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Augustus and The Augustan Age

To the extent Augustus didn't abuse his powers he was a good emperor.


Bust of Octavian

Bust of Octavian

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This page and the following introduce aspects of the Augustan Age, specifically, Augustus on vice and the role of Augustus in the literature of the age.

"Whereas external and deathless Nature has vouchsafed to men, as the greatest good and bringer of overwhelming benefaction, the emperor Augustus; the father who gives us happy life; the savior of all mankind in common whose provident care has not only fulfilled but even surpassed the hopes of all: for both land and sea are at peace, the cities are teeming with the blessings of concord, plenty, and respect for law, and the culmination and harvest of all good things bring fair hopes for the future and contentment with the present."
-- The preamble to a provincial Asian decree from A History of the Ancient World, by Chester Starr, page 557.

During the Viet Nam War, the U.S. witnessed how little it means for Congress to have the power to declare war when the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the President, can order troops to engage in police actions. In recent decades we've watched military dictatorships the world over wreaking havoc on civilians in the name of martial law. And in Imperial Rome, the praetorian guard installed Claudius as the first of the militarily-elected emperors. Having power over the militia means having the power to ignore the will of the people. This was as true with Augustus as it is today.

To the extent that Augustus didn't abuse his powers, he was a good leader, but his consolidation of not only military power, but also the tribunicial and proconsular in the hands of one man set the stage for the end of popular freedom.

The Roman historian Tacitus, from the early imperial period (A.D. 56?-112?), enumerates the powers Augustus swallowed:

"[Augustus] seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. Indeed, he attracted everybody's good will by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law. Opposition did not exist. War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit. Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially. They had profited from the revolution, and so now they liked the security of the existing arrangement better than the dangerous uncertainties of the old régime. Besides, the new order was popular in the provinces. (1. 2)"
-- From The Annals of Tacitus
The peace Tacitus refers to is peace from civil war. The bait evolved into what the satirist Juvenal later describes as panem et circenses 'bread and circuses'. The other actions led to the fall of Rome's form of republican government and the rise of the single head of Rome, the princeps or emperor.


Like leaders today, Augustus sought to end vice. Definitions then were different, though. Three of the problems he faced were:
  1. extravagance,
  2. adultery, and
  3. declining birth rates among the upper classes.

Previously, morality had been an individual or family matter. Augustus wanted it to be a matter for legislation, complete with tax incentives for those who married and had children. The Romans didn't want to change their behavior. There was resistance, but in A.D. 9, the law now referred to as lex Julia et Papia passed.

Powers originally delegated the pater familias were now matters for the princeps -- Augustus. Where earlier a husband was justified in killing a man he found in bed with his wife, now it was a matter for the courts. Lest this seem humane and evidence of concern for the rights of individuals, the father of the woman caught in adultery was still allowed to kill the adulterers. [See Adulterium.]

Forum Discussion of the statues of Augustus

Augustan Age Sources

The Oxford History of the Classical World, edited by Oswyn Murray, John Boardman, and Jasper Griffin
A History of the Ancient World by Chester Starr
Biography of Horace and selected Odes in translation
Legal Status In The Roman World
The Ancient History Bulletin 8.3 (1994) 86-98 "Leges sine moribus," by Susan Treggiari.
Horatian Meters

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