How did Augustus change the Roman government?
The Roman Revolution. Power struggles in ancient Rome
In the early days of global political processes, Roman history has always become a large projection screen for the unsettled zeitgeist - and ancient historians are the secret keywords. Conversely, however, the history of the Roman Empire was never written by historians without seeing it through the prism of one's own present. This was even true for the Roman historians themselves, for Pollio, Sallust or Tacitus, who, as contemporaries of the Roman Republic or the imperial era, always moved on a highly dangerous pavement of power politics; And this was no less the case with historians such as Gibbon, Niebuhr or Mommsen, who almost two thousand years later could never completely avoid writing more or less directly, in their great works on Roman history, crises and conflicts of their own time.
Of course, Ronald Syme's "The Roman Revolution" is no exception to this underground proximity to the present. When this first major work by the Oxford historian appeared a few days after the start of World War II, it quickly became a widely recognized standard work in the Anglo-Saxon world, because it became a principle with the power struggles during the transition of the Roman Republic, which was torn by civil wars of Augustus and the Roman Empire also hit the similarly charged atmosphere in pre-war Europe.
How did the New Zealander, born in 1903, the year Theodor Mommsen died, who spent his entire academic life in Oxford, use one of his fine ironic tips against the otherwise highly esteemed Mommsen to indicate the direction of his "Roman Revolution"?
It is an entertaining activity to ponder the intricacies of legal theory or to watch the transmission of eternal maxims of political wisdom from age to age. But it is more instructive to uncover the essential equality of agents and servants of power in all times and under every system of rule. This task has often been ignored or bypassed.
That was a powerful trumpet blow against the citadel walls of Theodor Mommsen's Roman history, with whose narrative skills Ronald Syme, which was crowned with a Nobel Prize for Literature, could not really compete, but still had a lot in common. The Roman Revolution should penetrate into the interior of power, to where its "agents and servants", that is, the ruling class, fought their bloody power struggles incessantly, in essence "in all times and under every system of rule". A remarkable program, this filigree autopsy of the ruling class in Rome in a moment of deep crisis, or its elite, as it is better known today, and also a program that is at no time without explosiveness, because elites never like to be on the fingers show when behind changing political facades power is divided between their agents and servants.
Whatever the form and name of a government, monarchy, republic or democracy, at all times an oligarchy lurks behind the facade; and Roman history, both republican and imperial, is the history of a ruling class. The generals, diplomats and financiers of the revolution are encountered again in the Republic of Augustus as tools and sovereigns of power - the same men, only in different clothes. They form the government of the New State.
Here, too, a blink of an eye directed at Symes' presence in the 1930s cannot be misunderstood, at the revolutions in old Europe after the First World War, which took place under fascist or national auspices. They had a lot in common with the central problem of Octavian, the later Augustus: how do you manage to establish yourself as the party leader in a decade-long civil war that was only interrupted by the dictatorship of Caesar, and finally as the undisputed ruler in a new state, the suddenly seems to be above all parties of the civil war? For Caesar's heir Octavian that was the cardinal question, and the fact that he was able to solve it in the New State of his principal remained the real hot core of the interest in this unscrupulous strategist of the great power game, which has never faded since then.
Two years after the Ides of March, when Julius Caesar had been eliminated by the republican conspirators in the Roman Senate, Octavian, in alliance with the Caesarian Antonius, had defeated the armies of the republicans Brutus and Cassius at Philippi and finally undermined the following triumvirate until he 32 BC BC could also destroy his most dangerous competitor Antonius at Actium. But Octavian was first and foremost a master of propaganda and above all of alliances - even before the battle in Actium, he had drawn most of the Roman elite to his side, so Ronald Syme writes:
The Battle of Actium was decided before it was fought. (...) Actium was a shabby affair, a worthy climax of the inglorious propaganda against Cleopatra and the evoked holy alliance of all of Italy.
For Mussolini and Hitler, too, propaganda, such shoddy coups and, above all, tactically clever alliances with the elites were decisive means of their ascent. In Symes Roman revolution chapters with headings like "The First March on Rome", "The National Program" or "The Organization of Public Opinion" can always be understood as comments on European power politics before World War II.
How explosive the method of a historian like Ronald Syme can be, who never refrained from examining the oligarchies through the meticulous personal histories of their protagonists, can be seen if one thinks this prosopographical method applied to more recent epochs. In its Roman revolution Syme followed how Augustus regrouped the power cartels of the Roman elite, so to speak, and swore to himself that his monocratic system of rule of the principate could remain stable in the long term - not least because he gave her shares in the rich booty of the year before his death In 14 AD in Africa, Asia and Europe, the Roman empire was still expanded.
If a similar autopsy of the German elites were to be carried out at the transition points between the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and the Federal Republic, there would probably be a similar surprising picture of continuities behind the facades of the forms of government as in the time of Augustus - with one major difference, however: the Jewish one Unlike the Roman nobility, part of the elite has not only been completely disempowered, but largely destroyed.
Syme left little doubt about the precarious position of historians in such a terrain. It flashes, for example, when he gives a razor-sharp portrait of Pollio - alongside Sallust and above all Tacitus, who later became Syme's main work, his most important point of reference in Roman historiography.
Pollio was a contemporary of the events of which he was telling, and took part in them in no small measure as an army leader and skilled mediator. He died about ten years before Augustus. Character and inclinations would have made him take a neutral stance during the battle between Caesar and Pompey, if that had been possible. Pollio had powerful enemies in both camps. Forced to a decision for the sake of his safety, he chose Caesar, his personal friend, and accompanied him through all the wars from the crossing of the Rubicon to the last battle in Spain. Then he followed Antony for five years. Loyal to Caesar and proud of his loyalty, he nevertheless confessed at the same time his devotion to free institutions - an avowal that appears quite credible due to his passionate and proverbial independence in speech and habits.
Pollio, the partisan of Caesar and Antony, was a pessimistic republican and an honorable man. A tenacious Italian style, averse to all pomp and fuss, he wrote about the revolution, as this dire subject required, in a simple, austere style. One must very much regret that he did not continue his "History of Civil Wars" beyond the time of the Triumvirate to the Battle of Actium and the Principate of Augustus; his work seems to have ended with the fall of the Republic at Philippi. It is easy to see why Pollio chose not to go on writing. As it was, his path was dangerous, the lava beneath the surface was still liquid. As an opponent of Octavianus, Pollio had soon after 40 BC. Withdrew from political life and remained jealous of its independence. To tell the truth would have been foolhardy, but flattery was against his character.
This portrait of one of his historical models shows very nicely the clarity of Syme's style, that in the thoroughly revised and also for the first time complete translation of the long out of print Roman revolution now comes into its own. But for the present day, Sime's great work is also exemplary in the analytical sharpness with which he freed the interior architecture of Augustus' system of rule, which was left in the balance between republic and monarchy, from his own and many later transfigurations. It can also be called an ideological criticism of this system of rule with its "more modern and deadly power techniques" - an indispensable project because a historian of the time like Pollio already shows the paradox that is still fatal today that for historians who know the interior of such systems of rule, because they were his own, too dangerous to write about, while published works are better assumed to have been carefully cleared of dangerous truths from the outset. If it were not a study of the Roman era, but of the rule systems of modern democracies, one could be sure that the accusation of "conspiracy theory" would be raised immediately. Because Syme writes about:
The best party is nothing but some kind of conspiracy against the state. Octavian's followers could not even give the appearance of being a proper party. In truth they were, as the greatest movements had often been disparagingly called, a clique; their actions were outside the constitution and the law.
In no way does this mean that Syme ignored the Principate's accomplishments. Augustus had tamed the civil war by preventing the powerful actors, especially those from the Roman nobility, from holding private armies; he stopped the impending decline of the Roman Empire by integrating the possessing class of the Italian cities into the elite and suppressing the influence of the Roman nobility; With the victory over Antony he once again tamed the conflict that broke out between the east and west of the Roman Empire and thus ensured that this antagonism did not disintegrate the Roman Empire until centuries later; and of course the spread of the Roman legal system over the provinces was an advance, for example, over oriental despotism, however different the enslaved peoples may have seen it.
Ultimately, however, that does not change the fact that Augustus was the prototype of many later power figures for whom legality was also only a useful backdrop to secure their own system of rule. Behind the scenes of that Roman republic, which Augustus never openly abolished but only pretended to restore, his newly formed elite acted no less unhindered than that of the republican era. Of course, one shouldn't have any illusions about what the title "Republic" actually meant at all these times.
The reality of Roman politics was coated with a double layer of delusions, democratic and aristocratic. In theory, the people were ultimately sovereign, but the spirit of the constitution was considered aristocratic. In fact, the oligarchy ruled by consensus and tradition. The defenders of rule and the prerogatives of the Senate were not just a limited clique of brutal and unenlightened oligarchs. It should be reiterated that among those who defended the rights of the people there were righteous men and honest reformers. But hardly anyone believed or was convinced that popular sovereignty was a good in itself. Once in power, he did popularis whether his name was Pompey or Caesar, he did his best to restrict the dangerous and anachronistic freedoms of the people. That was the first duty of every Roman statesman.
Caesar Augustus was such a statesman whose rise began as a leader of the revolution.
The Roman plebs were inherited from Caesar clientela . He fed her with donations, entertained her with games and claimed to be her protector against oppression. Free elections returned - that is, a grateful people would infallibly choose the candidates whom Caesar in his wisdom had chosen.
Even today, none of this sounds entirely unfamiliar, since the slogan of democracy has replaced that of the republic; and also the commentary by Syme on the reorganization of the years 28 and 27 BC. B.C. does not seem completely remote from the present when Augustus, after the end of the triumvirate, seemed to renew the republic in a cleverly designed farce, although many contemporaries may have been talking about the fateful terms dictatorship or monarchy in Rome:
There was a conspiracy of reasonable silence on all sides about the gap between reality and theory; it was clear to all that there would be no use, only danger, to talk about it. The principate defies definition.
If Ronald Sime's brilliant analysis of the ruling class on which Augustus relied is by no means revealing today only for ancient historians, but at the same time sheds light on the present, it has to do with the fact that an oligarchy lurks behind the facades of modern democracies too even in the media democracies a strange "conspiracy of appropriate silence" can often be observed on all sides. No wonder, if you look into the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi, who possibly commands this media even more effectively than Augustus over those of his time - and whose freely chosen regime also has features of that of Augustus in that he - about Ronald Syme accept -
the constitution (changes) to suit his politics and his politics to conform to Roman beliefs.
Of course, one can also look to the USA, which is now often viewed as the "new Rome". When the incumbent president once again announces one of his crusades with the melodious concept of freedom, one might think of Ronald Syme's words:
In Rome everyone revered the 'libertas', which was believed to correspond roughly to the spirit and practice of the republican government. But what exactly corresponded to the republican constitution was not a question of the legally valid definition, but of partisan interpretations. Libertas is a vague and negating term - freedom from the rule of a tyrant or party. It follows that 'libertas' is a welcome expression for political fraud. The 'libertas' was most frequently invoked in defense of the established order by individuals or classes who enjoyed power and wealth. The 'libertas' of the Roman aristocrat meant the rule of a class and the perpetuation of privileges.
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