The Divine Enigma

13 Jan

Charisma is the vaguest of the sins of political power, and Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus (his final public name granted by the Roman Senate) manifested it in his relationships with his contemporaries and the mentor who mattered most in his rise to power. Two manifestations stand out in particular, his relationship to Julius Caesar, and his friendships with Marcus Agrippa and Gaius Maecenas. Still, Anthony Everitt cannot explain why Caesar gave the young Octavian his favor and, more importantly, his fortune and clientela, and the latter friends their perennial loyalty. Even more mysteriously, how could this son of a provincial aristocrat, frequently incapacitated by nervous ailments, often right before a major battle, who even fled from battle once and later charged into another surrounded by a bodyguard, have prospered in a political culture based on pedigree and martial virtue? Nothing more than the fate of a decaying polity racked by civil wars and surrounded by Teutonic hordes and scheming Eastern potentates was hanging in the balance. And, how his family – Augustus left no direct heirs – ruled after his death owed much to “The Revered One”‘s example and policies.

It’s one strength of Everitt’s biography, Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor, that Augustus is compared to the three men who openly challenged him for control of the Roman state, Marcus Junius Brutus, Sextus Pompey, and Mark Anthony. Everitt’s portraits of all three are nuanced, but ultimately he faults all three with the sin the young Octavian overcomes in himself, an inability to adapt. Brutus manifested a debilitating habit of doubting his own talents, a quality Octavian never seemed to have. Sextus Pompey lacked strategic patience, a trait for which “Augustan” is almost a synonym. Mark Anthony famously manifested a languorous, almost effeminate, propensity, to squander his advantages. Octavian used those character flaws to turn popular and elite opinion against Anthony. Everitt’s revisionist reading of Actium, as little more than a tactical breakout necessitated by Octavian’s strategic encirclement of Anthony’s fleet, minimizes Agrippa’s generalship for Octavian’s (and Maecenas’) command of pubic opinion and painstaking planning. For Octavian, planning was everything.

Where the elder Augustus’ strategic vision failed him was his succession. After decades of nurturing a political class and an empire-wide popularity sometimes without even a legal office or legal immunity, Augustus’ favored heirs either died naturally or rebelled against his authority. Augustus developed a habit of grooming two candidates as an insurance policy, which devolved into playing one favorite against another. In the end, Augustus settled for his third wife’s son, Tiberius, one of Rome’s greatest generals, but also man who resented Augustus’ meddling in his own life. Augustus ordered the execution of the first in his last pair of proteges, Postumus Agrippa. The other claimant, Germanicus, had died mysteriously, years before. Augustus himself, according to Everitt, in another controversial revision, fearing a messy transfer of authority and scandals resulting from a protracted illness and loss of his mental acumen, arranged with his wife, Livia, his own death, by leaving to his lifelong partner the means and timing. As with his life and rise to power, Augustus knew how to delegate.

Augustus, along with Maecenas, whose diplomatic skills Augustus used during the period of the triumvirate and early principate, also fostered a public morals campaign. Enlisting the aid of poets, like Virgil and Ovid, to legitimate the authority of his family and to glorify the Roman past, including his vanquished rivals. Augustus also rebuilt Rome in marble and reformed public services, like the fire service. Augustus often used his personal fortune, to deflect public anger.

In a career full of fateful episodes, Octavian/Augustus survived losses in battle, the deaths of presumed successors, illness, disloyalty, and rivalries. Everitt can provide really no explanation how the young boy from the Italian countryside first impressed Caesar, and then earned the lifelong loyalty of Agrippa and Maecenas, either of whom could have been his rivals. Augustus’ next challenge was always brewing, and failure seemed imminent. The trio of allies deployed an assortment of tactics for a lifetime, a bag of tricks that allowed Augustus’ heirs to endure for decades. His successors eventually forgot the trick of being authoritative without being despotic, a quality Augustus encapsulated in his professed title, “first citizen” (princeps). Only in the fourth century would Diocletian lay the foundations of a true imperial despotism, with a bureaucracy, army, and constitutional mode of succession. Augustus is the ruler who succeeded in spite of his adversity and failings, and with the active support of his wife, allies, and mentor.


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