One of the key issues of the Augustan period is whether Augustus restored the Republic in January 27 BC.
The situation was complicated. But it presents a test case on how to approach a problem in Roman history.
Let us start from a basic assumption (basic assumptions are so often wrong). We know that Augustus was the founder of an imperial dynasty. We know that he was the first emperor. Dio knew this as well. It is thus impossible that he restored the Republic. Thus, Dio reached the conclusion that events in January 27 BC were a charade.
But in itself, such a conclusion presents problems. In 27 BC, Augustus was building the largest monument to an individual Roman ever seen: his mausoleum. This was hardly the building of a man who was intending to take a step back and become the equal of his fellow senators.
So, if the monuments and the history provide us with a context of imperial power, what do the sources tell us?
The key sources tell us that something important happened.
The fragmentary calendar from Praeneste records that on 13th January honours were granted to Octavian. These included the decoration of his house with an oak wreath (civic crown). The honours were granted because he had restored something [there is a gap in which most would put ‘the republic’] to the people of Rome. On 16th January, the senate granted Octavian the title Augustus.
Ovid incorrectly dates the award of the name Augustus to 13th January, when the provinces were returned to the people of Rome (Ovid, Fasti 1 589). But other than this minor confusion, he confirms the story and stresses the importance of the restoration of control over the provinces.
The key source, however, is Augustus himself. This is how he represents the event.
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. After that time I took precedence of all in rank, but of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy.
Chapter 34 (the numbers are modern) was towards the very end of the Res Gestae. Augustus returned to events in 28 and 27 BC at the end of his account. We should see the return to this moment as significant: this was one of the most important acts of the regime.
The Res Gestae were erected outside the Mausoleum on Augustus’ death. Copies were inscribed elsewhere, most notably on the Temple of Augustus at Ankara, Turkey.
The Mausoleum was a symbol of monarchic rule, into which members of the imperial family had been interred on their deaths. The Temple of Augustus in Ankara was even more obviously monarchic.
In this visual and ceremonial landscape, what are we to make of what Augustus says?
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.
We have the text as a Greek translation of a Latin original. There are issues about how to move between the ancient languages and English. We could summarise the first part by saying that in 28 and 27 BC, Octavian ‘with the consent of all was in control of all things’. Public Things (Res Publica) were under his control. There was then a process by which this control was transferred to the senate and people of Rome. The easiest translation into English is that all things (rather than Republic) were transferred into the hands of the senate and people of Rome. However, since the Republic was commonly described as being under the control of the senate and people of Rome, it is reasonable to assume that we have here a statement that the Res Publica was transferred to the judgement of the senate and people of Rome. Although Augustus does not explicitly say that he restored the Republic, that is what the text implies.
What exactly was returned? We know that laws and rights of the Roman people were restored in 28 BC. We know that honours were restored to the other consul (Agrippa) from 28 BC. We know from Ovid and Dio that in January 27 control over many provinces was returned to the senate, though they promptly voted back the military provinces to Octavian. One wonders whether something similar to conventional election procedures for the magistrates were also restored.
At its most basic level, the Augustan claim is to have restored the procedures by which the senate and people of Rome dealt with public business. But the passage does not stop with this claim.
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 (senate house) 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.
A mass of honours followed. These related to Octavian having saved the lives of Roman citizens (the oak wreath) and to having been victorious (the laurels).
He was also named Augustus. Augustus is extremely difficult to translate and should mean ‘revered’. It has religious connotations. It also seems to connect with the act of religious foundation.
The shield also celebrates a personal moral achievement. This emphasis on personality is carried on in the rest of the passage.
After that time I took precedence of all in rank, but of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy.
This section is much more difficult to translate through Greek back to Latin and through Latin to English. The second half of the sentence is the easier part. Augustus, as he then became, claimed to have no more power than his colleagues. This was an assertion of a return to a fundamental principle of Republican government: all magistracies were collegial. Magistrates were required to act together so that each would operate as a check upon the other (see the coins of 28-27 for this not happening). At all subsequent points, Augustus did indeed have a colleague in each magistracy he held.
‘Precedence of all in rank’, makes little sense in Latin or English. It appears to be a Greek representation of a word that had no direct Greek translation: auctoritas. Auctoritas was an important Roman political concept. Its best English translation is ‘authority’. But it was a moral and political, rather than a legal authority. It is also a word that is similar to Augustus.
Augustus’ claim was that he exceeded all in auctoritas.
Implicit in that claim was an explanation for the achievements of Augustus listed in the previous 33 chapters of the Res Gestae. He had achieved all he had achieved not because of legal power, and certainly not through a tyrannical hold on the state, but through a moral authority exercised through auctoritas, by which he guided the Roman state. The issue of auctoritas gives unity to the passage, since it is his achievement in war and his moral authority which are recognised in the decoration of his house and in the shield in the senate house.
The claim in the Res Gestae is very clear. Octavian restored the institutional and legal structures of Republican government in 28 and 27 BC. That act was celebrated in the honours which he was granted and contributed to the the moral status that he enjoyed. From that moment, he ruled Rome as its leading citizen on the basis of auctoritas. Rome was guided by him.
This was the Caesarian paradox. Could the Republic contain a man whose authority far exceeded all others? Could the Republic contain the great man? For Augustus, there was no paradox. Rome could be Republican and led by its Princeps, its greatest citizen.
History would suggest that he was wrong.