In January 27BC, Octavian entered the senate. The first day of the new year was taken up with regular business. The consuls of the previous year took an oath regarded their fulfilment of their duties and the new consuls, who were in this instance the same consuls as in the previous year, Octavian and Agrippa, took office.
Dio gives us a very long speech made by Octavian in which he claimed to restore liberty, the republic, control over the army and control over the provinces. The speech includes an explanation for his setting down of office, a discussion of what he had achieved, a claim that this had all been done to save the state and exact revenge for the murder of Caesar, and advice to the senators on how they were to govern the state (Dio, 53. 3-10). Dio also tells us how the speech was received: with astonishment, and then by a concerted attempt to get Octavian to accept new monarchic powers.
Speeches are odd things in Roman historical writing. They are clearly made up by the historian. In some cases, it seems impossible that the historian could have any idea what might be said in the instance. They were just dramatic interventions into the narrative to capture a key moment. But for such a key speech as that delivered by Octavian in January 27, we must assume that detailed accounts came down to later historians. Might the speech itself have been preserved? How true might Dio’s version of the speech be?
The result of this turning down of power, according to Dio (53.11-21), was monarchy. This is seen in his first act, which was to increase the pay of his praetorian guard. Dio knew the Guard as the enforcers of tyrannical monarchy under later emperors.
He made the assumption that they were the instrument of monarchic control. Consequently, paying them more money and establishing them on a different footing from other military units was, for Dio, the key measure in forming monarchic government. For all the discussion of constitutionalism, our major source sees military power as the foundation of the regime.
This military theme continues in the provincial command that Octavian received. In Ovid’s account of the events (Fasti 1.589-90), it is the return of all the provinces to the people which was the major event of January 27. But the senate responded by returning most of the provinces which had any significant military force to Octavian’s control. This established a division between ‘senatorial’ and ‘imperial’ provinces:
- Senatorial Provinces: Africa, Numidia, Asia, Greece with Epirus, the Dalmatian and Macedonian districts, Sicily, Crete and the Cyrenaica , Bithynia with Pontus, Sardinia and Baetica.
- Augustan provinces: Tarraco and Lusitania, Gallia Narbonensis, Gallia Lugdunensis, Aquitania, and Gallia Belgica, Coele-Syria, Phoenicia, Cilicia, Cyprus and Egypt
- Cyprus and Gallia Narbonensis were later given to the senators and Augustus took took Dalmatia
Dio sees these events as a charade, a grand trick in which monarchy was formed in the pretence of a restoration of Republican governance. But if this was a trick, who was he trying to fool? If Dio from nearly three centuries later could see the deceit, why could contemporaries not see it?
This issued is discussed in more detail here.
One notable feature of these events is the excess of honours that were granted to Octavian. These suggest that the events were regarded as significant. Augustus placed emphasis on the on these events as late as AD 14 in the Res Gestae.
In my sixth and seventh consulships, when I had extinguished the flames of civil war, after receiving by universal consent the absolute control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my own control to the will of the senate and the Roman people. For this service on my part I was given the title of Augustus by decree of the senate, and the doorposts of my house were covered with laurels by public act, and a civic crown was fixed above my door, and a golden shield was placed in the Curia Julia whose inscription testified that the senate and the Roman people gave me this in recognition of my valour, my clemency, my justice, and my piety.
Res Gestae 34
The discussion of the honours near the end of the Res Gestae suggests that the granting of the shield, the honours, and the title was a culminating honour in response to his return of the powers to the senate and people of Rome.
Later texts, those writing with the experience of a century or more of imperial rule, seem to regard the claims of Republican restoration as ridiculous. The contemporary and near contemporary authors seem to have taken the restoration seriously as a major political event. Velleius Paterculus, 2.89 suggests that January 27 saw a restoration of the values of the Republic, notably the laws, the powers of magistrates, and workings of the state. He goes a step further in seeing the Augustan restoration as restoring fertility to the fields, which to moderns might undermine the trustworthiness of his narrative, but for ancient reflects a sense of an order and peace restored in which agriculture and life in general can flourish. It was an ideology of Augustan Peace.
This is an internally consistent narrative that makes sense of the various actions of Agrippa and Octavian from 28-27 as a restoration. Yet, we have an uncomfortable paradox. For Dio, the events of January 27 BC saw the establishment of the imperial system. This seems also to be, broadly speaking, true.
Augustus does not represent himself as going into retirement, stepping down from power, or in a way other than being the most important political figure in Rome in the period from 27 BC until his death in AD 14. There is no doubt that Augustus was in charge. But he represented that authority as entirely compatible with Republican form. If the legal forms of the Republic were restored, did it matter that in practice one man dominated?
It is a question that continues to be worth asking. Augustus followed the letter of the law, but did he use the law to subvert democracy?
- What makes a democracy, constitutional form or democratic political practice?
- Can we have freedom if one party or individual dominates and can surpass the law?
- Is the law fundamental to preserving democracy or a tool of authority that can be turned to the suppression of democracy?
- If military force is controlled by one individual, is there a democracy?
- How do we understand Dio’s and Ovid’s emphasis on the provinces and the praetorian guard? What does it mean for our understanding of the regime?
All the most important political argument never have a simple answer. It seems possible that this argument was also not simple. It seems possible that it continued throughout much of the Augustan period as people disputed the nature of the regime.
As Augustus tried to tread this uncomfortable path between republicanism and monarchy, he made sure that Agrippa was by his side as fellow consul. The need for Agrippa to be there in the negotiations and dealings of the period 28-27 indicate almost more than anything else, the delicacy of what they were trying to achieve.