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Death of emperor Augustus

  • History

In ancient Rome, the brutal, violent death of the ruler was inscribed in the logic of power to such an extent that today it is often said that the profession of “emperor” was the most dangerous profession in the world. Of the twelve emperors who died in the first century CE, only four died naturally. Murder as a way to change power was so obvious that natural death always aroused suspicion and was a source of conjecture as to whether no one had contributed to it.

The first Roman emperor, Octavian Augustus, was also one of the lucky few who managed to retire from old age. Died in 14 CE Princeps reigned for over 40 years and died in Nola when he was nearly 76 years old. His wife, Livia, accompanied him in the last moments of his life. How the emperor’s death looked like, we can only guess. Three historians: Tacitus, Suetonius and Dion, have left us divergent accounts. Dion’s version is the most dramatic, and Suetonius – romantic.

Cassius Dio suggests that his wife Livia had a hand in Augustus’ death, and was supposed to give him poisoned figs. Apparently, she was afraid that the emperor, who was approaching the end of his days, would want to hand over power to his biological grandson, and not to Tiberius (Livia’s son from his first marriage) he had adopted. Neither Tacitus nor Suetonius, although they wrote much earlier, mention anything about it, so this version seems unlikely.

Suetonius’s version is more maudlin: Augustus was to summon Tiberius, who he designated as his successor, and talk to him for a long time in private (implicitly, he was giving him instructions on reign). According to the historiographer, Augustus was to ask if he played life well in the play and to utter the famous couplet: “Since well I’ve played my part, all clap your hands / And from the stage dismiss me with applause”. In this way, he was to show typical Roman composure in the face of death and contempt for it. He supposedly died the moment he kissed his wife goodbye.

What were August’s last moments like? Well, highly doubtful. The story of Suetonius from a distance smacks of a legend created post factum to strengthen the dynasty, so you have to approach it with reserve.

This strongly “sweetened” version is toned down by another historian – Tacitus, whose account is much more factual, and at the same time stripped of Suetonius’ romanticism (and perhaps that is why it is the most credible). It allows us to imagine the brutal reality of the struggle for power when, upon hearing of her husband’s deteriorating health, Livia hastily called her son Tiberius to Nola. It is not known whether Tiberius managed to arrive before Augustus’ death, as Tacitus suggests that Livia was deliberately misinforming: the Romans were constantly assured that the emperor was recovering, and access to the imperial residence in Nola was blocked. Livia announced the death of the ruler to the world only when the succession of Tiberius was guaranteed.

All three versions agree on one thing: August was accompanied by Livia until his last moments. Tacitus’s account suggests that she was hardly a grieving widow, as she retained her sobriety and focused on measures to protect her son. But could she have contributed to her husband’s death? It seems extremely unlikely to me. During his over 40-year reign, Augustus became a keystone binding the family together, and his loved ones reaped the benefits of belonging to the ruling family. But the rivalry of family members was shattering its cohesion from the inside even during Augustus’ lifetime. As long as he lived, the emperor settled disputes and suppressed discord. No one in the family would benefit from his death, and Livia certainly had no interest in it. August’s departure was a critical moment in which she and her son had to make sure that power did not slip out of their hands. August died of old age. Another seven over the next several decades were less fortunate and ended up in much more dramatic circumstances.