Why was Augustus not “smeared” like Caligula or Nero?

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So the problem we have is this. We have very few sources for Caligula, but we have a few more for Nero. The sources we do have for Caligula are Suetonius and some of Cassius Dio. Tacitus, the best Historian of the era is absent. So we already run into some problems. The second issue is that the majority of sources come from people from the very upper class of Roman society, namely Roman senators. Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio were all in the Senatorial class. Augustus was very careful with how he worked his power, he made sure to give the Senate all the love and attention to could to keep them happy. Although he was basically a despot who started a royal family, he made sure that the Senate felt like they were important. Caligula and Nero on the other hand saw the senate exactly as it was, powerless and impotent. They didn’t bother to spend any time or effort on the senate because they knew that they were basically all powerful and that it was more important to keep the army and the people on their sides. Caligula was loved by the masses because he showered them with games and Nero was the same. If we had sources from the lower classes they’d probably be quite different. Heck, we wouldn’t have Nero pretenders popping up during the reign of Vespasian if people didn’t like Nero. So basically the sources we have are biased towards Emperors who made the senate feel important, and biased against Emperors who did not.


First of all, Augustus, unlike Nero or Caligula died of old age. The other two were murdered and -as usual in Roman history- smeared by their successors who at the same time were their political enemies. Augustus’ heir and successor and his familiy and supporters had absolutely no reason to damage his reputation because they as legitimous successors and relatives would have ruined their own image.


Since Augustus was the first emperor of Rome smearing him would also smear the emperorship as an institution which later emperors wouldn’t want their authority weakened. Also Augustus was a GREAT emperor, he conquered a ton and consolidated the border, reformed the country. Also Augustus created a ton of propaganda, he is the most depicted person from Ancient times. He also urged in “Pax Romana”, after a long period of war he brought stability to the Empire, Horace complains about the civil wars >”Why are you drawing swords that have only just been sheathed? Has too little Latin blood been shed on land and sea – not to enable the Roman to burn the arrogant stronghold of jealous Carthage, or to make the Briton, so long beyond our reach, walk down the Sacra Via in chains, but to ensure in answer to the Parthians’ prayers this shall perish by its own hand?”


I’m exhausted at the moment, but in short, Augustus was a phenomenally successful leader. Not only did he do a tremendous amount for the Roman state, he was extremely shrewd at controlling how he was perceived — not declaring himself emperor, but rather *princeps;* validating his claim by declaring Julius Caesar deified, and himself deified by association; commissioning a Homeric-style epic (*The Aeneid)* that bolstered the morale of Romans as a chosen people and further justifying his own place in its leadership, etc. He was prone to some weird personal behavior by modern standards, as most of the Julio-Claudians were, but overall he was one of the more effective leaders in the ancient world.


This is a less cerebral answer, but if you’re interested in Roman history, the 1970’s miniseries “I, Claudius” is actually fairly informative and very well done. If you don’t mind the ancient BBC production values (temple doors might have normal doorknobs, or the walls might sway a little here and there), the acting is top notch, with Derek Jacobi in the title role, backed by Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, Sian Phillips, John Rys-Davies, and especially John Hurt as Caligula.