The story of Emperor Augustus
This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.
Julius Caesar is very well known in the world, his history, his deeds and wars. The month July was named after him, but how many people know about the Caesar Augustus who had the following month named after him? In many ways, Augustus left a deeper imprint on the world than Julius did. And despite being a total out and out imperialist, he understood the concept of institutions and drove it forward. The man, who can arguably be said to be the father of Western Civilisation, is not well known at all. Let us explore this fascinating man who still influences you and me.
As usual, this essay came forth via several strands. The first was the BBC TV Series ROME which is a brilliant overview of Julius Caesar's life. Second was a masterful best seller biography (in a series) by Colleen McCullough which I have devoured over the past few years religiously. And the last was when we were driving around in Northern Italy this summer. We drove on a bridge across a small stream and I mentioned off-hand to my son that this is the famous Rubicon River, which lead to a short history, civics, anthropology, sociology and economics lesson. While I was expounding, he had dropped off to sleep which rather put paid to my lecture (a frequent occurrence, I must admit!) Finally, I received a great book by Anthony Everitt entitled, The First Emperor, Caesar Augustus and the Triumph of Rome, on my birthday which I also devoured hungrily (incidentally, quite a lot of factual information in this essay is from this highly recommended book).
But that lead me to think a bit more about the impact he has had on our world. By and large, he was a larger than life character. He exploded on the Roman scene and over his lifetime, starting from the time he was Pontiflex Maximus to the Dictator for Life, he did not really leave behind much besides death and destruction. He built for himself not for posterity. But the strangeness that is humankind, we remember him rather than the rather quiet Caesar Augustus who followed him and who actually influenced posterity in many more ways than Julius Caesar ever did. Julius Caesar invaded Long Haired Gaul and besides killing off more than a million Gaul's, also mucked about with other countries ranging from Spain, Britain, to Greece and Egypt.
Just as an aside, but related to the Roman Empire, I am continuously struck by how the Mediterranean Culture is much stronger than say the Arab Culture even now. Whether we are talking about Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, on a longer term basis, they are more European than Arab/Muslim as of now. I wonder if that is why there is always that schism between the Gulf Arabs and the non-Gulf Arabs and whether the cultural, religious, linguistic and economic difference is due to the impact of the ancient Roman Empire (and perhaps the influence of Greek Thought).
But it was Caesar Augustus who first centralised power across all the Roman Regions and Buffer Kingdoms (whether we are talking about Britain or Egypt or Armenia). He was the first person who got legislative approval to actually be able to review and control the Pro-Consular regional representatives appointed by the Senate. He is the ruler who drove a political system that survived for more than five hundred years. This consolidation of power and establishment of political institutions can be rightfully said to be the basis for Western Political Thought and civilisation.
How about his masterful wielding of power, discreetly behind the scenes? Now love him or hate him, but you have to admire his propensity to single handedly wield power over one of the largest and most complex empires known to man. And he did not even call himself as a Dictator or an Emperor. He was simply the First Citizen. He was also honoured with the title of "Father of the Roman Nation" and perhaps that was his biggest achievement. Bear in mind that he would go to the Senate and People to get his power renewed. Now you might quibble over it, but he still did show that the people were supreme, even over a man like him.
The man lived in interesting times (with due apologies to the Chinese). He was the anointed successor to Julius Caesar. He worked with and then defeated Mark Antony and managed that arch manipulator and ruthless queen Cleopatra very smoothly. He was the father (adoptive) to Tiberius, that next famous Caesar and ruthlessly hunted down and killed all the assassins of Julius Caesar including the idealistic but confused man, Brutus.
Despite being the richest man in the world of his time, he lived simply with his wife of more than fifty years in a small set of rooms in the Palatine Hills of Rome. I have not have had the pleasure of seeing his rooms from the inside but I have seen them from the outside and found them to be spectacularly insignificant. If you stand down in the Forum with your back to the Palatine Hills, tune out the incessant chattering and clicking of the tourists, and slowly revolve around in a 270 degree arc, you can very well feel absolutely amazed that this tiny place, with mouldy buildings, columned corridors, and marbled portico's, controlled a giant empire. And Caesar Augustus established several of those buildings himself.
He was a strange man indeed. He was not like Julius Caesar with his genius and political brilliance (which killed him in the end as he was not able to compromise - a vital element in politics). He realised the difference between conquering a territory, ruling it and winning the hearts and minds of the people. His continuous issues with Germania and the tribes in the lands bounded by the Elbe, Rhine and Danube showed that he learnt his lesson. He did not over-reach himself with the Germanic tribes, but applied those lessons within the Roman Empire itself by developing the political body and nudging and forcing people to take part in political institutions.
He was a physical coward, who suffered psychosomatic fevers during military campaigns, but forced himself to be brave, facing down violent mobs and plunging into battles to prove his bravery. He was clear on the use of force, but also knew that his basic power rested on the famous Roman Legions. And Proconsul Publius Quinctilius Varus, who managed to get his three legions massacred in Germania, was cursed by Augustus for long periods of time. I found that image so evocative, Augustus banging his head on doors and plaintively crying out "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions". The September day was then called as an unlucky day, a day of mourning.
He knew the use of force, the cost of a standing army and the costs of imperialism. After the civil war, he drastically pruned his standing army to just the bare minimum number of legions required to keep peace on the boundaries. And it was that bare minimum of legions which made him react so badly to the loss of the three legions in Lower Saxony in Germany because it blew a hole in his finely crafted and balanced military – political framework.
He drove himself and other rich men to provide civic services ranging from fire services to temples to employment generation schemes. Rome, at that time, did not have a bureaucracy or a confirmed political class outside the Senate. He extended and bedded down the participation of people in the political and civic world thereby establishing the institutional framework that we see these days of political parties, civic bodies, charitable institutions, etc.
Caesar Augustus was a master in news management and while managing news by sponsoring poets and artists like Horace, Virgil and Livy, he also tolerated people who spoke against him. But before you think that I think he is a God (even thought he was deified like Julius Caesar), the chap was a randy old goat, shagging anything and everything available. He was a hypocrite to the core by proposing moral, family and behavioural laws in public, but being anything but inside the family. His treatment of the women of his family would be appalling to anybody who reads about how he treated them in the case of their marriages. But it was perfectly normal at that time for a paterfamilias to think of women as basically political counters. And that showed another inconsistency within himself. While pushing for republicanism, legalism and constitutionalism, he was a dynast out and out, by working on his successors, options for heirs and spares, over a very long period of time. In fact, he even managed to adopt his wife as his daughter thereby recognising her contribution to the great Roman Empire and his work after his death.
The long term planning was amazing for a man who lived two centuries ago; he was putting into place plans for his successors which were measured in the decades, at a time when life expectancy was measured in the maximum of thirty years years, he would lay plans which would mature ten to twenty years later. But he would be amazingly flexible, when his grandsons died; he smoothly changed his plans to incorporate his stepsons into the dynastic plans. When Tiberius, his elder stepson refused to fall into his plans, Augustus worked on Tiberius for more than ten years before his plans worked out.
He was very clear about his limitations. He knew that he was no military genius, so he pushed hard for his childhood friend, Agrippa, to lead almost all of his military campaigns, whether in the East or in the West. And he had no compunction or issues in sharing power with Agrippa. Agrippa had equal power in the East as Augustus had in the West. This negates those critics who point to his inability to share power such as in the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus. And he knew that he cannot manage this vast empire on his own, so he explicitly and deliberately educated his sons and stepsons to learn about how to manage political careers, religious offices and military campaigns.
He was disciplined, very disciplined and this came out on both the good and bad sides. Given his constant health issues, he was disciplined in his diet and would take regular exercise. On the other hand, the emotional discipline that he maintained meant that he could exile his darling daughter ruthlessly for being promiscuous and immoral.
At end of the day, he was a statesman who established institutions which still exist, he encouraged moral behaviour and established identities which still resonate across the world, whether in the form of urban planning, religious ceremonies and institutions, philanthropic and charitable institutions, liberal democracy, republicanism, constitutionalism, economics, sociology, news management, and a whole host of other factors that human civilisation currently takes for granted.
All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!