To What Degree Did the Battle of Actium Mark the Establishment of a Monarchy?

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  • Topic: Roman Empire, Julius Caesar, Roman Republic
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  • Published : December 3, 2012
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To What Degree did Actium Mark the Establishment of a Monarchy? Monarchy is defined as ‘a form of government with a monarch at the head’ and was the first arrangement of power in Rome after its founding by Romulus, who reigned from 753-715BC.1 However, by 510BC, the despotic actions of Tarquinius Superbus marked the end of a succession of increasingly tyrannical kings, and the ‘Roman Republic’ was established. This system was based on a sharing of power between, foremost, two consuls who were elected by the people and held office for only one year, then 300 senators, and two popular assemblies, the comitia curiata and the comitia centuriata. With such a spread of auctoritas, the Roman state would be at less risk from corrupt men with their aims set on an autocratic rule. The precepts of the Roman republic were honourable and upheld, in the most part, until the civil wars of 91BC onwards disturbed it, culminating in what many would consider the fall of the Republic, and thus the establishment of a monarchy, with Augustus at the battle of Actium on 2nd September 31BC. Indeed, many scholars do consider Actium as the event that defined the establishment of a monarchy in Rome and certainly the first instance of rule by an emperor. If we take ‘monarch’ to mean ‘sole person with power over a state’, I do think Augustus fulfilled this role, despite his never taking the name of ‘king’. Compared to the spread of control between two consuls, hundreds of senators (up to a thousand by the time Augustus came to power) and many religious posts, Augustus’ running as a single consul is certainly monarchy. Suetonius says that Augustus ‘twice considered restoring the republic’ but not that he actually did so, therefore implying that he maintained the autocratic power contrary to the Republican rules. Whether or not this was entirely intentional or with what motivations he acted is unclear. Following the example of Sulla and retiring would almost certainly result in a relapse into civil war, while by retaining unabashedly autocratic rule he might risk sharing the fate of Julius Caesar. Therefore, Augustus proceeded in a restrained manner, taking only the smallest increments of power. In addition, he refined and revived the senate which had become ineffective and swollen in numbers to over a thousand patres conscripti during the civil war. This meant that his rulings had to gain approval from a separate body, although in practice they had little chance for opposition. Augustus’ supreme auctoritas meant that he was greatly respected and obeyed, but it is likely that ‘the ultimate sanction of his authority was force’. Augustus also delegated most provinces to other generals or men of high standing, so in theory at least his imperium did not cover the whole Roman empire. Nonetheless, he held the province encompassing Spain, Gaul and Syria, which happened to have the largest army. Augustus’ key achievement was to preserve the appearance of a constitutional government at least, if not the Roman Republic itself. Moreover, Augustus took care to never accept a name that made him appear equal to a king, since he knew that this would be anathema to the Roman citizens. He held the consulship every year from 31BC to 23BC having laid down the title of triumvir. Amongst others, Augustus took the title of proconsulare and imperator, which did not carry the same dictatorial connotations as today; rather it was a name awarded to exceedingly successful generals. Significantly, on January 16th 27BC the name Augustus was decreed to him, meaning “the illustrious one” which held a religious significance rather than political. In that year too, Augustus accepted the title which he most commonly used of princeps, meaning ‘first citizen’. Again, this title did not bestow any legal authority to him and was in fact a name given before, for example to Pompey. These many titles without any legal power may seem futile and superficial only, but they signalled his rising...
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