genius of the rarest kind. With his indispensable partner, Agrippa, Octavian then did what had escaped even the great Caesar: establish a durable and impregnable political system to capitalize on his military victory. Thus ended both a century of civil war and Rome’s traditional freedoms. To a world desperate for stability, Augustus was accepted as the unquestioned and irreplaceable arbiter of order.
Augustus’s legacy did not stop with politics, for the Rome of our dreams, too, is largely his creation, carried to its ultimate expression by his successors. The world might not still be fascinated with a city of brick had not Augustus left it one of marble, to paraphrase his famous saying. The fora, baths, Colosseum, and palaces of eternal Rome maintained, even enhanced, their spell over men’s imaginations by their ruins, as much as in their pristine prime. Even the anti-monarchical Americans drew legitimacy from Rome’s material forms. Washington, D.C. is modeled more on imperial Rome than Greece, with its Capitol Hill and classic architecture.
Yet even here, Augustus’s achievement is not uncritically praised. The classicist Edith Hamilton, in her Roman Way to Western Civilization (1932), bemoaned the Romans’ materialism and pedestrian pride in the abundance of the things they possessed, seeing it as a fatal flaw in their character. Whereas Athens was the “school of Greece,” in Pericles’ ringing words, Augustus was a mere, if grandiose, property developer, in Hamilton’s view. From there, it was a short step to bread and circuses, the deadening of the human spirit, and the Rome of brutality and oppression, despite the lingering example of the Spartan-like lifestyle of the Western world’s master, an irony no less powerful twenty centuries later.
Possibly, Rome’s history would have turned out differently, and been far less bloody, with a different set of post-Augustus emperors, perhaps descending from his preferred heir, his nephew Marcellus. Even the majestic Augustus, however, could not cheat Death of his wages of the Julian clan, leaving only an unwanted stepson, Tiberius, to carry on the imperial line. That, however, is to view Rome through a modern sentimental glass, imposing a contemporary sensibility on a race of warriors who had been constantly at battle for centuries by the time Augustus closed the doors of the Temple of Janus after his victory over Mark Antony, thereby symbolizing the end of war.
Little of this would matter to us had Rome not been mistress of the ancient world. Empire is what continues to draw our modern attention: some to praise it, some to bury the concept. Succeeding centuries of war, ethnic cleansing, inquisitions, and the like have made the dream of pax Romana a constant siren’s call, regardless of the brutality that by necessity created the conditions of stability. The idea of global order, of commonwealth and cosmopolitanism, has been a shimmering mirage alike for those who glorify power and those who seek a brotherhood of man.
Here, too, the West continues to idealize what Augustus conserved. Building on the generations of Roman conquest, most recently on the great additions of Caesar and Pompey, he fixed the Empire’s borders, established efficient provincial governance, and gave the Senate back some of its imperial responsibilities. This allowed the Roman genius for practical administration and engineering to transform the empire’s lands during the next several centuries, leaving a material and political legacy that provided the seeds for Europe’s ultimate revival. Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler were just a few of the more ambitious aspirants to Augustus’s legacy, none of whom, however, could replicate what he created.
Instead, the closest successors to Augustus have been the impersonal British and American global hegemonies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which are less concerned with territorial control than with imposing a form of value-inspired international order. The world has benefitted as greatly from the largely liberal policies of London and Washington as it did from the rule of the emperors. Trade, development, scholarship, law, even tourism, have all flourished in our past century and a half of international order, just as they did under Rome’s tutelage. Even the three great wars of the twentieth century (if one includes the Cold War) did little to interrupt the progress of pax liberalis.
Today, Augustus is perhaps most relevant in light of our struggles to maintain that global order. The idea of empire that he fashioned has become distorted over the centuries to reflect the prejudices of its critics. As the inheritors of a long era of decolonization and national self-determination, our eyes are trained to see Augustus’s kind of order as little more than brute control. Oppression there was, to be sure, but also flexibility and autonomy. There is more similarity between the Roman and American historical experiences of empire than appears on the surface, but also far less than the criticisms of those who simply condemn the use of power abroad. Both powers shared elements of capriciousness—and made disastrous decisions—but both also provided the reality and hope of order that allowed other fruits of human effort to flower.
The great struggle today is to settle on what kind of international order is best. Revisionist powers such as Russia and China seek to return to a nineteenth-century model of power politics based on cynicism and grievance. On the other side of the spectrum, those who believe in cooperation and multilateral approaches betake of an idealism that assumes a type of universal rationality and the possibility of change in human nature. Yet Augustus lived through decades in which human nature was revealed at its most base, and in which rationality could be claimed equally by Cicero, in his defense of the traditional Republic, and by Julius Caesar, in his destruction of it. Only Augustus cut the Gordian knot by providing both order and an illusion of political freedom that nonetheless contained elements of true individual liberty. That his successors did not equally maintain the balance does not detract from its revolutionary nature.
America today may be the world’s only superpower, but the coming decades look to be more unstable, both at home and abroad, than even the unsettled recent ones. There remains much for us to learn from Augustus’s life and times: from the corrosive effects of faction and governing incompetence to the desperate need for a vision of the future that is both inspiring and also rooted in reality. Above all, there is the lesson on the eternal need for order. Discovering how to achieve it without limiting our own precious freedom would serve as a fitting coda to the last 2,000 years of Western history. The anniversary of Caesar Augustus’s death provides an excuse to look back, so as to understand our future better.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 4, on page 43
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