Augustus: His Life and Work - Rene Francis

The Home Policy of Augustus

We have already spoken of the reorganization of the Senate and its conversion by Augustus into what we may almost call an official peerage. We now have to glance at its functions as a governing body.

The legal prerogative of the Senate had been to advise the magistrates when consulted. The advice so given was registered in a senatusconsultum  (opinion of the Senate consulted), which was a command and became law.

But under Augustus the Senate was very seldom asked for advice, and when that advice was asked for and given it was no longer held to be a command. Again, the field of consultation was greatly narrowed, in that Augustus held in his own hands all the greater issues of government, the foreign policy, war, etc., etc. The magistrates merely sought advice on their own departmental questions; and even these were greatly restricted, not only by the indirect control which Augustus had over all things, but also by the fact that he definitely annexed several important branches of the executive into his own hands.

Augustus kept up the fiction that the Senate was the consulting body. He convened it and consulted it, and, as a senator himself, he spoke and gave his opinions; but naturally such opinions were little less than decisions. Moreover, he could always stop discussion by virtue of his tribunician power, so that in practice the Senate did little more than listen to his announcements and confirm his proposals.

He did, however, frequently use the Senate for edicts; it gave an appearance of constitutional tradition, and also lessened his personal responsibility. His successors followed his example in this.

He found another function for the Senate, that of acting as a High Court of Justice. But here again any real power it might have had was neutralized by the fact that supreme appeal was vested in him, above the heads of his senators.

In a word, the Senate had some work to do, but nothing was done without the Emperor's approval. The real mission in life of a senator was to be rich and dignified and to make a fine display. All chance of regaining the ancient power, or even so much of it as had remained during the great wars of the last hundred years, was gone beyond recall.

The Assembly of the People—the ancient Comitia—was also practically extinct. The Sovereign People of Rome now meant little more than the city mob: it was largely composed of aliens, freedmen, and slaves; such Roman citizens as there were were of an inferior breed, too proud to keep shops, but quite pleased to accept all that their patron would give in the way of games and food.

Augustus could do little enough with this city mob. He insisted, as far as possible, on decency of behaviour and dress, especially on the maintenance of the Roman toga as against foreign and 'servile' garments. He put down all the old political and electioneering clubs, which had been simply nests of corruption; and of course he stopped all rioting and violence. He did allow the most respectable of the ancient 'guilds,' or collegia, to survive, and he even permitted the registration of new guilds, provided always that they also were respectable.

But Augustus did not wholly destroy the plebs  as a factor in the State. He allowed the populace to preserve their old right of electing magistrates and passing laws: but as both magistrates and laws were of his own making this meant little more than a formality. The Comitia  had no part in the Empire, save to maintain the theory that 'The sovereignty of the people is the maxim of empire.'

Augustus did make one attempt to inspire a feeling of corporate life and work in the city populace; he instituted wards, or vici, under the control of ward-magistrates, who were plebeians elected by the plebs, and who played a certain part in police and fire-brigade work and the like.

But in the end the plebs, or Sovereign People, became little more than the clients of the Emperor, their patron and protector.

We now touch on the 'outcome' of the Senate and the people, namely, the magistrates. We have shown how the elections and general conduct of these were 'modified'—to put it mildly—by Augustus.

As time went on the young men of senatorial rank saw that if they wished to find work that would satisfy their ambition it was far better for them to enter the Emperor's own department as soon as they could and become legates of some kind or other.

Of course Augustus had improved conditions; no one could hold an appointment even in a senatorial province unless he had at least five years' standing in his particular rank; but we can imagine how small would be the scope for a senatorial magistrate who had no great issues to deal with, and who found that even in the small issues he was continually being supervised and checked by the Emperor's officials, or even the Emperor himself. The Senate might bestow honour, but it was the Emperor who gave a career.

We now come to the Equestrian Order, of which we have spoken in an earlier chapter (Ch. II). But before showing what Augustus made of this class we must mention his great innovation, the Concilium, which practically superseded both Senate and plebs as directing bodies, and paved the way for his reconstitution of the executive and his use of this very Equestrian Order.

The Concilium  was a body consisting of the Emperor, the acting consuls, the consuls-designate for the next year, and fifteen senators chosen by lot and serving for six months; it was the body to which Augustus referred discussion of the important business of the State.

If we wish to have a vivid idea of the Concilium, and indeed of the actual government of the Roman Empire, we must imagine our own Empire governed directly by the Sovereign in conjunction with his Privy Council, and his decrees executed by the permanent officials of the Civil Service, the Houses of Lords and Commons being relegated to the position of debating assemblies.

For his Civil Service Augustus employed the Equestrian Order.

The changes that had been forced upon the senatorial nobility were repeated with the knights. There were plenty of men who had the Equestrian financial qualification, and who might be called titular knights: under Augustus they lost any sort of legal claim to the title. He revised and organized the order, and wholly reserved to himself the right of admission and exclusion.

Just as he was chief senator and head of the senatorial or highest order in the State (amplissimus ordo), so he arranged that the younger members of his family should he the chiefs of the Equestrian Order.

We have seen what position the knights occupied formerly: they had had a certain part in the taxation and in the legal business of the Empire. Augustus had, of course, taken all this from them.

For the rest, they were the financiers and business men of the community the professional men.

Augustus found for them both business and profession in the shape of the Civil Service. As we know, the highest posts in the provinces were given to legates of senatorial rank, but the minor provinces were administered for the Emperor by procurators or prefects (procurators also were given posts in important provinces, under the governors). Egypt was under a prefect, for example.

There were Admiralty posts at Ravenna and Misenum, and there were posts in the Home Civil Service, such as head of the city police, head of the corn supply, and of the water supply; there was the War Office prize, head of the Praetorian Guard. All these posts were given to knights.

Augustus had created a service which was completely outside the senatorial magistracy, and he filled it from a class that was completely outside the senatorial order—a class defined and recruited by himself and bound to him in loyalty and gratitude, inasmuch as he had given to it both rank and career. It must not be forgotten either that Augustus frequently promoted deserving Equestrians to senatorial rank.

We must now touch on one section of the community whose position was ambiguous in that they were neither Romans nor provincials. We allude to the Italians.

As we have said, Augustus carried out the municipalization of Italy. And in that municipalization he contrived to found yet another new class among the Italians.

We have shown how Augustus preferred what may be called the caste system in the Empire, and how he distinguished and preserved the distinction between Romans, Italians, provincials, and members of allied States. He also applied the caste system to Rome itself, and introduced strict, laws with respect to intermarriage of rank with rank, very much as he introduced a strict, supervision over the freeing of slaves and the granting of the franchise to freedmen.

We should say here that Augustus encouraged marriage and family life by imposing a tax upon celibates and giving special rights to fathers of three or more children.

To return, however, to the caste system. Augustus instituted in the municipalities of Italy a class known as the 'Augustales.' We may perhaps call them 'Imperial freedmen.' Freedmen could not hold office in their municipality, but at least they might gain some importance, and a certain degree of public spirit might be instilled into them. Augustus arranged that in each municipality sexviri Augustales  should be elected annually from among the freedmen by the local Senate. These six special freedmen were bound, in return for this honorary title conferred on them, to contribute to the municipal chest and to provide public games. Out of these Augustales developed gradually a species of municipal aristocracy, under the direct patronage of the Emperor. They were to the Italian municipal aristocracy very much what the knights were to the Senate. 'To gain a place among the Augustales became an object of ambition to the richer freedmen, to whom it gave a recognized station in their community, and welcome opportunities of displaying their wealth and public spirit.' (Pelham.)

It is curious to note that Rome herself had not even a municipality. She was practically entirely governed by the Civil Service of the Emperor, under the general supervision of a 'prefect of the city.' The title was old, but the office only became permanent after a peculiarly flagrant period of trouble, 22-19 B.C., when Augustus sharply told the magistrates that as they evidently had not the ability and he had not the time to keep Rome in order Rome must have a master.

Rome indeed needed a master. Though the city contained nearly a million inhabitants, it had practically no police; fires and floods were disastrously frequent; the corn and water supply were hopelessly defective. And it is hard to see what Augustus could have done except take personal control or the situation.

After all, a municipality would hardly have suited Rome, being, as she was, the central seat of all government and authority. It is never easy for the municipal and the governmental authorities to work, or even to exist, harmoniously in the same city, especially if that city is the metropolis; the machinery of the great general executive overshadows that of the small local executive. Besides, Rome, as we have said, consisted, apart from the wealthy senators and the busy knightly class, of many mixed elements. She had not that solid burgher stratum which is the real foundation of municipal life.

As a city Rome was greatly improved by Augustus and Agrippa. Agrippa did much good work when curule aedile in 33 B.C., and he was for ten years associated as a sort of partner in the Empire with Augustus.

Many fine public buildings were erected, and among these a splendid edifice in the Campus Martius especially for the Comitia, for voting purposes: this building was surrounded with statues of Republican heroes.

It is noticeable and characteristic of Augustus that he would not himself have a splendid palace, nor would he allow statues of himself to be erected in the city.

He confined his lavishness to public and national expenditure. Much of this was devoted to work outside Rome. The Via Flaminia, the great North Road, was put in a state of thorough repair, as were the other roads throughout Italy. The coast defences also were thoroughly organized.

Augustus spent large sums of money on temples and chapels or shrines for public worship. It is notable that he specially indicated—we may say that he publicly justified—certain features in his own career. In the old Forum he built a temple to the 'Divine Julius,' and in the new Forum, called the Forum of Augustus, another to Mars the Avenger: these referred to, and so to speak explained, his ruthless vengeance on the murderers of his great uncle. On the Palatine Mount he built a temple to Apollo of Actium, thus commemorating his victory over Antony.

This brings us to the question of religion. Augustus held the office of Chief Pontiff. In the first place it was only fitting that this honour should be his; secondly, he thus had the opportunity of re-establishing the old Roman religion. We have said already that Augustus possessed a vein of homely superstition (this, at least, is the opinion of one of his biographers; we quote it as such); also he had a strong strain of burgher Italian blood; also he had the other strain of noble blood by his descent from the great family who claimed to go back even to the Founder of Rome. These three facts fully explain why he should have so strong a feeling for the genuine old worship of the country, and such a dislike to the exotic and neurotic alien cults that were just beginning to intrude into Roman life.

But he had another and a far stronger reason; he saw that an empire without a fixed national idea of divine favour, extended from the foundation of the State even to the achievement of its greatness, could have but little permanent faith in its own destiny and guiding star.

Above all, he saw that that divine favour, that destiny, and that guiding star must be, as they reasonably could be, bound up with the fortunes of the family to whom the State owed its present greatness.

The gods, now duly recognized, worshipped, and thanked by Rome for all they had done for Rome through the agency of the favoured Julian family, would continue to extend that favour, always through that same family, to Rome and to her empire.

Actual worship of Augustus himself was not an official fact until after his death, but a spontaneous cult did arise during his life in different parts of the country and in the provinces—witness the altar to Rome and Augustus erected in the country of the Ubii; and even in Rome many families worshipped the genius  of Augustus (we might translate genius  as 'sacrosanct and favoured personality') among their own Lares, or house-hold gods. There were, however, regular public prayers for the safety of Augustus, and thanksgivings for his victories and services; and his various anniversaries were specially and officially observed.

With the revival of the national worship Augustus took care to revive its history and traditions: hence the celebration of the Secular Games in 17 B.C., with the Carmen Saculare  specially written for these by Horace.

The poets were enlisted into this cause. Virgil's Aeneid  is the history of the divine favour extended to Rome and culminating in her greatness in association with that of the Julian family. Ovid revives and 'edits' legend after legend of the old gods and their doings. Horace, in at least one ode Parcus deorum cultor et infrequens  ('worshipping the gods seldom and with no great fervour'), indicates the value and the necessity of real faith and reverence. Augustus was happy in his poets.

His one really great prose-writer, Livy, performed a similar task for the heroes of Roman history, commemorating in the clearest possible language the many deeds that had made Rome great.

But the poets did yet a third service in suggesting a species of resignation and contentment for those who, now that the Republican regime was extinct, felt that there was far less scope for them in life. Virgil's Georgics teach the pleasure a country gentleman can derive from the cultivation of his domains. Horace dwells on the happiness of a retired and philosophical life.

Virgil , Maecenas, Horace


The Augustan age, as it is called, is a commemoration of the greatness of the past and the rational and peaceful enjoyment that may be obtained in the present.

We can here leave the home policy of Augustus. He had eliminated all that was bad and useless in the old regime, and had adapted and improved all that was good. The gaps in the Republican machinery he filled up, and, generally speaking, he so arranged the machine that it could deal with the far ampler material submitted and to be submitted to it. For those whom his changes had deprived of their original scope for action he found other action; for others, who had not as yet worked seriously for the State and to whom it was necessary to give real and serious employment, he provided both career and honour. For those who did not need nor wish to work there was reasonable scope, at least for contentment, at home And he established and organized and kept in their proper places all the different classes of the State.

His successor? This question had throughout been a difficulty for Augustus. Apart from the fact that there was no definite arrangement for a successor, there was no definite successor ready to hand! Had Augustus died, say, twenty years earlier than he did, the supreme command would unquestionably have devolved on Agrippa, whom he actually associated with himself as a partner in the Empire; but when Augustus was nearing his end Agrippa was far too old. Maecenas might have been capable of empire, but again here was the question of age. Drusus died, as did Gaius and Lucius Caesar, the sons of Agrippa whom Augustus had adopted; they were the sons of his own daughter Julia, whom Agrippa had married, and they were his preferred candidates. The young Marcellus, son of his sister Octavia, died. Augustus, and indeed all Rome, had fixed their hopes on this child of promise: and had not Rome's national poet said, through the mouth of Anchises, the sire of Rome's founder, 'Marcellus shalt thou be: give ye lilies with full hands'—words that brought tears to the eyes even of the hard, strong Livia when she heard them after the child's death?

There remained only Tiberius. He had been fully tested by difficult commands in Germany and Illyricum and delicate missions in Armenia; he had distinguished himself in that most thorny and dangerous province, Pannonia; he was a sound and cautious general, an able administrator, and was recognized as a possible successor by the fact that he, with Augustus, held the tribunician power: this power, by the way, became in later times one of the distinguishing prerogatives of the heir-apparent. But he was gloomy and sullen, and Augustus disliked him, and yielded largely to Livia's maternal ambition in conferring such powers and honours as he did upon his stepson.

Augustus had no choice, and Tiberius succeeded to the Imperial throne at his step-father's death in A.D. 14; and though is not our purpose to speak particularly of Augustus's successor, we may say that until his later years made hint morose and over-suspicious and cruel, be was a capable and good ruler. Even Tacitus, who detested him and his memory, had to admit that he was imperii capax  ('fit to hold empire'), though he cannot refrain from the bitter qualifying phrase, nisi imperasset—'had he not held it!'

We conclude this chapter—perforce some what lengthy, as it deals with various subjects or various phases in the life and character of Augustus which cannot well, in so short a book, be treated independently—by quoting George Warrington Steevens, to whom we have already alluded. Steevens speaks through the lips of Claudius, a 'loutish' prince, but not without his moments of clear insight. Loutish in body as in mind, Claudius stumbles occasionally in both.

'Yes, the d-divine Augustus, you see, had to be d-downy. He did not really want the people to see how much power he'd really got. He was afraid of being pinked like his uncle. So he never took any sp-p—any definite office in the State, you know. So, n-nobody quite knew what was the Emperor's prerogative and what wasn't, you know. That's been the difficulty with all his s-successors. We want a fixed Constitution. Each Emperor's afraid to g-go beyond his powers, and afraid n-not to. I'm the f-first Emperor that's seen that. . .

. . . So, you see, I get behind my favourites and wives, so as not to be unpopular. Pallas! Yes, I know he's an awful sc-crogue, but I like him. And the more a sc-crogue he is, the honester I'll look when I come forward and supersede him. You see, I'm not such a f-fool, Lepidus, eh?'

This sums up the situation. And Claudius actually did try to legalize the constitution, but had no real success. The most that he and his successors could do was to take full advantage of conditions and to encourage what we have already called the craving for empire which Augustus had so carefully instilled into Rome.