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Star Wars and Rome: From Republic to Empire

In Star Wars, the Galactic Empire, ruled by Emperor Palpatine, is unmistakably evil. They destroy planets, militarily occupy civilizations, massacre rebels, kill their own soldiers, and enslave citizens. Conversely, the Ancient Roman Empire would not normally be characterized as evil, although evil deeds were committed during its time. However, regardless of evil intentions, the way in which the fictional Emperor Palpatine came to power is very similar to the way in which Caesar Augustus gained control of Rome in 27 BC.

Palpatine began his career of influence in the Senate, eventually rising to the highest position of power and choosing to call himself Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. He did not invade and overthrow any established leadership. He naturally rose to the top and only when he gained complete control of the Republic by taking over the clone army did he declare himself an emperor. In Episode III, he declared to the new Imperial Senate, “We stand on the threshold of a new beginning. In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society, which I assure you will last for ten thousand years. An Empire that will continue to be ruled by this august body and a sovereign ruler chosen for life…The direction of our course is clear. I will lead the Empire to glories beyond imagining.” Here, he completed his plan to gain control of the galaxy and yet did not abolish the Senate. He kept it in place but just took away its power. He turned the Senate into an advisory body for his endless rule and was able to because of his steady approach to power and initial refusal to declare himself a ruler.

Caesar Augustus had a similar rise to power. First as Octavian, he rose to a position of influence as the heir to Julius Caesar after his assassination and, having led a victorious campaign in a civil war, found himself at the head of the Roman Senate. Augustus refused the offer of a dictatorship several times and asked to be called the princeps, or first man in the Senate. He even claimed that he would rid himself of all power to bring peace to Rome. In his own words, he “handed over the republic to the control of the senate and people of Rome.” Because of his expression of selflessness, the Senate granted him even more power, specifically the Imperium and Tribunal powers. These gave Augustus the power of an emperor and signified the transition of Rome from a republic to an empire.

A moderately similar situation can be analyzed here in America. Since the writing of the Constitution, the Executive branch has grown in power. While there have been no changes of title, the President has much more power today than he did in the 18th century, much to the assumed dismay of the Founding Fathers. Even though America has exhibited imperialistic tendencies, no president has entered a position of power high enough to be equated to an emperor.

Overall, the similarities between Emperor Palpatine and Caesar Augustus are astonishing. Both rose to the status of emperor as discreetly and quietly as they could, and took power with ease. While one case is historical and the other is merely fictional, the narrative is the same. All humans want power, and we must be careful of those who claim that they don’t.

-Nate Utesch

Word Count: 575

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