Augustus

1Unlike the historians of his time, who celebrated in Augustus the first of the Roman emperors (63 BCE – 14 CE), the restorer of civil peace, and vaunted the long reign of a beneficent ruler, Montesquieu, in chapters XII and XIII of Romans, depicts his ambition with few scruples on means of attaining power, and the “wiley tyrant” who managed to keep it by gradually abolishing what remained of the republican regime. Traditionally two parts of his life were clearly distinguished: when he was still simply Octavius, up till his triumph over Anthony, and once he became “Augustus”. Montesquieu refuses this division. While he shows no indulgence to Octavius, another distinction between him and his contemporaries, who prefer to pass rapidly over the second triumvirate, Montesquieu concentrates the brunt of his criticism on the man who, after Actium, “established order, that is to say, a durable dictatorship”. His ambition caused him to ally himself, for a time, with Lepidus and Anthony, whence some bloody proscriptions. One biting remark puts the finishing touches on the portrait of the future despot: his “natural cowardice” which, paradoxically, won him “the affection of the soldiers”, for “in those days soldiers were more interested in their general’s generosity than in his valor” (“dans ces temps-là les soldats faisaient plus de cas de la libéralité de leur général que de sa valeur”). Once he was Augustus (“the name that flattery gave to Octavius”, says Montesquieu), “politics made him work to reëstablish order so that the advantage of government of one would be appreciated”. Meanwhile, he thought it necessary to hide from Roman eyes the transformation which had taken place, and he had on his lips nothing but “the dignity of the Senate” and “his respect for the Republic”: a master of hypocrisy, he instituted an “ambiguous government, which […] could last only as long as it pleased the monarch, and was consequently entirely monarchical”. Adroit, he wanted “to be given what he did not think he had sufficiently acquired”, which is to say absolute power. Thus Montesquieu does not believe for a minute that Augustus really “had the intention of resigning as Emperor”: the best proof “is that he asked every ten years to be relieved of that burden, and still carried it”.

2Hardly eager to embrace the totality of the changes that the emperor imposed on Roman institutions – he will simply note in chapter XIV, devoted to Tiberius, that “Augustus had taken from the people the power to make laws, and to judge public criminals” – Montesquieu instead observes certain facts which, without apparently affecting the foundations on which Rome had lived for seven centuries, make it turn its back to a whole tradition which had assured its grandeur: “Augustus was very hesitant to grant the right of Roman bourgeoisie; he made laws to prevent the freeing of too many slaves; he recommended […] that one not try to extend the Empire through new wars”. All of these conservative measures, remarks Montesquieu, “were very much interconnected; once there were no more wars, no new bourgeoisie was required, nor emancipations” (“Auguste fut fort retenu à accorder le droit de bourgeoisie romaine, il fit des lois pour empêcher qu’on n’affranchît trop d’esclaves, il recommanda [...] qu’on ne cherchât point à étendre l’Empire par de nouvelles guerres». Toutes ces mesures conservatrices, observe Montesquieu, “étaient très bien liées ensemble; dès qu’il n’y avait plus de guerres, il ne fallait plus de bourgeoisie nouvelle, ni d’affranchissements”). The author here renders a sort of homage to the coherence of Augustus’s politics. But he shows him distrustful also of the Roman plebs (“under pretext of some tumult at the time of elections, [he] placed a governor and garrison in the city”) and of the armies (“he made the corps of the legions perpetual, and stationed them on the borders”), measures which subsequently would assure, to say the least, the stability of the Empire. To show that the balance sheet of Augustus’s work is far from being positive, Montesquieu makes use at the beginning of chapter XIV of a famous comparison, in which he makes him responsible for the despotism that was to mark the reign of his successors: “thus sovereign power under Augustus acted invisibly, and under Tiberius turned violent” (“ainsi la puissance souveraine sous Auguste agit insensiblement, et renversa sous Tibère avec violence”). In the critical portrait he paints of the first Roman emperor (also developed in L’Esprit des lois, notably with regard to the law of lèse-majesté [XII, 13 and 15]), Montesquieu’s originality (some might say his bias) is clear: diametrically opposed to the habitual hagiography, the writer chose to describe without concessions the practices of a man whose entire ambition – crowned with success – was to suppress, to his own advantage, the freedom of his compatriots.

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