Why the age of Augustus still transfixes us.
The collapse of the Roman republic, and the establishment amid its rubble of the rule of the Caesars, constitutes the primal political narrative of the West. In 49 BC, a system of government founded on the conviction that the only conceivable alternative to liberty was death spectacularly imploded. The claim of Julius Caesar, the greatest general of his day, to a primacy over his fellow citizens resulted first in civil war, and then – after he had crushed his domestic foes as he had previously crushed the various tribes of Gaul – in his assassination. Two more murderous bouts of civil war followed. Assorted warlords struggled for supremacy.
By 31 BC, only one was left standing: Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son, Octavian. Four years later, by the unanimous vote of the Senate, he was granted a new name, one which served to distinguish him both from his past as a youthful terrorist, and as someone halfway to becoming a god: “Augustus is what our fathers call anything holy.” For more than four decades, he ruled supreme over the Roman world. It was an age of peace and plenitude. By AD 14, when Augustus finally died, few could remember the days of the free republic. The model of autocracy that he had constructed with such subtlety, patience and care had come to be taken for granted by almost everyone.
Augustus never ceased to be commemorated by the Romans as the first and greatest of their emperors: a ruler who had laid the vast edifice of Roman power on such solid and splendid foundations that still, long after its collapse in western Europe, it served barbarian kings as the great exemplar of an earthly dominion. The dream of restoring it – an empire transfigured into a form not merely Roman but holy – was one that haunted medieval Christendom.
Increasingly, however, the revival of civic self-government in Europe enabled people to view the Caesars through a different, more radical lens. The English, American and French revolutions were all consciously inspired by the example of the Roman republic. The opposites delineated by the narrative of its collapse – liberty and despotism, anarchy and order, republic and autocracy – came to provide the modern West with its political poles. No surprise, then, that perspectives on Augustus – in liberal democracies, at any rate – should have taken a progressively more sceptical turn. Writing in the late 1930s, the great ancient historian Ronald Syme saw in the rise to power of the Caesars a “Roman revolution”, a prefiguring of the age of the fascist and communist dictatorships. Mussolini and Hitler would not have disagreed. Both were obsessed by the example of Augustus. Nazi educationalists enshrined Rome’s first emperor as the very model of a Führer.
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Source:: New Statesman