In my recent post, “‘Julius Caesar was not Emperor.’ – Or was he?”, I may have come off a bit hard on the now-traditional reading of Roman history that Augustus, not his Great Uncle C. Julius Caesar, was the first emperor. If we ask ourselves what, legally and constitutionally, the emperors have in common, it is clear that Augustus has it and Julius does not. That I never doubted.
What I wanted to do was to engage with the idea of Julius Caesar as emperor — an idea that most ancient Romans themselves believed. Even if our vision of Roman history is clearer than theirs, their vision was still, well, theirs.
The Roman and mediaeval belief in Julius Caesar as emperor demonstrates to us a few things:
The pro-Julius campaign of his immediate successors and then of the dynasty that bore his name seems to have been successful. Rather than being just another Late Republican dictator — even if dictator perpetuus — Julius Caesar is raised to the status of an emperor among emperors, alongside the luminaries such as his illustrious successor Augustus and the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius — not to mention the less shining holders of Roman imperium such as Caligula or Commodus.
Augustus pretended to restore the Republic, and future generations would see him as the legitimate successor to the first emperor rather than the creator of something entirely new. Fictions both, but powerful ones.
Second, we are blessed with clearer vision than our forebears. This is not say that they were bumpkins who knew no better than just to simply say, ‘Oh, Julius Caesar. First Emperor of Rome.’ They believed a falsehood — but doing history for them was a lot harder than it is for us.
The necessary primary source documents for Roman history are available to us in the same wording with indices at the back, for one thing (that is, in modern printed editions). We are not confronted with inscribed laws scattered all over the Mediterranean. When we go to a library, we are not looking through a series of papyrus scrolls stored in leather tubes. Our chronicles are manageably published in codices. The Roman imperial archive has been shown to be efficient enough to draft laws in Late Antiquity, but not very efficient by modern standards; finding what exactly you want could be a very difficult labour, indeed. The task of the historian would have been very, very different and difficult back then.
Furthermore, our goals are different. Tacitus is one of the few Roman historians who claims to be seeking just the truth without malice or bias. As inevitable as all bias is, most ancient writers did not try very hard to tone theirs down. There is always an ulterior motive to ancient and mediaeval history writing — conveniently, they tend to let it out (whereas we try to hide our bias and ulterior motives). Thus, some truths get lost in the thick of the thrill of the fight, in the midst of the moralising tales, in among the desire to flatter some men and scorn others.
As a result, for whatever reason, it was perfectly normal for ancient Romans to consider Julius Caesar the first emperor. We usually stop there and say that they were wrong. But if we consider why they were wrong, we find a few more insights into the Roman world and mindset. These are just the insights from some general remarks about Roman society — imagine what a proper study of the sources about Julius Caesar would find us!