Sic transit gloria mundi

August 19, 2014 • 7:38 pm

by Greg Mayer

We don’t often note events of general (as opposed to scientific) history here at WEIT, but today, August 19, 2767 AUC, is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, better known as Augustus, arguably the most significant individual in Western and, indeed, world history. The grand nephew and adopted son of Gaius Julius Caesar, through political acumen and military victories he brutally won the civil wars that followed Caesar’s murder, and then set about settling the affairs of the Roman world under the appealing fiction that he was restoring the Republic, while in fact he was founding the Empire.

Statue of Augustus from the villa of Livia, his widow, at Primaporta, Italy, now on display at the Vatican.

Ezra Klein’s Vox has a wonderful series of maps and figures depicting the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to commemorate the anniversary.

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan, in 870 AUC.

The first Roman Emperor, Augustus boasted marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset:  “I found Rome built of bricks; I leave her clothed in marble.” His last successor, Constantine XI, died fighting on the walls of Constantinople, the “New Rome”, in 1453 AD, only 561 years ago, and 1439 years after the death of Augustus. Much of the language, culture, laws, and governance of our world today grew out of the empire he established.

For a fictionalized view of his rise and brutal triumph, see Rome; for a take on his more beneficent middle and old age, see I, Claudius.

h/t Paul Krugman

94 thoughts on “Sic transit gloria mundi

  1. Augustus is my favourite emperor. He altered history profoundly at the Battle of Actium (I maintain it was one of the most decisive battles in history) and he died an old man in AD 14, after bringing years of peace to the Empire.

    However, I had a Twitter discussion with the editor of Vox this afternoon (I think he gave up on me) because he incorrectly described the Late Republican period as “dysfunctional” which it was not. There were terrible civil wars (which Caesar and Cicero both grew up with and escaped) but that was not because the government was dysfunctional, and our modern liberal democracies stole much from the Roman Republican government (defined terms of office, age requirements to hold certain offices, the legal system).

    Indeed, Augustus’s rule, could be seen as dysfunctional because it was autocratic with the Roman senate pretty much silenced (poor Cicero was killed for his mouthing off).

    Caesar was assassinated for his less manipulative attempts to become a dictator for life; Augustus pulled it off with panache, employing propaganda and manipulation much better than Caesar. He even had poets hanging out with him to spread his message (Virgil, I’m looking at you). Even the Augustus of Prima Porta (in this post and my favourite Augustus statue) is full of his propaganda: the references to Venus with the little cherub at his foot to suggest his divine heritage (saying it out loud would get you killed – Romans didn’t like god-bosses.

    Today, Augustus would easily be a mob boss but he’s still my favourite emperor because he got the Romans to accept the thing they despised most and fought to escape during the dark years under Etruscan rule: a king.

      1. I enjoyed Goldsworthy’s _Caesar_ as well, so I’m happy to hear that he has a book on Augustus coming out. In the meantime, I recommend Richard (not Tom) Holland’s (2004) _Augustus: Godfather of Europe_.

          1. If you want to go full on Augustus geek, check out Power of Images in the Age of Augustus by Zanker. It’s about how Augustus uses images in his propaganda. I scooped a copy for myself from the sections for graduate students because I referenced it so often at school it was better to just buy my own copy. Also I’m am Augustus geek.

    1. Vox has a number of these nice map compilations, but the maps and the commentary accompanying them are not error-free. Nothing too horrendous, mind you, but noticeable even in a quick read through.


    2. @Diana,

      In regard to the state of the late republic, and whether it was “dysfunctional”, I belive it very much depend upon how you define “dysfunctional”, and, what cut off points you use.

      I would say that the system of governance under the late republic was put under increasing stress over its last 100 years, partly because of the growth of the sheer size of the geographic are under Roman control (distance from Rome), and, the enormous riches that had begun to accumulate within the Roman society.

      The shift under Augustus to the “principate” mode of governance, (and his political acumen), might very well have temporarily stabilized the situation (control), but, it returned with vengeance, in the late 2nd and early part of the 3rd century AD, during the reigns of the Severans and of course culminating in the “Time of Chaos” after the death of Alexander Severus 235 AD.

      The internal strife would (of course) not receded until the rise of Diocletian (and Maximian) in 284, who brought back a degree of stability, by literally splitting the Empire into 2 major parts (east and west), that in turn were divded into two parts, which left the “same” geographical area once ruled over by Augustus, now governed by in essence 4 separate “emperors”.

      Not to disregard all other changes, (cultural etc), that takes place, but I would argue that there do exists evidence for a trend here, and that the late republic were under severe stress, and, I do not believe it would have survived for very long, even if Augustus had not been there to place himself, as it goes, first, among equals…

      On another note, Augustus is definatly one of my favorites as well in line (of course) with Marcus Aurelius. But I think the “bad” ones are interesting as well, and while everbody immediately thinks of Nero and Caligula, I would nominate Elagabalus as the real “nut job”, and in a league of his very own 🙂

      1. I agree that the late empire was under stress after years of bloody civil war but the institution itself was not dysfunctional. There is no evidence that the Republic wouldn’t have survived without Augustus and in times of strife, the temporary dictator role sped things up so if the right guy has the right ideas and then steps down stabilization is possible. Allowing generals to be loyal only to ambitious, rich men meant civil war would not end until legislation stopped it (no more paying soldiers directly). Augustus put in some good rules – triumphs were not even given to individual citizens. Take that war mongers!

        If Caesar had not slept with everyone’s wife & made himself dictator for life (regardless of his false humility), perhaps the Republic would have been stabilized.

        1. OT–it’s not going to take millennia for future historians to notice how dysfunctional the U.S. is at the moment…Well, “they”‘ve been saying all along we’d go the way of the Roman Empire…

          1. I’ve heard Russians say that the West is Greece and they are Rome. In whatever metaphor they are going for, I think that’s backward anyway. Rome should be the West (because it is West) and Greece should be Russia because it’s Eastern. Even our alphabets agree with me. 🙂

        2. @Diana,

          Just to perhaps clarify somewhat,

          I do not claim that the system would necessarily have collapsed immediately if Augustus had not been there (or someone else with equal capabilities), but, I believe he had a strong (and lasting) positive effect, in regard to overall stability.

          And, I also view rapid turnover of emperors (including self proclaimed candidates) and civil war as a strong signal of a dysfunctional system, so the casual arrow (in my view) goes from dysfunctional (inadequate for the task) political system (control) to civil war, (in very broad terms).

          I would just point to the fact that already beginning during the late republic, all the way through to the end in the west, there was a gradual reduction and restriction of the potential power base alotted to individual regional administrators, in the form of, (among other things)

          *Split up of geographic regions into gradually smaller parts
          *Reduction of the number of legions stationed in any one part, or under any individual command
          *Shifting commands from senatorial rank to equestrian
          *Splitup into east west
          *Splitup of legions into Comitatenses and Limitanei, under individual commanders

          And so on…

          Could a republic have survived? Possibly, but I think the odds were stacked against it, regardless of how attractive and titillating the thought might be.

          We might perhaps have to amiably conclude that we disagree in this… but a fun topic nevertheless 🙂

          1. I actually don’t think we are far a part in what we think. What I argue is the government as an institution was not dysfunctional. I concede that the Roman culture at this time was.

      1. Marcus Aurelius’s got to be the favorite emperor of many thinking people, but Julian is, sadly, underestimated in this third position.
        He was the only Roman emperor gutsy enough to go against the growing cult of Jesus, and if he had not died so young at 33, he might have changed the story of the West, who knows.

        1. What about Galba? No one ever remembers those 4 emperors that one year. Honestly, my professors told us not to bother learning their names. Damn.

          1. I’ve always had a soft spot for Vitellius, another one of the Four, because the original Beowulf manuscript bears the name “MS Cotton Vitellius A. XV”. It bears this name because it was the fifteenth volume on shelf A of a bookcase which its owner, Sir Robert Cotton, had adorned with a bust of Vitellius.


            1. Poor 4 emperors. I can’t be sure this was Galba, but I seem to recall his image was removed as part of some Roman ceremony where they rip you from history. His face was rubbed out of some wall painting and it cracked me up because it looked so immature – like a school girl crossing out faces in a year book. It could be an entirely different emperor but somehow I associate it with Galba.

  2. We all have our favourite Roman Emperors: Vespasian introduced beer to Rome and taxed the toilets – smart guy; but he was never played by Brian Blessed so Augustus probably has the edge.

    1. I think Augustus is well known because his propaganda is so far reaching – it actually reaches us through space & time and it is still appealing. Virgil owed his success to Augustus and we read his stuff in school. Our image of Cleopatra as a beautiful temptress – that was all Augustus too. Man had some skillz!

      1. Changing one’s name to be the equivalent of “I am awesome” and have it stick was a heck of trick. 🙂

              1. Man, I’d have killed for that! (Had I known about you then, had we been contemporaries, etc.)

              1. That looks like fun. 🙂 I do find etymology not only fascinating in its own right, but often most helpful in trying to memorize the damn binomials. 😀

                I do have A Dictionary of the Roots and Combining Forms of Scientific Words, which is quite useful, but perhaps a little dry…

        1. In the Parlour Game/Balloon Debate on the most influential or significant people in history, I might not shortlist Augustus. Because the Empire was well-established by the time of his coup d’état and may well have continued in some altered form.

          I’d nominate: the fire-starter, the deviser of cuneiform, the Canaanite inventor of the alphabet. And Pericles who oversaw the efflorescence of the newly-confident Greek culture in the wake of their defeat of the Persians and whose misfortune to prosperity is that he had no contemporary biographer or sculptor. Alexander the Great who spread Hellenism from the Levant to India.

          Scipio Africanus who, if anyone can be said to have started the Roman Empire, has a good claim in that he chased and defeated Hannibal in Africa. Constantine who laid the foundations for Christianity’s 1000 year hegemony over Europe; Mu’awiya who started the Islamic world’s march across the Middle East, Africa and Southern Europe; Genghis Khan; Timur the Lame; Gutenberg; the lens-maker.

          I’d plump for one of the nerds. I’ve probably missed someone who beats them all.


          1. I’d short list Augustus because of his impact on the modern world’s view of history – our idea of who Cleopatra was, came from Augustus. I’d also nominate him because when he won the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, he shifted all power to the West. If he had lost, power could have shifted very easily to the East and maybe we wouldn’t even be using this alphabet or be using the Roman concept of law.

            1. Well, in this game of what if, unanswerables, I’d say that we do not know at all that our idea of Cleopatra comes from Augustus: it comes from Plutarch 2 generations later. A rather convenient Claudian piece of propaganda, not necessarily untrue for all that, nevertheless to be treated with due scepticism.

              True enough, Augustus shifted power back to Rome and the west but what if Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra had won? What fundamental difference was there between the 2 parties? Would we really have a different alphabet if MA and C had won? I very much doubt it. Don’t forget that Cleopatra was a thoroughly Hellenized ruler, the descendant of Greeks, she was not Egyptian at all.

              Think of the effects that Augustus’ Actium victory had on 1 part of the Empire: Herod the Great in Israel immediately changed sides from MA to Augustus. In the medium term of history, therefore, Octavian makes no difference.

              Augustus’ 1 claim to importance, IMO, is his initiation of 200 years of Pax Romana: this is astonishingly significant in that it establishes the conditions in which relatively free thought can develop and disseminate (within the comparatively restricted technological limits of the era).

              I don’t buy for a minute your association of Augustus with his responsibility for the preservation and dissemination of Roman Law. Mark Antony possibly could have done the same thing, had he been in charge. Much more influential is Emperor Justinian, 5 centuries later, who codified Roman Law. And who also came from the Eastern Roman Empire.

              The question is what difference Augustus, as an individual, made to world history. And really, as individual, the answer is not that much. You have to determine the differences between him and Marc Antony in order to highlight his uniqueness: and really, beyond the fact that his big buddy, Marcus Agrippa, won the Battle of Actium, what is there?


              1. I didn’t say Augustus preserved Roman law bit I am saying that the east had entirely different traditions that greatly differed from Rome, where we derive our laws. Yes, I’m we aware that Cleopatra was Greek and that is my point. She used a Greek alphabet and spoke Greek.

              2. Diana, thank you for your research on Augustus’ influence on the Cleopatra propaganda: I was unaware of the pre-Plutarchian sources. QED indeed. (btw. Pliny the Elder was not a contemporary of Augustus).

                On the general point of Augustus’ significance and how much of a difference he made, the more sceptically you compare him with his ex-brother-in-law Mark Antony the more they look like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

                MA had great support in Rome itself and nearly prevailed; Augustus continued to a large extent MA’s Eastern policy; both were happy to have themselves associated with godhood (it is said that there were 50,000 statues of Augustus throughout the Empire); both were happy for provinces to run under their own laws as opposed to Roman Law; both came from a Roman ruling class thoroughly imbued with Greek thought and education.

                It seems as likely that Cleopatra might have changed the Roman alphabet as that German might have been the official language of the U.S. Remember that subsequently many Emperors were not Roman.

                Finally, from one point of view Augustus’ victory was entirely Pyrrhic. For he set the conditions whereby Mark Antony’s descendants, Caligula, Claudius and Nero all ascended to the throne. Revenge of the DNA.


              3. Oh, yes Pliny the Elder was after Augustus – Pompeii and all that. It was bed time & I was sleepy.

                I don’t think the similarities between Augustus and Mark Antony or any other ruling class Roman really says that Augustus’s influence was minimal. It is completely understandable that he would share the characteristics and general attitudes of those other purple bordered toga wearers.

                Further, you’re concentrating on small remarks (the alphabet) that were meant to support the bigger picture and in so doing missing the bigger picture; consolidation of power in the East by Greek (indeed Ptolemaic) forces would have been a huge blow to the power of Rome. Romans were in absolute terror when Cleopatra said she would rule over it. A Rome without control over the mare nostrum of the Mediterranean would be a much weaker Rome not to mention the very practical concern over issue grain supplies, which were perpetually low and threatening the city with starvation. Egypt had lots of this.

                As for Augustus’s god status – this is more evidence of his aptitude for skillful propagandistic manipulation. He employed iconography that showed him to be the perfect Roman (pietas and gravitas – in his images as pontifex maximus and auctoritas in his images as military commander). His Roman qualities had only slight suggestions of his divinity (the venus in the Augustus of Prima Porta for example). This way, Romans accepted his rule – anyone deified like Caesar, got the knife!

              4. Oh and also, Plutarch spoke about Cleopatra ages after but that was not the first time Romans spoke of Cleopatra and she was treated rather nicely by Plutarch in comparison. Augustus had a literary circle – it was very profitable to find you way into this circle if you were a Roman poet. Such poets included Horace who wrote of her this way:

                Dreams of the queen of half-men, girt by her crew
                Of sickly shame, and drunk with delirious hopes
                Grown fat and reckless on easy fortune!

                Pliny the Elder, though not in the inner circle but a contemporary of Augustus, called her a harlot:

                ….like the royal harlot that she was, sneered at his attempts at luxury and extravagance

                The Smithsonian website references sources here as well (Horace again):

                Though some modern historians have portrayed Cleopatra as a capable, popular Egyptian leader, we tend to imagine her through Roman eyes. During her lifetime and in the century after her death, Roman propaganda, most of it originating with her enemy Octavian, painted Cleopatra as a dangerous harlot who employed sex, witchcraft and cunning as she grasped for power beyond what was proper for a woman. The poet Horace, writing in the late first century B.C., called her “A crazy queen…plotting…to demolish the Capitol and topple the [Roman] Empire.” Nearly a century later, the Roman poet Lucan labeled her “the shame of Egypt, the lascivious fury who was to become the bane of Rome.”

                So as I said upthread, our understanding of Cleopatra was through the propaganda of Augustus.


      2. Diana, I know that Plutarch developed the idea of Cleopatra’s allure and beauty, but not that this originated from Augustus. Are you sure?


  3. I greatly enjoyed the books by Robert Graves – I Claudius and Claudius the God, and also the subsequent TV series.

    But as always with historical fiction, I always remind myself that it is fiction.

    Was the real Livia such a murderous bitch (and the power behind the throne)? Was Claudius really smarter than everyone (including Gibbon) thought? The historical Herod Agrippa was probably an astute man, but was he really *that* clever?

    I think we can be fairly confident, though, that Tiberius was as bad as Graves made out.

    It was also amusing to read “Claudius’s”comments on the Christians.

    1. I once picked up a bilingual copy of Suetonius’ 12 Caesars – Latin one side, English the other: until it got to the rude bits about the shenanigans that Tiberius got up to with his harem of ‘experts’ and it was Latin both sides. You had to be edumacated to read such things.

      1. You were saved from a terrible fate!

        Graves doesn’t shrink too much from the sexuality of the emperors.

        Julius was “Each man’s woman and each woman’s man”.

        Augustus preferred Syrian women, but suffered from…er, erectile dysfunction with Livia.

        Tiberius’s companions were of “doubtful sex”. They might even have been transvestites! Shock horror.

        Caligula slept with his sisters.

        I understand that the Romans and Greeks had a fairly inclusive attitude to sex, but (by modern standards) shamefully abused power. Any female slave (and some male ones) was fair game for the master.

        But I’ve always had the impression that it was Christianity which gave us many of the current modern hangups and pruderies which still haunt Western society.

        I have a fairly narrow knowledge of this period, however, so I’m happy to learn more from any real expert on the Romans.

    2. Graves really gets all his dirt straight from Suetonius, so in that sense, his history is more “accurate” than many people realize.

      But it’s important to remember that allegations of incest, murder, depravity and cruelty were likely to spring up about any powerful figure or family, only get expanded on over time. And Suetonius was writing about the Claudians and the Flavians years later, and his work was probably looked on favorably by the Nervan-Anontonian dynasty.

      In an era where death from disease was all too common, the temptation to attribute every sudden sickness and death of a powerful person to poisoning was still irresistible. Conspiracy theories didn’t start with JFK.

      Of course, dismissing Suetonius out of hand is going to far, but it’s important to be cautious and look for corroboration where we can.

      1. His portrayal of Augustus as the nice old avuncular type was a bit much too. Augustus was thuggish. I think it’s why I liked him.

    1. Since the Julian calendar had been established only about 60 years before Augustus’s death, there was less than a half day difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at that time, so both calendars would give the same date.


    1. “Ab Urbe Condita”–“From the Founding of the City.” Romans dated their years from the supposed founding of Rome by Romulas & Remus.

    1. Yes, apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?


  4. For an interesting take on Augustus as love interest, there’s Phyllis Smith’s I am Livia. It’s not too bad if you enjoy that sort of thing.

  5. My favourite Augustus saying, festina lente which I think is great for Agile Development.

    ^I win the geek trifecta there. Ancient Rome, Latin & software development!

  6. It’s hard to compress a 2000 year history in 40 maps I guess. but I still find this a bit unbalanced. The history of the Eastern Empire is almost completely ignored. Yet, IMO its fate had as important, if not more, influence to the modern world. I’m thinking in particular of its interactions with the also declining Persian Empire and how an obscure tribe of nomads motivated by a bizarre version of the JudaeoChristian religion was able to conquer most of the crumbling empire all the way to Iberia.

    1. The Persian empire was often glossed over in Western education. I only learned about it through Ancient Greek history so what we learn, we learn through the Ancient Greeks.

      Incidentally, an Iranian friend once told me that they’ve never called themselves Persians, always Iranians. I blamed the Greeks. 🙂

      1. Hmmm. In the 60’s I knew several (petroleum geology– 😉 ) Iranian grad students who called themselves Persians.

        1. In 1979, I was teaching basic composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and one of my students was Iranian. We had a complicated relationship, because she was also a fellow student in my fencing class, and we often were paired up in class bouts, and our fencing comraderie was sometimes difficult to handle in English class, where she was my student, not my classmate. Given the tension of the times – it was the middle of the hostage situation – she was terrified of what might happen if people found out that she was Iranian. I told her that if her nationality became an issue, to call herself “Persian”. Most Americans wouldn’t make the connection.

        2. I suspect they were fitting in with the West’s word for them. It is a totally Greek word – when I sounded it out in Greek for the first time, I said – “hey, Persian!”. Stupid slow left brain.

      2. Well the Greeks never called themselves Greeks either, they called themselves Helenes.

        The Germans don’t call themselves Germans either.

    1. Let me guess–you think yours are too small? Mine are too large–same wardrobe results. Ah, gender norms. (Or ridiculous ideals.)

      1. Oh, & btw, I’m skinny. Not to cast aspersions on plumper body types, just to point out that it’s not in my control short of surgery. I once had a boyfriend who told me that he liked to see a woman with muscles in her legs–which I heard as, wow, large calves for a woman.

        1. “…the Goldilocks of the gastrocnemii.”


          Probably the first time in the history of language those particular words have been strung together like that.

          1. I think it’s funny that it means “stomach leg” as well. I think the stringing of the phrase together becomes even funnier with this knowledge.

    2. I doubt Augustus’s were either. Augustus’s images were ever young. Who knows what he looked like normally.

      1. I’m sure you could commission a cuirass; maybe get them to throw in some greaves for your fancy gastrocnemii

  7. Augustus, by John E. Williams is a terrific book (and winner of the National Book Award), written as a collection of letters from and to Augustus and his contemporaries.

    For those who haven’t heard of Williams, he’s also the author of “Stoner,” perhaps the most crushing (but brilliant) depiction of a life in academia I’ve come across.

      1. I second the recommendation, but IMHO even better are:

        Augustus by Alan Massie (the sequels Tiberius and Caesar are equally good)

        Three’s Company by Alfred Duggan (the 2nd triumvirate through the eyes of Lepidus)

        Duggan also wrote Family Favourites, about the truly bonkers Elagabalus.

  8. His last successor, Constantine XI, died fighting on the walls of Constantinople

    I disagree. His last successor is alive today: Pope Francis. The Roman Empire gradually transmogrified into the Catholic church. So Pope Franic is the Pontiff while Augustus was the Pontifex Maximus

    1. The BBC has it on video and so have I. The script is a masterpiece (Augustus: Is there anybody here who HASN’T slept with my daughter?) and the acting stellar (among others, John Hurt as Caligula). I sat opposite him on the train a couple of years back, but unlike Philo I didn’t have the bottle to talk to him. Caligula is a Guardian reader, by the way.


      1. Caligula is a Guardian reader, by the way.

        Somehow I’m having a job to envisage Caligula as a wishy-washy Liberal pinko subversive. Well, maybe not so difficult on the pink front ; infamously flexible in his bedroom activities as he was. And as for Incitatus?
        Next thing you’ll be telling us that Clavdivs is an Independent reader!

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