Evaluating Augustus’s Legacy: Monarchy or Republic?

From the lecture series: The Roman Empire — From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

When assessing Augustus’s legacy, we must keep in mind that his main goal was to avoid assassination, which meant playing down his power and king-like qualities. Take a look at his autobiography as well as the one blemish on an otherwise flawless reign.

Cameo of Emperor Augustus wearing a gorgoneion and a sword-belt. Three-layered sardonyx cameo, Roman artwork, ca. 14-20 AD.
Cameo of Emperor Augustus wearing a gorgoneion and a sword-belt. (Image: Strozzi Collection; Blacas Collections/British Museum)

What Was Augustus’ Ultimate Impact?

One of the most interesting issues concerning Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, is how to evaluate his establishment of the Principate. Did he, for all practical purposes, destroy the Roman Republic and its government? Or, as he claimed, did he restore it when it needed rejuvenation?

Similarly, with his settlement of the Roman state, was he an innovator who created completely new institutions, or primarily a traditionalist who adapted and updated old forms for the current situation?

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium

These are questions that historians have argued about for centuries. There may be no right or wrong answer to them.

Destroyer or restorer? Innovator or traditionalist? Or, to cut to the most fundamental aspect of his rule, was Augustus indeed a king?

Did his systematic monopolization of real power amount to his being a near-absolute monarch, or did the institutions of the republic continue to function in a meaningful fashion under his rule?

At the time, many Romans accepted the idea that he was a traditionalist who had restored and saved the republic during a time of crisis. This was the official story that Augustus strongly advocated. A fascinating document survives that encapsulates his version of events.

The Res Gestae: Powerful Propaganda

Augustus’ autobiography, composed by him and engraved on stone tablets that were erected outside his mausoleum, was calculated with typical modesty.

Part of the Res gestae Divi Augusti from the Monumentum Ancyranum.
A fragment of the Res Gestae. (Image: Berolini, Weidmann, Mommsen/Public domain)

Augustus entitled his autobiography the Res Gestae, which can be loosely translated as “Things done.”

If a modern historian were writing Augustus’ history, he might rephrase this to read, “At the age of 19, I raised a private army to fight a civil war against the lawfully elected magistrates of the state,” but Augustus’ version sounds much more heroic.

Of his settlement of 27 B.C., he states:

After defeating these enemies, and at a time when by universal consent I was in complete control of affairs, I then transferred the republic from my power to the control of the senate and people of Rome. For these services, I was named Augustus by decree of the senate …

who also proclaimed that a golden shield should be fixed over my door proclaiming my courage, generosity, justice, and piety. After this time, I surpassed everyone else in influence, although I had no more official power than those who were my colleagues in the various magistracies.

In this passage, he emphasized that he supposedly only held power by “universal consent,” and that he had no more official power than his fellow office-holders. While technically true, the real issue was that he held the power of all the different magistracies, not just one of them.

Learn more about Augustus’s use of propaganda

Another interesting passage in the Res Gestae is a section where Augustus bragged, not about the titles or honors that he has earned, but instead about those that he turned down:

After I had celebrated three triumphs] the senate decreed yet more triumphs in my honor, all of which I declined … Both the senate and the people offered to make me dictator, but I refused it. They offered to make me consul for the rest of my life, but I refused it … I would not accept any office inconsistent with the customs of our ancestors.

The Res Gestae is a brilliant work of propaganda that perfectly captures the adroit way in which Augustus exploited language to promote his reign and his version of events.

The First Historian to Challenge Augustus’ Label

For obvious reasons, no one at the time dared to openly contest Augustus’ assertion that the republic still existed and had merely undergone a needed “restoration” under his direction. It was a full two centuries before a surviving account of Augustus openly dared to label him a king.

Around 200 A.D., the Roman historian Cassius Dio composed a history of Rome that included Augustus’ reign. Dio described in detail the various titles and offices that Augustus held, offering this blunt assessment:

In this way the power of both senate and people passed entirely into the hands of Augustus, and from this time there was, strictly speaking, a monarchy; for monarchy would be the truest name for it … The name of monarchy, to be sure, the Romans so detested that they called their emperors neither dictators nor kings nor anything of the sort; yet since the final authority for the government devolves upon them, they must needs be kings …

By virtue of these democratic-sounding titles the emperors have clothed themselves with all the powers of the government, to such an extent that they actually possess all the prerogatives of kings, except their paltry title.

Learn more about burial and epitaphs on the tombstones of everyday Romans

Augustus’ Foreign Policy

In terms of Augustus’ foreign policy, the rapid expansion of the empire’s borders that had characterized the previous centuries largely stopped. In general, Augustus concentrated more on solidifying what Rome already had than on gaining new lands.

Ancient Roman silver denarius coin of Emperor Augustus. Obverse.
Ancient Roman silver denarius coin featuring Augustus. (Image: Eduardo Estellez/Shutterstock)

The civil wars had generated a huge number of legions. One of Augustus’ greatest initial challenges was what do with the hordes of soldiers who looked to him to reward their service. He reduced the number of legions to 28 and discharged hundreds of thousands of veterans.

Most of them were awarded grants of land and settled as farmers in a series of colonies that Augustus established all over the Mediterranean. This transformed them from being a drain on the economy into productive citizens and furthered the process of Romanizing the foreign territories Rome had acquired.

Rome controlled a continuous ring of peaceful provinces circling the Mediterranean Sea. Augustus also revised the bloated rolls of the Senate, reducing its membership by several hundred, down to about 600.

Learn more about the hazards of life in Ancient Rome

A Military Disaster for Rome

Augustus’ major attempt to expand the borders of the empire resulted in one of Rome’s greatest military disasters. Across the Rhine River from the provinces of Gaul lay the territory of Germania, inhabited by warlike tribes. During his reign, the Romans periodically made incursions into this region.

In 9 A.D., three legions under the command of a Roman general named Varus were sent on such an expedition. Unfortunately for the Romans, Varus had made his reputation in the law courts, not on the battlefield; he was a thoroughly incompetent general, as well as a gullible person.

A German nobleman named Arminius, who had pretended to be an ally of Rome, lured Varus and his three legions into an ambush in the dense Teutoburg Forest. The Romans fought best on open ground, where their discipline gave them an advantage, but Varus was enticed into the swampy, thickly wooded forest, where Arminius’s men were able to attack the disordered Roman formations.

Map showing the defeat of Varus in the Teutoburg Forest
In the Teutoburg Forest, the Germane forces lead by Arminus (green lines) ambushed the Roman forces lead by Varus (red lines) near the Rhine canal (blue line). (Image: Cristiano64 – Own work/Public domain)

Varus and all three legions were wiped out. This was an embarrassing defeat, and Augustus took the loss of the legions hard. One source reveals that for the rest of his reign, he was prone to banging his head against the wall while moaning, “Varus, give me back my legions!”

Learn more about the organization of Rome’s military

Augustus’s Legacy: Successes and Failures

The Varian Disaster was a rare blot on Augustus’ long and successful reign. The political system that he devised would be emulated by subsequent Roman emperors for the rest of Roman history.

Augustus became the paradigm of the good emperor against whom all later emperors—both those of Rome and those from other cultures—were measured. Augustus liked to view himself as a second founder of Rome after Romulus. There is truth to this image since he was indeed the father of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire under Emperor Augustus
The Roman Empire under Emperor Augustus. dark green : Roman provinces, light green :dependent areas, pale green : Province Germania. (Image: Louis le Grand/Public domain)

For this alone, he is rightfully regarded as one of the most important figures in Roman history. For all his brilliance, however, there was one area in which his policies failed disastrously: Choosing a successor.

Like his system of government, the method Augustus adopted in selecting who would follow him as emperor would also be imitated for centuries, with the result that Rome endured several incompetent and even mentally unbalanced leaders.

Common Questions About Augustus’s Legacy

Q: What achievements formed Augustus’ legacy?

Augustus’s legacy was one of the best of all the Roman leaders. His transformation of Rome with civil works of public transportation, postal delivery, and creation of peace in Rome by ending the civil wars, led to him being considered a god in the Roman pantheon.

Q: What were Augustus’ last words?

Augustus’s legacy holds that there were two different statements that he uttered at his deathbed. Officially he was to have said, “I found Rome a city of clay but left it a city of marble,” but his wife and son note a different message where he said, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”

Q: What is the one thing Augustus was most well-known for?

Augustus’s legacy holds that first and foremost, he was the very first Roman Emperor as well as the greatest.

Q: What accomplishment is Augustus’ greatest in his legacy?

Augustus became one of the ultimate emperors as he was made a god in the Roman pantheon. This is the glory of Augustus’s legacy.

This article was updated on December 10, 2019

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