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R.I.P. Augustus Caesar, 2003 years ago today.

August 19, 2014


Oliver Goldsmith (who tended to nick things and probably nicked this) remarked of Augustus Caesar that it would have been much better for the world if Augustus had never been born, or if he had never died.  Augustus killed Republican Rome and replaced it with a system of government which only he was capable of superintending.

Anyhow, Augustus did die. 2003 years ago today as it happens.  The original Augustan age died 2003 years ago.  When people speak of “Augustanism” they speak of a period of calm and balance and sanity that followed a period of civil war – hence they use the term to refer to folks in the eighteenth-century thanking various deities that they weren’t living in the seventeenth-century.  Aesthetic values such as Calm and Balance and Sanity are best appreciated, perhaps, by those living in the aftermath of Civil War.

It was the genius of Octavian Caesar that he managed to present himself as the solution to Civil War rather than one of its most eager participants.  He fooled Cicero.  He was the bloodied last man standing who managed to survey the wreckage, turn to the survivors and say “… now let’s put all this unpleasantness behind us”.  Having slaughtered in battle and “proscribed” (murdered) many of his fellow citizens, he managed to present himself as the saviour of the republic.

The name change helped to reinforce the break with the past.  Augustus (rather than Octavian) could be the restorer of Rome, and did so by presenting himself as the saviour of the republic rather than the guy hammering the final nails into the coffin.  By scrupulously eschewing all the trappings of monarchy, Augustus managed to be the most effective monarch imaginable.  The senate was preserved and respected and elections took place.  Augustus was always in the habit of asking the Senate politely for things.

Augustus demonstrated that a republican constitution needs a sense of civic purpose behind it to keep it going.  That’s it’s not enough to have a polity that call itself a republic to avoid autocracy.  You need to put flesh on the bones of representative government.  The sinews need some participatory electricity running through them.  A “republic” isn’t a republic just because it’s called one.  North Korea is called a republic but is a monarchy in all but name.  Korea’s Kim’s lack something of Augustus’ strategic modesty however.

When I think of the young Octavian, I think of Shakespeare, and the nerdy yet relentless kid who takes down the bigger and brighter Mark Antony.  In the endless 1963 Mankiewicz movie, he’s played by Roddy McDowall.  Richard Burton tells him at one point that it is possible that you (Octavian) may well die without ever having lived.  Querulous and reedy voiced McDowall gives a wonderful performance as the guy you least expect to pick up all the glittering prizes.

And then there’s Brian Blessed for the older Imperator.  Always, always, Brian Blessed.


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  1. Brian Blessed will always be the face that comes to mind first when I think of Octavian/Augustus. Not the boy they cast in “Rome.”
    But you know, I have a different take on the Republic. I think it was dead long before Octavian came along. Maybe as early as Sulla, who marched on Rome and whose butcheries were legion. Furthermore, the “Republic” was an oligarchy, a group of rich aristocrats who were mainly concerned with conquering as much territory as possible so they could squeeze the inhabitants dry to enrich themselves. Octavian was a municipal man from a minor family who actually bestowed a functioning government on a terribly dysfunctional empire. You can’t run an empire with a city council. Yes, he was ruthless, but name me one senator who wasn’t… even Cicero executed Catiline without a trial. I always thought it was rich that the Roman upper class was indignant against “tyranny” even as they kept special slaves just to wipe their rear ends or pick up things they had dropped on the floor. Caesar was one of the few of that class who gave any thought to what governing means.
    Now, I share a birthday with Augustus (also the date of the battle of Actium) so perhaps I have a soft spot for him…

  2. Oops, have to correct myself. It wasn’t Catiline that Cicero executed but his buddies. Without a trial. Caesar was quite outraged at that, as I recall…

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