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How Did Octavian Seize Control Of The Empire History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The main problems that Octavian faced in his ascension to power were building public support for him, the destruction of any opposition or factions which could post a political threat to him, and finally securing leadership without being seen as a dictator. To ensure that these aims were met, Octavian disseminated propaganda to elevate the opinion of him, he suppressed al opposition to his authority and he manipulated his military strength and auctoritas.

Octavian used propaganda to elevate opinion of himself- Augustus embarked on establishing his power through the dissemination of propaganda, promises and bribes, which enabled him to ascertain public support. Public support provided the framework for his ascension by ensuring that he would not be seen as dictatorial as his father was. One method was by associating himself with Caesar, thereby ascertaining the support of those in Caesar’s support and the senate, who felt marginalised by Antony and the nobility’ resumption of power. This is achieved most directly by changing his name to C. Julius Caesar Octavianus, but also but also through the through the finance of monuments, games and festivals, such as the ‘Ludi Victoriae Caesaris’. The final way was by the observance of a comet during the Venus Genetrix games, which Octavian manipulates as evidence of the deification of his father. This connected to Caesar is placed on coins such as the coin of 18BC showing the comet and the words divine Julius. Another method of propaganda was his, “seduction” (Tacitus) of the plebeians with bonuses and grain subsidisations. This is demonstrated in 44 BC, when in order to demonstrate that he undertook his inheritance seriously, Augustus obediently fulfilled Caesar’s legacy by granting 300 sesterces to each Roman citizen, a generous act which required 75 million sesterces. Furthermore, between 31 and 27 BC, Octavian had concentrated control within his hands, and he could no longer justify his position as triumvir. Consequently, to maintain his power, he reinvented himself as a peace-time leader. This is achieved through the dissemination of propaganda surrounding his revival of peace to the Roman Empire. This is demonstrated by the symbolic act of closing the gates of the Temple of Janus and also by the restoration of 82 temples in 28 BC, which was indicative of the restoration of the Roman Empire: I rebuilt eighty-two temples of the gods in the city by the authority of the senate, omitting nothing which ought to have been rebuilt at that time.” (Res Gestae) This is also demonstrated by the seduction of the soldiers and the public with money from the spoils of war: ” gave HS 400 from the spoils of war when I was consul for the fifth time (29 B.C.E.)… when consul the fifth time (29 B.C.E.), I gave from my war-spoils to colonies of my soldiers each HS 1000 per man.” (Res Gestae) Consequently, both Octavian’s connection to Caesar and his wealth provided the basis for his ascension. This is described by Fagan, who says: “Octavian had only two reliable tools available to him at this early stage in his career: his name, Caesar, and promises of bounty to the soldiers, and he deployed both with daring and decisiveness when he had to.”

Octavian’s ability to supress all opposition to his authority was essential in his ascension to power. The foundation of the rule of Octavian was military dominance and the elimination of his political opposition, both of which Octavian is successful at achieving. The first method of eliminating his enemies was by entrusting in the Second Triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus. Shotter accurately exemplifies the role of the Triumvirate: “despite its high sounding purpose – to heal the Republic’s afflictions – its real aim was the service of personal and factional ambition.” This is demonstrated by the fact that it eliminates the conspirators, thereby removing any Republican opposition. In conjunction with this, the triumvirs’ first motion was the ‘proscription,’ in which 2000 equites and 300 senators deprived of both their property and lives. This enabled Octavian to eliminate his opposition, including Cicero, who had previously attempted to utilise Augustus as a political pawn. Porter accurately defines the triumvirate as a, “military junta.”

Another demonstration of Octavian’s suppression of opposition was his role in the defeat of Antony. Augustus conducted a network of allies in Rome, securing his ‘auctoritas’ whilst spreading propaganda against Antonius. Poets and pamphleteers financed by Augustus (such as Virgil, Horace and Ovid) extolled their patron’s apparent modesty and moral strictness, contrasting it strongly with Antonius’ life as an oriental monarch at the lavish Egyptian court with his wife Cleopatra. He had consequently made his contest for political supremacy against Antony appears to be a, “great national crusade to defend Rome’s integrity against Oriental barbarism and corruption.” (Shotter). This gained him popular support and enabled his victory at Actium in 31 BC. Having won at Actium, all power was concentrated in Octavian’s hands. Even Octavian himself recognises this in the Res Gestae Divi Augustus: “at a time when with universal consent I was in complete control of affairs…” His final act before the settlements was his manipulation of the members within the Senate. In preparation for his, “surrender” of power to the senate in 27 BC, it was an imperative to ensure that he had complete senatorial support behind him. He achieves this by asking over 50 senators to leave in 29-28 BC.

Another pivotal factor in Octavian’s ascension was his ability to emphasis and often manipulate his military strength and auctoritas. Firstly, he forcefully uses his military strength to extort positions and authority. Octavian realised that the support of the army provided a framework for his control, and used his military strength accordingly. This is demonstrated by how he raises an army of Caesar’s veterans and two of Antonius’ Macedonian legions by seducing them with 500 denarii. Supported by this military support, Augustus was later able to exhort the role of consulship, twenty-three years before the minimum age. This is also demonstrated by his manipulation of the treaty of Tarentum for his own military purposes as it enabled him deceive Antony to relinquish 120 of his ships to Octavian in exchange for only one tenth of what was agreed upon. This is also demonstrated by his manipulation of the senate and the population in the formation of the first settlement in 27 BC, often labelled a, “constitutional autocracy.” On January 12 27 BC, Augustus ‘surrendered’ his powers to the Roman senate. This was an extremely tactical and manipulative move as his auctoritas meant that he had power on military and political levels, ensuring that power would never be relinquished from his hands. This forced the senate into providing him with 70% of the legions under the first settlement. Werner Eck aptly commented that: “”Nothing was left to chance or accident in preparing these exemplary manifestations.”

How did Octavian maintain his power (27- 14 AD)?

From the moment Augustus seized control of Rome, he faced two quintessential difficulties- the first was the establishment of a stable, centralised government whilst still maintaining his own power and the second was projecting a positive, democratic image to avoid being seen as a tyrant and risking assassination like Julius Caesar. He achieves these two aims by his use of reforms, his use of propaganda and his use of lavish spending to appease both the plebeians and the army.

Firstly, Augustus used reformations to achieve a number of his aims. The first purpose of his reformations was to project the image of him as the restorer of Rome and traditional Roman values, which makes him seem invaluable to the empire. Galinsky aptly commented that: “Augustan reforms attempted to generate the impression that Augustus was a natural part of the political, moral and social fabric of Rome and the Empire.” This is demonstrated by his physical restoration of Rome. Augustus improved public service as he laid the foundations for fire brigade, water board and police force. By AD 6 3,500 freedmen formed the vigilantes, the fire brigade covering the districts of the city of Rome. Additionally, there was a program for the restoration of temples, with 82 temples said to have been restored, including the Temple of Concordia (AD 10) and the Temple of Castor (AD 6). Another demonstration of his reforms projecting the idea of peace is the Pax Romana. Pax Romana (Roman peace) was the long period of relative peace and minimal expansion. The initiation of this exclusively makes his role as restoring peace and security apparent to all. Finally, the religious, social and moral reforms all quintessentially serve the purpose of restoring the traditional Roman values. This is demonstrated in the religious reforms, with traditional religious architecture reconstructed, and reinstated worship of traditional deities such as Vesta. This is demonstrated in the social reforms with an emphasis on the traditional Roman family, with laws implemented to ban adultery and Rewards for marriage and non-extramarital births.

Furthermore, another reformation was his use of reformation to ensure that there was no opposition to him. After the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, there is little opposition to Augustus, but he nevertheless implements a number of reforms to prevent the emergence of any opposition to him. This is demonstrated by the reduced senatorial role ensured by various reforms. Firstly, he gradually diminished the senate size in 29-28BC, 18BC, 11BC and AD4 to the eventual size of 600. Also, the role of the senate was reformed, and it eventually became a legislative body. In doing so, Augustus transformed the senate into a body that would work superficially underneath him and thus centralise and stabilise administration. Quintessentially, Augustus shared the work of government with the Senate but did not share power. Jones comments that, “Augustus’ tribunician powers reduced the senate to a “rubber stamp” as he was free to do as he pleased, regardless of their consent or disapproval.” Another method by which he eliminates potential opposition is by ensuring nobody other than him could have any influence on the army- He manipulated Imperial politics so that he had effective control of the majority of Roman legions. Firth comments on this that, “”Augustus’ supreme feat was undoubtedly to put real political power out of reach of competition.”

Furthermore, Augustus disseminates propaganda about himself in order to emphasise his importance to the Roman Empire in liberating them for civil war. Augustus’ propaganda also attempted to portray Augustus as a paragon, an embodiment of perfection and to a certain extent, an apotheosis. One method is by the architectural constructions around the city. One building program was the imperial fora, and specifically the Augustan forum, built in 2 AD in honour of Augustus being given the title “pater patriae.” It exemplifies Augustus amongst other gods and thus creates the image that he is a god-like figure. Also, there was the construction of the Ara Pacis, decreed by the Senate on Augustus’ return from Spain and Gaul in 13 BCE. One panel has an allegory that depicts the fertility of Italy renewed by the Pax Augusta, and the other shows him with the senators to portray him as their equal. Finally, the Mausoleum of Augustus was begun in 28 BCE, the year of Octavian’s triumphs for his victories over Cleopatra and other foreign enemies. It demonstrates the military he played in commissioning the liberation of the Roman Empire. Another method was by his monopolisation on literature, specifically about him. Poetry was a significant method in the creation of the Augustus ethos, and Augustus was a patron to such writers as Livy, Horace and Vergil. One prominent poet who wrote in Augustus’ favour was Virgil. As a result of Augustus’ patronage to Virgil, Virgil refers to Augustus as a saviour preventing the prolonged miseries of the world in thee Aeneid in 28 BC. Another poet who wrote in favour of Augustus was Horace. His praise of Augustus is immense, and in the Odes, he says that Augustus has, “brought back fertile crops to the fields and has restored to our won Jupiter the military standards.” Another method was by the various statues of Augustus. They all show Augustus to be akin to a god, with wreaths on Augustus’ hair suggesting he is amongst the gods, and his presentation of his statues is often strikingly similar to Mars and Jupiter. One particular statue is the Prima Porta, a marble copy of an earlier bronze statue that celebrates the return in 20 BCE of the military standards captured by the Parthians in 53BC.

Augustus used lavish spending to ensure that he had to support of both the army and the people, and that both of these groups would be pacified by him appeasing them with the benefits of money and entertainment. From 27 BC- 6 AD, he is expected to have given 100 million sesterces to the Roman soldiers in bonuses, with Tacitus remarking that he, “seduced the army with bonuses.” Also, increasing the pay of each legionary to 900 sesterces and the promise of 12000 sesterces at the end of a legionary’s service is said to have cost Augustus 140 million sesterces. Augustus boasts of his payments to the military, with him saying that in 6 AD, “I transferred to it [treasury] from my own patrimony 170,000,000 sesterces.” In conjunction with his reformations to the army, Augustus also made various reformations for the plebeians. In a scarcity of grain, “he would frequently let the plebeians have them at a very low price, or none at all. He also doubled the number of money tickets.” (Suetonius). Augustus boasts of his distribution of grain in Res Gestae when he says in chapter 18, “whenever the taxes did not suffice, I made distributions of grain and money from my own granary and patrimony, sometimes to 100,000 persons, sometimes to many more.” Augustus also introduced spectacles and gladiatorial games to appease the plebeians. These entertained the masses and kept them from rioting. In his Res Gestae 22/23 Augustus boasts that he held 3 gladiatorial games in his own name, 5 in the names of his family, 26 beast hunts and a naval battle.

Other miscellaneous notes

There are suggestions that the people of the Roman Empire were well aware of his autocratic intentions, but preferred the despotism of a prince over the century of anarchy and civil strife that they had experienced.

He emphasised some of his positions whilst keeping others in the background- the authority of Augustus was re-established under the second settlement on two foundations; tribunicia potestas which gave him civil authority in Rome itself, and proconsular imperium maius, which gave him control of armies and the provinces, of the two he discreetly kept the latter in the background, failing to mention it even in the Res Gestae, while he, “paraded the tribunicia potestas before all men’s eyes.” (Scullard).

Early life

63 BC- Octavian was born into an equestrian family as Gaius Octavius at Rome on 23 September 63 BC. Octavius’ mother Atia was the daughter of Julia, the sister of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ father had been appointed Roman Senator and was elected praetor. This office was judicial and second to consul

59 BC- the father of Octavius dies

51 BC- Octavius, at the age of twelve, delivers the funeral oration for his grandmother Julia. He was encouraged to make this speech by his great uncle Gaius Julius Caesar.

47 BC- Octavius was made a member of the board of Roman priests, ponitificies, Caesar being the Pontifex Maximus.

46 BC- Octavius accompanied Caesar in the public precession celebrating the victory of Caesar over his opponents in Africa. He received military triumphs despite the fact he didn’t serve,

45 BC- Octavius accompanies Caesar on his military expedition to Spain to defeat and destroy the sons of Pompey, who were trying to perpetuate their father’s opposition to Caesar. Caesar admired his courage as not only was he ill, he survived a shipwreck.

44 BC- meant to be a senior military commander on Caesar’s planned Parthian expedition.

44 BC- Octavius went to Albania to complete his academic and military training. While there he learned of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Octavius returned to Rome and found that Caesar’s will makes him Caesar’s adopted son and heir to his political and personal fortune. He was advised not to accept the bequest because he was only eighteen and little prepared to deal with the hazards of Roman power politics. Nevertheless he went to Rome.

44 BC- he was grossly underestimated by Antony and Cicero, who thought he was easily manipulable.

Succession- problems

Julia caused problems with the succession. Her gender prevented her from being the direct heir, and her exile in 2 BC caused difficulties. Augustus had no sons by either of his wives. His only natural child was a daughter to his first wife Scribonia, named Julia, so from the outset, the succession presented difficulties. The birth of a daughter created a problem of succession for Augustus as Julia could not inherit her father’s position, as it included honours all reserved for men such as military command, public office and priesthoods. Augustus dealt with the problem of his only child being a daughter, through marriage and adoption. A problem that resulted from this was Augustus’ inability to predict the effect it would have on his daughter, as her marital bed became “a political pawn in the complex dynastic arrangements of the emperor.”(Bradley) Julia was destined to be married to chosen regents and to produce children as heirs for her father. She was forced to marry Marcellus, Agrippa and Tiberius against her will, and as some sources claim, also against their will, especially Tiberius who was forced to divorce his wife Vipsania. These alliances ended with an unfavourable outcome for Augustus. Julia fought back against her father’s marriage plans and “was exiled for involvement with a string of lovers” and for “indulging in every sort of vice.” (Horace) The problem with the exile of Julia was that it brought an end to the opportunity for Augustus to form alliances with possible successors, which was, in turn, a problem of succession.

Death was a problem of succession faced by Augustus, as several of his chosen heirs suffered premature deaths. “Within the emperor’s family more than one suitable successor to his power could be found.” (Cassius Dio) Those who died include his nephew Marcellus, a loyal friend Agrippa and his grandsons Gaius and Lucius Caesar. At first, Agrippa was seen as the obvious successor, especially after Augustus, when he believed himself to lay dying in 23 BC, handed him his signet ring. After recovering from his illness, Augustus “procured for Agrippa an imperium proconsulare over all the imperial provinces, a privilege which appeared to mark him out as the next emperor.”(Scullard) His death in 12 BC presented more problems for Augustus because his obvious and popular choice for a successor had passed away. Marcellus also died in 23 BC. In order to combat these deaths, Augustus adopted Gaius and Lucius Caesar into the imperial family. He was “passionately eager that, even as minors, they should be entitled as princes of youth and have consulships reserved for them.” (Shotter). Unfortunately for Augustus, after Agrippa’s death, both Lucius and Gaius met with premature deaths (2 AD and 4 AD respectively). Consequently, the constant death of his heirs proved a difficulty in his accession.

Forced to choose Tiberius- all other options having been exhausted, Augustus was forced by lack of alternative to adopt Tiberius a his successor, despite his reluctance about the drawbacks of Tiberius. The fact that he had no other option is aptly described by Fagan, who writes, “From A.D. 4 to 14 Tiberius was clearly Augustus’s successor.” Consequently, in AD 4 Tiberius “was adopted as a son of the princeps.” It is also described by Suetonius who writes, “”many said at the time for Augustus the adoption of Tiberius was a last resort.” Some factors that caused reluctance was that Tiberius was fifty-five years old: “…he was a man of fifty-five, the best years of his life behind him.” (Cassius Dio) This would have worried Augustus because Tiberius would not be able to carry the Principate on much longer due to his age. Another problem was that Augustus was not fond of Tiberius due to the animosity of the Tacitus accounts: “they looked away from one another when possible.”

The problems of succession faced by Augustus were numerous and significant. Not all predicaments were resolved, but “by a chapter of accidents the tangle of the succession had been straightened out.” The problems of succession eventually dissolved away upon Augustus’ death with Tiberius becoming the first emperor.

Art and architecture

Art and architecture

Youthfulness, divinity and frugality of Augustus promoted to make him appear akin to a god.



Prominent primary sources


Velleius Paterculus



Cassius Dio

Nicholaus of Damascus

Any of the peots




Prominent secondary sources

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