One part of the reforms of 19-18 BC was an adjustment in the constitutional position of Augustus. Dio, 54.10 claims that Augustus took the posts of
- Curator Legum et Morum (Supervisor of Laws and Morals) and Censor for five years
- Consul for life, which brought with a seat between the consuls and lictors to attend to him.
In Res Gestae 6, Augustus refers to being awarded the post of Curator Legum et Morum in 18 and 17 BC and 11 BC. He does not mention consular imperium nor censorial power. He also claims not to have taken posts contrary to traditions. Consular power for life would seem to have been a power that violated tradition.
In Res Gestae 8, he mentions that he held the census with consular imperium in 8 BC and in AD 14, though he did not hold the consulship.
The conservative account in the Res Gestae and the powers claimed by Dio are not compatible.
What powers did Augustus have? Did he have the extensive powers that Dio claimed that he had, powers which were not traditional, or did he have the limited and specific powers listed in the Res Gestae?
We might simply say that Dio has made a mistake. After all, we have to assume that Augustus knew what powers he had and could not have missed out such a power as this from the Res Gestae.
But this would be a considerable mistake for Dio to make. And there is a problem with the legal basis of imperial power. Emperors, including Augustus, operated as magistrates within Rome, raising troops, hearing legal cases, and dispensing judgements. The only power which we are confident that Augustus held in 19 was tribunician power and this did not give him the right to do any of those things. So by what power did an emperor act as a magistrate?
One would normally prefer the account in the Res Gestae to that of Dio on factual matters. This was contemporary and Augustus’ own account. He was unlikely to have made factual errors. The Res Gestae makes no mention of a grant of consular power, other than when discussing the censuses of 8 BC and AD 14. Augustus seems to represent these as exceptional moments.
If Augustus had been given consular power in 19 BC without being consul that would be a startling innovation.
The problems are not easily reconciled. But let us try. We have to make some assumptions:
- In 19 BC Augustus was made Curator Legum and Morum. This post was extended in 18 BC. It seems likely that it was time-limited to a single year.
- He must have been given some sort of imperium in the city. This would allow him to:
- Command troops in Rome.
- Call meetings of the senate.
- Perhaps hold a census or exercise some censorial powers.
- Act as judge at trials.
- Augustan imperium in the city not associated with a title, or else we would have been it by one of our sources. The imperium may have been an extension to the imperium he held in the various provinces, perhaps for specific purposes. This was not for life, but renewable when his provincial commands were renewed.
- Augustus was treated in the senate as if he were the third consul, having lictors and a seat with the consuls.
Such an inventive reconstruction depends on Dio having been very loose when he said that Augustus was given consular power. But although the exact legal framework may have been different, Dio is likely accurate in describing how Augustan power operated: it was equivalent in its operations to the power of the consuls.
The Augustan claim to have had only traditional powers is questionable, but probably reflected the fact that he held a combination of existing and traditional powers from 19 BC onwards. The powers were in themselves traditional but in combination unprecedented.
The oddity in 19 BC was that Augustus was the only person who held tribunician power. He could claim to have been behaving in accord with traditions since he was a colleague of the ten tribunes who were elected every year, according to custom. He was to correct this oversight in 18 BC. In 18 BC, when Augustus’ tribunician power of Augustus was renewed, Agrippa was also given tribunician power.
This event nicely illustrates the problem for the historian trying to understand Augustan power. In legal terms, tribunician power gave Augustus the right to intervene in disputes so as to protect a citizen. He also had a right of veto. The first right may have been important in legal terms. It allowed individual Roman citizens to ‘appeal to Caesar’, though it is not clear who that would worked in practice. This power, then, was that of a relatively junior figure in the senate, though did have symbolic value in establishing Augustus as the defender of the citizens (against the senators).
But once Augustus took Agrippa as a colleague in the post, tribunician power was transformed from a minor power to being the mark of imperial status. That Agrippa shared that power made it obvious that Agrippa was Augustus’ deputy. When Agrippa died, Tiberius took tribunician power. he was by that single decision marked as Augustus’ deputy and his likely successor. The coins of Augustus began to use tribunician power to count the years of his reign, since, unlike the consulship which was held irregularly, he held it every year.
The Republican principle of shared power was maintained. The legal frameworks of magisterial positions in the Republic were maintained. This was not an irrelevance. It allowed Augustus and Tiberius to talk about the Res publica as an on-going political system. It allowed Augustus in his Res Gestae 34 to still claim in AD 14 that he had restored the Republic in 28 and 27 BC. But in everyday terms, Augustus dominated.
If Dio is confused, it is because the exact terminology did not disguise the everyday political reality that Augustan power matched that of the consuls.