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Unthinkable Kings of Rome?

How unthinkable was it for Rome to be governed by kings?

This is a question which underpins thinking about the issues around the late Republic and the rise of Augustus. The Roman Republic has traditionally been held in high regard by historians and political thinkers. The achievements of the Republic set a standard in state-craft. For those enamoured by the Republic, it seems unthinkable that the Romans would wish to transform their system into a monarchy.


If we think back 250 years, to when the vast majority of the world was governed by monarchies of various forms, republicanism was the radical alternative form of governance. It gave citizens an opportunity to have a say in their government; it offered government by citizens (the people) and for citizens (the people). The consequence, it was thought, was that people would seek to rise in the esteem of their fellow citizens. From such displays of civic virtue, national benefit would come. Against this argument, was the experience of the fall of Rome’s Republic, full of blood and disorder.

Move on 150 years, to the early twentieth century, the world was divided into the imperial subjects and the ‘free’ states. After the first world war, nearly all those states were effectively republics (even if there some residual monarchies). But few were democracies. Strong, anti-democratic leaders came to power throughout Europe. They proclaimed to govern for the people, but it was not government by the people. Contemporary problems seemed to require dictatorial leaders.

Democratic governance has never been completely secure. There will always be those who regard democracy as a failure, and wish for an authoritarian solution, a great woman or man who make everything simple and solve all problems.

  • Where did the Romans sit on these issues?
  • What were the pressures pushing Roman politics?
  • How did views on monarchy impact on political decisions concerning support for Antony (and Cleopatra) and Octavian?


Rome did have a history of kings. Back in the legendary past, there had been seven kings: Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, Tarquinius Superbus. The surviving historical accounts of these kings have come down to us in their fullest forms in late Republican (Dionysios of Halicarnassus) and Augustan versions (Livy). It is not clear how much the Romans believed of these early traditions, but it is clear that they had a narrative of the corruption inherent in legal power and the valiance of the leading figures of Rome in resisting the return of monarch to their infant Republic.

‘Republic’ is a translation of the Latin res publica, which means ‘public things’. There was a difference between res publica and res privata, private things. For Romans, the state was the public thing, in which they all had a stake. A monarchy turned the state into a private thing, the possession of a single individual or a single family.

No. 914

Titian’s Rape of Lucretia (1571) ( The Yorck Project (2002))  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=159572: The act of violation leading to the formation of the Republic

If the state became the possession of an individual, what about the people in the state? Were they also possessions? If  possessions, were their bodies at the disposal of the monarch?

The Romans associated the republic with freedom. They saw freedom as relying on the rule of law. Freedom was freedom from physical punishment and compulsion. It is not coincidental that Tarquinius Priscus was brought down by a sex scandal,a rape perpetrated by his son. Incidents of sexual violence in the late Republic were political flash points. They were problems not because of the violation of the person in itself (Romans had no problems if a master raped his own slaves), but because of the violation of status that the rape involved, treating the body of the citizen as if the body was that of a slave.

So here is the issue.

  • Could Romans envisage being free and having a monarch?
  • Could the Romans envisage Rome belonging to them (res publica) if there was a monarchy?
  • Could Rome have strong, one-person rule while retaining its Republic?

It is in this context that we can better understand the accusations of sexual violence levelled against Tiberius, Gaius, and Nero. Sexual violence was the mark of a tyrant and a sign of the failure of the Republic.


In the last century of the Republic, Rome had been riven by violence. Who protected the citizen rights of the people? For a conservative senator, the answer was obvious: it was the senators. Their hegemony ensured that no great power would rise and impose a monarchy. But if that were the case, the senators had been remarkably ineffective over a long period of time, repeatedly needing to resort to the suspension of the rights of citizens and the killing of those citizens in order to preserve those citizen rights.

Could citizen rights be better protected by a strong man, by a Caesar, an Octavian, or an Antony? Octavian notably posed as a supporter and defender of the plebs. As Augustus, he was quick to associate his family with his position, and maintained that close link with the plebs.

Antony was not king and never presented himself as king, but the Donations of Alexandria made obvious the political implications of his liaison with Cleopatra: he was establishing a dynasty in which Cleopatra would be Queen and their children rulers. Was this a position compatible with Republicanism? Was an Eastern queen a step too far for Romans?

The easy answer is to see the relation with Cleopatra as breaking with the Roman traditions so fundamentally that Antony’s hopes were doomed.


  • If hatred of monarchy was a basic principal of Roman political life then would Antony’s not have been careful?
  • Why was Cleopatra a problem in 32, when she had not been a problem through the previous eight years?
  • Why did many Romans continue to support Antony?
  • What if Antony had won? We hear only from Octavian’s side in this dispute. If Antony had won, would he and his Egyptian Queen been welcomed to Rome and been able to establish their joint monarchy?
  • If Antony’s domination was unthinkable, how was Octavian-Augustus able to make his domination thinkable? Antony was treading a fine line between kingship and Roman tradition. But it was exactly the same line that Octavian was treading and was to continue to tread for the next four decades. It is difficult to think that the Romans reacted in horror at Antony being like a king and then fought for Octavian so that he might be quite like a king.

As we know from our politics, the easy answer is not necessarily the best answer. Things are always more complex than the simple cliché would allow.


Triumvirs                                            Cleopatra: Egyptian Queen                     Octavian in Rome

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