The First Among Equals

The Magisterial Monarch

“The key to the empire was that the emperor was a magistrate, not a monarch.” - Bury

After the assassination of Caesar, the Roman State, afraid that failure to install an authoritative government would result in a continuation of the preceding century’s civil wars, converted from a constitutional republic to a disguised monarchy. The first of the Roman Emperors, Augustus, is arguably the single most important figure in Roman history. Throughout his long and political life, Augustus went to great lengths to avoid being perceived as a Dictator or a King, as “he would have to throw off the republican disguise...essential to his position” (Bury, 1908, p14). Maintaining this disguise is the prevailing reason he wrote in his Res Gestae that, ‘of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues’ (Res Gestae quoted in Lewis, 1955, p11). However, the purpose of the Res Gestae was to glorify and indoctrinate, whilst abating suspicions of a monarchy. Accordingly, analysis of Augustus’ political life of veiled sovereignty contradicts his claim of political equality. Although Augustus’ constitutional masquerade upheld the façade of republican government, he was able to manipulate the constitution so that supreme power lay in his hands alone. Augustus’ manipulation of republican practice is illustrated by the titles and powers bestowed upon him, his placation, patronage and power over the army and his interaction with the Senate and the provinces. The combination of Powers and Titles bestowed upon Augustus amplified both his republican camouflage and the power it masked.

The powers and titles conferred upon Augustus augmented and ratified his authority and influence over the roman state. Dio Cassius presents this view, stating that “by virtue of these democratic names, [Augustus] was clothed in all the strength of the government and had all that appertains to kings except the vulgar title” (Cassius in Kagan, 1975, p279). As consul for 229 AD, Cassius had access to state records, allowing us to assume that his account is factually dependable. However, Cassius wrote 200 years after the death of Augustus in 14AD, and represents the views of the late-empire aristocracy. However, Tacitus corroborates Cassius’ view, stating in his Annals of Imperial Rome that “he [Augustus] concentrated in himself the functions of the senate, the magistrates and the laws” (Tacitus, Tr. Grant, 1956, pp 34). Tacitus was not a contemporary of Augustus, but rather (like Cassius) wrote from the perspective of the upper class of the later empire. This may explain the concurrence of these sources. Nonetheless, Tacitus and Cassius’ opinion that Augustus held supreme power is echoed by Suetonius, who recounts in his Twelve Caesars Augustus’ attempt to reinstate censors and to appoint two colleagues to be his equals whenever he was consul. However, Suetonius indicates that “the senate it was a sufficient detraction from his supreme dignity to acknowledge even a single colleague” (Suetonius, Tr. Grant, 1957, p75). Here Suetonius suggests that the senate - the very body which endowed Augustus with his powers - openly acknowledged Augustus as unrivalled master of the roman world.

When defining which powers Augustus acquired, most historians agree. Cassius writes that “the senate voted Augustus the office of proconsul...for perpetuity...” (Cassius quoted in Kagan, 1975, p280). However, for Augustus to override proconsuls and consuls alike, this power had to be reinforced with one of the higher magistracies, such as the consulship. However, Bury outlines that “as a consul, he had a colleague, whose power was legally equal” (Bury, 1908, p14). Augustus accordingly fell back on the Tribunicia Potestas, bestowed on him for life in 36BC. This meant that he could veto legislation, and also that he was sacrosanct, allowing him to exercise capital punishment free of consequence. However, in swapping the consulship for the Tribunicia Potestas, Augustus lost the right to put forth legislation for ratification, and his proconsular imperium became equal to other proconsuls’. Bury illustrates Augustus’ solution to this problem (Bury, 1908, p14);

“A series of privileges and rights were conferred upon him by special acts in 23BC and the following years. He received the right of convening the senate...and of proposing the first motion at its meetings (Ius primae relationis). His proconsular imperium was defined as superior (Maius) to that of other proconsuls. He received the right of the twelve fasces in Rome and of sitting (in the senate house) between the two consuls. Thus he was equalised with the consuls in dignity (19BC).”

J. B. Bury’s works are widely acknowledged by the academic community, validating them as a reliable resource. Bury reinforces Augustus’ position as the first among equals by highlighting his promotion to consular dignity in 19BC. This furthers the notion that the Maius proconsular imperium, the tribunician authority and the special decrees of the senate allowed Augustus’ office to exceed the authority and diversity of other magistrates. Tacitus supports this view in his Annals, illustrating that “Augustus was satisfied with a tribune’s authority for the protection of the people... and the proconsular imperium for the protection of the state” (Tacitus, Tr. Grant, 1956, p31). Cassius concludes by expressing that “in order to…hold power through constitutional measures…the rulers took possession ...of every position...which was politically strong during the Republic… consuls… proconsuls… and tribunes” (Cassius quoted in Kagan, 1975, p281). As Cassius and Tacitus are both supported by Bury, it is clear that in this way Augustus sought to become unequalled ruler of the roman state whilst maintaining that his powers were constitutional.

Another way Augustus masked his power was through his placation and patronage over the Army. Tacitus demonstrates that Augustus’ control over the army and its loyalty to him was essential as “he was wholly unopposed...while the remaining nobles...preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past” (Tacitus quoted in Kagan, 1975, pp 287). Tacitus also indicates that, even though such power was clearly not constitutional, “nor did the provinces dislike this condition of affairs”, as it offered a reprieve from the civil war of the past century (Tacitus, Tr. Grant, p30). Cassius substantiates this inference by writing that“Caesar was destined to hold absolute control...for all time, because he commanded the soldiers and was master of the money” (Cassius quoted in Kagan, 1975, p279). Cassius here discloses another manifestation of Augustus’ superiority over his colleagues. Control of the state finances (combined with his own money) allowed Augustus to introduce sweeping military reforms, such as fixed pay rates for soldiers, and privileges and land for veterans upon retirement. This resulted in the army becoming supremely loyal to Augustus.

 However, Cassius is unlikely to criticise these reforms, as he himself was a soldier, and might therefore have benefited from reforms which were maintained by later emperors. Nevertheless, Tacitus again supports Cassius by proposing that “Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts...and seduced the army with bonuses” (Tacitus Tr. Grant, 1956, p32). While Tacitus clearly views this as a fault, he corroborates Cassius’ observation that Augustus won the allegiance of the army by virtue of his financial open-handedness. Although Cassius and Tacitus both represent the views of the later, upper-class Romans, Suetonius supports their implication that Augustus purchased the loyalty of the army. Suetonius writes that “all the troops throughout the empire were reduced to one fixed model with regard to their pay and their that after their discharge, they might not be join the agitators for a revolution...How much he was loved for his conduct in these respects, it is easy to imagine” (Suetonius, Tr. Grant, 1957 p79). As Suetonius suffers neither republican nostalgia nor soldier’s interests, his description of this matter has no reason to be unreliable. As such, it is clear that Augustus consolidated his political power without appearing despotic by assuming control over the army. 

Along with his fiscal liberty, the military weight of Augustus was a direct result of his interaction with both the Senate and the provinces, the final way in which he secured his veiled monarchy. Suetonius documents a case of Augustus  interfering with the senate when he “restored the (Senatorial ) Order to its former size… each member allowed to nominate one other…then Augustus and Agrippa reviewed the list...announcing their own choice” (Suetonius in Kagan, 1975, p284). Suetonius implies that Augustus’ interference disregarded the Republican tradition of voting for Senatorial positions. While Suetonius’ position of secretary to a later emperor gave him access to the Imperial archives, his accounts sometimes contained unsubstantiated rumours. However, Cassius further demonstrates Augustus limiting the Senate’s power when discussing the provinces, stating that “The weaker peace and free from war, Augustus gave to the senate...whereas the more powerful he held in his possession” (Cassius quoted in Kagan, 1975, p280). Cassius suggests Augustus’ pretext was that “the senate should fearfully gather the fruits of the finest portion of the empire, while he himself had the labour and dangers”, before denoting that Augustus’ real purpose was that “the senators be...unprepared for battle while he alone...kept soldiers” (Cassius quoted in Kagan, 1975, p280). This suggests that Augustus divided the provinces into weaker Senatorial and stronger Imperial ones so as to further weaken the Senate.

 This view is reflected by Suetonius who reports that “the more important provinces, which could not with ease or safety be entrusted to the government of annual magistrates, [Augustus] reserved for his own administration. The rest he distributed by lot amongst the proconsuls” (Suetonius in Kagan, 1975, p283). Here Suetonius corroborates Cassius’ view that Augustus weakened the senate by giving them insignificant provinces, keeping any that were war-ravaged so he could maintain control of the army. This is also supported by Bury, who indicates that the Senate, upon the suggestion of Augustus, appointed him Imperium Proconsulare over “the most important frontier provinces” (Bury, 1908, p14). Augustus’ incentive in these matters was that maintaining the Senate and delegating it control of some weaker provinces helped to maintain the republican façade of the autocratic Principate.

However, Augustus’ greatest triumph in these matters is yet to be mentioned. Whilst Augustus went about acquiring “all that appertains to kings except the vulgar title”, he was concurrently winning his subjects, heart and soul (Cassius in Kagan, 1975, p279). Even though Tacitus depicts that all about him were “stripped of equality...and looked up to the commands of a sovereign...”, Augustus still managed to be loved by the senate and the people alike, indicated by Suetonius when Augustus had his greatest title bestowed upon him; “the whole body of the people...with unanimous consent offered him the title of father of his country” (Tacitus and Suetonius quoted in Kagan, 1975, p287, 286).

As both the father of the country and the first emperor of Rome, Augustus was the uncontested master of the state. Although he wrote in his Res Gestae ‘of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues’, and preserved the Senate and magistracies, these served only to uphold the Republican façade essential to Augustus’ position (Res Gestae quoted in Lewis, 1955, p11). By exercising his titles and powers, purchasing the devotion of the army and restricting the Senate’s authority, Augustus surpassed his colleagues and acquired superlative control of the Roman State. Bury expresses this with the elegance of retrospect: “The Imperium Proconsulare and Tribunicia Potestas was conferred upon Augustus...The Imperator had an exclusive command over the armies and fleet...and his “province” included all the most important frontier provinces, leaving those of peace for the Senate” (Bury, 1908, p13). Ultimate power lay in the hands of Augustus, and Augustus alone. As highlighted by Tacitus, “Political equality was a thing of the past; all eyes watched for imperial commands” (Tacitus, Tr. Grant, 1956, p 33).



Annotated Bibliography

Origin, purpose, value, limitation

Augustus: Res Gestae – Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Roman Civilisation, Vol. 2: The Empire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), pp. 9-19.

Serving as the source for the primary research focus of this essay, the Res Gestae offered valuable insight into the way in which Augustus portrayed his life. Although the purpose of the Res Gestae was to glorify and indoctrinate, whilst abating suspicions of a monarchy, it can be considered a relatively accurate account of the principate. This is because Augustus did actually achieve most of the events listed in the Res Gestae, irrespective of the vanity with which it is written. The limitations of this work lie in Augustus’ earlier career. For example, as a triumvir, Augustus had a man stabbed in public, on the spot, for transcribing his speech with too much enthusiasm. This, among other cruel acts, won him the hatred of the people during his early career. Details such as these would have been left out of the Res Gestae, as Augustus was trying to depict himself as a benevolent magistrate.

Bury (1908): The constitutional Basis of the Principate: A History of the Roman Empire, form its foundation to the death of Marcus Aurelius, 27BC-180AD: London: John Murray. Pp. 12-15

Bury was a historian of the Early 20th century, when historical focus was on the constitutional basis of Augustus power. This approach from a historian was immeasurably useful when trying to define and analyse the legality of the titles and powers bestowed upon Augustus. Of particular value was the fact that Bury makes a point of separating powers obtained through constitutional methods, and those based on tangible authority. The worth of this work was restricted only by its lack of direct references to primary sources. Whilst connections and corroborations are able to be found, Bury would have presented a much stronger case by quoting directly from the era.

Dio Cassius: The Augustan Settlement: quoted in Kagan (1975): Problems in Ancient History. New York, Macmillan Publishing Co., inc. Pages 278-282.

This is the most complete of the surviving primary source of the Augustan principate, and as such, is invaluable. As consul in the year 229 AD, Cassius would have had access to the official register of the state. As such, his factual information can be considered reliable. However, Cassius’ anti-imperial tendencies have caused some scepticism to arise about some of his conclusions, and also presented the views of the upper class Romans of the later empire. Additionally, Cassius was a Soldier, resulting in him being unlikely to be critical of any military reforms from which he would benefit if they were continued by later emperors.


Kagan, D (1975): Problems in Ancient History: Volume Two, the Roman World, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. The Augustan Principate pp. 275 – 308

Kagan is an invaluable resource, as he selects excerpts from many primary and secondary sources which embody various viewpoints on Augustus’ reign. Furthermore, Kagan writes an introduction to each excerpt, which reflects the context and purpose for which it was written. This is useful in determining which sources are reliable in which matter. The disadvantage of this work is that it does not express a single opinion on the matter of Augustus, but rather comments on what other historians have said, without arriving at any solid conclusion.

Suetonius: Augustus, pp. 28, 47, 49, 52-58, Translated by Alexander Thompson, revised by T. Forester: quoted in Kagan (1975): Problems in Ancient History. New York, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. Pages 283-286

Suetonius, Twelve Caesars: Augustus, Translated by Robert Graves, Introduced by Michael Grant (1957) Pp. 54-113.

Thanks to his relationship with Pliny the younger, Suetonius was able to attain the positions of a bybliothecis and a studiis to the emperor Hadrian. Together, these granted him access to all the libraries of Rome, along with intimate knowledge of the Imperial archives. In addition Suetonius was the ab epistulis (Minister of Letters) under the reign of both the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. This meant that every imperial correspondence would have passed through the hands of Suetonius. The drawback of these works, however, is that Suetonius tended to focus on the sensational, granting lesser importance to the doldrums of everyday life. Furthermore, it must be taken into account when considering the impartiality of these sources that Suetonius thought highly of Augustus and portrayed him as a benevolent ruler. Suetonius’ accounts are by no means incorrect, especially in this case considering he had access to every letter Augustus wrote due to his position as royal archivist. However, it must be considered that he thought poorly of the later emperors. He depicted Tiberius as a sexually unstable despot, Caligula as a cynical monster, Claudius as a bureaucrat and Nero as incompetent.

Syme, R: The Roman Revolution, pp. 520-524 (Clarendon, 1939)

Ronald Syme is one if the leaders in a movement which has turned the attention of scholars away from the constitutional foundation of Augustus’ power, toward what some consider it’s more basic realities. Whilst this quality presents an advantageous contrast with the views of earlier historians, it limits Syme’s writing, as it does not account for the titles and powers which Augustus used to validate and augment his power. He has emphasised Augustus’ position as the leader of a faction, a Dux, who was compelled by success to seek a broader base of power.

Tacitus quoted in Kagan: Annals 1. 1-4, Translated by A.J. Church and W. J. Brodribb: In Kagan, Pages 286-287

Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome: Augustus to Tiberius, Translated by Michael Grant (1956) Pp. 31-42.

Tacitus was an aristocrat who, along with being a writer and historian, had a distinguished career as an orator, a lawyer and an administrator. His writings present a republican nostalgia, as well as particularly negative feelings toward Imperial rule. This is probably a result of his living under the rule of the emperors Tiberius and Domitian, two men whose abuse of power defined their position as contrary to that of Tacitus. Tacitus also died before completing his Annals (in which his account of Augustus is found), suggesting that any factual errors may be due to his inability to edit his work before publication. However, On the matter of Augustus, Tacitus seems to largely be in accord with Cassius and Suetonius, indicating that his imperial distrust did not extend all the way back to the reign of Augustus.