Res Gestae by Augustus: What Sort of Emperor Was He?

Written by on August 23rd, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Roman, about Augustus

Lewis, N., & Reinhold, M. Roman Civilization: Selected Readings: The Empire (vol. 2) (third edition. p. 688). Columbia University Press.

Emperor Augustus At the age of nineteen, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army by means of which I liberated the Republic, which was oppressed by the tyranny of faction. For which reason the senate, with honorific decrees, made me a member of its order in the consulship of Gaius Pansa and Aulus Hirtius, giving me at the same time consular rank in voting, and granted me the imperium.

In his old age Augustus left his will with the Vestal Virgins in which he instructed his accomplishments to be inscribed on two bronze pillars outside his tomb. The pillars, whose inscription came to be called the Res gestae, do not survive. Copies of the inscription, however, have been found across the empire, including a complete text in both Latin and Greek at the temple of Rome and Augustus in Galatia. Augustus divides the work into two parts, that of his political career and when he gave money to the public1. We might add to that a third division in which Augustus recounts what honors he received. But we should not read the Res gestae as simply an accounting of deeds or a description of events. It should mean little to us that Augustus built this temple rather than that temple, or that he was consul in this year rather than that. Historians, after all, are not bean counters—it is the goal of the historian not simply to recount facts, but to explain the causes and circumstances of those facts, from which we come to understand the interconnectivity of human affairs. Or, to put it differently, historians wish to understand the motivation behind each event; they want to know why the event is important. Therefore, even if the text “has a multiplicity of models and many purposes, all of them propagandist in nature,”2 still when we engage the text we should concern ourselves less with the particulars than with what motivated them, and, since the work is autobiographical, with why Augustus felt compelled to record each event in just such a manner.

There are many questions about passages and phrases within the Res gestae from which we might gain insight into what sort of man Augustus was, how he ruled, and whether he was well-liked or not. These questions are like so many pieces of a larger puzzle which must be arranged through a critical reading and organized thought, the answers of which, when put in their proper context, will allow us also to determine what Augustus thought of himself, what his motivations were, and, perhaps, why he so ambitiously sought to establish himself as emperor.

When Augustus introduces the subject of the Res gestae to us he states that the motivation behind his actions was to bring the world under Roman rule. He says that what he did was “orbem terrarum imperio populi Romani [subicere] ([to subject] the world to the power of the Roman people).”3 The questions we might draw from this are twofold: first we might ask what Augustus meant by bringing the world under the power of the Roman people, and second, we might ask why it is important for Augustus to be recognized as one who subjected the world to Roman rule. It is tempting when answering to tend toward extremes. Some would say that Augustus subjected the world in order to bring about the Pax Romana and to gain glory for Rome in the same way that Scipio Africanus did when he fought the Carthaginians.4 Others would say that he wished simply to increase his own power at whatever cost. As with complex questions, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. It is not unlikely that Augustus sought glory, perhaps more so than those who came before him, but glory and the highest honors do not imply tyranny.5 It was well founded in the western mind, and particularly in the Roman mind, that the best and most excellent should rule, and it is by such rule that one gained glory.6 It was on account of his daring at such a young age, we must remember, that Scipio gained the armies with which he defeated Hannibal. Augustus, it could be argued, did the same but on grander scale.7

It seems unfair to claim that Augustus wished simply for power, since he spent so much energy on restoring Rome and her provinces. He left marble where he found brick,8 as he is purported to say. And his moral reforms seem to indicate that he wished to correct rather than control Rome. Suetonius even suggests to us that Augustus had intended to restore the Republic but did not do so because he thought such an action would lead to instability and another civil war, which, considering the previous century, seems a reasonable fear.9 We are assured in the same passage by Suetonius that while Augustus knew his form of government was not the traditional Republic what Augustus aimed at when he took over was “to make the state stand safe…so that I may be called the author of the very best government.”10 Such a government will be called simply a monarchy by Dio Cassius, and although he attributes some ambitious motives to the emperor, still he sees the process of Augustus ruling as more prudential than oppressive: “Augustus did not enact all laws on his sole responsibility,”11 “he encouraged everybody whatsoever to give him advice,”12 and lastly

Although he left the election of others in the hands of the people and the plebs, in accordance with ancient practice, yet he took care that no persons should hold office who were unfit or elected as the result of factious combinations or bribery.13

This last trait which Dio Cassius highlights, that he allowed elected officials to stand unless the election process was manipulated, seems especially to suggest that while Augustus maintained authority over all political matters, he did so in an attempt to promote good rule. Such a sentiment seems paralleled by Augustus when he says at the outset of the Res gestae, “I liberated the Republic, which was oppressed by the tyranny of faction.”14 It seems safe to say that while Augustus held what was essentially a kingly role over Rome, he did not see himself as a Tyrant. Instead he thought of himself as a protector of a people who could not manage to rule themselves well in his absence, regardless of whether such a sentiment was true or not.15

Tacitus, on the other hand is much more skeptical about why Augustus sought rule. He tells us that Augustus ruled because “no one opposed him, for the most courageous had fallen in battle or in the proscriptions,”16 and that “Augustus enticed the soldiers with gifts, the people with grain, and all men with the allurement of peace.”17 But what Tacitus does not ask is whether Augustus ruled rightly, only that he altered very consciously the division of power throughout the Roman government. He does, however, make a point of saying that Rome in general was not unsatisfied with Augustus’ rule, since “they distrusted the government of the senate on account of the struggles of the powerful” since “the laws were repeatedly thrown into confusion by violence, intrigue, and finally bribery.”18 But the sentiment is intended more as an insult to the people than as a commendation to Augustus. It is worth noting as an aside, however, that Suetonius describes Augustus’ rule similarly to how Tacitus praises Agricola, namely for his methodical and insightful command.

Augustus talks at length about what monies he spent, both through distribution of grain and other public works. He says that “impensarum…in rem publicam populumque Romanum fecit (he incurred expenditures for the republic and the roman people).”19 This he puts on par with subjecting the world to Roman power, for it is the second of the two things which he calls his ‘works’. When confronted with the fact that Augustus controlled Rome partly at least because of his popularity which he gained because of the money he spent, it is interesting to ask ourselves in what way his distribution of monies was a subiectum populorum. It is also interesting to ask whether such a subjection was intentional or accidental, and further, whether it was malicious or not.

It may not be possible to accurately get at whether Augustus used his money in order to help the people or to control them. But it is worth noting that most instances of abused power result in the exploitation of the people for their money, and not the expenditure of monies for the people. But be that as it may, whatever motivation we ascribe to Augustus’ exercise of imperium will reflect directly upon his exercise of wealth; if his motivation to become emperor was to gain power then his expenditures are simply a tool to convert and manipulate the masses. If, however, his motivation for gaining power was stability and glory, then his wealth was an indication of his generosity and that he put Rome before himself.

Continuing with the discussion about how and what purpose Augustus used his money, we come to an interesting passage in which Augustus says that he reimbursed magistrates for lands he seized for his army. He tells us, “Pecuniam pro agris quos in consulatu meo quarto…adsignavi militibus solvi municipis…Id primus et solus omnium…feci. ( I gave back the money to the municipalities for the lands which I took for the military…I was the first and only of all to do this.)”20 While it is not uncommon for those who gained power to seize lands, in Rome and elsewhere, it is unusual for the previous owners to be compensated. More often the lands are seized and the previous owners are exiled or worse, executed, such as the earlier proscriptions of Sulla and the later more blatant seizures of Caligula, Claudius and Nero. The fact that Augustus was not obsessed with increasing his wealth, or of exploiting the wealth of others for his his own end, says something positive, in my opinion, about him. He may very well believe that he could arbitrate who ought to have land, and where, or how to spend public funds as he saw fit,21 but such a sentiment was guided by an internal sense of fairness and a desire to reward and not exploit. To claim that Augustus used his money maliciously to control the people is, it seems, speculative; Suetonius provides an interesting anecdote which illustrates Augustus’ simultaneous indifference to money and obsession with Roman glory:

When Livia asked for citizenship for a taxpaying Gaul, he refused her but offered a tax exemption, saying that it was easier for him to have the imperial purse deprived of revenue than the privilege of Roman citizenship cheapened.22

The whole discussion of money and Augustus’ use of it segues nicely into a discussion about Augustus’ clemency. Augustus recounts to us that when “victor[que] omnibus [veniat] petentibus civibus [pepercit]. Externas gentes, quibus tuto ignosci potuit, conservare quam excidere [maluit]. (and when [he] was victorious [he] was sparing to all citizens who sought pardon. The outsiders, those to whom it was possible to safely pardon [he] chose to preserve them rather than to cast them away.” Our first and most obvious question about this is whether it is true. We are told by Suetonius that Augustus disapproved of proscriptions, but that when he finally allowed them he was all the more thorough in its execution: “they [Lepidus and Antony] could often be moved by special considerations or petitions…while he [Augustus] alone insisted that no one be spared.”23 But this behavior could be explained away by his distaste for purchased positions. For it seems likely that since the proscriptions were more a way to raise money than to punish disloyalty since Lepidus and Antony would grant “special considerations” to those who would pay them off. Augustus, however, put his foot down about such a thing. Such speculation is tempered by his dislike of proscriptions in the first place, along with his later clemency, since “no one ran into trouble by expressing himself freely or by displaying a defiant attitude.”24

In any case it seems that on the whole Augustus was not warlike. “He did not make war on any nation unless it was just and unavoidable.”25 Suetonius supports the assumption, for

his reputation for fairness and moderation won over even the Indians and the Scythians…[who] took the initiative of sending emissaries to seek pledges of friendship with him and the Roman people.”But what is most interesting is that he thought of himself as fair and reasonable man.

If Augustus was so careful and sparing when he waged war it would make sense that he was sparing in how he conducted pardons. A hurdle to such an argument would be the radical hostility of Augustus which Suetonius describes. He tells us of how Augustus had men killed for no more reason than they seemed like spies. The two descriptions seem too antithetical to reconcile. Put perhaps they are not so separate as we might presume. For often men who seem gentle turn out later to be vicious, and men who seem vicious turn out later to be gentle. And besides, there is nothing to prevent us from recognizing that men as they age generally become less aggressive and more thoughtful. Therefore, while descriptions of Augustus’ early hostility are certainly disturbing, it would not be surprising that he became more cautious and prudential in conflicts in general as he matured; for as Hephaestus says to Kratos as he binds Prometheus to a rock: all are cruel whose power is so newly won.

So far the discussion has revolved around interpreting the actions of Augustus and attempting to supply them with a motive. From that motive and action we would work out what it was that Augustus hoped to accomplish by that action. But the next few passages are of interest not because they represent any specific action, but because of their psychological value and insight into the mind of Augustus and his character.

One of the tasks which Augustus set himself to was the reestablishment the mos maiorum. “Legibus novis me auctore latis multa exempla maiorum exolescentia iam ex nostro saeculo reduxi et ipse multarum rerum exempla imitanda posteris tradidi. (Through the introduction of new laws, I brought back many customs of our ancestors, which had fallen out of use in our age. Also, I established many customs to be imitated by posterity.)”26 He did this largely through moral reforms, many of which would be decried as too punitive for an increasingly hedonistic Senate. These are not actions aimed at gratification like of those of the next few generations of emperors. Instead they indicate a specific and intended desire to return the Roman character to what it was previously. Even if he had no intention of restoring the Republic, Augustus seems intent on restoring what it was that made the Republic so viable, namely the Roman character. One could even argue that the reformation of the Roman character was the first step of many that led the Roman Aristocracy into a conditioned mindset through which they could rule without forming factions and lusting after power. It is perhaps on account of such an idea that Augustus feels obligated to establish new laws which he hopes will one day become old and traditional. Cicero himself would agree, it seems, since he sees the law as a vehicle for doing whatever is best for Rome.27

The last and most perplexing passage which we will discuss is, “Post id tempus auctoritate omnibus praestiti, potestatis autem nihilo amplius habui quam ceteri qui mihi quoque in magistratu conlegae fuerunt. (after this time I surpassed all in authority, but of power I had nothing more than the rest who were also colleagues in the magistracy.)”28 The most obvious question which the above phrase brings to mind is what is the difference between auctoritas and potestas. Secondarily, we must ask ourselves in what way did Augustus have authority, but not power, and thirdly, we must ask ourselves how it is that others are considered to have an equal measure of power.

When confronted with this phrase most contrast the legal power which Augustus had held from his rise to consul in 31 B.C. until 19 B.C. with the the consular power he obtained afterward, without actually holding the consulship. But this does not give us an account of what it was that prompted Augustus on the one hand to give up the consulship and on the other for the senate to reinstate the consular powers, but not the consulship. The answer to this, I think, is the difference between auctoritas and potestas. But to answer this, first we need to determine what exactly auctoritas is, and to explore how it relates to potestas.

When a Roman spoke of his auctoritas he meant his standing within Roman society; auctoritas was measured by one’s ability to inspire others to follow you. potestas, on the other hand, is simply the legal right to assert one’s will. When Augustus tells us that at the end of 19 B.C. he had more auctoritas than any one else he does not simply mean that he had gained the right to exercise the powers of an office without actually holding an office, what he means is that the senate and the people preferred that he had such power, even without the office.29 What I think Augustus is getting at when he made the statement so generally in his autobiography is that it is auctoritas which gave him such potestas, the two being being abstractly different but nearly inseparable in reality. The Senate conferred powers upon Augustus so that he could rule. They did this outwardly because they wished to adhere to the form of legal power, but they were motivated to do so because they recognized a strength in Augustus which they were committed to follow, even if legally they were of the same status.

Now that we have tackled and explicated some of the passages of the Res gestae we are more capable of answering the set of our original questions, which were what Augustus thought of himself, what his motivations were, and why he so ambitiously sought to establish himself as emperor. Because of the way in which Augustus sought moral reforms through law, that he attempted to restore certain traditions, but also, simultaneously was prudent and worked out legislative problems with trusted advisors, it seems reasonable to state that Augustus thought of himself as a good statesmen who put the Res publica first. He seemed to think that the best way in which he could help sustain and improve Rome’s greatness was by controlling the political machine so that the Senate would not fall again into faction and civil war. What motivated him to do this was probably twofold: he was motivated primarily by personal glory and pride but also by a genuine belief in Rome’s greatness. This second motivation is why he expended so much money to beautify Rome and to secure her people, and why he guarded citizenship so dearly. As for the last question, Augustus sought to become emperor because he thought that the only way he could secure the continuity and glory of Rome was by establishing himself as her ruler so that he could prevent faction and unify Rome’s powers, since otherwise it seemed Rome would destroy herself.

We should conclude by pointing out that the above motivations are not selfless; they are founded on some internal assumption by Augustus that he is the man most capable of bringing renown and glory to Rome. Nevertheless it seems careless to presume that his selfish need for greatness is at the expense of Rome. Rather, it seems that Augustus saw his own greatness as intertwined with that of Rome, the one reflecting the other.

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  1. Rerum gestarum divi Augusti, quibus orbem terrarum imperio populi Romani subiecit, et impensarum quas in rem publicam populumque Romanum fecit. (the works of Augustus, in which he subjected the whole world to the power of the Roman people, and of the expenditures which he incurred for the republic and the Roman people.) Paterculus, Velleius. Compendium of Roman History / Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Loeb Classical Library, No. 152). Translated by Frederick W Shipley. Loeb Classical Library, 1924. p. 345. 

  2. . E. Adcock , A Note on Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 34,3. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 42, Parts 1 and 2 (1952), pp. 10-12. 

  3. Res gestae, 1. 

  4. Livy tells us that the people offered Scipio consulship and dictatorship for life, which he refused. Livy, 36, 16. (the event is considered by many to be dubious. c.f. Arthur Darby Nock , Σύνναος θεός. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 41 (1930), pp. 1-62 .) 

  5. Syme touches on this point when he says: “Special commands were no novelty, no scandal. The strictest champion of constitutional propriety might be constrained to concede their necessity. If the grant of extended imperium in the past had threatened the stability of the state, that was due to the ruinous ambition of politicians who sought power illegally and held it for glory and profit.” Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. Revised. Oxford University Press, USA, 2002. p. 315. 

  6. We find in Vergil, for example, “extraordinarily powerful case for deification, based on world conquest and euergetism. The conquests prove the superhuman prowess of the future Augustus, and those conquests are used for the benefit of mankind, in a new golden age which recalls the old realm of Saturnus in Latium.” Augustus, the res gestae, and Hellenic Theories of Apotheosis. p. 2. The reference to Augustus bringing about the golden age in latium is found in bk. 6, when Aeneas sees before him all the great men of Rome’s past. c.f also “The Roman account…defines liberty as a status of independence, of being under the guidance of one’s own sovereign will (as opposed to being a slave), and exalts it as the source of civic virtue. It understands virtue, in turn, as a disinterested commitment to the public good, together with the will and agency necessary to act on behalf of this commitment.” Nelson, Eric. “Utopia through Italian Eyes: Thomas More and the Critics of Civic Humanism.” Renaissance Quarterly 59, no. 4 (January 1, 2006): 1029–1057. p. 1030. 

  7. A strong parallel can be made between Augustus and Scipio Africanus. We remember Cicero’s Somnium scipionis in which Scipio is described as “the one man on whom the community may lean for safety.” and “as Dictator though must needs reorganize the constitution.” c.f. Passages quoted about Augustus below. Cicero. Cicero: De re Publica (On the Republic) , De Legibus (On the Laws) (Loeb Classical Library No. 213). Translated by Clinton W Keyes. Loeb Classical Library, 1928. 

  8. Suetonius. The Caesars. Edited by Donna W Hurley. Hackett Publishing Co., 2011. p. 66. 

  9. ibid 

  10. ibid 

  11. Cassius, Dio. Roman History, Volume VI: Books 51-55 (Loeb Classical Library). Translated by Earnest Cary and Herbert B Foster. Loeb Classical Library, 1917. bk. 53 ch. 21.  

  12. ibid 

  13. ibid 

  14. Res gestae, 2. 

  15. “The people, it seems, cared little for the constitution but wanted a strong man to rule. On the other hand Augustus was probably not ill pleased to prove to the constitutionalists that if he withdrew to his province and abandoned control of Rome to them, ruin would follow.” Jones, A. H. M. “The Imperium of Augustus.” The Journal of Roman Studies 41 IS - (January 1, 1951): 112–119. p. 117. 

  16. Tacitus, bk 1. ch.1. 

  17. ibid 

  18. ibid 

  19. Res gestae, 1. 

  20. Res gestae, 16. 

  21. Dio Cassius, bk. 53 ch. 16. 

  22. Suetonius, p. 74. 

  23. Suetonius, p. 65. 

  24. Suetonius, p. 82. 

  25. Suetonius, p. 61. 

  26. Res gestae, 8. 

  27. Cicero says, “Did not Caius Cassius, a man endowed with equal greatness of mind and with equal wisdom, depart from Italy with the deliberate object of preventing Dolabella from obtaining possession of Syria? By what law? By what right? By that which Jupiter himself has sanctioned, that every thing which was advantageous to the republic should be considered legal and just. For law is nothing but a correct principle drawn from the inspiration of the gods, commanding what is honest, and forbidding the contrary. Cassius, therefore, obeyed this law when he went into Syria; a province which belonged to another, if men were to abide by the written laws; but which, when these were trampled under foot, was his by the law of nature.” Cicero. Phillippics. 11, 17. 

  28. Res gestae, 34. 

  29. It would be interesting to discuss whether the backlash against Augustus’ seemingly perpetual consulship was because the honor and prestige of being consul was constrained and not because they wished to remove Augustus from power. It could be argued, it seems, that Augustus’ appeased the patricians as much because he kept the power as because he gave them back a consulship.