The field of eulogy and obituary research can be particularly engaging for professional and amateur historians alike. The traditional summation of a life into a few sets of words can not only describe what the subject accomplished during their life, but how they were viewed by those closest to them. What is included, what is omitted, and what is created can change the perception of a figure for generations to come. In the case of public figure, it also gives historians a hint as to how they ruled.
Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus remains, nearly 2,000 years after his death, one of the most fascinating figures in all of humanity. Rising to power following the assassination of Julius Caesar, he turned the conquests of his predecessor into the period known as the Pax Romana. In his declining years, as he was nearing his death, he had several revisions made of his Res Gestae (Great Deeds) and included them in his will to be given to the Senate. Once he passed on, inscriptions were to set in bronze pillars at the front of his mausoleum. Eventually, these were inscribed on Augustus’ temples throughout the empire.
The account is divided up into four sections, each of them describing a different period of his life and rule. It begins:
At the age of nineteen, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army by means of which I restored liberty to the republic, which had been oppressed by the tyranny of a faction.
Much of the document maintains his image as the Champion of the Republic, although it does have a reverent tone for his predecessor:
Those who slew my father I drive into exile, punishing their deed by due process of law, and afterwards when they waged war upon the republic I twice defeated them in battle.
The second section deals almost entirely with the land, money, and public works that Augustus bestowed on his people and his army. Once again, there is a prevailing air of “greatest of equals” throughout the entirety of the document, in an effort to show that the Republic was his greatest charge:
Four times I aided the public treasury with my own money, paying out in this manner to those in charge of the treasury one hundred and seventy million sesterces. And in the consulship of Marcus Lepidus and Lucius Arruntius I contributed one hundred and seventy million sesterces out of my own patrimony to the military treasury, which was established on my advice that from it gratuities might be paid to soldiers who had seen twenty or more years of service.
The third section accounts for his military conquests, mostly dealing with exapnsion of the empire into Asia, Africa, and the extents of Europe. Though there is some mention of friendliness, much of the account comes from a perspective of domination:
Egypt I added to the empire of the Roman people. In the case of Greater Armenia, though I might have made it a province after the assassination of its King Artaxes, I preferred, following the precedent of our fathers, to hand that kingdom over to Tigranes, the son of King Artavasdes, and grandson of King Tigranes, through Tiberius Nero who was then my stepson. And later, when the same people revolted and rebelled, and was subdued by my son Gaius
The final section is the briefest, summing up his political statement which includes the following:
After that time I took precedence of all in rank, but of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy.
Augustus has certainly survived the ages because of his reign. Yet, the public works and temples that he established were, for ages, the best record that history had of his rule over Rome. In a situation of absolute power, in an age when a ruler is a god, they can pretty much write their own history, but what of the people who lived during this age? Much was lost, certainly, in the fires of Alexandria, but some records still remain that call to mind the power and extent of his rule. Most well-known among them, perhaps:
In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…
To read the original Latin of the Res Gestae, along with Greek and English translations, please visit LacusCurtius.
To find out more about the Temple in Ankara (where the most complete copy of the Res Gestae exists,) visit this GIS Development site