Why Didn’t Roman Emperors Reestablish The Republic In Full?

Augustus won the last Civil War. But then he didn’t bring back the Republic in full, but only partially, and not at the top. Why not? Because of a particular web of complex causalities. One doesn’t choose history, history chooses you.

The prominent Roman historian Suetonius (who died around 125 CE) said the following of Augustus on his book De Vita Caesarum:

He twice thought of restoring the republic; first immediately after the overthrow of Antony, remembering that his rival had often made the charge that it was his fault that it was not restored; and again in the weariness of a lingering illness, when he went so far as to summon the magistrates and the senate to his house, and submit an account of the general condition of the empire. Reflecting, however, that as he himself would not be free from danger if he should retire, so too it would be hazardous to trust the State to the control of more than one, he continued to keep it in his hands; and it is not easy to say whether his intentions or their results were the better. His good intentions he not only expressed from time to time, but put them on record as well in an edict in the following words: “May it be my privilege to establish the State in a firm and secure position, and reap from that act the fruit that I desire; but only if I may be called the author of the best possible government, and bear with me the hope when I die that the foundations which I have laid for the State will remain unshaken.” And he realized his hope by making every effort to prevent any dissatisfaction with the new régime.”

A first problem with internal constitutional reform was that the Roman empire was at war to secure a safety zone around itself after 29 BCE, when Augustus became “Senatus Princeps“. In other words, Augustus augmented (hence his title of Augustus) the empire, pursuing his great uncle and adoptive father’s work. Marius and Sulla had saved Rome from annihilation at the hands of a coalition determined, hell-bound Germanic tribes, not even a century earlier… by the skin of their teeth.

Extent and expansion of the Roman Empire under Augustus; the yellow legend represents the extent of the Empire in 31 BC, the shades of green represent gradually conquered territories under the reign of Augustus, and pink areas on the map represent client states. (High Resolution!)

Basically, if Augustus had given up power, to whom, or what would the power have gone? The Roman oligarchy, its global, international plutocracy, was immensely more influential, because of its wealth and patronage, than the Roman People. Augustus knew it would have gone back to them. This is basically what happened after Sulla.

To reestablish the Republic, Augustus would have had to weaken both the prerogatives of the military and of the plutocracy, simultaneously, and delicately, while restoring the powers of the Roman People… which, after a century of butchery, had become more interested in pax rather than libertas. All the more as Augustus profited from the aura of populism of Caesar. And, considering what had happened to Caesar, a good bodyguard was in order, everybody had to admit. Under Tiberius a new actor came on the scene, a powerful Praetorian guard, strong enough to rule the City of Rome all by itself (as the guard got used to kill and install emperors, or sell the throne, it got dissolved by emperor Septimius Severus, 200 years later…)

Indeed, there was a precedent for the restoration of the Republic: after a horrendous civil war, with more than 100,000 young men killed in combat, Sulla exerted his dictatorship. However, still middle aged, he retired from public life, without any protection, after reestablishing the powers of the Tribunate of the People. Sulla died, from natural causes, soon after getting to enjoy his country estate. He was given a national funeral (although so many had been his victims, in the end most celebrated him after his death!)


So what of Augustus? Why didn’t Augustus, such a learned young man, with much philosophical inclination, reestablish the Respublica, as Sulla had done? It was a question of character and convenience, or maybe simply the flow of history, the sum of all histories, just as in Quantum Mechanics (Feynman way). Octavian/Augustus life was incredibly adventurous and bold… But Sulla’s life, which was quite comparable, was even more so. Appian said Sulla renounced power, because, after his astounding adventures, from Africa to Gallia, to Asia, and conducting a civil war in Italy he was sated with power.

Augustus may have thought that to renounce power, and reestablish the Respublica as Sulla had done would just relaunch the civil wars. Also Sulla renounced power, soon after having acquired absolute power. Sulla was middle aged. Augustus instead acquired absolute power when he was in his twenties. By the time Augustus was middle aged, he had been in absolute, not to say outrageous, power, for thirty years: he was used to it.

Another event happened. Once after Sulla became an ordinary citizen without any bodyguard a young man followed him all day, ostensibly bombarding him with insults, and provocations. However the once hyper violent special ops agent, general, imperator and dictator passively received the abuse all day long and then pointed out, “This bully will ensure that no-one else will ever relinquish supreme power.”

Also Octavian/Augustus was immensely shocked by the death of his adoptive father Gaius Caesar. It was not just that he loved and admired Caesar, who was launching his military career, and treated him as a son. After Caesar’s death, Octavian himself had to fight back, not just to save his inheritance, but his life. It’s likely that, if he had done nothing, and had never risen to the occasion, he would have lost his life.

Caesar had tried to pull a trick similar to Sulla… Dictating, but then acting normal (except Sulla didn’t mix both genres: when he ruled, he ruled, when he retired, he retired). Although dictator, Caesar was going about Rome and attending dinner parties as if he were an ordinary citizen. Caesar ostensibly trusted the Senate, entered it all alone, unarmed… And was stabbed in return… After what had happened to Caesar, all could only be understanding of the precautions taken by Augustus. Besides, nobody could seriously disagree, those who had agreed to assassinate Caesar were dead.

Augustus awarded himself with the tribunicia potestas, or tribunician power, which enabled him to: propose laws to the Senate whenever he wanted, veto any laws he wanted, grant amnesty to any citizen accused of crime… There were other tribunes, but because Augustus was Senatus Princeps (First in the Senate), had stuffed the Senate only with obedient Senators, and because Augustus was endowed with the most powerful imperium, other tribunes were of no consequence.

Overall, both the Roman elite and the Roman People were exhausted of the horrendous civil wars which had killed so many. The wars became a memory under Augustus, and economic prosperity came back, as never before, while local elections were held in the quasi confederacy which was the empire.

The fundamental reason for the civil wars had been the rise of a hyper powerful plutocracy. Although Augustus and his fellow triumvirs had killed thousands of their prominent opponents, the plutocratic system was still in place. Only some names had changed and some families had been eradicated. The Republic couldn’t come back, because the plutocracy was still in power.

Moreover, as the Civil Wars developed, because of the military reforms of Caesar’s uncle Marius, men without property to go back to, as in old times, became soldiers. Those soldiers made their careers as followers of their own generals. Their careers was their generals, it was not the farms they didn’t have. Starting with Caesar, the army realized its powers, and developed political acumen. What the army understood is that it had only one interlocutor: the plutocracy.

By the time of Diocletian, an Illyrian native, the army had deprived the Senate of much of its power, and reduced the non-military plutocracy to being its own instrument…

In any case, the empire became a dialogue between plutocrats and the military, and then god was added to the mix, to justify the rule of a “Dominus”, Diocletian’s practice of “Domination”.

Sulla’s restoration of the Republic failed soon after his death, because the Roman plutocracy was the enemy of the Roman Republic and its once all-powerful Plebs. Just re establishing the Republic was not enough. Plutocracy was a cancer. The patient, the Republic, had passed out because of its cancer. Reanimating the patient , without operating on the cancer, could only have an ephemeral effect. So Augustus would have had to reestablish the old Absolute Wealth Limit of the Republic and its “Sumptuary” laws, which prevented the top families to become too powerful, and too vile.

By the time of Augustus, nobody in the elite wanted to see such limits to their power and debauchery to be erected again. Everybody in the elite wanted a good time, et, as French king Louis XV put it:”Après moi, le déluge!” Besides there independent military powers a few hundred miles from Rome and her delicate trading communication networks…

When too few people, their families, descendants, followers, helpers and hanger-ons, in particular if military, have too much power, the only thing which can divest this power from them is foreign invasions. And this is exactly what happened to Rome.

Could it have been different? Those who understood the situation best were a handful of extremely well educated and intelligent courageous aristocrats, most prominent among them the Gracchi and the leader of the “Populares”, Caesar. They understood the need to redistribute wealth, at least to soldiers (they passed wealth redistribution laws; Caesar’s was in 59 BCE, when he was Consul; the Senate never forgave that). The plutocrats (who called themselves the “Optimates”) hated the Populares optimally, assassinating them as well as they could, but not enough (some of the progressive laws survived the assassinations of the reformers).

The Gracchi and Caesar were too isolated from the rest of the elite (although thousands of followers of the Gracchi were assassinated with them). What was missing in the Roman intelligentsia was an understanding of how debilitating the plutocracy would prove to the society in all ways. To achieve that understanding, the Greco-Roman society had to fail first. Now, two thousand years later, we have recovered in all ways… and we should be endowed with that understanding.

Patrice Ayme



P/S: The causal system which made Augustus act as he did relative to the Republic is an example of a CAUSAL WEB… complete with nonlinear self-acting, exponential loops…


P/P/S: Quora, in its latest harassment, informed me (6/20/2020) that they removed a version of the essay above for “plagiarism” (without telling me what was “plagiarized”… just the usual threat that I may be banned). There was no plagiarism, whatsoever, and the main anti-plutocratic drift is clearly mine. But somehow Quora has decided that I better be “banned” (as they threatened me of this for various reasons). All I see is one more entitled monopolistic corporation out of the SF Bay Area with secret black lists…


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6 Responses to “Why Didn’t Roman Emperors Reestablish The Republic In Full?”

  1. Joseph Xue Says:

    One minor correction the Praetorian guard was dissolved by Emperor Constantine the Great. Septimius Severus just fired the old guard and reformed a new Praetorian guard from his own legionaries.



    Quora Moderation collapsed your answer to Why did the Roman Empire never revert to a republic after Augustus? for violating a policy on Quora.

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    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I quoted “Suetonius”, and mentioned his name. Suetonius lived between from 69 CE until 122 CE. He was a Roman historian of the early Roman Empire. His most important surviving work is a set of biographies of twelve successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, entitled De Vita Caesarum (quoted). The author is in the public domain. This is not plagiarism, but it is called fair use. I also used Appian, another two thousand year old historian, on a short, well known quote of dictator Sulla, a few words. All other words are my own, except four attributed to king Louis XV (who died 246 years ago)
      I am not stupid enough to realize “Quora Moderation” is harassing me, in a variation of what the New York Times, Guardian, Economist, European Tribune, and many others have done over the years. If I say US bankers supported Hitler, I am accused of “organized hatred”, etc…


  3. Grant Penton Says:

    Grant Penton
    April 22 2020
    Gibbon wrote that after the assassination of Aurelian in 275 top leaders in the military and in the Senate were so disgusted and appalled that no candidates for Imperator were put forward for months, during which Senatorial administrators were technically in control, making this the last time that a Republican state existed in a sense.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks, Grant, I didn’t know this… Very interesting. But the times of these “Barracks Emperors” was really special. I have not read Gibbon systematically, just in depth in precise areas… in part because he tends to wax lyrical… to the point sometimes of obscuring reality. i prefer the original sources (which I have read and often re-read, much later…) The truth is that Republican laws and STRUCTURES existed throughout… (The Senate survived into the late Seventh Century!) in some ways, under the Franks, the Imperium Francorum, some REPUBLICAN LAWS and ATTITUDES were more in force than under the empire… or even the Republic…


  4. Kim (Quora) Says:

    Kim (Quora)

    Jun 23, 2020, 11:29 AM PDT

    Hello Patrice Ayme,

    Thank you for contacting us regarding your content.

    We are very sorry for this experience. The following answer: https://www.quora.com/Why-did-the-Roman-Empire-never-revert-to-a-republic-after-Augustus/answer/Patrice-Ayme was mistakenly marked as being in violation of Quora’s answer policies and guidelines. This error has now been corrected and your answer should now be visible to the Quora community.

    We apologize for any inconvenience that this may have caused you and appreciate your understanding.

    If there is anything else we can help you with, please let us know.




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