Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
Dr. Walt Stevenson
The ancient historian Cassius Dio recounts that in the year 23 BC, an unprecedented trial occurred within the ancient Roman State. On the defendant’s stand was Marcus Primus, facing the charge of treason against Rome. Primus, during a previous tenure as governor of Macedonia, waged a war on Odryssian Thrace without the order of the Senate. Primus’s defense counsel, Licinius Varro Murena, gives a shocking argument: Augustus Caesar, the leading political figure of Rome, had ordered the war, despite lacking the constitutional authority to do so. Proceedings transpired in such a way that Augustus himself would personally attend the trial. He even got into a verbal argument with Murena, despite him not even being called as a witness. A split jury rejected Murena’s claims and Primus was convicted. Within a year Murena himself would be dead – executed without due process under the pretense that he was plotting against Augustus. Over the last eight decades, every detail of this trial – from the date, to Murena’s argument, to Augustus’s interference, to the identities of Primus and Murena themselves – has been hotly debated by Augustan historians. What is often lost in these arguments of chronology and minute detail is the broader context of the 30 BC – 19 BC time period within the Roman state. The Roman Republic, which had existed for almost five centuries, would finally be extinguished and be replaced by the Principate – an autocratic system which would remain in place for another three centuries. This enormous change in government did not happen overnight. Within the 30 BC – 19 BC period, Augustus – whom later historians would call Rome’s first Emperor – created, spent, and consolidated political capital as he negotiated his position as Rome’s premiere executive to a skeptical Senate. As the Marcus Primus trial of 23 BC indicates, Augustus’s position in these first years of his “reign” were far more tenuous than past historical narratives would like to admit. 4 In this thesis I aim to recontextualize these overlooked early years of Augustus, viewing them especially through the lens of the Primus trial, Varro Murena, and the Republican Senate. I argue that the latter was still deeply influential to Roman political life even as their independent authority began to evaporate. Augustus and his relationship with the Senate would reshape the Roman constitution in 27 BC and 23 BC, writing and rewriting laws which would be followed until the fall of Rome centuries later. More broadly speaking, the death of the Roman Republic as a haunting warning which resonates even today. It was not struck down by past dictators like Sulla or Julius Caesar – rather, it suffocated as Augustus quietly sat at the center of the Senate – eventually becoming a monarch who called himself consul. Living in a liberal democracies, a degree of comfort has been taken by past historical narratives when reading about the death of the Republic; Augustus was just that brilliant of a political mastermind, and he had all the cards in his hand for total power after defeating his military rivals in 30 BC. The truth is far more uncomfortable: the 30 BC – 19 BC time period, the Primus trial, and Varro Murena reveal Augustus as a vulnerable authoritarian who was often fearful for his life and had to contend with difficult bouts of deep unpopularity. His ultimate success can be credited to a Senate which failed – which tugged at the strings of constitutional norms and stoked the embers of authoritarianism for short-term political gain. As this thesis will show, Augustus never formally “killed” the Roman Republic: he merely outlived it.
Yacos, Spencer, "Empire on Trial: The Rise and Fall of Republican Resistance in Early Augustan Rome" (2021). Honors Theses. 1537.