Caesar Augustus: Roman Ubermensch


The earthly city is ruled by its own lust for ruling.  So noted St. Augustine in De Civitate Dei, written after the sacking of Rome in 410 A.D. by the Visigoths, the first by a foreign invader since the Gauls in 390 B.C.  If there was any earthly city more apt for ruling unruly, lawless barbarian hordes it was imperial Rome.  From the late first century B.C. to the second century A.D., law and order, culture, commerce, travel, and knowledge all experienced great increase under the rule of the Caesars.  The so-called Pax Romana spread across three continents: from Spain and France to Turkey, down to Judea and Egypt, and back over the whole of North Africa, returning again to Europe across the Pillars of Hercules.  The Latin word for the world is orbis terrarum, the circle of lands — a fitting image.  At no time in the history of man had so many peoples and lands experienced such peace.  But how was that peace founded and at what price was it purchased?  The answer lies at a singular moment in the life of a Roman boy who accepted the greatest bequest ever offered to one so young and inexperienced.  Caius Octavius, from now on known as Julius Caesar, the son of Caesar, at the mere age of nineteen, with scant military and administrative experience becomes a serious contestant in the struggle for supreme power over not just Rome, but the entire Western world.  History now knows him as Imperator Caesar Augustus, Son of God.  And none but Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar had shared in such intense lust for ruling, the libido dominandi, like Octavius.


This reflection, however, is not meant to retell the tale of Caius Octavius in great detail.  The inspiration for this reflection comes form Adrian Goldsworthy’s work on Augustus, the title of which being the same as the name of the man, a sweeping narrative history which should be read widely, assuming of course that ignorance of history really dooms one to repeat it.  What struck me the most about Augustus’ tale was not his genius for branding himself a traditional Roman, or the vast difference in his temper as a young triumvir in which he is known for his brutality in the pursuit and punishment of his enemies, versus his principate which is characterized by clemency toward foes who admit defeat, but the Roman people’s willingness to believe Octavius’ proganda and embrace him as their Imperator.  Goldsworthy rightly points out numerous times that the people longed for an end to roughly fifty years of internecine, brutal civil war.  For peace to prevail, one man had to impose himself upon the broken Republican regime and compel the senators to agree that the war was over.  And the people loved him for it.  It was hard for the senators to disagree with a man who by 27 B.C. controlled nearly twenty-six legions, roughly 100,000 men.

Rome embraced soft-despotism and no better a soft-despot was there than Caesar Augustus.  However, Augustus would pacify mankind not by virtue or persuasion to the truth, but by the sword.  The libido dominandi must be sated.  Such it seems is the burden of empire.  Adding legitimacy to the new regime, Augustus’ Rome would be patinated with tales of Rome’s founding, piety to the gods and state, and monuments in honor of her Princeps. Augustus had transcended his forebears: his reign was not by chance, but fate.  Any hope for a return to the age of men like Cincinnatus and Cato the Censor, where men ruled themselves in virtue and observance of the ancient Roman moral code, the mos maiorum, the customs of the ancestors, an age still alive in the Republic’s darkest days in the great souls of Cato the Younger and Marcus Tullius Cicero, was completely lost when the Roman people hailed one man, assented to granting him singular authority to order the state, and chose security at the expense of freedom.  Though the regime took it’s final form in 27 B.C. when the senate granted Octavius the name Augustus, a name with deep religious meaning, in truth, the Roman people’s inordinate love of security at the expense of freedom was made much earlier.  But that is a topic for a later reflection.

A final note: I cannot complete this reflection without juxtaposing George Washington to Caesar Augustus.  Washington had his moment to choose absolute power, and we enjoy the result.  Let’s pray and work that we may keep our Republic.

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