Octavian in Rome

Octavian had had plenty of problems to deal with in the West, including the Perusine War and Sextus Pompeius. The elimination of Lepidus as a serious political contender and the successful settlement of very large numbers of veterans of the civil wars simplified the political environment of the period. The defeat of Sextus Pompeius brought political credit to Octavian and some breathing space.

Octavian celebrated his victory over Pompeius lavishly. Agrippa was awarded a special golden crown. The soldiers and sailors were rewarded with money (Dio, 49.13). The people voted him:

  • statues, at least one of which was golden and stood on a column erected in the Forum and decorated with the bronze prows taken from the wrecked ships of Sextus’ fleet.

    Naulochus coin

    Silver Coin showing statue of Octavian on the naval column

  • a front seat in the theatre.
  • the right to ride into the city on horseback.
  • a laurel crown.
  • an arch on which trophies of his victory would be placed.
  • the right to hold a banquet with his family in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.
  • a house.
  • protection from insult by word and deed.
  • the privilege of sitting on the benches with the tribunes.
  • tribune for life [Appian]

Octavian cancelled taxes due on the people and debts owed to the state (Dio, 49.15; Appian, Civil Wars 5.130-32).

When Sextus was killed, Octavian held games in the Circus, and set up statues for Antony in the Forum and in the Temple of Concord (Dio, 49.18)

Not all of this description can be quite true. Some of the honours may have been refused. But it is evident that there was no obvious break between Antony and Octavian at this moment. Octavian happily collected extravagant honours. He also shared honours with Antony.


Gold Coin showing Antony (left) with Octavian (Classical Numismatic Group: Commons)

These included the column in the Forum. A column (columna Maenia) had been erected in the Forum to celebrate Rome’s naval victory over the Latins in 338 BC. Octavian’s monument associated itself with that earlier victory and thus compared the victory in civil war with this historic achievement. Octavian was certainly not being modest.

The other oddity was the arch. We are used to Roman victory arches (which are some of the more common of Roman monuments in modern cities), but the permanent victory arch appears to be an innovation of the Augustan period. It looks as though the Senate and people of Rome were struggling to invent new, suitable ways to honour their young ruler, and desperate to show gratitude.

Some of the other honours related to the power of the tribunes. It seems evident that Octavian was not, in fact, tribune for life since he was awarded the power of the tribune in 23 BC. Office for life would have been innovative and against the principles of Republican government. But the honours evidently associated Octavian with the tribunate. Since the tribune was the defender of the rights of the Roman people (largely against senators and magistrates), this was not a neutral positioning for the triumvir. He was asserting that he was friend of the plebs, and perhaps that a quasi-dictatorial figure was needed to defend the interests of the plebs.

The defeat of Sextus Pompeius was an event that the people could celebrate. Pompeius had been raiding the coast of Italy. Although this may have caused little damage, he was likely a disruptive influence on agriculture and provided a refuge for runaway slaves, with the further economic disruption that entailed.

The most direct influence on Rome likely related to the grain supply. He controlled the grain fields of Sicily and could interfere with the supplies of grain coming to Rome from Africa.  He may not have been able to close off the food supply to the city, but he was able to threaten it. But from 36, that threat disappeared.

Octavian was surely not popular with the conservative elements in the senate: so many had died at his hands. But the people were a constituency to whom he could appeal.

The extravagant honours, the association with the plebs, and the continued expression of power suggest a leader bent on asserting authority and certainly not a frustrated Republican.

Running Rome under the Triumvirate

The narrative of the triumvirate makes it look like a period of monarchy, but with three monarchs. That may have been the reality, but the constitutional form was different. The triumvirs were magistrates, a position they were appointed to by law. Their job was to restore the Republic. In ensuring this restoration, they maintained many of the systems of Republican government.

Other magistrates were appointed. Although the exact system of appointment is not clear, in practical terms, senior magistrates were nominated years in advance by Octavian and Antony. They may have had to go through some formal process of election, but they were appointees. The consuls were important political figures who might go on to command armies in the provinces. They might have allegiance to Octavian or Antony, but they were serious political figures in their own right. Further, the senate continued to meet, discuss and negotiate the relationship between their power and that of the triumvirs.

This is illustrated by relatively recent discoveries from the Turkish site of Aphrodisias. The city was awarded various privileges as a reward for the citizens’ loyalty to the Caesarian cause. At some point much later, the communications between the city and the triumvirs were inscribed in stone as an unquestionable record of those privileges. The privileges are technical, but what is interesting is the process. The city was rewarded by decree of the triumvirs, which was then confirmed by a senatorial decree that was passed in  a normal legal fashion and seemingly after a debate.

This legal facade of government continued. After five years, the triumvirate was renewed for another five years, maintaining the structures of a time-limited magistracy.

Such procedures lead to inevitable questions.

  • What mattered in Roman politics?
    • Was it the legal forms through which power was exercised (which remained largely Republican)?
    • Was it the power to act?
    • Is a democracy a legal form or is it the way politics is conducted?

Acts of the Triumvirs                     Octavian in Dalmatia            Octavian’s Domination


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