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Star Wars and History: Roman Republic and Empire

January 17, 2016

~ This is the first of a six-post series called Star Wars and History. (See below for the six posts’ titles.) ~

Octavian, known as Caesar and Augustus, Rome's first emperor

Caesar Augustus

In Revenge of the Sith, the evil Palpatine transforms the Galactic Republic from the top, creating the Empire — without overthrowing the state. Palpatine is already Chancellor of the Republic, though he’s held office longer than normal, thanks to a civil war. He simply switches his title to Emperor. He also centralizes power in his own hands, at the expense of the elected Senate, but he leaves the Senate in place, along with the rest of the republican government.

The story parallels the transition from Roman Republic to Empire, in 27 BCE. Like Palpatine, Augustus Caesar had just won a civil war (against Marc Antony and Cleopatra), leaving him in command of the state. But Rome’s first emperor didn’t simply throw away the republican government and declare a new monarchy, even though it often looks that way with historical hindsight. Augustus preserved the Republic’s institutions, including the Senate and the Roman consuls and other officers. He just took away most of their power, centralizing it in his own hands.

In fact, Augustus didn’t even declare himself emperor. His key position was Princeps, an old republican title for the preeminent senator. People did call him imperator, but back then the Latin word for “emperor” was more an honorific than a title, essentially meaning commander. It wouldn’t clearly refer to a king-like ruler until generations later. In fact, Augustus and the other early emperors looked more like banana republic dictators than kings (as I point out in The Jericho River).

Augustus’ revolution from the top, then, was more subtle than Palpatine’s, who actually declares a new “first Galactic Empire.” But like Palpatine, Augustus ruled; no one doubted that.

History turns to urban myth, however, if we imagine Augustus snuffing out democracy, like Palpatine. The Roman Republic was more an aristocratic oligarchy than a democracy by Augustus’ time, particularly for anyone living outside the capital. And the switch to an emperor ended decades of predatory rule by the aristocrats, as well as repeated civil war, and brought the common people greater peace and security.


If you like fantasy + history, you’ll love my book, The Jericho River, A Novel About the History of Western Civilization.

Below are the six posts in this series, Star Wars and History:
1. Roman Republic and Empire (above)
2. Fall of the Knights Templar
3. Joseph Campbell and the Urban Myth with a Thousand Faces
4. Father vs. Son in Myth
5. Divine Conception in Myth

6. Samurai and Nazis

See also, Why Sounds Yoda So Archaic?



Image: Etienne-Jean Delécluze, The Emperor Augustus Rebuking Cornelius Cinna for His Treachery, 1814, cropped (including to remove Cinna) — provided through VanGoYourself

© 2016 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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