Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Augustus - I mainlined the rest of the book

Title says it all. I was pacing myself and then Antony and Octavian started trying to kill one another and it was all over. Let's see...

Antony's over in Egypt with Cleopatra, making motions that looked a whole lot like putting Caesarian in a position to be hailed as Caesar's legitimate son. Octavian, back in Rome, starts pushing the facts about Antony's misbehavior with Cleopatra, playing on the Roman prejudice against mixed marriages.

They snark back and forth for a while, insulting one another. The thing with Octavian calling Antony a sexual deviant is that Octavian was hardly a model citizen in that respect himself. He had his affairs, just like every other Roman male. Here's one of Antony's replies to Octavian's insults:

"What's come over you? Is it that I am screwing the Queen? But she isn't my wife, is she? It isn't as if it's something new, is it? Or has it actually been going on for nine years now? What about you then? Is Livia the only woman you shag? Good luck to you if, when you read this letter, you haven't also shagged Tertulla or Terentilla or Rufilla or Salvia Titisenia, or all of them. Does it really matter where and in whom you insert your stiff prick?"

But all the personal insults really served to highlight the fact that the alliance between Antony and Octavian was at an end. Political disagreements at the time were often expressed through slanderously personal insults and attacks.

"Each triumvir claimed that he stood for a restoration of the Republic, and the other for tyranny by one man. Neither was telling the truth. Ten years after the murder of Cicero, the Republic was a thing of the past, irretrievable. The choice was simply between two kinds of autocracy - tidy and efficient, or laid-back and rowdy."

Time rolls on and Octavian's forces and Antony's (and Cleopatra's) have their showdown. The battle of Actium decides things, though Octavian follows Antony and Cleopatra on their retreat back to Egypt. Both of them eventually commit suicide. Antony falls on his sword, a traditional Roman method. Cleopatra's death is a little more questionable. The traditional story holds that she had an asp brought to her in a basket of figs and caused it to bite her.

The problem with that being that asps are kind of large and noticeable, even in a basket of figs. Oh! of interest: she spent her last days locked into a mausoleum. At first it was her hide out, but once Octavian came it became her prison. Some people speculate that two courses of action are likely: 1) Octavian had people drop hints around Cleopatra of what he intended to do with her. Namely, drag her off to Rome and humiliate her, driving her to suicide. 2) He had her killed and the story spread around that she killed herself. Both seem likely enough. Taking Cleopatra back to Rome was risky and more trouble than it was worth.

Octavian had Caesarion and Antony's only adult child killed, taking the others, including the children Antony and Cleopatra had back to Rome with him and gave them into the care of his sister Octavia. They were too potentially useful in future marriage arrangements to discard just yet.

Once Octavian was the victor, and he owed that victory to his friends, especially Agrippa, stories began to be spread around the Republic of all sorts of signs and portents that had followed Octavian since his birth. A nice little bit of retroactive prophecy. Now, Agrippa. Octavian, in the beginning, was a terrible military commander. Because of his health, he'd never gone off to any battles as was usual for a young man in his position. Agrippa was the one who kept Octavian from failing spectacularly and getting his men killed in the beginning. Octavian learned military proficiency, but Agrippa remained the better of the two at military strategy.

Right. So, three years after he's 'saved' the Republic from Antony's autocracy, Octavian (at 36 years old), abdicates his power. He returns power to the Senate, sets up a constitutional blueprint and announces that he's retiring. It's a huge gamble, but he does it because he's learned from the mistakes of his 'father'. One man can't seize power. People will always resent him as a dictator, no matter how benevolent he may believe himself to be. But if you make them dependent on you, presumably within the bounds of the law and propriety and then leave, they'll beg for you to come back if they're still feeling uncertain enough of their futures. Which is what happened.

He was renamed Imperator Caesar Augustus, called princeps as a title, and was 'persuaded' to take governorship of Spain, Gaul, Syria and Rome. Augustus made the people make him emperor without them realizing what they were really doing.

Through various technicalities and sneakiness, he grew his power and maintained it, sort of behind the scenes for the rest of his life. The people all thought that the Senate ruled, but in reality, it was Augustus. It was just that no one knew the extent of his involvement. Which was in everything.

In 23 BC, when Augustus had been secretly reigning for eight years, there was a flood and a food shortage in Rome. The people, seeing the Senate as ineffective, wanted Augustus to take absolute control. Seeing as how he pretty much had it, only without the trouble of being seen to have it, he rejected it. It was illegal. And just asking for someone to come after him later on as a tyrant.

"When facing disgrace a Roman would tear his clothes in public, and this was what the princeps did to dramatize his refusal to be moved. He went up to the crowd, bared his throat, and swore that he would rather be stabbed to death by its daggers than accept the appointment."

Augustus took control of the food supply and put an end to the shortages, sometimes paying to make up any shortfall out of his own pockets.

Augustus kept trying to reform the Senate system, trying to get the number of Senators down to a manageable level. The Senate was so large that they couldn't ever get anything done. He never quite managed that, but his own powers continued to grow, out of sight of the Roman people. There were, of course, one or two assassinations. People who were inconvenient.

In public, in Rome, Augustus and his family lived very austere lives. This was in keeping with Augustus' platform, a return to traditional Roman values. In private, out of sight, he had a palace built on an island thirty miles or so west of Naples where he could take close friends and family.

One of the few things that marred Augustus' reign and must have pissed him off mightily was that fate kept interfering with his plans for his successors. He had several adopted sons and grandsons, boys that he raised to be his perfect successors. He doted on them and gave them every advantage he could think of. Unfortunately, all the ones that were best suited, theoretically, died before they could assume power. In the end, Augustus was left with Tiberius. Not a bad choice, but not his first, second or third.

"It was not Augustus' fault that fate kept unpicking his arrangements for the succession, but his ruthless rearrangement of the lives of his close relatives led to one after another refusing to serve and perhaps even conspiring against him - Agrippa perhaps, Tiberius, Gaius, the two Julias, Agrippa Posthumus. The consequence was the almost complete destruction of the divine family as an effective, mutually loyal group. The only survivors were the patient wife and her suspicious son."

Augustus died at the age of 76, only a few months short of his 77th birthday. He ruled the Roman Empire for 44 years. There is speculation about his death, of course. Some stories hold that he arranged for his beloved wife, Livia, to poison him to help ensure the smooth transference of power to Tiberius. Others believe that Livia poisoned him all on her own. Livia, deserved or not, was accused many times through her life of killing people who got in her way by poison. There is, of course, always the possibility that Augustus, having never been a particularly healthy man, simply died of old age.

One of the last things he did - it was actually carried out after his death - was, presumably, to order the assassination of his own grandson. There are, as always, theories as to whether or not it was on his order, but the other suspects are Tiberius, who ordered the Senate to investigate Agrippa Postumus' death (not the action you'd expect if he'd had him killed), and Livia. Who, as a woman, would have had a hell of a time getting soldiers to obey her. The most likely and capable person to have had it done is Augustus himself. Again, presumably, to ensure that there were no further battles for his empire.

Final analysis: Augustus was a magnificent bastard. And I love him for it!


  1. Haha..I love that last line! I was talking with my brother about your Augustus posts yesterday. He loves history and we discussed some things about this topic. Glad to read it. Thanks for sharing the story here!

  2. It was a really good book Susanne! Thank you again!

  3. I loved this post, and those erm.... sexual insults, had me giggling! Especially as I imagined modern day politicians emailing each other similar insults :P Wouldn't surprise me at all!

  4. *lol* I have no doubt that they do. The Roman Republic/Empire reminds me a *lot* of modern government. Which is no surprise, of course.


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