Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1995 R. James Ferguson

Background Briefing:

The Revolution of Augustus: Imperial Government


Background Briefing Topics:

  • The Political Arrangements of 23 B.C. and Augustus' Position
  • Control of the Provinces and Armies
  • Relations with the Senators, Equites and Plebeians
  • The New Order as New Government


1. The Political Arrangements of 23 B.C. & Augustus' Position

Octavian (who would later given the name Augustus and in hindsight be viewed as the first Roman emperor), was granted a special combination of consular and proconsular powers which made his imperium and auctoritas (political power and prestige) in pre-eminent in the Roman state. In 23 B.C. we find a new regulation of Augustus' position. He resigned the consulship, as noted in the official records for this year (the Fasti Capitolini). Since he had held this position for consecutive years since 33 B.C. (itself a political aberration), this represents a major change in his policies and political program. The reason for Augustus' resignation is complex, and is not clearly spelt out in the sources. It is interesting to note that the first of the two new consuls appointed, Lucius Sestius Quirinus Albinus, was notedly independent of thought, even anti-Caesarian, and described as an enthusiastic follower of Brutus (Cassius Dio 53.32.4-5; Syme 1974, p335). It is possible that Augustus here sought to open up the consulship to more of the senatorial class, 'in order that as many as possible might become consuls' (Cassius Dio 53.32.3), meeting their ambitions and demands through this highest of offices. Furthermore, in choosing men of independent disposition, he was signalling to the older Senatorial families that he had no wish to entirely limit their access to magistracies which grant them the highest honours and accorded them nobility.

In part this change in policy may have been due to a major crisis, in which the trial of Primus, proconsul of Macedonia, played a major part. Primus seems to have had the support of Varro Murena, who may have been the consul at the time, though the exact dates are disputed. Marcus Primus, proconsular governor of Macedonia, was accused of making war upon the tribe of the Odrysae without consent of the Senate, even though he claimed it had been done with the consent of Augustus and/or his nephew M. Marcellus and son-in-law (Cassius Dio 54.3.1-3). When arraigned in court, these justifications were demolished by the testimony of Augustus, who appeared as a witness. This prosecution of Primus may have set of a conspiracy, or been used to set of false charge against a group of prominent men. Cassius Dio describes these events: -

At all events, not a few voted for the acquittal of Primus, and others formed a plot against Augustus. Fannius Caepio was the instigator of it, but others also joined with him. Even Murena was reported to be in the conspiracy, whether truly or by way of calumny, since he was immoderate and unrestrained in his outspokenness towards all alike. These men did not stand trial, and so were convicted by default, on the supposition that they intended to flee; and a little later they were slain. Murena found neither Proculeius, his brother, nor Maecenas, his sister's husband, of any avail to save him, though these men were most highly honoured by Augustus. And inasmuch as some of the jurymen voted to acquit even these conspirators, he <Augustus> made a law than in trails at which the defendant was not present the vote should not be taken secretly and the defendant should be convicted only by a unanimous vote. (Cassius Dio 54.3-6)

The dating and validity of the so-called 'Murena-Caepio conspiracy' has generated considerable debate, i.e. between 23 or 22 B.C. (see Atkinson 1960, Stockton 1965, Bauman 1966, Rowland 1967, Jameson 1969). In the slightly later tradition of the principate Velleis Paterculus describes the affair as a 'plan to kill Caesar' (II 91.2-3). If the conspiracy can be backdated, this would postulate a major crisis as one of the reasons for Augustus' resignation of the consulship, as noted by E.A. Judge (formerly of Macquarie University). Murena may have been implicated in the defense of M. Primus, marking him as a likely 'victim to his indiscretion, or his ambition' (Syme 1974, p333).

Syme, in particular, argues that the fall of Murena, a brother-in-law of Maecenas, was part of a major contest between the powerful ministers of Augustus, with both his wife Livia and Agrippa turning against Maecenas, perhaps in an attempt to weaken his support for Marcellus as 'heir' to Augustus' power (Syme 1974, pp340-342). This is based on the record in Suetonius that Agrippa was jealous of the possible preferment of Marcellus to himself, and that Maecenas had betrayed the secret of the discovery of Murena's conspiracy to his wife Terentia (Suetonius Augustus 66). We must also note that Tiberius was the prosecuting officer who secured the condemnation of Fannius Caepio, and probably of Murena as well (Suetonius Tiberius 6). Furthermore, it is true that Livia had by this time at least betrothed her son Tiberius to Agrippa's daughter Vipsania, cementing a possible political alliance (Syme 1974, p345).

This 'double conspiracy' theory can be accepted only if we find Maecenas as a strong supporter for the early preferment of Marcellus and his rise to power, a debatable point, unless one accepts Cassius Dio's account of Maecenas as a supporter of a dynastic 'monarchy' and Agrippa as a supporter of the 'Republic' (Cassius Dio 52.8.4; Syme 1974, p343). Unfortunately, the structure of this section of Cassius Dio suggests a rhetorical polarization based on Greek political conceptions (implied in Nicolet 1984, p103). Furthermore, to suggest that in 23 B.C. the Caesarian party thwarted the monarchical designs of Augustus and prevented the adoption of Marcellus' (Syme 1974, p368) is to ignore that fact that Livia probably had such 'monarchical' designs for her son Tiberius, whose alliance with Agrippa's daughter would only strengthen his claim to power. Indeed, Marcellus would die (in 19-18 B.C.), as would the other 'heirs' of Augustus until only the 'recalcitrant' Tiberius and the 'heroic' Germanicus would remain.

Unfortunately, the limited facts at our disposal do not support such clear cut party divisions. Murena is attested as condemned and his position filled by Gnaeius Calpurnius Piso, according to the Fasti Capitolini of 23 B.C., indicating that he held office for 23 B.C., or at least was appointed to the position for the following year. Piso himself, though once again with the reputation of an independent spirit, was willing to accept the appointment, perhaps to avoid serious civil disturbances in Rome (Syme 1974, p368). As noted by Syme, the 'choice of Sestius, like the choice of Piso, will attest, not the free working of Republican institutions, but the readiness of Republican adherents to rally to the new regime, for diverse motives - ambition, profit and patriotism (Syme 1974, p335).

However, Augustus still needed to ensure that his proconsular imperium was in effect greater than any other proconsular (see Syme 1974; Judge 1985). Likewise, he needed to ensure that his interests and prestige in Rome retained a rank equivalent to, or greater than the current consuls. This was done by several special powers that were granted to Augustus. Firstly, it must be noted that he was a man of consular rank, held the religious positions of Pontifex and Augur, and had been granted the sacrosanctity of a tribune from 36 B.C. To this was now added the positive powers of a tribune, its potestas, which gave Augustus the ability to suggest and veto legislation, and was used in conjunction with his tasks in regulating the mos maiorum, the laws and morals or the Romans in their various status groups. Augustus, as a patrician, of course, could not actually become a tribune, but he could accept the tribunician power, as stated for 23 B.C. in the Fasti Capitolini. The statement in Cassius Dio (53.32.4-5) that he 'should be a tribune for life' is an oversimplification of this distinction.

He also seems to have been given the right to speak in the Senate before the other Senators, as were the consuls, and seems to have been given almost an equivalent rank, thought this position of consulari cum imperium may not have been granted until 18 B.C. Thus Cassius Dio notes that the Senate voted him 'the privilege of bringing before the Senate at each meeting any one matter at whatever time he liked' (53.32.4-5). The arrangements of 23 B.C. do not seem to have been entirely satisfactory. We hear from Cassius Dio that during the consulship of C. Sentius Saturninus, in 19 B.C., the second place for the consulship had been kept open for Augustus, which he refused. When a colleague was to be elected, 'factious quarrelling again took place and murders occurred, so that the senators voted a guard for Sentius' (Cassius Dio 54.10.1-3). Furthermore, a praetor called Egnatius Rufus had organized his own body of private slaves to put out fires in Rome, and with the resultant popularity hoped to stand for the consulship, a move that was blocked by Saturninus since the man was regarded as 'in every way more like a gladiator than a senator' (Velleius Paterculus II.91.2-3). He was arrested on charges of a conspiracy to take the life of the Princeps, an unlikely charge, and executed (Syme 1974, p371)

Augustus in the end chose a man for the second consulship, and upon his return to the city accepted the position of supervisor of morals, with the powers of censor, and took on the authority of a consul for life (Cassius Dio 54.10.3-5). If so, Augustus recognised that political combats for the consulship needed closer regulation under his own power. His control of affairs was such that he now felt willing to accept these rather unusual arrangements, constitutional in form but unprecedented. Furthermore, he granted Tiberius the rank of an ex-praetor, and allowed his brother Drusus to stand for the offices of state 5 years earlier than usual (see Syme 1974).

2. Control of the Provinces and Armies

One of the powers that may have been granted to him in 23 B.C. was that of proconsul cum maiori cum imperio. If so, by right, he could command other proconsuls, even when in charge of Senatorial provinces. He now stands as the legal was well as the effective military leader of the Roman state. It is possible, on the other hand, that he was really only granted this through the direct command of his extended provincia, and that it was only his prestige which allowed him to help select and control the policies of proconsuls in areas such as Africa, Macedonia or Illyricum. He was certainly granted proconsular powers for life (Cassius Dio 53.32.5), but as noted by E.A. Judge, the key question is whether the definition of his imperium as maius does in fact act as a means of power beyond those of other proconsuls (see further Levick 1975).

There can be no doubting Augustus' direct control of his large provincial armies, including forces in Spain, Gaul, Germany and Syria. This was usually commanded by legates, though both he and Agrippa spent several years in major tours of these regions. A major war was fought in Spain against the Cantabrians, which were decimated by Augustus (from 26 B.C.-24 B.C.) and then by Agrippa. The war lasted effectively from 29-19 B.C. and resulted in a peace based on 'desolation' (Syme 1974, pp332-3). Augustus also conducted a major tour of the eastern provinces between 22 and 19 B.C., ensuring meanwhile that one of the two consuls was a supporter and a military man being ennobled by that office for the first time, e.g. L. Arruntius, M. Lollius and C. Sentius Saturninus (Syme 1974, p372). Diplomacy and careful pressure was used to secure the return of the standards lost by Crassus to the Parthians, while a Roman choice was made for the ruler of Armenia (Syme 1974, p388; Suetonius Tiberius 9; Res Gestae 27-8).

Two trends can viewed in command of these provinces. Firstly, after 27 B.C. their legionary commanders were either part of Augustus' 'party', and show direct links with his family or are clients, for example, the Rhine legions in the years following 6 B.C. were controlled by some 10 commanders, of which 5 were related in some way to Augustus' family (Syme 1974, p401). Secondly, we find a large number of new men, originally drawn from the equites class (knights) or even its equivalent ranking in the Italian towns. Thus for example, we find a new man, a certain Quintus Octavius Sagitta of the Sergian tribe, rising from prefect of engineers to hold procuratorial commands in the northern frontier of the Alps (Raeti), in Spain and Italy (Inscription from Central Italy, Ehrenburg & Jones 224), while a Qintus Varius Geminus became the first man from the region of Paeligni (central Italy) to become a Senator, tribune of the plebs, praetor, legate and proconsul (Ehrenburg & Jones 205). In most cases these were men of praetorian rank, rising but not too prominent (Syme 1974, p327). It was largely from this invigorated class of equites that a generation of new men were groomed for office; they were most prominently used between 30 and 12 B.C, and then again a new batch of men appear from A.D. 4-14 (Syme 1974, p362). There were some risks in using the equites so prominently for military commands. In a sense these commanders remained 'private persons', commanding only through the authority of Augustus himself (for related issues of delegation, see Levick 1975). As noted by Claude Nicolet: -

Augustus was quite naturally torn between his desire to restore the Senate to its traditional pride of place in the state and his fear of seeing the emergence of new rivals, which caused him to fall back on the 'friendship' of men he could rely on, honourable men, but who, in a sense, remained private ones and therefore more dependent on himself and more independent of the Senate. (Nicolet 1984, p106)

Furthermore, of the men who had previously held consular commands and previously received triumphs, there were some 11 viri triumphales (those who had received triumphs for military victories) still active in 27 B.C., but only one of them would again command an army, Sex. Appuleius, a relation of Augustus (a son of Augustus' half-sister, see Syme 1974, pp327-8). No one would be given the chance of reaching the prominence of a Licinius Crassus (Levick 1975), or even to be as troublesome as Gallus in Egypt.

Another trend soon emerges during this period. Towards the later part of Augustus' reign we find victorious generals being granted triumphal ornaments, that is, emblems, but not being allowed to actually hold a triumphal procession in Rome (Insciptions from Tiber, Ehrenburg & Jones 199), a limited honour, for example, being granted to Marcus Plautius Silvanius for his activities in Illyricum (Ehrenburg & Jones 200). Thus we find Augustus building up pre-eminence as the main military commander, and he can boast in his Res Gestae that on account of successful operations 'accomplished by or through my legates under my auspices by land and sea the senate voted fifty-five times that thanksgivings should be offered to the immortal gods' (Res Gestae 4.2). From 19 B.C. no more senators, at least, are allowed to hold triumphs (Syme 1974, p402). Furthermore, no senator might visit the provinces without permission, and no governor would be allowed to build up whole regions as areas of his own personal cliental base (Cassius Dio 52.42.6; Syme 1974, p405).

Augustus also decided to take over control of Illyricum and its legions, while the Senatorial province of Macedonia was stripped of its forces once the frontier moved northwards towards the Danube, with the creation of the imperial province of Moesia (Syme 1974, p329). This was perhaps part of Augustus' plan to stabilize a great northern line from Germany, through Noricum and then along the Danube. But in would result in the numbers of forces that other proconsular might command dropping from a maximum of 6 legions down to perhaps 2, at best 3 legions, though lesser auxiliary forces acted as garrisons in most provinces (see Syme 1974).

It can be seen, then, that through the use of legates and procurators, and the careful appointment of allied generals and new men, Augustus was able to retain a firm control of the vast majority of the Roman legions. His control over the Senatorial provinces was less direct, but his prestige was such that he had a certain overriding authority in these regions as well (following the lines of analysis developed by Judge and Syme). It was only in these provinces, of course, that any conflict could occur between his proconsular authority and that of another proconsular, theoretically fighting under his own auspices. As expressed by P.A. Brunt: -

In virtue of maius imperium the emperor was always free to interfere in senatorial provinces, and it was in any case natural in view of his supreme auctoritas that individuals and cities in those provinces should seek his help, just as they might have sought that of any Republican magnate. As Millar has shown, he was hardly less active in senatorial than in imperial provinces (Brunt 1984, p433).

A series of inscriptions from the Senatorial Province of Cyrene, dated to 7, 6 and 4 B.C. (Ehrenburg & Jones 311) suggests that Augustus did have extensive powers to intervene in these provinces, e.g. in setting up smaller empanelled courts of Greek and Roman citizens in Cyrene itself, in ordering persons from Cyrene granted Roman citizenship to nonetheless carry out public services owed to their own communities, and to avoid empanelling jurors from the home towns of either the accuser or the accused. These inscriptions are inscribed as declarations of 'Imperator Caesar Augustus, pontifex maximus, holding the tribunician power', and in general show the extensive power of the princeps. Ronald Syme takes these texts as a support for a straightforward interpretation of Cassius Dio 52.32.5 as indicating that Augustus had a proconsular imperium, throughout the empire, and that this was greater than all other magistrates: "In fact, but not in name, this reduced all proconsuls to the function legates of Augustus." (Syme 1974, p336)

This is in part an overstatement. The form and legal procedures used in directing the realities of Augustus' power was still a significant part of his regime, if only for propaganda rather than legal reasons. Furthermore, the implications of the Cyrene edicts in relation to the power of governors is not clear; inscription V is a major reform of procedures dealing with extortion, making it easier for provincials to get redress in this area (see Ehrenburg & Jones 1949). It is presented as a decision of the senate, and it may be presumed that the rest of the decrees would have had senatorial ratification. Furthermore, this regulation of courts in the name of avoiding extortion and treating provincials properly may have been initiated in part under the censorial powers Augustus had adopted, in fact as part of tribunician powers. In other words, Augustus may have been the initiator of degrees regulating provinces, including senatorial ones. This does not in itself indicate his ability to interfere freely and regularly with the local policies and specific powers of Senatorial proconsuls (modifying Levick 1975).

The strongest evidence, however, that Augustus had overriding powers even in Senatorial provinces comes from an inscription at Histonium in central eastern Italy. This records that a certain Publius Paquius Scaeva 'held the province of Cyprus as proconsul' and 'as proconsul for the second time outside the allotment on the proposal of Augustus Caesar and by arrangement of the senate he was sent to settle affairs in the remainder of the province of Cyprus' (Ehrenburg & Jones 197). Here we see Augustus influencing an extra-ordinary appointment, but is done with the approval of the Senate, and the phrasing of the document suggests that this was an exceptional arrangement, outside the normal allotment which was to take up governorships after the year of office-holding.

In conclusion, it seems unlikely that Augustus would have needed specific decrees to override the action of other proconsulars. He had this effective ability already as the princeps who could control voting in the Senate, and as leader of the majority of Rome's legions. He also had indirect control of Roman treasuries (see Brunt 1984, pp435-437), the money to supply such legions, and to thus command their loyalty. His imperium was greater than other officials, even consuls and proconsuls, due to his special commands and unique combination of powers, but it was effective throughout the empire due to his auctoritas. Nor can we place too much emphasis on his salutation as Imperator as this early period: this was an indicator of prestige and used as effective propaganda tool, not literally a military rank above that of other consular commanders (for the later deployment of the title, see Barnes 1974). As noted by Crook: -

If any result may be said to emerge from the many discussions about this title, from Mommsen onwards, it is that imperator was not a constitutional title of the holders of imperium, but an expression of personal auctoritas. At the end of the Republic its scope was undoubtedly enlarged . . . Grant wishes to regard it as the constitutional title of their imp. maius, as he thinks 'Augustus' was of the 'régime of auctoritas'; but he is well aware that after 27 B.C. imperator was, as originally, a title of esteem. It seems more sensible to see the word in the same light throughout its history, and to assume that IMP on the coins of the war-lords is equally a symbol of their auctoritas. (Crook 1953, p11)

Augustus also ensured that he controlled what little military force was left within Italy. Cisalpine Gaul, of course, was no longer a province, and there were no legionary armies south of the Alps. The cohors praetoria, which had been the cohorts kept close to a Roman general in camp and on the march to protect his person, were now adapted into a residential force of nine cohorts within the Praetorian Guard and stationed in Rome and nearby towns of Italy (Syme 1974, p353). Alongside Augustus' German bodyguard (Suetonius Augustus 49), this was a tightly controlled and sequestered body, led by an eques. Under future Princeps, the loyalty of the Praetorian guard would become a major issue of policy, and a major failing in the 'imperial' system.

We might also note that Augustus had established many colonies to retire large numbers of troops after the end of the civil wars. He tried to find a more permanent settlement to this problem through the creation of the treasury for army pensions, the aerarium militare, whereby cash pay-outs could be made to retiring soldiers, rather than land resettlements, which were probably abolished in 13 B.C. (Nicolet 1984, p109). Nonetheless, this fund required filling up from Augustus' own fortune (Res Gestae 17), and would remain a continued burden for the state. Although direct taxes on Roman citizens were avoided under the 'new regime', this need was probably one of the reasons for the introduction of an inheritance tax in A.D. 6, ratified in 13 A.D. (Nicolet 1984, p110).

3. Relations with the Senators, Equites and Plebeians

Theodor Mommsen had developed the idea that Augustan Rome was a dyarchy in which power was shared between Augustus and the Senate (see Brunt 1984, p423). This seems to be implied by Augustus' attempts to purify and increase the prestige of that body, the attempts to raise the dignitas of its members (Nicolet 1984, p92), by his use on the abbreviation of 'SC', indicating consultation with the senate, on most Roman coinage after 23 B.C., and by the fact that most advisory senatus consulta are given the practical force of law, regardless of whether they have confirmed by the voting assemblies (though the Senate itself may be viewed as under the princeps' control, see Grant 1969, pp97-8). Mommsen's view, however, can be challenged on various grounds, as noted by C.E.V. Nixon of Macquarie University. The SC can be taken as a statement of the fact that the government consulted with the Senate, not that it was a dominant organ of the state and the real basis of Augustus' government. Furthermore, there were other elements in the power structure: Agrippa, in particular, was a major power from 19 B.C., who had extensive commands in the east, and shared Augustus' tribunican powers for some years, and emerges as an almost second power in Rome. In any case, the real power of Augustus lay not with the official body of the Senate, but with a much larger base composed of Senators, equites, military commanders and legionnaires, and the plebs of Rome. In fact, he virtually created a new regulation of classes and their status through his major censuses of 28 B.C., 8 B.C. and A.D. 14, along with partial assessments of 11 B.C. and A.D. 4 (Nicolet 1984, p91).

Augustus, of course, had both purified and purged the Senate (Res Gestae 8) of a 'sad rabble' of those unworthy for office, and may have viewed this as one of the most dangerous tasks he had to undertake (see Suetonius Augustus 35, where Augustus is said to have worn armour under his tunic and to have been surrounded by burly friends). It numbers were reduced from the 1000 of 30 B.C. to 800, then again in 18 B.C. down to 600, along with financial regulation of their census at 400,000 HS, later raised to 1 million HS (Nicolet 1984, pp91-2). Augustus then set out to make sure that suitable men, fit for public service, would enter the Senate in future. He first indicated that the sons of senators (Nicolet 1984, p93) along with certain young men of the equites families might wear the broad purple strip on their togas, virtually nominating them for future office and membership of the Senate (Syme 1974, p359). Second, he promoted suitable equites for membership, using both the traditional offices and also the position of the tribune of the plebs for this function, though according to Suetonius he allowed knights who held offices to decline entering the Senate if they wished (Suetonius Augustus 38; we might note at this stage that reluctance to take up office may have begun to be a common feature of the social life of the period, see Nicolet 1984, p104). In doing so he both shifted that body more into an oligarchy of family office holders, and brought in new blood which he hoped would improve that body's abilities. At later dates he actually gave money to certain individuals to make up the needed census of required wealth, as in the grant of 4 A.D. to eighty young senators (Nicolet 1984, p92), a procedure followed by later Princeps such as Tiberius and Claudius (Nicolet 1984, pp94-5).

It was this invigorated body which he hoped would help him and his main ministers to rule. Out of the senators he arranged that a group of councillors should be chosen by lot every 6 months, to form a small council to help him draft bills (Suetonius Augustus 35). It was to consist of the consuls, one each of the other officials, and 15 senators chosen by lot, but their function may have been to disseminate information and build consensus as much as to be wield power (Cassius Dio 53.21.4-5). The council could even constitute an informal body for trials, though this also became more prominent during the period following Augustus. Furthermore, the senate still sat as a court (Cassius Dio 55.34.2), presumably led by the consuls. Secondly, Augustus seems to a have during Senatorial meetings to have asked members for their opinions, rather than followed seniority (Suetonius Augustus 35), perhaps seeking expert advise rather than merely following prestige. However, there was a progressive disjunction between appearance and reality: -

At the end of Augustus's reign libels on men and women of the <senatorial> order were made offences by senatorial decree on the law of maiestas. In these ways and also in the acquisition of new functions, judicial, legislative and electoral, the senate became grander to outward view, just when it was losing that auctoritas by which it had previously exercised a genuine control over the state in normal conditions. (Brunt 1984, p424)

Augustus also tried to use prominent consulars to control the affairs of the city during his absence, and later on as a standing office (see Syme 1974). The position of praefectus urbi was appointed unsuccessfully in 26 B.C. in the case of Messalla, who resigned from the position after a few days because it was either an undignified or an undefined office, but the power to appoint such officials may have become regularised under later laws and became a regular imperial power (see Brunt 1984, p441). This became a regular institution whereby the Princeps could delegate control of the city, e.g. through men like Statilius Taurus and L. Calpurnius Piso (Syme 1974, pp403-4; Tacitus Annals 6.11). Likewise, the Senate continued to receive and give audiences to foreign people and kings, as well as award honours and triumphs to generals (Brunt 1984), no doubt with the views of the Princeps clearly in mind.

Augustus also purged the class of equites, interviewing each knight with a board of 10 senators (Suetonius Augustus 38), degrading some, rebuking others. The equestrian order was also supposed to be based on free birth and a good moral character, excluding bankrupts, bond-breakers, and those who hired themselves out as actors or gladiators (Nicolet 1984, p96). The exact census for this group is unclear, though after the period of Augustus it had been raised to 400,000 HS (Nicolet 1984, p98). Augustus relied strongly on this class for his military commanders, as well as for a range of other offices which begin to built up what we would call a professional government for Rome. Some 360 senior officer posts in the military, for example, would fall vacant each year, and there were not enough sons of senators available (Nicolet 1984, p99) to fill even the majority of these. Control of the grain supply was now passed to a permanent post held by an eques, the praefectus annonae, while the cohorts of freed slaves used as both a police force and a fire brigade were under the command of the praefectus vigilum (Syme 1974, p357). Likewise, the equites still had an active role in the empanelled juries, of which there seem to have been at least four standing panels under Augustus, although the details are unclear (Nicolet 1984, p101).

Augustus also tried to strengthen the equites class as a whole, allowing townships in Italy to nominate men who would be suitable to take up senior army commands and take up positions which could lead them to be adducted into this class (Suetonius Augustus 46). Their major role in the military commands of the empire has already been noted. Likewise, some of the senior centurions may have been promoted into the equites later in life (Nicolet 1984, p101); otherwise their sons might have a chance to be promoted. As suggested by Claude Nicolet, this order was 'intended to be essentially a group which would "stand surety", a huge reservoir which would enable the res publica to recruit in sufficient numbers, suitable candidates for various essential offices' (Nicolet 1984, p99). Throughout the empire, of course, many equites continued their financial activities, whether as publicani (official tax collectors and underwriters), merchants, or the owners of extensive estates in Italy and abroad (especially Sicily and southern Gaul).

But Augustus' support group went beyond this. Augustus established some 28 veteran colonies (Suetonius Augustus 46), but after 27 B.C. was careful to ensure that existing communities were not dispossessed, or at least were given adequate financial compensation if land was taken. Generally, Augustus ensured that grain and games (Res Gestae 22-3) were available to the plebeians, and made financial benefactions to the plebeians in 29, 24, 23, 11, 5, and 2 B.C., as well as in his will (Res Gestae 15). Such largesse was suitable from a patron to his clients, and Augustus, through his connection with Julius Caesar and the honours given to him personally, may have genuinely appeared as a great hero to the plebeians (Yavetz 1988, pp101-102). In particular, he created an environment after 8 A.D. where they could conduct their ordinary business without the fear of civil war, did not need to fear defeats on the frontiers of empire, nor excessive civil disturbances. Mob leaders and conspirators such as Clodius, a Milo, or even an Egnatius Rufus would not be tolerated in the capital. To achieve this, Augustus controlled the elections of all major officials, though allowing the mechanisms of the voting assembly to continue. Thus by 8 A.D., for example, we find Augustus appointing all magistrates because of previous factional outbreaks, and it seems likely that from this date he clearly indicated the candidates he preferred for most if not all major positions (Cassius Dio 55.34.2), thus strengthening the informal influence he already had on popular elections from 27 B.C. (Brunt 1984, p429). This procedure, however, soon became hollow enough for it to be abandoned by his successor Tiberius (Brunt 1984, p429), who transferred the elections from the 'Comitia to the Senate'. Interestingly enough, there were no major disturbances when the Assemblies were dissolved for good (Tacitus Annals I.15). Perhaps they were by this time regarded as both artificial and a waste of time.

Symbolically, however, Augustus liked his coins to bear the statement of his tribunician powers, which he held for 37 years (Res Gestae 4.3), and through which he was supported by, and supposedly supported, the People of Rome. His proconsular imperium was his legalised control of the armies (Syme 1974, p337). However, he also had control of a third major resource: an enormous access to wealth, from the Roman treasury, from the tribute of the provinces, and from a vast private fortune. With these financial means he could afford to control two pillars of new order, the People and the Army.

4. The New Order as New Government

Strangely enough, a 'slow' revolution had occurred in Rome, but a revolution led from above. It had begun in the late 2nd century, and resulted in a cycle of civil wars and political contests of increasing scale and violence. The last act of that revolution was the emergence a single ruler who could build a basis of support large enough to suppress major opponents, thereby ending the wars. Octavian had done so, but in the process he had used the rhetoric and forms of Republican life to create a new force in Roman affairs. Rome had always been led by the senate, her main consulars, and the counter-posed interests of the assemblies. None of these bodies could be called either a legislature or a bureaucracy in a modern sense - none of them were full-time governments. The faction of Octavian, however, began to build what we would called a government, that is, a body of men dedicated to serving in the military and in public office on a life-long basis, providing a relatively coherent body of policy rather than merely responding to the political needs of the shifting factions and external events. As noted by Syme: -

So much for the settlement of 23 B.C. It was only twenty-one years from the removal of a Dictator and the rebirth of Libertas, twenty-one years from the first coup d'etat of Caesar's heir. Liberty had perished. The Revolution had triumphed and had produced a government, the Principate assumed form and definition. If an exact date must at all costs be sought in what is a process, not a series of acts, the establishment of the Empire might suitably be reckoned from this year. (Syme 1974, p338).

Other dates might be highlighted; Augustus' 13th consulship (2 B.C.), when he was accorded the title of father of the fatherland (pater patriae) by 'the senate and equestrian order and people of Rome in their totality' (Res Gestae 35) suggests that the new regime had managed to bring its realities into accord with its own propaganda (see further Brunt 1984). Once this process was begun, however, much more was required than merely to ensure the prestige of its leader. It was necessary to find the magistrates, military tribunes, procurators, legates and Senators who would carry out the tasks of government without excessive competition within the existing order. This was done through the monopoly of patronage, and the recognition that a return to the earlier system of free competition could also lead to the exhaustion of the state through internal dissension (Tacitus Annals I.1). The task was not only to use ministers such as Maecenas and Agrippa, consulars such as Taurus and Sestius, but also a range of newer heirs of power such as Marcellus, Tiberius, Drusus (second son of T. Claudius Nero and Livia, who later on married Octavian) and then Germanicus. Using adapted constitutional forms and practises, it would be possible through the Princeps, his family and clients, to build up a 'syndicate of government' (an adaption of the view of Syme 1974, p347-8). Family connections and careful marriages 'ensnared the patrician houses of the Cornelii Scipiones, The Aemilii Lepidi, the Valerii and the Fabii' (Syme 1974, p379), while Augustus had previously adopted two Claudii as his sons, Gaius and Lucius Caesar (Res Gestae 14.1), and managed to bring great men such as L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, L. Calpurnius Piso and Paullus Fabius Maximus into active roles in government (Syme 1974, pp378-9).

Furthermore, this new government seems to have delivered a needed limitation to the general abuse of power and warfare which had been endemic in the 1st century B.C. Following the evidence of Cassius Dio, Claude Nicolet argues that: -

The protection of property, the safety of the individual, the rejection of the abominable abuses of the time of the civil wars, recourse to taxes as near as possible to the civic fiscal system so well outlined by Agrippa . . .: this was, in the long run, the watchword of the new regime and, it appears, the enduring source both of its popularity and its legitimacy. (Nicolet 1984, p111)

In this setting, there was thus a linkage between the notion of a territorial empire (as in modern usage) with the way political and military power (imperium) was regulated under dynasts (see Richardson 1991). The creation of a relatively stable government controlling a relatively stable empire remained Augustus' greatest heritage and achievement. If the monument to Peace dedicated in 13 B.C., and finally completed in 9 B.C. in Rome (Syme 1974, p389) was somewhat premature, it was nonetheless comparatively valid. The gates of the temple of Janus Quirinus had been closed three times during Augustus' lifetime, indicating that Rome was not officially at war (Res Gestae 13). More importantly, from 30 B.C. there were no civil wars under Augustus. Bearing in mind the events of 133-30 B.C., this achievement should not be underestimated. Of course, this 'new order' was based in conditions of polite servitude (Nicolet 1984, p117).


5. Bibliography and Further Reading


AUGUSTUS Res Gestae, trans. with commentary by E.A. Judge, in Judge, E.A. (ed.) Augustus and Roman History: Documents and Papers for Student Use, North Ryde, Macquarie University, 1987, pp3-43

CASSIUS DIO The Roman History: the Reign of Augustus, trans I. Scott-Kilvert, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987

DIO CASSIUS Dio's Roman History, trans. E. Cary, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1968

EHRENBURG, Victor & JONES, A.H.M. Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, London, 1949

JUDGE, E.A. (ed.) Augustus and Roman History: Documents and Papers for Student Use, North Ryde, Macquarie University, 1987

PLUTARCH Fall of the Roman Republic, trans. Rex Warner, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958

PLUTARCH The Makers of Rome, trans. I. Scott-Kilvert, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965

SUETONIUS, The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979

TACITUS The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. M. Grant, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971


ATKINSON, Kathleen "Constitutional and Legal Aspects of the Trials of Marcus Primus and Varro Murena", Historia, 9, 1960, pp440-473

BARNES, T.D. "The Victories of Augustus", The Journal of Roman Studies, 64, 1974, pp21-26

BAUMAN, R.A. "Tiberius and Murena", Historia, 15, 1966, pp420-432

BRUNT, P.A. "The Role of the Senate in the Augustan Regime", Classical Quarterly, 34 no. 2, 1984, pp423-444

CARNEY, T.F. The Shape of the Past: Models and Antiquity, Lawrence, Coronado Press, 1975

COOK, S.A. et al. (ed.) The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol X: The Augustan Empire 44 B.C. - A.D. 70, Cambridge, CUP, 1989

CROOK, John A. "Some Remarks on the Augustan Constitution", The Classical Review, 3 no. 1, March 1953, pp. 10-12.

GRANT, Michael From Imperium to Auctoritas: A Historical Study of Aes Coinage in the Roman Empire 49 B.C. - A.D. 14, Cambridge, CUP, 1966

HAMMOND, Mason The Augustan Principate, 2nd. ed., N.Y. 1968

JAMESON, Shelagh "22 or 23?", Historia, 18, 1969, pp204-239

JONES, A.H.M. Augustus, London, Chatto & Windus, 1970

JUDGE, E.A. On Judging the Merits of Augustus, Berkely, Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, 1985

KAGAN, Donald Problems in Ancient History: Volume 2, The Roman World, N.Y., Macmillan, 1966

LEVICK, Barbara "Primus, Murena, and 'Fides': Notes on Cassio Dio Liv. 3", Greece & Rome, 22 no.2, October 1975, pp156-163

NICOLET, Claude "Augustus, Government, and the Propertied Classes", in F. Millar & E. Segal Caesar Augustus: Seven Aspects, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1984, p89-128

RICHARDSON, J.S. "Imperium Romanum: Empire and the Language of Power", The Journal of Roman Studies, 81, 1991, pp1-9

ROWLAND, R.J. "The Conspiracy of Varro Murena", Classical Journal, 62, 1967

SCULLARD, H.H. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 B.C. - A.D. 68, London, Methuen, 1966

STOCKTON, David "Primus and Murena", Historia, 14, 1965, pp18-40

SYME, Ronald The Roman Revolution, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974

YAVETZ, Z. Plebs and Princeps, Oxford, Transaction Books, 1988


Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1995 R. James Ferguson