Why did Augustus succeed where Caesar failed?

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Julius Caesar had an undeniably decisive impact on the fate of classical Rome yet was assassinated by his own colleagues. His adopted son, Augustus, despite continuing Caesar’s dictatorial policies, did not meet the same fate. These two figures shared similar traits: both came from notable households and knew how to please the people. However, by understanding the differences between these two leaders, we can understand how Augusts succeeded in becoming such an effective autocrat, whereas Caesar’s reign was brutally cut short by the intervention of the Senate.

Perhaps Caesar’s major failure was his inability to transition from a war general to a political leader. It is undisputed that Caesar was a great conqueror. For example, in 58 B.C., he pacified Gaul as governor of this vast and unstable region. This achievement is all the more impressive given the military skill of the Northern-European barbarians. Caesar’s strategy, which made use of the Roman military’s discipline and fighting cohesion, led to the development of his reputation as a formidable and ruthless military leader. However, his success provoked the resentment of Pompey, another Roman General, leading to the increasing volatility of the political situation in Rome as the two sought greater power.

The civil war which ensued between Caesar and Pompey was a tragedy, but it was also inevitable. The republican system of two consuls sharing power was destined to fall amongst the corruption of the late Roman republican. Caesar’s victory in this civil war was unquestioned and, in 46 B.C., he declared himself initially dictator of Rome for 10 years, and subsequently Dictator Perpetuo (Dictator for life). However, these senators desired their own financial and political advancement, which was limited by Caesar’s dictatorial rule. Caesar may have won the support of the army with his military skill, yet his inability to appease the Senate ensured that there were many who continued to oppose and plot against him.

By contrast, Augustus, or Octavian, was fully aware of the consequences of Caesar’s actions, and thus understood the importance of cultivating a façade of republicanism. Firstly, Octavian decided to change his name to Augustus in 27 B.C. The name ‘Octavian’ was inherently linked to the period of violence and terror that preceded his rule, and so he changed it to Augustus (‘the great’ or ‘magnificent one’) in order to bring renewed pride to Rome. He also employed notable contemporary writers (most significantly Virgil, Horace and Livy) to lend credibility to his power and create the impression that he was the bringer of peace and prosperity. Unlike Caesar, Augustus also succeeded in separating his political and military positions, thus allowing him to be considered as a man who would rule Rome democratically and fairly without resorting to the crutch of the military.

Caesar’s other most prominent failure was his naïve treatment of the Senate. Caesar openly persecuted those senators who had opposed him, thus spreading fear and anger amongst those who otherwise wished to criticise him. This approach only increased the senators’ disdain for Caesar; hence it comes as no surprise that all the conspirators who murdered Caesar were, in fact, senators. Furthermore, Caesar’s expansion of the Senate (from 600 to 900 senators) degraded the status of the body as a whole. Finally, the senators resented Caesar’s arrogant self-presentation, in which he would use the title imperator (Emperor) and point to his supposedly divine ancestry. Such self-aggrandisement was ridiculed, and Caesar was increasingly seen as a figure whom the senators must oppose.

Augustus, however, decreased the size of the Senate, thus restoring its former prestige. This was done tactically, restricting membership to Augustan supporters and loyalists as far as possible. In turn, this beholden Senate bestowed upon Octavian the two most necessary powers for his effective rule. Firstly, they gave him the title of Imperium Maius (supreme power), which lent him control over the military. Then he was bestowed ‘Tribunicia potestas’ (Tribunician powers for life), which allowed him to veto and design new laws. Cleverly, as these laws were designed and ‘imposed’ by the Senate, it gave the impression that Augustus was an unwilling dictator and that ultimately the republic ruled Rome. 

Fundamentally, it cannot be questioned that both Augustus and Caesar ruled autocratically. However, Augustus learnt from Caesar’s mistakes, and thus succeeded where Caesar had failed. He oversaw an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity, in which he “found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Augustus’ sly and intelligent use of the Senate contrasted with Caesar’s brazenness and arrogance, thus allowing Octavian to maintain his unquestioned rule, all whilst preserving the illusion that he had finally restored the republic so desired by the people of Rome.

Cassius Dio, The Roman History

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars

Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti