Remarks on Augustus

OCTAVIUS Caesar, afterwards Augustus, had now attained to the same position in the state which had formerly been occupied by Julius Caesar; and though he entered upon it by violence, he continued to enjoy it through life with almost uninterrupted tranquillity. By the long duration of the late civil war, with its concomitant train of public calami- ties, the minds of men were become less averse to the prospect of an absolute government; at the same time that the new emperor, naturally prudent and politic, had learned from the fate of Julius the art of preserving supreme power, without arrogating to himself any invidious mark of distinction. He affected to decline public honours, disclaimed every idea of personal superiority, and in all his behaviour displayed a degree of moderation which prognosticated the most happy effects, in restoring peace and prosperity to the harassed empire. The tenor of his future conduct was suitable to this auspicious commencement. While he endeavoured to conciliate the affections of the people by lending money to those who stood in need of it, at low interest, or without any at all, and by the exhibition of public shows, of which the Romans were remarkably fond; he was attentive to the preservation of a becoming dignity in the government, and to the correction of morals. The senate, which, in the time of Sylla, had increased to upwards of four hundred, and, during the civil war, to a thousand, members, by the admission of improper persons, he reduced to six hundred; and being invested with the ancient office of censor, which had for some time been disused, he exercised an arbitrary but legal authority over the conduct of every rank in the state; by which he could degrade senators and knights, and inflict upon all citizens an ignominious sentence for any immoral or indecent behaviour. But nothing contributed more to render the new form of government acceptable to the people, than the frequent distribution of corn, and sometimes largesses, amongst the commonalty: for an occasional scarcity of provisions had always been the chief cause of discontents and tumults in the capital. To the interests of the army he likewise paid particular attention. It was by the assistance of the legions that he had risen to power; and they were the men who, in the last resort, if such an emergency should ever occur, could alone enable him to preserve it.

History relates, that after the overthrow of Antony, Augustus held a consultation with Agrippa and Maecenas about restoring the republican form of government; when Agrippa gave his opinion in favour of that measure, and Maecenas opposed it. The object of this consultation, in respect to its future consequences on society, is perhaps the most important ever agitated in any cabinet, and required, for the mature discussion of it, the whole collective wisdom of the ablest men in the empire. But this was a resource which could scarcely be adopted, either with security to the public quiet, or with unbiassed judgment in the determination of the question. The bare agitation of such a point would have excited immediate and strong anxiety for its final result; while the friends of a republican government, who were still far more numerous than those of the other party, would have strained every nerve to procure a determination in their own favour; and the pretorian guards, the surest protection of Augustus, finding their situation rendered precarious by such an unexpected occurrence, would have readily listened to the secret propositions and intrigues of the republi cans for securing their acquiescence to the decision on the popular side. If, when the subject came into debate, Augustus should be sincere in the declaration to abide by the resolution of the council, it is beyond all doubt, that the restoration of a republican governmeni would have been voted by a great majority of the assembly. If, on the contrary, he should not be sincere, which is the more probable supposition, and should incur the suspicion of practising secretly with members for a decision according to his wish, he would have rendered himself obnoxious to the public odium, and given rise to discontents which might have endangered his future security.

But to submit this important question to the free and unbiassed docision of a numerous assembly, it is probable, neither suited the inclination of Augustus, nor perhaps, in his opinion, consisted with his personal safety. With a view to the attainment of unconstitutional power, he had formerly deserted the cause of the republic when its affairs were in a prosperous situation; and now, when his end was accomplished, there could be little ground to expect, that he should voluntarily relinquish the prize for which he had spilt the best blood of Rome, and contended for so many years. Ever since the final defeat of Antony in the battle of Actium, he had governed the Roman state with uncontrolled authority; and though there is in the nature of unlimited power an intoxicating quality, injurious both to public and private virtue, yet all history contradicts the supposition of its being endued with any which is unpalatable to the general taste of mankind.

There were two chief motives by which Augustus would naturally be influenced in a deliberation on this important subject; namely, the love of power, and the personal danger which he might incur from relinquishing it. Either of these motives might have been a sufficient in ducement for retaining his authority; but when they both concurred, as they seem to have done upon this occasion, their united force was irresistible. The argument, so far as relates to the love of power, rests upon a ground, concerning the solidity of which, little doubt can be entertained: but it may be proper to inquire, in a few words, into the foundation of that personal danger which he dreaded to incur, on returning to the station of a private citizen.

Augustus, as has been already observed, had formerly sided with the party which had attempted to restore public liberty after the death of Julius Caesar: but he afterwards abandoned the popular cause, and joined in the ambitious plans of Antony and Lepidus to usurp amongst themselves the entire dominion of the state. By this change of conduct, he turned his arms against the supporters of a form of government which he had virtually recognized as the legal constitution of Rome; and it involved a direct implication of treason against the sacred representatives of that government, the consuls, formally and duly elected. Upon such a charge he might be amenable to the capital laws of his country. This, however, was a danger which might be fully obviated, by procuring from the senate and people an act of oblivion, previously to his abdication of the supreme power; and this was a preliminary which doubtless they would have admitted and ratified with unanimous approbation. It therefore appears that he could be exposed to no inevitable danger on this account: but there was another quarter where his person was vulnerable, and where even the laws might not be sufficient to protect him against the efforts of private resentment. The bloody proscription of the Triumvirate no act of amnesty could ever erase from the minds of those who had been deprived by it of their nearest and dearest relations; and amidst the numerous connections of the illustrious men sacrificed on that horrible occasion, there might arise some desperate avenger, whose indelible resentment nothing less would satisfy than the blood of the surviving delinquent. Though Augustus, therefore, might not, like his great predecessor, be stabbed in the senate-house, he nmight perish by the sword or the poniard in a less conspicuous situation. After all, there seems to have been little danger from this quarter likewise; for Sylla, who in the preceding age had been guilty of equal enormities, was permitted, on relinquishing the place of perpetual dictator, to end his days in quiet retirement; and the undisturbed security which Augustus ever afterwards enjoyed, affords sufficient proof, that all apprehension of danger to his person was merely chimerical.

We have hitherto considered this grand consultation as it might be influenced by the passions or prejudices of the emperor: we shall now take a short view of the subject in the light in which it is connected with considerations of a political nature, and with public utility. The arguments handed down by history respecting this consultation are few, and imperfectly delivered; but they may be extended upon the general principles maintained on each side of the question.

For the restoration of the republican government, it might be contended, that from the expulsion of the kings to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, through a period of upwards of four hundred and sixty years, the Roman state, with the exception only of a short interval, had flourished and increased with a degree of prosperity unexampled in the annals of human kind: that the republican form of government was not only best adapted to the improvement of national grandeur, but to the security of general freedom, the great object of all political association: that public virtue, by which alone nations could subsist in vigour, was cherished and protected by no mode of administration so much as by that which connected, in the strongest bonds of union, the private interest of individuals with those of the community: that the habits and prejudices of the Roman people were unalterably attached to the form of government established by so long a prescription, and they would never submit, for any length of time, to the rule of one person, without making every possible effort to recover their liberty: that though despotism, under a mild and wise prince, might in some respects be regarded as preferable to a constitution which was occasionally exposed to the inconvenience of faction and popular tumults, yet it was a dangerous experiment to abandon the government of the nation to the contingency of such a variety of characters as usually occurs in the succession of princes; and, upon the whole, that the interests of the people were more safely entrusted in the hands of annual magistrates elected by themselves, than in those of any individual whose power was permanent, and subject to no legal control.

In favour of despotic government it might be urged, that though Rome had subsisted long and gloriously under a republican form of government, yet she had often experienced such violent shocks from popular tumults or the factions of the great, as had threatened her with imminent destruction: that a republican government was only accommodated to a people amongst whom the division of property gave to no class of citizens such a degree of preeminence as might prove dangerous to public freedom: that there was required in that form of political constitution, a simplicity of life and strictness of manners which are never observed to accompany a high degree of public prosperity: that in respect of all these considerations, such a form of government was utterly incompatible with the present circumstances of the Romans: that by the conquest of so many foreign nations, by the lucrative governments of provinces, the spoils of the enemy in war, and the rapine too often practised in time of peace, so great had been the aggrandizement of particular families in the preceding age, that though the form of the ancient constitution should still remain inviolate, the people would no longer live under a free republic, but an aristocratical usurpation, which was always productive of tyranny: that nothing could preserve the commonwealth from becoming a prey to some daring confederacy, but the firm and vigorous administration of one person, invested with the whole executive power of the state, unlimited and uncontrolled: in fine, that as Rome had been nursed to maturity by the government of six princes successively, so it was only by a similar form of political constitution that she could now be saved from aristocratical tyranny on one hand, or, on the other, from absolute anarchy.

On whichever side of the question the force of argument may be thought to preponderate, there is reason to believe that Augustus was guided in his resolution more by inclination and prejudice than by reason. It is related, however, that hesitating between the opposite opinions of his two counsellors, he had recourse to that of Virgil, who joined with Maecenas in advising him to retain the imperial power, as being the form of government most suitable to the circumstances of the times.

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