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Augustus: Republican or Monarch?
The Activity
Augustus is normally credited as the figure who marked the end of the Republic and
became the first emperor of Rome. Augustus himself would not have agreed with this
assessment. How does he defend his role as saviour/ defender/ restorer of the Republic
in his own autobiography, the Res Gestae (‘Achievements’)?
A. What is the Res Gestae?
One of the first questions you need to ask yourself about the Res Gestae is ‘what kind of
document is it?’ It is not simply a straightforward narrative history of the principate of Augustus; it
is a funerary epitaph, set up outside Augustus’ tomb in Rome after he died in A.D. 14, and also
inscribed in public space in the Roman provinces, as far afield as Asia Minor.
The Res Gestae were inscribed in Greek and in Latin on the walls of the Temple of Rome and Augustus in the city of
Ancyra in the province of Asia Minor (modern Turkey)
Funerary epitaphs were supposed to glorify great Romans. Augustus had achieved more than
any Roman had ever achieved before, so we should not be surprised that Augustus’ epitaph is
so big (about 300 lines!) that it almost becomes a piece of literature, rather than simply an
inscription. This is the first point you should consider: because it is an epitaph outside a tomb,
its principal job is to flag up the extraordinary achievements of the deceased. It was set up in a
highly visible location in the ‘Field of Mars’, an important political district on the north side of the
city, next to the Via Flaminia (the major road leading out north) so that it was one of the first
things a visitor to the city would see. It would be surprising, therefore, if it did not make
Augustus out to be a unique figure with all the hallmarks of a monarch: extraordinary glory,
fame, achievement, dignitas, auctoritas. In addition, these were the Res Gestae Divi Augusti –
the Achievements of the Deified Augustus, since he was formally declared a god by the Senate
upon his death.
Left: A reconstruction drawing of the Field of Mars, with the Mausoleum of Augustus in the background, alongside the
Via Flaminia leading northwards out of the city. Right: A reconstruction of the Mausoleum, with the Res Gestae
inscribed on bronze tablets outside the main entrance.
However, the Res Gestae is also unique because it is an autobiography, written by Augustus
himself in the first person before he died, no doubt in full knowledge that it would make people
think about him in a certain way after his death. It should become clear to you as you read the
Res Gestae that large parts of it are quite defensive, written as if to pre-empt an attack from
critics who might accuse him of having turned Rome into a monarchy. Funerary epitaphs are
not simply about the dead: the deified Augustus was an insurance policy for the imperial family,
and Augustus’ stepson Tiberius, whom the old emperor had adopted as his son and heir, knew
this only too well. The image projected of the old emperor told you a lot about the new emperor,
and having a second emperor inevitably invited the idea that Rome now had a dynasty, a ‘royal
family’. Elite Romans, it is normally thought, had a pathological hatred of kings; this is one of the
principal reasons why Julius Caesar had been assassinated in 44 B.C.
So, the Res Gestae is not straightforwardly evidence reflecting what Rome was like under
Augustus: it is also itself a significant part of the political process in constructing the image of
Augustus (and therefore the image of the ‘emperor’ too). Glorifying Augustus is one of its jobs;
playing down the idea of autocratic power, of one-man rule, is another.
B. The Text
You should attempt to think about the inscription in its entirety: its structure, style, tone and
themes. But the purpose of this activity is also to encourage you to think at the micro level, to
engage in close and detailed analysis of individual passages and to learn to appreciate the
subtlety of the politics at work in this document. Below, I have identified a few of the passages
that I think are most interesting, and below each passage I have written some specific prompts
or questions to help you to see the sorts of questions we should be asking about this text. Feel
free to focus your activity on these texts, or to choose others that you think are particularly
interesting or important.
Passage 1: Recusatio
Recusatio (‘Refusal’) was the ritual by which an emperor would decline honours offered to him by
the Roman senate).
5.1 The dictatorship was offered to me both in my absence and in my presence by both the people and
the senate in the consulship of Marcus Marcellus and Lucius Arruntius [22 BC], but I refused it. 5.2 I did
not decline in the great scarcity of corn the superintendence of the supply, and I so administered it that
within a few days I had freed the whole community from the immediate fear and peril through my
expenditure and care. 5.3 The consulship, for the year and in perpetuity, was also then offered to me, but
I refused it.
Why does Augustus spend so much effort telling us about the honours he refused? Why
do you think he refused these particular honours? What had happened to the last dictator
of Rome?
Why do you think he might have accepted the job of ‘superintendent of the corn supply’?
What kind of power does this give Augustus?
Why would Augustus turn down the consulship in perpetuity?
Passage 2: Constitutionality
6.1 In the consulship of Marcus Vinicius and Quintus Lucretius [19 BC], and afterwards in that of Publius
Lentulus and Gnaeus Lentulus [18 BC], and thirdly in that of Paullus Fabius Maximus and Quintus Tubero
[11 BC], the senate and people of Rome agreed that I should be appointed supervisor of laws and morals
with supreme power and without a colleague, but I did not accept any office offered contrary to ancestral
tradition. 6.2 The measures which the senate then wanted me to take I carried out through my tribunician
power, and I myself on my own initiative five times requested and accepted from the senate a colleague in
that power.
What is Augustus at pains to emphasise about his powers in this passage?
What is at stake in having a political colleague?
Passage 3: Priesthood
10.1 My name was included in the hymn of the Salii by decree of the senate, and it was ordained by law
that I should be sacrosanct for ever and should have the tribunician power for the rest of my life. 10.2 I
refused to become pontifex maximus in place of my colleague while he was alive, when the people offered
me that priesthood, which my father had held. However, some years later, after the death of the man who
had taken advantage of civil unrest to appropriate it, I accepted the priesthood, in the consulship of
Publius Sulpicius and Gaius Valgius [12 BC], and the crowd which poured in from the whole of Italy for my
election was larger than any previously recorded to have assembled at Rome.
What kind of priest is Augustus?
Why do you think religious authority is so important to a figure like Augustus?
Does this authority make him more, or less, like a monarch?
Passage 4: Buildings
19.1 I built the Senate-house and the adjacent Chalcidicum; the temple of Apollo on the Palatine with its
porticoes; the temple of the Deified Julius; the Lupercal; the portico at the Flaminian Circus, which I
allowed to be called Octavia after the builder of the previous portico on the same site; the couch for the
gods at the Circus Maximus; 19.2 the temples of Jupiter Feretrius and Jupiter the Thunderer on the
Capitol; the temple of Quirinus; the temples of Minerva, Juno Queen of Heaven, and Jupiter Freedom on
the Aventine; the temple of the Lares at the top of the Sacred Way, the temple of the Penates on the
Velia; the temple of Youth; and the temple of the Great Mother on the Palatine.
20.1 I restored the Capitol and the Theatre of Pompey, both works at great expense, without inscribing my
name upon them. 20.2 I restored the channels of the aqueducts, which in several places were falling into
disrepair through age, and doubled the supply to the aqueduct called Marcia by linking its channel to a
new source. 20.3 I completed the Forum Julium and the basilica which was between the temples of
Castor and Saturn, both of which my father began and almost finished. When the same basilica was
destroyed by fire, I enlarged the site and started rebuilding it in the name of my sons, and I have given
orders that, if I do not live to complete the work, it should be completed by my heirs. 20.4 In my sixth
consulship [28 BC] on the authority of the Senate I restored eighty-two temples of the gods in the city,
omitting none which needed repair at that time. 20.5 In my seventh consulship [27 BC] I restored the
Flaminian Way from the city to Ariminum, and all the bridges except the Mulvian and the Minucian.
21.1 On private land I built the temple of Mars the Avenger and the Forum Augustum from booty. On land
largely purchased from private sources I built the theatre next to the temple of Apollo, to bear the name of
my son-in-law, Marcus Marcellus.
What kinds of buildings does Augustus boast of setting up/ restoring?
What message does this send out about what kind of leader Augustus is?
Who is Augustus referring to by ‘my father’ (20.3)? Why would he mention this in this
document, do you think?
Do Augustus’ building projects make him more, or less, like an autocrat?
Passage 5: Integration
24.1 As victor I replaced in the temples of all the cities of the province of Asia the ornaments which my
adversary in the war had stolen from the temples and held in his personal possession. 24.2 About eighty
silver statues of myself, on foot, on horseback, or in a chariot, had been erected in the city. I myself
removed them and with the money realized from them I placed gold gifts in the temple of Apollo in my
name and in that of those who put up the statues in my honour.
25.1 I pacified the sea from pirates. In that war I captured about thirty thousand slaves who had escaped
from their masters and taken arms against the republic and returned them to their masters for punishment.
25.2 The whole of Italy, of its own accord, swore an oath of allegiance to me and demanded me as leader
in the war, in which I was victorious at Actium. The provinces of Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia
swore the same oath. 25.3 More than 700 senators served under my command at that time, including
eighty-three who previously or subsequently (up to the time of writing) were appointed consul, and one
hundred and seventy who were appointed priests.
Who is Augustus talking about when he refers to “my adversary”?
Who are the “pirates” he talks about? [Clue: Google ‘Sextus Pompey’]
Why doesn’t he mention them by name, do you think?
What kind of support does Augustus claim he had in the Civil Wars, and why is this
important to his political position?
Passage 6: Modesty?
34.1 In my sixth and seventh consulships [28-27 BC], after I had extinguished the civil wars, having
become master of everything by the consent of all, I transferred the republic from my power [potestas] to
the control of the senate and the Roman people. 34.2 In return for this service of mine by decree of the
senate I was called Augustus, and the door-posts of my house were screened with laurel at public
expense, and a civic crown was fixed above my door and a golden shield was set up in the Julian Senatehouse with an inscription attesting that the senate and the Roman people gave it to me because of my
courage, clemency, justice, and piety. 34.3 After that time I excelled all in authority [auctoritas], but I had
no more power [potestas] than others who were my colleagues in each magistracy.
What is Augustus at pains to emphasise in this passage, which comes near the end of
the Res Gestae?
Why does Augustus use so many abstract nouns in this passage?
C. Augustus as autocrat (some examples)
Whatever we make of Augustus’ own account of his principate, later Romans appeared (like us)
to have little doubt about the extent to which Augustus transformed Rome. Here are just a few
citations from later historians contemplating the significance of Augustus for Rome:
1. Dio Cassius 53.17.1: ‘The power of both people and Senate passed entirely into the hands of
Augustus, and from his time there was, strictly speaking, a monarchy’.
2. Tacitus Annals 1.1: ‘Augustus absorbed the functions of the senate, the magistrates and the
3. Strabo Geography 6.4.2: ‘His native land committed to him the foremost place of authority,
and he became established as lord for life of war and peace’
Whom do you believe? Was Augustus lying?
The statue of Augustus Imperator from Livia’s villa at Prima Porta (c. A.D. 15)