Octavius’ Room Where It Happens: The First Settlement

The breaking of so great a thing should make/ A greater crack [Octavius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, Act V, scene i] 

This week I thought I’d talk about some background history that sets the stage for what’s coming next in the sequel. Mainly, about Octavius and what is generally referred to as the First Settlement. 

The Battle of Actium is usually considered the last decisive engagement of the Roman Civil Wars, where Octavius’ fleet defeated that of Cleopatra and Mark Antony off the coast of Greece in 31 BC (thirteen years after the death of Caesar). This effectively neutralized Egypt’s navy, leaving the kingdom at the mercy of its much less powerful army (an army made all the more impotent as it hadn’t really recovered its strength from Egypt’s own civil war fought amongst Cleopatra and her siblings). Octavius’ legions overran the remaining defenses of Alexandria with little difficulty and placed Julius Caesar’s heir in command of the Two Lands, while Cleopatra and Antony committed suicide to forestall worse fates in Rome. And that’s where we left Octavius at the end of The God’s Wife — standing in the desert in Ombos as the conqueror of Egypt and the victor of the civil wars. 

But I’m picking up the story in the next book nearly eight years later in 23 BC, so what’s Octavius been up to in the interim? The short answer is — consolidating his position in Rome. Fortunately for him, he was in excellent shape to do so post-Actium. The wars left him in command of the majority of Rome’s legionary army, and both the resources he personally amassed funding his faction and his considerable inheritance from Caesar made him extremely wealthy. On top of this, Octavius, like his adopted father, had proven exceptionally adept at forming and maintaining a superior place in the vast network of patronage that ran the Roman world. Money bought him clients indebted to him and the loyalty of the military, which rapidly became a juggernaut the Roman Senate couldn’t compete with. Faced with the prospect of Octavius becoming even more monarchical than was feared from Caesar, the Senate did what republican governing bodies do best — they came up with a flimsy, but workable compromise. And in 27 BC, that became the First Settlement. 

Octavius had been a Consul (the highest-ranking political position in Rome, one of a pair) off and on since 43 BC and continuously since 31 BC, in a post that was supposed to be elected annually. But since his patronage network ensured his place as one of the consuls every year, the Senate came to him with a proposal meant to help them maintain at least a finger-hold on power and some kind of rein on Octavius. They requested that Octavius take control of the more “unsettled” lands that had come under Roman control recently for a period of ten years, while allowing the Senate to keep control of the remaining territories. Octavius was to be responsible for Hispania (modern Spain), Gaul (modern France, German, Switzerland, and parts of Belgium and the Netherlands), Syria, Cilicia (modern southern Turkey), the island of Cyprus, and Egypt. The Senate, on the other hand would be responsible for Rome’s North African provinces, Illyria (modern Albania), and Macedonia. And it was understood that the legions stationed in each province would report to that province’s designated authority, leaving Octavius with around twenty legions and the Senate with somewhere between five and six. The number of soldiers in a legion was somewhat fluid, but in raw numbers, that gave Octavius six provinces and roughly 100,000 men, and the Senate three provinces and about 25,000 men. 

So why would the Senate make such a lopsided deal? One, they really weren’t in a strong bargaining position and had to scrape together an offer Octavius might actually accept. Two, they were very strategic on which provinces they were giving to him. Octavius already controlled most of the army, so it didn’t make sense to try to forcibly take legions from him anyway, and more legions usually = more problems. The Senate was more than happy to let Octavius deal with any Cherusci berserkers climbing down from the mountains of Gaul or the surly Egyptians, who might have not agreed on which Ptolemy heir they wanted on the falcon throne, but were generally united in their preference to any of them over a Roman. Not to mention that armies have always been expensive and better to force Rome’s young Daddy Warbucks to fund the majority of the military rather than the public coffers. Additionally, aside from Egypt, a large part of Rome’s agricultural wealth came from the three provincial areas the Senate chose to hang onto. So even though they had very little military might, the Senate still exercised some control over Roman stomachs, always an important consideration. 

But ultimately all of this was a band-aid on the hemorrhaging corpse that was the Roman Republic. The Senate packaged Octavius with unusual powers during supposedly turbulent times in a way they had once done with Pompey and Caesar, but the idea that the Republic still existed was nothing more than a legal fiction. Simply put, Octavius was too powerful and all any of the remaining aristocrats in the Senate could do was hold onto whatever they could to retain access to the political power that was the corridor of wealth and prestige (Latin: dignitas) in their world.  

[As a side note, be wary of anyone who tries to paint this as a “death of democracy” moment on par with the contemporary world. Yes, this was a step away from republican government, but most Roman citizens, although given voting powers, were not eligible to serve in the Senate in the Roman Republic. The Senate was comprised of a wealthy elite and part of the reason they took such umbrage at Caesar’s power grab wasn’t so much that he was their dictator — because they made him that — but rather that he had tried to give more voting power to the plebeian citizens who were his popular base of support, which would give him more leverage than them. In short, this is still mostly a bunch of rich people mad at other rich people fight rather than the jacobin expression of liberty versus tyranny that it is often portrayed as.] 

So now you might be wondering why Octavius agreed to go along with any of this. He had most of the money and most of the power in the Western world now. He was technically Pharaoh in Egypt, why not be King of Rome too? And I think the answer comes down to personality and circumstance. For one, Octavius wasn’t Julius Caesar. Caesar was bold and charismatic, which are things his great-nephew was capable of being under certain conditions, but above all, Octavius was a realist. They both wanted to rule the world (and if Octavius tells you otherwise, he’s lying), but Caesar wasn’t afraid of blowing things up to build something new. Octavius was much more pragmatic, plus he had the benefit of hindsight. He understood that perhaps Julius had gone too far, that there was a definite danger of him sharing Caesar’s fate if he pushed too hard.

So when the Senate offered him the status quo in the trappings of the old order, he understood it was just as much in his best interest to accept as it was for the Senate. The First Settlement was when he was given the title Augustus, but perhaps more importantly, it was also where he was given the title Princeps — First Citizen. And that was a title he latched onto just as fiercely. We in the modern world call him Emperor Augustus (a massaging of the Latin title Imperator, meaning one who holds authority), but he would have almost never designated himself as such. He preferred Princeps in his lifetime because it marked him as a first among equals. As wispy a fiction as the First Settlement itself, but as today, one cannot underestimate the importance of optics. 

Where — wait for it — Daughter of Eagles will pick up is about four years after the First Settlement in 23 BC — a strange year in what would eventually be denoted as Augustus’ reign, although that terminology wouldn’t really come into play until after the events that will unfold over that year and the one that follows it, leading to the Second Settlement between Octavius and the Senate. Strange mostly for the number of dramatic incidents that pepper its twelve short months (plus a few after it), and the relatively scanty official record left about them from the notoriously thorough Romans. But suffice to say that trouble is brewing in a falling aristocracy that might have started to think it gave too much away, and in Octavius’ household where there’s only so much power he can allocate to his family and friends without ending up with twenty-three pugiones in his back. Sounds like a job for a Ptolemy, if you know what I mean…  

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