How did public speech and negotiations influence the transition from the Roman republic to the monarchy of the emperors?

cornwall-and-wan-der-blom-315

Negotiation, reconciliation, and Octavian’s oratory in the Roman triumviral period (49-31 BC)

Hannah Cornwell, University of Birmingham.                
ORCID ID icon 0000-0002-9172-6418

Henriette van der Blom, University of Birmingham.                
ORCID ID icon 0000-0001-9908-1426

The murder of Julius Caesar – on the Ides of March 44 BC – sparked a political and military struggle for power which lasted until the winner of the war, Octavian, made himself ruler over the Roman empire, renamed himself Augustus and started the centuries of rule by emperors.

This civil conflict was not merely fought with armies and weapons. Words mattered. Through words, symbols and alliances the fight for legitimate control of the state was negotiated, challenged and eventually won, and retrospectively rewritten to champion the victor’s version of events. 

The main figures in this war, Julius Caesar’s adoptive son Octavian, Marcus Antonius and their supporters tried to build support and increase their legitimacy and credibility through public speeches, diplomacy and marriage alliances. They did so not as an add-on to their military activity, but as an inherent and often crucial element in their tactical and strategic efforts.

Hannah Cornwell reviews the tensions inherent in the political alliance forged between young Caesar (Octavian), Marcus Antonius and Lepidus, which had the alleged purpose of restoring the state. During the conflicts of the decade, the language and symbols of reconciliation were viable political currency, and these three men made it their ‘brand’, through acts of diplomacy and marriage alliance, which they promoted through channels of mass communication (such as coinage). As this study shows, however, the agreement (concordia) advertised had become a commodity of a few, vying for control of Rome, rather than an expression of a whole community united.

Henriette van der Blom’s study reconstructs Octavian’s speech in the popular assembly in autumn 44 BC to show that Octavian from the age of 19 understood and was able to exploit the power of public speech: getting veteran soldiers and experienced senators on his side, turning disadvantages into advantages, and promoting himself as the avenger of Julius Caesar and his rightful heir to power, wealth and prestige. Aware of the power of words, Octavian also seems to have curated his own speech legacy for posterity, influencing the reception of his oratory and our modern understanding of his path to monarchical power.

Together, these two studies show different facets of the same endeavours to win the hearts and minds of the Romans, in ways rather similar to modern political negotiations and speech-making. Winning the war of words and getting the right alliance partners is as crucial today as it was in the ancient Roman world.

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Both studies are published in: