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Caesar Augustus, Hero Or Tyrant: the Effects of Hindsight on Dio Cassius’ Portrayal of Caesar

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Jordan Reid Berkow

Rome of Augustus

TF: Brian Jobe

February 22, 2003

Caesar Augustus, Hero or Tyrant?: The Effects of Hindsight on Dio Cassius’ Portrayal of Caesar

Caesar Augustus, during the time of his reign as princeps of the Roman people, cultivated for himself an image of military prowess, generosity, virtue, and clemency. Velleius Paterculus’ History of Rome, written only a few years after the death of Augustus, paints a picture of the Caesar that one imagines is quite consistent with the way he wished to be portrayed. Dio Cassius’ History of Rome, written around 229 A.D., presents a very different image, representing Augustus as an uncertain, bullying tyrant. The three ways in which the two authors, in their descriptions of the Battle of Actium, represent Caesar’s differences most prominently are through his fighting style, his attitude towards his captives, and the attention given to his victory. Through these three vehicles, Velleius and Dio present such radically different versions of Caesar Augustus that it is almost impossible to reconcile the two into a coherent image of who the man truly was.

Caesar’s fighting style and character as an opponent are portrayed very differently by Velleius and Dio, with the former presenting Augustus as diplomatic and decisive, and the latter describing him as more of a bullying tyrant than a conquering hero. Velleius opens his description of the Battle of Actium by explicitly stating where his loyalties lie: “Caesar and Antony…fought, one for the safety, and the other for the ruin of the world” (SB 78). Although numerous sources cast doubt upon Augustus’ military prowess, Velleius explains Caesar’s decision to leave the direct action to generals such as Agrippa by stating that “Caesar, reserving himself for that part of battle to which fortune might summon him, was present everywhere” (SB 78). It was not, then, that Caesar was incapable of fighting at Agrippa’s level, but rather that he was diplomatically prudent enough to delegate duties when his services would be more effective elsewhere. Dio’s portrayal of Caesar’s fighting style could not be more different. In describing Caesar’s attack on Antony’s forces, he uses words such as “threatened”, “provoked” and “harassed” (SB 139). He further casts Augustus as an uncertain and indecisive leader, twice stating that Caesar did not know how to proceed in the face of Antony’s tactics (SB 140, 141). Caesar’s fighting style and leadership capabilities as depicted by Dio, therefore, paint a a far less noble image of the brave and heroic man described in Velleius’ History.

Caesar’s treatment of Antony’s men after his victory is another topic that is treated in radically different ways by Velleius and Dio. Velleius places emphasis to the point of repetitiveness on Caesar’s clemency – a trait that Caesar closely associated with himself, as can be seen in the Res Gestae. Velleius writes that “Great clemency was shown in the victory; no one was put to death, and only a few banished” (SB 78), and shortly thereafter repeats this assertion, writing that “It was in keeping with Caesar’s fortune and his clemency that not one of those who had borne arms against him was put to death by him, or by his order” (SB 79). Dio contrarily presents Caesar’s victory as a terrible tragedy, vividly describing the horrors resulting from Caesar’s decision to set fire to Antony’s ships. While Velleius writes that Caesar shouted to Antony’s men that Antony had defected, urging them to surrender, “desiring to win over by words those whom he could have slain with the sword” (SB 78), Dio’s account holds no evidence of this aversion to bloodshed. Dio writes of men burned to death, devoured by sea creatures, wounded by missiles, or drowned, and “the only men who found a tolerable death in the midst of such horrors were those who agreed to kill each other or who killed themselves” (SB 142). After Antony’s ships had been completely overtaken, and the survivors had surrendered, Dio writes that “Caesar’s men eagerly sailed up to Antony’s ships in the hope of looting their treasure, busily putting out the fires they had themselves set. As a result many of them perished, the victims of the flames and of their own greed” (SB 142). Although these appalling deeds are not directly attributed to Caesar himself, the events, excluded entirely from Velleius’ description of the Battle of Actium, certainly do not portray a just and forgiving leader, given to great clemency.

The third clear difference between Velleius’ and Dio’s Caesars lies in the attention paid to the glory bestowed upon Caesar after the Battle of Actium. Dio’s account ends with the previously described horrors inflicted upon Antony’s troops by Caesar’s corrupt and greedy men. Velleius, however, spends a good deal of time describing the victorious celebrations and general good will experienced upon Caesar’s return to Rome, and goes on to write about the great benefits conferred upon the Roman people as a result of the victory at Actium. Upon Caesar’s return, writes Velleius, “the procession that met him, the enthusiasm of his reception by men of all classes, ages, and ranks, and the magnificence of his triumphs and of the spectacles that he mounted [cannot be described]” (SB 80). He underscores Caesar’s generosity, reporting that in the years following Actium, “There [was] nothing that men can desire from the gods…which Augustus, after his return to the city did not bestow upon the state, the Roman people, and the world” (SB 80). While Dio focused on the negative consequences of Caesar’s victory, excluding the purported celebrations, Velleius appears resolved to demonstrate that Caesar’s win was not only advantageous, but the very will of the gods.

As the most obvious discrepancy between these two texts is the elapsed time between the death of Caesar and the era in which the author was writing, it seems likely that with greater distance came a more balanced, less effusive view of the man whose actions were so instrumental to the history of Rome. Perhaps, one may conjecture, Velleius’ closeness in time to Caesar’s age led him to be unduly influenced by the myth of Augustus, as his parents’ generation were no doubt direct witnesses to Augustus’ rule. Whether this closeness provides Velleius with a more accurate viewpoint or clouds his description with an inability to obtain objectivity is, of course, questionable. Dio, with the hindsight conferred by time, was perhaps more able to present an accurate, objective rendition of Caesar Augustus, but he, unlike Velleius, was unable to draw upon first-person accounts of what it was like to live under Caesar. It seems, then, that we are left at a standstill with regards to who the true Caesar Augustus was: A heroic savior, or a vengeful tyrant? Dio’s decision to focus on Caesar’s indecisiveness and moral turpitude, and Velleius’ contrasting determination to convey with absolute clarity Caesar’s generosity, compassion, clemency, and moral superiority demonstrate how truly complex, and enigmatic the man was, and how obscure historical truth can be.

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Caesar Augustus, Hero Or Tyrant: the Effects of Hindsight on Dio Cassius’ Portrayal of Caesar. (2018, May 23). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 12, 2021, from
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