Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 1 – no more war)

For harassed teachers, and desperate students everywhere.

Prima Porta Statue of the Emperor Augustus

I found myself once again coming to grips with the Augustan succession while working online with my lovely students at Dreaming Spires home learning.   The question isn’t just who comes after the Emperor Augustus, but why he keeps choosing and losing heirs, how he chooses them, and how he loses them.  In Part 1 we will start up with who Augustus was, and how he set about finding an heir.  I will start telling you my FOUR KEY PRINCIPLES, which I think explain all his moves.  I made these up myself but they do work.

Augustus is often called the first Emperor of Rome, but he himself claimed he had restored the Republic and that all his powers came from the Senate.  He was princeps – the leader of the Senate.  He was awarded the honorary title Augustus.  Other than that, he claimed, he just held powers granted to him by the Senate and people, just as leading Romans always had.  But, in reality, he was awarded numerous special powers, which made him effectively sole ruler.  And he was determined that after he had gone, a new strong male leader would take his place.  Why?



THERE MUST BE NO MORE CIVIL WAR.  Augustus was quite keen on war in general, but there must be no more wars in Italy (or anywhere else) where Romans fought Romans.  The century before Augustus came to power in 31 BC Italy had been ravaged again and again by Civil Wars and collapses of legitimate government.  There had been the Social Wars the Spartacus Rebellion and two other Slave Wars,  the Catilinarian Conspiracy, Caesar’s Civil War, between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, the murder of Julius Caesar and the Liberators’ Civil War against his killers, the Perusine War, and finally Antony’s Civil  War between the young Augustus and his former ally Mark Antony,  who was backed by Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.  Augustus had been involved in last three of these and had also crushed the Sicilian Revolt led by Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, who had found himself left over after Caesar’s Civil War and seized Sicily.

Augustus really thought Italy had had enough Civil Wars.  So how should he set about choosing a strong male heir who could take over at need and keep the peace?

When Augustus returned to Rome, after beating Mark Antony and Cleopatra at sea in the Battle of Actium, and then in Egypt in the Battle of Alexandria, he had a secret weapon.  This was his new friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the strategist who had masterminded his victory over Sextus Pompeius in Sicily.  In fact, it was Agrippa who had really been in command at Actium.  Agrippa supported Augustus in his efforts to control and pacify the Roman empire, and in his programme of great buildings in Rome itself and elsewhere.

Agrippa was about the same age as Augustus, but Augustus was only in his thirties.  If Augustus died suddenly, Agrippa would probably take over, but his job would be to support and advise the heir.  Agrippa himself was never appointed heir?  Why?

This takes us to PRINCIPLE 2 and Post 2.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s