Octavian and his position: a lecture

This lecture was given last Thursday by Frederik Vervaet, who received his PhD from Ghent University, Belgium. His accent was a little hard to follow at the start, but once I got into the rhythm it was quite lovely to listen to.

The proper title for the lecture was “The Secret History: The Official Position of Caesar Octavianus at the time of the Restitutio Rei Publicae (31-27BC).” Before I get to that, a note on the guy who introduced the lecture, who pronounced it ‘Kaiser Octaweeanus’ – that is, correctly, as far as we know the pronunciation of Latin. What I can’t figure out is whether he was simply being pretentious and showing off, or whether (since he is actually a Classicist), he knows Latin well enough that it’s simply second nature. Got no idea; interesting to consider, anyway.

Vervaet started off by talking about what it actually meant for Antony, Lepidus and Octavian to be triumvirs, from 43 onwards, because only by understanding that, and their power, can you get the pre-Augustus few years. He also asked two preliminary questions: when did the second triumvirate period conclude? (probably 32, is his conclusion); and how did the triumvirate fit into the idea of extraordinary magistracies? (nicely; and can only be abdicated – doesn’t simply conclude with the end of the year).

The issue of abdication becomes important when looking at Dio Cassius, and what he records of Octavian in 27: a speech that sounds remarkably like an abdication. So, although he hadn’t seemed to be holding the triumviral position up to this stage (because he would have been a solo triumvir, Lepidus having been forced out before the first 5 years finished and poor old Antony suiciding in 30), he seems to have continued exercising it. So why did he not acknowledge it? Vervaet talked about Octavian’s own concealment, and ‘artful delusion’, particularly in the Res Gestae and other bits of propaganda. I also liked the phrase ‘Augustan ambiguity and deceitfulness’. The nomenclature had also started to disappear during the second triumvirate anyway – emphasising his consular position, for example, instead.

After establishing Octavian’s position, then, Vervaet proceeded to ask two other questions: why continue as triumvir (alone), and why did he conceal it – since he didn’t seem to have any trouble with big-noting himself in other ways? As to the first question, it could be argued that the purpose of the triumvirate – to restore order to Rome – had not been achieved until 31 (because of the war with Cleopatra and Antony), so he shouldn’t abdicate; and after that there was (apparently) universal demand that he hang around. The second question needs you to remember that this is still the Republic: keeping hold of power was Bad and Evil and Frowned Upon. As well, when Antony and Octavian were having their spat, there was propaganda on both sides about the other not being willing to give up the power, so you don’t want to prove enemy slanging to be correct, do you? Finally, there’s also the fact that keeping hold of power unconstitutionally doesn’t sit so well with positioning oneself as the champion of tradition and constitutional propriety.

So… Octavian. I’ve always been anti-Octavian. Antony is more my man. This was a really great lecture, thoroughly enjoyable.

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