Augustus – G.O.A.T?

2000 years ago today, Caesar Augustus died.  That’s right, in the month named after him.  More or less how you know you’ve arrived.  Since Augustus both 1) won a brutal civil war and 2) behaved fairly well afterwards, he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of all time rather than one of Rome’s many warlords, pretenders, and brutal tyrants.

His status of Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.) is hardly unquestionable, however.  He is rightly recognized for ending the civil wars that had wracked the Roman Republic and putting the Empire on a much firmer foundation, which lasted peacefully for two hundred years, more erratically for two hundred more, and as the Byzantine Empire for a thousand years after that.  However, the institutions Augustus left behind were not unquestionably better.

The institutions of the Classical World were hardly perfect, but were better than the Medieval ones that displaced them.  Classical institutions were generally legalistic and governed by impersonal rule – e.g., the Athenian assembly and the Roman Senate.  The Roman civil code was a masterpiece that is the ultimate root for Western legal systems, including accountability for political leaders and protection of private property.  It also included slavery, but hey, no one’s perfect.  This legalistic and impersonal rule is generally taken to be a prime prerequisite for stable government and economic growth in the modern world.  Augustus’s takeover supplanted impersonal legalistic rule with personal autocratic rule, which incentivizes instability by making it much more rewarding to get to the top of the heap.  Think the Game of Thrones – “you win or you die”.  Personal leadership and its attendant institutional instability dogged the Western World from Augustus until the Early Modern Era (16th/17th century) and much longer in some places.

Might Augustus be responsible for sending the West on a 1500-year-long journey down a developmental dead end?  That would probably qualify him as the W.O.A.T.


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