Throughout history, Gaius Julius Caesar has been judged harshly for his heavy-handed administration of governmental affairs, his disrespect for the Roman Senate, and his autocratic bypassing of constitutional rules. However, when you take a closer look at the last century of the Roman Republic, you’ll gain some insight in Gaius Julius’ attempt to quell civil unrest and to reorganize an outdated administrative system of rampant corruption and personal enrichment. His enormous discipline in military strategy and statecraft made Gaius Julius the spiritual predecessor of the House of Hohenzollern, a veritable Prussian bureaucrat! As his life was brutally cut short, the Dictator’s long to-do list was left forever undone and we will never know if he truly believed in the Roman Republic.
And speaking of dictators, the meaning of that term has changed a little over the intervening millennia. The constitution of the Roman Republic was specifically written to prevent the rise of a single person to power. Offices in government, as well as religious positions, were carefully distributed across a range of eligible members of the gentes and the most important offices were usually shared by at least two elected officials. Except during times of dire crises. During periods of either internal or external peril, the Senate appointed a solitary strongman, a dictator, to take care of the problem in the name of the Republic. Usually, such a mandate expired after six months, when the Senate resumed control. Against constitutional intent, Gaius Julius Caesar had been named Dictator in perpetuity shortly before he was assassinated.
Having insulted too many weak and vengeful characters, he paid with his life in a conspiracy of 60 plus resentful senators. The most avid conspirators removed this towering and sublimely arrogant threat to their cushy, lazy lives by pulling gentlemanly daggers from the recesses of their togas in a frightened frenzy, lashing out blindly from within an anonymous cluster of hysterical wannabe “Saviors of the Republic”, slashing and cutting the defenseless man trapped in their unholy circle twenty-three times. We don’t know, who inflicted the only lethal wound, a deep cut to his chest. The panicked senators fled while the Dictator Gaius Julius Caesar, Pater Patriae & Imperator slumped to the white marble floor bleeding out, dying alone while Rome wept behind barred doors.
After Gaius Julius Caesar’s death, civil war ensued which culminated in the elevation of his adopted son and avenger, Gaius Octavius, commonly known as Augustus, to rule as the first Roman Emperor. Actually, it was neither quite that easy nor that straight-forward. Nor did the citizens ever consider Gaius Octavius an Imperial Highness. They did, however, deify him, just like they did with their hero Gaius Julius. Gods are so much easier to handle than princes, aren’t they?
Two thousand years ago, your average Roman was staunchly Republican and displayed a decidedly antimonarchical attitude. These Roman citizens loved Gaius Julius Caesar because he had struggled to reach his exalted position on merit and they considered him one of their own. Therefore Gaius Octavius the adopted son and victor, not only over the assassins but also over his competitors, had to be extremely careful never to appear to reach for royal insignia. His ascent to the position of Roman Emperor was a tricky game of ruling with an iron fist while stroking pitiful egos into happy submission.
It took Gaius Octavius nearly twenty years to climb from posthumously adopted son of a murdered icon to ruler of a vast empire. However, at no time during his career did he actually proclaim himself as such. Au contraire, he astutely manipulated the members of the Roman Senate to willingly dispense additional titles and ever higher honors, clever bastard that he was. On paper, he even had co-rulers.
By following the future emperor’s name changes over the years, we can track his illustrious career. At birth, he was named Gaius Octavius after his biological father. With his adoption by Gaius Julius Caesar, he changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. It was customary according to Roman tradition to add the name and family name of one’s adoptive father. In 42 BCE, after the deification of his new papá, Octavius chucked his birth name and added “son of a God” to his adopted name, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius. Meanwhile, around 38 BCE, he had concluded so many successful military campaigns that his troops proclaimed him Imperator, meaning supreme commander. Henceforth young Octavius, who was still only 25 years old, dropped his first and family names and restyled himself as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius. Roughly ten years hence the Senate award him his final official title, Augustus – Exalted One, thus Octavius became Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus. Any number of other titles and honors were bestowed upon Octavius over the years, he was Pontifex Maximus, Pater Patriae, Princeps Senatus, and so forth, but never ever even a hint of a royal honor. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider with which persistence a military accolade, Imperator, and the former nickname of a Julian ancestor, Caesar, morphed into royal titles globally.
In due course, Augustus divided transalpine Gaul into four Imperial Provinces under his direct administration. His “Gallia Comata” was composed of three parts, Belgica, Lugdunensis, and Aquitania. Saintes was destined to become the capital of Aquitania.
It didn’t take long before the Roman occupational forces elevated this thriving Celtic town with its estuary harbor and navigable river to their trade center near the Atlantic coast.
Eventually, a road called via Agrippa would lead in a straight line West from Lugdunum to Mediolanum Civitas Santonum, otherwise known as Lyon and Saintes. But before we get to this exciting stage of Gallo-Roman local culture – and the Arch, of course – we have to meet one more Roman Emperor and learn of much heartache.