It is telling that this magazine should have the title that it does. Octavian is the shorthand conventionally used by classicists to refer to the most successful political leader in Western history during the early years of his career, before he adopted the honorific by which he would become infinitely better known: Augustus. The name was bestowed on him in 27 B.C., by official vote of the Roman senate, and was possessed of a potent charge to which we, by and large, are oblivious. Twelve eagles, it was said, on the very day of Rome’s founding had flown over the Palatine Hill. The sign had been touched by an awesome, superhuman power: a power described by the Romans as augustus. A man with such a name had no need of formal rank. Even as he claimed to be merely Rome’s princeps, her “first citizen,” Augustus was defined by his name as someone touched by the divine.
It was the most formidable feat of re-branding in history. Political leaders today, no matter how many advertising agencies or image consultants they may hire to burnish their appeal, can only dream of winning for themselves a charisma capable of surviving millennia. Even today the word augustan is used to describe everything about a golden age that makes it golden. The Romans themselves treasured the memory of Augustus, and identified his primacy with the greatest period of their literature and of the transformation of their capital from a city of brick into one of marble. Above all, they commemorated him as a prince of peace, a shrewd and benignant statesman who had redeemed Rome from decades of civil war and restored the whole world to order. Whether in the capital itself, booming under Augustus’s patronage to become the largest city the world had ever seen, or across the span of the Mediterranean, united for the first time under the rule of a single leader, or in the furthermost corners of an empire whose global reach, by the time of his death, was without precedent, the Augustan peace brought benefits to millions. Provincials as well as Romans might be grateful. “He cleared the sea of pirates, and filled it with merchant shipping.” So Philo, a Jew from the great Egyptian metropolis of Alexandria, wrote in praise of Augustus. “He gave freedom to every city, brought order where there had been chaos, and civilised savage peoples.”
It was possible, though, to cast the career of Augustus in a rather different light. The great-nephew of Julius Caesar — and Caesar’s adopted son — he had taken full advantage of the chaos that engulfed Rome in the wake of the Ides of March. Indeed, he had done much to foster it. Wading through blood to establish his supremacy over what had previously had been a republic, it was only once all his rivals had been dispatched that he began with great coolness to pose as the restorer of Rome’s traditional republican order. As cunning as he was ruthless, as patient as he was decisive, Augustus maintained his supremacy for decades. Key to this achievement was his ability to rule with rather than against the grain of Roman tradition: by pretending that he was not an autocrat, he licensed his fellow citizens to pretend that they were still free. But when, in A.D. 14, Augustus finally died in his bed, the powers that he had accumulated over the course of his long and mendacious career stood revealed not as temporary expediencies but rather as a package to be handed down to an heir. Proudly, in his last testament, he defined himself as “the restorer of liberty to the Republic.” Time, though, would commemorate him as something very different: as the first of the Roman emperors.
Perhaps, then, it was only to be expected that Augustus should boast of his skills as an actor. Over the course of his long life, he played many roles: the stern avenger of his adoptive father; the defender of Roman values against the sinister foreign depravities of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra; the pious servant of Rome’s traditional gods and of its senate; the friend of the people; the father of his country. Only the reality could not be acknowledged — for Augustus had no wish to end up like Julius Caesar, murdered by his senatorial peers. Instead, with the willing collaboration of his fellow citizens, he draped himself in robes garnered from the antique lumber-box of the Republic, refusing any magistracy not sanctioned by the past, and often not holding any magistracy at all. Today, in our democracies, it is becoming ever more common for leaders to portray themselves as the enemy of what they cast as moribund political establishments: the Beltway, the Washington Bubble. Augustus, in a similar manner, won prestige for himself by seeming to transcend the grind and gridlock of politics as normal. Authority, not office, was what counted in his regime.
On his signet-ring, he carried the image of a sphinx — and sure enough, throughout his career, he posed his countrymen a riddle. The Romans had long become accustomed to citizens who vaunted their power, who exulted in the brilliance and glamor of their greatness, and of whom Julius Caesar had been the archetype — but the princeps was different. The more his grip tightened on the state, the less he flaunted it. The ambiguities and subtleties which had traditionally characterised civic life, its ambivalences and tensions, all were absorbed into the enigma of his own character and role. It was as though, in a crowning paradox, he had ended up as the Republic itself.
This did not mean, though, that Augustus stayed in the shadows. Even in the furthest reaches of the Empire, he was a constant presence. “In the whole wide world,” wrote the poet Ovid, “there is not a single thing that escapes him.” An exaggeration, of course — and yet due reflection of the mingled fear and awe that Augustus inspired in his subjects. He alone had command of Rome’s monopoly on violence: the legions and the whole menacing apparatus of provincial government, which existed to ensure that taxes were paid, rebels slaughtered, and malefactors thrown to beasts or nailed up on crosses. There was no need for him constantly to be showing his hand for dread of his arbitrary power to be universal across the world.
Small wonder, then, that the face of Augustus should have become, for millions of his subjects, the face of Rome. Rare was the town that did not boast some image of him: a statue, a portrait bust, a frieze. Even in the most provincial backwater, to handle money was to be familiar with his profile. Although Julius Caesar, a few weeks before his assassination in 44 BC, had been the first living Roman to appear on his city’s coins, it was his adoptive son who fully exploited the potential for self-aggrandizement inherent within control of the money supply. No sooner had he seized control of the world than his face was being minted everywhere, stamped on gold, and silver, and bronze. Even as the years passed, as his hair receded and his jowls began to sag, his looks on his coinage never altered. He retained on his coinage the preternatural youth of an Apollo. The public face of Augustus never aged.
No surprise, then, that his character, his achievements, his relationships, and his foibles should have been topics of obsessive fascination to his subjects. “Your destiny it is to live as in a theater where your audience is the entire world.” Such was the warning attributed by one Roman historian to Maecenas, the now-proverbial patron of the arts and a particularly trusted confidant of Augustus’s. Whether he really said it or not, the sentiment was true to the sheer theatricality of his master’s performance. During his final illness, so it is reported, Augustus asked his friends whether he had performed adequately “in the mime-show of life.” That he had retained his hold on supreme power for more than forty years; that in all that time he had kept Rome, and the world with her, secure from civil war, claimed no special rank for himself that had not been sanctioned by the law, and had his legions stationed not around him but far away, among forests or deserts, on barbarous frontiers; that in the end he was dying not of dagger wounds, not at the base of an enemy’s statue, but peacefully in his bed: these were dazzling notices for any Roman to have. Yes, it could be reckoned that Augustus had put on a good show.
After all, he had made himself the only star in town.
Tom Holland is the best-selling author of Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic and Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar.