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Why the Emperor Augustus might have some gentle advice for President Putin; Two millennia have passed since Augustus left this planet but debate rages as to whether we should remember him as a hero or a scoundrel.

Byline: DAVID WILLIAMSON

SCHOLARS fascinated by one of the most compelling gures in human history will today mark the 2,000th anniversary of the death of the Roman emperor Augustus.

Two millennia after his death, there is still debate about whether he should be seen as a hero of civilisation who spread the wonders of the classical age across Europe or as a self-glorifying despot who wrecked the Roman republic.

If Vladimir Putin is enjoying a little August relaxation, he could do worse than spend a few moments pondering the legacy of this giant of history.

Augustus' life story is gripping. In the wake of the murder of his greatuncle Julius Caesar he grasped opportunities to win sources of income that would support troops; he formed alliances among the Roman elite and his military defeat of Antony and Cleopatra meant the way was clear to take the reins of what would become arguably the greatest empire the world has known.

Romans were weary of the threat of civil war among generals and longed for order.

Meanwhile, the senators, the defenders of the republic, were not about to bow before a monarch or a dictator.

Augustus is a rare example of a leader whose military genius was matched by his political skills.

He did not grab power in the style of a banana republic dictator.

Rather, through a string of incremental victories - not least the incorporation of Egypt into the empire - he amassed clout until he was the de facto ruler of the state, its true emperor.

Crucially, he gave Romans who might otherwise have fretted about the revolution in their midst cause to cheer.

He sponsored the arts, pursued social reform, constructed aqueducts, transformed the capital into a wonderwork of marble and - critically - brought peace to the city's citizens.

He created a standing army, lessened the dread of barbarian invasions by pushing back the frontiers of the empire and ensured that Roman politics was not dened by incendiary power struggles among aristocrats.

It didn't hurt his authority that in some regions of the empire he was worshipped as a god, and when he passed away the senate voted him divine honours.

As he breathed his last, he might have thought, "Well, that was a job well done".

'e debate about his legacy has rumbled on for centuries and is continued by the Commemorating Augustus project.

Edward Gibbon described him as a "subtle tyrant" who took e"orts to show a "tender respect" for a "free constitution which he had destroyed".

Scathingly, he wrote: "When he framed the artful system of the imperial authority, his moderation was inspired by his fears. He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government."

Dante Alighieri, on the other hand, celebrated his legacy in exalted terms, arguing that "Christ willed to be born in the fullness of time when Augustus was Monarch."

" He wrote: "[We] we shallnd no perfect monarchy, nor the world everywhere at peace, save under the divine Monarch Augustus."

" Dante might have admired Augustus because the fears that dned the life of this 13th Century Florentine might not have been very di"erent from those that the emperor banished from the lives of many Romans.

'e idea of stable Government, safe travel, an absence of invaders, a well-run bureaucracy, a decent water supply and a trustworthy military is still a utopian dream for billions of people around the world.

Gibbon, on the other hand, could see Augustus' sleights of hand and the way he stripped power from dif-dif ferent branches of the state until he was considered a deity.

It is one thing for an empire to have such might concentrated in the hands of an individual when that person has enlightened intentions. But the next but one emperor after Augustus was Caligula, a despot still famed for his debauched madness.

Two emperors later, Rome was subjected to the ery tyranny of Nero. 'e reigns of swathes of Augustus' successors ended in suicide or assassination; just as the capital's mighty buildings crumbled, so did the great institutions charged with preserving order.

'ose barbarians eventually reached the gates and the ruins of the city are as striking now for their hubris as for their imperial majesty.

Augustus deserves to be remembered because he provides a cautionary tale for strongmen who have stability and wealth to a country that was once on the verge of chaos and daily face the temptation of amassing yet more power and wealth.

When Putin took the helm of Russia, the former superpower's military forces were creaking and exhausted, separatists threatened to strip the federation of territories while selfaggrandising ideologues sought power in a capital haunted by memories of recent coup attempts, the economy spluttered and Nato's empire expanded into the Baltics.

Today, Putin enjoys poll ratings that have shot higher than any rework. Under the nose of the world, he has annexed Crimea; he is the undisputed ruler of the Kremlin and the country's energy resources have brought Russia renewed wealth and granted Putin the power to coerce and reward the rulers of smaller states.

His challenge is whether he gives in to the temptations of autocracy or whether he seeks to leave Russia not an anointed successor but a system of government that will protect the freedom of the individual.

If his reign is followed by turf wars between robber barons and wild nationalists his country and the world will su"er.

But if he blocks the path of a Russian Caligula or Nero he will win the respect of historians for centuries to come.

If the ghost of Augustus visits Putin's dacha, he might have wise words for the premier.

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Today marks the <B2,000th anniversary of the death of the Roman emperor Augustus
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 19, 2014
Words:972
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