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End of Opposition?

For the final decades of the Augustan reign, the nature of our accounts seems to change. Whereas the early years are dominated by relations with the senate, the reforms of 28-27,  the settlement of 23-22, Augustus’ triumphant return in 19, and the programme of reforms instituted thereafter, in the latter part of the reign, issues of dynasty come to the fore with rivalries between Tiberius and Julia and her sons seemingly being behind political conflicts.

  • Was there a real change in political behaviour after 17 BC?
  • Did senatorial opposition disappear in the later part of the reign?
  • Did the Augustan form of monarchy come to be accepted?

In later writers, on whom we are dependent for our information, there is often an implied contrast between Augustus and his successors. That contrast encourages those writers to play down Augustan conflict with the senators and others in order to show just how poor relations were with, for instance, Tiberius or Claudius.

It is true that the senators suffered in the period 44-29. They lost people and property. Augustan domination was such that senators needed to reconcile themselves with the regime in order to have decent careers. Augustus brought an end to civil war and relatively security for the senators and their families. Supporting Augustus would likely lead to honours and promotion. Augustus used his money to support senators who were in financial difficulties.

But in spite of all that he did, are we to believe that after nearly five centuries of Republican governance, those who had controlled and benefited most from that system were reconciled to the rather peculiar form of monarchy that emerged under Augustus in a single generation?

So where is the opposition?

Literary Opposition

One of the few points where we can some measure of opposition to the regime is in the poetry. The poetry of the period is sophisticated and thoughtful. Little of it is straightforwardly political. Propertius and Ovid, who are most often seen as oppositional figures, produced poetry into which politics intervened most obviously in intersection with their treatments of themes of love and sex. Much of their poetry concerns romantic liaisons and this did not fit well with Augustan disciplines around sexual morality.

But to claim that Propertius and Ovid were anti-Augustan or in themselves oppositional is to simplify what was a complex set of relationships. There were no political parties in Rome. Consequently, there were no party political labels. People acted  as individuals. They might be loyal to certain friends and support their political activities, but it was not a culture which thought in terms of ideological politics and its divisions.

To be anti-Augustan would mean being a personal enemy of Augustus. The consequence of such a stance were dire. It would seem to involve exile, as in the case of Decimus Silanus. To be anti-Augustan would make living in Rome nearly impossible.

Augustus also ruled for a very long time. In a party political system, a ruler might last eight years, and we think that is a long time. One can oppose a ruler who is around for a decade and await the change of political fortunes which will bring your side to power. In a party political system, you have a side and being out of power is a normal part of the political experience. But can you oppose a ruler who is in place for fifty years? Do you have to make compromises? Do you have to accommodate yourself to the regime? At some point, it must have because obvious to all that the Augustan regime would outlast Augustus. What did that mean for any opposition? At what point does being discontented with the regime come to be like being discontented with the weather? One might grumble, but is a fact of life.

Oppositional elements are never likely to have been absolute in their stance with regard to the regime. On some issues, they might seem loyal and supportive. On others, there might be friction.

Yet, Ovid eventually found himself in exile. The reasons for that exile are evidently related to his Ars Amatoria. Perhaps in the context of the adulteries of Julia the Elder and Younger, writing about adultery was no longer tolerable. In Tristia 2, Ovid complains of his exile, wondering why a man as busy and great as Augustus would trouble himself with a poet as trivial as Ovid. It’s a sensible question.

  • Why do totalitarian regimes concern themselves with minor oppositional voices?

The answer to that question lies in part in the self-image of the regime. In most liberal democracies, difference of opinion is seen is healthy and normal. Democracies exist in part as a means of negotiating those differences . But in a totalitarian regime, all are supposed to be on the same side. Those who are seen to differ from ‘the consensus’, as the regime understands it, become a threat that requires removal.

The case of Ovid seems to attest a regime which required opposition to be muted.


There is little evidence for conspiracies late in the reign aimed at overthrowing the imperial system. The key episode comes in Cassius Dio, 55.14-22 which refers to a conspiracy of Gnaeus Cornelius Cinna Magnus. The account is taken up with a long and obviously fictional debate between Augustus and Livia as to what to do about conspiracies.

The discussion makes some interesting assumptions:

  • Livia advised Augustus and decided his political policy.
  • Livia operated with real political insight and philosophical wisdom.
  • Opposition to Augustus became manifest in conspiracies.
  • Augustus complains that punishment of conspirators has no effect since the conspiracy is seen in itself as honourable. He is dealing with men who are not afraid to die for their cause.

We have  precious little detail on this conspiracy. The result of Livia’s advice was, in the story at least, that the conspirators were summoned to Augustus, told off, and sent away. Seneca (De Clementia 1.9) tells a very similar story, and again Livia is the key voice in counselling the emperor.

Gnaeus Cornelius became consul in AD 5 and it is possible that we should date the conspiracy in AD 4. His name is evidence of his extraordinarily distinguished ancestry. He was the grandson of Pompey the Great.

He may have been unusual in being quite so distinguished, but members of the great houses of the Republic were prominent in the later Augustan period. The old aristocracy was alive and, in this instance, kicking.

  • Where they opposed to the system?
  • Was there an undercurrent of discontent?
  • Is the conspiracy evidence of wider division in Roman political life?

An End to Opposition

However we read the evidence of discontent with Augustus, he died in bed in AD 14. He was succeeded by Tiberius. Dynastic rivals had been removed. Opposition was  muted. Whatever people may have thought, and we cannot know what they thought, the power of the imperial family was maintainned.

Ultimately, the vast power wielded by Augustus and his successor was overwhelming. How could they be opposed? What cannot be opposed must be lived with. But one wonders how the last years of Augustus influenced the early years of Tiberius.

  • Was Tiberius’ conservative approach to the senate at his accession a reaction to the opposition of the old aristocracy?
  • Were they as yet unready to accept a lavish monarchy, as seemed to be represented by Julia and her children?

Exile of Agrippa Postumus                                             Augustus                                         Tiberius




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