How Octavius became the sole representative of the Roman world

Statue of Augustus, made in 20 B.C.

We all know that in 27 B.C., following the death of his rival Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar (renamed Augustus) restored the forms of the Roman Republic, ruined by a hundred years of civil wars, while actually assuming monarchical power over the entire Roman world. This is universally considered the beginning of the Roman empire, though of course it was not called that at the time. A key question is, how was the actuality of Octavius’ monarchical status over all Romans compatible with the anti-monarchical, republican forms—the Senate, the People’s Assembly, the various offices of the state with their distributed and balanced powers—which he was so assiduous to preserve? How was it possible for the princeps, the first among equals, as Octavius was unpretentiously titled, also to be the king and emperor and lord of all? The fascinating answer is contained in a parallel, extra-legal, extra-constitutional development that had been going on in Roman society during the entire period of the civil wars and long before, as discussed by Eric Voegelin in A New Science of Politics, pp. 92-97. What follows are my marginal notes on those pages, written many years ago:

Question: how did Rome, given its compact civil theology, represent itself as an empire? The answer, unfolded in the next few pages, is that the old republican constitution was replaced by Octavius becoming the patron of the whole Roman people as his clients.

Apart from the constitution, the Roman republic began to be organized around the relationship between the princeps, a leading citizen, and his clients. This bond of favor/loyalty was a sacred bond under the gods. The highest-level patrons with the most clients were principes civitates, whose clients were themselves patrons. (It seems very like feudalism.)

The big wars of the third and second centuries, producing many veterans in need of land or other favors, reduced the number of principes; a general would become the princeps of his whole army. These powerful new leaders of private parties, in the period of the civil wars in the first century, turned against the Senate and turned Rome into a state of war among private (but very large) parties. Eventually the number of parties was reduced to three (the Triumverate), then two (Octavius and Antony), and finally one (when Octavius defeated Antony). The Roman people became Octavius’ clients, and Octavius became the princeps of the whole Roman people, who all took the clientele oath to Octavius. Alongside this new representation of all Romans by the princeps, co-existed the old representation of Rome by the Senate and the People’s Assembly.

Thus the one-man, imperial principate, growing out of the multiple, patrocinial principates, became the representative for all the people under the empire, which could never have been accomplished under the old republican constitution. But to be workable, the patrocinial relation with all the subjects of Rome had to be experienced as a sacramental bond, which became increasingly difficult as Orientals with their various gods flooded Rome.

The relevant text of A New Science of Politics, which is available in pdf here, begins at page 92.

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Mark T. writes:

I have trouble with your (based on Voegelin’s) description of the force causing Rome’s fall from republic to empire. It’s a very anti-traditional interpretation. It implies that something essential to the patronage system somehow undermined the Republic. What instead happened was that the patronage system was destroyed and its forms perverted so as to give the impression of legitimacy: exactly as the republican traditions were destroyed.

Imagine the Roman system of patronage to be the non-state counterpart to republicanism. The hierarchy, with the Senate class at the top, flowed through and included all citizens. Everybody was in a tight-knit social relationship with people who helped look after their interests, and in return, received help in kind. These relationships were solid for many generations. The people at the bottom may not have personally known their top-level patrons. However, through their own patrons, everybody was friends of friends of people at the top. It was natural and traditional. The usurpers of the Republic, Caesar, Octavius, and so on, turned this tradition into one which consisted of brute force alone, with a veneer of respectability. Caesar was nobody’s friend. Octavius and Antony murdered most of the wealthy Romans to steal their wealth so as to fund their war against one another. The system of patronage was destroyed along with the Republic—or if not destroyed, perverted so that it no longer involved its original essence.

To compare Rome with America, the patronage system would be like the tight-knit communities and families centered around rugged individualist Christians. The Roman patronage system was the necessary foundation of republicanism, just as the Christian family was the necessary social foundation for Americanism. Newt Gingrich talking about “family values”—and the idiots who fall for him—is like the conversation between Augustus and his populace. It’s false, and bears no resemblance to actual tradition.

April 2

Van Wijk writes:

Julius Caesar gets most of the blame for overthrowing the Roman Republic, but I don’t think his ambitions to power would have been possible without the Marian reforms of 107 BC. These reforms discarded the old law that Roman soldiers be landed citizens able to supply their own arms in favor of one that allowed recruitment from the landless masses. This transferred the loyalty of the average legionary from the state, in which he himself played a significant role, to the commanding general. With these reforms, every Roman influential enough to govern a province was a potential threat to the stability of the Republic.

LA replies:

I’d like to know why that horrible civil war between Caesar and Pompey, which was the death of the Republic, was necessary. Was the conflict between them really so dire and unavoidable? Couldn’t they have gotten along?

April 2

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

You wrote: “I’d like to know why that horrible civil war between Caesar and Pompey, which was the death of the Republic, was necessary. Was the conflict between them really so dire and unavoidable? Couldn’t they have gotten along?”

I believe that a Tribune of the People, a certain Rhodenius Regius about whom little else is known, arranged a meeting between Caesar and Pompey, urging them to settle their differences, which they did temporarily by agreeing to call in a posse of legionnaires to beat Rhodenius senseless; after which, the plebs rioted and the civil war resumed. I recall reading that in one of the lesser Roman chroniclers.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 01, 2011 01:52 PM | Send

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