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The Roman Empire: The Augustan Principate

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Rome went from being a republic to being an empire, but this transition didn't happen over night. In this lesson, we'll explore the ways that Roman emperors kept the Republic alive in the Roman Empire, and see how Augustus helped establish this system.

The Roman Emperor

When you ask anyone who the first Roman emperor was, most people will say it was Julius Caesar. This isn't true. Caesar had lots of power and was a key figure in the final years of the Roman Republic, but Rome's first emperor was actually his adopted heir, Octavian Caesar Augustus. Augustus became the ruler of a powerful city, one which had for generations defined itself by its immense pride in its republic system of government. Turning a republic into an empire would be no easy feat, and to prevent massive rebellions Augustus did something very ingenious: he told people that the Republic was still intact. From roughly 31 BCE on, Rome was an empire that still maintained the guise of a republic. We call this the Principate period of Roman history, and it lasted until the 3rd century CE. The first part of this, the Augustan Principate, was perhaps the most influential though as it set the precedent for future emperors to follow. Augustus was a Roman emperor but also a protector of the Republic. Who knew you could do both?

Empire Versus Republic

In the 1st century BCE, the Roman Republic was falling to pieces. It eventually crumbled into a civil war, one which was only resolved in 31 BCE with Augustus' (then Octavius) victory at the Battle of Actium. With Rome so weakened, the Senate asked Octavius to hold onto the power he had gained in the wars so that he could rebuild the city. According to tradition, Octavius fought against this but relented due to Rome's need for a strong leader.

From there, Octavius began to acquire new titles, starting with the honorific Augustus. He was made the main consul, or leader, of the Senate as well as this body's Princep, the member with the right to speak first and symbolic first citizen of Rome. That was Augustus' favorite title, although the Senate also declared him pontifex maximus (head priest of Rome) and Imperator (head of the Roman military.

Augustus as pontifex maximus
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Never since the ancient Roman kingdom had one person held so much power. In reality, Rome was giving Augustus the power of a monarch, although he worked hard to demonstrate a commitment to the ideals of the republic. Augustus continued to recognize the rights of Romans to elect their own magistrates and city officials. He kept the Senate intact and consulted it for all major decisions. Despite his efforts to preserve the Republic, however, Augustus had near absolute control of Rome. So, the Principate period can be seen as something more like a constitutional monarchy, with a strong monarch whose power was legally checked by a representative legislature.

Augustus and Roman Propaganda

Augustus' rise to power was not without conflict. There were many who opposed this change to Rome's government and rightly cried that the era of the true republic was over. Augustus, whose top priority forever remained the stability of Rome, developed one of history's great propaganda machines in order to justify his power and convince the Roman people that the republic was still intact. He reformed the Senate to make it more effective, made public displays of yielding to their power, and openly praised this representative council.

The most aspect of Augustus' propaganda, however, was his building campaign. Augustus justified his power by using it to rebuild Rome and a stronger, larger, and better organized city. He built a new public space, the Forum Augustum on his own land and donated it to the people. He added new temples and buildings to another public space called the Campus Martius. To build up a culture of civic responsibility amongst the elites, Augustus also encouraged other wealthy families to commission temples and public buildings. Perhaps the most significant building which was likely inspired by Augustus' prompting was the Pantheon, a temple to all of Rome's gods.

While Augustus commissioned many of the temples in this era himself, the Senate worked with him to legitimize his power. Perhaps most notably, in 13 BCE they commissioned an altar to the Roman goddess of Peace to celebrate Augustus' return from a military campaign. Called the Ara Pacis, this altar symbolized the entering of a new age of Roman stability and peace under Augustus' rule, and is considered one of the highest artistic achievements of ancient Rome.

The Ara Pacis
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