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With the victory of Octavian Caesar, the heir of Julius Caesar, over Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., the greatest of Rome’s civil wars came to an end. Indeed, the whole era of civil war, which had torn apart late republican Rome for over half a century, was now over. After decades of reckless violence, political instability, economic misery, betrayals, cruelty, and staggering levels of corruption, what happened next in Roman history comes to the historian as almost a complete surprise. Rome was hated from Spain to Syria, the fragility of Roman power was obvious, and astrologers had long been predicting the empire's imminent collapse. The wonder is that, instead of collapsing, the Roman empire entered what historians, ever since antiquity, have celebrated as its Golden Age. The story gives us hope in our own day: Times of political collapse will pass, and can also bring forth unexpected greatness.

The man who deserves the credit for the making of Rome’s Golden Age, more than any other individual, was Octavian Caesar, who in 27 B.C. was given the name “Augustus” by the Senate. Despite the deep-rooted prejudice of the republican tradition against this man, going back to Tacitus and continuing down to our own day, the fair-minded historian can hardly deny him the title of the greatest statesman in Roman history, and perhaps in all of history. Reluctance to make this assessment comes in part from the political convictions of individual historians, but even more from the difficulty of assessing Octavian’s shifting character and motivations. From his own time to ours historians have debated what to make of Octavian’s transformation from a vengeful teenager, determined to punish the assassins of his adoptive father, to a ruthless, calculating warlord aiming at dominance over the Roman state, to—the most astonishing transformation of all—an ideal combination of Romulus and Numa who refounded the Roman state and brought its civilization to the highest peak it ever attained in the ancient world. Historians in the republican tradition since Tacitus have held that Augustus remained the same scheming tyrant he had always been, pretending to restore the Republic while actually laying the foundations of his own autocracy. Others more appreciative of his statesmanship have seen Octavian’s earlier repulsive behavior as driven by Machiavellian necessity, imposed by the corruption of the late republic; whereas, after Actium, unchallenged control of the state revealed in him a virtue and a genius for wise leadership hitherto hidden from the world. When Octavian became Augustus, a populist warlord was somehow transformed into a visionary statesman.

Anyone who knew only Octavian Caesar’s earlier career before the Battle of Actium could never have imagined that he would become the greatest statesman in Roman history. The teenaged “boy” (as Cicero and Mark Antony liked to call him) who inherited Caesar’s name and fortune was raised in the country, near the provincial town of Velletri in the Alban Hills south of Rome. When Julius Caesar made Octavian his heir, he was a sickly youth, an average public speaker, without political or military experience and without riches. He had served for a while on Caesar’s staff in Spain and the dictator evidently thought the boy had promise. The historian Velleius Paterculus tells us that Caesar “loved the boy as his own son.” Caesar was always drawn to men of merit and was famous for promoting them over officers with fine names and aristocratic connections. He was not expecting that he would die at the age of fifty-six, and no doubt thought there was plenty of time for Octavian to distinguish himself. Caesar saw to it that Octavian had a good education in Stoic philosophy and Greek rhetoric, though the future ruler of a bilingual empire never himself became a fluent Greek-speaker. Octavian had in addition a curious interest in religious ritual and priestly learning that went far beyond the Roman politician’s usual desire to master ceremonial rules to benefit his career.  

Octavian’s interest in religion had no apparent influence on the moral character he displayed in his early career, after Caesar's murder. Once installed as a member of the Second Triumvirate along with Antony and Lepidus, he made himself popular with the Roman plebs thanks to his vindictive promises to kill Caesar’s assassins, contrasting with the moderation of Antony. Despite his thunderous public denunciations of the soi-disant Liberators’ illegal act of murder, Octavian himself tried to have Antony assassinated. In the same period Octavian raised a private army and brought it to Rome, over the protests of the Senate. In the winter of 40, according to the historian Cassius Dio, Octavian starved the city of Perugia into surrender and executed three hundred senators and knights sympathetic to Antony on an altar consecrated to Caesar, as though they were human sacrifices. The city was then burnt to the ground. There was an ugly scene after the defeat of the Liberators at Philippi: Octavian, suffering from ill health, had hardly participated in the fighting, but after the battle he outraged the corpse of Brutus and had its head cut off to be displayed in the Roman forum. There are numerous other stories about his merciless behavior during that time preserved by the historian Suetonius. 

Many of Suetonius’s stories about the young Octavian were taken whole cloth from invectives written by Mark Antony and cannot be trusted. Political hatred always generates the most shameless lies. But the blackest stain on Octavian’s reputation is his responsibility for the proscriptions of the Second Triumvirate, the process by which he destroyed the lives and estates of his political rivals. This stain is harder to dismiss. Along with his populist politics, where Octavian followed Caesar’s lead, the proscriptions guaranteed him ill fame among later writers with republican sympathies. Though his actions before Actium show him to have been careful to retain the appearance of legality in all his acts—in contrast to his adoptive father—in his ruthless pursuit of power he was no better than any other Roman warlord of the late Republic. 

Everyone knows the famous dictum of Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Octavian’s case, however, the opposite seems to have occurred. Once he had taken complete control of the Roman state, his actions changed for the better. After Actium he gradually, to all appearances, became a model prince, wise and moderate. Power became a means to the end of restoring public order and prosperity, not the end itself. Or so the historical record suggests.

Whether his character improved as well is a matter of speculation. Many Romans who had lived through the last civil war never trusted the new image of the virtuous civic leader that Octavian tried to project in the 20s B.C., and feared that the old Octavian was still there, lurking under the surface. Their paranoid suspicions of his every action survive in the pages of Tacitus. A more mixed verdict is given by Suetonius, who wrote in the early second century. As secretary to the emperors Trajan and Hadrian he had access to imperial correspondence, including that of Augustus, but his mentality was that of a celebrity journalist rather than a responsible historian. His writing needs to be taken with a generous handful of salt. At a greater remove in time, our major source for the early Principate, Cassius Dio, who wrote in Greek in the early third century A.D., had a better grasp of the obvious: Dio highlights Augustus’s extraordinary accomplishments in refounding the Roman state and discounts the sins of his early career as driven by necessity. 

The two sources we have that are closest in time to the events of Octavian’s life—the soldier-historian Velleius Paterculus and Nicholas of Damascus—are both adulatory. Velleius, a client of Augustus and his successor Tiberius, absolves Octavian of responsibility for the proscriptions and generally takes him to be sincere in his desire to reform Rome. Augustus’s biographer Nicholas of Damascus, a Jewish scholar at the court of Herod the Great (and formerly tutor to the children of Antony and Cleopatra), summed up Augustus’s rule by saying that his virtues of practical wisdom (phronesis) and humanity (philanthropia) had enabled him to secure willing obedience from the whole empire. Willing obedience, according to ancient Greek theory, is what distinguished legitimate monarchs from tyrants.

For this man, having achieved preeminent power and practical wisdom, ruled over the greatest number of people within the memory of man, established the farthest boundaries for the Roman Empire, and settled securely not only the tribes of Greeks and barbarians, but also their dispositions; at first with arms but afterward even without arms, by attracting them of their own free will. By making himself known through his humanity, he persuaded them to obey him. 

It is a hard thing for a teacher to admit, but perhaps the emergence of great leaders sometimes can be explained less by their education, training, and character than by the historical moment itself. The Emersonian belief that it is the great man who makes the times is not without truth, but every so often it is the times who make great men, or rather bring forth greatness from smaller men. If Winston Churchill had died in 1939 at the age of sixty-four his exceptional gifts as a war leader would never have been discovered and he might now be remembered, if at all, as a colorful but failed politician. When Elizabeth I came to the throne of England in 1558, the kingdom had never had a successful female monarch. The graybeards regarded her accession with deep foreboding, England’s enemies with glee. No one knew that an Elizabethan Age of deathless fame lay before them.  

In our present moment, when we seem to be sleepwalking into multiple economic crises, costly wars, the overturning of our whole system of morality, and the worst choices of political leadership our republic has ever faced, the crystal-ball consultants who merely project current trends can offer us little comfort. Indeed, if our only source of wisdom comes from trend-spotting and predictive algorithms, we ought to be seized with panic and despair. By contrast, history, the teacher of prudence, offers hope: hope that springs from the knowledge that crises eventually pass, and bad times can summon great leaders from the most unexpected sources. 

This essay is adapted from The Golden Thread: A History of the Western Tradition by Allen Guelzo and James Hankins, forthcoming from Encounter Books.

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.

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Image by Till Niermann licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped.  

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