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.