Augustus. Shades of Deception

If you’ve ever watched HBO’s epic series Rome, you know that glimpses of Octavian’s quietly psychopathic nature were surfacing during the second season. In history, Octavian claimed power after Caesar’s will named him as his heir. Octavian became Augustus, and his reign is known as one of the most peaceful in Roman history. However, some scholars have questioned previous sources that depict Augustus as a benevolent and just ruler, claiming that the sources that have survived must be examined closely for other implications.

According to the great 20th century scholar Sir Ronald Syme, Augustus achieved complete power through propagandistic tactics that involved every aspect and every player in society as part of his agenda. He conceived a highly crafted image of a social structure, upheld by a network of associations with all classes, that would allow him total personal control under the guise of a republic. In order to achieve a grasp of this scope, he built up a base of support from the equites by theoretically allowing military mobility, manipulated public opinion by promoting nationalistic sentiment, and suppressed his opposition. Syme largely draws these conclusions from concrete evidence of Augustus’ relationships with other powerful figures of the time, because these interactions provide information about his intentions through their role in the government, their reputation, and their disagreements. It was the subtlety of his methods of achieving absolute power, and their remarkable similarity to 20th century regimes that prompted Syme to unravel his identity as a fascist dictator.

Scenes from HBO’s epic series Rome • Octavian Caesar, National Archaeology Museum (Greece)

Part of the propaganda system was the development of a certain style of art and architecture that reflected Augustus’ intentions. The overarching premise of his rule was a return to the Roman past, which he achieved through a moral program that emphasized traditional values, and a revitalization of old Roman religion. These ideas permeated into the world of art and architecture as well, because they were one of the main ways in which he could make them clear to ordinary Roman citizens in the city and provinces. The extensive public building campaign was responsible for countless temples, the first Roman baths, and recreational areas that regular people would encounter every day. Statues and other art were done in the Classical style, as a reference to the democratic golden age of Athens and Pericles. His portraits are idealized, and were on every Roman coin so that even his hairstyles were became imitated. The key here was that he wanted to move away from the Hellenistic style that had been popular with the elites during the late republic, because it reflected a decadent aesthetic that didn’t correspond with Augustus’ moral program and one which had associations with monarchy. It is interesting to note that his private art that was only seen be the elite few was still very much in the Hellenistic style. He distinguished his rule and subconsciously instilled associations in Romans through art and architecture, perhaps because he wanted to disguise the true nature of his regime.

Scenes from HBO’s epic series RomeRoman Scroll Hook Necklace