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Ancient monument sheds light on battle of Actium (independent.co.uk)
64 points by longdefeat on April 1, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 34 comments

The thing I find interesting is that to the Romans, Augustus (Octavian) was not the first emperor[0] at all, it’s only in hind sight that we call him that.

Let me explain. The Roman people has a very strong aversion to kings for centuries, it was legal for any citizen to kill a man who was trying to make himself king. This is part of what got Julius Caesar killed in fact, and while he was typically very popular his moves towards kingship were not received well at all.

Knowing this, the first series of emperors cloaked their imperial power in republican forms, even though they’d already killed the republic. They typically went by the title “Princeps” (first citizen), and wielded massive back room influence to accomplish their goals. Oh, and they also owned Egypt personally, and probably commanded around 20% of the empire’s wealth. It’s arguably not until Claudius, who was selected as emperor despite of his perceived idiocy specifically because of his relation to the prior emperor can we say that the political classes knew they lived in a monarchy of some sort. (Claudius turned out to be a competent emperor by the way, he and a very bad stutter that the Romans took for him being stupid).

What’s the point of this? The point is that republics don’t have to die in sudden and dramatic fashion. Sometimes they go in a Reichstag Fire, but they are also likely to rot from the inside while maintaining the old forms for a few generations.

0: They actually did use the title imperator, the root word for emperor, but this was originally a military term closely related to “commander”. This slowly merged into its modern imperial meaning roughly co-incident with the emperors slowly dropping republican forms and ruling in their own right.

Julius Caesar was a populist threat to the Senate aristocracy and his social / monetary reforms put him at further odds.

Indeed, and his military successes were also a threat.

But my point is more subtle. Caesar was a arguably a populist, and was both ambitious and wildly popular with the common people of Rome. But there were a few incidents where Caesar was offered to be crowned king, and the people of Rome hated it. It would be a few more generations before the idea of being ruled by a guy in purple whose dad had done the same would be okay to Romans.

As you say, "ruled" is a squishy term here. And it's important, in an age where power is felt to be very bluntly wielded, to realize that subtler ways do exist and "soft power" has always been a thing! Rome was largely accepting of the transition from Augustus to Tiberius (oops) and even the transition to Caligula (further oops). Caligula's assassination was part of an attempt to restore the pre-Principate Republic, but it failed and Claudius ruled without too much trouble.

But, again as you note, all of that was the first-among-equals set dressing of the Principate where the Republic's centering institutions were given lip service, and it would be hundreds of years before the outright Dominate of Diocletian would be generally accepted by Rome--and getting there required the transcendental shitshow that was the Roman third century, itself worth perturbing a lot of electrons.

In conclusions, land of contrasts, etcetera etcetera.

Total tangent: I’m actually not convinced that Caligula was as bad as the ancient sources claimed. We have very few first hand sources from his reign, and the historians (all senatorial class in this case iirc) would have ample ability and cause to slander him. Accusations of sexual impropriety are the standard in ancient sources, especially Roman. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he could have been a good ruler, he sure did manage to piss off the senate in the way a better ruler wouldn’t have, but he might not be anywhere as bad as the sources portray.

Could be. The most damning accusations aren't just that he was all murdery or sexually improper, though, it's that he spent all the money. Tiberius has a lot of rumors spread about him for being a sexual deviant and handing Sejanus the keys to the 29AD Fiat Purgero, but I'm not aware of sources that allege that he didn't govern tolerably and with some level of restraint until he disappeared to his villa for the rest of his life. Caligula gets roasted for being a weird sex pest and for being a profligate spender who trashed the economy (the most sympathetic interpretation thereof being that he didn't want to say no, because saying yes made people like him, and making people like him might keep him alive longer/make him more beloved as emperor.

IIRC the purges and the rumors about Caligula mostly started after a serious illness in 37AD, where he might have just literally gone around the bend? But I'm definitely not ruling out the possibility that Caligula was played up after his death, though. If you look back at pre-Republican mythology (it ain't quite history), the seven kings of Rome are all caricatures. Caligula could definitely just be The Crazy One.

In any case, Rome put up with some real wacky characters as emperor so long as they didn't bankrupt the empire.

I think that’s a pretty fair interpretation, it’s pretty clear he sucked pretty bad at budgeting. Tiberius was famously miserly with the state treasury, and chances are that young Caligula couldn’t budget and saw how popular he got by just using that money, only to be dismayed at how quickly it went away.

What I find really interesting is the murder of political opponents and how it affects legacy. From where I sit, pretty much every single emperor killed senators, perhaps excluding only Caesar himself, but only a few got saddled with the blood thirsty tyrant image. Claudius killed quite a few senators, some without good justification, yet his reputation is largely “good emperor, misunderstood”, while Tiberius gets off the hook largely because his successor was so much worse. It’s all pretty fascinating to me.

Caligula also built the Nemi ships, an interesting topic in their own right.


The Romans had a history of distrusting kings, for good reason. It's worth noting that the latter kings before the Republic were Etruscan, foreigners, ruling over the Roman people.

Given the reaction of the people after Caesar's assassination, it was not a popular move by the Senate, regardless of the distrust the people had toward kingship in general. I understand the point you're making but personally find it to be a bit of a stretch.

I disagree with the notion that Germany's Weimar Republic only went because of the Reichstag Fire (you used it as an example of a more sudden demise). The Republic was actively sabotaged and dismantled beginning the very day it was formed. It was doomed the day the treaty of Versailles put all the blame of WWI on Germany. And it was people like Stresemann who prevented an earlier "official" demise and it took Hindenburg to position Hitler in a state where he just had to deliver the final blow.

The span here is over a decade - short still, but far from sudden.

Within a lifespan though. It took a lot longer for the Romans to go from a functioning republic to being a true empire with an autocratic and often hereditary ruler. The span from the Gracchi brothers to Augustus was about 180 years, longer still until all pretensions of republican rule were tossed aside.

Of course, the Weimar Republic was much weaker than the Roman one, or even the American one at that point in time, meaning it was easier to kill.

I don't think that's right. The Gracchi started at 133 BC. Augustus died in 14 AD. And he became emperor... well, that's a bit fuzzy, but he was the man after Actium, which was 31 BC. That's only 102 years (or 147 if you date it from Augustus' death).

Oops, I measured from Tiberius’ birth in 169BCE, not from the start of his political career.

I found it interesting, while watching Historia Civilis, that Julius Caesar was not the first powerful general of his time to float the idea of becoming the King. Pompey, seemed to be Caesar's role model, and had a very similar trajectory as a great general amassing power and love of the people, and trying to assume a role of king. Apparently Caesar was more successful in the endeavor.

I'd never heard this before, and someone please correct me if I misinterpreted anything. I don't have any references to point to. But I got the impression that there were several others before Caesar, but he was just a beast when it came to strategy.

Fantastic YouTube channel - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCv_vLHiWVBh_FR9vbeuiY-A

This was a worry in regards to the republic. It's why armies were not allowed inside the city walls; Pompey, Crassus, Julius et al were supposed to enter the city without their armies.

The difference for Octavian was that at the time he seized power the republic had fallen into disarray -- the Tribunes were now typically patricians, so the counterbalancing power of the plebs was pretty effectively eroded. In addition the years of accumulation of war booty had removed the citizens from the need to support the power structure -- most of the work was done by foreigners and slaves.

In addition the structure of imperial (that is generals') power throughout the empire created large power structures outside the republic's structure. So a large army like Pompey's or Julius's outside the walls (as described above) could become, instead of a guarantee of neutrality, a threat.

Remember in those days one became wealthy through power as opposed to powerful through wealth. Julius became wealthy by being appointed governor of Hispania (IIRC) then then using that as a power base to accumulate more power and treasure. This imbalance I talked about became so large that when Octavian took power (having inherited both wealth and position from his fellow consul and adoptive father, Julius Caesar) he was wealthy enough to pay Rome's entire budget out of his personal funds with plenty left over.

So in essence it was a "gilded age" similar to todays, the wealth<->power inversion notwithstanding.

Don't forget Sulla, who basically was king for a time, before abdicating to retire on his estate. He reigned while Julius Caesar was a youth, and spared his life while many of his family was sentenced to death.

Probably start with Gaius Marius. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaius_Marius

Consul for 7 terms (though not in a row). He alternated between savior and terror of the republic.

Pompey seemed to be more interested in the glory and adoration that came with military conquest than the actual power that could come from it. Pompey disbanded his army after returning from his Eastern conquests, he could have easily taken Rome for himself.

> Pompey seemed to be more interested in the glory and adoration that came with military conquest than the actual power that could come from it.

No. Pompey wanted political power just as much he wanted military power. He was able to wield the second, but never really the first. That was mainly due to his rivalry with Crassus first and Caesar second.

He just wasn't at the right time in the right place. Crassus, despite being an inferior general, was richer than him and had more influence in the Senate. Caesar initially had less political influence than him, but he was superior on the battlefield.

This is why I hesitate to even speak up about this era, as I'm definitely not knowledgeable enough. But I find it all so fascinating. It's easy to see these people as fictional characters, but the realization that they were real and all these things happened so long ago it mind blowing.

If that was the case, then why did he not just run the Senate out of town when he returned from the East after clearing the Mediterranean of Pirates and finishing off Mithridates? He was extremely popular with the people and the Army. Right before the civil wars with Caesar started, he was preparing for a virtual retirement with his appointment as governor of Spain. The governorship was to give him a steady source of income.

> He was extremely popular with the people and the Army.

Yes, he was extremely popular because he was a skilled general. He had a very good understanding of Roman military strategy and tactics. Not on the top-5 but surely on the top-10 of the best Roman generals of all time.

> If that was the case, then why did he not just run the Senate out of town

That wasn't possible. The Roman Senate and the whole Roman political scene was in complete stagnation. Plus, you couldn't really "run the Senate" remotely – many tried (including Caesar) doing so, none succeeded. You had to have a physical presence or to delegate (e.g. Caesar with Mark Anthony).

At the time, Pompey had strong political power and run for Console, but on his way to power, he found Crassus with the very same goal in mind. The problem is that Crassus was the richest man in Rome (a billionaire compared to today) and he had much more political influence.

Pompey (mainly because of Crassus's obstructionism) wasn't able to fully capitalize on his military success.

Caesar well understood that the stagnation was mainly due to the Crassus/Pompey (personal) rivalry and offered them to run himself for Console, (1) stop the Senate stagnation and (2) approve their reforms.

The rest is history.

Caesar was "opportunism" at its finest level. Both in the battled field and in the Roman political scene. It worked in both worlds.

If you see what he did at Alesia, Axona, etc, you can tell he was a patient and genius general. He did many things we find horrible, but also enacted many reforms at the expense of wealthy aristocrats, and put Gauls in the Roman senate. I find the dichotomy of him as a person to be very fascinating.

Alesia is the finest example of Caesar military strategy.

I wrote about it here: https://leonardofed.io/blog/caesar.html

> I found it interesting, while watching Historia Civilis, that Julius Caesar was not the first powerful general of his time to float the idea of becoming the King.

Nearly all kings and leaders throughout history have been generals or commanders. And when they inherit the title, if they are ineffectual commanders, they would often get overthrown.

Force trumps all, a leader who isn't the strongest will always risk being overthrown. Even in the US, the President is Commander in Chief. Historically, Democracy and civilian rule is rare. Most famous leaders throughout all of history were conquerors and those who weren't became famous for letting a dynasty get conquered.

For Romans, military success was an absolute prerequisite for a political career.

Without military success, one could become Questor or (if lucky) Praetor, but no way he could become Console. He had to demonstrate somehow his military value on the battlefield before.

Some exceptions were made from times to times (e.g. Cicero) but they were usually followed up by the mob.

Check out the touchstone The History Of Rome podcast by Mike Duncan. It’s great and covers the origins and rise of the empire accessibly and in detail.

His "The Storm Before the Storm" (https://www.amazon.com/Storm-Before-Beginning-Roman-Republic...) is a great read as well. I was genuinely saddened when I finished it.

Don't forget Cincinnatus who easily could have, but didn't.


"On September 2, 31 BC, the Battle of Actium was fought. Octavian's victory, which gave him the mastery of Rome and the empire, was mainly due to Agrippa."

I was about to say the same. Augustus didn't have at the time much battle strategy skills. And in all fairness, military strategy was not his thing.

Actium – like my other battles under August's reign – was mainly due to Agrippa's military skills. In a hypothetical ranking of best Roman generals of all time, he should probably be placed somewhere between 1st and 5th place.

Augustus lived into his late seventies partly due to his poor health, which forced him to stay away from many of his battles.

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