Overall, Augustus was the stabilizing factor in moving the state from the Republic that had collapsed to the Empire that would so greatly influence the world. He organized the government and gave Roman society much of the characteristics that we know about it today. Yet, Augustus did two things that under-minded his stabilizing actions. He instituted the imperial cult and lacked a strong succession plan.
All of Rome’s history was surrounded in myth and the interaction of the gods. As early as Romulus, kings were equated with deities. It was after Caesar’s death that he was deified. Augustus was the son, though adopted, of Caesar. Therefore, August could claim to be descended from Venus. Any descendant and relative of Caesar could embrace this claim and use it to their advantage. Accompanying this claim would be power that could be used to obtain anything a ruler wanted and to hold in the balance all lives. Combine this with the succession issue weakened the imperial structure.
Augustus’ succession problems began with not having claimed the title of monarch. If he named a successor, he was declaring himself a monarch. If he did not name a successor, he was opening up trouble. The next problem arose from not having a son of his own. He turned to a nephew, Marcellus. His early death led Augustus to adopt his grandsons through his daughter as his direct descendants. Bad luck followed with their deaths while on official business. He chose his stepson, Tiberius, as his heir and then orchestrated adoptions by Tiberius of his nephew in order to establish a line. As a backup, Agrippa Potsumus was also adopted. At his death, Augustus believed all to be well.
Augustus died and ultimately continued the mysterious death series surrounding any of Augustus’ heirs. Agrippa was murdered which took out one heir. That left Tiberius and Germanicus. Germanicus dies with rumors surrounding his death of poison. All that is left now is reining Tiberius. No plan was made by Tiberius. Plots and murders began to be common to place family members on the throne. Each one surrounded by death including their own.
By each member of the Julio-Claudian line able to trace their ancestry to the gods, power begins to corrupt. With the succession never solid with direct lines and adoptions marring the loyalty of each family member, the focus of all successors and want-to-be successors were on the power they could obtain. Energy was focused on murder, self-indulgencies, and family feuding. This scenario made it impossible for a stable imperial structure to exist. Augustus did some wonderful things, but some things that he might have not have thought of as being that crucial to the Empire turned out to be its Achilles heel.
Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. (Malden: Blackwell, 2009).