McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

What does Augustus mean when he says that he “attained supreme power by universal consent” [34]?

The Res Gestae Divi Augusti is commonly referred to simply as Augustus' own account of his reign. However, the term Res Gestae implies far greater depth. As with the philology of many Latin terms, Res Gestae had multiple meanings that were deeply imbued with legal connotation.

In ancient Rome the phrase Res Gestae was used as a response to hearsay evidence in court. It relates to spontaneous exclamations that were without deliberation so they could not be misinterpreted or refuted. If we attach the same dynamic to Augustus' inscription, then the Res Gestae Divi Augusti no longer appears as just a subjective account of Augustus' life, with all its omissions and euphemisms. It becomes an exclamation itself. An instructive legal diktat documenting his political achievements.

However, when in Chapter 8 he writes that "I restored numerous traditional ways that were falling into abeyence and I personally set numerous precedents for imitation by posterity [Res Gestae, 8]," we glimpse another aspect of his use of "tradition and precedent." Here, he is also keen not just to use tradition for present political support, he is also keen to wed himself to political history, culture and tradition. To become part of that hallowed precedent that governed Roman political life. It is this which prompts him to initiate legislation that constitutionally marks his rule on the traditions of the Roman political system. It is this, again, that prompts his immense architectural projects that reshape Rome, with the power of the Julian family focused at the centre of political life. Augustinian politics and society are dominated by 'precedents' such as prayers held specifically in Augustus' honour [Res Gestae, 4], the routinely held sacrifices for Augustus' health [Res Gestae, 9] or the epic constructions of the Forum Julium [Res Gestae, 20]. All were designed to dramatically fuse the appearance and character of the princeps to the history and tradition of the Republican State. So that Augustus' rule was inseparable from Rome's historical traditions, and his dynasty would be engraved in the legal and cultural foundations of the rés publica.

Augustus, by the invoking of tradition in his architectural and political refounding of Rome, comprehensively assimilates the public and political spaces of Roman life. Through the power of imagery and experience, this familiarised the Roman people with the supreme authority of the princeps and its dynastic succession. Gradually, over time, the reality of the princeps as the sole political authority evolved from mere political imagery into an accepted fait accompli among the peoples and institutions of the rés publica. By allying himself with tradition, Augustus therefore ensured a peaceful transition to the rule of the principate. Any political change, by welding it to the structures and traditions of the republic in this way, would not be seen as radical or revolutionary, but progressive.

Related Links
To Top