Home » Augustus » Crisis of the Regime: 23 BC

Crisis of the Regime: 23 BC

Augustus held one of the consulships every year from 31 BC – 23 BC, when he entered his eleventh consulship. In prior history only Marius had come close with seven consulships.

For much of that period, he was out of Rome. He went to Gaul in 27, possibly with the intention of invading Britain. He was then in Spain fighting a war which continued at least until 19 BC, though Augustus declared victory in 24 BC (Dio, 53.27; 54.11). He was even away when his daughter Julia married Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew and her cousin (Dio, 53.17), and Agrippa‘s brother-in-law (family tree).

In 24 BC, Augustus returned (Dio, 53.28). He celebrated his return by reconnecting with the plebs with a gift of 400 sesterces each. The senators were effusive in their praise and two sets of honours were granted.

  1. He was made exempt from the laws. This was largely a symbolic gesture, but if citizens were defined as being governed by the law, Augustus was now above the law and beyond the status of citizen.
  2. The young men of his family were allowed to stand for office before the normal age. This honour was given to Claudius Marcellus and Tiberius, the elder son of Livia.

Both these measures were markedly unrepublican. The young men were honoured for being family, and by-passed the normal senatorial career path.

That all were subject to the law was and is a fundamental characteristic of republican systems.

There had been signs of dissent. The governor of Egypt, Cornelius Gallus, found himself persecuted on his return to Rome and was driven to suicide (Dio, 53.23), though it is not clear what his crime was (see trilingual inscription). Augustus had made Messala Corvinus prefect of the city of Rome in his absence. The senators objected and forced him from office (Tacitus, Annales 6.10-11).

At some time in 24 or more likely 23, Marcus Primus, a former governor in Thrace was put on trial for campaigning outside his province without permission. He was defended by some of the leading figures of the Augustan court, but Augustus himself intervened in the trial so that he was condemned (Dio, 54.3). The consequences of the trial were to lead to a major breach in the Augustan inner circle.

These pressures came to a head in 23 BC. The exact chronology is not clear, but the outline of the story is. Augustus became ill and was expected to die. As he lay on his death bed, he communicated the state papers to his fellow consul, Piso, and gave his signet ring to Agrippa. It was assumed by this gesture that Agrippa was made his heir. Augustus then miraculously recovered.

There was then a dispute over what arrangements Augustus had made for after his death. He was harassed by senators to the extent that he brought his will into the senate (a will was regarded as a private document until the death of the testator) and offered to read it (Dio, 53.31). The senators refused, now knowing, of course, that there was nothing scandalous in it.

The issue appears to have been whether Augustus had left a political heir. Evidently, if he were a magistrate, elected or appointed, he could no more bequeath his political titles than a modern prime minister or president could appoint a successor. But if he had appointed a close friend or family as a successor, it would be clear evidence of monarchic rule.

There were two possible heirs to the imperial position, the young Claudius Marcellus, who was married to Augustus’ daughter Julia, and the powerful and experienced Agrippa.


Head of the young Marcellus from Kea (Louvre: Marie-Lan Nguyen: Commons)

Agrippa found it politic to leave Rome for the East to deal with political problems there (Dio, 53.32). Dio suggests that Agrippa left in part because of the hostility of Marcellus, but the thought of the great general and political partner of Augustus being intimidated by the nineteen-year-old Marcellus stretches credibility. It seems possible that it was an angry senate rather than a disappointed teenager that Agrippa was avoiding.

Nevertheless, it seems very likely that the youthful Marcellus was the intended heir, when he reached an appropriate age. His marriage to Julia would seem to signify that and his portrait seems to have been quite widely displayed across the empire (see the example from the small Greek of Kea).

In any case, soon after Augustus recovered from his illness, Marcellus died of what appears to have been the same illness. He was mourned as if he were a prince. Agrippa did not return, which he surely would have done if he was merely avoiding the young man, but continued with his business in the East..

It is here where the political stakes of the Primus trial become more obvious and its dating more important.  Primus’ defence was that he had received instructions to advance beyond the borders of the province from Augustus or Marcellus. If a nineteen-year-old was instructing a provincial governor because he was heir presumptive, Rome looked very monarchic. If this issue arose in the aftermath of a row concerning Augustus’ heir, in which Augustus had been forced to deny that he had appointed a successor, then Primus’ accusation was political dynamite.

Marcellus did not give evidence at the trial, perhaps because he was already dead, which would then date the trail to 23, some time after Augustus’ recovery and Marcellus’ death. Primus was closely connected to the imperial circle (as we can see from the fact that he was defended by Varro Murena, who was close to several important members of the Augustan court). Command in an important province was likely closely controlled by the emperor. Thus, it seems that Primus was probably himself a friend of the emperor. Nevertheless, Augustus went to the trial himself and caused the judge to take his evidence. The defence was incensed. It was a breach of procedure and Murena demanded to know who had called him. ‘The Republic’ was Augustus’ response.

Augustus denied that any instructions had been sent. The defence was thus contradicted by the emperor himself.  As a result, Primus was condemned, though many of the jurors chose to believe the defendant rather than the emperor, perhaps another sign of Augustus’ failing position.

It is attractive to see the trial as one of the many pressures that were building on Augustus and as contributing to his next dramatic act. As a normal part of his consular duties, Augustus left Rome to celebrate the feriae Latinae, probably on July 1st. There, he unexpectedly resigned his consular office. For the first time since 43 BC, Augustus did not have executive power (magisterial imperium) (Dio, 53.32).

He did, however, extract a grant of tribunician power, further cementing his relationship with the plebs, whom he also provided with a generous gift of grain.

Worse was to come. In either late 23 or 22, a major conspiracy was discovered. The conspiracy went to the heart of the regime and suggested that the close network of friends on whom Augustus had relied since the death of Caesar in 44 BC was falling apart. There was open opposition to Augustus.

The events of 23-22 undermined Augustan power. They threatened to expose the monarchic ambitions of Augustus and his circle. In so doing, they threatened to expose the settlement of 27 BC as a sham. Augustus’ response was to lay down a significant element of his power, the consulship, and prepare to leave Italy for a campaign in the East. For the first time in two decades, the senators seemed to be in control in Rome.


Augustus                 From Octavian to Augustus                          Conspiracy of Caepio and Murena                 Death of Marcellus                            Rome without Augustus: 22-19


%d bloggers like this: