Rome: from Republic to Empire

Octavian addressing the Senate

Octavian addresses the Senate. Almost always he persuaded them to agree to his wishes. Later he even appointed the members of the Senate.

Caesar Octavian Augustus

Caesar Octavian Augustus.

The Roman Republic was set up soon after the expulsion of the last king of Rome in 509 BC. The Romans had suffered greatly from their kings, and under the new form of government the main power lay with the senate who each year elected two officers, called consuls, to rule for one year. Only in emergencies were great powers given to one man, and then for a short time only. For hundreds of years Romans had had a fierce prejudice against kings and dictators. But as the Roman Republic grew larger and great armies grew up to protect it, the consuls fought each other and the Senate, trying to seize power. More and more, the Republic was ruled by force of arms, and not by the Senate and its delegates. Eventually one man succeeded in getting all power into his own hands, and in this way the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire.


Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC. Although he had not actually taken the title of king or emperor, he had all the powers. Many people thought it was very dangerous to give so much power to one man; they therefore decided to take drastic action to save the Roman Republic.


Accordingly, a number of them banded together to murder Caesar. They hoped that the Republic would then be restored and that this would put an end to the idea of a king. But Caesar had left an heir – his great-nephew Octavian.


Rise of Octavian

At the time of his great-uncle's death Octavian was only nineteen years old. In the civil war that followed, he and Mark Antony fought together against Caesar's enemies and murderers who were led by Brutus and Cassius. At the Battle of Philippi they were victorious, and they then divided the Roman Empire between them – Mark Antony taking the East, and Octavian the West. But later a quarrel broke out between the two men, and they fought each other in a sea-battle near Actium. Octavian scattered Antony's fleets, and at the age of thirty-two he found himself the sole ruler of the whole Roman world.


Octavian realized that he must act with great caution, otherwise he would meet the same fate as his great-uncle. The republican form of government had now broken down completely – during the previous 30 years there had been one civil war after another. Only the strong rule of one man could now save Rome. As the heir of Caesar and the victor of Mark Antony, Octavian was the obvious choice.


But still he must be careful. Otherwise the republican feelings of the Romans might flare up again. He must appear to have less power than he really had; he must not seem to be a king even though he had the powers of one. So Octavian avoided all outward displays of power; he avoided extravagance and led a simple and thrifty life. Above all he made a great show of respecting the Republic and its institutions.


Powers of Octavian

Soon after his return to Rome in 27 BC. Octavian solemnly announced to the Senate that he wished to lay down all his powers and retire into private life. The Senate was horrified, as he knew they would be. The members besought him to change his mind, and with a show of reluctance, he agreed to do so.


The Senate at once conferred on him the special title of 'Princeps', meaning First Citizen, and voted him special powers for ten years. He was to be commander-in-chief of the army, governor of certain provinces, and he had the right to make war and peace at his own discretion. It was also at this time that he took the name Augustus, a title hitherto reserved for the gods.


Thus Octavian gained all the powers that he needed, but he had gained them lawfully through the Senate. He realized that he would still have to be careful in exercising these powers, as otherwise people would feel resentful and afraid. Accordingly, he insisted that all republican institutions should remain unchanged, even though they had been stripped of most of their authority.


The Senate continued to function, although Octavian always managed to impose his will on it; later he even managed to acquire the right to nominate new senators personally, instead of having them elected by an assembly of the people.


The consuls, once the highest officers in the State and the commanders of the army, were also retained. For many years Octavian himself was a consul, but in 23 BC. he gave the office up. After that, the consuls had little authority and their duties were mainly ceremonial.


All this was done to satisfy the republican instincts of the Romans and to pacify their prejudice against kings. For the whole of his reign of 40 years Octavian did everything he could to prove that he was not greedy for power. Only by such means could the Romans become accustomed to the idea of having an emperor. At first Octavian's powers were conferred on him for life only. But later he gained the right to nominate his successor, and it was established that the new form of government would be permanent.