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date: 28 February 2021


, Roman emperor, 63 BCE–14 CE
  • Nicholas Purcell

Augustus (63 bce–14 ce), the first emperor at Rome, who presided over the inception of much of the institutional and ideological framework of the imperial system of the first three centuries ce. The long survival of his system, and its association with a literary milieu that came to be regarded as the golden age of Latin literature, make him a uniquely important figure in Roman history, but no narrative history of his lifetime survives except for the account of Cassius Dio (incomplete 6 bcece 14), and the rest of the evidence is very deeply imbued with partisan spirit of various kinds. An estimation of his personal contribution is hard to achieve.

Son of a novus homo (C. Octavius, praetor 61, d. 59) from Velitrae in the Alban Hills, C. Octavius was typical enough of the milieu of junior senators in the third quarter of the 1st cent., perceiving that the way to success lay through the support of the great dynasts for their agents and followers. In this he had a head start: his mother Atia (1) (of a family from Aricia, next door to Velitrae) was the daughter of Caesar's sister, which made C. Octavius one of the closest young male relatives of the dictator, a connection emphasized when in 51 bce he gave the funeral oration for his maternal grandmother. In 47 he was made pontifex; with Caesar in Spain in 45, he was enrolled as a patrician, and when the dictator drew up his will (13 September 45) he adopted the 17-year-old Octavius and made him his heir. The young man spent the winter in study at Apollonia in Illyricum, but reacted with decision and alacrity when Caesar was murdered and the will read. Over the next months he consolidated his position as the leader of the friends of Caesar, commemorating his adoptive father, and wooing his veterans; a course of action which brought him into conflict with Antony, (M. Antonius (2)), and support of the cause against him which was victorious at Mutina (April 43), after which he seized the consulship by force. At Bononia the differences between him, Antony, and M. Aemilius Lepidus (3) were resolved and the triumvirate established. The next years were marked by the crushing of L. Antonius (Pietas) and Fulvia at Perusia, with singular violence, the settling of veterans, on confiscated land, and the proscriptions, in which he was as ruthless as the others. He married Scribonia as a gesture to Sextus Pompeius, and she bore his only child Iulia (3) (in 39 he divorced her to marry Livia Drusilla); to seal the political dispositions made at Brundisium in October 40 Antony married his sister Octavia (2). All the politicians of the time made use of imperium, one of the only surviving constitutional principles of any potency, and Caesar's heir now took the first name Imperator.

Over the 30s, events combined with astute responses enabled Imp. Caesar to represent himself as defender of an Italian order. His principal local rival for this position, Sextus Pompeius (finally defeated at Naulochus in 36), he represented as a pirate-leader. He took advantage of his control of the ancient centre of imperium and (especially through the singular post-consular aedilate of Agrippa in 33) maintained the favour of the disaffected and volatile populus who still in theory granted it. After a half-hearted attempt to attain some military reputation against a foreign enemy (the Illyrians) he turned to representing Antony in Alexandria (1) as alien, immoral, and treacherous. In 32 a formal oath expressed the mass loyalty of Italy to his cause. The advantages of this policy were not wholly symbolic. Italy offered material resources, manpower, and the land with which to reward its loyalty. Imp. Caesar and his close supporters of these years and afterwards (especially M. Vipsanius Agrippa, T. Statilius Taurus, and C. Maecenas) were victorious against Antony, whose pro-Egyptian policy and failure in Armenia had lost him much of his eastern support. The battle of Actium (31 bce) was the turning-point; the capture of Alexandria in the next year ended the war and led to the incorporation of Egypt in the imperium. Victory in the east, the vindication of his political promises in Italy, and the booty of the Ptolemies gave him an unassailable position, soon expressed in terms of divinity.

From his consulship of 31 (he held it every year down to 23) there began a down-playing of the irregularity of the triumviral system, which culminated in a formal restitutio of the res publica, a restoration in the sense of repair or revival rather than a return to a different constitution. He returned to Rome in mid-29, triumphed, beautified the city by the dedication of important temples, and signalled an end to war by the closing of the temple of Janus. Agrippa was his colleague in the consulship for 28 and 27: at the beginning of 27 he made the formal gesture of reinstating the magistrates, senate (reduced in numbers through a purge of undesirable elements), and people in their old constitutional role. In return he received a major grant of proconsular imperium, and many honours, including the name Augustus (see augustus, augusta, as titles), and departed to carry out the military duties of his new command.

Before 7 bce Augustus spent a great deal of time in the provinces (only in 23, 18, 17, and 12 did he spend the whole year in Rome, and he was absent for the whole of 26/5, 21/0, and 15/4). The Civil Wars had shown that power at Rome was to be won in the provinces, and with ever greater numbers of Roman citizens outside Italy, Augustus had to form an empire-wide system. The creation of a huge proconsular provincia on the model of the commands of Pompey and the triumvirs, which gave Augustus imperium over most of the milites of the res publica, was the core of this, and the most important part of the ‘settlement’ of 27. Delegation was essential in so unwieldy an entity, and, like his predecessors, Augustus appointed senatorial legates and equestrian prefects to serve his imperium. If these men ran units which were analogous to the provinciae of the proconsuls who continued to be sent to the parts of the Roman dominion that lay outside Augustus' command, that is not to say that the settlement envisaged two types of province. Such an innovation would have been far less subtle than the skill with which the legal flexibility of the assignment of proconsular commands and the convenient precedents of the previous generation were adapted to Augustus' purpose.

There were difficulties, since holders of imperium had been accustomed to a greater independence than Augustus could afford to allow them. Already in 30 the claim of M. Licinius Crassus (2) to the spolia opima had tested the limits of self-determination; this bid for an antique honour was, characteristically, thwarted by a display of greater erudition from Augustus. Egypt's temptations proved too much for even the equestrian prefect C. Cornelius Gallus (26). M. Primus came to grief because his informal instructions were inconsistent (c.24). In 23, again following the precedent of Pompey, the proconsular imperium was clearly labelled maius (superior), which also clarified the position of the other holders under Augustus of wide-ranging commands, such as Agrippa and C. Iulius Caesar (3).

The maintenance of the loyalty of the soldiers finally depended on Augustus' capacity to pay them. That in turn depended on the organization of revenues so that they would regularly accrue to him directly. A simple fiscal logic thus operated which transformed the empire: previously, the maintaining of cash flows to the centre, where they might be squandered by one's enemies, was of little interest to provincial governors. Now, the efficiency of the exaction system was the only guarantee of the survival of the new order. The whole world was enrolled, and noticed it (Luke 2: 1, even if the process was not so sudden as the experience of Judaea implied). Taxation was reformed and new provinces made so that their tribute might swell Augustus' takings. The enthusiastic imposition of such burdens caused rebellion and disaster, especially in Germany. A military treasury on the Capitol announced the theoretical centrality of the fiscal arrangements to the whole imperium from ce 6 (see aerarium).

The incorporations of this period doubled the size of the provincial empire: NW Spain and the provinces of the Alps and the Alpine foreland, Raetia, Noricum, and Pannonia, with Germania and Moesia beyond them, saw most of the military aggression, the provincialization of Galatia and Judaea being relatively peaceful. A reasonably high level of military activity was a sensible ingredient in Augustan political strategy, and provided the gloria which fuelled the auctoritas of the ruling cadre. Some of this took the form of expeditions which bore no fruit in terms of the all-important taxation, either directly (or in some cases ever): like Augustus' own trip to the Danube (35–33 bce), Aelius Gallus' Arabian campaign (25–24), and the wars in southern Egypt of C. Cornelius Gallus (29) and C. Petronius (25). The main point of such trips was the glamour of the geography and ethnography, celebrated in poetry and on Agrippa's map, which propagated the belief that Augustus' Rome ruled the whole inhabited world. This impression was reinforced by Augustus' generally successful use (continued in the east from Antony's careful practice) of the traditional diplomatic relations with local magnates, kings, or communities, in places outside the direct imperium of a Roman governor. Ritual courtesies on both sides could suggest that the empire included India or Britain, and had a practical role in settling outstanding issues with Parthia in 20 in a negotiation which Augustus made a great deal of. When a serious military threat appeared, in the shape of the Pannonian Revolt, ‘the worst war since those against Carthage’, or the German war that followed the massacre of Quinctilius Varus and his three legions, the system all but collapsed.

For all his absences, Rome itself was at the heart of Augustus' vision. City-foundations in the provinces, and benefactions to existing coloniae and municipia, encouraged the imitation of the metropolis and the recognition of that constituency of Italians spread across the Mediterranean world that had played such a vital part in the Civil Wars. He could not avoid a real concern for the urban populace of Rome itself, who caused major disturbances of the traditional kind at intervals throughout his ascendancy. In 23, the choice of tribunicia potestas (see tribuni plebis) as the ‘indication of the highest station’, and the way in which Augustus counted the years of his ‘reign’ thereafter, signalled also his descent from the populares (see optimates) of the late republic, many of whose policies he continued (albeit sometimes with a show of reluctance): he made provision against famine, fire, and flood, and reorganized the districts of the city (spreading his own cult in the process). The popular assembly duly ratified his legislation, and was represented en masse in displays of loyalty at important moments.

Varro had taught the Romans to be at home in their own city, and Augustus was an eager interpreter of the process. The ancient messages of cult and civic ritual offered many opportunities, which he was making use of already in the 30s. After Actium the serious development of the cult of Palatine Apollo as a parallel for Capitoline Jupiter, and the restoration of dozens of Rome's ancient sanctuaries; after 12 (when he finally became pontifex Maximus on the death of Lepidus) the formation of the House of the Pater Patriae, in 2 bce the inauguration of a replacement forum (see forum augustum), to which many state ceremonies were removed; throughout the creation of a ‘suburb more beautiful than the city’ on the Campus Martius, for the amenity of the populace: the reduplication of Rome's glories cleverly allowed him to be a new founder without damaging the old system, and to surpass all past builders and benefactors without the solecism of departing from or belittling their precedent. He thus underlined his relationship with the previous centuries of Roman history in a Roman Whig history that culminated in his ascendancy.

His management of lex was equally historic: giving his name to far more leges than any legislator before him (see lex (2) for leges Iuliae), and announcing his control of the legislative assembly in the process, he became the city-founding lawgiver of the new Rome. The control of religion, that mirror of the res publica, was the interpretative vehicle of much of this, and learning, interpretation, and doctrine, of law or ritual precedent, history or geography, were the indispensable servants of all these projects. Hence the cultural and literary acme that later generations of Romans perceived at this epoch. These processes came together in the pivotal years 19–17 bce, when he had made the last modifications to his position in the res publica, settled the eastern and western provinces, and acquired his first grandson (C. Iulius Caesar (3), the child of Iulia (3) and Agrippa). Now came the ethical and social laws, and in 17 the great celebration of the divine diuturnity that the Fates had given to Rome by making her populace virtuous and therefore fecund, in the ludi saeculares, see secular games.

His concern for the institutions of state allowed him to insert himself into the annals of Roman history as a continuator or reformer rather than as an intruder or revolutionary, while the inherent flexibility of the institutions gave him a wonderful repertoire of gambits both for shaping opportunities for political success for his supporters and for social promotion, of which the most important form of all was the identification of a successor to his office. The very happy accident of his long life allowed readjustment of many of his innovations in a process of trial and error, a refining process which explains the success and long survival of many of them: the city prefect (see praefectus urbi), the public postal service, the vigiles, and so on.

The arrangement of a successor proved the most difficult task of all. The calculation of auctoritas in which he excelled, and which his very name evoked, entailed that no merely dynastic principle could be guaranteed; it would belittle his own carefully constructed practical reputation for real ability to have a successor who owed everything, as he had done, to a name. At the same time he had been unable (and had perhaps not wanted) to avoid accumulating honours for his family, and using for that very consolidation of auctoritas the image of a Father and the model of the state as a super-household, one conducted like his own and under his benign but omnicompetent tutelage. There was in the end a dissonance between the role of those who had to be permitted to acquire the necessary auctoritas to maintain the image of effective governance, especially through largely factitious military escapades, and the need to rely on his own blood-line to keep alive the charisma of his own divine associations. Agrippa was a compliant assistant in the public sphere, and Livia happy and expert at propagating the necessary pictures in the private; but Tiberius and Drusus, Livia's children by her first marriage, were not good at being second fiddle, and Iulia, his daughter and only child, on whom the whole dynastic construction relied, nearly wrecked the whole thing by probably calculated sexual misbehaviour. This called into question the credentials of the model family, the legitimacy of her offspring, and the feasibility of using ethics as a constitutional strategy, while potentially irradiating her partners (who included Antony's son Iullus Antonius) with her share of the ancestral charisma.

The dynastic policy was not overtly monarchic either, however, and what saved Augustus was the fact that he had (since he did not have the option of destroying them wholesale) re-created the Roman aristocracy and given them a new role in his social system. As an antidote to the Civil War social mobility was to be curbed; freedmen were discouraged from promotion, the plebs was indulged but controlled; the two upper classes were encouraged to procreate, and each had its precise place in the religious system, at the theatre, and in government. As an ornament to the whole thing, and to camouflage the prerogatives that he ascribed to his own family, survivors of the great lines of the historic Roman past were encouraged to live up to their ancestors' images, and given an honorific but circumscribed part to play in a system whose regulation, through his censorial function, it was Augustus' job to manage. Hence—and the power derived also from his fatherly pretensions—the ethical content of much of his legislation, which did the nobility the credit of thinking them worthy of the past while giving their arbiter a useful way of coercing them if they failed to live up to it. The seeds of the disastrous use of the laws on adultery and maiestas over the next generations were therefore sowed by Augustus, who was not himself faced by any very coherent opposition.

Later authors dated the establishment of the imperial monarchy to 31 or 27 bce. In many ways, as Augustus probably saw, and Tacitus appreciated, the new arrangements, many times modified, and threatened by diverse instability, could not be regarded as established until someone had succeeded to them, and then shown himself willing to continue their essentials. Although the optimus status was in most respects in place by the climax of the legislative phase and the announcement of the saeculum in 17, and the pinnacle of auctoritas was commemorated in 2 bce, the Augustan empire could have been dissolved in ce 14. The achievement of Augustus lay in the flexibility with which he and his advisers responded to a period of striking social change in the Mediterranean world, the legacy of the Roman/Italian diaspora of the previous century. But in controlling a dynamic process there is more continuity and less revolution than is usual in the foundation of a monarchy, and that may well help to account for the stability of the system that Augustus' successors developed out of his innovations. See also rome, history, § 2.1; apollodorus (5).


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