The Constitution

But how was Augustus to rule? Power in Rome had traditionally been shared.  On the one hand there were the two consuls,  elected annually who after their period of office were expected to go out and govern a Province. And then there was the Senate, the House of Lords of the Roman world which by continually bringing in new men had succeeded in being the centre of power.  The Senate was the source of advice, and Augustus was keen to maintain the structures of the past.   His reforms therefore consisted of giving back at least some power to the Senate.

It took Augustus some eight years after Actium to work out the new formula for governing the Roman Empire.  The first dramatic event came on 3 January 29 BC when the doors of the Temple of Janus were ceremoniously closed. The doors of the Temple of Janus were ceremoniously opened when Rome was at war and closed when it was at peace, and having been open for so many years, this was the sign that the troubled times were at an end and peace was at hand. Later that year he celebrated a grand triple Triumph for the battles of Actium, Spain and Syria.

This is perhaps the most famous bust of Augustus, as it is one of the rare examples of Roman sculpture where the eyes are still preserved.  It was found in Meroe, in the Sudan, outside the Roman empire, where it had no doubt been brought as a prized capture. The trouble is that because  the  bronze is corroded, it has come out black. I would love to get a  brillo pad to it, clean it up, and see what it really looked like. Were the eyes originally so staring?

The next major change came two years later on 13 January 27 BC when dramatically he announced that he was giving the ‘Republic’ – in Latin the ‘res publica’ or the public ‘thing’ back to the Senate and People of Rome, and that he would in future rely on his position as commander-in-chief and his ‘Auctoritas’, his ‘authority’ to guide the affairs of state. He was simply ‘Princeps’,  the first citizen, and no more. The people begged him to do more, so reluctantly he agreed to take on the three most troubled provinces of Spain, Gaul and Syria for a ten-year governorship. He was also given the title of Augustus.

He then conveniently went off to Spain, where he spent most of the next three years trying to civilise the troublesome and warlike tribes of the North and West. Each year he was elected Consul, but an absent Consul. Then in 23 BC there was a big crisis. At the beginning of the year there was apparently a plot against him to be put down, though this was hushed up, but in the middle of the year Augustus fell gravely ill and thought he would die: he handed over his signet ring to Agrippa as a sign that he was to be his successor. But he recovered, took the signet ring back but clearly decided that he should take things easy for the future, and introduced what proved to be the constitution that served Rome  for the glorious centuries that were to come.

He gave up the idea of being Consul every year and only became Consul twice in the future, both times in order to introduce a potential successor as a junior Consul. Instead he took on a new modest power, of a Tribune of the Plebs.  The Tribune of the Plebs had been a position first introduced in 494 BC, to represent the Plebs, nominally the lower classes, and they had the power to veto laws in the assembly.  This was a  very clever move, and ever afterwards the ‘Tribunicia potestas’, the tribune’s power became the main title of the Emperor,  and the normal way of dating affairs was based on the ‘Trib Pot’ of the relative Emperor.

Combined with this, he divided up the provinces into the troublesome provinces, of which he reluctantly took control, and the nice provinces where there was not likely to be any trouble, which were handed over to the Senate. Of course, the Army was concentrated in the troublesome provinces,  so the Emperor had the all-important control of the army.

Many have said – with Sir Ronald Syme leading the attack – that the new constitution was a sham. I believe not. In any business, the most important aspect is the art of delegation, of giving one’s subordinates not only a very significant degree of power, but also the feeling of power and control, so that one can attract and hold the very best subordinates. This is what Augustus did, and the system continued for several centuries to come, in what proved to be the most glorious epoch of the Roman Empire. I believe that every aspiring politician and indeed every aspiring businessman would do well to note, and imitate.

This was the last major constitutional change by Augustus: he spent the next 40 years reorganising the chaotic collection of provinces that formed the Roman Empire. And if the Roman Empire was to stay, the major concern was to find the next Emperor.

Finding his successor