No Place Like Rome

Michael Auslin reflects on the enduring relevance of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor:

640px-Bust_of_augustusAfter the Ides of March, the teenaged Octavian figured in no one’s political calculations. Mark Antony was the dominant figure, and Brutus and Cassius retained significant forces. Yet within just a few years, it would be Antony and Octavian fighting for the ultimate supremacy of the Western world. To read of Octavian’s cautious, calculating, and sure moves during the two decades of civil war, leading to his victory at Actium in 31 B.C., is to encounter political genius of the rarest kind. With his indispensable partner, Agrippa, Octavian then did what had escaped even the great Caesar: establish a durable and impregnable political system to capitalize on his military victory. Thus ended both a century of civil war and Rome’s traditional freedoms. To a world desperate for stability, Augustus was accepted as the unquestioned and irreplaceable arbiter of order.

Augustus’s legacy did not stop with politics, for the Rome of our dreams, too, is largely his creation, carried to its ultimate expression by his successors. The world might not still be fascinated with a city of brick had not Augustus left it one of marble, to paraphrase his famous saying. The fora, baths, Colosseum, and palaces of eternal Rome maintained, even enhanced, their spell over men’s imaginations by their ruins, as much as in their pristine prime. Even the anti-monarchical Americans drew legitimacy from Rome’s material forms. Washington, D.C. is modeled more on imperial Rome than Greece, with its Capitol Hill and classic architecture.

(Photo of a bust of Augustus in the Musei Capitolini, Rome, by Xuan Che)