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.