The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

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(148) OCTAVIUS CAESAR, afterwards Augustus, had now attained to the same
position in the state which had formerly been occupied by Julius Caesar;
and though he entered upon it by violence, he continued to enjoy it
through life with almost uninterrupted tranquillity. By the long
duration of the late civil war, with its concomitant train of public
calamities, the minds of men were become less averse to the prospect of
an absolute government; at the same time that the new emperor, naturally
prudent and politic, had learned from the fate of Julius the art of
preserving supreme power, without arrogating to himself any invidious
mark of distinction. He affected to decline public honours, disclaimed
every idea of personal superiority, and in all his behaviour displayed a
degree of moderation which prognosticated the most happy effects, in
restoring peace and prosperity to the harassed empire. The tenor of his
future conduct was suitable to this auspicious commencement. While he
endeavoured to conciliate the affections of the people by lending money
to those who stood in need of it, at low interest, or without any at all,
and by the exhibition of public shows, of which the Romans were
remarkably fond; he was attentive to the preservation of a becoming
dignity in the government, and to the correction of morals. The senate,
which, in the time of Sylla, had increased to upwards of four hundred,
and, during the civil war, to a thousand, members, by the admission of
improper persons, he reduced to six hundred; and being invested with
the ancient office of censor, which had for some time been disused, he
exercised an arbitrary but legal authority over the conduct of every rank
in the state; by which he could degrade senators and knights, and inflict
upon all citizens an ignominious sentence for any immoral or indecent
behaviour. But nothing contributed more to render the new form of
government acceptable to the people, than the frequent distribution of
corn, and sometimes largesses, amongst the commonalty: for an occasional
scarcity of provisions had always been the chief cause of discontents
and tumults in the capital. To the interests of the army he likewise
paid particular attention. It was by the assistance of the legions that
he had risen to power; and they were the men who, in the last resort,
if such an emergency should ever occur, could alone enable him to
preserve it.

History relates, that after the overthrow of Antony, Augustus held a
consultation with Agrippa and Mecaenas about restoring the republican
form of government; when Agrippa gave his opinion in favour of that
measure, and Mecaenas opposed it. (149) The object of this consultation,
in respect to its future consequences on society, is perhaps the most
important ever agitated in any cabinet, and required, for the mature
discussion of it, the whole collective wisdom of the ablest men in the
empire. But this was a resource which could scarcely be adopted, either
with security to the public quiet, or with unbiassed judgment in the
determination of the question. The bare agitation of such a point would
have excited immediate and strong anxiety for its final result; while the
friends of a republican government, who were still far more numerous than
those of the other party, would have strained every nerve to procure a
determination in their own favour; and the pretorian guards, the surest
protection of Augustus, finding their situation rendered precarious by
such an unexpected occurrence, would have readily listened to the secret
propositions and intrigues of the republicans for securing their
acquiescence to the decision on the popular side. If, when the subject
came into debate, Augustus should be sincere in the declaration to abide
by the resolution of the council, it is beyond all doubt, that the
restoration of a republican government would have been voted by a great
majority of the assembly. If, on the contrary, he should not be sincere,
which is the more probable supposition, and should incur the suspicion of
practising secretly with members for a decision according to his wish, he
would have rendered himself obnoxious to the public odium, and given rise
to discontents which might have endangered his future security.

But to submit this important question to the free and unbiassed decision
of a numerous assembly, it is probable, neither suited the inclination of
Augustus, nor perhaps, in his opinion, consisted with his personal
safety. With a view to the attainment of unconstitutional power, he had
formerly deserted the cause of the republic when its affairs were in a
prosperous situation; and now, when his end was accomplished, there could
be little ground to expect, that he should voluntarily relinquish the
prize for which he had spilt the best blood of Rome, and contended for so
many years. Ever since the final defeat of Antony in the battle of
Actium, he had governed the Roman state with uncontrolled authority; and
though there is in the nature of unlimited power an intoxicating quality,
injurious both to public and private virtue, yet all history contradicts
the supposition of its being endued with any which is unpalatable to the
general taste of mankind.

There were two chief motives by which Augustus would naturally be
influenced in a deliberation on this important subject; namely, the love
of power, and the personal danger which (150) he might incur from
relinquishing it. Either of these motives might have been a sufficient
inducement for retaining his authority; but when they both concurred, as
they seem to have done upon this occasion, their united force was
irresistible. The argument, so far as relates to the love of power,
rests upon a ground, concerning the solidity of which, little doubt can
be entertained: but it may be proper to inquire, in a few words, into the
foundation of that personal danger which he dreaded to incur, on
returning to the station of a private citizen.

Augustus, as has been already observed, had formerly sided with the party
which had attempted to restore public liberty after the death of Julius
Caesar: but he afterwards abandoned the popular cause, and joined in the
ambitious plans of Antony and Lepidus to usurp amongst themselves the
entire dominion of the state. By this change of conduct, he turned his
arms against the supporters of a form of government which he had
virtually recognized as the legal constitution of Rome; and it involved a
direct implication of treason against the sacred representatives of that
government, the consuls, formally and duly elected. Upon such a charge
he might be amenable to the capital laws of his country. This, however,
was a danger which might be fully obviated, by procuring from the senate
and people an act of oblivion, previously to his abdication of the
supreme power; and this was a preliminary which doubtless they would have
admitted and ratified with unanimous approbation. It therefore appears
that he could be exposed to no inevitable danger on this account: but
there was another quarter where his person was vulnerable, and where even
the laws might not be sufficient to protect him against the efforts of
private resentment. The bloody proscription of the Triumvirate no act of
amnesty could ever erase from the minds of those who had been deprived by
it of their nearest and dearest relations; and amidst the numerous
connections of the illustrious men sacrificed on that horrible occasion,
there might arise some desperate avenger, whose indelible resentment
nothing less would satisfy than the blood of the surviving delinquent.
Though Augustus, therefore, might not, like his great predecessor, be
stabbed in the senate-house, he might perish by the sword or the poniard
in a less conspicuous situation. After all, there seems to have been
little danger from this quarter likewise for Sylla, who in the preceding
age had been guilty of equal enormities, was permitted, on relinquishing
the place of perpetual dictator, to end his days in quiet retirement; and
the undisturbed security which Augustus ever afterwards enjoyed, affords
sufficient proof, that all apprehension of danger to his person was
merely chimerical.

(151) We have hitherto considered this grand consultation as it might be
influenced by the passions or prejudices of the emperor: we shall now
take a short view of the subject in the light in which it is connected
with considerations of a political nature, and with public utility. The
arguments handed down by history respecting this consultation are few,
and imperfectly delivered; but they may be extended upon the general
principles maintained on each side of the question.

For the restoration of the republican government, it might be contended,
that from the expulsion of the kings to the dictatorship of Julius
Caesar, through a period of upwards of four hundred and sixty years, the
Roman state, with the exception only of a short interval, had flourished
and increased with a degree of prosperity unexampled in the annals of
humankind: that the republican form of government was not only best
adapted to the improvement of national grandeur, but to the security of
general freedom, the great object of all political association: that
public virtue, by which alone nations could subsist in vigour, was
cherished and protected by no mode of administration so much as by that
which connected, in the strongest bonds of union, the private interests
of individuals with those of the community: that the habits and
prejudices of the Roman people were unalterably attached to the form of
government established by so long a prescription, and they would never
submit, for any length of time, to the rule of one person, without making
every possible effort to recover their liberty: that though despotism,
under a mild and wise prince, might in some respects be regarded as
preferable to a constitution which was occasionally exposed to the
inconvenience of faction and popular tumults, yet it was a dangerous
experiment to abandon the government of the nation to the contingency of
such a variety of characters as usually occurs in the succession of
princes; and, upon the whole, that the interests of the people were more
safely entrusted in the hands of annual magistrates elected by
themselves, than in those of any individual whose power was permanent,
and subject to no legal control.

In favour of despotic government it might be urged, that though Rome had
subsisted long and gloriously under a republican form of government, yet
she had often experienced such violent shocks from popular tumults or the
factions of the great, as had threatened her with imminent destruction:
that a republican government was only accommodated to a people amongst
whom the division of property gave to no class of citizens such a degree
of pre-eminence as might prove dangerous to public freedom: that there
was required in that form of political constitution, a simplicity (152)
of life and strictness of manners which are never observed to accompany a
high degree of public prosperity: that in respect of all these
considerations, such a form of government was utterly incompatible with
the present circumstances of the Romans that by the conquest of so many
foreign nations, by the lucrative governments of provinces, the spoils of
the enemy in war, and the rapine too often practised in time of peace, so
great had been the aggrandizement of particular families in the preceding
age, that though the form of the ancient constitution should still remain
inviolate, the people would no longer live under a free republic, but an
aristocratical usurpation, which was always productive of tyranny: that
nothing could preserve the commonwealth from becoming a prey to some
daring confederacy, but the firm and vigorous administration of one
person, invested with the whole executive power of the state, unlimited
and uncontrolled: in fine, that as Rome had been nursed to maturity by
the government of six princes successively, so it was only by a similar
form of political constitution that she could now be saved from
aristocratical tyranny on one hand, or, on the other, from absolute
anarchy.

On whichever side of the question the force of argument may be thought to
preponderate, there is reason to believe that Augustus was guided in his
resolution more by inclination and prejudice than by reason. It is
related, however, that hesitating between the opposite opinions of his
two counsellors, he had recourse to that of Virgil, who joined with
Mecaenas in advising him to retain the imperial power, as being the form
of government most suitable to the circumstances of the times.

It is proper in this place to give some account of the two ministers
above-mentioned, Agrippa and Mecaenas, who composed the cabinet of
Augustus at the settlement of his government, and seem to be the only
persons employed by him in a ministerial capacity during his whole reign.

M. Vipsanius Agrippa was of obscure extraction, but rendered himself
conspicuous by his military talents. He obtained a victory over Sextus
Pompey; and in the battles of Philippi and Actium, where he displayed
great valour, he contributed not a little to establish the subsequent
power of Augustus. In his expeditions afterwards into Gaul and Germany,
he performed many signal achievements, for which he refused the honours
of a triumph. The expenses which others would have lavished on that
frivolous spectacle, he applied to the more laudable purpose of
embellishing Rome with magnificent buildings, one of which, the Pantheon,
still remains. In consequence of a dispute with Marcellus, the nephew of
Augustus, he retired to Mitylene, (153) whence, after an absence of two
years, he was recalled by the emperor. He first married Pomponia, the
daughter of the celebrated Atticus, and afterwards one of the Marcellas,
the nieces of Augustus. While this lady, by whom he had children, was
still living, the emperor prevailed upon his sister Octavia to resign to
him her son-in-law, and gave him in marriage his own daughter Julia; so
strong was the desire of Augustus to be united with him in the closest
alliance. The high degree of favour in which he stood with the emperor
was soon after evinced by a farther mark of esteem: for during a visit to
the Roman provinces of Greece and Asia, in which Augustus was absent two
years, he left the government of the empire to the care of Agrippa.
While this minister enjoyed, and indeed seems to have merited, all the
partiality of Augustus, he was likewise a favourite with the people. He
died at Rome, in the sixty-first year of his age, universally lamented;
and his remains were deposited in the tomb which Augustus had prepared
for himself. Agrippa left by Julia three sons, Caius, Lucius, and
Posthumus Agrippa, with two daughters, Agrippina and Julia.

C. Cilnius Mecaenas was of Tuscan extraction, and derived his descent
from the ancient kings of that country. Though in the highest degree of
favour with Augustus, he never aspired beyond the rank of the equestrian
order; and though he might have held the government of extensive
provinces by deputies, he was content with enjoying the praefecture of
the city and Italy; a situation, however, which must have been attended
with extensive patronage. He was of a gay and social disposition. In
principle he is said to have been of the Epicurean sect, and in his dress
and manners to have bordered on effeminacy. With respect to his
political talents, we can only speak from conjecture; but from his being
the confidential minister of a prince of so much discernment as Augustus,
during the infancy of a new form of government in an extensive empire, we
may presume that he was endowed with no common abilities for that
important station. The liberal patronage which he displayed towards men
of genius and talents, will render his name for ever celebrated in the
annals of learning. It is to be regretted that history has transmitted
no particulars of this extraordinary personage, of whom all we know is
derived chiefly from the writings of Virgil and Horace; but from the
manner in which they address him, amidst the familiarity of their
intercourse, there is the strongest reason to suppose, that he was not
less amiable and respectable in private life, than illustrious in public
situation. “O my glory!” is the emphatic expression employed by them
both.

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