“I came to Rome to see a city made of bricks, I leave it to you now a city of marble” – Augustus Caesar, the Emperor of Rome.
The great Augustus Caesar of Rome needs no introduction to those who are readers of Roman history. His military conquests, statecraft abilities, and traditional reformations for the republic gave him a legendary status in the history of Rome. His leadership ushered the republic into an era of peace and prosperity known as ‘Pax Romana’, one which would enable Rome to live on for the next one thousand and four hundred years before its ultimate dissolution. This article studies his remarkable life and achievements with which we can learn from in helping us to govern our respective communities forward.
The nephew of Julius Caesar, Augustus was born as Octavian in a rich patrician Roman family. His father died when he was still young, and was later adopted by and became heir of Julius Caesar. From a very young age, he was trained in the art of military leadership. An effective leader back in the past requires one to polish and train oneself in that art; for life was constant warfare and strife demanded by tradition, the senate, and the people’s republic of Rome to expand the powers of the republic.
The necessity of military warfare in the republic is beautifully encapsulated by Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid, “Roman, remember that you shall rule the nations by your authority, for this is to be your skill, to make peace the custom, to spare the conquered, and to wage war until the haughty are brought low”. To put into other words, warfare was an integral part of state policy. It is under this environment Octavian was born, trained, and raised.
(The Roman Legion; source: forthesinswehavedone.blogspot.com)
What made him stood a part from the rest of his society was when he was able to raise up an army when he was nineteen at his own initiative and subsequently conquered those who threatened the liberty of the Republic. Those who threatened the republic include the rash Mark Anthony (in partnership with amorous Cleopatra) and irrelevant Lepidus, who formed the second triumvir (triumvirate) with Augustus, who came on top by the end of the day.
In addition, he was able to track down the assassinators of his uncle Julius Caesar who was killed in the infamous Ides of March (15th March), a date which saw Julius knifed by the senators in the Theatre of Pompeii. Such an act wass immortalised in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Although Augustus only appeared as a minor role in the play, his influence would be lasting for it is he who raised up the necessary army to vanquish Julius’ assassinators and put the scale of justice back into the order of the Republic.
The ability to raise and lead an army to in the many battles beginning with the war against Caesar’s assassinators and the other two members of the triumvirates were merely the beginning of the long conquest of war which would help define his ability to govern the Republic. There is a saying, that unless you are able to lead a contingent of ten men into battle, you could not muster the resources and people of state to your direction.
The men who composed of Augustus’ army include the battle-hardened veterans who fought alongside Julius Caesar in the Gallic and Britannia campaigns. His ability to command them at the early ages of nineteen provide a glimpse of his abilities. Utilising this talents in his later years, he was able to extend the empire’s rule; from Spain to the West to Gallia to the North, Syria to the East, and North Africa to the South. It was in the foundation built by Augustus that his later successors (notably Tarajan) were able to extend Rome to its greatest extent.
(The maximum extent of the Roman Republic under Augustus’ leadership; source: Wikipidea.org)
His ability to command and lead the military was vital in leading the state. The great military leadership then leads us to study the second lens of Augustus: His statecraft abilities. Upon defeating the enemies of Rome, he was elected as the head of the Roman Republic. It would be entirely unwise for a man who just assumed the full powers of state to give general direction at will. Any person, no matter how much of a genius he is, would be lambasted by those in the senate and those in power. The ides of march is a testament to the danger any person faces upon assuming the mantle of unbridle leadership.
Where Julius Caesar failed, Augustus succeeded. He not only decreed that every decision relating to state affairs be subjected to the senate’s approval, but he revived and empowered the senate to make their own laws and legislation – powers that were overturned under the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. It was a stroke of genius. First, it ensured that the enmities or jealousies among the senators (who hold great powers second to Augustus) are kept at bay. Second, it gave Augustus the focus he needs to settle and govern the Republic’s machinery effectively, with all the non-strategic details entirely managed by the senators. He became greatly respected and admired.
Next in his statecraft abilities, he established public assemblies. These public assemblies give power to the people to voice out their concerns publicly and give them the chance to forward proposals which would be advantageous for their communities. Such an inclusive model worked well, for it gave people more power to shape laws and regulation which they could have otherwise found hard to do in the previous administration of the republic.
(The Res Gestae Divi Augusti; source: Amazon.co.uk)
In Res Geaste or Divine Achievement (highly recommended reading) he was said to have raised “the power of the people from insignificance to the greatest of might”. He well understood the concept of social contract, that whilst he was commander-in-chief he not only has to govern the senate but the people as well. For the balance of both would enabled him to promote the welfare of the Republic successfully.
As a result of his statecraft, he was greatly admired by both the senate and the people. He was given the greatest public esteem in senate and assemblies through honours which no previous consuls (equivalent to Prime Minister/President/Chancellor) has ever received.
The religious colleges also came forward to enrich him with an important honour. These religious colleges tend to attach themselves to different leaders of Rome, so to garner support and finances. Whilst these houses never endorse the same level of support for the same person (due to competition or potentially mistrust over politicians), they did however to Augustus. All these houses unanimously elected him as Pontifex Maximus or leader of priests (much like a Caliphate), on the basis of his success in establishing fair balance between the needs and powers of the senate and the people.
This title is merely one of the multitude of honours he subsequently attained. “Up to the day of writing I have been princepes senatus (leading member of the senate) for forty years. I am pontifex maximus (the head of the principal college of priests), augur (a religious official who observed natural signs), quindecimviri sacris faciundis (the fifteen members of a college with priestly duties), septemviri epulonum, frater arvalis, sodalis Titius, fetalis,” as written in the book Res Gestae Divi Augusti.
The next list in the study of Augustus has got to do with the immense reformation of the tradition of Rome. Even back in the days of Remus and Romulus – twin brothers and main characters of Rome’s foundation myth – the Romans has always held tradition with high esteem. Their active tradition of history, warfare, and conquests are legendary. The soft traditions of formality, religious observances, and other activities matter too.
These matters could be a hindrance to a revolutionary in ushering the state and the people to enter the dawning of a new era. The strength of tradition could hamper growth and promote obsolescence. With such a strong preponderance for tradition, how did Augustus transform the Republic? He did not. He embraced tradition and the Republic in turn embraced him, and doing so enabled him to reform the entirety of the Republic.
The par excellence of Augustus, immortalised by the book Res Gestae Divi Augusti, has shown him to be brilliant in reforming the Republic. He did so by reviving past traditions and establishing new ones. “By new laws passed on my proposal I brought back into use many exemplary practises of our ancestors which were disappearing in our time, and in many ways I myself transmitted exemplary practises to posterity for their imitation” (1967: 23). In the commentary of the book, “tradition need not inhibit Augustus from setting new precedent”. On the contrary, it enhanced his ability to change the Republic.
Under his stewardship, he commissioned historians, such as Livy (History of Rome), to produce works to reflect the accomplishments of Rome both in warfare and conquest. Augustus also hired artisans to produce remarkable works or arts and literature. Statues of marble were abundant and served to awe visitors from different parts of the empire; the literary works of the Roman people sang throughout the ages.
An example of the literary work is Virgil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid is Rome’s epic poem that covers the story of Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome.
(The legendary founder of Rome Aeneas from Vigil’s Aeneid; source: Wikipidea.org)
The book covered the days when Aeneas and the Trojan people were cast out from Troy when the city was stormed by the Greeks in the famous Trojan War. To escape the ravages of war, he and his men sailed across the open and dangerous Mediterranean sea and surrounding islands. A long list of insurmountable challenges were met along the way before they finally arrived in a land to settle. That land was Italy, and out of this small band of Trojan gatherings it grew into what could become the foundation of Rome.
The literary work was legendary in Rome. It increased the self-esteem of the people of Rome and conditioned them as the “natural rulers of the continent”. They were outcasts once, but thanks to strong leadership, they became conquerers who put the “haughty by means of war to promote peace and justice by the rule and sword of Rome”. The literary work that connected a proud part of the Roman history to the contemporary era of Augustus was a testament in ‘setting new precedent of tradition’. Such a tradition was carried out for posterity to admire and follow.
In addition, he also passed laws to promote moral conduct to control the growing materialism of the Roman republic. He also produced many monuments to commemorate the fallen. He built up many temples to honour the old Roman Gods. He commissioned aqueducts and built up libraries (the first public library in Rome was built by Julius Caesar) Everything Augustus did, he did so in building up the glory of the Roman republic.
To conclude, Augustus is a great leader who went on to shape the Roman Republic into something which would affect posterity in the many years to come. Those who read Roman history should know what immense contributions he made into the Western world. This article studies his remarkable life and achievements through three lens, namely his military conquest, statecraft abilities, and traditional reformations for the republic.
What can be learned is that he is a military genius as exhibited by his ability to command Caesar’s veteran legions at a very young age; he was a leader who was able to establish balance between the senate and the people by reviving the powers of the former and setting new powers for the latter; he was able to utilise tradition, by means of statues, literary works, and buildings, to set the Republic onto the path of the dawning of the new age.
In his deathbed, surrounded by his most trusted advisors, commanders, and senators, he uttered the words that would stamp him as one of the greatest leaders in the Western world. He said, “I came to Rome to see a city made of bricks, I leave it to you now a city of marble.” Such a quote encapsulates the immense contribution a man can make in his lifetime provided he is able to be brave and bold enough to assume command of a community, to balance out the powers that exist within it, and at the same time preserve or revive old traditions and to make new ones that could affect not only those in his lifetime, but posterity to come.
Personal comments: I first learned about Augustus when playing Civilisation 4. After finishing each game, you are ranked by the name of different leaders. The name Augustus was the highest level you can attain in the game. It was not until five years later (2016) did I get to study him. Greco-Roman books by Dio Cassius, Thyucidies, Julius Caesar, and Lucius Plutrach piqued my interest in reading him further.
It led me to conclude how brave and bold he is. At the age of nineteen, he led an army and restored the liberty of the Republic in the midsts of great strife and civil warfare. Such events would have overturned the Republic at a much earlier stage, but because of him he was able to usher Rome in the rare period known as ‘Pax Romana’, where Rome attained peace for well over two hundred years, as well as the marble-like foundation necessary to ensure Rome’s survival for the next one thousand and four hundred years.
Personally, his leadership inspired me the need to make long-lasting works that can be felt not only those today, but those tomorrow. In doing so it has made it a challenge for me to not only communicate the concept of turning ‘bricks to marbles’, but to make others embrace this mindset. For I truly believe that if we do the approach, coupled with great heart and sincerity, we can make great contributions to our communities together.
(Pax Romana: The by-product of Augustus’ leadership; source: Wikipidea)
Interested in reading more? Read Deng Xiaoping’s Story next.