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The Augustan Principate

Octavian now stood unopposed as the single-most powerful man in the Roman world. That position, however, was not without its problems. Octavian had to secure his position against future contenders for power, he had to keep control of the army and the provinces, he had to secure the line of succession and he had to pacify the senatorial class.

Though Octavian was in indisputedly in command, formally the republican order continued. Octavian was regularly elected consul each year until 23 BCE, but he did not seek dictatorial powers as had Caesar. The senate would bestow titles and honours on him, which he sometimes would refuse, but it was always, at least in appearance, by the senate's own initiative. Octavian did everything possible not to give the impression that he wanted absolute power.

Then, in January 27 BCE, he made another brilliant move. He appeared before the senate and declared that he would resign from public office to a life as a private citizen. The senators were shocked. If Octavian disappeared from the scene there would almost certainly be a new civil war as contenders for power would try their luck, so the senate pleaded Octavian to stay. After a display of reluctance he finally accepted and a deal was made, known as the "First Constitutional Settlement". Octavian was given control over about half the provinces with the military forces stationed there while the senate kept the rest. He was also given numerous titles and honours for his services to the state. Among the honours was the title Augustus, and his official name would be Imperator Caesar Augustus. Augustus' social status and his military and political power was well above everybody else, but nobody could claim he wanted to be king or dictator, which were the accusations leading to the murder of Julius Caesar.

Augustus went on a journey of his provinces and left the day to day business to Agrippa and Maecenas, who was another close ally of his. When he returned in 24 BCE, he made his next move to consolidate his position. A new deal was made with the senate, the "Second Constitutional Settlement". Augustus gave up the permanent consulate in exchange for empire-wide proconsular powers, which allowed him to intervene in any matter in any province, and the power of a tribune of the people, which gave him legislative power and the veto on meetings and proposals and it made his person sacrosanct. These powers were only given for five and ten years, but they would consistently be renewed.

This combination of military command, imperium, in the provinces and legislative and administrative power in Rome gave him the necessary means to maintain his position without distancing himself too much from the rest of the Roman aristocracy. Officially he was simply the optimus inter pares, not an absolute ruler. The word often used was princeps, leading citizen, a word that later become prince.

In the following years Augustus received a steady stream of new rights and honours, such as the right to convene the senate. He was very cautious not to offend any tradition, and refused the title of pontifex maximus, the highest religious position, as long as Lepidus lived. He accepted the title only after the death of Lepidus in 12 BCE.

This article has been split into 7 separate sections. Use the menu below to jump to another section.

  1. Introduction
  2. The Civil War
  3. Showdown with Marcus Antonius
  4. The Augustan Principate
  5. The Problem of Succession
  6. Literature and Links
  7. Photographs

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This page is linked under the names "Augustus", "Augustus", "Gaius Octavius", "Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus", "Octavian" and "Imperator Caesar Augustus".

Copyright © 2005 René Seindal, last changed 2005-11-20

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