Who was the Emperor Augustus

Prof. Karl Galinsky is a specialist in the Augustan epoch of Roman history. The philologist, born in Strasbourg in 1943, grew up in Alsace and Germany. In 1966 he received his doctorate from Princeton University in the USA. Galinsky teaches classical studies at the University of Texas. His book "Augustus. His life as Kaiser" (Zabern, ISBN 978-3-8053-4677-1) was published in German.

SZ: Mr. Galinsky, I'll record our conversation. Is this okay?

Karl Galinsky: No problem, the NSA does that too. At least there is such a backup in case your recording should be lost. Thank God Augustus no longer has to suffer from it.

That's right, he died on August 19th of the year 14. What qualities made him a defining figure in world history?

Augustus was farsighted, determined and incredibly tenacious. In personal dealings, he was more like the strategist Barack Obama than the fisherman of men Bill Clinton. He got along well with people, but you never knew exactly where you were with him. One of the later emperors named Julian compared Augustus to a chameleon.

Augustus was a sickly child. Why did Julius Caesar adopt him of all people and make him his heir?

Perhaps Caesar just saw more of the abilities then than we do today. It is incredible how Augustus sets out to take power at the age of 18. Augustus may have been of a fragile physical constitution, but that seems to have strengthened his assertiveness.

This enforcement meant that his rivals were dying for power. Was Augustus more cruel than genius?

One can argue about that. If you look at the first decade of his political career, the violence prevails. There was a terrible civil war in which it was normal not to take prisoners.

At the end of the civil war, Augustus was a sole ruler who relied on the army - much like his adoptive father Julius Caesar. But unlike Caesar, Augustus made the peaceful transition to the widely revered ruler. How could he do that?

Caesar ruled as a military ruler, disregarded the constitution and traditions of the Roman Republic. His main mistake was getting himself elected dictator for life. A month later, Caesar was murdered by people who naively assumed they were going to save the republic in this way. Augustus also relied on the army in the background, but avoided Caesar's mistake. He implemented a monarchy in the old republican system. But he made himself neither king nor emperor. He allowed the Senate and consuls to continue to exist, but placed himself above them as "Princeps", as "First". That sounded like a gentle guardian of the republic and no longer like civil war. Augustus gave himself a new label - a brilliant move.

In the year 30 before the birth of Christ, Augustus reinvented himself. Then began a long and successful time for the Romans - or wasn't the Augustan era all that great?

Augustus made the empire shattered by the civil war stable and invented the empire. But we owe the transfiguration of the reign to the golden era, among other things, to art historians. Augustus himself was a master of his own PR, for example, he staged his death and the funeral ceremonies in detail. But with regard to state affairs and tasks, he wanted to avoid standstill and excessive glossing over during his lifetime. His motto was basically: There is still a lot to be done, more challenges are waiting. We have to go on!

What problems did Augustus face?

The pacification of the empire after the civil war, the fight against famine and floods. There were also uprisings, for example one in Pannonia (a province that consisted of today's Hungary, parts of eastern Austria and ex-Yugoslavia; editor's note), which could only be put down after three years. If the devastating Roman defeat against the Teutons under Arminius (also called Hermann the Cheruscan) had happened earlier in the year 9 AD, then Augustus' rule would have been endangered.

Augustus was not only ruler but also chief priest. How is it that Christianity has repeatedly referred to these Gentiles?

The idea from the Christian side was obvious: If God sends his Son into the world, then it will be in an age in which a particularly great, powerful ruler rules. During his aegis, there was religious tolerance in the Roman Empire, there was a veritable supermarket for religions. At that time the Romans were not cultural imperialists, their campaigns were not religious wars. The persecution of Christians came later.

Augustus died peacefully at the age of 76 - unlike so many Roman rulers before and after him. Wasn't anyone trying to kill him?

At least there weren't any conspirators powerful enough to seriously endanger Augustus. He could easily have been the victim of an attack. He did not holed up in his palaces, but was an emperor to touch, who also appeared in Rome in districts where it was dirty and dangerous. He even allowed citizens to invite him to dinner. He had already got rid of rivals that could be really dangerous to him.

Which modern politician emulated Augustus?

In the 1930s, the Italian ruler Benito Mussolini was compared to Augustus. There are parallels: Gaining power through violence, taking over the previous political system into its dictatorship. And for the 2000th birthday of Augustus in 1937, he consciously made a connection between the Roman Empire and Italy at that time.

In addition, Mussolini took over the ritual axes of the Romans, the "Fasces", and called his right-wing extremist movement "Fascists".

That's true. However, Mussolini's Italy was not the only country to adopt the axes as a state symbol. There is also a democratic state that adopted ritual weapons as symbols and thus placed itself in the tradition of the Roman Republic: the United States of America. Check out the US Senate and Armed Forces coats of arms. And turn over the dime, the American 10-cent coin. There you will see fasces.