As we’ll see in lectures this week, Caesar Augustus was the hinge figure in Roma

by | Oct 8, 2021 | History | 0 comments

As we’ll see in lectures this week, Caesar Augustus was the hinge figure in Roman history, the man who effectively ended the crisis of the Roman Republic by creating a new Imperial system, forged out of the discarded materials of Rome’s republican tradition. He ruled, as the first Roman emperor, from 27 BCE to 14 CE.
In the year 14 CE, shortly before his death, Augustus composed The Achievements of the Divine Augustus, an account of his life’s work intended to burnish his reputation for posterity. It’s an impressive list of achievements, attesting to a brilliant career that left Rome and its empire forever changed. In creating the Imperial system, Augustus showed consummate political skill, shrewdly maneuvering among Rome’s different factions in the army and government.
What kinds of achievements does Augustus stress in arguing his case for posterity? What do these things tell us about his political skills, and his needs to satisfy the different power bases of ancient Rome?
Our other main reading this week, from Tacitus, sharply contrasts with Augustus’s account. Tacitus was a Roman historian who, writing several decades later, recognized that Augustus had achieved nothing less than a revolution in Roman political life. But he saw nothing good in this: “The country had been transformed, and there was nothing left of the fine old Roman character. Political equality was a thing of the past; all eyes watched for imperial commands.” In his account of Augustus’s career, Tacitus stresses the dishonesty and guile with which he camouflaged his true aims.
In what ways does Tacitus’s account undermine that of Augustus? In what ways might it actually support Augustus’s claims? Admittedly, where Augustus expects praise, Tacitus sees blame, but these two accounts overlap in interesting ways.
Which account do you personally find more persuasive? If you were a Roman citizen of the time, would you be a supporter of Augustus, or would you join Tacitus in opposing the imperial system?
The degree of difficulty in this assignment lies in your showing some sense of the crisis of the late Roman Republic that preceded and informed Augustus’s revolution. Was it Augustus’s imperial system that destroyed “the fine old Roman character,” as Tacitus claimed, or was that character already pretty much dead and gone by the time Augustus came on the scene? In addressing this question, the reading from Sallust (also in your Doc Reader) makes a strong impression. Finally, I’ve provided selections from another Roman author, Seneca, that suggest other ways in which that Roman character was, under Augustus’s system, further degraded by the corruptions of empire (whether gladiator games or slavery). Consider all of this grist for your response paper mills.


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