Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Roman Class System and Social Structure

At its beginning, Rome was a group of egalitarian tribes living in proximity to each other on the hills surrounding a swamp that would become the Forum. Over time, the population grew steadily as new groups became affiliated, but the three original tribes, Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres, stood out as leaders and assumed a position of power over the other groups. They called themselves patricians and gave the name plebian to the other tribes made up of “common” people.

During the first hundred years of Rome, a status structure evolved into a class structure and then a political system. Those patricians with money or influence rose to the top -- one of them became king, while the others acted as advisors through their membership in the Senate. The latter numbered three hundred, one third from each of the three original tribes. The city was divided into voting districts called curia and citizens from these districts were allowed to participate in an assembly, which could pass legislation and elect magistrates. This structure was controlled by the monarchy for about two centuries until 509 B.C, when the king was overthrown and Rome became a Republic. The powers of the king were now divided among three men: two consuls and the Pontifex Maximus. The consuls served as chief magistrates of the Republic and served in office for one year. Each had veto rights over the other to prevent a dangerous accumulation of power. The Pontifex was the religious leader, tasked with predicting the future and making sure the gods were appeased at all times.

Beneath the political system, an informal system of patrons and clients operated as a shadow class. Patrons protected the interests of their clients, while the clients did favors for their patrons. Favors varied: run a business, organize a group for a specific purpose, or assault a person who had offended the patron were typical examples. Clients were compensated with money or helped with their careers and those plebs who were highly motivated could become wealthy with the help of their patron. Patrons benefitted from the relationship by expanding their authority through the recruitment of new clients who would be loyal to them. This system worked because it benefited both sides and helped appease the interests of those who sought upward mobility. As time went on, a middle class was built by the work of plebeians who became successful at business - merchants, manufacturers, shippers, money lenders, etc.

From the very beginning of the Republic, there was a conflict of classes - patrician against plebeian. As early as the 490s B.C, the plebs called a general strike to demand additional rights. The granting of these rights was stretched out over two hundred years by a reluctant Senate, although the slow pace helped keep the Republic stable over that period.

Early protests led to the creation of the tribunate in 494 B.C. (Lex Sacrata) -- the first magistracy representing the common people. Ten tribunes were elected for the term of one year with the right to physically and legally protect the plebs from harm caused by the upper class. The next important concession dealt with the publishing of laws, which had been previously kept secret by the upper class. In 449 B.C, the Twelve Tablets were displayed in the Forum as the first published list of rights that applied to all the Roman people.

Over the next hundred and sixty years, the class struggle was focused on the people’s right to office and their right to make laws. The magistracies in the Republic included tribunes, aediles (managers of public property), questors (treasurers), praetors (judges), censors, and consuls (senior magistrates), and, one by one, these were opened up to the common people. In 367 B.C, one consul was designated for a candidate from the lower class, with censor in 339 B.C and the praetor in 337 following. The watershed event on the legislative side was the passage of Lex Hortensia in 287 B.C. which granted the Concilium Plebis (people’s assembly) the right to pass laws binding on both patricians and plebeians. At last the plebs had reached something close to political parity with the upper class.

The great sociologist Max Weber used three social categories to describe man’s place in society -- status, class, and the power which flows for from them. Furthermore he described three types of class division: propertied, commercial, and social. A propertied class, as you can imagine, is defined solely by ownership of property. A commercial class is defined by one’s success in business as driven by markets. A social class is one with one with mobility that allows the individual free movement upward.

At the foundation of Rome, the patricians had status based on their control of government, they sat at the top of the propertied class, and they were able to exert power based on their monopoly of government administration and secretive control of the legal system. They did not pursue success in a commercial class (except by proxy) because of their hatred of business. The knights (Equites, or middle class) were originally given status by the monarchy as cavalry in the Roman Army because they had the financial assets to purchase equipment, including horses. Later they rose to the top of the commercial class because they were successful in business and as government bureaucrats. Commercial success allowed them to acquire land and achieve property status. The growing influence of the knights, coupled with the erosion of patrician control over government office and the making of laws, eventually took away patrician power and distributed it among the other classes.

Oddly, it was the patricians (Sulla and Caesar) who paved the way for the destruction of the Republic. Using their patrician titles as a basis for moral authority, they put power above tradition by introducing the new element of military authority. Control of the army would trump status and class to drive the Republic toward an empire.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Archaeological Dig Oppportunities

I received this e-mail recently and thought you might be interested.

Dear Mike,

I’m the director of ArchaeoSpain, which organizes international groups to join ongoing archaeological excavations in Spain and Italy. I was reading your Ancient History blog and I thought I’d write to you to let you know about our projects.
 
This summer our 18+ groups will be digging the necropolis of the Iron Age city of Pintia (which later became Roman) in Valladolid, the Byzantine church and surroundings of Son Peretó in Mallorca, and the amphora graveyard of Monte Testaccio in Rome.
 
And our high school groups will be excavating the Roman forum of Pollentia in Mallorca and the medieval Castle of Zorita in Guadalajara.
 
More information, photos, and videos can be found at www.archaeospain.com.
 
If you think our programs could be of interest to you and your work, please let us know.

best,

Mike Elkin

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Florence, 1100-1532, What a Republic!

Florence, in this blog? I thought this was supposed to be ancient history! Yes, but sometimes we can find value when we compare political systems from different times in history. The Republic of Florence an interesting case to compare to Republican Rome, because it gives us another example of how men try to build stable governments. Florence was a city republic like Rome but it was never able to expand in the same way because of the circumstances of its time. Still, its leaders faced the same challenges the Romans did – socio-economic class differences, economic interests, and cultural influences. In my last post I mentioned that those designing Republics, including America’s founding fathers, went to great lengths to insure their infant political systems would not revert to monarchies through the consolidation of power. Florence stands as an extreme case of this paranoia.

As one of the great merchant cities of the middle ages (Pisa or Antwerp would be other examples), Florence escaped participation in the feudal system because it had a strong capitalist engine and could operate as an independent political system. Feudalism could only take root where bureaucracy failed and it did not fail there. The Florentine political system certainly had its ups and downs, but it was business that moved Florence forward and politics were regulated by business.

By the year 900 A.D, the great cities of Europe had been weakened to a point where it was necessary to start from scratch. Commerce and artisanship had to be rekindled by recruiting citizens with the right skills from the outside, mostly from the agrarian economies of the surrounding territory. Florence always found aristocratic control unacceptable, so any tendency in that direction was continually resisted. Its leaders were a new class of man; middle class merchants we call burghers, who were independent, entrepreneurial, and confident. Between the years of 900 and 1250, these burghers turned Florence into an autonomous institution by resisting and expelling those who would attempt to impose on them some kind of hierarchical model of government. They were aided in this effort by the emperors and popes who wasted time and money fighting among themselves for control of Italy rather than attacking the city.

In the early days, Florence was probably managed by community groups and block organizations, who worked together to provide basic services. This was an incubator republic which evolved into rudimentary courts and militias as it became more formalized. No wealthy family was recognized as a leader and a pact between families (association) was put into place to show mutual dedication to the success of the city.

By the twelfth century, an executive committee of ten was in operation as the magistrate apparatus for governing. The committee derived its power from control of the local militias and utilized a temporary executive to manage the bureaucracy. One vestigial authority retained power over this structure; the Parlamentum, which was a general assembly of all citizens brought together in times of crisis to save the city. The Parlamentum was a destabilizing institution because it was unmanaged and its output was unpredictable. For example, it had been known to throw out the city’s constitution on occasion. Fortunately, the stability of Florence was more determined by power arrangements between the social classes than formal governmental systems.

In 1207, the city fathers (Grandi) decided to introduce a new magistrate from the outside called a podesta, the theory being that an outsider would not be subject to the bias of an insider. The role of the podesta was to arbitrate disputes between powerful families, but this hardly ever worked because he had little power and the families could treat with each other and solve their problems outside of his efforts. This useless office of podesta plodded along for centuries to no purpose.

During the early 1200s, Florence came to be dominated by two families with tongue-twister names: the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. These families were essentially political parties -- the Guelfs loyal to the Pope while the Ghibellines were loyal to the emperor. By the mid-century, a feud between them developed and assassination in the name of foreign policy became commonplace. At one point, each of the families set up their own republic within the city. Between 1250 and 1260 the Guelfs ruled and the Ghibellines were in exile. The situation was reversed between 1260 and 1267. Was this a republic? Hard to understand how it could have been called one.

In the midst of the strife and assassination, two important things occurred. Large numbers of the middle class were brought into the political system (like the knights of the Roman Republic), which had the effect of damping out conflict, and there developed, through Guelf influence, a sentimental opposition to monarchy.

The introduction of the middle class into government created a comic act of complexity in organization. Beneath the first level of magistrates previously described, a second level was built of middle class citizens. Now the government apparatus was well insulated against a power grab but it was also unworkable because no man could steer the city on his own. As William Everdell points out in his brilliant book End of Kings:

“In a kind of mitotic ecstasy, Florence between 1250 and 1450 multiplied offices beyond the capacity of historians to count them. There were so many, they ran out of names for them and came to call them by number of members and purpose -- seven of flood or ten of war. It was a glorious carnival of magistrates elected, chosen by lot, or appointed by a committee. So that no one would miss a chance to govern, terms of office were shortened to as little as two months, the shortest in republican history.”

In 1343, the most mature of the many Florentine constitutions was created. It defined hundreds of public offices and its rules were amazing to complicate. For example, an elected committee could appoint another committee to draw up list of candidates for committees and selections from the list were made by a third committee. The system was designed to keep everyone involved in the government so the aristocratic families could not consolidate their power, but it did so in a manner that defied logic. No doubt this mad matrix of offices prevented an accumulation of power -- bossism was prevented by through election by lot. Coups may have been possible until the army was disbanded in 1351 in favor of mercenaries. Meanwhile, Florence weathered wars with the cities of Tuscany, a credit collapse, and the plague without a scratch.

The Republican system was seriously threatened for the first time in 1390, when the opportunist Visconti decided he would like to control all Italy north of Rome. Starting with Milan, Visconti began to work his way south rolling up town after town. Once Pisa and Siena fell, only Florence was left to conquer. The Florentines never considered surrender and were prepared to fight Visconti to the death when a miracle occurred. Visconti died of the plague, his empire fell apart, and Florence was saved.

And now we unveil the true culprits behind the fall of the Florentine Republic -- the Medici. The first of their clan, Cosimo, while trying to protect his business interests, was able to constitute and control a committee charged with filling a hat with names of candidates for important offices. Cosimo used this authority to create a base of power and control. Before his death, Cosimo and his son Piero had become leaders of most powerful political party in Florence. When Piero died in 1469, key power blocks asked his son Lorenzo to lead the republic. Using public support to his benefit, Lorenzo gradually gained control of the most important magistracies and chipped away at the republic. When he died in 1492, power was consolidated in a way that republicans could no longer resist.

Finally, in 1530, the pope allied with the Habsburg emperor, defeated Florence in battle, and the republic was no more.

What have we learned from this story? We learned that republics are built to oppose monarchies, that they depend on unique circumstances for their creation, and that they require middle class participation to hold the aristocracy in check. These elements existed in Florence as they did in Rome. Both republics lasted nearly five hundred years, both were able to adapt their political systems to maintain stability, and both collapsed when an opportunist appeared who had no reservations about tearing down what had been successful for centuries.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Roman Transition to a Republic

As you may know from previous posts, the Roman Republic was born out of the overthrow of an Etruscan monarchy. When the break occurred in 509 B.C. the components of the Republican government were largely in place, so the transition to the first stable Republic in history was relatively smooth. Still, Rome was fragile for three or four decades while she built her confidence to a level that would see her conquer the western world.

What is a Republic, you ask? The word comes from the Latin res publica or thing of the people. In other words, a government without a monarchy that allows citizens with voting rights to have a say in government affairs through participation in assemblies. Voter eligibility rules required that a man had to be a property owner and citizen in good standing in order to cast a ballot. The assemblies were conducted in the Roman forum and only those attending could vote, so travel distance had an important impact on participation. Tribes located at a great distance would have to see the benefits to them of making the long journey before they would commit to it. In one famous case, remote tribes refused to attend a critical assembly meeting because they were in the middle of the harvest.

The history of the Roman monarchy is a combination of folklore and invention. It’s first king, Romulus, is apocryphal. The next four remain foggy in history, although the third of those, Tullus Hostilus, is credited for building the first Senate House. The next three include two Etruscans and one Latin, named, Servius Tullius, who was the most notable of the entire group.

The Roman government during the time of the monarchy consisted of the king, who was the principal administrator of the government and the guardian of the religious apparatus, the Senate, made up of one hundred men, from each of the three original Roman tribes, and the tribal assembly, called the comitia curiata. The latter was mostly a figurehead body, approving legislation passed by the Senate, but Servius Tullius created a second and more powerful assembly, called the comitia centuriata, which was modelled after the Roman army. Power was divided by wealth; cavalry at the top and common foot soldier at the bottom. The distribution of votes in the body was rigged in favor of the wealthy, who had a majority of the votes and could carry or block any initiative.

The last king, the Etruscan Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, received the nickname Superbus (arrogant) because of his autocratic behavior. He was ultimately expelled along with his family when the Roman people decided they had had enough of him and kings in general. The orchestrator of the coup was Lucius Junius Brutus, nephew of the king and a republican idealist. In the first act after the expulsion of Superbus, Brutus made the Roman people swear allegiance to the new political system:

Omnium primum avidum novae libertatis populum, ne postmodum flecti precibus aut donis regiis posset, iure iurando adegit neminem Romae passuros regnare.

To quote Livy, “By swearing an oath that they would suffer no man to rule Rome, it forced the people, desirous of a new liberty, not to be thereafter swayed by the entreaties or bribes of kings.

Brutus was named the first consul of the new Republic along with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, but almost immediately there was trouble. The former king tried to regain the throne by using his ambassadors to put together a conspiracy against the Republic, and the rebels included two of Brutus’ sons. Forced to abide by his principles and save the young Republic, Brutus had his sons executed along with other conspirators. Superbus then tried to wage war on the Rome, but he was repulsed for good at the Battle of Silvia Arsia. Brutus led the cavalry on the side of the Republic but did not survive the battle.

With the threat of the former king extinguished, the Republic was free to move forward in its new form. The administrative function of the king was given to a pair newly created magistrates (consuls) and religious authority was granted to a magistrate called the Pontifex Maximus. The consuls were given veto right over each other to avoid an accumulation of power and as a further brake on the latter, their term of office was limited to one year. A common element of republics throughout history has been the design of governmental structures that make it difficult to accumulate power, because republics are built by those who abhor a monarchy.

In the first decades after the removal of the king, Rome would face twin threats to her sovereignty: wars with her neighbors and an internal class struggle. In the former case, she was attacked by almost everyone: first Etruscans, Samnites, Latins, from nearby who were conquered and assimilated; and then the Volci and Aequi, tribes from the western edge of the Apennine Mountains, who fought Rome for nearly a century. We think of Rome in later times as imperialistic, but her posture here was totally defensive, and she was just trying to survive. Those early military victories sharpened her skill in battle and honed her cultural will for the future.

Class struggle would carry on for centuries and nearly everyone is familiar with the terms patrician and plebian, which survive to the present day as labels for rich and poor. The Rome of the monarchy had built a patronage system of mutual benefits -- patricians were able to use plebs to act as their agents and those plebs received protection and compensation in return. But that system was not enough to keep class differences under control once the Republic came into being. In 494 B.C, the plebs initiated a strike to demand a grain distribution to help those suffering from a famine. The Senate resisted at first, but was eventually forced to give in. Ultimately, the plebs spent a couple of centuries trying to achieve equality in office and equality in power. The Senate fought them all along the way but reforms were gradually put in place without a major disruption or civil war. Laws were written down in 451 B.C. and displayed in the Forum, offices that were originally restricted to patricians were made open to plebs, and a new magistrate was created, the Tribune, designed to protect the people from abuses of the upper class. The political relationship between classes remained stable until the period after the Punic Wars when the economic status of the lower class plunged to a point where it acted as a catalyst for social unrest and eventually civil war.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Geography, Personality, and the Fluorescence of Rome

If you analyze the great cultures of antiquity, you’d find their success was due to geography and personality -- the geography of their physical space and personality of the people in that space. There are countless examples in history where cultures failed to develop when one of these factors was missing. Geography is the obvious contributor because you can measure its influence -- living by the sea can foster shipping; flat open land will support farming; and the presence of natural resources can build a business trading that asset. Personality is harder to pin down because it’s intangible. What is it that makes one people motivated enough to drive cultural development and another less so? There are many cases in history where two groups occupied the same space and only one flourished, but we really don’t understand the reasons for this.

Fluorescence is a term anthropologists use to describe a period of rapid development, when the growth of culture accelerates. Often this growth is economically driven when markets open up for skills or goods. Other times, there is no obvious economic driver and it’s just human effort that pushes things forward. In the case of Mesopotamia, for example, it was technology that triggered the advance. Its fluorescent period began when the technical problems of irrigation farming were resolved and crops could be produced in large quantities.

In most instances, geography has been the mainspring of cultural development, serving as primary influence over food production, trade, raw materials, migration, and protection from enemies. In this post, however, we’ll present a different story -- one that saw personality as the prime mover in building the Roman Republic.

Rome is located on the eastern side of the Tiber River amongst its famous seven hills.
It’s latitude is forty one degrees north, slightly south of the position of Chicago in the United States, but unlike Chicago, Rome is blessed with a Mediterranean climate. Rome’s location in ancient times put it eighteen miles from the mouth of the Tiber where the river empties into the Tyrrhenian Sea. More importantly, there was a ford over the Tiber, near the ancient settlements and situated on the crossroads of a trading route, that allowed commerce to the other side of the river. Surrounding the site of Rome was flat farmland featuring rich volcanic soil put down around 10,000 B.C.

That’s the geographic set up. What about the people?

From the original settler’s point of view, the site of Rome offered protection from the west via the Tiber and protection at the site from the hills. Two of them, the Capitoline and the Palatine, were quite steep and difficult to climb. Between these hills sat a marshy swamp. There is evidence of settlements in this area dating to 8000 B.C. and by 800 B.C, there were at least two villages: Rumi on the Palatine Hill and Titientes on the Quirinal. The local inhabitants were mostly Latin and Sabine tribes, the latter a spinoff of the Sabine hill people living on the western slopes of the Apennines. Other tribes in the area included Umbrian’s, Samnites, and Oscan’s.

A “Latin League” was formed in the eighth century, with Rome as a member, to protect the Latin villages from the Etruscans, but over time, as Rome came under control of Etruscan monarchs, it separated itself from its former allies. Etruscan kings ruled Rome from the seventh century through 509 B.C. when they were forcibly expelled, because the Romans wanted to end the monarchy and live under a Republic. The Romans rejected not only the Etruscan king, but the Etruscan philosophy and way of life, co-opting some of its useful cultural elements as they moved on. By this time, the Roman ethnicity was separate from the rest of the Latins.

There was something about those Roman Latins that made them different; perhaps the time under the yoke of the Etruscans changed their personality, or maybe it evolved on its own. From the very beginning of the Republic, the Romans had a drive that set them apart from their neighbors -- a drive to build a Republican political system that would give the people more control than they had under an outsider, and use it to advance their agrarian culture. The idea of a Republic was not unique to Rome because the trend around the Mediterranean was in that direction. Many cultures, including the Greeks, were rejecting the monarchical model, but none of Rome’s neighbors had this inclination and none had the drive to grow and diversify their culture. As Rome grew, the Etruscan time would eclipse. As Rome grew, it would take over the Greek cities. Eventually, that small village of Latins would control Europe!

The Romans had another trait that set them apart -- their engineering mindset. I don’t imagine there has ever been a people on earth with a more structured view of their world and a greater desire to build things. Roads, aqueducts, buildings, army camps, and military discipline are only some examples of the Roman structural view. Oddly, this obsession didn’t leave room for a lot of original thinking. The Romans stole whatever they found interesting in other cultures, including gods, and improved on them. Thinking-wise they were never in a league with the Greeks, but employed them as physicians, educators, and philosophers.

Let’s revisit geography for a minute. The Romans were agrarians because they had high quality soil and they lived inland away from the sea. It never occurred to them to use the sea for their own purposes until they were forced to deal with Carthage at the beginning of the First Punic War. Still, there was nothing unique in their geography that could ignite a new culture on its own.

Rome became fluorescent when it first thought of getting rid of the monarch. The Senate and Assembly were already in operation so all that remained was the creation of an administrative magistrate’s role. The healthy agrarian economy would fund the young Republic and take it places its founders could never have imagined, but it was the people and their will that served as the engine. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Octavian Builds an Empire

In the last post we discussed the careful effort employed by Octavian to rid himself of rivals and take control of the Roman Republic. Now we move on to the building of the Principate, which was significantly more difficult. Many revolutionaries, throughout history, have attested to the difficulty of ruling once the battle is over. Indeed, the skillset is much different between tearing down and ruling. In Octavian’s case, he had to maintain the veneer of the Republic while building an authoritarian state. The fact that he was successful puts him near the top of the list of great politicians of all time.

Octavian had the savvy to build a political system that could operate successfully, the temperament to rule fairly, and strength of will to fight off threats which could have weakened or destroyed Rome. Sadly, as so often happens in human society, the attributes of a great ruler don’t often get carried forward to his successors. But that’s another story for later.

Remembering the intolerance of the ruling class for the flaunting of naked power, Octavian sought to disguise his rule under accepted Republican traditions. For the first eight years after Actium (31-23 B.C.), he served as consul using that office as a constitutional basis for power, but half way through that period, he returned control of the state to the Senate and people of Rome --  a brilliant political move which gave the appearance of restoring the ancestral system. At the same time, he was given authority to rule certain provinces, through governors, and the rest of the Roman territory was put under the authority of proconsuls nominated by the Senate. In both cases, the provincial authorities were professional administrators under tight control of Rome rather than greedy political climbers looking to line their pockets.

Still, Octavian made sure to influence the appointment of those governors and see that “new men” were mixed in with the patricians so that the ancient families would not be able to gain too much influence. He reduced the size of the Senate to 600 and enlarged its powers to include some judicial responsibility. Moreover he transformed the Senate from a political body to an administrative body to assist with the management of the new government.

Once these changes were put in place, Octavian renamed himself “Augustus” to strengthen his myth and avoid any name or title that would imply a quest for authoritarian power. The association of his new name with the word augurium went to the heart of Roman tradition.

During these years the Roman Empire continued to expand both in the east and west. Galatia was developed in Asia Minor and western north Africa became a client kingdom. In 23 B.C, Augustus visited Gaul and was helping to direct a campaign in Spain when his weak constitution failed him, he fell ill, and nearly died. Now believing he had to reorganize the governmental structure further, Augustus resigned from his consular posts. But he retained authority over his provinces and had himself granted imperium maius, which placed him above all provincial governors. Augustus was also designated as tribune of the people that same year.

Both of these titles carried authority without office – novel in the history of Roman governance. During the teens B.C, we see Augustus establishing a civil service for the first time in Roman history. The beneficiaries of this expansion of government were the knights who occupied the position of a middle class – professionals who were willing to do work patricians saw as beneath them but more educated and capable than the plebs. As Max Weber has told us, bureaucracy is a dangerous thing; too structured to be efficient and fundamentally wasteful. Still, bureaucracies are stabilizing forces in society that operate separately from the politics around them. Augustus’ bureaucracy would manage the business of Rome for hundreds of years.

Augustus’ careful building of the principate had taken about fifteen years to accomplish and the end result was stability in Rome. Still, the difficult problem of succession remained. Augustus had created such a unique title and span of authority that there was no other single person who could fill his position. No one had the qualifications. And on a practical level, he had extreme difficulty lining up an heir. The first candidate, Marcellus, husband of Augustus’ daughter Julia, died in 23 B.C. Nero Drusus, son of Livia, who was probably preferred over his brother Tiberius, died in Germania in 9 B.C. Then after Julia married Agrippa and they had two sons Gaius and Lucius, those boys were seen as successors. But by extraordinary chance, Gaius died in 4 B.C. and Lucius two years later. Now there was no question that Tiberius remained the sole successor so Augustus threw up his hands, adopted him, and made him heir.

Tiberius would succeed Augustus upon the latter’s death in 14 A.D. and fail to carry out his legacy. He was a sullen personality who would not get on with the Senate and so his years were marked by regression of the Roman political system and a steady march to tyranny. Tiberius indifference to governing coupled with the ruthless methods of his associate Sejanus undid much of what Augustus had accomplished. Should we be surprised?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Ascendancy of Octavian

The great sociologist Max Weber asserted that political leadership can only achieve legitimacy through one of three forms: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. In this post we will discuss how Octavian, through guile and political skill, leveraged himself forward using these forms to his advantage. The history of Octavian anticipates Weber and demonstrates a classic example of political calculation.

For Weber, tradition refers to the hereditary transfer of authority from one generation to the next, as in the royal houses of Europe. These leaders are not given legitimacy for any personal characteristics they may have, but only through rights held by their family. The opposite form is the charismatic leader who obtains legitimacy based on personal characteristics he possesses that appeal to people and make them want him as a leader. One would certainly consider Alexander the Great a charismatic leader, but in his case and all others charismatic legitimacy is delicate and fleeting because it ends with the death of the individual. The third form, called rational-legal refers to legitimacy obtained through a procedure that is legally sanctioned. Elections are the most obvious example of this form because they require the public to obey leaders who have been chosen in a legally sanctified way.


Prior to the assassination of Caesar, Octavian had little going for him other than ambition. He was a member of the famous Julii family, making him a patrician by birth and almost guaranteeing a successful career in politics, but what else would he accomplish?

The day Octavian landed at Brundisium and learned about the inheritance of Caesar’s fortune, his life changed forever. Ambition was put into action so quickly one suspects a master plan behind it. Octavian immediately changed his name to C. Iulius Caesar Octavianus, creating a family connection to the deceased charismatic leader. His new name, with Caesar contained in it, forged a legal connection which could not be disputed.

At this point, we introduce a chronology documenting the moves Octavian made in his effort to take control of the Roman world. I believe that seeing these in a list helps to frame the stratagem and the extent of his efforts.

April, 44 B.C. Octavian was rebuffed in his attempts to obtain Caesar’s legacy from Antony, so he used family assets to pay off Caesar’s legacies. These efforts marked him as a decisive and honest leader who could be trusted.

Late spring, 44 B.C. Octavian launched a PR campaign to Caesar’s veterans without any legal authority to do so, raised a considerable army, and even won over two of Antony’s legions. Octavian knew that military power was needed to create political power and of course, his rivals had armies he had to offset with his own. He must have exhibited an impressive force of will to win over the army because the link with Caesar could only have carried him so far.

Summer- Fall, 44 B.C. Octavian allowed to Senate to view him as preferable to Antony who they disliked. Cicero, in particular, lauded Octavian as a champion of the Republic.

April, 43 B.C. Octavian accompanied the consuls Pansa and Hirtius in their pursuit of Antony, who they defeated at Mutina and Bolonia, but both consuls were killed in battle and Octavian was left as the sole commander of the consular army. He was denied a nomination as consul and threatened to march on Rome if not given the title. The Senate relented and elected him consul suffectus along with Quintus Pedius, a relative who had given his Caesarian inheritance to Octavian.

October, 43 B.C. Octavian agreed to a Second Triumvirate in order to define the contractual obligations between himself and his rivals and to legitimize his position as one of the three most powerful men in Rome.

October-December, 43 B.C. During the time Octavian was meeting with his fellow triumvirs, Pedius pushed two new laws through the assembly. The first confirmed the adoption of Octavian by Caesar and the use of his name. The second law made outlaws of Caesar’s murderers. Octavian’s strategy was addition and subtraction: raise himself and lower the enemy. Antony was already disliked by the Senate and now the assassins were placed on the enemies list.

November- December, 43 B.C. Octavian participated in the proscription put together by the triumvirs that gained additional wealth for each and disposed of many enemies. Whatever one thinks of Octavian’s moral character, he cannot be excused for the excesses perpetrated there.

January 1, 42 B.C. Julius Caesar was declared a god by the Senate, making Octavian, his adopted son, the son of a god. This precedent created a political-religious link from Octavian to all of Roman history. No traditional legitimacy could have been stronger.

Summer-Fall, 42 B.C. Octavian accompanied Antony in the pursuit of Cassius and Brutus to further legitimize his reputation as a military leader and avenger of the murderers of Caesar. Lepidus, who was left to manage Rome, was now seen as inferior.

Spring, 41 B.C. Following the victory at Philippi, a contract was signed between the triumvirs which re-divided the provinces. Lepidus was denied any territory.

40 B.C, Octavian had his sister, Octavia, marry Antony, whose wife had just died. That marital link would serve as a temporary insurance policy to prevent any actions by Antony against him.

Winter, 39-38 B.C, Octavian attacked the rebellious Sextus Pompeius at sea and lost half his ships. Now realizing his shortcomings as a military commander, Octavian Named Agrippa as his senior commander.

36 B.C. After the Sicilian campaign and Lepidus’ defiance, Octavian forced his former partner into retirement, removing an obstacle on the path to control of Rome. Now only Antony stood in the way.

33 B.C. Antony took up with Cleopatra and became dependent on her fortune, Octavian started a campaign to discredit his former colleague. He painted Antony as a demoralized man under the thumb of the Egyptian queen. Then in 32 B.C, when the consuls tried to censure Octavian, the young man unleashed a vicious attack on Antony causing both consuls and three hundred senators to leave Rome and join Antony.

32 B.C. Octavian had Antony’s will retrieved from the Vestal Virgins and read aloud in public. It proclaimed that Caesarian, Caesar’s son with Cleopatra as legitimate, provided for Antony’s sons with Cleopatra, and called for Antony to be buried with her. This news was offensive to most Romans who now viewed Antony as weak.

31 B.C. Octavian declared war on Antony and defeated him at the battle of Actium.

The steps outlined above were methodically carried out over a thirteen year period. When it began, Octavian was nineteen years old. When it ended, he was thirty-two.

How did this behavior anticipate Weber?

First and foremost, Octavian built a bridge to tradition by adopting Caesar’s name and certifying himself as Caesar’s adopted son. When Caesar became deified, Octavian became the son of a god.

He used charisma where appropriate, most notably his approach to the army of Caesar immediately after their hero was murdered. He used their emotions, his standing as the son of Caesar, and personal charisma to win them over to his side. Octavian also knew the public would respond to strength and he strove to exhibit his personal strength in ways that would influence public opinion throughout this period.

Octavian consistently utilized rational-legal forms by adhering to the traditional structure of the Republic – utilizing the Senate to introduce bills and nominate magistrates and the assembly to pass the bills and elect government officials.

Octavian must be considered as one of the greatest political leaders of all time and it’s not surprising that he was able to rule the imperial state for some forty years. How he skillfully transitioned Rome from the Republic to the Principate is another story – one we will take up in the next article.