Bust of Augustus in the Boston Museum

Augustus was the crux, the fulcrum perhaps on which the history of Rome turns. Before Augustus, Rome was still, at least nominally, a democracy, — albeit an increasingly chaotic democracy. He turned it from a democracy into a monarchy: in the terminology of the classicist,  Republican Rome was changed into Imperial Rome.

Yet the change was extraordinarily successful.  Not only did he bring peace, but he also brought prosperity, and the next two hundred years were one of the world’s Golden ages; indeed the prosperity continued albeit in a changed form for a further 200 years in the West and 400 years in the East, and even beyond that in Constantinople; indeed the political vestiges of it remained as a spectre and source of inspiration throughout the Middle Ages and became the driving force of the Renaissance that followed and which continued to inspire almost down to our present day.

Yet it raises troublesome questions: the Romans saw it as being a loss of ‘liberty’; today we see it in terms of a loss of democracy. But it was a loss that worked. We need first to study the story of Augustus, to see how he achieved the stunning transformation; and secondly we should perhaps examine our own concept of democracy to see what lessons can be learnt from the successful usurpation of democracy; and to see how the result brought many of the benefits that today we associate with democracy. What do we really mean by ‘democracy’?


Sir Ronald Syme, who believed that Augustus set up a dictatorship

Augustus is always hard to evaluate, because there is no good source for the history of  his reign.  The historian Tacitus began his great history with the death of Augustus in AD 14,  and for the next 100 years we have — on and off — the views of the great historian, sometimes direct, but even where it has not survived (and much of it is lost) it is nevertheless reflected in later writers.  We therefore have to work out the history of Augustus from minor sources and in particular from the most dangerous source of all, that is his own autobiography.  Towards the end of his life, Augustus wrote an account of his own achievement –his res gestae – or things I have done, which he had engraved on various walls throughout the empire: the inscription at Ankara in Turkey has survived almost complete.  It is a masterful account.  But whereas one can be virtually certain that everything it says is true, it is certainly not the whole truth, and there are major omissions and everything is presented in the best possible light. Modern historians vie with each other to try to find out what really happened.

Theodore Mommsen, who believed that Augustus set up a ‘diarchy’.

Modern interpretations of Augustus have always been controversial but can be divided between two of the greatest historians of Rome. At the end of the 19th century the great German historian, Theodore Mommsen believed that Augustus established what he called a diarchy, that is a rule of two, with power being split between Augustus and the Senate. However in the 1930s this view was challenged by Sir Ronald Syme, the Professor of Ancient History at Oxford from 1949 – 70, who established ‘prosopography’,  the study of elucidating history by working out the biographies of all the minor and not so minor figures who played a role in it.  Syme wrote his most famous book, a study of Augustus called The Roman Revolution, in the 1930s, during the rise of the dictators and he tended to cast Augustus as being a dictator with analogies with Mussolini.  His view was even then controversial, and much too cynical, so here we need to adjudicate between the two views of Mommsen and Syme, and consider how far the constitution that Augustus set up kept the Roman Empire prosperous and successful for at least 300 years.



How Augustus climbed the greasy ladder to become ruler of the world