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Caesar Augustus' Enduring Gift To Western Civilization

Investors Business Daily, August 18, 2014

Caesar Augustus had a method to his majesty. Dovetailing pragmatism, piety and patriotism in the pursuit of peace, prosperity and good government, Italy's greatest son became the first emperor of the world's first superpower Rome.

Caesar Augustus "I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble," said Augustus of his reign.

On Tuesday, as we commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of the emperor's death, it bears noting that the Age of Octavius was an epochal watershed. Long before London, New York and Washington emerged as global capitals, Roma Caput Mundi served as the center of the world thanks to the Augustan Reformation.

"I know of only two occasions when the people in power did what needed to be done about as well as you can imagine its being possible," said English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead.

The first such era, he said, was Rome under Caesar Augustus; the other, America's Revolutionary period.

Historian Linda Kerber has argued that the Federalist age following the American Revolution was Augustan: "The challenge that a revolutionary generation leaves to its sons is that the sons construct where the fathers had destroyed; that like Caesar Augustus, they keep calm after the storm, maintain the government steady and responsible, create the excellence which the revolutionaries had demanded."

Kerber also notes that those early Americans referred to their fledgling nation as "our rising empire."

According to the British historian Donald Dudley: "The 45 years of Augustus were as important to Rome as the reign of Queen Victoria to England, of Louis XIV to France."

Rome's most monumental achievement was the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, an unprecedented two centuries of stability, tranquility and prosperity an era that hasn't been equaled before or since.

It would not have been possible without Augustus' artfully constructed Principate, which Dudley regards the imperator's political masterstroke: An ineffable institution that retained Rome's constitutional framework while allowing Augustus a sinewy hand to end decades of civil strife, restore the rule of law and establish order domestically and abroad.

Eschewing any monarchical titles, Augustus referred to himself as Princeps Civitatis First Citizen of the Nation. Civilians viewed him as head of the state; to soldiers he was commander in chief. Rome's first emperor embarked on across-the-board reforms from establishing naval commands at Ravenna and Misenum to creating the Praetorian Guard for Rome and Italy to pioneering an imperial civil service that harnessed the great human capital of the country in the service of the state.

On his watch, the Eternal City boasted 856 public baths, 150 trade guilds, a network of paved roads, domed basilicas and 11 aqueducts.

With lows from watersheds in the Alban hills, these aqueducts provided 300 million gallons of water every day to a population of 1 million more than twice the modern-day per-capita consumption. And wastewater was removed via a complex and efficient sewage system.

To ensure domestic tranquility and provide public order, the emperor organized a police force of 3,000 men and a corps of professional firemen (vigiles), who also had the power to make arrests. He also appointed boards of commissioners (curatores) to safeguard public buildings, the water supply and the maintenance of the roads.

Though he had adopted the name Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius (Son of the Divine) in 44 B.C. after the murder of Julius Caesar, Augustus held fast to republican traditions.

Governmental power still resided in the Roman Senate, the executive magistrates and legislative assemblies. There would be no more Triumvirates. And Augustus would retain his role as overall military leader, or Imperator.

Augustus' ascent began after the death of Julius Caesar, who had adopted Gaius Octavius as his son and heir. Canny, politically astute and wise beyond his years, the youthful Octavian avenged Caesar's murder by routing the chief conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, at Phillippi in 42 B.C.

Octavian's defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C left him as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. With that came uncontested control of the Mediterranean Rome's Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) and the absorption of Egypt, a jewel that Augustus, by his own account in the Res Gestae, "added to the empire of the Roman people." Under his rule, Egypt was peaceful and prosperous.

In 27 BC., the Roman Senate voted Octavian the honorific Augustus, a lofty title of majestic proportions, and renamed the month Sextilis in his honor that is, August.

The newly anointed Caesar Augustus never forgot his roots. Born in Rome on Sept. 23, 63 B.C., Octavian was raised in the Italian town of Velletri, 25 miles outside of the Eternal City. And he vanquished Antony and Cleopatra as leader (dux) of a confederacy of all Italy the conjuratio totius Italiae.

He died on Aug. 19, 14 A.D., in Nola, Italy.

According to historian Michael Grant:

"Augustus felt and encouraged a new patriotic feeling for Italy, echoed by Virgil's insistence on the country's identity Sit Romana potens Itala virtute propago (Such shall be the power of Roman stock, allied to the valor of Italy), which he helped to make as vivid as Rome's.

"This ideal was narrower than the Greco-Roman concepts of Antony and Cleopatra. Augustus' narrower view was based on his own small-town Italian origins."

Grant wrote that Augustus "summed up this whole pro-Italian, pro-Roman trend of his policy by the title that he chose to have conferred upon himself in 2 B.C. It was pater patriae, father of his country."

Few leaders in the history of the world can match the statesmanship or success of Caesar Augustus. Rome's first emperor rescued a nation in the throes of disorder, plus established an enduring polity that would shape the destiny of Western civilization for the next 1,500 years.

Rosario Iaconis
Italic Institute of America

(Are you a teacher of Latin or Italian? Take advantage of our special offer to receive our specially-designed Augustus placemats for your students. Details here.)

 
 
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