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The End of the Roman Republic

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The Montreal Review, February 2010

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The unconscious change of the Roman political system is a manifestation of revolutionary change under the facade of tradition.

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"I liberated the Republic which was oppressed by the tyranny of a faction..." These words were inscribed on a bronze pillar before the mausoleum of a man who ruled the most powerful Empire in human history, who was called Pater Patriae and Divi Augusti, the first Roman emperor, the Princeps of Rome. But in these words, there is an irony. This man had liberated something that, in reality, was not any longer existent - the republic.

In his Philosophy of History Hegel writes that the great leaders of every epoch do not realize their real role in human history. The great leaders are blind instruments in the hands of Providence; they are the highest servants of their time. They are intelligent, talented, great, but they are not the true causes behind the great events and turnouts of history. They never have a full consciousness of the "Idea" they are unfolding; they are practical, political men, but also thinking men with some insight about what was "ripe for development." 1 If we agree with Hegel, we would say that Augustus was unaware that there was no any longer a republic. Perhaps he was sincere when, shortly before his death, he wrote that famous document which this reviewer quoted, Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Surely, he was right to say that he "liberated" Rome (not the republic) from the calamities of factionalism. It is true that his political genius put to an end a century of civil war in Rome. But when this happened, Rome was neither republic, nor monarchy.

Augustus was the right man in the right time and place. In another article, published in this magazine, the reviewer wrote about the growth of the Roman Empire - how this city achieved its prominence, what Romans did to conquer the East and the West. In the same article, the reviewer mentioned that when the Romans crossed the sea and subdued the lands outside the Italian peninsula, they actually found themselves in a new, unfamiliar political situation that was completely different from their previous experience. First, their zone of foreign influence become wider; this fact turned out crucial, because in contrast to the modern politics the needs of foreign policy imposed changes in domestic policy of Rome. Second, to control the new lands Romans had to create new foreign offices (the proconsuls, for example) that were very different from the old and successful Roman tradition of league building. Instead to get in alliance with the defeated nations as it was in the past, after the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) the Romans started to impose direct control over the new territories of influence, exercised by a governor and army. Third, the expansion and the constant engagement in foreign wars changed the internal structure of the Roman political system. With the time, the role of the traditional public assembly in domestic politics got lesser (many of the members of assembly were dispatched to foreign lands or engaged in war campaigns) while the influence of the Roman Senate, who had permanent seat in the capital, grown. The changes in domestic and foreign policy were generally unconscious; the Romans did not realize clearly that they are becoming simultaneously an empire and a more aristocratic, more unequal society.

In an article published here, the reviewer notices that the lack of steady domestic reforms in Rome corresponding to its new position in world led to the bloody political conflicts in Second and First century B.C. The so-called "Social wars" had started with the turbinate of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 B.C. and ended with Augustus' victory over Anthony after the battle of Actium in 31 A.D. In the mentioned article, the reviewer argues that the bloodshed in domestic politics, the reasons behind the civil wars, was the delay in the reforms. After centuries of foreign expansion and growth, the Romans were trapped at home in a situation where the elite was unwilling to concede part of its power and wealth to the lower classes, while the lower classes were resolved to restore the traditional balance in political and economic order. If we hold on the Hegel's thesis of the "unconsciousness" of historical actors, if we accept the opinion that the Romans developed their empire and institutions spontaneously, without any model or rational design, we could conclude that this delay in the reforms, e.g. the lack of gradual deliberate reformation of political system that responds effectively to the needs of the new built empire was practically inevitable. The Romans missed the moment, the opportunity for a conservative, evolutionary change. They missed it not because of political imprudence, but because they were not prepared for the role which their constitution and political genius would assign them. Their republican institutions were built spontaneously, their empire was built spontaneously, and finally, the Principate was also a creation of a non-conscious political process and actions.

Augustus or Octavian (Octavius is his real name) came to power when the exhaustion from the internal conflicts was on its highest point. In the 40s B.C., the Romans desperately wanted peace, they needed a person or a clique to deliver it - fractionalism, this bloody fratricidal war should be stopped, thus in the "womb" of the Roman society the germ of peace was already existing.

Octavian, the adopted son of Caesar, was the man who -- at first sight -- saved the Roman Empire of its own devils. He was not a great soldier, but he had a great political talent. Octavian had the ability to balance between the random tides of political process, to stay afloat in a number of political storms, and at the end he learned how to tame the stormy sea of the Roman politics. His main political rival was Anthony, a general, proconsul, triumvir, husband of Cleopatra and lord of Egypt. Octavian knew Anthony's main weakness - he did not have the support of the Roman Senate; he wanted to continue the path of Caesar - the creation of military despotism, a monarchy in Eastern style, an universal empire consisted by equal under the sceptre multinational citizens. The Romans, especially the old aristocratic families, did not like Anthony's aspirations. And Octavian used this opportunity. The support of the Senate was crucial for Octavian's victory over Anthony and later for the consolidation of his own power.

Nobody can say with confidence whether Augustus was a clever politician that understood the mistakes of the previous most popular contenders for leadership - Sulla and Caesar. Sulla was the general who succeeded first to subject Rome and to attain absolute power in 82-79 B.C. He was the man who showed in practice that the Republican structure suffers big cracks. This general had the support of the Senate against another military man and contender Marius who was from the party of the people (the anti-aristocratic movement in Rome that was awakened by Tiberius Gracchus in the 130s B.C.). But Sulla, once attained victory over institutions and individuals surprisingly laid down his dictatorial power. A few decades later, Caesar repeated Sulla's actions and victories, but in 49-47 B.C. he failed to deal with the Senate, and consequently was assasinated. Augustus did not repeat the mistakes of these powerful individuals: he assured the goodwill of the senators, showing his readiness to ask them for political advice. He gave them shared (but limited) participation in governance. Augustus regarded the dignity of the aristocrats, he did a few symbolic acts of concession (the most popular was in 27 B.C. when he laid down his military dictatorship), and while gradually amassing power he tenaciously kept the image of himself as a man who refuses to accept any office which was contrary to the traditions. In his own words: "I refused to accept any office offered me which was contrary to the traditions of our ancestors." (Res Gestae Divi Augusti)

Augustus' political genius created in Rome peace and predictability. The Senate was so thankful for this achievement, and so comfortable with his leadership that willingly refused to accept any "offer" of yielded power. As it seems, long before Augustus, the Roman aristocrats had forgot the art of governing, and had no real aspirations to power. In his Annals Tacitus writes: "At home all was peaceful, the officials bore the same titles as before, the younger generation was born after the victory of Actium, and even many of the older generation had been born during the civil wars. How few were left who had seen the Republic!"

The public memory was erased. Of course, the past still played a role, but it was the role of a dead past - corpse of republican structures without Spirit, old offices without real importance, behind the mask of the republic Rome was experiencing a deep transformation to monarchism. A theatre, a play in which all actors participated voluntarily. In his Roman History Cassius Dio writes: "The power of both people and senate passed entirely into the hands of Augustus, and from this time (27 B.C.) there was, strictly speaking, a monarchy... Romans so detested the title "monarch" that they called their emperors neither dictators nor kings nor anything of this sort." So, they were called Caesar, Princeps, Augustus, Father (Imperator is a military term, that means allegiance of the army to the commander in chief)...

The goal of this article is not to give a comprehensive account of the factual transformation of the Roman Republic during the regime of Augustus. There are numerous brilliant works dealing in detail with the events in Agustus' time. Here the reviewer just wants to invoke attention on the fact that this transformation was an unusual political process in which the old political facade stays only to cover the building of a new order. This is a political principle, which can be used as a possible base when we observe and judge the contemporary political events. The principle can be generalized in the following: The unconscious political process, the creation of a spontaneous institutional order without particular human design and plan, tends to keep the frame of the old institutional structures alive while under the surface the real political change happens. In such a transformation, the political consensus is often present and the manifestation of the actual revolutionary change is subtle.

Written by T.S.Tsonchev

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1 Georg Hegel, The Philosophy of History (Dover Publications, New York, 2004), p. 30

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