3. The Consolidation of the Roman World Under Augustus’ Rule
After they slaughtered the Roman conservative faction and broke its back for good, Octavius and Mark Antony next went to war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. They defeated them, and exacted revenge. In subsequent generations, in the Roman Empire, what remained of the patrician class was gradually exterminated. Patricians were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors, until they became virtually extinct. After they defeated their enemies, Octavius and Mark Antony swore friendship. To seal their agreement to share power, Antony married Octavius’ sister.
The duo then divided the Roman world. Antony was given the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west. However, they fell out when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra in Egypt, married her, and abandoned Octavius’ sister. The future emperor used that family insult as a pretext to attack Antony. He defeated his former partner in 31 BC, and became Rome’s sole ruler. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, which finally brought the entire Roman world under his control.
2. The Death of the Roman Republic, and Birth of the Roman Empire
After he defeated Mark Antony, Octavius reorganized the state. He ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city-state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire. The Republic’s fraying institutions had led to a century of chaos and bloodshed, until the reins of power were taken in hand by Octavius. Because he had ended generations of chaos and restored stability, the Roman Senate granted Octavius the honorific title “Augustus”, by which he is known to history. In the Republic’s place, Augustus established the Roman Empire, with himself as its de facto dictator.
Rome’s elites had hated Octavius’ uncle Julius Caesar because of the perception that he wanted to be king – a title and position that the Romans loathed. The Roman Republic had a legal office of dictator, who had nearly absolute and semi-monarchical powers, but only for a maximum term of six months. In 82 BC Sulla had himself appointed dictator with no time limit set on his office, but he resigned the following year. By contrast, Julius Caesar had first gotten himself appointed dictator for ten years, then extended it to dictator for life. That made him king in all but name, so Rome’s traditionalists did away with him. Augustus would not repeat his uncle’s mistake.
After Caesar’s assassination, the office of dictator was formally abolished. In 23 BC, the Senate offered to revive the office and make Augustus dictator. Augustus was well aware of his uncle’s fate and wanted to avoid it, so he declined. However, he accepted the executive powers of a consul for life, as well as those of a tribune – whose person was theoretically inviolate. Thus, Augustus effectively assumed the powers of a dictator for life, without the title. That setup was passed on to his successors. The Roman Empire ushered in by Augustus as dictator in fact but not in name, replaced the Roman Republic.
The new state was a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy, whose founding kicked off a period known as the Pax Romana. It brought the Roman world two centuries of peace and prosperity. Augustus held power from 43 BC, first in conjunction with Mark Antony until 31 BC, and thereafter alone, until his death in 14 AD. As he lay on his deathbed, Augustus compared the role he had played as emperor to that of an actor on a stage. His last words to those gathered around his deathbed were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading